State Senators move to protect elderly and vulnerable adults from financial exploitation

NASHVILLE – Two major bills to protect elderly and vulnerable adults from financial exploitation are headed to the Senate floor for a final vote after being approved in Senate committees this week. Senate Bill 1192, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), and Senate Bill 1267, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), gives securities officials and financial institutions the tools they need to help detect and prevent financial exploitation of those age 65 and older and vulnerable adults with diminished capacity.

The legislation comes from the Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force, which worked with Tennessee’s financial community to recommend the changes.

“Roughly one in five seniors has been a victim of financial exploitation at a cost of approximately $2.9 billion annually,” said Senator Gardenhire. “Moreover, these numbers are likely low as it is also estimated that only one out of every 44 instances of financial abuse is actually reported.”

Called the Senior Financial Protection and Securities Modernization Act, Senate Bill 1192:
• Provides a pathway for voluntary reporting by giving civil and administrative immunity to broker-dealers, investment advisers, agents, representatives and other qualified individuals for reporting the suspected abuse or exploitation;
• Allows those individuals to delay disbursements from an account for up to 15 days if financial abuse or exploitation is suspected (that delay could be extended to up to 25 days upon request by the commissioner and by court order);
• Grants the Commissioner of Commerce and Insurance authority to create additional guidelines by rule for delayed-disbursement when fraudulent activities are suspected;
• Authorizes notification to third parties previously designated by the elderly or vulnerable adult regarding any suspected fraudulent transactions; and,
• Gives the Commissioner authority, under the state’s Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, to double current civil penalties to up to $10,000 to $20,000 per violation against offenders who victimize a vulnerable or senior adult.
“Financial exploitation robs elderly victims of their money and their dignity,” said Senator Gardenhire, who is a retired financial advisor. “It also can rob them of their independence and can even force them into depending on government assistance despite their best efforts to save for their golden years.”

It has been estimated that 41.4 percent of the offenses of financial exploitation were committed by a family member and another 13.3 percent of victims were described by law enforcement as having close relationships with the perpetrator.

Likewise, Senate Bill 1267 adds tools and greater flexibility as to how financial institutions can best protect their customers when they have reason to suspect financial exploitation of elderly or vulnerable adults is occurring or being attempted. The legislation:
• Provides new authority for financial institutions to delay or refuse to conduct transactions which permit the disbursement of funds from the account of an elderly customer or vulnerable adult when exploitation is suspected;
• Permits, but doesn’t require, the financial institution to establish a list of persons the customer would like to have contacted if the institution suspects the customer is a victim of financial exploitation or theft;
• Allows financial institutions to refuse to accept an authorized power of attorney if they believe the person is conducting financial exploitation; and,
• Requires the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions to consult with financial service providers, the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, and the Department of Human Services to develop a public education campaign to alert the public to the dangers of vulnerable adults from financial exploitation.
“Bankers are often on the frontlines of witnessing attempted exploitation and these tools will give them greater flexibility to protect vulnerable Tennesseans,” said Sen. Norris.

The proposals build on a new law, sponsored by Norris and passed by the General Assembly last year, which set up Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams (VAPIT) in each judicial district in Tennessee to foster cooperation and information sharing between different government agencies whose purpose is to protect elderly and vulnerable adults.

Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation making it illegal for a prison inmate to possess a cell phone.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week making it illegal for a prison inmate to possess a cell phone during their incarceration. Senate Bill 432, sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), creates a new class E felony offense for knowingly possessing an unauthorized telecommunications device while present in any Tennessee penal institution.

Current law prohibits anyone from bringing in a device of this nature, but there are no laws in place that make possession of them illegal. The bill also applies to use of the device to coerce a witness or juror and when it involves escape from a penal institution.

There were 1,536 incidents with cell phones in state prisons last year alone.

“Cell phones being slipped into our prisons is a huge problem,” said Sen. Jackson. “I met with 120 correctional officers about a year ago, and they laughed when I asked about the phones because they just can’t keep them out of the prisons. These devices are used to threaten guards, citizens and witnesses, as well as planning crimes and running gang and drug activities. Prisoners are sending selfies to the people they have offended.”

“The main fix would be if the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) would let us jam the signal in these prisons, but in the meantime we have to do something to fix it. This legislation expands the authority of the facility to do something about it, not only for the safety of the correctional officers, but also for the citizens they have contact with outside of those prison walls.”

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approves Opioid Baby Primary Prevention Act

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) this week which aims to curb the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) in Tennessee. Senate Bill 475, called the Opioid Baby Primary Prevention Act, is the result of work done by the House Opioid Abuse Task Force and comes after the Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard compelling testimony earlier this year regarding the effects of NAS on infants due to their mothers’ dependency on painkillers.

NAS is a condition in which the newborn suffers withdrawal from drugs, including tremors, weight loss, stiff muscles, seizures, inconsolable crying, gastrointestinal disorders and poor nervous system irritability. Current estimates show that TennCare covers birth expenses of more than 1,000 fully addicted babies and their mothers each year, while also covering an estimated 5,000 plus babies born with serious complications resulting from opioid use such as low birth weight and pre-term births. These alarming statistics place Tennessee first in the nation in the number of opioid-addicted or opioid affected babies.

“Those who abuse drugs are not the only persons harmed by Tennessee’s opioid epidemic,” said Sen. Crowe. “There are terrible short-term and long-term effects on infants due to the mother’s use of these drugs. This legislation calls for a targeted education effort to curb the number of babies born with this condition.”

The legislation directs TennCare, in consultation with Tennessee’s Comptroller, to contract with Manage Care Organizations (MCOs) to deliver a statewide, uniform and compliant education program for female TennCare enrollees of child-bearing age if the woman has been prescribed an opioid for longer than 30 days, has already delivered an opioid-affected infant, or has been determined by program rules to be at-risk of an opioid-related birth. The program would educate women on the risks of intrauterine drug exposure and contraceptive options.

TennCare would require MCOs to contract with a prevention service contractor to reduce the expense to the state of opioid-affected births. The contractor must perform at its own expense the activities of the program, statewide, and will only be compensated for proven prevention of opioid-affected births according to the agreed-to formula and as verified. The education program directed in the bill would be based on the “Pay for Success” model, meaning that the cost would be borne by a chosen prevention service contractor, and would not create fiscal responsibility on the part of the state or the MCOs.

Opioid-affected births are estimated to cost Tennessee taxpayers between $200 million and $250 million annually in hospital care through the state’s TennCare program. That is in addition to the percentage of opioid-affected children who end up in ongoing state custody which is estimated at to cost $170 million. The total estimated cost to Tennessee taxpayers for opioid-affected children from birth to age 8 is nearly $500 million annually.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration before moving to the Senate floor for a final vote.

Senate advances legislation to aid Tennessee teachers

Several bills advanced in the State Senate this week that aid Tennessee teachers, including legislation that defines a list of rights and protections. Senate Bill 14, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) and Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), gives educators the right to:
1. Be treated with civility and respect;
2. Have his or her professional judgment and discretion respected;
3. Report any errant, offensive, or abusive content or behavior of students to school officials or appropriate agencies;
4. Provide students with a classroom and school in which the educators, students, the property of the educator and students, and peers will be safe;
5. Defend themselves and their students from physical violence or physical harm;
6. Share information regarding a student’s educational experience, health, or safety with the student’s parent or legal guardian unless otherwise prohibited by state law or the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA);
7. Review all instructional material or curriculum prior to those materials being utilized for instruction of students; and,
8. Not be required to use their personal money to appropriately equip a classroom.
“These are just basic rights that every teacher should have,” said Senator Green, who drafted the legislation after numerous meetings with educators. “This legislation places these commonsense protections in state statutes to give them the force of law.”

Under the bill, the term “educator” applies to any teacher, principal, supervisor, or other individual required by law to hold a valid license of qualification for employment in the public schools of this state. The measure, which was approved by the Senate Education Committee, now travels to the Senate floor for final consideration.

In other action in the Senate Education Committee, members approved Senate Bill 401, sponsored by Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which requires all Basic Education Plan (BEP) funds set aside for classroom supplies be allocated directly to teachers. Presently, $200 is allocated for teacher supplies, with half going directly to the teacher and the other half to a committee which pools resources. This proposal calls for the entire amount to go to the teacher.

Members of the committee also voted to provide first-year teachers $500 for instructional supplies. Senate Bill 859, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), aims to help new teachers who do not have a stockpile of instructional supplies get started.

Campus Free Speech Protection Act moves forward in the State Senate

Legislation seeking to protect free speech and open inquiry on Tennessee’s college campuses was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week. The Campus Free Speech Protection Act, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would protect First Amendment rights and values on Tennessee campuses. It requires Tennessee public institutions of higher learning to embrace a commitment to the freedom of speech and expression for all students and faculty, regardless of political or religious affiliations.

“It’s the intent of the General Assembly to ensure that our institutions of higher education are open and safe places for students to exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of speech,” said Sen. Overbey.

The legislation requires the governing bodies of Tennessee’s colleges and universities to adopt a policy that affirms the principles of free speech, which are the public policy of this state. Included in that policy is an affirmation that “students have a fundamental constitutional right of free speech,” and that “an institution shall be committed to giving students the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn, and discuss any issue.”

In addition, the stated intent of the legislation is not to stifle students’ or faculty’s beliefs, nor are these institutions permitted to require that students or faculty adopt a certain set of beliefs.

Senate Bill 723, as amended, now moves to the Senate floor for a final vote.

In Brief…

ROTC / HOPE Scholarship — The Senate Education Committee passed a proposal this week to help solve an issue plaguing Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) students in Tennessee’s colleges and universities. ROTC classes are taken in addition to the classes required for a college degree program and are counted toward the maximum allowable hours to retain the Hope Scholarship. This means these students must take more money out of their pockets to finish their education when the HOPE Scholarship runs out. Senate Bill 271, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), would take those hours for ROTC classes out of the count towards the maximum allowed for the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship. “What we are trying to do is help those ROTC students,” said Senator Green. “Those students are going to go on and potentially be officers in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, etc. and serve our great nation. Those hours should not count toward the HOPE scholarship maximum.” The bill now moves to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Farm Property / Inequitable Taxation — The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted this week to ensure that agricultural property is not reclassified as commercial for the purpose of property tax assessment. Article 2, Section 28 of the Tennessee Constitution requires farm property to be assessed at 25 percent of its value. The legislation comes after reports of agricultural properties being reclassified as commercial real property, which is assessed at 40 percent of its value. Senate Bill 904, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), ensures that both the letter and spirit of Tennessee law and the State Constitution are followed to protect farmers from inequitable taxation.

Visually Impaired / Safety in Public Buildings — The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation this week that would help visually impaired persons to safely navigate steps at public buildings in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1079 requires that the steps to a public entrance of buildings constructed, purchased or leased by state and local governments on or after July 1, 2017 be marked with a textured yellow paint to make them more easily identifiable. The bill, which is sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), is supported by the Tennessee Council for the Blind.

Castle Doctrine / Boat — Lawmakers approved a bill on Monday which expands Tennessee’s Castle Doctrine to include boats. The Castle Doctrine is a legal doctrine that designates a person’s home as a place in which that person has protections and immunities, permitting him or her, in certain circumstances, to use force to protect themselves. Tennessee has already expanded the Castle Doctrine to a person’s occupied vehicle. Senate Bill 1339, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), simply expands the Castle Doctrine to a person’s boat.

Guides to Practice / Professions — The Senate gave final approval this week to legislation that requires all professions which adopt guides to practice under Tennessee law, to promulgate rules subject to the state’s Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (UAPA). The action means that any rules or code of ethics developed or approved by a private organization or association must be adopted in accordance with Senate Bill 449. Under the UAPA, a hearing on the rules to formally adopt a code of ethics is generally held by the department of state government which governs the profession. The rules draft is reviewed by the State Attorney General to determine its legality and constitutionality before moving forward to a hearing by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Government Operations where the public has an opportunity to comment. The bill is sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

Taxpayer-friendly Reforms / F&E Taxes — Legislation received final approval this week which makes three taxpayer-friendly reforms to Tennessee’s Franchise and Excise (F&E) tax estimated requirements. First, Senate Bill 1207 provides F&E taxpayers with the option of calculating their estimated payments based on an annualized method, taking into account realized revenue throughout a given tax year. The legislation also extends the time period for the filing of F&E exemption applications to the 15th day of the fourth month following the close of the first tax year for which the exemption is claimed. The current law requires the application to be filed within 60 days of the beginning of the next tax year. Finally, the measure reduces the penalty for filing late F&E exemption applications from $1,000 to $200. The legislation is sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson (R-Hixson).

Freedom to Prosper Act — The “Freedom to Prosper Act” advanced out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week. Senate Bill 473, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), would prohibit local entities from imposing fees on occupations that go beyond the state’s requirements, except those associated with first responders and emergency service providers. “We are looking out for Tennesseans who are striving to be effective in the workplace by trying to keep unnecessary regulatory burdens from their ability to earn a living and to prosper,” said Sen. Roberts. The legislation follows the Right to Earn a Living Act which passed the General Assembly last year that compelled various licensing authorities to review their entry regulations in various occupations and report such to the Senate Government Operations Committee. Once reviewed, the committee can make recommendations to remove some of the unnecessary restrictions and demands. That law was sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville).

Athletic Teams / Visiting Physicians – The Senate voted this week to approve the Visiting Sports Team Act which defines certain conditions in which medical staff of out-of-state athletic teams can perform their duties without being in conflict with Tennessee law. Presently, out-of-state athletic team physicians cannot treat players and others because they lack a Tennessee license. Senate Bill 413 states that any visiting team physician must be licensed in their home state and have an agreement with a sports team to provide care while traveling in Tennessee. This enables the visiting team physician to administer sideline evaluation, triage and diagnostic services. The physician, however, must refer to a Tennessee licensed physician if an athlete needs to be transported to a healthcare facility. The visiting physician would not be able to practice at a health care clinic or health care facility, including an acute care facility in the visiting state. The bill is sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).

Human Trafficking / Child Welfare Intervention / Minor Victims — Two bills addressing human trafficking bills were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. This includes Senate Bill 553 which adds “trafficking for a commercial sex act” within the definition of “child sexual abuse” and “severe child abuse” under Tennessee law. Including child sex trafficking within this section of Tennessee law ensures that child welfare can intervene and provide services in cases that involve any form of commercial sexual exploitation of children. The legislation also changes the definition of “caregiver” in state law to allow victims to receive child welfare intervention. The changes proposed in the bill would help ensure that child sex trafficking victims are properly identified and that child welfare does not face barriers in responding to these young victims. “Bringing child sex trafficking within the definition of abuse facilitates a protective, coordinated, and consistent response to this form of sexual abuse,” said Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). Ketron based the bill on recommendations from Shared Hope International.

Similarly, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 552 establishing a pilot program which tailors treatment specifically for minor victims of human trafficking. The program would allow the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to gather data to know what types of services best serve these young and vulnerable victims. This legislation is also sponsored by Sen. Ketron.

School Bus Safety / Seat Belts — Legislation requiring school buses ordered or purchased on or after July 1 2019 to have National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) approved restraints was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week. The measure requires the State Board of Education in consultation with the Department of Safety to promulgate rules to implement the legislation. Senate Bill 381 comes after a deadly crash in Chattanooga which killed six Woodmore Elementary Schoolchildren. The bill is sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga).

School Bus Safety / Drivers — The Senate Education Committee also passed Senate Bill 149, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), providing additional safety measures to help ensure school bus safety. The legislation requires the County Board of Education, before issuing a certificate authorizing an individual to operate a school bus, to determine if that person has previously committed any serious traffic violations within the last three years. Serious traffic violations include excessive speeding, reckless driving and violation of a traffic law in which death or injury to a person or property occurs. It further defines excessive speeding as 15 miles per hour or more over the posted speed limit if operating a commercial vehicle or 25 miles per hour or more in a car. These restrictions are in addition to those already in present law requiring a background check for criminal convictions. The legislation also restricts school bus endorsements to applicants age 25 and older with at least five years of unrestricted driving experience prior to application. The driver must also be deemed to be of good character. The bill now moves to the Senate floor on final consideration.

Repeats with Updates:

Broadband – The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act to expand broadband services in Tennessee received final Senate approval this week. Senate Bill 1215 calls for a three-year investment of $45 million in grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. This includes a $30 million “Broadband Accessibility Grant Program” and $15 million in tax credits to private service providers based on the purchase of broadband equipment used to provide access in the most economically challenged counties. On deregulation, the proposal permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric co-operatives to provide broadband and cable video services. The co-ops are currently restricted from providing retail broadband services. To protect co-op ratepayers, the legislation prevents the use of electric system assets to subsidize broadband services. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

STRONG ACT – The full Senate approved the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act on final consideration on Monday. Senate Bill 1216 creates a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard funding toward a first time bachelor’s degree through a tuition reimbursement program. All but four states nationwide, and all states adjacent to Tennessee, already offer 100% state tuition assistance for those who are serving in the Guard. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

Welfare Reform — Legislation designed to combat welfare fraud in Tennessee received final approval. Senate Bill 365, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), requires agencies within state government to communicate with each other to identify people who are receiving benefits for which they are not eligible. It calls for the Department of Human Services (DHS) to conduct quarterly data matches against information databases to help eliminate fraudulent payments that are being made. It also authorizes DHS to join a multistate cooperative for identifying individuals who currently receive Tennessee benefits but who live in other states. In addition, the Bureau of TennCare would be required to verify wage and income information, immigration status, and vital records information for each applicant or enrollee once their new automated electronic eligibility system is operational. The legislation also requires the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation to make a monthly report to DHS of all individuals who collect a prize of more than $5,000 to ensure that those who exceed income requirements do not continue to collect taxpayer-supported payments. Studies estimate Tennessee loses approximately $123 million per year in fraudulent payments to people who are not actually qualified to receive benefits.

Juvenile Justice Reform – The full Senate approved one in a series of bills addressing juvenile justice reform this week. Senate Bill 1243 lowers the age of eligibility for expungement of non-violent offenders from 18 to 17 in order to allow adolescents the ability to start the process sooner. Through this legislation these children would be prepared to enter post-secondary education and the workforce with a clean record. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

First Degree Murder / Insanity Plea — Legislation has received final Senate approval requiring that a trial court order an individual who has been charged with first degree murder or a Class A felony, who is found not guilty by reason of insanity, to participate in an outpatient treatment for a minimum of six months after being released to the community. This outpatient treatment applies regardless of whether or not the individual is or is not hospitalized. In addition, under this legislation, any individual who is currently committed to a hospital after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for first degree murder or a Class A felony by at the time the offense was committed is also subject to a trial court order to participate in outpatient treatment for at least six months when discharged from the facility. Senate Bill 1206 also requires that there be periodic reviews conducted by the trial court a minimum of once a year after the initial six-month period of outpatient treatment, in which the court will consider the various factors in deciding whether to continue or terminate the outpatient treatment requirement. The measure is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).

Domestic Violence Victims – The full Senate approved legislation this week establishing a new procedure by which a person granted an order of protection may carry a handgun for seven days as long as the person has a copy of the order in the person’s possession. Senate Bill 983, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), aims to provide victims with the ability to protect themselves immediately as the process for obtaining a handgun permit can take weeks or months to obtain. During the seven-day period, the person is authorized to apply with the Department of Safety for a temporary handgun carry permit. The temporary handgun carry permit may be issued as a letter to the applicant.

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