Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus and House Republicans Weekly Update
Resolution seeks to address public safety threat posed by cell phone use behind prison walls
(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 8, 2018 – The pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as state senators examined the budgets of ten agencies or departments of state government and approved a number of important bills. This includes a resolution unanimously adopted by the Senate State and Local Government Committee which seeks to address the public safety threat posed by contraband cell phone use by prison inmates.
Senate Joint Resolution 492, sponsored by Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), asks the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), major cellular providers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “to take a proactive and collaborative approach, in conjunction with correctional officials nationwide, to effectively disrupt the use of contraband wireless communication devices obtained by inmates.”
There were over 1,500 incidents with cell phones in Tennessee prisons last year.
Speaking in favor of the bill was Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, who told committee members that murders have been arranged and carried out on Tennessee correctional officers, criminal enterprises continue to thrive, victims have been stalked, witnesses have been threatened, escapes have been arranged and prison riots have been orchestrated all from within prison cells using contraband cellphones. He said these events are becoming common instances as more cellphones illegally infiltrate state correctional facilities.
“In years past, I never would have considered the issue of cell phones being a major problem in our prisons,” said Parker. “But, I will have to say that in the last 15 years it has become one of the most significant security threats that we have in our facilities.”
Parker recounted a 2005 case in Roane County when inmate George Hyatte shot Correctional Officer Wayne “Cotton” Morgan in an escape attempt. He said Hyatte and his accomplice coordinated the escape using a smuggled cell phone.
“This was an unconscionable and tragic act which I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Sen. Yager, who arrived at the Roane County Courthouse soon after that crime was committed. “Despite the efforts of our outstanding corrections officials, we need some help from the Federal Communications Commission to give us the tools we need to eradicate the use of cell phones by inmates in prisons.”
Parker said the department is committed to tackling this problem, including working with the state’s congressional leaders in asking federal officials to stop the flow of contraband.
“I am very pleased that our correction officials are tackling this public safety issue,” added Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), Chairman of the State and Local Government’s Corrections Subcommittee which oversees prisons. “These cellphones have even been used for gang activity and present safety issues for not only the correctional officers, but also the citizens they have contact with outside of those prison walls. We must aggressively address this threat.”
Introducing contraband into a correctional facility is a Class C felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for their approval.
Senate Education Committee approves bill to give students who suffer dependency on alcohol or drugs greater opportunities to succeed
“The staff of recovery high schools most often includes administrative staff, teachers, substance abuse counselors, and mental health professionals, with each playing a critical role in supporting their students,” said Sen. Gresham. “This bill will help students keep up with their studies, while having the best supports possible to help them recover.”
The bill authorizes the State Board of Education to promulgate additional rules and policies in consultation with the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to ensure best practices are employed as schools are authorized. It will also allow LEAs to collaborate with other school districts to establish a school to serve their students.
Introduction into a recovery high school would be voluntary under the bill. Students who graduate from the recovery school would receive a diploma from the high school they attended prior to enrollment to lessen the possibility of a stigma being attached. Grades earned would also be transferrable to other high schools.
Research shows students who attend treatment and go back into their normal high school have about a 70 percent chance of relapse. That number drops to approximately 30 percent when the student attends a recovery school after treatment. In addition, a recovery school in Houston found that about 98 percent of the students who attended had planned to drop out of school due to their addiction. After attending a recovery school, 90 percent of the students graduated, and over 80 percent went on to seek a post-secondary degree.
“Research on recovery schools show it is a game changer for kids that were headed towards a very dangerous path in life of dropping out of school and possibly ending up in jail down the road,” added Senator Gresham. “As we battle drug abuse in Tennessee, it is important that we apply every means possible to get these kids back on the right path so they have the best opportunity to be successful and addiction-free.”
The bill now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.
Legislation helps persons with disabilities have as much independence as possible in decision-making when courts considers conservatorship
“This legislation helps to ensure that when a conservatorship is pursued, it is, in fact, the least restrictive alternative for that person as required under current law,” said Senator Massey, sponsor of the bill. “This generation of people with disabilities have more opportunities than previous generations. They are educated with their peers without disabilities; go to college; get jobs, get married; go out with friends; live fully included lives in their communities and they need an option that supports them to make decisions without removing their rights.”
“Defining it in law ensures that all parties – families, attorneys, judges, educators, health care practitioners, and others – recognize it is not the only option for many of those who have disabilities,” she added.
Research supports that when people are empowered to make their own decisions, to the maximum extent possible, they are better able to recognize abusive situations and surround themselves with healthy relationships. Massey said the courts are committed to working with the disability community to provide training for judges on how least restrictive alternatives can be employed to maximize independence for people with disabilities, while minimizing the risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
The bill, which received unanimous approval in the committee, now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.
State Senate observes Veterans’ Day on the Hill
“Today is ‘Veterans’ Day on the Hill’ and it’s a time when we, as a body, as an assembly, celebrate the men and women who have been willing to write that blank check payable to the people of our great state and our great country,” said Senator Green (R-Clarksville), a former US Army Special Ops Flight Surgeon. “The United States of America has been at war for 16 years and we have produced thousands of combat veterans. Many of these were wounded or came home with the unseen scars of war.”
Each Senator wore a pin with the number 22 on it to honor, respect, and bring attention to the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day in America. Veterans in Tennessee are more than twice as likely to commit suicide than a non-veteran according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans between 35 and 54 and over age 75 have a higher suicide rate than other age groups.
“It’s an unconscionable number and one that is tragic,” Green continued.
The Senators had a luncheon where they got to meet and talk with a number of veterans.
Approximately 470,000 veterans live in Tennessee and Clarksville has the second highest concentration of veterans in the U.S.
Issues in Brief
Encouraging Gun Safety – Bipartisan legislation that would make it cheaper for gun owners to safely store their firearms was announced at a press conference on Monday. Senate Bill 2476, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) and Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris (D-Memphis), would exempt the purchase of gun safes from the state’s sales tax. The bill aims to make gun safes more affordable and accessible for gun owners to keep firearms out of the hands of children or thieves. Gun safes are currently exempt from sales tax in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington.
Government Accountability / Contracts — In the Senate State and Local Government Committee, the Contract Accountability and Responsible Employment Act, sponsored by Senator Bowling (R–Tullahoma), was approved in an attempt to bring more accountability to the state contracting process. “The failure to adequately oversee contracts can have grave consequences,” said Senator Bowling. “Lack of oversight opens the door for contractors to over-charge, skimp on service, or even flat out fail to deliver on contractual obligations, ultimately leaving the public on the hook. Senate Bill 1047 would incorporate oversight costs in any decision to outsource, establish formal contract monitoring, and give legislators a different view on how contracts impact their district. The bill requires state agencies to release an economic impact statement to the Fiscal Review committee for oversight on all contracts above $2.5 million that result in the furlough of one or more state employees.
Government Accountability / Balloon Indebtedness — Legislation which promotes better financial and debt management by local governments was approved by the full Senate this week. Senate Bill 1493, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), amends the state’s “Anti-Kicking the Can Act” by clarifying the definition of “balloon indebtedness.” The Anti-Kicking the Can Act ensured that debts were paid in a timely manner. “Often times, local governments will refinance a bill, and sometimes there’s somewhat of a loophole where they can refinance and then begin again,” said Senator Haile. “This bill says that if a local government does refinance, it goes back to the original date of the indebtedness and they aren’t able to move that additionally down the road.” Previously, local governments could change the timetable of their debt repayment by refinancing.
Government Transparency / Open Records — A bill that ensures legislative oversight of the state’s open records policies or rules has been approved by the State Senate. Senate Bill 1724, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), keeps in place a 2016 law that required county and municipal government entities to establish public record policies. However, it requires state government entities to place their open record policies in rules, as was the practice before the 2016 law was passed. Rules meet a higher standard of oversight as they must be reviewed by the General Assembly through the House and Senate Government Operations Committees. Some state government agencies had already moved to repeal their rules in favor of policies. The legislation comes after Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell called for a review of the state’s policy on exceptions to open records laws revealing 538 exemptions. Lt. Gov. McNally has appointed the Senate State and Local Government Committee and the Senate Government Operations Committee to carefully review the report and make recommendations on how the state’s records can be as transparent as possible.
K-8 Scholars Guide – The full Senate approved legislation this week calling for students in grades K-8 to receive a “Scholar’s Summer Guide” prior to the last day of the school year. Senate Bill 730, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), is designed to assist parents and students to better prepare for the next school year by providing them with a list of skills and materials that could be reviewed over the summer break. The student’s incoming and outgoing teachers would collaborate on requirements in formulating the guide so it is customized for each child. The bill would also allow teachers to customize this guide for students that they feel need work in specific areas prior to entering the following grade.
Charitable Gaming Events – Legislation which aims to help charitable organizations meet up-front costs of events that fall under the state’s charitable gaming act has passed on final Senate consideration. Current law requires nonprofit organizations which are applying for an annual charitable gaming event to submit an application fee ranging from $150 to $600 based on the gross revenue to be collected. This causes hardships for charitable organizations that cannot afford to pay the fee in advance of the event. Senate Bill 1509, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), lowers the fee required at the time of application to $50, with the remainder due within 90 calendar days of the event’s conclusion.
Tree plantings — The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee approved a resolution on Thursday designating February 24th as “Tennessee Tree Day.” Senate Joint Resolution 482, sponsored by Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), aims to encourage Tennesseans to participate in tree-planting events in their communities. The Tennessee Environmental Council has been organizing large-scale, statewide tree-planting events that have grown from 5,000 trees in 2007 in a few Tennessee counties, to 100,000 trees in 2017 in all ninety-five counties. The Council hopes volunteers will plant 250,000 seedlings on Tennessee Tree Day. Tennessee is the most biologically diverse inland state in the United States.
Parental Rights / Surviving Parent – The full Senate approved legislation this week to expand the grounds for termination of parental or guardianship rights to include a parent convicted of or found civilly liable for attempting to cause the intentional and wrongful death of the child’s other parent or guardian. Current law only affords for the termination of parental rights when the offending parent actually ends the life of the victim. Senate Bill 1608, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), would permit the victim to file a petition to terminate the offender’s parental rights when the offender fails to end the life of the victim.
Constitutional Amendment banning Hall Income Tax – Legislation to amend the Tennessee Constitution to ban the Hall income tax passed the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee by a vote of 9-2 this week. Senate Joint Resolution 494, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Memphis), proposes additional language in Article II, Section 28 of Tennessee’s Constitution which would eliminate state and local governments’ authority to levy state or local tax upon income derived from stocks and bonds that are not taxed ad valorem. The Hall income tax, enacted in 1929, is the only tax on personal income in Tennessee. It is currently a four percent tax on income derived from dividends on stock or from interest on bonds after the General Assembly has made several reductions over the past several years. Legislation was approved last year to incrementally phase the tax out by January 2021. However, the proposed amendment would constitutionally prohibit the General Assembly from ever levying or permitting any state or local tax upon income derived from stocks and bonds.
General Assembly Hosts Vietnam Veterans Of America
Monday night, the House of Representatives hosted members of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Chapter 995 from Jackson, Tennessee.
During their visit to the House chamber, VVA members conducted the 13 Folds of the U.S. Flag Ceremony — a flag folding ceremony performed at funeral services of the men and women who have served our country. They also played Taps, which is a bugle call played at dusk, during flag ceremonies, and at military funerals by members of the United States armed forces.
This week, House Republicans unanimously passed legislation aimed at reducing taxes on automobiles for Tennessee’s disabled veterans.
House Bill 15 exempts a new or used vehicle that is sold, given, or donated to a disabled veteran or service member from the sales and use tax.
House Bill 15 is the latest in a series of Republican-led initiatives designed to support Tennessee veterans and military families. During the 2017 legislative session, House Republicans fought to reduce the amount of property tax owed by veterans, elderly, and disabled homeowners.
Legislation To Improve Quality Of Care For Tennesseans Battling Addiction Gains Support
As part of the ongoing efforts of House Republicans to address Tennessee’s opioid and drug crisis, House Bill 1929 — known as the Stopping Addiction & Fostering Excellence (SAFE) Act — ensures that patients who utilize recovery houses receive high quality care that empowers them to end the cycle of addiction.
The SAFE Act enables providers at these facilities to focus their efforts on implementing more customized and targeted treatment plans for patients. Additionally, House Bill 1929 streamlines operational guidelines while strengthening partnerships between the facility and its local municipality.
Tennessee’s opioid epidemic claimed the lives of more than 1,600 Tennesseans in 2016 alone. Every day in our state, at least three people die from opioid-related overdoses. This is more than Tennessee’s daily number of traffic fatalities.
While the federal government has only just commenced conversation about the opioid epidemic, Tennessee leads the way in fighting the situation here at home. In addition to House Bill 1929, House leaders are also moving forward with other major pieces of opioid legislation to combat the state’s opioid problem head on, including the Tennessee Together plan.
Tennessee Together is a multi-faceted plan comprised of legislation, $30 million in funds through Governor Haslam’s proposed 2018-2019 budget, and other executive actions to battle opioids through the three major components of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement. The plan incorporates recommendations made by Speaker Beth Harwell’s Ad Hoc Task Force on Opioid Abuse.
House Republicans this week introduced a measure aimed at giving Tennesseans a fresh start in life by utilizing the state’s available education opportunities.
House Bill 1780 permits an individual who has a Class E felony conviction to apply for a records expunction immediately after he or she earns a certificate or degree under the Tennessee Reconnect program.
Passed in 2017, the Tennessee Reconnect program offers all adults without a degree access to community college tuition-free and at absolutely no cost to taxpayers.
Currently, citizens who have paid their fines, court costs, and restitution are eligible to apply for a Class E felony records expunction after a five year waiting period. House Bill 1780 keeps current stipulations for Class E offenders in place, but reduces the required wait time to apply for records expunction to as little as 12-18 months in some instances.
This reduction provides a fresh start for residents, decreases recidivism, and minimizes use of taxpayer funds to cover incarceration costs.
According to the Tennessee Department of Correction, instances of recidivism have decreased by more than three percent statewide from 2010-2016. However, the state’s recent opioid crisis is leading to a larger number of drug related arrests, as well as repeat offenders.
A survey conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice estimates that the state spent $723,680,760 on prison expenditures in 2015 alone.
While House Republicans have worked to reduce recidivism in Tennessee, citizens still have to bear the high expenses of incarceration. This new initiative not only saves taxpayer money, but also encourages those who desire a fresh start to take advantage of the state’s many education opportunities so they can capitalize on a greater number of high quality jobs currently available.
Initiative displays “In God We Trust” in prominent locations within schools
A bill that calls for our national motto — “In God We Trust”— to be displayed in schools across Tennessee was introduced this week in Nashville.
House Bill 2368 enacts the National Motto in the Classroom Act. It requires each local education agency across the state to display “In God We Trust” in a prominent location within Tennessee’s schools.
“In God We Trust” has served as the official motto of the United States since 1956. It first appeared on the two-cent penny in 1864 and on paper currency in 1957.
During his recent State of the Union Address in front of Congress, President Donald Trump reminded the nation’s lawmakers and all citizens that the foundation of American life is faith and family, not government and bureaucracy. President Trump also emphasized to the congressional and national audience that our country’s motto has been and still remains “In God We Trust.”
Supporters of the legislation agree that The National Motto in the Classroom Act is an opportunity to help future generations of students better understand the importance of faith in the narrative of Tennessee and the nation.
The Governor’s Stewardship Awards represent multiple unique categories, including Clean Air, Materials Management, Natural Heritage, Sustainable Performance, and Lifetime Achievement. Other categories are also available.
Any individual, business, organization, educational institution, or agency is eligible, provided it is located in Tennessee and the project was completed during the 2017 calendar year. All nominees must have a minimum of three consecutive years of overall environmental compliance with TDEC. Self-nominations are encouraged.
A panel of judges representing agricultural, conservation, forestry, environmental, and academic professionals will select award recipients based on criteria including level of project or program completion, innovation, and public education. The deadline for nominations is March 30, 2018. Award recipients will be announced in May 2018.
For more information about each category, judging criteria, and nomination forms, visit TDEC’s website at http://www.tn.gov/environment/gov-awards.shtml.