Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus and House Republicans Weekly Wrap Up
Capitol Hill Week
Legislation addresses retail theft and its strong link to Tennessee’s opioid crisis
(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 22, 2018 – A major bill which aims to cut off the flow of funds used in the purchase of illegal drugs was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week as legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis moves front and center in the Tennessee General Assembly. Senate Bill 1717, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), addresses the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft which has been heavily linked to the purchase of opiates.
The proposal follows a new law passed by the General Assembly last year defining organized retail crime and creating two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals who return stolen merchandise to receive gift cards, money or store credit.
“You have one team that will go into a store and shoplift the goods,” said Sen. Briggs. “A second team will take them back without a receipt and get the value of the goods on a store gift card, with the sales tax that was never collected added. The cards are then taken to various pawn shops or gift card retailers where they can be sold at a discount. The money is then used to buy drugs illegally.”
It is estimated that Tennessee loses over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lose over $200 million each year related to return fraud. The National Retail Federation has estimates the loss at $12 to $15 billion nationwide, with almost all being related to illicit drug trade.
From April to June of last year, 98 overdose cases resulting in death or hospitalization were linked to individuals involved in retail theft. Investigative reports, like one done by CNBC entitled Gift Card Crime Fueling Opioid Addiction across the U.S., continue to lend validity to the strong connection of the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft and illegal drugs. In addition to an interview with Briggs, the report took a firsthand look at the problem with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Area Law Enforcement and Retailers Team (A.L.E.R.T).
making all identifying information confidential, to be used only by the state and law enforcement.
Local law enforcement would decide how to notify businesses affected and what method they should use to report the data.
“The database is the key,” added Briggs. “Retailers can cancel cards as soon as alerted and it allows us to identify stolen sales tax dollars. It also sends real time notifications to law enforcement to investigate suspicious transactions. This will help us link suspects to organized crime rings so we can stop this destructive and deadly cycle of retail theft and opioid abuse.”
Committee members also discussed Senate Bill 2258 which addresses two components of the three-pronged TN Together legislation proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to attack the state’s opioid epidemic. TN Together is a multi-faceted plan comprised of legislation, $30 million in state and federal funds proposed in Governor Haslam’s 2018-19 budget and other executive actions to attack the state’s opioid epidemic through three major components: 1) Prevention, 2) Treatment and 3) Law Enforcement. The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), will be considered again next week.
Senate approves Tuition Transparency and Accountability Act
Legislation providing more transparency and accountability when it comes to tuition and fee hikes at the state’s colleges and universities has passed the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Bill 1665, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), seeks to slow down tuition increases, which have risen by 125 percent over the past decade, by putting constant pressure on the process.
“Education is the roadway to the American dream, and one of our solemn responsibilities is to make sure that Tennessee students graduate from college prepared to take on the world and do so with as little debt as possible,” said Senator Dickerson.
Approximately 50 percent of graduates from colleges in Tennessee have debt that averages around $25,000.
Under the bill, governing boards must give public notice 15 days prior to a meeting to adopt an increase in tuition and mandatory fees in order to allow for public comment and awareness. Any tuition increase must be substantiated by stating the amount of increase, the reason for the increase, and any steps that may have been taken to control it.
The legislation also requires each university to provide in a student’s acceptance letter a “predictive cost estimate,” projecting how much tuition and fees will costs for a four-year period.
Finally, the proposal calls for the governing boards of each university to submit a report to be distributed to the General Assembly with information on how the tuition increases where spent during the previous year.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration where it is scheduled to be heard on February 27.
Senate Health and Welfare Committee approves legislation to address Tennessee’s increasing suicide rate
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation on Wednesdayestablishing a Tennessee Suicide Mortality Data Review and Prevention Team in the Department of Health to address the growing number of adult suicides in Tennessee. The Suicide Prevention Act of 2018, which is sponsored by Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), calls for the team to gather suicide data identifying causes and factors in order to direct limited prevention resources in the most effective way possible.
“Almost twice as many people die by suicide than by homicide in Tennessee,” said Sen. Crowe. “On any given day, three people in Tennessee die by suicide and the rates have increased steadily over the past three years. This legislation brings together the state’s foremost experts to analyze important data regarding these deaths so that we have the best plan of action to reduce suicides in Tennessee.”
There were 1,110 suicide deaths in 2016, which is the highest number recorded in Tennessee in over 35 years of record-keeping. This is compared to 945 deaths in 2014 and 1,065 deaths in 2015.
“These numbers are very alarming,” added Sen. Crowe. “If not for the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN) and the limited number of staff and the work of the Advisory Council, which is appointed by the Governor, all of the statewide Volunteers and partners, these numbers would be much higher,” added Sen. Crowe.
Under the bill, the team would be composed of a physician and a nurse appointed by the Commissioner of Health, as well as designees from the Departments of Health and Mental Health and the chairs of the health committees in the Senate and House of Representatives. The group would make recommendations for changes to any state law or policy that would promote the prevention of suicide deaths or improvements to the way suicides are investigated and/or reported. They could also propose strategies for prevention of suicide deaths on which TSPN can focus. Recommendations would be made to the health committees by January 2020.
TSPN Executive Director Scott Ridgway applauded Senator Crowe’s leadership and thanked the Senate Health and Welfare Committee for passing this bill. “I am excited about the potential of this bill,” he said. “Obtaining accurate numbers and other information on suicides in Tennessee will enhance TSPN’s strategic outreach efforts to be able to better prevent the tragedy of suicide in Tennessee. One suicide is one too many”
The legislation dovetails with the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, as issued by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, that calls for local health officials to routinely collect, analyze, report, and use suicide-related data to implement prevention efforts.
Legislation bolsters state’s Go Build Tennessee Program
Legislation bolstering Tennessee’s Go Build Tennessee Program, which encourages and promotes career opportunities in the construction industry, was approved by Senate Commerce Committee this week. Senate Bill 1922, sponsored by Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), clarifies that the annual 50 percent transfer of revenue from the contractor’s license be used solely for the implementation, administration and management of the non-profit program.
“A few years ago, we passed the “Go Build Tennessee Act” which allowed the Board for Licensing Contractors to take some of the reserves they have in their licensing fund and use that money to promote careers in the construction industry,” said Sen. Johnson. “It’s a real concern and borderline crisis with the number of people leaving the construction industry. We have a booming economy here now, and there is a growing shortage of people choosing to go into construction or the trades for their career which can be quite high paying.”
The goal is to encourage and promote career opportunities in Tennessee’s secondary schools, postsecondary schools, colleges of applied technology and community colleges. The Go Build Tennessee website features 109 in-state training programs of the top demanded occupations. These occupations include carpenters, welders, road builders, electricians, masons, equipment operators, plumbers, and pipe fitters and more.
In Alabama, where the program originated in 2010, they have been able to increase construction-related Career and Technical Education (CTE) course enrollments by 24 percent. Tennessee’s Go Build Tennessee Program has communicated with students, parents and teachers in all 95 counties of the state as they widen their efforts to attract more skilled tradesmen to these high demand jobs.
Five bills addressing sexual misconduct by teachers with their students are approved by the Senate Education Committee
The Senate Education Committee approved five bills this week to prevent sexual misconduct by teachers with their students. The legislative package follows a comprehensive report from Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson which revealed deficiencies in hiring practices for school personnel that could allow predators to slip through the cracks.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) explained there were two specific catalytic events that prompted the series of bills to be sponsored. One of them was a USA Today report which surveyed states nationwide to measure how children are protected from sexual misconduct in K-12 schools. In that report, Tennessee received a failing grade. That is when Gresham asked the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to do a thorough study regarding the matter.
The second catalytic event noted by Gresham was a case that came before the State Board of Education regarding a teacher who had been convicted of statutory rape and who wanted his professional license back. The State Board of Education denied the licensure, but was overturned by a Chancery Court in Davidson County based on ambiguity in the board’s rules.
The bills approved by the committee include:
Senate Bill 2014 which ensures that background checks are conducted to identify sexual predators before a teacher license is issued and that reports are done on an ongoing basis for those who work with children. Presently, school districts require an initial background check before hiring.
Senate Bill 2015 which prohibits a Local Education Agency (LEA) from entering into a non-disclosure agreement with a teacher that would prevent other school districts from knowing about sexual misconduct. It also allows districts to access information about the previous employment of a teacher with another school district.
Senate Bill 2013 which updates the state’s Teacher Code of Ethics regarding inappropriate teacher-student relationships, including engaging in sexual behavior with students or furnishing them alcohol or drugs.
Senate Bill 2011 which grants the State Board of Education authority to reprimand school directors for not reporting instances of misconduct and clarifies the board’s authority to reprimand educators for violating the Teacher Code of Ethics.
Senate Bill 2012 which calls for the State Board of Education to post all final teacher’s disciplinary action on its website to allow school districts, as well as out-of-state entities responsible for the licensing and hiring of Tennessee educators, to access information regarding the final disciplinary action of an individual’s license case. It also requires final licensure action be reported to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) database for the same purpose.
The bills are sponsored by all nine members of the Senate Education Committee, which includes Chairman Gresham, 1st Vice-Chairman Reggie Tate (D-Memphis), 2nd Vice-Chairman Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), and Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol).
Issues in Brief
Constitutional Amendment banning Hall Income Tax – Legislation to amend the Tennessee Constitution to ban the Hall income tax passed the full Senate on Thursday on third and final reading by a vote of 26 to 3. 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.
Heart Attack / STEMI System of Care — Final approval was given to legislation on Thursday establishing a statewide ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI) system of care in Tennessee. A STEMI is a very serious type of heart attack during which one of the heart’s major arteries (one of the arteries that supplies oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the heart muscle) is blocked. In order to treat a STEMI, it is vital that the patient get to the hospital quickly and have a stent placed so blood flow can be restored. Senate Bill 2071, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) requires the Department of Health to recognize hospitals that meet certain criteria as Accredited Receiving Centers and Accredited Referring Centers. Then, the emergency services and ambulances at hospitals shall develop pre-hospital protocols for transporting STEMI patients to the nearest receiving or referring hospital based on nationally recognized clinical practice guidelines. “The goal is to get the patient transported to an appropriate center as rapidly as possible to save the heart muscle to save lives,” said Briggs, who is a thoracic and cardiac surgeon.
Blockchain Technology / Legal Authority — Legislation which recognizes the legal authority of “distributed ledger technology,” which includes “blockchain technology” used in smart contracts, advanced this week in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Originally developed as the accounting method for the virtual currency Bitcoins, the technology is now appearing in a variety of commercial applications. Senate Bill 1662, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), gives any signature, record, or rights of ownership accomplished through distributed ledger technology full legal effect, validity and enforceability. The legislation seeks to make Tennessee more attractive for this technology.
Revenues – Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin announced this week that overall January state tax revenues posted less than expected, while year-to-date state revenues remain more than budgeted. Revenues for January totaled $1.4 billion, and were 3.18 percent less than revenues received in the same time period one year ago, and were $25 million less than budgeted. On an accrual basis, January is the sixth month in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Year-to-date revenues were $185.1 million more than the budgeted estimate. The general fund recorded $136.1 million more than budgeted estimates and the four other funds that share state tax revenues were $49.0 million in above the estimates. These estimates are available on the state’s website at https://www.tn.gov/content/tn/
Court Costs / Indigent Defendants – The full Senate approved legislation on Thursday that allows other counties in Tennessee to opt in to a successful Knox County program which gives indigent defendants an alternate method of paying back their court costs and litigation taxes in favor of community service. Under Senate Bill 1504, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), the defendant must apply to be a participant of the program, prove that they are indigent and be approved by the judge. If the defendant completes the program, the clerk submits documentation to the judge who can then clear the fees. If at any point in the program they have failed the requirements, the judge may rescind the defendant’s participation in the program. The number of applicants accepted and the duration and continuation of the program will be at the discretion of the clerks. “This program has been very successful in Knox County,” said Briggs. “It has required the indigent defendant who otherwise wouldn’t pay, to go out and perform community service which has been very helpful to the county. What we have also noticed is that when there did appear to be a work requirement, sometimes they did elect to find the money to pay the fees.” The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.
Out-of-State Teachers / Licensing — The full Senate approved a bill this week that would address regulatory hurdles faced by high performing teachers licensed in other states who want to teach here. Although Tennessee has reciprocity with numerous states, out-of-state licensees face additional administrative burdens which can be discouraging to many of these qualified educators. Senate Bill 1804, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), removes an assessment requirement for those who hold a license in a reciprocal state as long as they have received evaluations of above expectations or significantly above expectations in each of their first two years in Tennessee. The bill aims to address teacher shortages and encourage the recruitment of high quality teachers.
College, Career and Technical Education — The Tennessee Department of Education announced new steps forward this week in its work to strengthen the integration of postsecondary and workforce readiness throughout K-12 education, ultimately preparing students to meet the demands of the real world. Through a new report, the College, Career and Technical Education (CCTE) Transition Advisory Council provides recommendations and guidance as the department moves forward in its work to successfully transition students from high school to postsecondary education and beyond. The Council was created in 2017 to provide insight and guidance as the state welcomed new leadership to drive its work in postsecondary and career readiness.
Police Officers – Senate Joint Resolution 563 designating May 13-19 as “Police Week” and May 15 as “Peace Officers Memorial Day” passed the Senate unanimously on Thursday. The designation is in honor of “the brave and valiant service rendered by the many law enforcement officers through Tennessee.” The resolution is sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta).
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — Senate Bill 2217, sponsored by Senator Bell (R – Riceville), passed in the Senate on third and final consideration. “Last year, this body passed a bill that terminates our current permitting systems for large animal operations on March 1st of this year,” said Sen. Bell. “This bill is the result of collaboration between our large animal producers and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) on replacing that permit system,”
This legislation creates a permitting system for the state’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in a compromise that takes into account the needs of animal feeding operations while protecting the waters of Tennessee.
“This was collaboration between the dairy producers, the poultry producers, the Farm Bureau, TDEC, the Department of Agriculture, and the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association,” Senator Bell said.
The definition of a CAFO includes the farms that have 700 animals or more. The bill does not add any requirements to dairy farmers but gets rid of 85% of the CAFO permits in the state by eliminating the permit requirement for poultry farmers. Medium concentrated feeding operations are exempt from the permit requirement but are allowed to get a permit if they choose to do so. There is currently only one hog operation and 36-48 dairy operations in the state that would be subject to a mandatory permit.
The mandatory permit requirement aims to help small dairy farms with less than 700 cows by eliminating the permit requirement for them.
Adults encouraged to apply for tuition-free community or technical college
House Republicans joined with Governor Bill Haslam this week to announce the application process is officially open for adults to enroll tuition-free this fall at a community or technical college through Tennessee Reconnect.Tennessee Reconnect builds off the groundbreaking Tennessee Promise program — which provides high school graduates two years of tuition-free community or technical college — by establishing a last-dollar scholarship for adults to earn an associate degree or technical certificate free of tuition or mandatory fees.
Both Tennessee Reconnect and Tennessee Promise are programs under the Drive to 55, an initiative spearheaded by Republicans to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025. Studies show that by 2025, at least half the jobs in Tennessee will require a college degree or certificate.
Early results of the Tennessee Promise program show that students participating in the program are succeeding at higher rates than their peers. Tennessee is the first state in the nation to offer all citizens, both high school graduates and adults, the chance to earn a postsecondary degree or certificate tuition-free.
Those interested in applying for Tennessee Reconnect can do so by following these 4 simple steps:
- Complete the application at TNReconnect.gov;
- Apply to a local community college or eligible Tennessee Reconnect institution;
- File the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at http://FAFSA.ed.gov;
And enroll in a degree or certificate program at least part-time.
To be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, a student must not already hold an associate or bachelor’s degree, must be a Tennessee resident for at least one year, and be determined as an independent student on the FAFSA.
General Assembly Honors Blind Veterans, American History During House Ceremony
This week on the House floor, legislators came together to honor Tennessee’s blind veterans as well as pay tribute to all of the men and women who sacrifice themselves for the freedom Americans are able to enjoy on a daily basis during an official ceremony and presentation of the braille American flag.
The House ceremony was led by retired Staff Sgt. Walt Peters, a veteran who served 20 years in the U.S. Army, including three tours of duty in Vietnam. Peters lost his sight 15 years ago as a result of exposure to the chemical Agent Orange while serving in Southeast Asia.
Peters first got involved with the braille American flag in 2014 when he was presented with a durable paper replica of the bronze-cast braille flag. Peters, who only sees faint silhouettes, said that gift meant a lot to him and pushed him to set out on a mission to have a bronze braille flag placed in every veterans’ hospital in the country — just over 150. This mission led him to meeting Randolph Cabral, founder of the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute, who created the braille flag to honor his father, Jesus Sanchez Cabral.
Jesus Sanchez Cabral was a decorated U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who served the United States during World War II. Glaucoma robbed him of his sight 10 years before his death. It also hampered Cabral’s ability to post and fly the American flag on his front porch, a duty he cherished as a patriotic veteran.
The braille American flag serves as a valuable teaching and learning aid for instructing blind students about its place in American history. It is composed of braille figures in the upper left corner that represent the stars of the 50 states. They are arranged in nine rows of alternating clusters. The long smooth horizontal lines represent the red stripes. Each red stripe is lined with the appropriate braille dots to indicate the stripe’s color. The long raised textured areas on the flag represent the white stripes. They are also lined with the appropriate braille dots to indicate the stripe’s color.
The American braille flag is a powerful symbol for more than 30 million blind and low vision Americans. In 2008, the United States Congress authorized its placement at Arlington National Cemetery as a tribute to blind veterans. It is displayed by thousands of sighted and blind civilians, veterans, hospitals, memorial parks, elected officials, schools for the blind, and many other places.
Legislation Strengthening Protections For Human Trafficking Victims Gains Support
An initiative that enhances identity protections for Tennessee’s human trafficking victims gained strong support from House Republicans this week in Nashville.
House Bill 1849 protects the records of trafficking victims who seek treatment from service providers during their recovery process.
While records are currently confidential for patients who are treated in hospitals, this initiative protects those who are treated at domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, as well as human trafficking service providers.
In Tennessee, approximately 94 teenagers fall victim to human trafficking each month. However, the state has some of the toughest laws against this type of crime in the entire country.
According to Shared Hope International, our state ranks first among all 50 states for legislation that combats human trafficking. Much of that success can be traced to the steady work of lawmakers who have fought to give a voice to human trafficking victims.
In 2017, the General Assembly allocated $550,000 in funding for organizations like End Slavery Tennessee, Second Life, and Restore Corps whose mission is to help end human trafficking in the state. These efforts were reinforced by the creation of the Human Trafficking Advisory Council by House Speaker Beth Harwell and multiple pieces of legislation passed to combat trafficking occurrences.
Human trafficking victims suffer an extraordinary amount of physical abuse, emotional trauma, and psychological pain. House Bill 1849 seeks to protect victims from further harm and aims at supporting recovery efforts so that they can restore some sense of normalcy in their daily lives.
The legislation will be heard by members of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee next week.
Measure places unoccupied chair on Capitol campus at no cost to taxpayers
Wednesday afternoon, members of the House State Government Subcommittee unanimously voted to send House Bill 2138 to the full State Government Committee.
The measure expands the POW-MIA Chair of Honor Program to include placement of an unoccupied chair containing the POW/MIA insignia at the Capitol campus in Nashville at no cost to taxpayers.
The POW/MIA Chair of Honor program is designed to serve as a solemn reminder of soldiers who are still waiting to be brought home. According to data from the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 80,000 service members are still listed as Missing in Action decades after they served in conflicts like World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
House Bill 2138 is the latest in a series of initiatives supported by House lawmakers in order to call attention to the selfless sacrifices of American service members and their families.
A chair containing the POW/MIA insignia is already displayed at various government buildings, including the Capitol in Washington, and other public locations in cities and towns across the country.
For more information about House Bill 2138, please click here.