Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus and House Republicans Weekly Wrap Up

Capitol Hill Week

State Senate acts on wide variety of bills as General Assembly enters final stretch of 2018 legislative session
Senate passes legislation benefiting health care consumers

Contact: Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email: darlene.schlicher@capitol.tn.us

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), April 5, 2018 – The Senate acted on a wide variety of legislation as the 110th General Assembly enters the final stretch of the 2018 legislative session, including several bills aiding health care consumers.  This includes a mental health parity bill which helps ensure that state and federal laws are followed in Tennessee when insurers pay for mental health services. The legislation will help consumers and employers get what they pay for when they purchase health insurance.

In 2008, President George Bush signed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. That law does not require health insurers to cover mental health and addiction services, but if carriers do offer this coverage they must design their cost benefits comparable to other medical and surgical benefits.

“This law says mental health diagnoses will be handled like any other medical diagnoses,” said Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), a physician who is sponsoring the bill. “This is a very pertinent and important issue right now. We have a terrible opiate epidemic in Tennessee that many say is the largest problem facing our state. In addition, recent school shootings point to the need for medical treatment through available health insurance coverage. This bill seeks to ensure behavioral and drug treatment benefits are being designed and applied fairly and that insurance carriers are accountable to consumers and small business owners.”

Senate Bill 2165 provides insurance carriers and the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance with guidance as to how they can demonstrate compliance with mental health parity. It also calls for the Department of Commerce and Insurance to review and send a report to the legislature every year to see that the federal law is being obeyed and that the insurance companies are treating mental health conditions like all the other medical conditions.

The legislation was approved by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee and now goes to the full Senate for a final vote.

The Senate also approved legislation this week allowing state employees diagnosed with cancer to receive hypofractionated proton therapy if their radiation oncologist believes that it would be more beneficial to their treatment plan. Senate Bill 367, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), would equate the cost of the proton therapy to that of traditional radiation (IMRT) when it is the paid-for method.

“IMRT is very successful at killing the tumor, reducing the tumors preoperatively, killing any residual cancer postoperatively, but it also causes significant damage to surrounding tissue, particularly nerve tissue,” said Senator Green, who is a physician.

“There is an increased body of literature and medical research that shows that proton therapy is as effective in many types of cancer with a significant decrease in side effects.”

Another bill affecting health consumers which passed this week calls for more effective notification when a mammogram detects extremely dense breast tissue. Although this condition is common, it can hide cancer findings or could be associated with breast cancer. Senate Bill 2704, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), enhances the current law requiring notification of their mammogram by alerting patients that additional screening may be warranted in consultation with their physician. Approximately 12.3 percent to 15 percent of women with dense breast tissue are prone to have cancer.

In addition, the full Senate approved a key health care consumer bill calling for transparency in medical charges by hospitals. Senate Bill 1869, sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), requires a hospital to provide an estimate to patients regarding out-of-network charges. Lundberg said the legislation came from a constituent who received a bill for $40,000 after receiving routine tests in the hospital because he was out of network and had not been notified.

In other health care news, the Senate passed two separate bills which aim to provide more information and awareness regarding Down Syndrome and Williams Syndrome. Senate Bill 2008, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), requires the Department of Health to make available up-to-date evidence-based information about Down Syndrome on their website. The online information would include first call programs, links to organizations providing information and resources, and other educational and support programs. It would also make it available to health care providers rendering pre-natal and post-natal care or genetic counseling to those receiving a pre-natal diagnosis of Down Syndrome.

Senate Joint Resolution 727, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), designates May 2018 as “Williams Syndrome Awareness Month.” Williams syndrome is a rare genetic condition that is present at birth which affects as many as 30,000 individuals in the United States. It is characterized by medical and cognitive problems, including cardiovascular disease, developmental delays, and learning disabilities. The resolution brings awareness to the need for more research, programs and initiatives to help those with the condition.

Juvenile justice bills advance as legislature prepares to adjourn

A key juvenile justice reform bill recommended by the Joint Ad-hoc Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice and the Juvenile Justice Realignment Taskforce advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week as the legislature prepares to adjourn. Senate Bill 1821, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R–Collierville), prohibits a juvenile court from issuing a valid court order upon an unruly child or a child whose only offense is a status offense.

Status offenders are juveniles charged with or adjudicated for conduct that would not under the law of Tennessee be a crime if committed by an adult. Typical examples are chronic or persistent truancy, running away from home, violating curfews, alcohol or tobacco possession, and the like. Twenty-eight states have eliminated valid court orders in juvenile courts for status offenses.

“Valid court orders have been addressed at the federal level in several different ways under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act back to 1974,” said Senator Norris. “A valid court order in too many instances is being used to bootstrap what is otherwise just a status offense into an offense that could be used for detention. A court might issue a direct order saying stop running away from home or make sure you go to school regularly, and, while intended to be an exception to the federal law, then that exception ends up swallowing the rule. It takes a status offense, protected from secured and locked detention, and converts it to a delinquent act that’s not entitled to the same protection. So, after a lot of testimony and presentations, the taskforce determined it best to eliminate the valid court order as has now been done in 28 states.”

In other action, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted to allow Basic Education Program (BEP) funds to “follow the child” to a learning center when a youth has been ordered by a juvenile court to attend a non-public school. Currently, there are only two caveats for BEP dollars going to non-Local Education Agency (LEA) settings: children for whose education the state is directly responsible and those in residential mental health facilities. Senate Bill 1803, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), would add a third caveat for youth who are court ordered to attend a Tennessee Department of Education-approved non-public school in order to prevent children from entering state custody.

There are presently four Teen Learning Centers in Tennessee funded with the Department of Children’s Service’s Custody Prevention Funds. All youth served in these centers come through their respective county juvenile court orders and have a variety of status and juvenile offenses that put them at serious risk of entering state custody. The vast majority of youth served by these prevention and early intervention programs have either been removed from their local school system due to zero-tolerance offenses or have chronic truancy issues. Approximately 90 percent of students discharged from the centers remain out of juvenile court.

Finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation authorizing certain courts to establish pilot regional juvenile drug court treatment programs. Senate Bill 1848, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), would allow parents to opt their children into supervision by regional juvenile drug courts in order to get structured treatment to aid in recovery from addiction.

“In Tennessee right now, we obviously have a significant opiate problem, and one of the main concerns is how it affects our youth,” said Senator Dickerson. “Heretofore, the only way to get at-risk youth into treatment is for the child to be in the criminal court system or under the Department of Children’s Services. This legislation allows parents, through a pilot program of 500 individuals, to put their children under the care of a judge and allows the judge to be the quarterback of their care.”

This pilot program would begin July 1, 2018 and end June 30, 2023. The legislation now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration.

Legislation benefitting schools serving special needs students receives final Senate approval

Legislation was approved by the full Senate this week to ensure equitable access to the state’s special education excess cost reimbursement program. Senate Bill 1901, sponsored by Senator Gresham (R–Somerville), requires school districts and special education services associations to include all excess-costs students within their jurisdiction when they apply for reimbursement funds. It also allows public charter schools to join or form special education services associations in order to increase capacity so they are equipped to serve these special needs children.

“The special education excess cost reimbursement program at present is designed to provide funding reimbursement for districts and schools serving high cost special education students,” said Senator Gresham, who is Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “These students have significant learning needs and cost the schools that educate them far more than a student in a general education setting.”

Currently, school districts or special education services associations must submit a reimbursement application to the state documenting special education students with costs exceeding the amount of funding they have received. However, current state law does not require districts to include all excess-cost students in their reimbursement applications.

“Often, high-cost special education students educated in non-traditional settings, including high-need students who attend public charter schools, are not included in these applications and thus do not have access to these reimbursement funds,” added Gresham.  “What we should do is encourage all schools to serve all students including those with the most significant special education needs.”

This bill is a part of the General Assembly’s ongoing efforts to ensure all students are able to receive a quality education, have their needs met, and be treated with dignity and respect.

This bill now goes to the Governor’s desk for final approval.

Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation continuing General Assembly’s efforts to protect elderly and vulnerable adults

Legislation increasing penalties for exploitation or abuse of an elderly or vulnerable adult was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, continuing the General Assembly’s ongoing efforts to protect Tennessee’s senior citizens. Senate Bill 2621, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Norris (R-Collierville), enacts the Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act of 2018.

The legislation follows enactment of a series of bills passed over the last two years protecting Tennesseans who are elderly or have diminished capacity from physical abuse and various forms of financial exploitation.

“This act is designed to streamline and complete the organization of existing code provisions that we addressed last year and close a loophole or two that exist in our elder abuse laws,” said Senator Norris. “We accomplish this by defining certain crimes more broadly; thereby, ensuring that certain criminal activities don’t fall through the cracks because they don’t fit neatly into some of the existing definitions set out in current law.”

The legislation draws distinctions between types of physical abuse of the elderly, increasing penalties for certain types of aggravated abuse including rape and murder. It creates a Class E felony offense for a person to knowingly abuse, neglect, or sexually exploit an elderly person, and Class D felony offense for doing the same to a vulnerable adult.  It also increases fines for elder physical abuse and sexual exploitation.

The bill now heads to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee for consideration.

Bills in Brief…

Statute of Limitations / Sexual Offenses — Senate Bill 2538 was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week instructing the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to conduct a study and report back next year on the effectiveness of the state’s statutes of limitations, including crimes involving sexual offenses against children. According to the National Center for Victims Rights, most states have a basic suspension of the statute of limitations for civil actions while a person is a minor. Many states have also adopted additional extensions, specifically for cases involving sexual abuse of children and a handful of states have removed the statute of limitation completely for child sex crimes. “Child victims frequently do not discover the relationship of their psychological injuries to the abuse until well into adulthood and the emotional damage can often last a lifetime,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesoboro), sponsor of the bill. “For many victims, the statute of limitations has run out and they are without a venue for justice. We need to protect children and hold perpetrators accountable regardless of when the victim reports the crime. Hopefully this study will give us a better idea of what offenses warrant having or not having a statute of limitation on prosecution.”

Adoption — The full Senate gave final approval to legislation which aims to improve adoption in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1851, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), extends from 30 to 35 days the period of advance notice that licensed child-placing agencies and licensed clinical social workers must provide to the Department of Children’s Services before changing the fees charged for services provided to adoptive parents. “We are working with a group called Family Match, which is a website that deals with compatibility matching technology for families in state care. It will inspire even greater confidence in prospective resource families, opening the door for more families to become foster and adoptive families.” In addition, the state has been offered access to Family Match’s network services created exclusively for state workers to match adoptive families, foster families, and foster to adopt families with children in state care.

Controlled Substances / Medication Assisted Treatment – Legislation seeking to update Tennessee law to keep up with changing pharmacology regarding treatment options for patients with substance abuse disorders passed the full Senate this week. There are two medications generally used to treat substance abuse disorders: the mono-product, buprenorphine, and the combination product, buprenorphine and naloxone. Current law provides that only in specific circumstances can patients be prescribed the mono-product to treat substance abuse disorders due to its desirability on the street and potential for abuse. In all other circumstances, a patient is prescribed the combination product which counters a potential overdose. However, a new injectable version of the mono-product that must be administered by a healthcare professional is now on the market. Senate Bill 2099 allows for the new injectable mono-product to be used for people with substance abuse disorder, while also maintaining that only the same specific subset of patients are allowed to receive the mono-product in forms other than the injectable version. The bill is sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), who is a physician.

Pre-K Growth Portfolio Assessment Model – Legislation addressing concerns in the Department of Education’s new Pre-K Growth Portfolio Model received final Senate approval this week. The model was put into place during the current school year to measure yearly academic growth for Pre-K and kindergarten students; however, the program experienced several early implementation problems. These problems included a lack of appropriate training for teachers, computer system issues and difficulties with the way the portfolio’s standards were clustered together. Senate Bill 1854, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), directs the Department of Education to increase training and to reevaluate the program with significant input from teachers to make needed improvements. Under the bill, the Pre-K Growth Portfolio essentially would become a pilot program, meaning the results could not be used against a teacher in employment evaluations.

Boards and Commissions / Freedom of Speech — The Senate passed and sent Governor Bill Haslam legislation prohibiting boards or commissions from issuing policies, codes, or statements that infringe on a member’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, including any member’s right to express an opinion regarding matters pertaining to the government entity. Senate Bill 1929, sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), counters the problem of a board or commission which attempts to prevent its members from commenting on matters concerning issues affecting it or its operations. This includes criticism of matters dealt with by that board or commission. It comes after an incident last year when a board issued an internal policy prohibiting its members from speaking to the media without approval of the board. The bill does not apply to confidential matters as set out in the Public Records Act and gives the General Assembly’s Government Operations Committee the ability to sunset an entity for violation.

Food Deserts / Low-Income and Underserved Tennesseans — Legislation was given final Senate approval directing the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to conduct a study examining the overall effects of creating a grant or loan program for food relief enterprises who sell fresh food in low-income and underserved areas of Tennessee. Senate Bill 2634, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), calls for TACIR to weigh the benefits of creating the Fresh Food Financing Fund within the Department of Economic and Community Development in order to assist these efforts.

DUI Offenses / Alcohol Sales – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this week that strengthens penalties for DUI offenses so that a person convicted of the crime would forfeit the privilege to purchase alcohol in Tennessee for a period of time based on the number of offenses. The legislation also establishes a new driver license format for this scenario. Under Senate Bill 1784, a first-time offender would forfeit the ability to purchase alcohol for one year, and a second-time offender would forfeit that privilege for two years. Then, third- and fourth-time offenders would forfeit the ability to purchase alcohol for six and eight years respectively. Additionally, the bill makes the purchase of alcohol by a person who has forfeited the right to purchase alcohol a Class C misdemeanor. The legislation is sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains).

Volunteer Firefighters / Vehicle Registration Fees – State Senators approved legislation that would exempt volunteer firefighters or rescue squad members from having to pay the regular registration fee for their license plate. Funding for this legislation, Senate Bill 270 is included in Governor Haslam’s appropriation amendment submitted to the legislature last month.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon).

TDOT / Three-Year Transportation Program — The Tennessee Department of Transportation released their annual three-year transportation program this week, featuring approximately $2.6 billion in infrastructure investments for 143 individual project phases on 116 projects. The program also places a high emphasis on the repair and replacement of bridges, with activities beginning on 80 structures. Ten of those bridges are on the state highway system, with the other 70 on local roads. The comprehensive program continues to build on the progress of the IMPROVE Act, which provides for infrastructure investments in all 95 counties. This year’s program budgets dollars for 195 of the 962 projects listed as part of the 2017 legislation. A complete list of projects and programs funded through the 2019-2021 three-year multimodal program can be viewed on the department’s website.  For an interactive map view of the 962 IMPROVE Act projects, please visit https://www.tdot.tn.gov/projectneeds/spot#/.

Small Cell / 5G Technology — Major legislation passed the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee this week to accelerate investment in mobile broadband infrastructure and prepare the State of Tennessee for the next wave of economic development in the digital economy via 5G technology. Senate Bill 2504, sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), creates a uniform, statewide and predictable application and deployment process for small cell wireless broadband providers no matter what community is being served. Once implemented, it would enhance existing networks and encourage wireless broadband providers to invest in the latest small cell technology. Studies show that deployment of 5G alone will create more than 16,000 new jobs in Tennessee. It would also lead to more than $1 billion in investment and grow the state GDP by nearly $3 billion. The legislation now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.

Seven-Day Sales — The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee approved legislation on Tuesday permitting retail food stores to sell wine and retail package stores to sell alcoholic beverages seven days a week. Senate Bill 2518, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), would put retailers on par with restaurants, hotels, convention centers, tourist resorts and other businesses in Tennessee which are already allowed to sell wine and spirits any day of the week under state law. Forty states allow for seven-day sales by retailers, including five which border Tennessee. The legislation now heads to the floor of the Senate for a final vote.

Application Process Remains Open For Tennessee Reconnect Until April 1
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 remains open, until April 15, for adults to enroll tuition-free this fall at a community or technical college through Tennessee Reconnect.

Following the first week of the application process being open, over 4,000 applications were submitted — a record start in helping adults who want to go back to school to advance their futures.

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 lawmakers 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.

For additional information about how to get involved with Tennessee Reconnect, click here.

House Approves Bill Removing Barriers For Those Seeking Fresh Start

The House of Representatives this week approved legislation that will remove barriers for Tennesseans who are seeking a fresh start in life.

House Bill 2248 — also known as the Fresh Start Act — is designed to further reduce Tennessee’s recidivism rates by providing a pathway to employment for citizens who are returning to their communities following incarceration and who desire a fresh start in life.

Currently, Tennessee requires licenses for 110 different jobs; many impact those seeking manual labor or other industrial-related work. State licensing boards can deny a license for these professions to individuals with past criminal records, including lower-level forms of crime classified as misdemeanors.

As passed, House Bill 2248 requires that denials and refusals for license renewals based on a prior criminal conviction are only allowable when the criminal offense directly relates to an individual’s ability to perform duties associated with the occupation or profession they are seeking a licensure for — excluding violent felonies.

Supporters of the legislation agree that additional punishment for individuals who have paid their debt to society is wrong and this bill allows for a person to fix past mistakes while also helping citizens capitalize on a greater number of high quality jobs available in Tennessee.

According to the Council of State Governments (CSG), nearly 10 million U.S. adults return to their communities following incarceration every year; upon their release, many face significant barriers to securing employment. CSG estimates that occupational restrictions can result in 2.85 million fewer people employed nationally and also raise consumer expenses by more than $200 billion.

SAFE Act Passes In House Chamber

Monday evening, Republican lawmakers unanimously supported passage of an initiative designed to improve the quality of care for Tennesseans battling addiction.

As part of the ongoing efforts 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 overcome their battles with addiction.

The SAFE Act enables providers at these facilities to focus their efforts on implementing more customized and targeted treatment plans for patients. Additionally, the legislation 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. Each day in the state, at least three people die from opioid-related overdoses. This is more than Tennessee’s daily number of traffic fatalities.

As lawmakers continue work to help keep more citizens moving along a pathway away from dependency towards complete recovery, House Bill 1929 creates additional tools to assist efforts to end the cycle of addiction and ensure better care at Tennessee recovery facilities.

Initiative To Cut Regulations, Create Jobs Receives Committee Approval

An initiative designed to cut regulations and create jobs is moving through the Tennessee General Assembly’s committee process.

This week, members of the House Finance, Ways, & Means Committee voted to advance House Bill 571, also known as the Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee. The measure restores sovereignty over mining and reclamation operations and enables Tennessee to stop regulations that restrict job growth within the state’s mining industry.

Currently, Tennessee is the only state in the entire nation that allows the federal office of surface mining to regulate all surface mining and reclamation operations. This has been the case ever since Tennessee relinquished control to the federal government in 1984.

If passed, House Bill 571 is expected to create more than 1,200 new mining jobs.

The legislation will next be heard by members of the House Calendar & Rules Committee.

Additional information about the initiative is available by clicking here.

Bill Supporting Tennessee’s Dairy Farmers Passes In House

Wednesday morning, House Republicans voted unanimously to pass an initiative supporting Tennessee’s dairy farmers.

House Bill 2153 encourages consumers to purchase local dairy products made right here in Tennessee through new product labeling and advertisement strategies.

The measure comes as a group of Tennessee dairy farmers recently expressed concerns over the future of their businesses due to contract issues and falling profits. In fact, Dean Foods recently informed approximately 100 farmers nationwide that it would stop buying their milk as of May 31.

House lawmakers have helped lead efforts to assist the state’s dairy farming industry by supporting the “buy local” mantra and hope this new legislation will help encourage Tennesseans to rally around the local dairy industry.

For more information about House Bill 2153, please click here.