Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus and House Republicans Weekly Wrap Up
Capitol Hill Week
Senate Judiciary approves Henry’s Law stiffening penalties against drug dealers who kill minors
(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 15, 2018 – Drug dealers or others who unlawfully distribute Schedule I or II drugs to minors will be facing more jail time when it results in a death under legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 1875, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) and Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), is named Henry’s Law for a Knoxville teenager, Henry Granju, who died due to a lethal opiate overdose.
“This was a tragic case,” said Senator Massey. “Those who pedal drugs to our youth should face greater consequences and this bill ensures that these predators who kill will serve more time behind bars.”
The killing of a minor in Tennessee when the drug is a proximate cause of death is second degree murder, which is a Class A felony. Under the state’s current sentencing guidelines, a standard Range I offender for a Class A felony can receive 15 to 25 years in jail, but the 30 percent requirement places the actual sentence at 4.5 to 7.5 years. The bill proposes to make that same Class A felony a Range II offense, carrying a 25 to 40 years sentence at a 35 percent requirement. This means offenders would serve a minimum of 8.8 to 14 years behind bars.
Schedule I drugs include heroin and other psychedelics, while Schedule II drugs include opiates, cocaine, methadone, methamphetamines and amphetamines.
Henry’s mother, Katie Allison, and his aunt, Betsy Tant, told members of the Judiciary Committee about the importance of this bill to save other families from suffering the same fate as Henry. “Clearly, this opioid epidemic is hitting our kids hard,” said Allison. “And there are adults out there, unfortunately, who would prey on the vulnerability and poor decision-making that many adolescents show. They try to cultivate new customers and, in doing so, kill them instead. The reason we believe it is important for our state criminal code to attach an enhanced sentencing range to second degree homicide is because currently we don’t hold those who prey on our children with these horrible opiate drugs fully accountable for the damage and death they are bringing to this state.”
Approximately 70 to 80 juveniles die each year in the state of Tennessee due to opioid overdose.
“I greatly appreciate Senator Massey’s work on this legislation and the compelling testimony of Katie Allison and Betsy Tant,” said Lt. Governor McNally. “Henry’s death was a true tragedy. Increasing the penalty for these crimes will go a long way towards preventing more Tennessee families from having to go through what Henry’s family has gone through. It is time to institute real justice for victims in these cases.”
Allison and Tant started Henry’s Fund, a non-profit which works to end teen and young adult drug addiction through treatment funding, education, support and advocacy.
The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration.
Reentry Incentive Grant program approved by Senate State and Local Government Committee aims to reduce recidivism in Tennessee jails
Legislation calling for an innovative pilot program to provide grants to local county sheriffs or probation departments that are successful in reducing recidivism was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 1865, sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), would provide $2 million in grants to fund a three-year successful reentry program in four Tennessee counties.
“Each year, about 5,000 Tennesseans leave our prisons after serving for crimes they have committed,” said Sen. Jackson, who is Chairman of the Senate Corrections Subcommittee. “We can either help them become productive, taxpaying citizens, or we can risk them turning back to a life of crime and create a never-ending cycle. This pilot program will help identify and formulate better policies that can be scaled throughout the state. The result will be a more effective corrections system that will reduce recidivism, make our communities safer, and help save taxpayer money.”
The proposed budget for corrections for the 2018-19 fiscal year is over $1 billion.
Under the proposal, applicants must apply to the Department of Correction stating program objectives, goals and metrics. Once selected, they can receive a portion of the money upfront to start or expand a re-entry program, but the remaining funds will not be awarded unless specific benchmarks reducing recidivism or probation revocations are met.
Governor Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism found that 46 percent of people released from prison or jail in Tennessee were incarcerated again within three years. Tennessee’s felon inmate population has grown by 11.7 percent over the past five years.
“We must reverse this trend,” added Jackson. “This pilot program will incentivize better outcomes in our corrections system.”
Legislation benefitting veterans receives final Senate approval
Four bills benefitting veterans received final Senate approval on Thursday. This includes passage of Senate Bill 1675 to ensure that disabled veterans can continue to qualify for property tax relief if they are hospitalized or temporarily placed in a nursing home but intend to return home.
“Essentially, when veterans went into a nursing home for a couple of months, post-hip surgery and rehabilitation, they lost their property tax advantage upon returning home,” said Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville). “The purpose of this bill is to fix that injustice.”
An amendment was added to the bill so that it would apply to elderly homeowners who qualify for the property tax relief and who are temporarily out of their home as well.
The full Senate also approved Senate Bill 1927
calling for at least one military veteran or individual with military expertise to be placed on the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Planning and Policy Council. Veterans benefit from a variety of services delivered by the department. The council is currently made up of mental health and substance abuse service providers, consumers and family members.
“With a disproportionate number of veterans having mental health issues, including those as serious as suicide, it would be appropriate to have a veteran on this council,” said Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), sponsor of the bill. “Having a military medical expert on the council would help create a more complete picture of the challenges faced by veterans when making mental health and substance abuse policy decisions.”
Veterans in Tennessee are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as a non-veteran according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In addition, State Senators voted to approve Senate Bill 1688 that prohibits political parties from disqualifying an honorably discharged veteran as a candidate for any elected office based on the number of times he or she voted preceding the election.
“Veterans should be allowed to participate within the party of their choice as long as they meet the state requirements to be on the ballot,” said Senator Briggs. “We have veterans who are deployed on short notice to very remote overseas locations. If they don’t vote, they could be referred to as unworthy to run because they didn’t go to the effort of voting in that election. Veterans who have served their country have earned this right. They shouldn’t have to ask for a waiver or permission to run.”
Finally, the full Senate approved Senate Bill 10 by Senator Green which exempts disabled veterans who receive a modified vehicle from the Veteran’s Administration (VA) due to a severe disability from having to pay sales tax or a registration fee on such a vehicle.
“In the United States military, there are veterans who are so disabled that the VA buys them a modified vehicle. Tennessee had been charging sales tax even though that vehicle had been gifted to the veteran,” added Senator Green. “This bill exempts disabled veterans whom have been gifted these modified vehicles under the Disabled Veterans’ and Servicemen’s Automobile Assistance Act of 1970, from having to pay sales tax or a registration fee.”
All four bills were recommended by the General Assembly’s Veterans Caucus.
Issues in Brief
Tuition Free College — An announcement was made Thursday that the application is 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. Applicants can access information at TNReconnect.gov. The Tennessee Reconnect Act was passed by the General Assembly last year and was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). 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 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Out-of-State Teachers / Licensing — The Senate Education Committee 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.
Fostering Parent-Teacher engagement — Legislation which seeks to foster parent teacher engagement in the earliest grades of a child’s education was unanimously approved by the Senate Education Committee this week. Senate Bill 2571, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R–Hohenwald), proposes a three-year, voluntary pilot program under the Tennessee Department of Education to test the best practices models for parent-teacher conferencing in six schools across the state within K-2nd grade classrooms. The Tennessee Department of Education will set up an application process for schools that are interested in participating in the pilot program and will decide which models to use. It is the intention that fostering engagement will help parents understand the skills their children should be mastering and how to help at home. “As we all know, from birth, a parent is a child’s first and most important teacher,” Senator Hensley said. “Unfortunately, by the time the child reaches elementary school, many parents, regardless of their education or background, lack easy-to-understand information needed to be a true partner with their child’s school.”
Tennessee Songwriters Week — The Senate approved a bill on Thursday designating the last full week of February each year as Tennessee Songwriters Week. Senate Bill 2254, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), recognizes the contributions of past and present songwriters which share in the economic success of Tennessee’s booming tourism industry. Last year, tourism generated $19.3 billion in Tennessee and $1.7 billion in state and local taxes.
Settlement funds to go for elderly services — Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability Executive Director Jim Shulman told lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week that charities serving the elderly will benefit from $36 million provided by the settlement of nursing home litigation. The final order issued by the court means non-government funds will go to major statewide initiatives serving elderly Tennesseans in four areas: affordable housing, transportation, dental and legal assistance. The commission will provide administrative support to help make the court’s orders happen. The funds have the potential to help over 85,000 older Tennesseans in the next three years in counties in all parts of the state.
Sterilization / Sentencing — A proposal by State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to prohibit Tennessee judges from offering defendants reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Senate Bill 2133prohibits a sentencing court from making a sentencing determination based on defendant’s consent or refusal to any form of temporary or permanent birth control, sterilization, or family planning services, regardless of whether the defendant’s consent is voluntarily given. The bill is in response to a White County judge offering reduced jail time to defendants who volunteered for sterilization. Judge Sam Benningfield said his goal was to break a “vicious cycle” of repeat drug offenders with children. The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct found that Benningfield violated rules regarding judicial independence, integrity, and propriety. The legislation does not prohibit defendants from seeking sterilization services if they so choose.
Prisoners / Occupational Licenses — Senator Kerry Roberts led a press conference this week to discuss legislation which helps ensure Tennessee’s occupational licensing does not keep offenders who have served their time in jail from obtaining employment and getting a fresh start in life. Senate Bill 2465 would reduce barriers to entering a profession by only allowing state licensing boards to deny licenses for past crimes that are directly related to the job sought excluding certain felonies. It provides that if a licensing board denies someone a license for a past crime, the board must consider the nature and seriousness of the crime, the passage of time since the crime was committed, and the relationship between the crime and the license sought, among other factors. It also allows applicants for licenses to petition a state licensing board upfront to determine whether a past crime will disqualify them from obtaining a license. Tennessee requires a license for 110 different jobs, many impacting blue collar jobs. Almost every state licensing board can deny a license to do a job based off a past criminal record, including low-level misdemeanor crimes.
Marketplace Contractors — The full Senate approved legislation this week which provides clarity in Tennessee law that independent marketplace contractors who enter into an agreement with a marketplace platform are not the platform’s employees. A marketplace contractor is an individual that enters into an agreement with a marketplace platform, like Handy or TAKL, to use the platform’s online application or website to be given an assignment or be connected with individuals seeking their services. Such platform services have been called the “want ads” of the Internet. Tennessee has been a leader in the support of innovative technology within business. Senate Bill 1967, sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), continues that effort, by keeping state law up to date with the growth of the gigabyte economy.
Visual Content Act — On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approved legislation expanding the Visual Content Act to capitalize on the state’s competitive advantages and be a national leader for creative technology jobs. Senate Bill 2236 would include, under the act, support for interactive digital media jobs and stand-alone scoring productions for scoring that will be used as background music for various entertainment platforms like film, TV, and videogames. Currently, the act mostly provides protection for traditional TV and film. The Interactive Digital Media cluster is the fastest-growing cluster of jobs in the entertainment industry. “These jobs on average have salaries of $109,000 which is well over twice the median household income in Tennessee,” said Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), sponsor of the bill. “These are precisely the type of jobs that we want to support and this bill seeks to encourage them to come to Tennessee.”
Tanning Beds / Youth — The Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted this week in favor of legislation that seeks to protect the health of young persons who utilize tanning beds. Currently, teenagers over age 14 can go to a tanning bed without permission from their parents. Senate Bill 1495, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R–Gallatin), requires that individuals 16 to 18 years old be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian in order to use a tanning bed for the first time. Those under the age of 16 would be prohibited. Melanoma is the second most prevalent kind of cancer in females ages 15 to 29. In 2009, the World Health Organization elevated tanning beds classification as a carcinogen to the same category as cigarettes.
Teachers / Non-graded Subjects — Final approval was given to legislation this week which helps to ensure that the work done by teachers in non-graded subjects is evaluated fairly. Currently, these teachers must accept a school-wide grade for which they have little or no control. Senate Bill 250, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), requires Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to adopt at least one alternative appropriate growth model approved by the State Board of Education by the 2019-20 academic school years in order to provide individual growth scores. An example alternative growth model would be a portfolio in an art class that a teacher would create for each student in order to show the development of that child in whatever art principles were being taught. “This seeks to provide fairness to these teachers by allowing them to show the work that they have done individually that demonstrates their students’ growth,” said Gresham.
Cell Phones in Prisons — A resolution which seeks to address the public safety threat posed by contraband cell phone use by prison inmates has met final approval in the State Senate. 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. Cell phones have been used by prisoners to stalk victims, threaten witnesses, arrange the murder of our correctional officers, or to continue gang activity or criminal enterprises — all from behind bars. The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for their approval.
Recovery Schools – The full Senate gave final approval to legislation which authorizes Local Education Agencies (LEA) to create recovery high schools for certain students with alcohol or drug abuse dependency like Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Major Depressive Episode (MDE). Senate Bill 1626, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), authorizes LEAs that open recovery schools to enroll eligible students, including those who are in another county. 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. Research shows students who attend treatment and go back into their normal high school have about a 70 percent chance of relapse.
Individuals with Disabilities — The Senate voted unanimously this week in favor of legislation to help persons with disabilities have as much independence in their decision-making as possible when a court is considering conservatorships or other actions to protect their best interest. Senate Bill 264 defines “least restrictive alternatives,” a term which is already in Tennessee law, as “techniques and processes that preserve as many decision-making rights as possible for the person with a disability.” 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. “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 Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), sponsor of the bill. 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.
House Republicans Continue Work On Key Budget Initiatives
This week in Nashville, House Republicans continued work on several key budget initiatives, including moving forward with bills on the education, juvenile justice, and opioid fronts.
Recently, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to give all Tennesseans access to college free of tuition and fees through the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs. To assist in ensuring those incoming students complete college and enter the workforce with degrees or certificates in a timely manner, House Republicans are moving forward this year with the Complete to Compete initiative. Once passed by the legislature, this new plan will restructure financial aid requirements for Promise and HOPE scholarships to keep students on track for on-time completion, and requires community colleges to implement structured, ready-made schedules for all incoming full-time students based on their academic program.
Additionally, House members completed initial steps this week in passing the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 — an initiative created based upon recommendations made by members of House Speaker Beth Harwell’s Joint Ad-Hoc Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice. Research suggests that taking youths out of their homes and schools for minor offenses increases the risk of recidivism, diverts resources from youth who pose a risk to the community, and uses taxpayer dollars unnecessarily because community-based services are often more effective and cost efficient. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act will tackle these problems and help strengthen families and communities while promoting public safety and ensuring a responsible and conservative use of state resources.
In addition to the Complete to Compete initiative and Juvenile Justice Reform Act, House members continue discussions on the Tennessee Together program, a multi-faceted plan comprised of legislation, $30 million in funds through Governor Haslam’s proposed budget, and other executive actions to battle opioids through the three major components of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement. Similar to the Juvenile Justice Act, the Tennessee Together plan incorporates recommendations made by Speaker Beth Harwell’s Ad Hoc Task Force on Opioid Abuse.
Other notable budget highlights investments for the year include:
- * More than $200 million in new state funding for K-12 education, including additional funds for teacher compensation;
- * Nearly $100 million for higher education initiatives;
- * $128 million for job growth investments, including programs that target rural communities;
- * And investments to bring the state’s Rainy Day Fund to $850 million — the highest ever amount in state history.
Republicans Advance Welfare Reform Initiatives
This year, House Republicans are leading efforts to reform Tennessee’s welfare system, including reinstituting work requirements for those receiving benefits from the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and TennCare.
By reinstituting work requirements for SNAP, approximately 58,000 able-bodied adults who are not currently meeting the work requirement but still receive assistance will now be able to capitalize on an overabundance of jobs in order to secure meaningful employment. This will help move them along a pathway from dependency to independence and self-sufficiency.
The restoration of these stipulations will not impact residents who currently depend on these key benefits in 16 Tennessee counties still designated as distressed by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. They will also not apply to Tennessee’s senior citizens or disabled residents.
Similarly, House Bill 1551 directs the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration to file a waiver instituting reasonable work requirements for TennCare enrollees. The measure comes as the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued new guidelines for states, allowing Tennessee to implement work requirements on citizens who receive TennCare benefits.
As leaders of the state, House Republicans want Tennessee residents to have meaningful employment so they can take care of their families and make contributions that enable communities to continue their economic development and prosperity. These new initiatives accomplish these goals while also ensuring state resources are managed in the most efficient and effective way possible.
Lawmakers Introduce Legislation Ending Mandatory Emissions Testing
House lawmakers this week introduced legislation that would end mandatory emissions testing for vehicles in Tennessee.
Once passed, House Bill 1782 will apply to residents of Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson, and Wilson Counties where vehicle emission testing is still required prior to vehicle registration or renewal.
The 1990 Federal Clean Air Act required the state to develop more restrictive regulations to control air pollution from mobile sources in counties which were not meeting the Federal Standards for air quality.
Currently, testing is done on vehicles with a model year of 1975 and newer if they are powered by a gasoline or diesel engine and weigh up to 10,500 lbs. Over 1.5 million vehicles went through emissions testing in Tennessee last year in the six counties where it is required.
The idea for House Bill 1782 resulted from conversations with Tennesseans who have voiced concerns about the burdensome costs of testing on families across the state. Once the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation released a report last August revealing that all 95 Tennessee counties now meet federal air quality health standards, it became clear that mandatory testing was no longer needed.
Supporters agree that vehicle emissions testing is a perfect example of a well-intentioned government program with harmful, unintended consequences for Tennessee’s middle class, noting that the passage of this legislation will help relieve this burdensome regulation for Tennessee citizens.
House Bill 1782 will first be heard by the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee.
For more information about this initiative, click here.
Legislators, Department of Education Announce Critical Growth Funds
This week in Nashville, legislators partnered with the Tennessee Department of Education to announce critical funds that will go to support education initiatives across Tennessee.
The funding is a result of efforts by the General Assembly last year to not only fully fund education in the state, but also provide $18 million to cover school district growth as part of Governor Haslam’s 2017 budget.
These significant investments will allow many of the state’s school districts with growing populations to maintain proper student to teacher ratios so that they can continue offering quality education for the next generation of leaders.
Funding advocates agree that when the legislature is able to supply teachers and students with the resources they need in order to achieve their educational goals and dreams, everyone in the state benefits.
Because of the popularity of the 2017 growth funds, an additional $18 million in funding has been proposed as part of the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget.