This week's headlines include broadband internet, Amber alerts, school staffing challenges, and pornographic and obscene materials.
Bill aims to expand access to broadband internet in rural communities
Legislation aimed at expanding access to broadband internet in rural communities advanced through the Commerce and Labor Committee this week. Building on successful legislation passed on 2017, Senate Bill 2034 would allow rural electric and community services cooperatives to provide broadband services outside their service area to people who do not purchase electricity from the cooperative. Existing law makes such allowances for telephone and telecommunication service, but not broadband. The bill also includes a “good neighbor provision” ensuring cooperatives work in concert with neighboring utilities as they provide broadband service to new customers, and removes a prohibition on cooperatives providing alarm services. “These changes are sensible and the time to make them is now,” said Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville). “Electric cooperatives are the only private companies in the state that have any type of territorial restrictions on where they can provide broadband. “At a time when we need more options to get people connected not less, it only makes sense to allow our electric cooperatives the same ability as every other private company that provides broadband in our state,” Bell continued. “This bill does that and it builds on the successful strategy we implemented in 2017.” The General Assembly in 2017 passed the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, which de-regulated Tennessee’s electric cooperatives and allowed them to serve broadband to their electric customers. Since that time, electric cooperatives have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in broadband projects and changed the lives of tens of thousands of Tennesseans who never would’ve been able to access internet without their cooperative taking this bold action, said Bell. “Every Tennessean should be able to access the internet, not just those who live in our large cities,” Bell said.
“Noah’s Law” advances through committee
“Noah’s Law,” which seeks to expedite the Amber Alert process for children in danger, is one step closer to becoming state law. The Judiciary Committee this week unanimously passed Senate Bill 2182, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin). It now goes to the full Senate for consideration. The bill is in response to a 2021 incident in which then three-year-old Noah Clare was abducted by his non-custodial father and taken from Tennessee to California. It took the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) 11 days to issue an Amber Alert once the child was reported missing because the case did not meet certain criteria. Clare was found safe on the 11th day of the search. The bill does not change Amber Alert criteria, but allows a custodial parent under certain circumstances to seek an emergency court order declaring the child to be in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death, and orders the noncustodial parent to return the child to the custodial parent immediately. The bill lists five findings for issuing an emergency court order, and when that happens, the clerk of the court must immediately send a copy of the order to the law enforcement agency investigating the report case and to TBI. The bill does not limit the authority of a law enforcement agency to investigate a report of a missing child, notify local media about a missing child, or issue any form of missing child alert.
Committee advances legislation addressing school staffing challenges
A bill that would help school districts across Tennessee address ongoing staffing challenges advanced through the State and Local Government Committee this week. Senate Bill 2702 would allow retired members of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) to be reemployed as a K-12 teacher, K-12 substitute teacher, or as a K-12 bus driver without the loss or suspension of the retired member’s TCRS benefits. “This issue was brought to my attention by local school directors. Working with the Tennessee Department of Treasury, we’ve come up with a solution to help the schools in my district and across Tennessee,” said Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston). “Teachers, substitute teachers and bus drivers are especially needed and many retirees are ready and willing to help. This bill will remove the barriers to making that happen.” Currently, some retired members of TCRS can return to work but only for a maximum of 120 days. This bill would remove that limit as long as each retiree that participates is 60 or more days past their retirement date.
Legislation ensures pornography and obscene materials are blocked on school computers
Present law requires students to be prohibited from accessing pornography and other obscene materials on school computers. Senate Bill 2292, approved by the Health and Welfare Committee this week, ensures vendors that contract with schools comply with the law and take steps to block inappropriate content. “This bill is about the vendors the state signs contracts with and whether or not that vendor will abide by our state law,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville). “This just says from now on any new contracts signed going forward those companies have to prohibit our students from accessing inappropriate material.” If a provider fails to comply with the bill, then a local education agency (LEA) may withhold further payments to the provider and ultimately consider non-compliance a breach of contract. The bill also requires each local board of education to establish a mechanism for parents to report a failure of the technology selected by the LEA to prevent access to harmful materials, and submit an annual report to the state board of education on the successes or failures of the technology. The bill, if signed into law, will apply to all future contracts.
Senate passes protections for landowners leasing property for solar farms
The Senate this week passed Senate Bill 1925 to protect landowners leasing property for solar farms. As the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) works toward its goal of producing 10,000 megawatts of solar by 2035 — a goal that will require roughly 80,000 acres of land —, landowners across West Tennessee and beyond are being approached by prospective leasers. “We want to make sure there are some protections for our landowners and our communities if there is a natural disaster and if and when these solar farms have to be decommissioned,” said Sen. Page Waley (R-Bolivar), the bill’s sponsor. The bill requires grantees to remove the solar power facility when their lease ends and restore the land to as close as reasonably possible the condition it was in before the agreement. The plan for doing so must be outlined in a detailed report. The bill also requires specific forms of financial assurance be included in the solar power facility agreement, and does not prohibit a local government from regulating solar power facilities pursuant to its zoning authority. Sen. Walley said the bill reflects a consensus between the Tennessee Farm Bureau and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Two bills aim to expand emergency services personnel
The Senate this week passed two bills aimed at expanding emergency services personnel in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1966 creates two new categories of emergency first responders to assist EMTs in responding to emergencies, driving ambulances and engaging in limited medical interventions. “Ambulance services have seen a consistent workforce shortage before the pandemic and the shortage has increased by the pandemic,” said Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), the sponsor of the bill. “This legislation seeks to address that problem by easing barriers to joining emergency response teams.” The two new classes of emergency services personnel created by the bill are an emergency medical responder (EMR) and emergency medical services – apprentice (EMS-A). The former role successfully completed an EMR training course and has qualified by examinations to perform lifesaving interventions and to assist higher-level personnel at the scene. The latter does not possess an EMS license to provide emergency medical care in Tennessee, but meets all other requirements for operating an emergency vehicle. The EMS-A or EMR must obtain licensure as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), or, in the case of an EMS-A, as an EMR, within 12 months of the EMS-A's initial employment date. Senate Bill 1908/House Bill 1956 by Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) expands a pilot program established by the General Assembly four years ago. That program allows for up to 15 EMT/AEMT training centers be operated by licensed ambulance services. This bill makes the pilot project a regular program and doubles to 30 the number of allowable training centers. The Senate also passed an amendment to the bill urging ambulance services operating such training centers to pursue partnerships to increase the capacity of the state to prepare EMTs, AEMTs and paramedics.
Bill seeks to return tax revenue to local governments
The Finance, Ways, and Means Committee advanced legislation this week that could pave the way for more than $20 million in tax revenue returning to Tennessee counties. The state Department of Revenue has long charged a 1.125% fee to process local option sales tax. Lowering that fee to 0.5%, as has been proposed in the past, would free up an estimated $20.2 million each year that could be sent back to the counties. Such a move would allow Davidson County to reclaim $5.3 million, Hamilton County to get back $2.07 million, Rutherford County to receive $2.1 million, and Maury County to recover $563,000 each year. Senate Bill 160 does not propose a new fee, but would require the Department of Revenue to produce a report on the cost of processing sales tax revenue. That report could then be the basis for future conversations about a potential fee change. The 1.125% processing fee was imposed in the 1960s for costs associated with handling and processing the envelopes, paper forms and paper checks collected each month from businesses across the state. The cost of such work is likely significantly lower now that computers handle it. “We’re trying to look at the actual cost so we can determine what a proper fee would be for the Department of Revenue,” said Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), the sponsor of the bill. “This bill could allow more funds to come back to the counties in the future. It’s their tax money to begin with.”
TDOE Releases Additional Explainer Resources for TISA, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement
The Tennessee Department of Education released additional Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) resources explaining how the proposed student-based public school funding formula will update the way Tennessee funds public education for the first time in over 30 years. Starting in the 2023-24 school year, the TISA would invest an estimated $9 billion in education funding for the state, including state and local funds, which would include an additional recurring state investment of $1 billion. The TISA is designed to empower each student to read proficiently by third grade, prepare each high school graduate for postsecondary success, and provide resources needed to all students to ensure they succeed. “The Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement would put the funding focus on students and give Tennesseans clear information to understand how districts and schools are using funding to help our students succeed,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Many helpful resources are available at FundingforStudentSuccess.org including:
- What is Student-Based Funding?: An animated video gives an overview of a student-based formula and how it would serve Tennessee students.
- Subcommittee Recommendations: This presentation provides a snapshot of recommendations collected from each of the 18 subcommittees during the statewide engagement process.
- Base Funding: This overview explains how and why student-based funding starts with a base amount for each student.
- Funding Weights: This overview explains how students’ individual education needs are supported through funding weights.
- Direct Funding: This overview explains how direct funding goes toward specific programs.
Last fall, Governor Lee announced the state would review its public school funding formula. The Tennessee Department of Education and the General Assembly convened 18 funding subcommittees, organized a legislative steering committee, and provided over 1,000 opportunities for the public to engage, including 16 public town halls and local match conversations across the state. This January, Gov. Lee and Commissioner Schwinn released a draft framework for the new student-based K-12 funding formula, which incorporated input from thousands of Tennesseans. To learn more about student-based funding, Tennessee’s recent public engagement process and subcommittee recommendations, and to access additional resources, visit the department’s website.
Litter — Senate Bill 2012 increases penalties for illegal dumping of tires. The bill makes knowingly dumping two or more tires on public or private property without permission a Class A misdemeanor offense of aggravated littering, and also adds a Class E felony offense for a first-time conviction when dumping eight or more tires for commercial purposes. Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) said the bill is in response to an uptick of illegal dumping of tires in Bradley County and other parts of the state in recent months.
Veterans — Disabled veterans currently do not pay property tax on the first $175,000 of the home value. Senate Bill 1795, which cleared the State and Local Government Committee this week, would increase that threshold to $200,000. “I think these heroes need something for their service and their sacrifice for our country,” said Sen. Bill Powers (R-Clarksville). “These are the people who need the breaks in today’s economy. These are the people who laid down their lives for our country and they should be applauded, they are certainly heroes.” Another bill passed by the Senate this week, Senate Bill 2486, allows for public universities to grant in-state tuition to military-affiliated students regardless of where they reside.
Israel — Passed by the Senate this week, Senate Bill 1993 prohibits public entities from entering into contracts with companies boycotting Israel. An amendment to the bill defines Israel as the state of Israel and the Israeli controlled territories. “I just think it’s extremely important for this body to send a message that we stand strong with the nation of Israel”, said co-sponsor Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown). The bill includes exemptions for contracts totaling less than $250,000 and contractors with fewer than 10 employees.
Traffic safety — Senate Bill 2367 allows a person convicted of speeding to take a defensive driving course within 90 days of their conviction. After successful completion of the course, the person may have up to five points on their license removed. This bill may be applied to only one speeding offense for each driving course completed and only once in a four-year period.
Criminal offenses — Senate Bill 2683 requires individuals that have been convicted of first-degree murder, the perpetration or attempted perpetration of rape, rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child to be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The bill was passed by the Senate this week.
Long-term care facilities — Senate Bill 2574 requires long-term care facilities to allow patients at the end of their lives to see visitors during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It was by the Health and Welfare Committee this week. “We’ve seen too many people in nursing homes who’ve died alone and I hope we never see that happen again with any kind of emergency,” said Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).