Capitol Hill Week February 20, 2020

Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation strengthening penalties against child sex offenders

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

For Immediate Release: February 20, 2020

NASHVILLE -- It was a short, but busy week on Capitol Hill as lawmakers returned from observing the President’s Day holiday to act on a wide variety of bills. This includes legislation sponsored by Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro) strengthening Tennessee’s laws against the “worst of the worst” child sex offenders. Under current law, sex offenders can be charged with aggravated rape of a child if their victim is zero to three years old. Senate Bill 1800 raises that age range to zero to eight years old.

Under legislation passed by the General Assembly last year, aggravated rape of a child is a Class A felony offense which is automatically punishable by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

“It is vitally important that we protect our most vulnerable citizens, and this bill offers one more tool to combat these horrific crimes,” said Sen. White. “Increasing the age range from zero to three to zero to eight will help to ensure more of these offenders are taken off the streets.”

In other action, Senate Judiciary Committee members voted to clarify a law passed last year prohibiting sexual offenders or violent sexual offenders from staying overnight at a residence in which a minor resides or is present. A lawsuit was filed after passage of the legislation pertaining to parents and children who fall under provisions of the new law. Senate Bill 1568 addresses the matter by authorizing a District Attorney (DA) to petition a circuit court when they believe an offender whose victim was age 12 or under poses risk of substantial harm to his or her child. The court would then make a finding by clear and convincing evidence regarding prohibition of overnight visits.

“This legislation addresses the legal questions that have arisen, while still providing an avenue to address our original concerns that children be protected when there is a substantial risk of harm,” said Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), sponsor of the bill.

Senate Education Committee approves legislation to simplify, modernize and create more opportunities for HOPE Lottery Scholarship recipients

Major legislation simplifying and modernizing the HOPE Lottery Scholarship’s financial aid program, while creating more opportunities for Tennessee students, was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week. Senate Bill 2097, sponsored by Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), is the most comprehensive financial aid overhaul since the implementation of the HOPE Lottery Scholarship Program in 2003. In addition to helping students achieve their dream of a college education, the overall purpose of the student-focused initiative is to create a highly skilled, credentialed workforce to ensure Tennessee’s economic prosperity and competitiveness.

“This is the first effort to streamline the administrative language around Tennessee’s financial aid programs so that students and their families have a clear understanding of their options,” said Sen. Gresham. “It is critical that we continually assess the laws deploying our various scholarships and grant programs so that we can maximize every financial dollar, program and resource available to ensure Tennesseans have access to the clearest pathway to gain a postsecondary degree or credential.”

The legislation makes numerous technical corrections to ensure the program is focused on financial aid and student success including:

  • Creating new opportunities to help individuals who are not currently being served well by the program like foster children, homeschoolers, ROTC students, and adult students who do not meet the 25-year-old requirement;
  • Establishing one clear definition of scholarship termination at completion of five years or upon receiving a degree;
  • Winding down loan programs that are not working or that are supplanted by new programs;
  • Only paying for programs within the student’s field of study to keep a focus on timely graduation and costs; and
  • Expanding opportunities for soldiers who are not being served by the confines of the state’s Helping Heroes Program established in 2008.

 

“The General Assembly created a program called Helping Heroes that was drafted at the time for those veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Tennessee Higher Education Commission Director Mike Krause, who testified in favor the legislation. “The theatre of operations has expanded. We would hate to think of the fact that the soldiers who participated in the raid in Syria last fall are not eligible for our scholarship under the current statute.”

The legislation also affects soldiers who enter the armed services after high school and return to complete their degree, but are not eligible because they do not meet the Non-Traditional HOPE Scholarship age requirement of 25 years old. The bill provides that as long as an individual can file financial aid independently, they should be eligible. Krause said the same provision applies to help other Non-Traditional HOPE Scholarship recipients like a 22-year old single mother seeking to gain her college degree but who is currently not eligible because of the age requirement.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for approval before moving to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Meth from Mexico is state’s number one illegal drug according to TBI

In 2019, methamphetamine overcame marijuana to become the number one illegal drug seen by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) according to Director David Rausch who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The TBI had over 12,000 submissions of the dangerous drug last year, with the vast majority brought into Tennessee over the U.S. border from Mexico. Rausch said that violent crime could increase due to its popularity and its transformative effects on the brain of users.

“This is a drug that scares me because of what it does to people,” said Rausch. “It is unlike anything we’ve seen before. With the opioid crisis, what we saw is there is a way of rewiring the brain if you can get a person off the drugs. You can’t do that with meth. It will transform the brain and it never goes back. That’s scary because of the psychosis that results from this drug and what we are already seeing in terms of violence, it’s going to increase.”

Rausch complimented lawmakers on the General Assembly’s efforts to rid the state of home-grown meth. He said the work done to eradicate meth labs from Tennessee has been tremendously successful with almost none of the drug being produced within the state.

“I will tell you that it is coming across the border,” he added. “Our number one effort and concern at this point is the amount of meth that is flowing, and it’s all is coming from Mexico - every bit of it.”

Rausch said that whereas the TBI would previously catch grams or maybe an ounce here or there of meth; now the agency captures much greater quantities measured in pounds.   This includes a 94-pound seizure of methamphetamine last week.

In other news on crime in Tennessee, the TBI reports:

  • From 2018-2019, group A crimes per 100,000 population, which includes the state’s most violent crimes, are down five percent;
  • Overall, arrests per 100,000 population is down six percent;
  • Murder has continued a two-year decline, down eight percent in 2018 and another one percent in 2019
  • Rape has continued a two-year decline, down 4.7 percent in 2018 and another six percent in 2019; and
  • Other violent crimes that have dropped from 2018-2019 are assaults which are down four percent, aggravated assault which is down two percent, and robbery which is down 17 percent.

 

Legislation incentivizing development of brownfield sites in Tennessee advances through Senate Revenue Subcommittee

Legislation proposed by Governor Bill Lee to incentivize the development of brownfield sites in Tennessee passed its first hurdle in the Revenue Subcommittee this week. Senate Bill 2158, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), would lower eligibility requirements for brownfield sites that qualify for a franchise and excise tax credit. This move will help rural communities attract new industry and promote the expansion of existing companies. 

Brownfield sites are redeveloped land that may be tainted by hazardous materials, pollutants or contaminates.   Currently, there are 2,012 brownfield sites across the state. Many properties in Tennessee, which were previously used as gas stations, drycleaners, factories or properties that could have contamination from unknown sources, qualify as brownfields. Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, enables job growth and improves and protects the environment.

Current law provides a 50 percent franchise and excise tax credit on the purchase of brownfield sites for a qualified development project, but the high eligibility requirements to receive the tax credit have almost entirely prevented this incentive from being utilized. The legislation allows projects in Tier 3 and Tier 4, which are the state’s at-risk rural counties, to more frequently utilize the tax credit. This would be done by lowering the required capital investment from $25 million to $5 million; raising the amount of the tax credit from 50 percent to 75 percent; removing the acreage requirement; and allowing the community to begin remediation and pass the credit along to a company later.

The larger “Tier 1 and Tier 2” counties can also benefit from eligibility adjustments by removing the acreage requirement and allowing the community to begin remediation. They can also pass the credit along to a company later.

The bill was approved unanimously and is scheduled to be considered by the Finance, Ways and Means Committee next week.

In other action…

Robust state revenues continue positive trend -- The Department of Finance and Administration has released the state’s latest revenue collections which showed continued good news regarding the strength of Tennessee’s economy. January state tax revenues totaled $1.55 billion, which is $129.4 million more than budgeted and 11.86 percent greater than revenues received in January 2019. The robust sales tax revenues for January, reflecting consumer spending in December, represent 34 consecutive months of positive growth. The second quarter adjusted growth rate from sales activity was 6.14 percent compared to last year, while corporate tax revenues exceeded expectations for the month by 23.8 percent. The positive growth trend was driven by solid performances in retail and manufacturing sales.

On an accrual basis, January is the sixth month in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Year-to-date revenues for six months were $480.5 million more than the budgeted estimate. The general fund recorded $398 million in revenues more than estimates, and the four other funds totaled $82.5 million more than year-to-date estimates.

Lawmakers urge free delivery of care package shipments to active duty military personnel -- The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee approved a resolution this week urging Tennessee’s Congressional Delegation, President Trump, the Postmaster General, the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service, the Department of Defense, and the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) to explore all avenues to enable the free mail delivery of care package shipments to active duty military personnel sent from family members. Senate Joint Resolution 782, sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), states, “The sacrifices made every day by members of the United States Armed Forces and the families that support them, have helped preserve the liberties that we hold dear so that we might live in a world that is safer, freer, and more just. We owe those honorable military personnel a profound debt of gratitude and one way to repay that debt to our troops in the field is by enabling the free mail delivery of care package shipments sent from home.”

911 Operators / CPR Instructions – Legislation passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week to ensure all 911 operators across the state are prepared to provide CPR instructions to a caller in an emergency situation. Currently, not all counties allow 911 operators to run callers through CPR instructions. Senate Bill 1958, sponsored by Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), ensures all 911 operators in the state will provide telecommunicator cardiopulmonary resuscitation (T-CPR), as well as receive proper training to administer it. The legislation also includes liability protection for those providing this service. The legislation now moves to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Resolution calls for federal action to secure citizenship for adult adoptees -- Members of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted this week to approve a resolution asking Congress and President Trump to enact federal legislation securing the citizenship of internationally adopted adults. This action would prevent the possibility of deportation for adult adoptees due to non-completion of the naturalization process by their adoptive parents while they were children.

The federal Child Citizenship Act of 2000 aimed to protect children adopted internationally by U.S. citizens by granting them citizenship. However, when the act became law, it did not apply to internationally born adoptees over the age of eighteen. As a result, an alarming number of adoptees who were born before February 27, 1982 and raised in the U. S. do not have U.S. citizenship if their parents did not complete necessary processes to provide their adopted children with citizenship. There are an estimated 18,000 Korean American adoptees alone who do not have American citizenship, despite having been legally adopted. Senate Joint Resolution 832, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), calls for parity so that all children adopted by U.S. citizen parents will have the same rights as children of U.S. citizens.

TWRA relays challenges of Chronic Wasting Disease to Senate committee—Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) officials testified before the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week where they talked about the challenges Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has brought to their agency. TWRA Director Ed Carter says that the biggest challenge they are facing is disposing of the diseased deer.  “Our biggest problem that we ran into this year was that our primary way of disposing of diseased animals is in landfills and every landfill in the state of Tennessee refused to take those deer,” said Carter. To correct the problem TWRA bought numerous items to help dispose of the deer especially for local processors.

CWD is a prion disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose. It may take over a year before an infected animal develops symptoms, which can include drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, listlessness and other neurologic symptoms. CWD is fatal to deers of all ages and there are no effective treatments or vaccines.  Some Western U.S. states, where the disease is more prevalent, have experienced a 40 percent decrease in their deer populations.

Director Carter reports that TWRA is currently spending about $400,000 a year on testing samples from deer for CWD. He says as of right now the diseased deer have stayed west of the Tennessee River.

Legislation advances to modernize Tennessee Courts E-filing System – The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation which seeks to modernize the state’s court filing system. Senate Bill 2630, sponsored by Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), would allow any court in Tennessee to use an electronic filing (E-filing) system to provide greater efficiencies for litigations filed throughout the state. In 2016, the General Assembly passed a law allowing civil trial courts to use an E-filing system. Following the success of this practice in the civil trial courts, this legislation was proposed to expand the ability to all Tennessee courts.

In similar action, legislation was passed by the full Senate this week allowing law enforcement agencies to choose to issue electronic citations for certain misdemeanor criminal offences in lieu of written citations or arrest. Senate Bill 1622, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), ensures that a paper copy of the citation be given to the cited person and that the court of jurisdiction receives it within three days of the issuance. Massey said, “The current statute is outdated in reference to only written orders or citations. Electronic citations are a very efficient process used by many agencies statewide.”

Legislation allows assistants of disabled persons to offer aid for fishing and hunting without a license—Legislation sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) was approved in the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week specifying that a sportsman’s license is not required in order to assist a person with a disability who is fishing or hunting under an exemption provided by state law. Jackson says the proposal was needed after a constituent received a citation for not obtaining a fishing license to help a disabled person fish.  The purpose of the legislation is to establish a designation that will enable the TWRA employee to be able to clearly distinguish between those present as helpers and those who are fishing without a license. Senate Bill 2300 passed unanimously and moves to the Senate floor for final consideration.

New grant program now accepting applications to help volunteer fire departments purchase equipment -- Applications are now being accepted from volunteer fire departments under a new program established through legislation sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and passed by the General Assembly last year.  The program earmarks $500,000 for the purchase of firefighting equipment by Tennessee’s volunteer fire departments or to help volunteer departments meet local match requirements of federal grants for purchasing equipment. Fire departments must hold a valid recognition from the SFMO and have a staff of at least 51 percent volunteers to apply.

Grant proceeds may be used to purchase equipment to extinguish fires and protect the life of a firefighter, excluding fire trucks or vehicles. Applications received during the submission period will be scored internally and submitted to a seven member committee who will make the final decision and award selection. The funds will be awarded equally among Tennessee’s Grand Divisions. Applications will be accepted until 5:00 p.m. CT on Friday, March 27, 2020.  For a full list of rules and an application, applicants can visit the Department of Commerce and Insurance website.

Senate Judiciary Committee votes to expand Tennessee’s Safe Haven Law -- Legislation expanding Tennessee’s Safe Haven Law advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week allowing mothers to safely and anonymously surrender their unharmed newborns to certain facilities throughout the state without fear of prosecution for abandonment. Senate Bill 2629 would increase the maximum age of an infant that can be surrendered under the Safe Haven Law from 72 hours old to 14 days old.

“Tennessee’s Safe Haven Law has saved the lives of many newborns across the state by providing mothers with an additional option to choose life for their child,” said Senator White. “By increasing the time frame from three to fourteen days, it will expand the opportunity to keep a child from being neglected or harmed.”

Tennessee has over 750 facilities where mothers can surrender their children including hospitals, birthing centers, community health clinics, walk-in clinics, EMS facilities, and certain fire stations and police stations. Since the Safe Haven Law was adopted in 2001, over 100 newborns have been surrendered to approved locations in Tennessee.

All fifty states have safe haven policies in place, and the time frames to surrender infants across the country range from three days to one year.

Legislation helps hospitals providing “sliding scale” charity care -- The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation this week to create parity for hospitals which provide charity care to patients on a sliding scale. Senate Bill 1888, sponsored by Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro), redefines charity care to align it with Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) regulations so hospitals with sliding scale policies are fully recognized when calculating supplemental payments. Sliding scale charity care discounts help limit financial exposure for lower income individuals who are uninsured or underinsured.

State law currently requires hospitals to have in place and publicly post a charity care policy and to report their uncompensated care to the Department of Health. These amounts are used to calculate supplemental payments from CMS to offset the cost of uncompensated care and for justifying incentive payments for hospitals with high volumes of charity care. The legislation is supported by the Tennessee Hospital Association.

Legislation ensures World War II Veterans can have their military service indicated on their driver’s license -- Legislation was approved by the full Senate on Thursday to ensure that World War II veterans can have their military service indicated on their driver’s license or photo identification card. Currently, veterans must provide a certified copy of their Department of Defense form 214 (DD 214) showing dates of service and that the applicant received an honorable discharge to receive this acknowledgement. This certification process, however, did not take into consideration World War II veterans whose service pre-dated implementation of the DD 214 paperwork. Senate Bill 1613, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) and Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), corrects this error by allowing honorably discharged veterans whose service pre-dates the form to utilize an AGO Form 53-55 or NAVPERS 553 as documentation for this purpose, continuing the state’s long-held tradition of honoring our veterans.

Legislation simplifies admission process to help adult learners seeking higher education degree – The Senate approved legislation this week to help adult learners with an associate’s degree obtain their four-year degree.  Senate Bill 1641, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), ensures that a person with an associate’s degree does not have to provide their high school transcript or GED certificate when applying to a higher education institution. Instead, the applicant can provide their associate degree certificate. This legislation seeks to simplify the application process for many adult degree seekers who might no longer have access to their high school transcript.

 

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