February 15, 2024 Legislative Update

School safety, education and helping children highlight the week

On Capitol Hill this week, Senate committees were in full swing.  In the first week of budget hearings from state departments and agencies, Senate committees approved eleven of sixty-three total budgets. Lawmakers also advanced many important bills to protect children, improve school safety and increase educational opportunities.

Legislation advances to change fire alarm protocols for improved school safety

The Senate Education Committee this week voted unanimously to pass legislation requiring schools to determine the cause of a fire alarm before allowing children to leave their classrooms.

Senate Bill 1679, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tem. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), is among several safety proposals filed in response to the Covenant School shooting in Nashville on March 27, 2023.

On that tragic day, smoke from the shooter’s weapon triggered the school’s fire alarm. Unaware of the active shooter and in response to the alarm, one of the six victims, William Kinney, 9, was leading his third-grade classmates to safety as line leader when he was fatally shot by a former student of the school.  Kinney was the first to encounter the shooter in the hallway of the school.

“This is a simple bill, but an important one,” said Haile. “It has the potential to save lives if, God-forbid, there is another active shooter situation in one of our schools. I appreciate the committee’s support of this legislation and look forward to working with my Senate colleagues to guide its final passage.”

The legislation has passed the House of Representatives and now moves to the Senate floor for final approval before heading to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Committee approves legislation to permanently fund Tennessee Promise Completion Grant 

This week, the Senate advanced legislation to make the tnAchieves COMPLETE Program a permanent part of the TN Promise scholarship to help low-income students complete college. The COMPLETE program started as a pilot project in Knox County in 2019 and has been a statewide pilot program since 2022. The program matches students with COMPLETE coaches and helps them in various areas like developing soft skills, goal setting and accessing grant funds. Students who are connected with a coach have access to $1,000 grants to aid students with costs outside of the TN Promise.

Senate Bill 1783, sponsored by Education Chairman Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), also identifies sustainable funding from Tennessee Sports Wagering revenue to make the program permanent.

“This program is a proven way to ensure students complete their college education,” said Sen. Lundberg. “Prior to the launch of this program, only 32 percent of low-income students enrolled in TN Promise returned for their sophomore year. However, students participating in the COMPLETE program are 183 percent more likely to graduate than their peers.”

The grant funds can help cover expenses like transportation, groceries, computers, supplies, and textbooks. The excess costs necessary to attend school can inhibit students from returning to complete their education. Statistics show that when students were introduced to a coach, the retention rate rose to 74 percent. When students received a coach and a grant, retention rose to 82 percent.

The legislation passed the Senate Education Committee this week and awaits approval from the Senate Finance Committee.

Support for Israel

This week, the Senate Finance Committee passed SJR 870, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), to express strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself from the October 7, 2023, terror attacks on the Jewish nation. On that day, Hamas terrorists brutally murdered  1,200 Israeli civilians and took over 200 Israelis hostage. To this day, over 130 Israelis remain in captivity by Hamas in Gaza. Following the attack, Israel declared war against Hamas and has been defending its country and people since, vowing to end Hamas.

“This resolution expresses support for the State of Israel and the Israeli people, condemns the violent events of October 7, 2023 and affirms Tennessee is an unequivocal supporter of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against terror and threats,” said Sen. Hensley. “It expresses hope that Israel and its neighbors can live in freedom and peace with mutual recognition of dignity and autonomy.”

Israel has been a strong ally of the United States of America for over 75 years. Tennessee recognizes the importance of Israel and the value of sustained friendship.

In brief…

Helping relative caregivers with children in their custody – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week to make it easier for family members to care for children who have suffered parental neglect or abuse. Senate Bill 2071, sponsored by Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), makes changes to the Relative Caregiver Program which provides stipends to those who meet a certain income threshold to care for children in their family. Since the program’s inception in 2022, many interested families have not qualified for the stipend because they are over the income limit. This legislation removes that limit, opening eligibility to all families.  It also streamlines the court process for a family member to become eligible for the stipend by allowing eligibility for relative caregivers awarded custody by a court. Previously, a final custody order from Juvenile Court was required to receive the stipend, which was a burdensome and lengthy process.

Removing barriers for state employees to become foster parents –  This week, the Senate State and Local Government Committee advanced legislation to improve and increase the number of foster homes in Tennessee. Under Senate Bill 1941, Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), state employees will not have to use their paid time off to complete the required training to become a foster parent. It is estimated that around 200 state employees will become foster parents at some point. The bill awaits final passage from the Senate floor.

Protecting children from sexual abuse – The Senate Finance Committee this week passed Senate Bill 287, also sponsored by Haile, to add continuous sexual abuse of a child to the list of offenses that require a defendant to have community supervision for life. In Tennessee, people convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child are required to serve their entire term, which averages nearly 24 years.

Data sharing among Child Protective Investigative Teams (CPIT) - Sen. Haile is also sponsoring legislation that will allow more timely and accurate information to be shared regarding children who have been abused, the services provided to them, and the outcome of their perpetrators. This bill codifies existing practice regarding information sharing within all statewide CPIT partners. Senate Bill 1586 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this week and awaits final consideration from the Senate.

Increasing access to life-changing testing for children with rare disorders -  On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed a bill sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) allowing TennCare to cover medical expenses for genetic testing to identify treatments for children with rare diseases. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, over 7,000 such conditions exist, predominantly affecting children, with 80% stemming from genetic origins. Senate Bill 1762 offers hope to families by easing the financial burdens of identifying and treating a rare disease. It would allow parents to access testing that could streamline the diagnosis process and potentially save a child's life. The bill now advances in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Increasing credit for work-based learning - The Senate Education Committee advanced legislation on Wednesday to increase the number of available credit hours for high school work-based learning programs from a yearly maximum of three to six. Senate Bill 1853, sponsored by Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), also clarifies that a student needs a minimum of five hours a week of supervised work experience to receive each credit. In other words, if a student takes three credits in the fall semester and three credits in the spring, that student would need a minimum of 15 hours on a worksite each week. Currently, seniors can receive credit for their work experience in the first semester, but not in the second. This bill would fix that so seniors enrolled in work-based learning programs are receiving full credit for their work.

Policies for AI in higher education – The Senate Education Committee this week advanced legislation seeking to address the current and future disruptions of artificial intelligence in the classroom. Senate Bill 1711, sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), directs public K-12 schools and higher education institutions to adopt policies regarding the use of AI for students and staff for the 2024-2025 school year. The bill also encourages higher education institutions to collaborate on the policies.

The Mathematics Support Act – To improve proficiency in math for Tennessee students, the Senate Education Committee approved legislation to strengthen educator preparation for mathematics instruction.  Senate Bill 1712, sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), creates a mathematics expert review committee to evaluate and report on the landscape of mathematics instruction in Tennessee as well as identify professional development options available to improve instruction and student proficiency. The Department of Education must also approve at least one standards-aligned mathematics professional development course for K-8 teachers by July 1, 2025. The review committee would be required to report its findings to the Department of Education, State Board of Education and the education committees in the Senate and House of Representatives no later than December 31, 2024.

Designating THEC to govern higher education boards in case of a sunset –  In the event that a state university board sunsets, the institution would lack governance entirely. Chairman of the Senate Education Committee Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) is sponsoring legislation to fill that gap currently in code. Senate Bill 2109, which Lundberg hopes is never utilized, ensures that a university will always have a governing body. Under the bill, if a governing board should sunset, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) would perform the duties as prescribed in law for the university. These duties include managing academic programs, capital projects, and budget requests. These powers would transfer to the Executive Director, a non-voting member of THEC, to prevent any conflict of interest for the Commission. The bill passed the Senate floor this week and is moving through committee in the House.

Improving communication with mental health institutions – Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah) is sponsoring legislation to help local law enforcement agencies protect public safety by improving communication with mental health institutions. Senate Bill 1681  clarifies that local law enforcement agencies and local courts must be informed when a patient who lives in their jurisdiction is released from a psychiatric institution.  The notifications sent to law enforcement will let officers know that individuals who may be a danger to themselves or others are returning to their homes. Currently, the way the law is written, mental health institutions only alert law enforcement about involuntary commitments in the jurisdiction of the institution. However, if the patient lives in a different county than the location of the mental health facility, then law enforcement in the patient’s county is not informed. The legislation passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week and advances to the Senate floor.

Providing bonuses for military personnel with specialized skills - This week, the Senate State and Local Government Committee advanced legislation to help recruit and retain Tennessee National Guard service members with specialized skills. Senate Bill 2081, co-sponsored by Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville), allows the Department of Military to administer a critical skills retention bonus program to fill critical military operations specialties within the Tennessee National Guard. The bill also ensures that service members do not suffer financially when called to active duty by codifying partial paid coverage. Under this bill, if a service member is called to active duty at a salary less than their usual, the service member will still receive their regular state salary.

Helping local governments mitigate risks from natural disasters –  In an effort to give more resources to help local governments and rural counties prepare for national disasters, the Senate State and Local Government Committee advanced the Resilient Tennessee Revolving Loan Fund Act. The legislation would authorize the State of Tennessee to receive federal funds via the STORM Act. The STORM Act was passed by Congress in 2021 and allows eligible states to receive a loan fund for hazard mitigation assistance to reduce risks from natural hazards and disasters. Senate Bill 2082 is co-sponsored by Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah) and now advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Improving integrity of financial offices - To improve the integrity of Certified Municipal Finance Officers and Certified County Finance Officers, Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) is sponsoring Senate Bill 1744 which would close public records access to the test required to become one of these local finance officers. Currently, test questions and answers are public record, which can result in those lacking the proper knowledge and skills to unfairly pass the test. This bill will ensure that all Financial Officers are qualified and capable of performing the job tasks within their office. The bill now advances to the floor.

Preventing DUI homicide recidivism - In 2011, Dustin Ledford was killed by an intoxicated driver. The offender was paroled and subsequently reoffended, almost taking another life. Senator Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun), is sponsoring Ledford’s Law to reduce the chances that offenders in DUI homicide cases will reoffend and, once again, jeopardize the lives of others on the road. The bill, which passed the Senate floor this week, requires substance abuse treatment or behavioral counseling for offenders on parole. Many offenders do not continue substance abuse treatment once paroled, and this bill will address the problem and help reduce recidivism rates.

Protecting rights for power of attorneys in healthcare decisions  - The Senate passed legislation this week to ensure those with power of attorney for healthcare decisions cannot be prevented from visiting the patient in the hospital. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some hospitals suspended or revoked a patient’s power of attorney’s right to visit and make healthcare decisions. Unfortunately, this caused many patients to pass away without being able to say goodbye to their loved ones. Senate Bill 1641, sponsored by Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), would prohibit hospitals from restricting or terminating a power of attorney’s visiting rights during a state of emergency. Visitors would still be required to follow safety protocols, but visitors cannot be forced to adhere to any invasive protocols such as having a vaccination or medical procedure done before entering the hospital.

Healthcare Sharing Ministries Freedom to Share Act - In an effort to increase healthcare access to Tennesseans, Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro) is sponsoring legislation to ensure healthcare sharing ministries are only regulated as a tax-exempt, nonprofit and not as an insurance company. These ministries pool financial resources of members who share a common set of ethical or religious beliefs to cover costs of participants’ medical needs. All participants are encouraged to donate to the organization, but are not required to. These ministries help individuals without the ability to pay out-of-pocket costs for medical care. Senate Bill 862 passed the Senate this week and will be sent to the Governor for his signature.

Previously covered bills that passed the Senate floor this week:

  • House Joint Resolution 94 - proposes that Marsy’s Law be added to the Tennessee Constitution to guarantee victims of crime have clear and enforceable rights
  • Senate Bill 596 - ensures a person is not required to solemnize a marriage if the person has objections due to their personal or religious beliefs
  • Senate Bill 1967 - shortens the deadline to request an absentee ballot from 7 to 10 days before an election