4/20/2019: In Brief…
Farmers / Tennessee Wine and Grape Board – The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation to create the Tennessee Wine and Grape Board to strengthen Tennessee’s efforts to restore preeminence in the wine and grape industry. Senate Bill 302 also creates the Wine and Grape Fund which is dedicated to promoting grape and wine production in Tennessee. Governor Bill Lee has allocated $300,000 to this fund in his supplemental budget amendment.
At one time in history, Tennessee led the nation in grape and wine production, but the state has fallen behind. This legislation sets up a mechanism for Tennessee to make the investments needed to encourage growth in grape and wine production, which will also boost the agriculture and tourism industries in the state. Under the bill, board members will be appointed by the governor and will be specifically chosen for their expertise in the industry.
Daylight Saving Time Year Round – Legislation that seeks to implement daylight saving time year round in the state of Tennessee overcame its first hurdle in the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. Senate Bill 1100 would only go into effect if and when the federal government removes the prohibition on states to regulate this matter. Year-round daylight savings time would mean that during the winter months, there would be one more hour of daylight in the afternoon, and the sun would rise one hour later in the morning. Florida and Washington have passed similar bills, and at least two dozen other states, including neighboring state North Carolina, are considering similar measures. President Donald Trump has also expressed his support for permanent daylight saving time. The bill will now move to the floor of the Senate for final consideration.
Release Time Classes — Legislation expanding the opportunity for students to take release time classes in religious and moral instruction passed the full Senate this week. A 2015 law allowed such courses to be taught outside of school, so long as the student was not given any academic credit. Senate Bill 1373 amends this law by allowing a Local Board of Education to award one-half unit of elective credit to students completing a release time course in religious moral instruction. The bill also requires the board to develop a neutral, secular evaluation of the offered program to determine whether elective credit may be awarded. The legislation now waits for final approval from the House.
Reducing Recidivism / Education Opportunities — With research showing that the more education incarcerated individuals receive the less likely they are to turn back to a life of crime, lawmakers passed legislation this week looping prisoners into Tennessee’s Drive to 55 initiative. This is the initiative to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
Senate Bill 1061 requires the Department of Corrections, in partnership with Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Board of Regents, to develop and submit to the General Assembly an annual report that details higher education opportunities available to inmates. The legislation also requires the department to develop a plan to equip ten percent of eligible inmates with a degree, diploma, or certificate by 2025 through increasing availability and participation in higher education among Tennessee’s prison population.
A separate bill furthering legislative efforts to lower Tennessee’s recidivism rates and total prison population through education and employment opportunities advanced through the Senate State and Local Committee this week. Senate Bill 904 incentivizes inmates to complete a reentry education program by establishing an educational sentence reduction credit of 60 days. The bill says that if a prison inmate successfully earns a high school equivalency credential, high school diploma, vocational education diploma, or other post-secondary or industry-recognized certification they can then qualify for the reduction program.
Dual Enrollment / Lottery Funds — Legislation reordering how funds are distributed from Tennessee’s lottery education accounts was passed by the Senate Education Committee this week. Currently dual enrollment classes are funded last, behind the Tennessee Promise scholarship. Senate Bill 319 requires state lottery funds to be transferred to the dual enrollment grant program before going to the Tennessee Promise Endowment Fund. The legislation still prioritizes the Tennessee Hope scholarship first. The proposal will now go to receive a final vote on the Senate floor.
Suicide Prevention / College Students — Legislation aiming to prevent suicide among college students in Tennessee passed the Senate Education Committee this week. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in the state. At the request of Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN), Senate Bill 1175 requires public institutions of higher education to develop and implement suicide prevention plans in consultation with campus and community mental health experts. The state institutions will then communicate the plans to students, faculty, and staff at least twice a year through emails, websites, orientation materials, handbooks, or any other method to convey information that will help save lives. The statute calls upon TSPN to lead the state in its suicide prevention efforts and allows public colleges to rely on the resources and training available through the organization. TSPN is a grass-roots association which includes counselors, mental health professionals, physicians, clergy, journalists, social workers, and law enforcement personnel, as well as survivors of suicide attempts. The organization works to eliminate the stigma of suicide and educate communities about the warning signs of suicide, with the ultimate intention of reducing suicide rates in the state of Tennessee. The bill now moves to the Senate floor to receive final approval.
Consumers / Automobiles — The Senate approved consumer legislation this week which authorizes the Department of Revenue to work alongside automakers who issue a major recall to conduct consumer outreach. Senate Bill 1492 allows the Department of Revenue’s Commissioner to work with auto manufacturers to send letters from the Department of Revenue to the owner of a vehicle affected by a major recall to the issuing automaker. This will allow for such automakers to make additional and varied communications to the owner to encourage them to bring their car into the dealership for a major recall repair. The most recent recall in which this legislation will take affect is the Takata airbag recall. If you want to know if your vehicle is impacted by this major recall please take a moment to visit www.airbagrecall.com.
Tennessee Public Charter School Commission – On Thursday, the full Senate gave approval to legislation that seeks to improve the authorization process for public charter schools in Tennessee by creating a commission of experts with appellate authority. Senate Bill 796 moves the current appellate authority to authorize, oversee, and maintain accountability of charter schools from the State Board of Education and instead places that authority with a newly created Public Charter School Commission. This move will ensure the most qualified people are making decisions on charter schools in Tennessee. The bill is part of Governor Bill Lee’s education initiatives designed to improve education opportunities for Tennessee students.
Under the legislation, charter operators must first submit an application to local school boards. If denied, then the charter operator will be able to appeal that decision to the Commission, which may approve the appeal and oversee the school, or the school may return to local jurisdiction if an agreement can be reached. The Public Charter School Commission will be made up of nine expert members appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.
Student Athletes / NCAA Rules — The Senate Education Committee voted this week to approve a resolution calling for the state’s public universities to oppose the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) prohibition on compensation for student athletes. Senate Resolution 22 cites Bannon v. NCAA, a U.S. Court of Appeals case which found certain NCAA amateurism rules violated federal antitrust law and were harmful to competition among student athletes in the college education market. The case noted that the names, images and likenesses of student athletes have been reproduced for commercial purposes for which the NCAA had barred any compensation. The court, however, rejected proposed remedies for violation and left NCAA’s controversial “amateurism” system in place. The resolution instructs the state’s nine public universities to work with their respective athletic conferences in opposition to the rules and to implement a system which is fair to student athletes.
Disaster Declaration / February Storms — The federal government has granted Governor Bill Lee’s request for Major Disaster Declaration to make federal recovery assistance available to 56 county jurisdictions impacted in February’s flooding and severe storms. Counties included in the declaration are: Bedford, Bledsoe, Blount, Campbell, Carter, Cheatham, Claiborne, Clay, Cocke, Coffee, Decatur, Dekalb, Dickson, Dyer, Fentress, Gibson, Giles, Grainger, Greene, Hamblen, Hamilton, Hancock, Hardin, Hawkins, Hickman, Houston, Humphreys, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Knox, Lake, Lauderdale, Lewis, Lincoln, Marion, Marshall, McNairy, Moore, Morgan, Obion, Overton, Perry, Rhea, Roane, Robertson, Scott, Sequatchie, Sevier, Smith, Tipton, Unicoi, Union, Van Buren, Warren, and Wayne. Cocke, Greene, Hamblen and Sevier.
The major disaster declaration covers the time period of Feb. 19, to March 30, 2019, and will allow government entities and certain private non-profits in the eligible counties to apply for reimbursement of specific expenses related to the disaster under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Public Assistance (PA) program. Information about FEMA’s PA program and its eligible reimbursement categories is at: https://www.fema.gov/public-assistance-local-state-tribal-and-non-profit. The federal declaration also makes Tennessee eligible for the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, https://www.fema.gov/hazard-mitigation-grant-program, which provides assistance to communities to prevent or reduce long-term risks to life and property from natural hazards.
Constitutional Prohibition / Ministers Serving in the Legislature — A resolution allowing voters to change Tennessee’s constitution to remove a 1796 provision ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. Article IX, Section 1 prohibits ministers of the Gospel, or priests of any denomination, from serving in the Tennessee General Assembly. Many ministers have served in the General Assembly since the prohibition was overturned. Senate Joint Resolution 178 seeks to put the State Constitution in line with current practice ensuring that the spiritual church leaders may serve Tennessee in the State Legislature.
Child Sex Offenders / Photographing — Legislation strengthening Tennessee’s child sex offender laws as it pertains to unlawfully photographing a minor was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 684 was introduced in response to an issue raised in the opinion of State of Tennessee v. David Scott Hall, which involved a defendant placing a video camera in the bedroom of a minor. The case was overturned because the language in Tennessee’s current child exploitation statues does not include a reference to the defendant’s subjective purpose. This bill clarifies and improves current child exploitation statutes by including language regarding the defendant’s purpose for sexual arousal or gratification. The legislation also increases penalties from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C Felony for knowingly photographing a minor in a state of nudity. It further strengthens penalties to a Class E felony if the photograph is disseminated to any other person or if the victims if under the age of 13. However, if both occur, the defendant will face a Class D felony offense, which means even more jail time. A person convicted under this statute will also be required to register as a sex offender. The legislation now travels to the Senate floor to receive final approval.
Health Care Consumers / Clarity in Billing Practices — The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed the Healthcare Billing Clarity Act which will help patients decipher what charges come from a hospital and what charges come from a specialty physician. The current hospital billing system in Tennessee lacks the clarity needed for patients to easily comprehend their medical bills. Often times, hospital bills include charges for supplies and equipment labeled as specialty service charges which are mistaken by patients as a total amount being billed by their physician. Senate Bill 613 restricts hospital billing statements from including any language that refers to specialty healthcare services rendered at the hospital which could confuse the patient into thinking the bill came from their physician instead. According to the Urban Institute, 54 percent of patients in the United States claim that their medical billing paperwork and invoices are confusing. The legislation now heads to the full Senate to receive their final vote.
Bingo / K-12 Schools — Legislation allowing voters to amend Tennessee’s constitution to legalize Bingo games which benefit public and private schools passed final consideration on Thursday. Senate Joint Resolution 97 must be passed by the General Assembly authorizing the game if voters approve the constitutional amendment. Such action would align Tennessee law with 46 other states which allow bingo.
Honoring Resolution / Senator Ben Atchley — On Thursday, Tennessee State Senators stood to honor the life of former Senate Republican Leader Ben Atchley who died in November at age 88. He served in the House of Representatives for 4 years and the Senate for 28 years. He was elected Senate Republican Leader for 16 years before retiring in 2004. Senate Joint Resolution 59 heralds Atchley’s distinguished public service. Among special guests joining the Senate in remembering him was his wife, former State Senator Sue Atchley, who also served Knoxville’s Senate District 6.
Community Oversight Boards — The full Senate approved a conference committee report on legislation aiming to create greater balance within community oversight boards in Tennessee, sending the bill to Governor Bill Lee for his signature. Although community oversight boards have existed since the 1950s, there are currently no guidelines in Tennessee governing their creation, membership, and function. Senate Bill 1407 amends the current unlimited subpoena power of an oversight board by requiring them to go to the local legislative body or city council and request a subpoena. The legislation, as amended by the report, also provides guidelines regarding the subpoena requests. The subpoenas would not be issued in the form of a blanket authorization, rather it must specify each document to be produced or witness to testify.