Legislative update

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Legislation making Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college advances

The State Senate approved a wide range of important bills this week, including major legislation to make Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college.  This week’s action was also marked by the death of a most beloved former State Senator, Douglas S. Henry.

Universally respected, Henry was a gentleman, statesman and a scholar who is credited for playing a key role in Tennessee’s solid financial footing as a long-standing member and Chairman Emeritus of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. During his service, he championed legislation aiding children, the mentally ill, the elderly and the unborn. He was also a strong supporter of the Tennessee State Museum and an avid guardian of federalism.

Senator Henry is the first person to lie in state at the Tennessee State Capitol since Governor Austin Peay in 1927, as the flags over the State Capitol were lowered to half-staff until his internment. It was a fitting tribute to the longest serving lawmaker in state history whose service spanned six decades. A 2014 video, produced by the Tennessee State Library and Archives on the occasion of his retirement, highlights his extraordinary career serving Tennesseans with interviews from people who knew him. Henry was 90 years old.

Reconnect Act –Completing the path for all Tennesseans to access higher education, the Tennessee Reconnect Act establishes a last-dollar scholarship for adults to attend a community college tuition-free.  Senate Bill 1218 expands a grant program launched in 2015 that especially aims to attract approximately 900,000 Tennesseans who have earned some college credit but no degree.

Adults without a certificate can already attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) tuition-free under the current Reconnect program. This proposal would expand that program’s access to community colleges and relieves some of the previous requirements to receive assistance.  The Reconnect expansion would be funded out of lottery reserves at no cost to taxpayers.  

To be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, a student must be a Tennessee resident for at least one year preceding the date of application and does not already have an associate or bachelor degree. Other requirements include completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application where the applicant is deemed an independent student; participation in an approved advising program; and, enrollment in any of the state’s 13 public community college’s degree or certificate programs for six semester hours. In order to maintain the Tennessee Reconnect grant, the student must enroll in classes leading to an associate’s degree or certificate continuously and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. The program will begin with the 2018-19 school year upon approval of the legislation.

In Brief..

A number of bills moved in the full Senate this week including:

Government Accountability — The full Senate approved Senate Bill 463, which provides for additional accountability for state agencies. The bill assists the Comptroller’s office in working with state agencies to achieve corrective actions, reduce audit findings and avoid repeat findings. This plan will address each audit finding and give an explanation of what the agency has done or will do to correct the finding, the persons responsible for correcting the finding and a timeline for the corrections to be completed.

General Assembly PagesSenate Bill 1013 requiring a school to count a child who serves as a page in the General Assembly as present for attendance, in the same manner as an educational field trip, has received final Senate approval. Pages, whose duties consist of anything from making copies, running errands within the Capitol building, to distributing legislative information to members of the General Assembly, get a unique front-row view of the lawmaking process. 

LEAP / Education — The full Senate has approved legislation this week to include “work-based learning experiences” in the curriculum for work-based learning under the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP). The bill aims to meet necessary skill standards of industries in Tennessee as part of the LEAP program.  Senate Bill 1231 also eliminates the liability of employers participating in the LEAP program, unless the employer acted willfully or with gross negligence, to continue to encourage industry participation. Part of the LEAP program is not only to align within the state government what departments are doing and making sure the state education programs are providing a more relevant educational experience, but to align them with the private sector as well, so that students can work, learn and earn simultaneously. The LEAP program has engaged almost 20,000 students since it was passed in 2013.

Smoking on College Campuses – The State Senate approved a bill this week which authorizes the state university board of each public institution of higher education in Tennessee to adopt policies regulating smoking on property owned or operated by the institution. Senate Bill 116 would apply to any area on campus that is not already prohibited by law.

Immunizations / Tennessee Colleges and Universities – Legislation which grants the governing boards of each public institution of higher learning, in consultation with the Department of Health, the authority to promulgate rules regarding immunization requirements for students enrolled in their institutions has passed the State Senate. The intent of the bill is to provide public higher education institutions the flexibility to set commonsense regulations regarding immunization requirements on their campuses.  Senate Bill 393 also instructs each public institution of higher learning to strive to collect immunization records for students enrolled at their institution.

Identity Theft – In an effort to prevent identity theft, the State Senate voted this week to approve Senate Bill 428 to remove the social security number contained on the permanent identification device attached to a decedent’s body prior to placing them in a casket or entombment.

American Sign Language — Legislation received final approval in the State Senate this week that requires the State Board of Education to adopt a policy allowing American Sign Language (ASL) courses to satisfy the foreign language credits. State law is already supposed to encourage Tennessee schools to offer courses in ASL and to accept these courses as satisfying a foreign language requirement. However, there has not been any movement to comply with the 1990 law. Senate Bill 524 seeks to help the more than 500,000 Tennesseans who are deaf or hard of hearing and who use ASL as their primary form of communication.

Buprenorphine — State Senators voted this week to require the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, in collaboration with the Commissioner of the Department of Health, to develop recommended nonresidential treatment guidelines for the use of buprenorphine. Buprenorphine-containing products, like Suboxone, are used for the treatment of opioid abuse. It reduces opiate withdrawal symptoms as it produces similar effects to the opioid.  Senate Bill 709 requires the guidelines developed be used by prescribers as a guide for caring for patients by January 1, 2018. It also calls for the guidelines to be posted online for licensees to access. The legislation is similar to a law adopted by the General Assembly providing treatment guidance for the use of pain medication.

Juveniles / Detention Centers – Legislation establishing rules and regulations to provide a consistent and appropriate level of education services to public school students who are incarcerated in Tennessee’s 17 juvenile detention centers has been passed on final consideration. The detention centers are intended to be temporary holding facilities for youth awaiting adjudication, which is typically less than 72 hours. A small percentage of incarcerated youth, however, are held beyond this time period while a long-term placement option is determined or because a determinate sentence in the center has been given by a judge. Presently, the law is not specific about the responsibility to educate students in juvenile detention centers who receive general education services. With education services lacking in some juvenile detention centers, this is concerning as the juveniles need to attain their degree to help them succeed. Senate Bill 1195 will put the responsibility on the Local Education Agency (LEA) that is most appropriate to serve each juvenile detention center. The legislation also requires that the Department of Education monitor the educational services provided in these centers and the Department of Children’s Services monitor each center’s compliance through its licensure of the detention centers.

Judicial Diversion / Public Employees –The Senate approved legislation which excludes employees of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the state or any political subdivision of the state from being eligible for pretrial diversion for any misdemeanor committed in the employee’s official capacity. Pre-trial diversion is the process in which the prosecutor halts the case against a defendant if he or she meets certain conditions like probation, counseling and community service, among others. If approved by the judge, the defendant walks out of the courtroom a free man or woman without an admission of guilt and the record is expunged after a certain time if there are no more infractions. Senate Bill 690 seeks to hold public employees accountable for their actions while on the job as a matter of public trust. 

School Counselors / Additional Services – State Senators gave final approval to a bill this week which clarifies that a certified school counselor, in collaboration with a parent, may recommend additional mental health counseling for a student without obligating the cost of that counseling to the school system.  Senate Bill 341, does not change or interfere with the services already provided by the school system.  Any student who receives services under IDEA law will continue to receive these services. The legislation simply eliminates the ambiguity that is often a barrier for school counselors to make this referral, which their ethics and training require, to a private counselor or therapist when the student’s needs fall outside their scope of services.

Human Trafficking / Prostitution – Legislation which strengthens the penalty for patronizing prostitution was approved on final consideration by the Senate this week. Senate Bill 551 increases the crime from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor. The sentence for a Class B misdemeanor is up to six months imprisonment, a fine up to $500, or both; whereas, the sentence for a Class A misdemeanor is 11 months and 29 days in prison, a fine up to $2,000, or both. The bill aims to attack the demand-driven problem of human trafficking in Tennessee.