The pace quickened this week on Capitol Hill as the State Senate approved major legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis and a number of bills protecting Tennessee’s most vulnerable victims of crime.
The Opioid Crisis legislation is moving through the legislative process
Major legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis overcame its first hurdle this week with passage in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 2258 is one of two proposals in Governor Bill Haslam’s TN Together plan to combat opioid abuse. The legislation addresses the law enforcement and treatment components of the three-pronged plan, while the other component is prevention.
This bill revises various provisions of the law regarding the scheduling of controlled substances and their analogues and derivatives, including updated identifications of drugs categorized in Schedules I-V. The updated schedule of controlled substances would allow law enforcement to better track, monitor and penalize the use and unlawful distribution of dangerous and addictive drugs, including substances that mimic the effects of fentanyl, a drug that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and is linked to an alarming number of overdose deaths.
The legislation provides incentives for offenders in correctional facilities to complete intensive substance use treatment program while incarcerated. An increasing number of offenders suffer from substance use disorders. These evidence-based programs are proven to reduce recidivism and improve lives while saving taxpayer dollars.
Each day in Tennessee, at least three people die from an opioid-related overdose, which is more than the number of daily traffic fatalities. Since 1999, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths nationwide, including prescription opioids and heroin, has quadrupled.
It is hoped that through this multifaceted approach, Tennessee can be successful in its continued fight against the opioid epidemic and reverse the addiction, overdose and illicit distribution trends that continue to plague the state and nation.
The prevention component of the TN Together Plan, Senate Bill 2257 is scheduled for consideration in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday.
State Senate advances bills strengthening protections for victims of domestic violence
The State Senate gave final approval to legislation that helps domestic violence survivors maintain access to life-saving resources and their support network. Senate Bill 1796 allows victims of domestic abuse to petition the court to keep the wireless telephone used primarily by them or their children as part of an order of protection. If granted, the petitioner would assume all billing responsibilities for the telephone service.
Current law provides no mechanism for victims of domestic violence to alter a shared family plan wireless telephone contract when the abuser is the primary account holder and refuses to release the number. As the account holder, the abuser then has access to the survivor’s cell phone records and may be able to use the victim’s device to track his or her whereabouts.
Nine states have passed similar legislation. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports that in 2016 more than 78,000 domestic violence crimes were reported to the police. Ninety-one Tennesseans were murdered in domestic violence situations during that same time. These cases account for more than 51 percent of all crimes against individuals reported.
Senators approve legislation continuing General Assembly’s ongoing efforts to combat Human Trafficking
The full Senate approved a proposal which creates a path for juvenile and adult victims of human trafficking to have their records expunged. Senate Bill 2505 expands the list of offenses eligible for expunction to include convictions for prostitution and aggravated prostitution, if the judge finds by clear and convincing evidence that the conduct occurred as a result of the person being a victim of human trafficking.
The legislation advancing this week builds on the General Assembly’s ongoing efforts to attack the problem of human trafficking. The General Assembly has approved a series of bills over the past seven years addressing the problem after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. These efforts earned Tennessee Shared Hope International’s ranking as first in the nation for fighting human trafficking. The group’s 2017 report card gave Tennessee a 96.5 rating.
Senate approves legislation designed to spur development of broadband services in Tennessee’s rural communities
Legislation designed to spur development of broadband services to Tennessee’s rural and unserved communities passed the State Senate unanimously. The bill amends the Rural Electric Community Services Cooperative Act to compliment the changes that were made by the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act last year. That law set Tennessee on a responsible path to improve access to broadband through investment, deregulation, and education.
The improved connectivity is important for education and economic initiatives. It would also promote agriculture advancements and provide health care options like telemedicine, which are especially important to our rural communities.
Senate Bill 1646 authorizes electric cooperatives (co-ops) to access existing property, right-of-ways or easements to supply broadband Internet services. The purpose is to make it clear that co-ops can use the property and easements they currently have for electric service to provide broadband Internet infrastructure in those same rights-of-ways. The proposal also clarifies that if an electric co-op enters into an agreement with a third party to provide telecommunications or broadband, they could only contract with parties that are otherwise permitted by law to provide those services.
Before passage of the Broadband Accessibility Act, co-ops were restricted from providing retail broadband or cable video services. The act also called for $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses. On Tuesday, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe told members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee that nine grants totaling $9.8 million have already been awarded as a result of the act, serving 5,200 locations in 13 counties. The act has also provided $109,000 in library grants to 52 libraries in Tennessee.
In 2016, a study addressing broadband in Tennessee found that 13 percent of Tennessee residents do not have access to broadband at federally recognized standards. While only two percent of the state’s urban citizens lack access, 34 percent of rural residents are without coverage at recognized minimum standards due to low population density and challenging geography.
Teacher Sexual Misconduct bills receive final approval
The State Senate gave final approval to four of a series of five bills designed to protect children from teacher sexual misconduct. The legislative package follows a comprehensive report from Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson which revealed deficiencies in hiring practices for school personnel that could allow predators to slip through the cracks. Bills meeting final approval include:
Senate Bill 2015 which prohibits a Local Education Agency (LEA) from entering into a non-disclosure agreement with a teacher that would prevent other school districts from knowing about sexual misconduct. It also allows districts to access information about the previous employment of a teacher with another school district;
Senate Bill 2013 which updates the state’s Teacher Code of Ethics regarding inappropriate teacher-student relationships, including engaging in sexual behavior with students or furnishing them alcohol or drugs;
Senate Bill 2011 which grants the State Board of Education’s authority to reprimand school directors for not reporting instances of misconduct and clarifies the board’s authority to reprimand educators for violating the Teacher Code of Ethics; and,
Senate Bill 2012 which calls for the State Board of Education to post all final teacher disciplinary action on its website to allow school districts, as well as out-of-state entities responsible for the licensing and hiring of Tennessee educators, to access information regarding the final disciplinary action of an individual’s license case. It also requires final licensure action be reported to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) database for the same purpose.
Legislation makes permanent Tennessee’s comprehensive and inclusive K-12 standards review process
Legislation which makes permanent Tennessee’s current process for adopting K-12 education standards was approved by the full Senate on Thursday. Passage of Senate Bill 574 lifts a sunset provision on a law passed in 2015 that created the nation’s most comprehensive and inclusive standards review process. That law was passed to replace the controversial Common Core education standards with a new set of standards crafted by Tennesseans.
The standards are in the four major study areas of English and language arts, math, science, and social studies. This process allowed Tennesseans to offer comments and feedback on each and every standard in these areas from grades K-12. Since the enactment, there have been over 100,000 comments from Tennessee parents, educators, and other citizens.
The feedback received was sent to teams of educators throughout the state who worked to revise and strengthen Tennessee’s K-12 standards. The standards were then sent to members of the Standards Recommendation Committee, who are subject to legislative confirmation, giving the legislature greater oversight in the process. The Recommendation Committee reports are submitted to the State Board of Education for further consideration and adoption.
The standards will be reviewed on a six year rotating schedule. The bill further provides dedicated funding for this purpose that will be used specifically for the comprehensive standards review process.
Victims of Child Pornography — The full Senate adopted a resolution ratifying amendments to the Tennessee Rules of Procedure containing a key provision regarding how evidence related to the sexual exploitation of minors is maintained and inspected as part of a criminal proceeding. The measure follows legislation passed last year that I sponosred designed to protect victims of child pornography from being victimized again through duplication of photos or videos, or a viewing of them by the defendant. The measure mirrors Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure adopted as a result of the Adam Walsh Act. Senate Resolution 166 provides that those documents that are objects discoverable under the Rules of Procedures must be kept with the state at a state facility, and the court may, in its discretion, permit other individuals to have access to the documents or objects if necessary to protect the rights of the defendant.
Financial Institutions — The full Senate passed legislation amending Tennessee’s Financial Institution and Conversion Act to allow an out-of-state or federally chartered financial institution to apply to the Commissioner of Financial Institutions to convert to a Tennessee chartered financial institution. Senate Bill 2243 would also make available a more direct and streamlined process for an out-of-state financial institution to move its headquarters and operations to Tennessee. This bill would continue to for a vibrant, growing economy in Tennessee by attracting banks to expand here.
Go Build Tennessee — Legislation bolstering Tennessee’s Go Build Tennessee Program, which encourages and promotes career opportunities in the construction industry, was approved by the full Senate this week. Senate Bill 1922 extends the program until 2024 and clarifies that funds diverted from the contractor’s license for this purpose must be used solely for the implementation, administration and management of the non-profit program. The goal is to encourage and promote career opportunities in Tennessee’s secondary schools, postsecondary schools, colleges of applied technology and community colleges due to the shortage of young people going into these high-demand jobs. The average age in the construction industry is 43. The Go Build Tennessee website features 109 in-state training programs of the top demanded occupations. These occupations include carpenters, welders, road builders, electricians, masons, equipment operators, plumbers, pipe fitters and more.
Blockchain Technology / Legal Authority — Legislation which recognizes the legal authority of “distributed ledger technology,” which includes “blockchain technology” used in smart contracts has received final Senate approval. Blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Originally developed as the accounting method for the virtual currency Bitcoins, the technology is now appearing in a variety of commercial applications. Senate Bill 1662 gives any signature, record, or rights of ownership accomplished through distributed ledger technology full legal effect, validity and enforceability. The legislation seeks to make Tennessee more attractive for this technology.
Tanning Beds / Youth — The full Senate voted this week to approve legislation that seeks to protect the health of young persons who utilize tanning beds. Currently, teenagers over age 14 can go to a tanning bed without permission from their parents. Senate Bill 1495 requires that individuals 16 to 18 years old be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian in order to use a tanning bed for the first time. Those under the age of 16 would be prohibited. Melanoma is the second most prevalent kind of cancer in females ages 15 to 29. In 2009, the World Health Organization elevated the classification of tanning beds as a carcinogen to the same category as cigarettes.
Sterilization / Sentencing — A proposal to prohibit Tennessee judges from offering defendants reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization passed the full Senate. Senate Bill 2133 prohibits a sentencing court from making a sentencing determination based on defendant’s consent or refusal to any form of temporary or permanent birth control, sterilization, or family planning services, regardless of whether the defendant’s consent is voluntarily given. The bill is in response to a White County judge offering reduced jail time to defendants who volunteered for sterilization. Judge Sam Benningfield said his goal was to break a “vicious cycle” of repeat drug offenders with children. The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct found that Benningfield violated rules regarding judicial independence, integrity, and propriety. The legislation does not prohibit defendants from seeking sterilization services if they so choose.