State Budget is Central Focus During the Final Weeks of the 2015 legislative session
Action on Capitol Hill continued to shift from committees to the floor of the Senate. All but the Senate Finance committee has completed their business and it is the state budget that will be the central focus of attention during the final weeks of the 2015 legislative session.
Budget – Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin briefed members of the Senate Finance Committee regarding Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed additions to Senate Bill 1399, the appropriations bill. The supplemental appropriations amendment reflects $30 million more in recurring funding. The proposed budget amendment designates those additional recurring dollars to K-12 education, specifically to increase state funding of health insurance coverage for teachers. The governor had already proposed $144 million in new money for K-12 education, in addition to making significant investments in higher education.
Due to Franchise and Excise tax collections that exceeded estimates last month as a result of an unusual one-time event, along with other revenue collections and program savings, there are nearly $300 million more than anticipated in non-recurring funds. The budget amendment proposes to use the funds as follows: $120 million for a new Tennessee State Museum which will be matched with $40 million in private donations; $50 million for economic development projects to bring more high-quality jobs to Tennessee; $40 million to complete renovations of the Cordell Hull building; $12 million for maintenance and improvements to higher education facilities across the state; $5 million to fund new equipment in Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology to meet job training demands across the state; and $1.9 million for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to fund adolescent residential alcohol and drug treatment grants.
The funds would also provide an additional $36.5 million for the Rainy Day Fund, which would double the amount originally proposed in the budget, bringing the total reserve to 4.5 percent of state revenues. The amended proposal also restores full funding to the TennCare Bureau for level two case management services. Nearly half of the funding, $5.2 million, is included as recurring dollars, while the rest of the funding is designated as non-recurring. The administration will continue to review the program and look at possibilities for efficiencies in the process.
The budget bill is scheduled for consideration by the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
Legislation Aims to Prevent the Use of Tobacco Vapor Products by Youth
Legislation which aims to prevent the use of tobacco vapor products by youth in Tennessee was approved by the full Senate this week. “Vaping,” or smoking electronic cigarettes, has become increasingly popular among teens. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, 29 percent of high school students report using vaping products.
Senate Bill 411 defines vapor products to include all merchandise used for purposes of vaping liquid nicotine and adds them to the state’s Prevention of Youth Access to Tobacco Act, which requires that purchaser be 18 years or older. The bill renames Tennessee’s law the “Prevention of Youth Access to Tobacco and Vapor Products Act.” The legislation also mirrors other tobacco restrictions in Tennessee law and requires individual bottles of vaping liquid be sold in a container with a child-resistant cap.
The legislation also requests the Department of Agriculture look at other options to decrease the access to vapor products by those under the age of 18 and directs the Department of Health when developing smoking prevention programs that they look at using a broad range of science when looking at alternatives to smoking.
The CDC reports that vaping doubles the odds that the user will advance to smoking traditional cigarettes. Vaping products can contain varying levels of harmful substances, some of which can be harmful to brain development for youth.
Senate Passes Major Legislation to Provide Telehealth Services to Tennesseans
The Senate passed major legislation to protect Tennesseans’ access to cost-effective healthcare by ensuring that telehealth services are readily available and consistently safe. Senate Bill 1223 also ensures that practitioners who offer telehealth services in the state will be held to the same high standard of professional practice as any other healthcare provider in a traditional healthcare setting.
Telemedicine is the delivery of health care services to patients in remote sites by using electronic information and telecommunications technology to connect providers to patients who need them. It is particularly important to people in rural communities who may have to drive long distances to receive healthcare services.
The legislation provides a definition of telehealth or telehealth medicine in Tennessee law so that all health care practitioners will be operating under the same professional standards. Telehealth physicians are licensed under current law. Further, it defines a provider-patient relationship and the consent required to initiate that relationship. In addition, it clarifies that a physician-patient relationship exists only when a telehealth provider undertakes to diagnose or treat a patient and not just when someone leaves a message.
Second Amendment Rights / Parks – The full Senate approved legislation this week to give a law-abiding Tennessean with a handgun carry permit the right to carry a firearm into a city, county and/or municipal park. Current law allows a municipality or county to prohibit the possession of handguns, and therefore one’s right to self-defense, while within a public park, natural area, historic park, nature trail, campground, forest, greenway, waterway or other similar public place in which they operate. Senate Bill 1171 would remove that prohibition. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there were 3 murders, 7 kidnappings, 19 forcible rapes, 6 forcible sodomies, 205 aggravated assaults, 618 assaults, 74 cases of intimidation, 55 burglaries, 122 robberies, 26 motor vehicle thefts, and 448 drug and narcotic violations in parks in the state in 2013.
Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarships – State Senators voted to approve the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” Senate Bill 999 would authorize state payments to follow the child to public or private schools for up to 5,000 students in its first year of operation. The program, which gives low-income parents a choice regarding the school that their child attends, would expand each year to a maximum of 20,000 statewide in the fourth year. Participating students would also have to be from families qualified to receive free or reduced price lunch under federal standards and from a school district with at least one failing school ranked in the bottom five percent of schools statewide. If caps are not reached each year, scholarships would be offered to other low-income children in those counties in which a school in the bottom five percent of schools is located. Currently, five counties meet that standard, including Davidson, Hamilton, Madison, Knox and Shelby.
Winter Storm Assistance – Thirty-five counties in Tennessee will receive assistance for damage caused during the severe winter storm of February 15 -22. The storm took 30 lives and caused widespread damage. The following counties are included in the declaration: Anderson, Bedford, Bledsoe, Blount, Campbell, Clay, Coffee, Cumberland, Fentress, Giles, Grainger, Grundy, Hamblen, Hancock, Hardeman, Jefferson, Knox, Lawrence, Loudon, Marshall, McMinn, McNairy, Meigs, Monroe, Moore, Morgan, Obion, Overton, Putnam, Roane, Scott, Sevier, Van Buren, Warren and White. The presidential disaster declaration will allow government entities and certain private non-profits in the declared counties to apply for reimbursement of specific expenses related to disaster response and recovery, under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program. The federal assistance will also allow eligible entities in the designated counties to receive a 75 percent reimbursement for costs related to debris removal, emergency protective measures, and rebuilding and repairing roads, bridges, water control facilities, buildings, utilities and recreational facilities.
Foster Children / Driver’s License – Children in foster care would find it easier to receive their driver’s license under legislation approved by the Senate this week. Senate Bill 1271 would authorize a foster parent or an authorized representative of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to sign an application for a driver’s license or an instructional permit for an individual under the age of 18. Current law allows parents, step-parents or guardians to sign for their minor child, but foster parents or DCS representative may not do that.
Domestic Violence – The Senate gave final approval to legislation which removes the provision in state law that allows judges and magistrates to waive the 12-hour “cooling off” period during which a person charged with a domestic violence offense or an elder abuse offense cannot be released on bail. Under current law, individuals charged with domestic violence can be held for up to 12 hours to allow the victim adequate time to gather belongings and ensure his or her safety. However, a “magistrate or other official duly authorized” can release the accused earlier if they deem the risk to the victim has passed. Senate Bill 610 still allows for judicial discretion based on the individual circumstances but requires judges to list in the record why a waiver was given while also making every effort to notify the victim before the waiver is approved. It is estimated that domestic violence costs Tennessee $1 billion each year in law enforcement expenses, medical expenses and lost productivity.
K-12 Schools / Grading System – The full Senate approved legislation directing the State Board of Education to develop a grading system that would provide transparency for student and parents. Senate Bill 300 would implement an A-F grading system for Tennessee schools starting in the 2017-2018 school year. School grades would be based on student performance, student growth and other indictors of student performance such as ACT scores and high school graduation rates. It further directs the State Board to study what other states have done in this regard.
Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism Movements – State Senators voted unanimously to approve a resolution which condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and increasing incidents of anti-Semitism. In 1996, Gov. Don Sundquist signed the Tennessee-Israel Cooperation Agreement with the State of Israel, resulting in business, government, art, cultural, educational and university activities that strengthened the historic ties between Tennessee and Israel. Senate Joint Resolution 170 states, “the elected representatives of Tennessee recognize the importance of expressing their unabridged support for the Jewish people and the State of Israel’s right to exist and right of self-defense.” The resolution says the General Assembly considers the BDS movement, which seeks to undermine the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, unethical and damaging to the causes of peace, justice, equality, democracy and human rights for all peoples in the Middle East. Leaders of the BDS movement have stated their goal is to eliminate Israel as the home of the Jewish people and delegitimize the State of Israel.
Students in Foster Care / Graduation – The State Senate voted this week to prohibit a Local Education Agency (LEA) from requiring any student in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services and who is in the eleventh grade or higher to meet more than the minimum graduation requirements set out by the State Board of Education. Students in foster care are often transferred from one school to the next and may not have time to meet additional standards required by school boards for graduation when moved at that grade level. Senate Bill 537 will help these students receive their high school degree and move on to post-secondary education or the workplace.