Legislative Update


Senate Judiciary Committee approves JaJuan Latham Act strengthening penalties against those convicted of harming a minor during a drive-by shooting

Members of Delta sigma Theta Sorority visited the Capitol

Legislation strengthening penalties against those convicted of harming a minor during a drive-by shooting overcame its first hurdle with passage in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Senate Bill 10, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), is named the JaJuan Latham Act for a 12-year-old, Knoxville boy who was killed in a drive-by shooting while in the back of his father’s parked car. JaJuan had just attended a “Stop the Violence” basketball game organized by former University of Tennessee basketball player Bobby Maze. The event was honoring the memory of JaJuan’s cousin, Zaevion Dobson, who was also killed in a drive-by shooting just months earlier while shielding several girls from gunfire.

Specifically, the bill establishes enhanced penalties when discharging a firearm from a vehicle results in harming a minor. Offenses include intentional/knowing aggravated assault, reckless aggravated assault, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, and criminally negligent homicide.

Briggs said many other states have enhanced penalties in place due to the reckless and wanton manner of the crime. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration before it moves to the floor for a final vote.

Future Workforce Initiative aims to increase career and technical education to give K-12 students access to high quality technology jobs

Governor Bill Lee announced a major initiative last week to increase access to career and technical education for K-12 students as part of his education agenda for 2019. The Future Workforce Initiative calls for an increase in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) training for students in K-12 schools. Lee said the initiative will help ensure that Tennessee students are first in line for high quality technology jobs in emerging industries. It also aims to put Tennessee in the top 25 states for job creation in the technology sector.

The initiative calls for:
· Launching new CTE programs focused in STEM fields with 100 new middle school programs and tripling the number of STEM-designated public schools by 2022;
· Growing the number of teachers qualified to teach work-based learning and advanced computer science courses through STEM teacher training and implementation of K-8 computer science standards; and
· Expanding postsecondary STEM opportunities in high school through increased access to dual credit, AP courses and dual-enrollment.

This investment in STEM-focused early college and career experiences also supports the Tennessee Department of Education’s “Tennessee Pathways” Certification process, as well as the STEM School Designation partnership with groups like Tennessee STEM Innovation Network and Code.org.

“Fifty-eight percent of all STEM jobs created in the country are in computing but only 8 percent of graduates study computer science in college,” said Lee. “By exposing Tennessee students to computer science in their K-12 careers we are ensuring our kids have every chance to land a high-quality job.”

The Governor will recommend a $4 million investment to implement the Future Workforce Initiative. He will present his full budget proposal to the legislature on March 4.

Number of registered voters hits all-time high in Tennessee

Tennessee has more registered voters than any time in state history according to Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins who spoke about voter participation and election security in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. The state also set a record in voter turnout for an August election in 2018 and for a mid-term (non-presidential) election in November 2018.

Goins pointed to a 2016 law which established an online voter registration system to make voter registration more convenient. The Tennessee Online Voter Registration System allows U.S. citizens with a driver’s license or photo ID issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security to register to vote online. Since implementation of the law, 275,135 voters have used the system, with 147,000 of those transactions being new voter registrations.

Goins said election officials are continuing their efforts to increase voter turnout, especially among young adults. These efforts include mock elections, teacher workshops on civic engagement, essay contests, and registration drives at Tennessee high schools, colleges, and universities.

They also partnered with the Rutherford County Election Commission to launch a pilot “Election Day Vote Centers” project to increase turnout by making voting more convenient. The successful project allows citizens to vote at any of the county’s polling locations on election day which are most convenient to their work, school or travel. Other counties are considering establishing centers within their boundaries for the 2020 election given adequate infrastructure is in place to support them.

Convenient locations are generally provided during the early voting period. Tennessee has some of the best early voting laws in the nation with a two-week period for voter convenience. Although it makes voting easier, Hargett said that research shows early voting has a nominal effect on increasing turnout. He said the biggest driver of voter turnout is interest in candidates. Polling shows that the number one reason given for not voting was that voters “did not like the candidates or issues.”

Although Tennessee’s voting system is secure, election officials are working tirelessly to guard against cyber-attacks or other potential breaches. Secretary Hargett said, that like other government agencies, they are constantly a target of email spammers and “phishers” who are looking to gain secure information. The Secretary of State’s office has prioritized cybersecurity in order to stay ahead of such attempts. This includes extending training to all Tennessee election officials to ensure best practices are used to help prevent potential breaches.

Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee hears expert testimony on Chronic Wasting Disease in Tennessee’s Deer Population

The Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee heard expert testimony this week from wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Dan Grove, and members of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) regarding the effects of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) on Tennessee’s deer population. This disease was first discovered in Colorado and Wyoming around 1960. However, as the years have progressed so has the disease, and Tennessee was the 26th state to confirm its presence in December 2018.

CWD is a prion disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose. It may take over a year before an infected animal develops symptoms, which can include drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, listlessness and other neurologic symptoms. CWD is fatal to animals of all ages and there are no effective treatments or vaccines. Some Western U.S. states, where the disease is more prevalent, have experienced a 40 percent decrease in their deer populations.

There are currently 182 CWD cases discovered on over 1.4 million acres of land in Hardeman and Fayette Counties, and one case in Madison County. TWRA is currently enacting Pre-CWD plans and rules including increased harvesting allotments in effected areas. Approximately 5,000 samples were tested in Tennessee last year and carcass transportation restrictions have been implemented.

Since this is a slowly progressive disease, measuring the success of prevention and management efforts will take up to 5 to 10 years. Chuck Yoest, CWD coordinator, explained that disease management is a “huge undertaking” for the Wildlife Agency that will be a long journey before realizing the results. “The Wildlife Agency can’t best manage the disease alone; it’s going to have to be in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, hunters, land owners, business owners, agriculture and conservation partners, and the General Assembly,” he said.

I was pleased to have Patrick Wilson, CEO of McGee Tyson Airport, give a presentation on Tennessee airports to our Transportation Committee.

Senate Commerce and Labor Committee is updated on the state’s TennCare Program

TennCare Director Gabe Roberts testified before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Tuesday to provide an overview of TennCare’s coverage and services. As of October 2018, approximately 1.34 million Tennesseans were covered by TennCare, which accounted for 20.5 percent of the state’s budget.

Roberts said they focus on providing high quality, cost effective care for all TennCare members and utilize public-private partnerships with the three managed care organizations (MCO) in the state – Amerigroup, BlueCross BlueShield, and United Healthcare – to help provide quality care to members. The MCOs play a large role in patient care and are responsible for providing traditional physical healthcare needs as well as behavioral health and long term services support (LTSS), if needed. MCOs also create savings to taxpayers through negotiated rates per member which increase budget predictability. Tennessee’s Medicaid program has successfully controlled costs compared with the rest of the country, with its medical trend (increase in spending) for fiscal year 2019 at 2.1 percent compared with 4.9 percent across the country.

Roberts also outlined four key priorities for the agency. First addressed was TennCare Connect – a new 21st Century eligibility system anticipated to go live this spring. It will include a mobile app and provide a better user experience for members and state employees.

The second matter addressed was the status of the work and community engagement requirement waiver submitted to the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS), per the direction of legislation passed by the General Assembly last year. TennCare submitted the proposal to CMS on December 28, 2018, but has yet to engage in conversations with CMS on further details. As of January, 16 states have submitted work and community engagement requirement waiver requests to CMS, and so far, 8 have been granted.

The third priority outlined is the delivery system reform for physical and mental healthcare, which will improve quality of care, as well as cut costs. The goal is to increase resources to primary care physicians to improve preventative care, education, and chronic disease care for patients. Improving existing episodes of care is also an important part of this initiative.

Finally, TennCare provided updates on its opioid prevention strategy and improvements to opioid prescriptions. Before the TN Together legislative package was passed last year, more than 40 percent of prescriptions for first time and acute opioid users were 7-day supplies or more. Since the legislation was implemented, over 90 percent of those prescriptions have been for 6 days or less. Additionally, the state has seen the biggest decrease in opioid prescriptions paid for by TennCare, as well as the first decline in babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) since 2011.

Transportation and Safety Committee briefed on the future of autonomous vehicles in Tennessee

The changing transportation industry was highlighted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) this week in a presentation to the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee. TDOT officials talked about the future of connected and automated vehicles (CAV’s) and how this emerging technology will affect Tennesseans.

Toks Omishakin, TDOT Deputy Commissioner, described the three main types of CAV’s. Automated vehicles, which have technology to assist the driver so that elements of the driving task can be transferred to a computer, are already on the roads. This is in addition to connected vehicles which are equipped with devices to communicate with other vehicles on the road and transportation infrastructure. Limited self-driving cars are expected to be on the road in the next two years, whereas those which utilize full automation are still many years from becoming a reality in the state.

Omishakin explained that autonomous vehicles will benefit Tennessee roadways by decreasing road fatalities and improving safety. The technology will reduce congestion, increase fuel efficiency and create new mobility opportunities for seniors and disabled individuals. However, there are also many challenges facing self-driving cars. Before these vehicles are on the road, it will be necessary to develop a new legal framework for safety, determine infrastructure, and technical standards, regulate data processing and cyber security, as well as address liability issues.

In the past four years, the General Assembly has passed five laws relating to autonomous vehicles. Omishakin said that Tennessee’s regulation-friendly environment will create a conducive environment for the vehicles. The state is well equipped to lead the nation in these discussions with some of the largest automobile manufacturers based in Tennessee, such as Nissan, General Motors, and Volkswagen, as well as technology industry leaders such as Oak Ridge National Labs, University of Tennessee Space Institute, and Vanderbilt University.

Projects in the works to advance autonomous vehicle technology in Tennessee include preparing Interstate-24, the most congested roadway in the state, to be a “Smart Corridor” as a way to reduce congestion without spending billions of dollars.

Report on college remediation rates maps challenges for Tennessee schools, colleges and policy makers

Although Tennessee’s college remediation rates have improved, many challenges remain according to information provided to the Senate Education Committee by Mike Krause, Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Approximately 46 percent of high school students entering the state’s public colleges and universities need remedial math, while 30 percent need help with reading skills.

The need for remediation is determined by the student’s ACT test. The test is based on a 36 composite score, with 18 being the cut off point for determining remedial coursework. The need for remediation varies dramatically among the state’s 300 high schools. As determined by county, that number ranged from 95 percent to 6 percent in math, and from 95 percent to 2 percent in reading, with students in counties deemed at-risk or distressed being most in need of remedial services. The statistics in the report do not include students who are not enrolled in college. The data reflects a decline from over 70 percent who needed remediation in 2011.

Krause said this status also affects a student’s likeliness to graduate. The data shows that there is a stark 13- to 16-point difference in college completion rates for these students as compared to their counterparts. There is also a 10 percent gap in the drop-out rate for first-year college students who require remediation when contrasted with other students.

Remediation classes are taken concurrently with the student’s credit-bearing courses to improve success. Tennessee also has the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) program which targets students that have not achieved college readiness benchmarks by introducing college developmental curriculum their senior year of high school.

Krause emphasized the need to share the data with education leaders across Tennessee to focus on measures which can be taken to improve student success. He also stressed the importance of teacher preparation programs in the state’s colleges and universities.

In Brief

State Attorney General — The full Senate heard two readings of a resolution that would allow voters to change the way Tennessee’s Attorney General is selected by amending the State Constitution. Senate Joint Resolution 1 calls for an open nomination process by the Tennessee Supreme Court in selecting the state’s highest legal officer. It would then be followed by a confirmation vote of the nominee by a majority of both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly. Constitutional resolutions require three readings before a vote is taken. A final vote in the Senate is scheduled for February 21.

Virtual Public School Act Extension — Legislation extending the state’s Virtual Public School Act until 2023 was approved by the full Senate. The legislature passed the Virtual Public School Act in 2011. The act defines virtual schools as public schools that use technology to educate their students using the internet in an online or remote setting. Under this law, virtual schools must adhere to the same laws as traditional public schools on curriculum standards, class size, length of school year, regular student assessments, and teacher qualifications. Tennessee school districts can start and manage their own virtual schools or can contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity for curriculum services. The intent of Senate Bill 20 is to ensure that virtual public schools operating in the state are providing quality education to enrolled students.

Unmanned Drones — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 349 this week amending the state’s current law prohibiting drones from taking photos of individuals or events at an open-air venue event to include the dropping of items or substances. The current law applies to the unmanned aircrafts at ticketed events when more than 100 people are gathered for protection of the public and event organizers. Violation is subject to a Class C misdemeanor under the legislation.

Adoption / Post-Adoption Contracts — Senate Judiciary Committee members adopted two bills last week improving Tennessee’s adoption laws. Current Tennessee law does not permit adoptive parents to enter court-enforceable agreements with the biological parent regarding post-adoption contact which could include such provisions as visitation on special occasions. This prohibition is out of step with a majority of states that now permit parties to enter into court-enforceable post-adoption contact agreements (“PACAs”). While retaining the ability of parties to an adoption to enter into non-enforceable arrangements, Senate Bill 207 permits those parties to elect to enter into a court-enforceable agreement. The second bill approved by the committee cleans up a comprehensive adoption law passed by the General Assembly last year by incorporating already existing abuse crimes in the definition of “severe child abuse” as a ground for termination of parental rights. Senate Bill 208 also deletes a termination ground against putative fathers and removes any criminal penalty for failing to provide information on a biological father who is not a putative or legal father. Finally, it clarifies that a man cannot be a putative father if DNA testing excludes one as the biological father. Both bills now go the floor of the Senate for final consideration.

New Jobs / Fed Ex Logistics — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe and FedEx Logistics announced this week that the company will move its headquarters to downtown Memphis, where it will invest $44 million and create 689 jobs. FedEx Logistics, headquartered in Memphis, is a FedEx Corporation subsidiary and provides worldwide freight forwarding services that can help increase supply chain efficiency and drive down costs by replacing a maze of channels with one global distribution command and control center. FedEx Logistics integrates international freight forwarding, customs brokerage, trade and customs advisory services, and other cross-border service to create comprehensive solutions to international trade. The company has approximately 22,000 employees worldwide.

Prison Workers — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week to protect workers at Tennessee’s penal institutions from lewd and indecent actions by prisoners. Presently, the offense of indecent exposure in a penal institution applies to actions committed against guards. Senate Bill 80 would expand the offense to indecent actions committed against any staff member.

Smoking on Playgrounds — The full Senate unanimously passed permissive legislation this week which allows Knox County, the City of Knoxville, and Farragut to prohibit smoking on any playground in which they own or operate. Action on Senate Bill 9 now moves to the House of Representatives where it has been assigned to the Cities and Counties Subcommittee for consideration.

Military Families / In-State Tuition — Legislation aiding spouses and dependent children of active members of the U.S. Armed Forces was approved by the Senate Education Committee. Senate Bill 242 requires the state’s public colleges and universities to classify a student who is the spouse or a dependent of a service member as an in-state student for tuition purposes. The legislation applies to students transferred out of Tennessee as a result of military orders to ensure they keep their in-state tuition status.

Military / Handgun Carry Permit — The full Senate approved legislation last week that allows a Handgun Carry Permit to remain valid beyond the expiration date if the person is an active member of the United States Armed Forces who is stationed outside of Tennessee. Senate Bill 95 simply requires the Department of Safety to add language to the back of a Tennessee Handgun Carry Permit card that clarifies that the permit remains valid beyond the expiration date if the permit holder can provide documentation of the holder’s active military status and duty station outside the state.

Readiness Training (IRT) Civil-Military Partnership Program –On Thursday, Senate Bill 53 was passed unanimously by the Senate to enable licensed military health professionals to open “One Day Clinics” in rural Tennessee counties within the Mississippi River Delta region. The Department of Defense created this innovative readiness training program in order to “produce mission ready forces.” This bill creates limited licensing exemptions for out of state military healthcare professionals to participate in this program while in Tennessee.