List of Bills to be Enacted July 1, from the State Senate of Tennessee; June 20, 2012:
Budget — The 2012-2013 budget, which begins July 1, 2012, spends $31 billion, nearly $1 billion less than the almost $32 billion estimated for the current budget year. It incorporates $50 million in tax cuts for Tennesseans. It also provided funding for several key public safety initiatives, including tougher sentences for certain gang-related crimes and gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions, along with mandatory incarceration for repeat domestic violence offenders.
Highlights of the budget include:
- $50 million increase in the Rainy Day fund
- $50 million in reduced taxes ($15 million in inheritance tax cuts, $15 million in gift tax cuts and $22 million in food tax cuts)
- $160 million in salary improvements, including a 2.5 percent raise for all employees, $30 million for salary market adjustments and $5 million for step raises
- $84 million for economic development
- $80 million for public safety and corrections programs
- $561 million for capital outlay, including $335 million for higher education, the first significant investment in 5 years
- Restores $125 million of the core services that were scheduled to go away July 1
- Full funding for the Basic Education Program.
- In addition, the budget provides $335,000 for maintenance of the West Tennessee River Basin Authority; $4 million to increase the daily per diem payment to local jails by $2 from $35 to $37; $375,000 to fund a poison control center that provides statewide services; and $5 million for Tennessee career centers to address the past practice of funding annual operating expenses with non-recurring federal dollars.
- It also provide $122,000 to fund legislation that requires unemployment recipients to verify their job search efforts and $115,500 to fund an online system to send businesses unemployment insurance notices electronically and to allow employers to submit relevant information electronically.
- A continued commitment to the West Tennessee Megasite with $25 million.
Reduction of Sales Tax on Food – Among the three tax cut bills approved this year was legislation to reduce the state portion of the sales tax on grocery food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, with the goal of lowering it to 5.0 percent in three years. Senate Bill 3763 has been a goal of many Republicans in the General Assembly over the past several years. This year it was included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package and was funded in the budget, which gave it a major boost towards passage.
Senate Bill 3763 / House Bill 3761 / Norris, Crowe, Ketron, Yager, Kelsey, Beavers, Massey, Bell, Faulk, Campfield, Gresham, Johnson, Roberts, Southerland, Summerville, Tracy, Watson / PC 1058 / DOE: 7/1/12
Tennessee Regulatory Authority — Legislation reconstituting the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA), which regulates utilities across the state, advanced through the General Assembly this year. The TRA is currently governed by four full-time members, called directors, with salaries of $152,000 per year. Senate Bill 2247 replaces them with five part-time members who are paid $36,000 and a full-time executive director to manage the agency’s day to day operations.
The legislation follows deregulation of many industries previously governed by the TRA, including the trucking and phone industries and most electric utilities. The TRA does not regulate the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) or other utilities owned by local government. As a result, only 19 rate cases have come before the agency since 2003. The legislation also follows a comptroller report which showed that the TRA needs a better management structure to optimize functions of the agency.
The legislation requires monthly meetings unless waived by a majority vote. It also creates an executive director position to be appointed by joint agreement among the governor and the speakers of the House and Senate for the initial three-year term and establishes the minimum qualifications to ensure a high level of competency. Afterwards the board would appoint the director.
Thirty one other states have an Executive Director at the helm of similar agencies. The new Executive Director would also do a top to bottom review of the TRA to see where further savings can be realized, while emphasizing a more effective agency for Tennessee rate-payers and the industries who come before them.
Senate Bill 2247 / House Bill 2385 / Norris, Faulk / PC 1070 / For purpose of setting the compensation of existing directors who are serving unexpired terms, Section 7 shall take effect 1/1/13, For all other purposes, this act shall take effect 7/1/12
Local Government / Retirement for New Hires — A new law giving local governments several new retirement options for new hires within the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System received approval this year. The changes would not affect K-12 teachers, state employees or higher education employees who are covered under the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS).
The options include:
- Maintain the current Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System defined benefit plan
- Maintain the current TCRS defined benefit plan provisions but requires each new hire to contribute either zero percent of the employee’s salary, 2.5 percent of the employee’s salary or 5.0 percent of the employee’s salary
- Adopt an alternative benefit plan, similar to the current plan, which provides a reduced retirement benefit formula of 1.4 percent.
- Adopt a hybrid defined benefit plan similar to the alternate defined benefit plan, except for a retirement benefit formula of 1.0 percent and the local government must also offer a defined contribution plan to the employee. A cost-of-living adjustment based on changes in the consumer price index is also required in the defined benefit plan.
The legislation was developed by Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard following meetings held throughout Tennessee with more than 200 local government representatives last fall.
Drug Test / Welfare Recipients – In major action, the General Assembly voted in favor of legislation which calls for drug testing for welfare applicants. The new law applies to testing for illegal use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine and opiates such as morphine, with the possibility that other drugs could be added later by rules set forth under the bill. Senate Bill 2580 applies to adult recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program but does not affect those who need pre-natal care.
Under the federal Welfare Reform Act passed in 1996, states were authorized to conduct drug testing for TANF recipients. The bill does not affect aid provided to children under the program.
The implementation will occur in phases over a two-year period under the bill, with status reports regarding the matter being sent to the General Health and Welfare Committees in the legislature on a quarterly basis. It calls for the Department of Human Services to develop appropriate screening techniques and processes to establish reasonable cause that an applicant for TANF is using a drug illegally. The applicant could then be required to undergo a urine-based drug test to be conducted by a drug testing agency. If the applicant tests positive, the drug test would have to be verified by a confirmation test before TANF benefits could be denied. No drug for which an applicant has a current valid prescription could be used as a basis for denial of benefits.
The drug testing plan also includes a referral process for any applicant who tests positive to be referred to an appropriate treatment resource for drug abuse. If the applicant is otherwise eligible during the treatment period, he or she can receive TANF benefits during the treatment period for up to six months. If the applicant refuses treatment, he or she would be disqualified. After six months of disqualification, the applicant can reapply, but upon testing positive again he or she would become ineligible for one year.
Loser Pays Tort Reform — Parties and their counsel will now have financial incentive not to file frivolous claims under legislation passed by the General Assembly this year. When a trial court grants or denies a motion to dismiss for a claim deemed invalid under Tennessee law, reasonable and necessary attorney’s fees up to $10,000 can be paid to the prevailing party under the new law. This “loser pays” legislation, which encourages parties not to file lawsuits until they have confirmed they have a claim that is valid, is an important protection for small businesses.
Hospital Coverage Assessment Fee — Lawmakers voted to continue the hospital assessment adopted for the past two years to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to Tennessee hospitals through passage of Senate bill 2766.
The hospitals asked the General Assembly to enact the coverage assessment for another year in order to raise $450 million in state funds to draw down $870.5 million in matching federal funds. The assessment is used to draw down federal funds available through a Medicaid match program approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). It will continue to provide the critical dollars necessary to provide hospitals a portion of their unreimbursed TennCare costs.
A few examples of programs that would be affected without the assessment, in addition to the reduction in payments to hospitals and health professionals, are: critical access hospitals; the Graduate Medical Education program; 8-visit limit imposed on outpatient services, x-rays, and physician office procedures; various therapies; and, the enrollment cap for the medically needy. The bill’s language ensures that the coverage assessment cannot be passed along to patients.
Name Change / Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services – The General Assembly voted this year to change the name of the Department of Mental Health to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The change in the name was made to reflect the services provided by the Department and its staff.
Women’s Health / Abortion — Legislation was passed to create a safer climate for abortion-vulnerable women by requiring that physicians performing abortions have hospital admitting privileges in the same community. The bill would help women who have complications following an abortion to receive better post-abortion care if they need to be hospitalized by making sure the physician responsible and knowledgeable of her specific condition and health history can care for her there after she is admitted.
The bill follows testimony that patients are left to fend for themselves for emergency follow-up care. Experts maintain that complications of any procedure are best managed by those providers with the most experience in the particular field.
Embryo / Fetal Homicide — A bill has been approved to broaden the offenses for assault and criminal homicide committed against pregnant women to include an embryo in addition to a fetus as passed in 2011. The bill ensures that perpetrators are punished regardless of the viability of the victim.
Nursing homes / Physicians – A new law was passed which provides a monumental change to the way medical care is delivered to nursing home patients. The measure allows a nursing home facility to directly hire a doctor. The bill was modeled after the corporate practice law that was passed in 1996 to allow hospitals to hire doctors. This action should lead to better care and shorter, less frequent trips to hospitals for nursing home patients.
Synthetic Drugs — Major legislation attacking the growing problem of synthetic or “designer” drug abuse passed through the State Legislature this year. The products are often sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food” but are comprised of a class of chemicals perceived as mimics of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine. The effects include impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes. Experts say the long-term physical and psychological effects of the drug are unknown but warn they could be severe.
The General Assembly has passed laws previously to ban the chemical compound used in synthetic drugs; however, unscrupulous chemists manufacturing the drugs continue to modify molecules in the organic compound to avoid prosecution. By the time a new synthetic drug is discovered and banned, another altered form of the compound has taken its place.
Synthetic drug products, which have become increasingly popular among teens and young adults, are sold at a variety of retail outlets like convenience stores, smoke shops and over the Internet. They commonly feature cartoon characters on package labels. Some law enforcement authorities have said that due to the huge increase, the dangerous substance has the potential to eclipse methamphetamine as the most dangerous drug in Tennessee. Poison centers, hospitals and law enforcement officers in Tennessee report a sharp increase in the number of persons who have suffered harmful effects from using various synthetic drug products.
Senate Bill 3018 attacks synthetic drug abuse by defining it to capture any analogues, which are chemical compounds having a similar structure to the banned drug. This legislation creates a new Class D felony offense for a person to knowingly manufacture, deliver, dispense or sell a controlled substance analogue. The proposal elevates penalties upon a second or subsequent violation to a Class C felony. If the violation involves the delivery, dispensing or sale of a controlled substance analogue to a minor, the offender will be punished one classification higher than the punishment for delivering, dispensing or selling to an adult. The bill also creates a new Class A misdemeanor offense for a person knowingly possess or casually exchange under a gram of a controlled substance analogue.
A second bill, Senate Bill 2280, makes it a Class E felony to possess, use or sell synthetic substances intended to imitate controlled substances. The bill is modeled after laws currently in place in Florida and Virginia.
Another bill was approved this year which adds chemical compounds considered to be derivatives of methcathinone to the Class A misdemeanor offense of production, manufacture, distribution, possession or sale of synthetic derivatives or analogues of methcathinone. This drug is a Schedule I psychoactive stimulant which is highly addictive and illegal in the United States for clinical use. The legislation removes the intent requirement from the offense of possession of synthetic derivatives or analogues of methcathinone.
Curbing Domestic Violence — Legislation which strengthens penalties for domestic violence met the approval of lawmakers this year. The “Repeat Domestic Violence Offender” bill prescribes mandatory jail time and enhanced fines for repeat offenders.
Tennessee is ranked fifth in the nation for women murdered by men as a result of domestic violence.
Senate Bill 2251 provides at least 30 days in jail and a fine ranging from $350 to $3,500 for those convicted of a second offense for domestic violence when bodily injury occurs. Upon a third or a subsequent conviction, the mandatory jail time would increase to 90 days and a fine ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. In counting prior convictions, the bill provides for a ten-year look back provision for domestic violence due to serious bodily injury similar to the one used in the state’s drunk driving law.
Senate Bill 2251 / House Bill 2389 / Norris, Overbey, Kyle, Yager, Barnes, Beavers, Bell, Berke, Burks, Campfield, Crowe, Faulk, Finney L, Ford, Gresham, Harper, Haynes, Herron, Johnson, Ketron, Marrero , Massey, McNally, Roberts, Southerland, Stewart, Summerville, Tate, Tracy, Watson, Ramsey / PC 987 / DOE: 7/1/12
Gangs / Violence — Among the anti-crime bills passed this year is a measure to address gang violence in Tennessee. Senate Bill 2252 bumps up penalties by one classification if “a crime of force or violence is committed while acting in concert with two or more other persons.” The bill addresses certain types of serious crimes not covered by the state’s “Crooks with Guns” law. A person robbed by a gang has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death than a person robbed by an individual attacker.
The “Crooks with Guns” laws were designed to curb gun-related violence and focus resources on keeping these criminals behind bars longer to protect the public. This is a continuation of those efforts to give law enforcement authorities stronger tools to curb violence in Tennessee.
Gangs / RICO — A separate bill attacking gang violence was approved this year that expands the definition of racketeering activity under the state’s RICO statue to include the commission of or attempt to commit, solicit or coerce a criminal gang offense. Senate Bill 3005 makes it easier to prosecute gang members and increases penalties for gang-related activities to a Class B felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 20 years. The bill specifies that, for the purposes of the above offense, a person commits “racketeering activity” who commits, attempts or conspires to commit, or solicits or coerces another person to commit a criminal gang offense.
Under the state’s RICO law, law enforcement authorities would have to show that those arrested are gang members through previous convictions and that they have profited by their affiliation and illegal activity.
Felons with Firearms – Legislation was enacted prescribing tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions. Before, illegal possession of a firearm for convicted violent felons was punishable as a Class E felony, which carries a one to six-year sentence and up to $3,000 in fines. The new law increases the offense to a Class C felony, which is punishable by a 3 to 15-year sentence and up to $10,000 in fines for convicted felons carrying a firearm whose crime involved the use of force, violence or a deadly weapon. The punishment is a Class D felony, under the new law, for felons whose conviction involved a drug offense.
Over the last 10 years, approximately 19,000 people arrested in Memphis possessed a firearm when charged. About thirty percent of those arrested had been previously convicted. The scope of the problem has increased due to a rise in drug trafficking and gang activity. The proliferation of crimes involving firearms pointed to the need for a “more effective hammer” to deter felons from going armed.
Corrections — Legislation that gives the State Department of Corrections the authority to supervise probation and parole services has passed. The new law aims to provide a seamless one person contact for offenders throughout the entire criminal justice system. This bill was part of the administration’s top to bottom review of departments and agencies conducted last year. The consolidation of these agencies will reduce the competition for providers and allow for continuity of a single point of contact. Forty states operate under a consolidated system, which is widely recognized as the best practice in corrections. The existing organizational structure that actually performs under the Board of Pardons and Parole will remain intact upon transfer to the Department of Corrections.
Ponzi Schemes / Stiffer Punishment – Legislation was approved during the 2012 legislative session that allows District Attorneys in Tennessee to more effectively prosecute and punish those who defraud multiple victims through Ponzi schemes or other fraudulent investment practices. Before, Tennessee law would only have allowed criminals like Bernie Madoff who defraud multiple victims to be punished by 8 to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
This bill allows prosecutors to aggregate the sum in order to provide stiffer punishment when it totals $250,000 or more. The new law makes the crime a Class A felony subject to 15 to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Theft / Scrap Metal — Legislation designed to reduce the growing problem of metal theft in Tennessee was signed into law this year. Stolen metals can have great value when sold to a scrap metal dealer who arranges for the metal to be melted and reshaped for other uses. This legislation puts stiffer penalties into place on both the selling and the purchasing ends of transactions involving stolen metals. It also gives the Department of Commerce and Insurance more enforcement authority over its scrap dealer registration program.
The new law prohibits a person from selling scrap metal that he or she knows to be stolen. It prescribes that the knowing sale of stolen scrap metal shall be punished as theft and graded according to the value of the metal. The legislation creates a Class E “fine only” felony, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, for selling or attempting to sell metal to a scrap metal dealer if the aggregate value of the metal in its original condition and the costs incurred in repairing and recovering any property damaged in the theft exceeds $500.
Similarly, the law makes it a Class A misdemeanor for a dealer to knowingly or intentionally violate the law, unless the metal is in its original and undamaged condition. If the value of the metal, in addition to any costs for repairs exceeds $500, it is a Class E “fine only” felony.
In addition, the new law makes it a misdemeanor offense for someone to engage in the business of buying scrap metal without being registered unless the metal is in its original and undamaged condition. Unregistered dealers convicted of violating this provision face a Class A misdemeanor under the statute.
Finally, the bill authorizes the Department of Commerce to investigate a verified, written complaint against any scrap metal dealer alleged to have committed a violation when evidence is presented. The Department must provide notice regarding any hearings and sanctions involving scrap metal dealers.
Senate Bill 2895 / House Bill 3246 / Tracy, Burks / PC 969 / For purposes of promulgating rules and regulations, this act shall take effect upon becoming a law, the public welfare requiring it. For all other purposes, this act shall take effect on July 1, 2012.
Illegal Aliens / Risk of Flight — The General Assembly voted to approve a measure that allows the court clerk to set bail for traffic violations at a higher amount than normally permitted for a defendant who is unlawfully present in the U.S. and is deemed a risk of flight.
Aggravated Rape / Multiple Offenders – The General Assembly approved major sex offender legislation which requires a person convicted of aggravated rape on or after July 1, 2012 to serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by the court undiminished by any sentence reduction credits the person may be eligible for or earn. The new law redefines “multiple rapist” to mean a person convicted two or more times of rape, or a person convicted of at least one time of aggravated rape and at least one time of rape.
Sex Offenders / Indecent Exposure — Senate Bill 3076 was approved by the General Assembly this year revising the punishment for the offenses of public indecency and indecent exposure. It specifies that indecent exposure would be a Class E felony if the defendant is 18 years of age or older and the victim is under 13 years of age and the offense occurs on the property of any public school, private or parochial school, licensed day care center or other child care facility during a time at which children are likely to be present. It also provides that if a person is charged with such Class E felony offense and the court grants judicial diversion, the court must order, as a condition of probation, that the person be enrolled in a satellite-based monitoring program for the full extent of the person’s term of probation in a manner consistent with the requirements of the Tennessee Serious and Violent Sex Offender Monitoring Pilot Project Act.
Sexual Exploitation of Children – State legislators voted to remove the statute of limitations in certain cases involving child rape and sexual exploitation. The bill provides that a person may be prosecuted, tried and punished for producing obscene material, sexual exploitation of a minor, aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor or especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, no later than 25 years from the date the child becomes 18 years of age.
Sex Offenders / Registration — Legislation was passed calling for judicial forfeiture of a registered sex offender’s automobile if he or she is found to be in violation of the Tennessee Sexual Offender and Violent Sexual Offender Registration, Verification and Tracking Act. Senate Bill 3635 allows judges to consider forfeiture when the registered offender violates the terms of the Registry Act by being at a day care, school or other place in which he or she is banned.
Minor Victim / Undercover Officer — Members of the General Assembly passed legislation to correct an error in current law to ensure that prosecution and conviction is authorized for displaying sexual activity to a minor via electronic communication. The law would apply regardless of whether the victim is a minor or an undercover police officer posing as a minor.
Human Trafficking / Victim’s Defense — Senate Bill 2590 states that it is a defense to prosecution when a person charged with prostitution is charged for conduct that occurred because a person was a victim as defined under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Human Trafficking / Sexual Servitude — Similarly, Senate Bill 2371 was approved which replaces the existing Class B felony offense of “trafficking for sexual servitude” with “trafficking a person for a commercial sex act” and adds the attempt to subject, benefit from, or attempt to benefit from another person’s provision of a commercial sex act. The bill clarifies that the offense of trafficking a person for a commercial sex act would be a Class A felony if the victim is a child under 15 years of age and adds that the offense is a Class A felony if the offense occurs on the grounds or facilities or within 1,000 feet of a public or private school, secondary school, preschool, child care agency, public library, recreational center or public park.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that one in four children who run away are approached for commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home.
This new law also adds the offense of advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor, which is committed when a person knowingly sells or offers to sell an advertisement that would appear to a reasonable person to be for the purpose of engaging in what would be a commercial sex act with a minor. The bill prescribes a violation would be a Class C felony upon conviction. In addition to any authorized period of incarceration, advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor would be punishable by a minimum fine of $10,000 under the new state statute. In a prosecution for advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor, the legislation says it is not a defense that the defendant did not know the age of the minor depicted in the advertisement.
Human Trafficking / Civil Recourse — Legislation was approved during the 107th General Assembly that gives victims of human trafficking a civil cause of action to sue the person who has victimized them. The purpose of this new law is to help restore trafficking victims financially at the expense of the trafficker.
FGM / Abuse – The State Legislature voted to strengthen current law banning female genital mutilation (FGM) by approving a bill that requires healthcare providers to report it to law enforcement authorities in the same way gunshot wounds or meth fires are reported. Female genital mutilation is practiced on young girls and women in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as locations in the United States where FGM-practicing immigrants reside, including Tennessee. Last year, 21 cases were reported in Tennessee hospitals without specific reporting requirements for FGM in place.
Current law requires healthcare providers and facilities to report injuries to patients that are a result of violence to local law enforcement personnel, and failure to do so is a Class A misdemeanor. Likewise, Senate Bill 2559 requires health care providers to report injuries that result from illegal FGM to the appropriate law enforcement officials and the district attorney general.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM. The practice, which has serious health risks, is widely acknowledged as a human rights violation against women.
Dual Credit Courses — Likewise, a bill to ensure students will receive college credit for dual credit courses that they complete successfully in high school was approved by the Tennessee General Assembly. Dual credit is a type of college credit by assessment that occurs when a high school student passes a course that has been created in collaboration with a higher education institution. The student then takes a test to prove their proficiency.
Dual credit courses allow high school students to receive college credit for certain courses with a more rigorous college level curriculum. These courses are becoming more common in Tennessee high schools and are exceptional tools in preparing and encouraging high school students to attend college. However, many students have not been able to get the credit in college because of the transferability issue.
Senate Bill 2809 requires public postsecondary institutions to accept for credit any dual credit course developed by another public postsecondary institution in collaboration with a high school if the student passes the course and a college proficiency test. The legislation specifies credit would only be provided when the student enrolls in college.
Reasonable Force by School Personnel / School Bus Drivers – Similarly, Senate Bill 3640 was passed into law this year which regulates student conduct on school buses. The bill authorizes any teacher, principal, school employee or school bus driver, in exercising the person’s lawful authority, to use reasonable force when necessary under the circumstances to correct or restrain a student or prevent bodily harm or death to another person. This measure expands present law to include assaulting a school bus driver or other school personnel with vulgar, obscene or threatening language as conduct for which it is appropriate to suspend a student. The legislation also creates a defense against a civil action for damages when the action is based on intentional assault, personal injury or injury to the personal property of a student or school personnel that a teacher, principal, school employee or school bus driver, in the exercise of the person’s lawful authority, used reasonable force that was necessary to restrain the student or to prevent bodily harm or death to another person.
Teachers / College Professors — State Senators approved Senate Bill 2302 which calls for the Department of Education to issue a license to individuals who have taught in an eligible college or university to teach in Tennessee schools in grades nine through twelve. The bill applies to those with two or more years of full-time experience during the last five years either as a faculty member or as an adjunct faculty member, or three of the last five years part-time experience as long as they have good moral character and are in good standing with the higher education institution. They must submit for review at least three years of documented teaching evaluations that rate the applicant for licensure as proficient or better in the subject area.
The legislation also requires applicants to provide a notarized statement from the college or university in which they were employed regarding their standing, a list of courses taught, and any disciplinary action taken, including sexual harassment or dishonest behavior. The license would contain an endorsement that specifically authorizes the individual to teach only in the subject area previously taught at the postsecondary institution. In addition, the applicant must successfully complete all exams required for the licensure of the subject area. They must attend in-service training sessions and participate in a mentoring program to be established by the State Board of Education.
Charter Schools / Recruitment of Foreign Workers with H1B Visa — The House and Senate gave final approval to legislation to enhance transparency in the use of public funds by charter schools. This new statute provides additional information for families who might be exploring a charter school option for their student.
Public charter schools, like public schools, use taxpayer money. The funding disclosure provision of the bill is intended to provide transparency in the use of public funds so that parents have information and can make informed decisions about where they want to send their children to school.
The bill addresses a situation where a charter school would direct its recruitment overseas at workers who are neither present in the U.S. nor eligible to apply for a H1B visa. The limit for foreign worker recruitment is only applied at the discretion of the chartering authority, typically the local school district.
Family Life Education — State lawmakers voted to clarify that sex education curriculum in Tennessee is to be abstinence-based and abstinence-centered. The action comes after reports that some curriculum has been centered on risk avoidance which is in conflict with Tennessee’s current law. The new state statute empowers parents to file a civil action if a public school or third party provider promotes “gateway sexual activity.” It calls for the State Board of Education to develop curriculum that can be used by local boards of education to help the teen understand the wide range of effects of early sexual activity on the student and encourages communication with parents or guardians. The Family life education would begin in the ninth grade under the bill unless the most recent health statistics for a county indicates that pregnancy rates exceed 19.5 pregnancies per 1,000 females aged 15 through 17, in which case family life education may begin in the fifth grade. Tennessee has the 7th highest pregnancy rate and 11th worst HIV infection rate in the nation among teens.
Schools / Extracurricular Activities — State legislators approved a measure calling for local education agencies to put the names of all clubs or school-associated extracurricular activities and their purpose in the student handbook. The bill would give parents the opportunity to prohibit membership through written notice to the school.
Cyberbullying — The General Assembly approved legislation that revises a law passed last year regarding cyberbullying through the use of electronic devices. Senate Bill 2556 removes the words “frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress” to a victim in the state’s current cyberbullying law and replaces them with the word “threaten.” The revision limits the offense of harassment by display of an image to cases in which the defendant communicates without legitimate purpose with the intent that it will be viewed by the victim with the malicious intent to threaten them. It must also be in a manner in which the defendant knows or reasonably should know, would threaten a similarly situated person.
The bill requires each Local Education Agency (LEA), at the beginning of the school year, to provide teachers and school counselors with a copy of the bullying policy and its implementation process, information on prevention and strategies to address bullying and harassment when it happens, as well as relevant training on the issue. Teachers and parents would also be given information relative to bullying prevention and programs to promote awareness of its harmful effects. In addition, the bill requires annual reports regarding the number of bullying cases brought to the attention of school officials and the manner in which they were resolved or the reason they are pending.
The action comes after two children within a thirty-mile radius of metro Nashville committed suicide over the past six months, with indications pointing to cyberbullying. Minors who are found guilty under the cyberbullying law would be subject to 30 days of public service work.
Board of Judicial Conduct / Replaces Court of the Judiciary – Legislation that dissolves Tennessee’s Court of the Judiciary on July 1, 2012 and replaces it with the Board of Judicial Conduct has been approved. The Court of the Judiciary was created by the legislature to investigate and, when warranted, act on complaints against judges. The Court has broad jurisdiction to internally investigate, hear and determine charges sufficient to warrant discipline or removal of a judge.
The action to reconstitute the body comes after the Court of the Judiciary received criticism for ineffectiveness in disciplining judges and for secrecy in its proceedings. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings last year regarding discipline of judges after it was reported there were 344 complaints leveled against Tennessee judges in 2010, with only one resulting in a public reprimand. One of the most frequent concerns was that judges did not recuse themselves from hearing a case where there was a conflict of interest or possible bias against one of the parties.
The new Board will consist of 16 members that will serve for a term of three years and be eligible for reappointment to one additional term. This legislation requires the board, on a quarterly basis, to file a report with the chairs of the judiciary committees of each house detailing at least the number of complaints against judges filed during the previous quarter and the disposition of each complaint. This bill also changes the burden of proof to investigate a judge to probable cause that misconduct occurred instead of substantial likelihood that it did and revises other provisions regarding complaints against judges.
The law aims to provide transparency and fairness to both complainants and judges. It also gives the Board a mechanism to use the new Rules of Judicial Conduct, which are nationally recognized as a model for other states, adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Senate Bill 2671 / House Bill 2935 / Faulk, Beavers, Ramsey, Overbey, Tracy, Johnson, Ketron, Ford, Gresham, Kelsey / PC 819 / DOE: For purposes of appointing the members of the board of judicial conduct created by this act, it shall take effect upon becoming a law. For all other purposes, it shall take effect on 7/1/12.
Judicial Diversion — The State Senate and House of Representatives unanimously approved legislation which makes state or local officials who have committed a crime during their term of office ineligible for consideration of either pre-trial or judicial diversion. The new law simply adds a criminal offense committed by officials in the executive, legislative or judicial branch to the list of those which are ineligible for judicial diversion, if the crime was committed in their official capacity or involved the duties of their office.
Judicial diversion is a process in criminal law where a person pleads guilty to a crime and can later have the charge removed (or expunged) from their record following a period of probation. It is granted by the judge, hence its name “judicial.” A person is eligible for judicial diversion in Tennessee if the person does not have a previous class A misdemeanor, felony conviction, or has never received diversion or had his or her record expunged before.
Public Officials / Insider Trading — The General Assembly approved Senate Bill 2788 which further clarifies Tennessee law regarding official misconduct for public servants who used their office for personal gain. Under present law, a public servant commits a Class E felony who, with intent to obtain a benefit or to harm another, intentionally or knowingly receives any benefit not otherwise authorized by law.
This new law further specifies that it is a crime for public servants to use non-public information derived from their position to profit from their official duties if they use that knowledge to purchase or sell tangible or intangible personal property. It also applies to using non-public knowledge to liquidate personal property with intent to make a profit. In addition, the new law allows for the ouster of any person convicted of such an offense and that he or she will be disqualified from holding any office under the laws or constitution of the state of Tennessee.
Motorcycle Safety / Children — The Senate and House of Representatives approved Senate Bill 74 which prohibits the operator of a motorcycle from transporting a child whose feet cannot reach the foot pegs as a passenger. The safety legislation prescribes a $50 fine for violation.
DUI / Ignition Interlock — A new law was approved which authorizes judges to order the use of an ignition interlock device for any person granted a restricted driver license. The order may be with or without geographical restrictions, but if the device is ordered, then it must remain on the vehicle during the entire period of the restricted license.
The Department of Safety reported a total of 22,119 DUI convictions during the last one-year reporting period.
DUI / Prescription Drugs — State legislators approved Senate Bill 2915 which brings clarity to Tennessee’s law regarding driving while under the influence of prescription drugs. The legislation ensures that state law does not provide an excuse or a defense for offenders who do not have physical control of their vehicles due to them being under the influence of an intoxicant drug prescribed lawfully.
DUI / Child Endangerment — A new law was passed that ensures a multiple DUI offender receives the appropriate punishment when he or she endangers a child in their vehicle by driving under the influence. Currently, multiple offenders do not receive an enhanced sentence like first offenders due to ambiguity in the language of a 2005 law which enhanced penalties for child endangerment for DUI offenders. Senate Bill 2607 makes sure state law is clear for multiple DUI offenders that the punishment for child endangerment, which is 30 days, runs consecutively with any other sentence received.
Agriculture / Swine — Senate Bill 2879 was passed by state lawmakers in 2012. This legislation makes it a Class A misdemeanor to knowingly transport wild-appearing swine into or within the state without appropriate documentation from the department of agriculture to keep diseases from spreading in Tennessee.
Impersonation of U.S. Armed Forces — Legislation that would make it a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person to falsely represent they are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces advanced through the legislature to become law. Senate Bill 2287 creates a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person falsely representing to be or to have been a member of the United States Armed Forces when their intentions are fraudulent.
Home Improvement Contractors / Consumers — The full Senate and House voted to clarify legislation passed in 2010 that required home improvement contractors to provide a physical mailing address to homeowners utilizing their services. Senate Bill 2486 closes a loophole in that law to ensure homeowners are notified if the home improvement contractor changes their address to ensure that homeowners can send any needed correspondence by certified mail.
Roofing / Storm Chasers / Consumers — Roofing contractors operating in Tennessee will have to provide residents whose homes are damaged due to tornadoes and other storms with more information about their company and about their rights to cancel contracts under a new law passed by the General Assembly this year.
Tennessee has suffered from several major storm outbreaks causing widespread roof damage in recent years. As a result, there have been complaints from homeowners who have had problems dealing with out-of-state roofing contractors that have reportedly taken advantage of homeowners.
Senate Bill 2714 requires that roofing contractors whose work is covered by an insurer must provide a homeowner with their address, phone number, email address, any applicable professional license number(s), and a detailed description of the damage to be claimed or covered by the provider’s contract with the consumer.
The contract must also contain a form notifying homeowners that there is a three day window of opportunity within which a contract for roofing services can be cancelled if notified by their insurance company that the repairs are not covered in whole or part by the insured’s homeowner’s policy. The new law requires the roofing services provider to return any payments made by the insured consumer within ten days of a valid cancellation. Finally, it prevents roofing contractors or their agents from telling homeowners they can negotiate a claim with an insurer unless they are also a licensed public adjuster. Any violations of these laws would be covered under Tennessee’s Consumer Protection Act of 1977.