As the Tennessee Legislature prepared to enter the final week of the 107th General Assembly, state senators acted on a wide variety of important bills, including a measure calling for drug testing for welfare applicants, a bill to curb domestic violence and two resolutions giving citizens the opportunity to vote on how the state’s appellate judges are selected. State Senators also voted to ensure the transferability of dual credit courses for high school students when they enroll in college and to prevent K-12 schools from discriminating against a student based on a religious viewpoint.
Meanwhile members of the Senate Finance Committee worked tirelessly to find common ground on the budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year that will begin on July 1. The remainder of the 2012 legislative session will be predominantly focused on bills which have a fiscal impact on the state’s budget. Tennessee is constitutionally bound to balance the budget. The Finance Committees in the House and the Senate reviewed legislation this week calling for additional appropriations to the financial package under consideration as lawmakers set priorities for inclusion in the budget.
Among key financial bills still awaiting final action in conjunction with passage of the budget is Senate Bill 3763, co-sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), 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. Beavers was the prime sponsor of the first legislation passed to reduce the sales tax on food. Similarly, Senate Bill 3762, co-sponsored by Senator Beavers, will be considered which would take the first step in a four-year process to phase out the state’s inheritance tax, also called the “death tax.” The tax cut bills, which have been a priority of Republican lawmakers for many years, are included in Governor Bill Haslam’s budget proposal.
Drug Test / Welfare Recipients – In major action this week, the Senate Finance Committee voted 8 to 3 in favor of legislation which calls for drug testing for welfare applicants. The bill would apply 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, sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), applies to adult recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.
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 would 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 would also include 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.
Curbing Domestic Violence -- Legislation which strengthens penalties for domestic violence overcame a major hurdle this week with passage by the Senate Finance Committee. The "Repeat Domestic Violence Offender" bill, which came to Finance Committee members from the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Senator Mae Beavers, 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 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 similar to the one used in the state’s drunk driving law.
The bill is part of a public safety package presented to the legislature by Governor Bill Haslam. It was recommended by a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group composed of more than 10 government agencies which held meetings with over 300 leaders in law enforcement.
Dual Credit Courses – A bill to ensure students will receive college credit for dual credit courses that they complete successfully in high school was approved by the Senate Finance Committee. 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.
Senate Bill 2809 would require 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.
Religious Expression in Public Schools – Action on the Senate floor this week included final approval of Senate Bill 3632 that would prevent a Local Education Agency (LEA) from discriminating against a student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject. The legislation requires an LEA to treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint the same as they would treat a voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint.
The bill would also allow students to organize a student prayer group, religious clubs or other religious gathering to the same extent that other non-curricular groups organize. Those religious groups would be given the same access to school facilities for assembly and the same opportunities to advertise such meetings as given to other non-curricula groups. In addition, the bill would allow a student to express religious beliefs in homework, artwork and other school-related assignments free from discrimination.
“The student would not be penalized or rewarded based on the religious content of the student’s work,” Roberts added.
Finally, the measure requires an LEA to adopt a policy that includes the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event at which a student is to publicly speak and a policy regarding voluntary student expression, among other provisions. The provisions of the legislation would begin in the 2013-2014 school year.
Issues in Brief
Change in method to select state’s Attorney General -- Legislation sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) that would allow Tennessee’s Governor to appoint the State Attorney General was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday and was read on the first and second of three readings before the full State Senate this week. Senate Joint Resolution 693 would amend the state’s Constitution to allow the Governor to appoint the Attorney General for a six-year term subject to legislative confirmation. Tennessee is the only state in the nation that allows the State Supreme Court to select the attorney general. Other states either call for popular election or the Attorney General is selected by either the popularly elected Governor or the state legislature.
Unemployment Insurance Reform – Legislation that would give job creators some much-needed certainly for unemployment rules advanced this week through the Senate Finance Committee. The bill revises certain provisions such as misconduct rules by individuals seeking unemployment benefits. Moreover, Senate bill 3658, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), specifies that "making a reasonable effort to secure work" means a claimant must provide detailed information regarding contact with at least three employers per week or must access services at a career center created by the Department.
Unemployment Insurance / Seasonal Workers – Similarly, Senate Finance Committee members approved Senate Bill 3657, sponsored by Senator Johnson, which establishes qualifications and criteria for determining benefit amounts paid to seasonal employees. The bill allows an employer to qualify as a "seasonal employer" for purposes of unemployment insurance benefits, and establishes the benefits an employee of a seasonal
worker will receive beginning in 2016.
Synthetic Drugs -- Senate Bill 3018 which defines synthetic drugs in a manner in which unscrupulous manufacturers cannot skirt the law to avoid prosecution is one step closer to passage after Finance Committee members voted to approve it. The bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), defines synthetic drugs 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 to possess or casually exchange under a gram of a controlled substance analogue.