State Senators continued to work through busy schedules this week on Capitol Hill, approving several important proposals including a proposal that calls for drug testing for welfare recipients with a past history for a drug arrest, measures to reduce the risk of flight by illegal aliens involved in traffic accidents and legislation to give teachers more authority over discipline in the classroom.
Drug Test / Welfare Recipients – The Senate Health and General Welfare Committee voted 7-1-1 in favor of legislation which calls for drug tests for applicants for Welfare benefits when that person has been arrested on a drug charge within five years. Senate Bill 2580 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.
Illegal Aliens / Risk of Flight -- The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 to approve Senate Bill 2604 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. The bill, which now goes to the Finance Committee, is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).
Similarly, Senator Beavers led passage of another measure through the Senate Judiciary Committee requiring an officer to arrest a driver involved in an accident that results in serious bodily injury or death when the driver lacks a valid driver’s license and evidence of financial responsibility. Beavers said Senate Bill 2350 prohibits the issuance of a citation in lieu of an arrest in such circumstances due to the risk of flight. The bill is named the “Ricky Otts Act.” Mr. Otts was killed by an unlicensed driver who was suspected of being in the country illegally.
Felons with Firearms – The full Senate voted this week to enact tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions. Currently, illegal possession of a firearm for convicted violent felons is punishable as a Class E felony, which carries a one to six-year sentence and up to $3,000 in fines. Senate Bill 2250 would increase 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 would be a Class D felony for felons whose conviction involved a drug offense. The bill will be heard on final consideration in the House of Representatives on Monday.
Gangs / Crime – Another bill attacking crime that was approved by the full Senate this week enhances penalties for certain gang-related crimes committed by groups of three or more people one classification higher than if they had acted alone. A person robbed or assaulted by more than one assailant has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death. Senate Bill 2252 cracking down on gangs and the “Felons with Firearms” bill are part of a package of public safety bills included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda. The bills were recommended by a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group that developed 11 objectives and 40 action steps in their multi-year safety action plan with the goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and drug trafficking; curbing violent crime; and lowering the rate of repeat offenders in Tennessee.
Historic Documents / Ten Commandments -- Legislation authorizing local governments to display replicas of historic documents such as the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Ten Commandments has passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee. Senate Bill 2641, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), would apply to county or municipal public buildings or grounds and would allow replicas to be displayed in the form of statues, monuments, or any other display that respects the dignity of the documents.
Prescription Drug Abuse -- The Senate Health and Welfare Committee has approved a proposal to curb prescription drug abuse by requiring doctors or their designees to check the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database for patients’ prescription history before prescribing an opioid or benzodiazepine substance. Senate Bill 2253 which is included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, requires pharmacies to collect a patient’s prescription information and report that information to the database within seven days. Currently it must be reported within 40 days. The bill also enhances penalties for doctor shopping from a Class A misdemeanor offense to a Class E Felony when it involves 250 or more pills. The stiffer penalties allow law enforcement officials to go after dealers who distribute the drugs illegally. The bill now goes to the Senate Government Operations Committee before moving to the Finance Committee and then to the floor for final consideration.
Constitutionality / Firearms Legislation -- Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper released an opinion to Senate Judiciary Committee members this week regarding the constitutionality of legislation that would allow gun owners to keep firearms locked out of sight in their vehicle while at their place of employment. The Attorney General opined that Senate Bill 3002 would be constitutionally defensible as two courts have upheld similar bills against such challenges. The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill).
Teachers / Discipline in the Classroom -- Teachers in grades 5 – 12 would have more authority to remove disruptive students from the classroom under legislation. The bill authorizes each teacher, consistent with the local education agency’s (LEA) policy, to manage their classroom, discipline students and refer a student to the principal. It also requires principals to fully support the authority of the teacher to remove a persistently disruptive student as long as he/she was removed within the guidelines developed by the school and the LEA.
Senate Bill 3122 requires LEAs, or school boards, to adopt a complete policy regarding a teacher's ability to remove a disruptive student from the classroom. Under the bill, teachers must file a brief report with the principal detailing the behavior of the removed student. The principal must respond when a teacher refers a student by employing appropriate discipline management techniques that are consistent with the LEA policy and their student code of conduct. Following three documented removals, the principal cannot return a student back to that classroom unless the teacher consents. Similarly, principals would be prohibited from returning a student to the classroom on the day of the removal without the teacher's consent. Finally, the legislation calls for the discipline policy to be disseminated to the students, faculty, staff, and parents or guardians of students.
Parental Involvement / Parent Contracts -- Legislation that would encourage school districts to develop and implement voluntary parental involvement contracts with parents of students passed the State Senate this week. It has been found that when parents collaborate with teachers, educators hold higher expectations of students and higher opinions of the parents. Findings also show that children from diverse cultural backgrounds tend to do better because parents and professionals are bridging the gap between the culture at home and the learning institution. Senate Bill 3588 is designed to encourage and facilitate a parent's involvement in his or her child's education.
Teachers First Amendment Right Protected – The State Senate passed Senate Bill 3060 is aimed at protecting the First Amendment rights of school personnel, including teachers and administrators. The bill seeks to ensure educators can participate in programs that take place either before or after school hours and do not interfere with their school duties, including those of a religious nature as long as they are initiated by students. The action comes after reported incidents where teachers and coaches were admonished for participating in such activities as the “Meet Me at the Pole” prayer event and prayer before sporting events, both of which are outside of school hours.