NASHVILLE — Legislation to protect the freedom of Tennessee patients to make their own health care choices, regardless of the federal health care action taken in Washington last year, passed the Tennessee Senate this week. The 21-10 vote fell mostly along party lines with Republicans voting in support of the measure.
Called the “Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” Senate Bill 79 would protect a citizen’s right to participate, or not participate, in any healthcare system, and would prohibit the federal government from imposing fines or penalties on that person’s decision. The legislation does not seek to “nullify” the federal law, as it would still allow individuals the option to participate in the program. However, it acknowledges the right of Tennesseans to choose not to participate in a government-run health insurance program.
“The citizens of Tennessee believe they should be able to choose whether or not they want to participate in a federal health care plan,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers, who sponsored the bill. “That is what this bill seeks to accomplish. It also provides a remedy to fight back against the overreach of federal power on the private lives of our citizens.”
Financial experts predict that the federal healthcare plan will consume any anticipated growth in Tennessee’s revenues once the economy recovers, crippling the state’s ability to make future improvements in critical needs like education, job investment and public safety. The federal health care law will also penalize citizens beginning in 2014 if they do not buy insurance. Those penalties are expected to be approximately 2.5 percent of a citizen’s taxable income by 2016 if citizens do not purchase health care insurance under the federal health care law requirements.
“We are talking about stiff penalties for citizens if individuals do not purchase health care insurance,” added Beavers. “This will put a heavy burden on citizens who are already struggling to make ends meet. Never in our history has the U.S. government required its citizens as a condition of residency to purchase a particular product from a private company or government entity. I am very hopeful this legislation will pass the House of Representatives soon and become law in Tennessee.”
Health Care Compact -- In other related action, the Senate Government Operations committee recommended passage of Senate Bill 326 calling for Tennessee to join an interstate compact with the express purpose of returning the responsibility and authority for regulating health care to the states. Eleven states have already introduced the “Health Care Compact” during their 2011 sessions, while 33 states are actively looking at the measure.
The Health Care Compact provides a legal framework in which states can create their own healthcare systems. It essentially provides a permanent waiver to each member state to create whatever healthcare regulations the legislature deems best for the citizens of that state. The structure protects Medicare and Medicaid funding by allowing member states to access federal tax revenues directly and without strings attached.
“One size does not fit all,” said Senator Mae Beavers, sponsor of the bill. “States have different needs which are not recognized in the federal mandates passed by Congress last year. The Health Care Compact does not mandate how each state will handle health care within their boundaries. It leaves them to decide how to create a system that fits their needs, providing greater accountability and more flexibility in delivering citizens a more efficient and effective system.”
Legislation aims to end conflicts of interest on Tennessee’s Boards and Commissions
The full Senate voted 23 to 8 this week to approve legislation which aims to end conflicts of interest on Tennessee’s Boards and Commissions. Senate Bill 237 prohibits individuals serving on state boards, commissions or other governmental entities from being registered lobbyists, during their membership term and one year following the end of the term, with any organization whose business activities are regulated by these state entities. The legislation also requires members of the state entities to be Tennessee residents.
There are approximately 250 boards and commissions currently in operation in the state covering a wide variety of matters and involve oversight for various professions in the state from real estate and health care to athletic training and funeral homes. The Ethics Commission would be responsible for assessing any civil penalties or violations under the measure.
“Members of the Senate Government Operations Committee are serious about insuring the integrity of our state's boards and commissions,” said Senator Bo Watson, Chairman of the Government Operation Committee. “This bill is a result of a full year of study, review and analysis."
In separate action, the Senate Education Committee voted this week to change the method of appointment by broadening the base of Tennessee teachers eligible to serve on the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System. The bill calls for three active teachers and one retired teacher to be appointed to the Board.
Current law requires appointment of three teachers by the Tennessee Education Association, even though an estimated half of Tennessee’s teachers belong to the organization. The legislation, as amended, allows professional employee education groups to recommend appointees to the Speaker of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“This legislation is part of our efforts to ensure that qualifications do not take a back seat to being a dues paying member of a particular special interest organization in order to be appointed to a board or commission in Tennessee,” said Chairman Dolores Gresham, sponsor of the bill. “Those types of requirements, whether it is for teachers or any other professional association, leave qualified citizens out of consideration. Being active in an organization could be helpful as part of qualification factors and we have that recommendation now through adoption of the amendment. However, without a compelling reason why an appointment should be required to be from members of a particular special interest organization, the appointing authority should be able to choose any citizen, or, as in this case, a teacher who is qualified.”
The Senate Government Operations Committee has found significant inconsistency on Tennessee’s boards and commissions in the various state laws regarding appointments. Some require specific organizations, while others just ask for recommendations from a particular group.
Senate Judiciary Committee debates legislation strengthening penalties against child sex predators and human trafficking
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation aiming to close a loophole in state law that has allowed child sexual predators to escape prosecution on a technicality. The bill, Senate Bill 69, adds wording to Tennessee law to ensure that law enforcement in the state posing as minors can be used to prosecute cases where sexual predators use electronic means to solicit those under the age of 18.
“This bill closes the loophole in state law to ensure these predators are prosecuted regardless of the mode of communication they use to solicit a child,” said Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), sponsor of the bill. “We must make every effort to take those who prey on children off the streets.”
Currently it is a Class E felony for a person 18 years of age or older intentionally to persuade a minor to engage in sexual activity by electronic communication, mail or Internet service, or to display pornographic material through these means. If the minor is less than 13 years of age, a violation is a Class C felony.
According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, there have been 51 convictions in the past four years for sexual activity or attempted sexual activity and solicitation of sexual activity involving a minor. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of the fiscal impact.
Committee members debated but deferred voting on a separate bill designed to attack the growing problem of child prostitution and human trafficking in Tennessee. The legislation would enhance penalties against those who patronize or promote the illegal act, as well gives law enforcement powers to impound a vehicle used in the commission of the offense.
Currently, patronizing prostitution is a Class B misdemeanor in Tennessee, unless the crimes are committed within 100 feet of a church or 1.5 miles of a school, which is punishable as a Class A misdemeanor. The legislation would make patronizing prostitution from a person who is younger than 18 years of age or is mentally handicapped a Class E felony. Penalties for promoting prostitution would be increased from a Class E to a Class D felony when a minor is involved, under the bill. Additionally, the proposal specifies that if it is determined that persons charged with prostitution are under age 18, they would be immune from prosecution for prostitution and be subject to the protective custody of the Department of Children’s Services.
“These predators and criminal gangs target children because of their vulnerability, as well as the market demand for these young victims,” added Overbey. “That is why it is so important to strengthen penalties against those who exploit them. It is intolerable that in 2011, this crime is growing rather than decreasing. We must begin to take the steps needed to address it.”
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children and Youth heard testimony last fall from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that law enforcement agencies have seen a “dramatic increase” in the crime recently. In November, federal authorities broke up a human trafficking ring that provided underage prostitutes involving 29 Somali men and women with ties to outlaw gangs.
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.
Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System is in stronger financial position than most state pension plans
Tennessee’s Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) is in a stronger financial position than most other state pension plans according to testimony by State Treasurer David Lillard before the Senate Finance Committee this week. The system undergoes an actuarial valuation every two years by an independent actuary to determine the appropriate employer contributions so that the system is financed on an actuarial sound basis.
More than 480 cities, counties, utility districts, emergency communications districts, special school districts and other government subdivisions have opted to cover their employees in TCRS. There are more than 214,000 active members and 112,133 retired members participating the retirement system, making it the 26th largest public pension fund in the nation and is the 77th largest pension fund in the world. The TCRS has assets of more than $32 billion.
While the economic downturn has placed many state’s pension plans in serious peril, TCRS is considered one of the best-funded retirement plans in the nation. The system has received a AAA long-term rating and an A-1 (+) short-term rating by Standard and Poors, the highest possible ratings issued by the nationally-recognized rating agency. The actuarial valuation reported a combined state and teacher funding ratio of over 90 percent.
Every General Assembly since 1975 has fully funded the TCRS at the actuarially recommended rate. Some states only finance a portion of their actuarially required contributions, which is a big contributing factor to future financial solvency problems.
“Tennessee has taken a conservative approach to financing our pension costs,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), who is a long-time member of the TCRS Board. “We also utilize a conservative investment strategy as opposed to states who have taken more risks in their portfolios. I am proud of the work done by our system officials and Treasurer Lillard. It has paid off in the long run as we weather these tough economic times.”
Judiciary Committee approve resolution that would let citizens vote on whether they want an elected State Attorney General
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted this week to approve a resolution that calls for Tennessee voters to decide whether they want to elect the state’s Attorney General (AG). Presently, the AG is appointed by Tennessee’s Supreme Court judges.
“Tennessee is the only state in the nation in which the citizens have neither a direct nor indirect voice in the selection of our state’s Attorney General,” said Senator Mae Beavers, sponsor of the bill. “While forty-three states elect their attorneys general through popular election and six through a gubernatorial appointment system with appropriate checks and balances, Tennessee’s Constitution allows for selection of our state’s highest legal officer by the Tennessee Supreme Court.”
Senate Joint Resolution 23 would amend the state’s Constitution to allow a popular election every four years. The amendment process would require approval by both the 107th General Assembly currently in session, and the 108th, which will take office in 2013. If approved, the question would then go to voters in a statewide referendum in the year 2014.
Bovine (cows) / Liability – Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) guided Senate Bill 339 related to liability of owners of cows through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The bill is modeled after the Equine Limited Liability Law for horses which limits the liability of equine professionals and event organizers in case of injury or death resulting from the risks inherent in participating in equestrian activities. The legislation provides that in the event someone is injured on the bovine owners’ property as a result of that individual’s negligence or the unpredictable behavior of the cow, the owner is exempted from being held liable if signs are posted regarding the limitation of liability as set forth in the bill.
FFA Presentation – Leaders of Tennessee’s FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) organization gave a presentation on the Senate floor on Thursday regarding the “infinite potential” of the state’s young advocates for agriculture education. The FFA envisions a future in which all agricultural education students will discover their passion in life and build on that insight to chart the course for their educations, career and personal future.
FFA makes a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.
Transportation needs -- The American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) testified before the Senate Transportation Committee this week regarding Tennessee’s road funds. The group said that for every $1 of transportation investment, $1.80 is generated of near term GDP (gross domestic product). Tennessee’s good roads have helped attract industries like Nissan, Volkswagen and Hemlock. ACEC is concerned about future transportation funding in the state, with a $2 billion gap between identified needs and anticipated revenues over the next decade. Since 1992, the cost of highway construction has risen as much as 50 percent in Tennessee and 80 percent nationwide.
Handgun Permits – The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill which exempts handgun carry permit holders from the criminal background check requirement when purchasing a firearm if the permit was issued or renewed not more than five years prior to the transaction date. The bill, Senate Bill 306, is sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown).
Parents Rights / Notification – Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of Senate Bill 86 this week to extend from 60 to 90 days the notification period a parent must give to the other parent regarding relocation. The bill applies to a parent who is relocating outside the state or more than 100 miles from the other parent within the state, which must notify the other parent of the relocation by registered or certified mail. The bill is sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville).