State Rep. Kelly Keisling: Capitol Hill Review
House increase transparency, oversight of refugee and unaccompanied minor resettlements in Tennessee
The House chamber advanced and approved a series of bills this week that will bring more transparency and oversight to refugee and unaccompanied minor resettlements in Tennessee.
House Bill 2868 requires the Tennessee Office for Refugees to submit at least a quarterly report to the department of finance and administration regarding refugee resettlement services statewide. The Tennessee Office for Refugees is a department of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville, which is designated and funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to administer the state refugee resettlement program.
“There were portions of Catholic charities that have been great partners that release information and… then there are partners who do not do that,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville. “We are a place where we want to welcome refugees the right way, but if someone is flying people in the dark of night, they’re landing at our airports and they refuse to share with us who they are, then that’s not being a good partner.”
There were 348 new refugee arrivals in Tennessee during the last fiscal year – a 55 percent increase from the previous year, according to reports from the Tennessee Office for Refugees. There were 72 refugees that arrived in the state between October and December 2021. House Bill 2868 was approved by the House chamber on Monday. A companion version of the bill is making its way through the Senate. Information about the legislation can be found here.
A separate piece of legislation, House Bill 2711, contains reporting requirements to ensure that the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is aware of any unaccompanied migrant children who are being brought into the state by the federal government. The legislation also limits the number of minors who can be housed in a nontraditional child care agency (NCCA) dormitory and creates a cause of action for a child who may have been subject to abuse at an NCCA facility.
“The state of Tennessee has no standing with regard to immigration, but we do have standing with regard to the welfare and safety of these children,” bill sponsor State Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, told members of the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Wednesday. “I believe these safeguards are reasonable. They will help protect the children in Tennessee who find themselves in these situations in the future.” House Bill 2711 has been placed behind the budget for consideration. Information can be found here.
Another bill sponsored by Howell puts into place additional safeguards of reporting requirements for residential child care agencies (RCCA). House Bill 2712 is legislation resulting from a joint study commission on refugee resettlement issues.
Once signed into law, House Bill 2712 will require to disclose all contracts in agreement with third parties to provide care, housing and placement for children in Tennessee in order to receive a new license or license renewal. Additionally, it requires the Department of Children's Services to revoke the license of a facility that provides residential child care if more than two employees or 3 percent of employees have been charged with criminal offenses related to their job. It also requires an annual report showing the reasons for transfers of children. Lastly, the legislation requires the child care facility to report the names of children who have escaped or disappeared. House Bill 2712 now heads to the governor’s desk. For information about House Bill 2712, visit here.
These bills were introduced less than a year after it was discovered that the federal government was secretly transporting unaccompanied migrant children into Tennessee and housing them without the knowledge or approval of the state. Following a report of child abuse at a Chattanooga facility being operated by a federal government contractor, DCS launched an investigation in May 2021.
According to a report by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 6,000 unaccompanied minors have been released to sponsors in Tennessee since 2021.
Education funding proposal advances to Government Operations Committee
Gov. Bill Lee’s new education funding plan, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA), advanced out of the House Education Administration Committee on Wednesday. Discussions will continue next week when the proposal, House Bill 2143, is heard in the House Government Operations Committee on April 11.
House Bill 2143 replaces the current Basic Education Program (BEP) and establishes the TISA as a new funding model for Tennessee public schools. It aims to prioritize the individual needs of students rather than relying on ratio components and district averages. The plan puts direct focus on students with disabilities, students in rural and urban areas and low-income families. Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, the TISA would invest an estimated $9 billion in education funding for the state, including state and local funds, which would include an additional recurring state investment of $1 billion.
The TISA is a four-tiered funding formula made of the following components:
Base funding: Schools will receive a base dollar amount of $6,860 per student.
Weights: In addition to $6,860, TISA will provide extra funds based on student need. Urban and rural students will see increased benefits under the formula. The weights act as a multiplier and include:
Economically disadvantaged (25%) and concentration of poverty (5%)
Public charter schools (4%)
Sparse districts (5%) and small districts (5%)
Unique learning needs—special education/gifted, English learners, and dyslexia (15%-150%)
Direct funding: This is intended to provide additional dollars for high impact programs such as K-3 literacy efforts, 4th grade tutoring, Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses and standardized tests for college admissions such as the American College Test (ACT).
Outcomes: Additional dollars will be allocated as an incentive for producing strong student outcomes.
The TISA proposes to provide additional funding based on student achievement outcomes and fast-growing districts (2 percent student growth compared to the previous year) which would be reviewed and calculated annually. Fiscal capacity will be calculated at the county level. No districts will need to raise local taxes in order to keep up with state increases.
Information is available at FundingforStudentSuccess.org.
Heart to Heart Act encourages AED training for school bus drivers
The House chamber on Monday voted unanimously to expand automated external defibrillator (AED) training for Tennessee school system employees.
House Bill 2530, also known as the Heart to Heart Act, encourages schools to offer automated external defibrillator (AED) training to school bus drivers. An AED is a medical device that is designed to deliver an electric shock to victims of ventricular fibrillation to restore the heart rhythm to normal.
Existing state law already requires all schools in Tennessee to have at least one AED within the school and provide training on how to use the device. The Senate chamber is expected to vote on a companion version of the bill on April 11. More information about House Bill 2530 can be found here.
Criminal Justice Committee discusses hemp-based cannabinoids
Members of the House Criminal Justice Committee held a hearing this week regarding hemp-based cannabinoids in Tennessee. Among those who testified during the more than two-hour hearing included officials from the public safety and business communities.
“We’re not talking about legalizing or decriminalizing anything,” said committee chairman and State Rep. Michael G. Curcio, R-Dickson. “These are products that are already perfectly legal. We need to figure out how we tell consumers what they are and make sure there aren’t bad actors lying to them.”
Delta-8 is a psychoactive substance found in the cannabis sativa plant, of which marijuana and hemp are two varieties, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While Delta-8 and Delta-10 are federally legal, Delta-9 is not, said Jesse West, an attorney who represents the Tennessee Growers Coalition. Nationwide, 15 states have restricted or banned Delta-8 and other hemp-derived cannabinoids – mostly due to the industry’s failure to regulate.
The lack of clear, industry-wide regulation and testing standards in Tennessee could mean problems for customers, testified Devin Aracena, co-founder and CEO of Canvast Supply Co., a consumer products company that uses cannabinoids as a functional ingredient in a variety of products.
The Tennessee Growers Coalition estimates that there are approximately 8,000 retail stores that sell Delta 8 and other hemp-derived THC products across the state.
“People who are getting (these products) don’t know what they are in for,” Aracena said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t know the effects that are going to impede them or impaired them.”
Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Matt Perry expressed concern regarding how the products could impair drivers, noting that “our biggest concern is crashes and traffic safety.”
Every year, there are approximately 2,500 vehicle crashes in Tennessee that involve some type of drug impairment, Perry added. Since 2017, there have been 545 traffic fatalities statewide involving marijuana, according to information provided by the Tennessee Department of Safety. There were 1,311 traffic fatalities that involved alcohol during the same time.
Mike Lyttle, who is the assistant director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s (TBI) forensic services division, said there is currently no blood test to determine if an individual has Delta-8 or Delta-9 in their system. He also said that he is not aware of anyone overdosing on either of the two substances, but added that “it is something we’re learning about.”
The TBI’s crime lab has received 13,381 samples of plant material to test from law enforcement within the last two years. Of that, about 87 percent was found to be marijuana while the remaining samples were consistent with being hemp.
“If people had a license or some way to prove what they had was hemp and they are satisfying the law, it wouldn’t show up in our lab, we wouldn’t have to test it and we’d be able to do other things,” Lyttle told lawmakers Wednesday.
The House Criminal Justice Committee is expected to revisits pending legislation dealing with cannabis on Wednesday, April 13.
House loosens hospital visitation restrictions during COVID-19
The Tennessee House of Representatives unanimously approved legislation Thursday that expands who can visit a hospital patient during a time when COVID-19 is a health concern.
House Bill 2665 requires that hospitals allow a patient to have at least one representative as a visitor as long as the individual agrees to follow safety protocols established by the facility. The legislation does not apply to areas of a hospital that necessitate higher levels of safety protocols such as intensive care units.
State law already requires at least one family member to be allowed in a hospital with a patient during a period in which a disaster, emergency, or public health emergency for COVID-19 has been declared. House Bill 2665 removes the requirement of a negative COVID-19 test and lack of symptoms, and replaces it with the requirement that the family member or patient representative agrees to follow all safety protocols established by the hospital.
A companion version of the bill is still making its way through the Senate. Information about House Bill 2665 can be found here.
General Assembly improves voter integrity laws
The Tennessee General Assembly this week gave final approval to legislation that prohibits non-U.S. citizens from participating in federal, state, or local elections in Tennessee. The House of Representatives passed House Bill 2128 in March and the Senate companion version passed this week.
House Bill 2128 ensures that no local government entity grants voting rights to any individual who is not a United States citizen for an election.
The bill also gives additional tools to the coordinator of elections to identify non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls as well as Tennesseans who’ve moved to another state. This bill authorizes the coordinator of elections to compare the statewide voter registration database with those of other relevant state agencies and county records. Information about House Bill 2128 can be found here.
Law gives schools flexibility for two days of remote learning
The General Assembly this week passed legislation giving Tennessee public schools the option to offer remote class instruction in the event of extreme weather or outbreaks of illnesses on a school-by-school basis. House Bill 1912 gives local school districts the flexibility to provide up to two days of remote instruction of the required 180 days per school year. If the bill becomes law, districts could utilize the rule to allow individual classes or schools to learn remotely rather than shutting down an entire district. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his approval. For information about House Bill 1912 visit here.
Two anti-littering bills get final approval from the General Assembly
The House chamber on Thursday unanimously approved two bills aimed at combating litter in Tennessee.
House Bill 2194 seeks to inspire communities to take action to reduce litter on local roads, shorelines and in waterways.
It expands the state’s Litter Grant Program to nonprofit organizations, law enforcement and local governments to participate in litter clean-up campaigns. It creates an avenue for nonprofit groups and their volunteers to raise money for their mission. House Bill 2194 expands the current program to include waterways and shorelines.
Roadside litter is a huge burden to the state financially and ecologically, costing taxpayers approximately $15 million each year, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). House Bill 2194 authorizes TDOT to award the grants from funds already generated by the tax on beer and bottled soft drinks. For information about House Bill 2194 visit here.
A second piece of legislation, House Bill 2424, increases the penalty for mitigated criminal littering from a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine to a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine. The legislation was approved by the Senate chamber last month. Both bills now head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law. Information about House Bill 2424 can be found here.
TNECD announces communities selected for Tennessee Downtowns program
The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development on Wednesday announced that 10 Tennessee communities have been selected to participate in the eighth round of the Tennessee Downtowns program.
The communities selected are Alexandria, Copperhill, Cumberland Gap, Decherd, Loretto, Newbern, Oneida, Rossville, Tellico Plains and Waverly.
The Tennessee Downtowns program helps local communities revitalize traditional commercial districts, enhance community livability, spur job creation and maintain the historic character of downtown districts. The two-year program coaches selected communities through the steps of launching effective renewal efforts. Tennessee Downtowns includes community training in the Main Street America program and a $15,000 grant approved by the General Assembly for a downtown improvement project. Since its inception in 2010, 66 communities have participated in the Tennessee Downtowns program.
The 10 newly selected communities all have downtown commercial districts established at least 50 years ago and have demonstrated their readiness to organize efforts for downtown revitalization according to Main Street America principles. The selection process was based on historic commercial resources, economic and physical need, demonstrated local effort, overall presentation and probability of success. Each application was supported by the community’s senator and representatives in the Tennessee General Assembly. For information about the Tennessee Downtowns program, visit here.
Recruiting truck drivers
This week, legislation was approved to help alleviate the national supply chain crisis by attracting more truck drivers to the industry. House Bill 2146 removes certain barriers for qualified candidates to obtain a commercial driver license (CDL). The legislation will allow for faster scheduling of commercial driving skills tests and expands options for approved third-party partners to conduct the tests on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. The age of eligibility for a Class A or B license would also be lowered from 21 to 18 years when the applicant operates a commercial vehicle solely within Tennessee and meets other certain conditions. Additionally, the legislation authorizes the Tennessee Department of Correction and the Department of Safety to jointly create a CDL training program for offenders who may be suitable for careers in the transportation industry once released from prison. A companion version of the legislation is making its way through Senate committees. More information about House Bill 2146 can be found here.
Legislation provides training to identify human trafficking
Legislation aimed at preventing human trafficking now heads to the governor’s desk after gaining final approval from the General Assembly this week. House Bill 2113 requires the Department of Correction, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Department of Human Services to provide mandatory training on the identification, intervention, prevention and treatment of human trafficking victims. The training must be selected by the Human Trafficking Advisory Council and administered annually starting in 2023. A child is bought or sold for sex every two minutes in the United States. Thirteen is the average age a child is sold. Information about House Bill 2113 can be found here.
Recognizing military service for retirement credit/state employees
To honor the service and sacrifice of military veterans, the House Finance, Ways, and Means Subcommittee advanced a bill that expands retirement benefits for state employees who served in armed conflicts. At present, the state allows military veterans who served prior to 1975 to receive time served in the military credited to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) for up to four years at no cost to the employee. House Bill 1852, sponsored by State Rep. Clark Boyd, R-Lebanon, adds to the current law by allowing those who served in armed conflicts after 1975 to purchase up to four years of service credit in TCRS. Each year of service credited to TCRS would cost 9 percent of their current annual pay. The bill is expected to be heard by the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee on April 12. Information about House Bill 1852 can be found here.
Positioning Tennessee as a leader in blockchain technologies
The General Assembly unanimously passed legislation this week that positions Tennessee as an early leader in blockchain businesses. House Bill 2645 allows for the creation and recognition of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) in the state of Tennessee. A DAO is an organization represented by rules encoded as a computer program that is transparent, controlled by the organization members and not influenced by a central government. The legislation allows DAOs to engage in business in the state, while also positioning Tennessee as a hub for DAOs. Though DAOs are still in early phases of development, there are more than $9.5 billion in DAO treasuries and more than 5,000 DAOs across the world, with 1.3 million members. But most of these DAOs are not being formed in the United States. This bill seeks to provide clarity in the regulation in order to bring more of these DAOs to Tennessee. Information about House Bill 2645 can be found here.
-- Kelly Keisling serves as State Representative for House District 38 which encompasses Macon, Clay, Pickett, Scott, and part of Fentress Counties. To reach State Representative Kelly Keisling, call 615-741-6853 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Representative Keisling serves as Chairman of the State Government Committee and Vice Chairman of the Joint Fiscal Review Committee. He also serves as a member of the Calendar and Rules Committee, Transportation Committee, Corrections Subcommittee, Departments and Agencies Subcommittee, and Public Service Subcommittee.