Legislature

Four school bus drivers face 30 days in jail for using electronic devices under new TN law

Four now-former Knox County school bus drivers who allegedly used electronic devices while behind the wheel face mandatory 30-day jail terms if convicted under a tough new law, reports the News Sentinel.

They are charged via recently unsealed grand jury presentments under a state law passed following the death of two Sunnyview Primary School students and a teacher’s aide in Knox County in December 2014 caused by a driver who was texting while driving.

The quartet of drivers are accused in separate incidents of using electronic devices — the exact nature of which hasn’t been revealed yet — during Knox County Schools’ spring semester.

The cases are Knox County’s first legal test of that law, and the second in the state. A Hamilton County grand jury in March leveled the charge — along with vehicular homicide — in a fatal school bus crash in Chattanooga in December 2016 that killed six children.

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Legislature could leave JLL when it vacates the Legislative Plaza this fall

It’s at least possible that Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle, “Gov. Bill Haslam’s favorite real estate management-services provider, “ won’t get the contract for janitorial and maintenance services at a renovated Cordell Hull State Office Building when the General Assembly move there this fall, reports Andy Sher.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell confirmed to the Times Free Press that JLL has no automatic lock on a contract for services at the 1950s-era Cordell Hull building when a $116 million renovation is complete.

“We have decided to put it out for bid, and of course, they can bid and other companies might bid,” McNally said. “But we’re looking, you know, for the best deal we can get.”

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Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging ‘natural and ordinary’ law; rules it had no impact on same-sex marriage rights

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle on Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the “natural and ordinary” bill enacted by the legislature earlier this year, but a lawyer for the lesbian couples who filed the legal challenge tells The Tennessean that the ruling is nonetheless a victory.

Basically, the judge ruled the new law didn’t accomplish anything to change rights of same-sex couples, who have the same rights as heterosexual couples when they are parents. Thus, since the law doesn’t discriminate, she dismissed the lawsuit attacking it.

The four same-sex couples are expectant parents of children conceived through artificial insemination. The legislation, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in early May, says that courts should give words their “natural and ordinary” meaning in legal interpretations.

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Reps. Hawk, Johnson join McCormick in seeking to follow Harwell as House speaker

Former House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick was the first Republican representative to say he’d like to succeed Beth Harwell as speaker of the state House. The Tennessean reports Reps. David Hawk and Curtis Johnson say they plan to seek the post as well.

And current Majority Leader Glen Casada, as previously reported (HERE), isn’t ruling it out but says he’s waiting a while to decide.

Some quotes:

Hawk, R-Greeneville: “I realized in this past session that there’s a need for someone who can bring folks together…  I think that is one of my greatest skills. I know how to work with all members of the House, not only the Republican caucus but the legislature as a whole.”

…Johnson, R-Clarksville, has been speaker pro tempore for the last five years and he said his relationships with members of the House and Senate as well as his leadership skills make him stand out with strong qualifications.

“You have to have leadership skills, you have to have a steady hand on the wheel and you have to be level-headed for the job,” he said.

…Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, who lost to Harwell 40-30 in the vote for speaker during the current legislative session:

“Several people have encouraged me to run, but I think I’m going to see how the next few months go,” he said. “Rep. McCormick and Rep. Hawk are friends of mine and those two guys would certainly be really good candidates.”

House Speaker Gerald McCormick?

With Beth Harwell announcing her run for governor in 2018,  which means she can’t seek reelection to the House, state Rep. Gerald McCormick says he’s looking to succeed her as Speaker of the House in January, 2019, reports the Times-Free Press.

McCormick said with three two-year terms as majority leader under his belt — he chose not to seek the post last session and was named by Harwell in January as Finance subcommittee chairman — he believes he has “more experience probably than anybody else in the House dealing with governors and senators.”

“And that’s a lot of what the job entails, I think,” McCormick said. “I think I can step in on the first day and know what I was doing and try to get things moving in the right direction so far as our relationships with those folks go and understanding how the body works and how committees work.”

… McCormick’s successor as majority leader, former House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin, is seen as another possible candidate to replace Harwell.

“I’ll look at it this time next year,” Casada said of a possible bid for speaker. “I’ve got a year of a lot of members leaving — it’s the governor’s last term. So we’ve got a lot of work to go and as majority leader I’ve got to focus on that.

“I can’t take my eye off the ball of being majority leader for the next 12 months,” said Casada, who expects 10 to 12 of the 73 Republican incumbents, including Harwell, not to seek re-election to the House.

Asked earlier about the possibility of Casada running, McCormick noted the Franklin Republican hasn’t been involved in the Finance Committee, which participates in negotiations with senators over the state’s annual spending plan.

Moreover, McCormick noted that in six years, he carried any number of bills for the governor.

“So I’ve got more experience from that standpoint,” McCormick said.

GOP senators eye run to replace Norris as majority leader; Shelby Republicans eye his Senate seat

If Sen. Mark Norris is confirmed as a U.S. District Judge, state Sen. Jack Johnson says he ill “seriously consider” seeking election by Republican colleagues as Senate Majority Leader. Sens. Jim Tracy and Bo Watson also left the door open to a run for Senate majority leader in interviews reported in a Tennessean/Commercial Appeal story.

Among the first lawmakers to express interest in the majority leader position is Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who said Friday, “It’s something I will seriously consider.”

While noting that talk of Norris’ potential replacement could be premature, given that the West Tennessee Republican must still be approved by the U.S. Senate, Johnson said he will be discussing the leadership spot with Republican caucus colleagues.

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Report on high lead levels in school drinking water may boost ‘flushing’ bill in legislature

Reports of unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water at some Nashville schools may improve chances for passage of legislation that died in a House subcommittee earlier this year, reports WTVF-TV.

The TV station recently found data from a survey of Nashville school water, not previously made public, that showed 81 of 2,800 samples had lead levels higher than the 15 parts per billion, the “action level” established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The American Academy of Pediatrics says a child’s drinking water should have no more than one part per billion and about third of the samples were in excess of that level. At one high school, the level was 1,190 parts per billion.

Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, sponsored a bill this year (HB385) that would require daily “flushing” of water systems in school building built before 1986.

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On new TN laws effective July 1 (gas tax increase and 134 others)

Of the 524 bills and resolutions approved during the 2017 legislative session and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, 135 or so are new laws that take effect on July 1. Most notably, there’s an four-cents-per-gallon increase in fuel taxes and a $5 increase in the annual state vehicle registration fee, part of the governor’s tax package called the IMPROVE Act.

The Johnson City Press has a package of three articles on the legislative actions that provides a pretty good sampler:

First, there’s general list of some new non-IMPROVE laws deemed interesting with a July 1 effective date, ranging from a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks to “an obscure law requiring that steps leading into a public building have detectable ‘nosings’.” (A strip of yellow paint to increase visibility.)

Second, there’s a list of new “public safety” laws. First two on the list: A law extending the state’s “Move Over” law to cover any vehicle parked on the shoulder of a road, not just those of law enforcement officers and emergency vehicles, and a measure that repeals the current state prohibition on firearm silencers.

Finally, Press writer has picked a dozen “congratulatory and memorializing resolutions” – these aren’t bills, just statements honoring people or events  and were effective when passed and signed, not July 1 – of note.

First listed is congratulations extended to U.S. Rep. Phil Roe and his bride, who “will now face the world together as one, basking in the glow of their love for each other during both life’s joys and sorrows.” The second honors the Moon Pie, “a delicious snack that for 100 years has gratified the taste buds of the American South while making Chattanooga famous internationally.”

If you want to wade through all 135 new laws with a July 1 effective date, the list is HERE.

 

Legislative study committee to take a look back at TN lynchings

Tennessee is taking a tentative step toward acknowledging its legacy of lynching and other civil rights crimes, reports WPLN, citing a bill approved by the Legislature earlier this year.

In all, 238 Tennesseans are documented to have been lynched. The crimes include hangings, beatings and drownings.

State Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, pushed a bill through the legislature this year that creates a study committee of three state representatives and three senators. (Note: It’s HB1306, sponsored in the Senate by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris). The group will hash out details — or even if the commission is something Tennessee desires.

Turner has no doubts.

“There are a lot of cases out there — unsolved, civil rights murders,” she says. “It is extremely urgent that we do something now before it becomes too late.”

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Addiction medication company reported pushing product through legislation, donating to TN legislators

Alkermes, a company that makes an addiction treatment medication called Vivitrol, has been pushing legislation at the state level that would give its product a preference over others, according to a National Public Radio report. At the same time, affliliate WPLN reports that the Alkermes donated more than $20,000 to Tennessee legislators last year.

State records show Alkermes registered four lobbyists for this year’s Tennessee legislative session. The company’s PAC registered to make state-level donations late in 2015, beginning actual donations in January of 2016.

There were several bills filed this year dealing with addiction treatment – including some that appear to be placeholder “caption bills” designed to be amended later. But a quick skim of legislative records indicates none advanced out of committee.

The NPR report – bearing the headline “A Drugmaker Tries To Cash In On The Opioid Epidemic, One State Law At A Time” — focuses on Indiana, where a registered Alkermes lobbyist, who also heads a mental health advocacy group, drafted a bill that was approved after what some thought was a misleading promotional effort. Excerpt:

He said the legislation would move the state “toward evidence-based treatment.”

But the bill wouldn’t do that. Instead, it would cement rules making it harder to access certain addiction medications — medications that many patients rely on. The goal was to steer doctors toward a specific brand-name drug: Vivitrol.

… His efforts have helped turn Indiana into what Alkermes describes in investor documents as an “up-and-coming” state, where the drug’s sales are poised to jump dramatically.

McCaffrey’s work promoting Vivitrol via legislation in Indiana is part of a larger pattern. An investigation by NPR and Side Effects Public Media has found that in statehouses across the country, and in Congress, Alkermes is pushing Vivitrol while contributing to misconceptions and stigma about other medications used to treat opioid addiction.

From WPLN:

In Tennessee, Alkermes has made 30 contributions to Democratic and Republican lawmakers and to political action committees. All of those were between January of last year and the November election. The company has also hired lobbyists.

It’s not clear, though, this early-stage political push has been persuasive. Marie Williams, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, says Vivitrol can be an effective treatment for some opioid abusers, but Tennessee doesn’t prefer it to other therapies.

“What we want is for people to get avenues of treatment, and we are for any avenue that will help you get into recovery and stay in recovery,” she says.

But, state officials add, drug courts are using Vivitrol more often. And that’s where many decisions about treatment are made.

Note: House Speaker Beth Harwell, who recently urged Attorney General Herbert Slatery to file a lawsuit against manufacturers of opioid drugs, was one of the bigger beneficiaries of Alkermes donations — $1,000 to her reelection campaign and $500 to her leadership PAC.

The Alkermes PAC on June 6 filed an amended version of its 4th quarter 2016 disclosure with the Registry of Election Finance that appears to duplicate most of the donations listed in a previous disclosure. (The duplication’s are not included in reaching the count of more than $20,000 to 30 legislators and PACs.)  Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance,  says via email that the Registry has sent a letter asking for clarification of the filing.