House, Senate thumbs up on 'Sergeant Baker Act'

By RICK NORTON
Posted 3/25/19

While the Tennessee House of Representatives toiled through another busy week of legislation — with some bills passing, others advancing and a few stalling — one of the chamber’s biggest wins came from across the aisle in the Senate. 

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House, Senate thumbs up on 'Sergeant Baker Act'

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While the Tennessee House of Representatives toiled through another busy week of legislation — with some bills passing, others advancing and a few stalling — one of the chamber’s biggest wins came from across the aisle in the Senate. 

Earlier in the week, state legislators approved House Bill 258 — known as the Sergeant Baker Act — which removes the intermediate appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals in death-penalty cases, and provides for automatic review by the Tennessee Supreme Court for convictions for which a death sentence has been imposed.

State Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown) representing the 22nd Legislative District, and state Rep. Mark Hall (R-Cleveland) representing District 24, applauded the measure and took special interest later in the week when the proposal’s sister bill in the Senate — Senate Bill 400 — passed on a 27-6 vote.

State senators approved the bill in a much-publicized Thursday vote.

With both chambers passing the measure, the legislation now goes to the desk of Gov. Bill Lee for his signature.

“House Bill 258, and Senate Bill 400, also remove the direct appeal from the trial court to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and provides that when the judgment has become final in trial court, the conviction and death sentence will be automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court,” House explained in the weekly Capitol Hill Review, a weekly legislative summary provided to the Cleveland Daily Banner by the two local legislators.

The summary, also called a Legislative Wrap-up of the week’s activities in the state Capitol, is originated by the House Republican Caucus and distributed by respective legislators at their discretion.

Described as legislation that “… reforms and streamlines the state’s death penalty process by expediting appeals straight to the Tennessee Supreme Court,” the actions by state lawmakers were spotlighted in a news release driven by the Senate chamber.

Sponsored on the Senate side of the Capitol by Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), the Sgt. Daniel Baker Act is named in honor of a Dickson County Sheriff’s officer “… who was brutally murdered during a traffic stop,” the press release cited. “The killer then moved Baker’s car to a field where he set it on fire with the officer’s body inside.”

Baker was reportedly shot and killed in May 2018. Two suspects, Steven Wiggins and Erika Castro-Miles, have been charged with first-degree murder, and the district attorney’s office is seeking the death penalty for both.

According to the Senate-driven press statement, “Capital punishment in Tennessee is reserved for the most heinous, atrocious or cruel acts of murder.”

Stevens explained the bill’s intent.

“The Tennessee Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights Amendment adopted by the people in 1998 gives crime victims the right to a speedy trial and a prompt and final conclusion of the case after conviction or sentence,” Stevens said. “However, no action has been taken to put this constitutional mandate into action.”

Stevens added, “This legislation shortens the time victims and their families are forced to relive the horrors that have taken place by streamlining the process straight to the Supreme Court where the final decision rests anyway.”

Stevens pointed out Tennessee is among the minority of states that do not have a direct appeals process in capital crime cases as a result of a 1967 law that puts mid-level appeals in place. He said the law implemented a process in which persons sentenced to death have automatic appeals to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals before moving to the State Supreme Court for a mandatory review.

The decision by the intermediary court is not final until the state’s highest court hears the case, he pointed out.

“Death row inmates can also file appeals in federal court, meaning it can take decades before the appeals process is complete,” the Senate press statement cited.

Stevens stressed he is not criticizing the state’s court system.

“This is not a knock at our Criminal Appeals Court,” he said. “It simply puts Tennessee in line with the vast majority of states that find direct appeal to the State Supreme Court as a fair and just process in capital crime cases.”

Currently, 58 people sit on death row in Tennessee. Of that number, the longest-serving inmate was convicted in 1983.

State legislators in the House saw plenty of other actions last week in committee and on the full floor. 

Broadband access

grants receive

$14.8 million

House members last week joined the governor in announcing $14.8 million in broadband accessibility grants that will expand broadband service to more than 8,300 households and businesses in 17 counties across Tennessee.

“According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, nearly one in four rural Tennesseans lack access to reliable broadband services,” Howell said. “These grants and additional funding will continue to close the access gap, ensuring rural Tennesseans have the tools needed for growth and prosperity.”

Hall pointed out, “Grantees will provide $20 million in matching funds for a combined investment of nearly $35 million across the state for the second year of funding. Infrastructure should be built out within two years of receiving the grant funds.”

Lower-cost

healthcare for

small businesses

House Bill 1126, which passed on the full floor on a 95-0 vote, paves the way for small businesses and independent contractors to access large group insurance coverage.

“This will ultimately improve the quality of care available to these important groups, while lowering overall costs,” Hall said.

Howell said the measure “promotes competition,” and is part of the Republican-driven CARE Plan, which is being targeted to reshape health care in Tennessee through “… Consumerism, increasing Access, improving Rural health systems and Empowering patients to ensure individuals and families to make all medical decisions, instead of insurance companies or the government.”

Hall said the overall goal of CARE is to increase access and the quality of care to all Tennessee residents, while driving down costs that will protect all patients — with, or without, pre-existing conditions.

House Bill 1126 awaits the governor’s signature.

Block Grant

legislation keeps

moving in House

House Bill 1280, which creates a patient-centered system that addresses “unique” needs of Tennessee residents while lowering costs, gained even more momentum in activity last week when it cleared the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee.

“This legislation directs the governor, through the commissioner of Finance and Administration, to submit a waiver amendment to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to provide TennCare II funding by means of block grants,” Howell explained.

Hall stressed that block grants authorized through House Bill 1280 “… must convert the federal share of all medical assistance funding for Tennessee into an allotment that is tailored to meet our state’s specific needs. All grant funding must be indexed to take in account both inflation and population growth.”

Katie Beckett

legislation moves

in the House

Members of the House TennCare Subcommittee advanced House Bill 498, known as the Katie Beckett Waiver Program.

Under this legislation, Tennessee residents would be allowed to adopt federal provisions (like the Katie Beckett waiver) to receive care for their children.

“As written, this legislation allowed Tennessee to join other states that have opted to provide a Medicaid coverage pathway for at least some children with significant disabilities living at home, regardless of parental income,” Howell explained.

The measure now heads to the House Insurance Committee.

GIVE Act

legislation moves

in subcommittee

House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee members last week advanced the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) Act which expands access to vocational and technical training for Tennessee students.

“The GIVE Act is a two-pronged approach that utilizes regional partnerships to develop work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities,” Hall said. “As written, it would allow communities to have the funding and flexibility to build programs that best reflect local needs and work directly with private industry to structure programming.”

Howell spoke on another part of the legislation.

“GIVE also provides funding for high school juniors and seniors to utilize four fully-funded dual enrollment credits for trade and technical programs,” the Georgetown lawmaker said. “Previously, high school students only had access to two fully-funded dual enrollment credits. With access to four credits, students will now be better prepared for entry into the workforce within two years of graduation.”

Two grant programs will fund the initiative: GIVE Community Grants and GIVE Student Grants. The student grants will be funded through the Tennessee Lottery.

House Bill 949 now heads to the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

Legislators toss

amusement tax

on small gyms

House Bill 1138, of which Howell serves as a co-sponsor, passed the House floor last week unanimously. Lawmakers’ actions meant the chamber was tossing the amusement tax on small gyms and other fitness facilities across Tennessee.

“As part of the governor’s budget proposal, this important tax reduction levels the playing field for small gyms, fitness studios and other exercise facilities so they can compete with their larger counterparts,” Howell said.

He added, “Prior to this repeal, members of smaller facilities would pay dues or fees that were subjected to a 10 percent tax, while customers at larger facilities were exempt from it.”

The proposed legislation has a strong local interest. Howell said he recently met with about eight small businesses in Cleveland who were being negatively impacted by the tax.

“This tax has had a strong impact on Cleveland and Bradley County,” he said. “Many here were paying this tax. It is an unfair tax.”

House Bill 1138 now awaits a vote on the full Senate floor. If it passes there, its next step is the governor’s desk for his signature.

Several bills

backed by Lee

still advancing

Several pieces of the governor’s legislative package continue to advance in the House. They include:

• House Bill 939, which creates new education opportunities through investment in Education Savings Accounts intended for thousands of students who attend worst performing school districts (namely, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville and Jackson).

• House Bill 940: Establishes an independent charter commission to ensure underperforming charter schools are replaced with successful charter models.

• House Bill 942: Increases penalties against fentanyl dealers and those who traffic any derivative or analogue of the deadly synthetic drug.

• House Bill 947: Proposes a $30 million investment for the school safety grant fund and additional changes to existing law to prioritize the distribution of these grants to help secure school resource officers and additional safety measures.

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