NASHVILLE — State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville who represents the 9th Senatorial District, has stressed he is “very pleased” with the outcome of the 2014 legislative session that ended recently.
Bell said passage of a balanced budget and the Tennessee Promise program, which provides community college to graduating high school seniors and nontraditional students, highlighted this year’s action on Capitol Hill. The General Assembly passed many other important bills, including several new laws sponsored by Bell to help state and local governments run more efficiently, upholding the rights of citizens and making Tennessee’s streets safer.
“I am very proud of the work accomplished in the General Assembly this year,” Bell said. “We passed landmark legislation to help students realize the dream of a college education. We balanced our budget. We passed several bills to make government run more efficiently and effectively, and we did this using the fewest number of legislative days in 50 years, or since the two-year General Assembly has been in existence.”
Creating efficiencies and greater accountability was the theme running through the Senate Government Operations Committee this year, which Bell chairs.
The Legislature passed 70 bills continuing the existence of various government departments and agencies, and 11 which call for elimination. The sunset legislation includes the merging of the Barber Examiners and Cosmetology Board. Bell said the move will save money for both boards and could reduce fees for licensees by cutting administrative costs, creating dual licenses and combining inspections. The bill will also restructure the board to be more representative of the professionals in the licensure pool.
In major action, the Legislature approved Bell’s legislation revamping the state’s Textbook Commission to provide greater transparency and more input from parents in the textbook selection process. The commission, which is responsible for recommending an official list of textbooks for approval by the State Board of Education, came under fire by a group of parents last year for having adopted books containing inappropriate language and controversial interpretations of historical facts. The entity was under review as a part of the Government Operations Committee’s regular sunset process.
The newly passed law gives both the Speakers of the House and Senate appointing authority, as well as requires better training of the commission and reviewers. It greatly reduces the current bond requirements, creating a more competition for textbooks in Tennessee. In addition, it addresses how the books are chosen at the local level and the process under which an objection can be appealed.
“This new law helps to ensure students have the critical information they need and that it is done in an accurate and factual manner,” Bell said. “I am very proud of the extensive work done on this bill by our Government Operations and Education committees. This work included looking at best practices used by commissions in other states. This bill will have a far-reaching positive effect on education in Tennessee for years to come.”
On other government efficiency measures sponsored by Bell, the General Assembly approved legislation providing substantial savings to local governments by authorizing TennCare to suspend, not terminate, coverage when prisoners are incarcerated. Currently, TennCare is terminated upon a prisoner’s incarceration in state and local jails, meaning taxpayers are required to pay the bill if he or she is transported to a medical facility for treatment. This new law allows a prisoner to be temporarily reinstated in TennCare upon being transferred to a hospital or mental health care facility for more than 24 hours. TennCare is paid for by both the state and federal governments.
Similar legislation approved in North Carolina saved taxpayers in that state over $100 million in healthcare costs for prisoners, Bell pointed out.
Similarly, Bell received approval of a bill authorizing the use of conventional and Class D school buses until they have reached their 18th year of service. Currently, school buses in Tennessee are allowed to operate up to 15 years with a 200,000-mile limit, whichever comes first, if they pass additional inspections. Under the bill, the state commissioner of safety, through the inspection process, may approve the use of buses for additional years of service beyond the 18th year if the bus has less than 200,000 recorded miles. The bill is expected to save taxpayers an estimated $56.2 million annually.
The General Assembly passed Bell’s legislation which changes the minimum percentage of man-hours worked for those with intellectual disabilities from 75 to 51, helping to make the process reflect integration. The state’s procurement program provides preference for selected commodities and services from qualified work centers serving blind individuals and agencies serving individuals with severe disabilities. Bell said that based on experiences in other states, this legislation will serve to increase opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to work.
On legislation protecting individual and Second Amendment rights, Bell won approval of a bill which recognizes a person’s automobile as an extension of their home in applying the state’s Castle Doctrine. The Castle Doctrine designates a person's home as a place in which that individual has certain protections and immunities permitting him or her to legally use force to defend themselves against an intruder. This bill recognizes court action which has upheld extension of the Castle Doctrine to a person’s automobile.
“The courts have recognized these private property rights,” Bell said. “A law-abiding citizen should have the right and does under this bill to keep a loaded weapon to defend themselves in their car.”
Likewise, a citizen’s right to hunt and fish is protected under legislation sponsored by Bell and approved during the 2014 legislative session. The bill makes it illegal for drones to interfere with private citizens who are legally hunting or fishing in the state.
The General Assembly passed Bell’s legislation to ban state and local police from participating in traffic checkpoints conducted by private contractors in Tennessee. This bill aims to stop any prospective checkpoints conducted by private research contractors from doing random checkpoint DNA tests on Tennessee drivers. The practice has been reported in at least 30 U.S. cities where drivers said they were pressured into providing saliva samples or to submit to a blood test. Affected drivers claim they were forced off the road by employees of the contractor who were accompanied by local law enforcement agencies with flashing lights for a supposedly “voluntary” DNA test.
In an effort to deter drunk driving, Bell received approval of legislation to allow judges to order a transdermal monitoring device for DUI offenders as a condition of pretrial diversion, parole, probation or judicial diversion if the defendant’s use of alcohol or drugs was a contributing factor. Transdermal monitoring systems are types of technologies that measure alcohol levels that are excreted through the skin.
Recently, there has been increased interest in the use of continuous alcohol monitoring in criminal justice programs to curb drunk driving. The bill is named “Amelia Keown’s Law,” for a 16-year-old William Blount High School junior who was killed in a fatal car crash at the hands of John Charles Perkins who had a lengthy criminal record, including numerous traffic citations and automobile crashes.
Finally, Bell joined Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville who represents the 14th Senatorial District, in passing legislation to reverse the State Board of Education’s decision to revoke a teacher’s license if their students do not make adequate progress on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System tests. Both Tracy and Bell introduced legislation on the matter.
“Overall, this was a very successful legislative year,” Bell concluded. “Legislation passed this year will help put Tennessee on the road to a brighter future.”