Medical malpractice reform: The State Senate has approved and sent to the governor major tort reform legislation aimed at weeding out meritless medical malpractice lawsuits. Medical malpractice costs have been a factor in pushing up the cost of health care nationwide. The Department of Commerce and Insurance Annual Reports on Medical Malpractice have shown that more than 80% of the lawsuits filed in Tennessee lack sufficient merit to proceed. The bill represents the most significant reform to the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Act in more than a generation. Last year the legislation passed the Senate but hit roadblocks in the House of Representatives regarding which medical experts can testify in malpractice trials, called the "locality rule." The bill, SB2001 , was deferred until this year after an agreement could not be reached before the close of the 2007 legislative session. That provision has now been removed from the bill.
Key provisions in the bill include:
    • Notice provided at least two months before a lawsuit is filed to help resolve the case before it goes to court;
    • A process requiring pre-filing notification to each medical provider who may be named in a medical malpractice action at least 60 days prior to filing a complaint;
    • Notification requirement to require attorneys to have an independent medical expert evaluate the merits of a case before filing suit
    • All parties entitled to the plaintiff's medical records within 30 days of a request for the records;
    • Within 90 days after a complaint is filed, the plaintiff's attorneys would have to attest that plintiff has consulted with a medical expert who is competent to testify in a Tennessee court and has reviewed the medical records or any other pertinent information; and
    • Medical experts must declare that there is a good faith basis to maintain the malpractice action, and the defendant is responsible for following a similar procedure when alleging that a non-party is responsible.
Blocking diversion of fuel tax money from state road fund: Legislation that maintains Tennessee's dedicated road fund advanced this week with approval from the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. The bill, SB3345 , would prohibit the diversion of gas tax money through the state's budget (appropriations bill), without authorization from separate legislation to assure full debate of the issue. Currently, the dedicated road fund can be diverted through a line item in the appropriations bill, which is a much easier route to raid the funds. The bill would put Tennessee back in the position prior to 2004 to keep the administration from easily diverting fuel tax money for other state government purposes. It seeks to restore appropriate checks and balances to ensure that any diversion of the funds are fully meted out through our normal legislative process. The Department of Transportation only spends the funds that are available through its dedicated revenues, fuel taxes, highway user fees, and federal funding. Called "dedicated funding," since users pay for the roads through gas taxes and fees, a portion of the gasoline tax also goes to cities and counties in Tennessee to fund local roads. This dedicated revenue system was put into place when the gas tax was raised to fund the road program. Over the last five or six years, 280-million dollars in road funds has been funneled from the gas tax to meet other state government expenditures, with only a small portion restored. Legislation had been approved to divert funds from many dedicated and reserve accounts to meet other expenses during the financial crisis of 2001. However, all other reserve or dedicated funds which were diverted to meet other expenses during that crisis have been restored to the normal legislative process, except for the road fund. The federal highway transportation fund is drastically declining, and the Legislature must plan for future needs based on state revenues, beginning as early as next year. This fact, coupled with concerns regarding the future of the gas tax due to the rising cost of gasoline, could erode Tennessee's ability to provide the repairs and infrastructure needed for the state's road system.
Divesting Tennessee's pension fund from investment tied to state-sponsored terrorism: The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted to begin the process of divesting Tennessee's pension fund from owning any holding with companies that have substantial operations in nations determined by the U.S. State Department to be state-sponsors of terrorism. The bill, SB3277 , requires the state's treasurer to compile a list of the investments with ties to terrorist countries. This bill represents a first step toward implementation of a policy to instruct the executive director to divest these holdings. Growing concern over genocide in the Sudan and countries that sponsor terrorism has prompted state legislatures across the nation to consider actions to limit or eliminate state investments in firms doing business with such countries. Twenty-four states have already adopted policies of divestment from the Sudan. Tennessee has a 32-billion dollar pension fund which serves state employees, public school teachers, and many local government employees. The federal government is also taking action on this matter.
Education Committee closes for the session: The Senate Education Committee has completed its business for the 2008 legislative session, but not before passing several important measures.
One such bill would enact the "Virtual Schools Act" to provide educational resources and opportunities to students by way of the Internet in a "virtual classroom setting." Tennessee is one of the last two Southeastern states to enact a virtual schools program. The legislation, SB2008 will help local schools tap into funds available through grants and donations to provide start-up money for a virtual education program. Under this bill, the State Board of Education would be responsible for developing policies and guidelines for the operation of virtual education programs. Local education agencies (LEAs) would be authorized to use BEP funds for implementation of a program in their schools. The proposal contains a reporting provision in order that the governor and lawmakers can review progress made in the operation of the program. Virtual schools have many advantages and have the potential to affect a large number of students in a positive way. It permits students in small, rural, or low-wealth school districts to take specialized courses that would ordinarily not be available to them. It meets the needs of those in special circumstances, like those in hospitals or recovering at home, dropouts who would like to get back in, expelled students, or single parents, to name a few. It makes sense in our technological age to reach out to these students through this program.
Another bill, SB2799 , approved by committee members would prohibit local governments from using state Basic Education Program (BEP) funds to reduce local taxes or local operating funds that would otherwise go to the education. The accountability bill ensures that BEP reform money provided by the General Assembly last year to enhance education spending will add to local efforts to provide quality schools.
The creation of a program to help troubled students, age 14 years and older, to have access to valuable work experience and career exploration programs passed through the Education Committee this week. The bill permits minors under a juvenile court's jurisdiction to be eligible for enrollment in a charter school and to participate in such a program at the court's direction. The bill would allow for a "last chance" program for juveniles who have been in trouble with the legal system, but who might be helped to find a new direction through innovative technological education.
Finally, the committee passed a proposal, SB4104 , which allows the Tennessee Board of Education to develop a curriculum for an academic and nonsectarian study of the Bible. Language was added to the bill to ensure that schools that already have a Bible curriculum can continue their current program. Another bill amendment allows school systems to adopt another system's program, provided that it has been approved by the Board of Education.
Use of restraints: The full Senate has given final approval to a bill, SB2609 , which comes from the Joint Committee on Children and Youth and addresses restraints of special education students. The bill makes it clear that if restraints are used, they are to be done so in a consistent manner and in very limited situations to calm the student or to lead them to safety. The measure calls for local Special Education Associations to develop and provide training for the proper use of the restraints.
Drunk Driver Registry: Members of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee approved SB3439 which would create a registry with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation of persons who have two or more DUI convictions, similar to that of the Sex Offender Registry. The offender would be placed on the registry if his or her license has been revoked or suspended due to a drunk driving offense. The person's name would be removed if his or her license is reinstated. In 2006, there were 1,287 fatalities on Tennessee roads, with 509 due to alcohol-related crashes.
Technological sunshine: A bill, SB3086 , which proposes to harness technology for the purpose of opening the governmental process has passed the full Senate. The "technological sunshine bill" would set up a pilot program in Knox County authorizing Websites where government officials can instant message one another. These "conversations" would be available for the public and the media's viewing. The bill is designed to make it easier for officials to conduct business, while balancing the public's right to know.
Open government / open records: In other open government action, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted to approve major legislation opening records in Tennessee. The bill, SB3280 , creates the office of ombudsperson to deal with open records issues for local government, requires open records requests to be available within four days or a denial must be sent with explanation, clarifies that violations may be considered in circuit or chancery court, and mandates certain boards and utilities to develop training programs on open meeting laws.
Handguns: The full Senate has approved a bill, SB2866 , which changes present law by making it a Class E felony for a person who has been convicted of any felony to possess a handgun. The bill also broadens the Class E felony offense of unlawful possession of a handgun to include a person with any prior felony conviction.
Notary public: The Senate gave approval to legislation, SB2964 , this week to require any person who is a notary public to be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
Consumers: The Senate passed legislation to amend the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act to protect citizens from businesses who might misrepresent the geographic location of a business. The bill, SB3418 , applies to any business which misrepresents its location in the local telephone directory or on the Internet.
Tamper-resistant prescriptions: Prescriptions in Tennessee must be written or printed on tamper-resistant prescription paper under legislation approved by the full Senate this week. The bill, SB3746 , would meet specific TennCare requirements for tamper-resistant prescription paper and federal regulations that will soon take effect. The tamper-resistant paper would include unique serial numbers to enhance efforts to track and enforce potential fraud. Doctors in Tennessee have already begun using tamper-resistant prescription pads to reduce fraud and abuse.
Multi-modal transportation: Legislation was advanced in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee to provide greater coordination of transportation services through the Tennessee Department of Transportation's multi-modal transportation system. The measure, SB2835 , aims to provide efficiency between the various departments utilizing transportation services to stop duplication of efforts.
Sex offenders: The full Senate has voted to approve legislation that would provide that if a sex offender changes names or provides a different name than is listed on his or her original registration form, he or she must report all names to the registry. The bill, SB2593 , would make it clear that sex offenders cannot change a name to skirt the law regarding sex offender registry requirements.
Sanctuary cities: The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation to cut off economic and community grant money to any Tennessee city that might declare itself a "sanctuary city" for illegal aliens. A sanctuary city is a term given to a city in the United States that follows certain practices that protect illegal aliens. Thirty-eight cities in the U.S. have been recognized as sanctuary cities. However, many sources have identified more than 200 city or county governments nationwide as having practiced such policies. The bill, SB2951 , is a preemptive measure to guard against adoption of any policy by a Tennessee city or county to provide a sanctuary for illegal aliens in Tennessee.
County fire marshals: The Senate has approved legislation that allows counties to have a county fire marshal. The proposal, SB3855 , requires that any county fire marshal must have at least five years experience as a firefighter, be certified by the state fire marshal as a fire safety or building inspector, and serve at the pleasure of the county mayor.
DUI fines: Legislation, SB0085 , which would increase DUI fines by 250 dollars has been approved by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. Half of this money would be retained by the local communities where the crime occurred for housing offenders or providing more patrol officers, while the other half would be used for state alcohol or drug addiction treatment. The bill is expected to provide 1.5-million dollars to the state and 1.5-million dollars to local governments.

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