The Senate has approved and sent to the House a bill that prohibits public officials from receiving pre-trial diversion for crimes committed while in office.
Such a law, had it been in effect at the time, would have apparently have prevented former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner from receiving pre-trial diversion, which allowed him to collect a state pension and will allow his criminal record to be expunged if he does not violate probation.
Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, referred to Baumgartner’s case during Senate floor debate on SB2566, sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman. McNally said the judge’s situation “points out the need for legislation like this.”
The bill passed unanimously during the Senate’s Monday evening session, though three senators abstained. One of them, Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, was the only lawmaker to voice any concern about the bill.
Haynes said that a crime by a public officials is bad, but that it is “just as horrible” for a trusted employee to embezzle money from his or her employer.
“Why are we going to set apart one group and treat them differently than anybody else on various crimes?,” Haynes asked Yager. “If it’s good for those of us who serve in public office, why wouldn’t we do the same for anyone else?”
“Because a public office is a public trust and, as public officials, we ask for these jobs,” said Yager, contending that a higher standard should apply to judges, legislators and others holding an elective position.
McNally, after citing the Baumgartner case, said that state law already declares some types of crimes ineligible for pre-trial diversion and the bill simply adds another category. Drawing such distinctions, McNally said, is an appropriate function for the Legislature.
The bill now goes to the House, where it is sponsored by Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville. It is scheduled for a subcommittee vote Wednesday, which could move the bill forward for final passage by next week.
News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
(NASHVILLE, TN), January 19, 2012 — State Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) and Representative Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville) today announced they have filed legislation to disqualify elected or appointed officials from receiving judicial diversion for crimes committed during their term of office.
Judicial diversion is the process in criminal law when a person pleads guilty to a crime and can later have the charge removed (or expunged) from their record following a period of probation. It is granted by the judge, hence its name “judicial.”
“The public office is a public trust,” said Senator Yager, who is Chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. “Public officials ought to be held to a higher standard.”
A person is eligible for judicial diversion in Tennessee if they do not have a previous class A misdemeanor, felony conviction, or never received diversion or had their record expunged before. Those charged with a class A felony, a class B felony, a sexual offense, or a DUI are not eligible for judicial diversion under state law. Senate Bill 2566 would simply add a criminal offense committed by an official in the executive, legislative or judicial branch to the list of those which are ineligible for judicial diversion, if the crime was committed in their official capacity or involve the duties of their office.
“Accountability is a term that is thrown around a lot in public service these days. Unfortunately, not many take it seriously and that has to change,” said Haynes. “A law like this would go a long way towards restoring the faith Tennesseans once had in their elected officials. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard and I think this is a strong first step towards raising the bar in Tennessee.”
“Criminal acts conducted by public officials during the course of duty should not be eligible for judicial diversion. We must hold our public officials accountable for the trust they have been given. This legislation helps ensure that,” Yager concluded.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The chairman of a Senate committee says he’s against changes to the state’s Open Meetings Act he believes would prevent transparency and undermine the public’s trust in government.
Sen. Ken Yager, who served as county executive of Roane County for 24 years, oversees the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
The Harriman Republican said he opposes a proposal supported by some county commissions to allow members of government to discuss public affairs in private, as long as those in the discussion are less than a quorum.
The law, often referred to as the sunshine law, currently requires public notice prior to meetings of two or more members of a group that discusses public policy.
“Citizens need to understand how government decisions are made,” Yager said. “Lack of transparency prevents the public from actively participating in government and from raising questions or expressing their opinions.”
Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, told The Associated Press on Friday that he agrees with Yager.
“As he points out, the public cannot have conversation with their elected officials if they don’t know what is under consideration,” Gibson said.
Earlier this week, The Commercial Appeal reported that Shelby County Commission members have complained that the sunshine law should be loosened to allow more secrecy.
At a recent meeting, commissioners discussed member Steve Mulroy’s call to change the law. Mulroy said the openness rules are so strict that they turn elected local representatives into lawbreakers, according to the newspaper.
The state’s district attorneys are pushing for passage in 2012 of legislation that would require health care providers and pharmacists to check the state’s prescription drug database as a means of curbing abuse of painkiller drugs, reports the News Sentinel. A lobbyist for the state’s physician thinks that’s going too far. “What we’ve got to do is make it harder to get these pills on the streets,” said John Gill, special counsel to the Knox County district attorney general. “The database is not nearly as effective as it can be.”
Doctors, privacy advocates and others say the proposals go too far.
“We may well have some reservations,” said Gary Zelizer, director of legislative affairs for the Tennessee Medical Association. “My personal opinion is that it’s overkill.”
The database, created five years ago and funded by state fees for health care providers, tracks prescriptions statewide for narcotics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone — the same drugs that police say now top crack cocaine and methamphetamine among abusers. State law requires doctors and others to log each prescription they write and pharmacists to log each prescription filled.
The law doesn’t require them to check those logs before writing or filling the prescription. The database recorded more than 13.7 million prescriptions last year, according to the most recently available statistics — and only 1.2 million checks for patient profiles.
Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, has legislation pending on the subject. Yager says he expects there will be other bills filed to deal with the issue. A spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Haslam says the administration is considering “possible legislation” and will have more to say later. See also the Shelbyville Times-Gazette story on the DAs efforts.
News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
(NASHVILLE, TN) – State Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) announced today that he will sponsor prescription drug abuse legislation in the 2012 legislative session to require doctors, pharmacists or their designees to check the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database before prescribing or filling prescriptions for scheduled drugs. In addition, a separate bill being drafted by Senator Yager would require that anyone who picks up a prescription for a scheduled drug must show photo identification.
Yager was the sponsor of legislation passed in the 2011 legislative session that will go into effect January 1 cracking down on prescription drug abuse at pain clinics in Tennessee. That law required the Department of Health, in concert with the doctors, nurses and physician assistants, to establish rules to govern the operation of clinics, including personnel, patient records, data collection and reporting, inspections, health and safety requirement and patient billing.
Beginning 2012, no pain management clinic will be allowed to operate without a certificate from the Department of Health, which can deny one to an applicant who has committed a felony or a misdemeanor related to the distribution of illegal prescription drugs or a controlled substance.
“Tennessee ranks second in the nation in regard to the overutilization of prescription pain medications,” said Senator Yager. “It is important that we continue to take steps to address this huge health and public safety issue in our state. The current state database is under utilized and closure of this loophole will strengthen our fight against the tragic epidemic of prescription drug misuse.”
The House and Senate approved Saturday a bill that will provide a break to an estimated 5,000 Tennessee seniors who are now paying the Hall income tax on interest and dividends.
Current law exempts those over age 65 from paying the tax if income is less than $16,200 for individuals or $27,000 for a couple filing jointly. The bill raises those exemption levels by $10,000, to $26,200 for individuals and $37,000 for joint filers.
Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, the House sponsor, said between 4,700 and 5,000 or 51,000 Hall income tax filers over age 65 are expected to become exempt under the bill, resulting in a revenue loss to the state of about $1 million. Local governments, which get a share of Hall revenue, are projected to collectively lose about $632,000.
Gov. Bill Haslam included the anticipated loss of revenue in the revised state budget submitted to the Legislature earlier this month, which was approved earlier Saturday.
The current income levels, Sexton said, mean that those relying on Social Security for most of their income still wind up paying the tax if they have dividend or interest income.
Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, who sponsored the bill in the Senate with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, said passage of the measure was a step toward offsetting “the oppressive nature of this tax on our senior citizens who are struggling to get by.”
Several bills were filed this session to either completely abolish the Hall tax, which brings in about $180 million to the state annually, or cover more people with exemptions. All those bills failed.
“We knew elimination entirety something could not afford,” said Yager. “We targeted the relief where it is needed the most, to our senior citizens.”
After some joking, the Senate approved 32-0 and sent to the House Monday a bill authorizing designated Roane County officials to accompany Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers on their inspection trips to a facility housing tigers, lions, cougars and other large members of the cat family.
SB1192 authorizes the Roane County executive or someone he designates with the county sheriff’s office or the county emergency management agency to join TWRA inspectors in their visits to the Tiger Haven.. TWRA is responsible for overseeing operations of facilities holding exotic animals.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, asked sponsor Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, what could be done after the bill passes that could not already be done under current law. Yager’s response was to repeat his explanation of the bill, then add that the bill is “a result of two years of discussion.”
Similar legislation was proposed last year and failed. Yager earlier told a committee that the intent is to address community concerns over operation of the Tiger Haven without interfering with its operations.
The bill inspired joshing during the Senate Environment and Conservation Committee meeting, including Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Kingsport, offering an amendment to declare, “Bengal tigers that are kept or maintained in Campbell, Fentress, Morgan, Rhea, Roane and Scott counties shall be allowed to run at large.” The listed counties comprise Yager’s Senate district.
“What is this?” asked Yager when Faulk offered his joke amendment, which was never put to a vote.
When the bill itself was put to a vote in committee, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-College Grove, said he wanted his ‘aye’ vote recorded as “aye of the Tiger.” He repeated the request when the bill came to the Senate floor, prompting Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s one-word reply: “No.”