Opioid crisis will be legislature's top priority

Hank Hayes • Jan 8, 2018 at 9:15 PM

Tennessee lawmakers in recent years have been focused on things like economic growth and keeping taxes low, but this year they have something else to worry about.

It’s the opioid crisis.

“The top issue will likely be a comprehensive plan to tackle the opioid abuse issue – which is at epidemic levels in Tennessee,” state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said. “The impact of this problem is far reaching ... Legislation is in the works to increase penalties for illegal production and distribution of opioids. The TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) has asked for dozens more anti-drug agents. The final solution will be a multi-faceted approach that deals with educations, treatment, regulation and enforcement.”

State Rep. John Crawford, R-Kingsport, said the opioid crisis claimed the lives of more than 1,600 Tennesseans in 2016.

“Thanks to the steadfast efforts of Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell’s Ad Hoc Task Force on Opioid Abuse, we begin the second half of the 110th Tennessee General Assembly with official recommendations — including additional Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) agents, continuing education about the dangers of opioids and prescription drugs, as well as increased funding and enhanced penalties for enforcement efforts related to offenses involving opioids and other dangerous drugs like fentanyl — so that we can begin to solve a statewide health crisis that has impacted so many of our families,” Crawford noted.

Lundberg suggested the more “attention getting” actions of the legislative session will include bills to legalize marijuana, mandate seat belts in school buses, enact seven-day sales of wine and reduce K-12 student testing.

Still, state Rep. Bud Hulsey pointed out the top priority for the GOP-dominated legislature “is and always will be” approving a balanced budget that levies the lowest possible tax burden on our citizens.

“Vigilance is required when you look at how quickly the state budget grows, up from $32.86 billion in 2014 to $36.95 billion today. That’s growth of more than 12 percent across four years,” Hulsey, R-Kingsport, stressed. “While Gov. Haslam and the General Assembly have held the line on spending about as well as any other state, much of this new money is an increase in federal dollars, with which come federal strings we should always be concerned about. At the same time, when the economy is strong as it is today, the temptation to spend on ‘good works’ grows immensely. It will definitely be a time for budget hawks to be on watch to ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely.”

Here are six other things to know about what’s on the minds of our Kingsport-area state lawmakers:

• Funding for Aerospace Park, the aviation-related economic development effort at Tri-Cities Airport. “As you are aware, the Aerospace Park will bring thousands of high quality jobs to our region upon its completion,” Crawford said. “This project must advance this year, and my colleagues and I will fight to see it become a reality. We must continue to make Northeast Tennessee and our entire state a desired destination for business and for families in 2018.”

• Hulsey is concerned about truth in sentencing. “This will be a major undertaking, but we owe it to the victims of crime to be honest at sentencing time,” he said. “I have authored legislation dealing with this in requiring that an inmate who is incarcerated awaiting trial cannot earn ‘good behavior’ or ‘sentence reduction’ credits that shorten a sentence until the minimum sentence demanded by statute is fulfilled. It’s difficult enough to be a victim of crime, but even worse to find that only a few short months after sentencing, the perpetrator is ready for parole consideration because of excessive ‘good behavior’ credits awarded due to our overcrowded facilities.”

• A move by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration to reinstate the work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents who rely on the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for assistance. “My Republican colleagues and I want our residents to have meaningful employment so they can take care of their families and make contributions that enable our community to continue its economic development and prosperity,” Crawford said. “By reinstituting work requirements, approximately 58,000 able-bodied adults without dependents across Tennessee who are not currently meeting the work requirement but still receive assistance will now be able to capitalize on an overabundance of jobs in order to secure meaningful employment. This will help move them along a pathway from dependency to independence and self-sufficiency. It is also important to remember that the restoration of these stipulations will not affect residents who currently depend on these key benefits in 16 Tennessee counties still designated as distressed counties by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. They will also not apply to Tennessee’s senior citizens or our disabled residents. Too often, welfare reform is an issue that takes on negative undertones.”

• Continuing education reform. “Because we have overhauled teacher tenure, implemented high standards, and expanded charter schools, our students are the fastest-improving students in the country,” Crawford stressed. “Over the past two years, the Tennessee General Assembly has made the largest investment in K-12 education in state history without raising taxes on the backs of hardworking Tennesseans. We are also the only state in the nation to offer all kids and adults access to community college free of tuition and fees. We must maintain our focus on advancing education in Tennessee.”

• Hulsey said he intends to file bills to raise the Department of Safety’s property damage reporting language from $400 to $1,500; enhance the criminal penalty for body fluids thrown on citizens as a personal attack; give businesses that make donations to 501(c)3 non-profit organizations a tax credit under state law; change the DUI law to give drivers a new license with a “red stripe” or other emblem denoting a DUI conviction; and ongoing oversight of Tennessee Board of Regents regarding Northeast State Community College.

• State Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, wants to place a permanent ‘Missing Man Chair’ POW/MIA monument on the Capitol grounds.

The 2018 session of the General Assembly will convene at noon Central time on Tuesday.

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