Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley February 26, 2020

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    Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation strengthening penalties against child sex offenders

   It was a short, but busy week on Capitol Hill as lawmakers returned from observing the President’s Day holiday to act on a wide variety of bills. This includes legislation strengthening Tennessee’s laws against the “worst of the worst” child sex offenders. Under current law, sex offenders can be charged with aggravated rape of a child if their victim is zero to three years old.  Senate Bill 1800 raises that age range to zero to eight years old.

   Under legislation passed by the General Assembly last year, aggravated rape of a child is a Class A felony offense which is automatically punishable by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This bill offers one more tool to combat these horrific crimes.

   In other action, Senate Judiciary Committee members voted to clarify a law that was passed last year prohibiting sexual offenders or violent sexual offenders from staying overnight at a residence in which a minor resides or is present. A lawsuit was filed after passage of the legislation pertaining to parents and children who fall under provisions of the new law. Senate Bill 1568, which I am the sponsor of, addresses the matter by authorizing a District Attorney (DA) to petition a circuit court when they believe an offender whose victim was age 12 or under poses risk of substantial harm to his or her child. The court would then make a finding by clear and convincing evidence regarding prohibition of overnight visits. The legislation seeks to address the legal questions that have arisen, while still providing an avenue to protect children when there is a substantial risk of harm.

   Senate Education Committee approves legislation to simplify, modernize and create more opportunities for HOPE Lottery Scholarship recipients

   Major legislation simplifying and modernizing the HOPE Lottery Scholarship’s financial aid program, while creating more opportunities for Tennessee students, was approved by the Senate Education Committee. Senate Bill 2097 is the most comprehensive financial aid overhaul since the implementation of the HOPE Lottery Scholarship Program in 2003. In addition to helping students achieve their dream of a college education, the overall purpose of the student-focused initiative is to create a highly skilled, credentialed workforce to ensure Tennessee’s economic prosperity and competitiveness.

   The legislation makes numerous technical corrections to ensure the program is focused on financial aid and student success including:

•Creating new opportunities to help individuals who are not currently being served well by the program like foster children, homeschoolers, ROTC students, and adult students who do not meet the 25-year-old requirement;

•Establishing one clear definition of scholarship termination at completion of five years or upon receiving a degree;

•Winding down loan programs that are not working or that are supplanted by new programs;

•Only paying for programs within the student’s field of study to keep a focus on timely graduation and costs; and

•Expanding opportunities for soldiers who are not being served by the confines of the state’s Helping Heroes Program established in 2008.

   “The General Assembly created a program called Helping Heroes that was drafted at the time for those veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Tennessee Higher Education Commission Director Mike Krause, who testified in favor of the legislation. “The theatre of operations has expanded. We would hate to think of the fact that the soldiers who participated in the raid in Syria last fall are not eligible for our scholarship under the current statute.”

   The legislation also affects soldiers who enter the armed services after high school and return to complete their degree, but are not eligible because they do not meet the Non-Traditional HOPE Scholarship age requirement of 25 years old. The bill provides that as long as an individual can file financial aid independently, they should be eligible. Krause said the same provision applies to help other Non-Traditional HOPE Scholarship recipients like a 22-year old single mother seeking to gain her college degree but who is currently not eligible because of the age requirement.

  The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for approval before moving to the Senate floor for final consideration.