Legislation addresses retail theft and its strong link to state opioid crisis

Published 8:50 am Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A major bill which aims to cut off the flow of funds used in the purchase of illegal drugs was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week as legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis moves front and center in the Tennessee General Assembly. Senate Bill 1717 addresses the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft which has been heavily linked to the purchase of opiates.
The proposal follows a new law passed by the General Assembly last year defining organized retail crime and creating two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals who return stolen merchandise to receive gift cards, money or store credit.
It is estimated that Tennessee loses over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lose over $200 million each year related to return fraud. The National Retail Federation has estimated the loss at $12 to $15 billion nationwide, with almost all being related to illicit drug trade.
From April to June of last year, 98 overdose cases resulting in death or hospitalization were linked to individuals involved in retail theft. Investigative reports, like one done by CNBC, entitled Gift Card Crime Fueling Opioid Addiction across the U.S., continue to lend validity to the strong connection of the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft and illegal drugs. The report took a firsthand look at the problem with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Area Law Enforcement and Retailers Team (A.L.E.R.T.).
The bill proposed this year would give local law enforcement the tools they need to make sure businesses comply with the law passed in 2017 by:
• enhancing penalties for those convicted of Organized Retail Crime;
• establishing penalties for businesses that do not report;
• clearly stating what information is to be collected; and,
• making all identifying information confidential, to be used only by the state and law enforcement.
Local law enforcement would decide how to notify businesses affected and what method they should use to report the data.
Committee members also discussed Senate Bill 2258 which addresses two components of the three-pronged TN Together legislation proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to attack the state’s opioid epidemic. TN Together is a multi-faceted plan comprised of legislation, $30 million in state and federal funds proposed in Governor Haslam’s 2018-19 budget and other executive actions to attack the state’s opioid epidemic through three major components: 1) Prevention, 2) Treatment and 3) Law Enforcement.
Legislation providing more transparency and accountability when it comes to tuition and fee hikes at the state’s colleges and universities has passed the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Bill 1665 seeks to slow down tuition increases, which have risen by 125 percent over the past decade, by putting constant pressure on the process.
Approximately 50 percent of graduates from colleges in Tennessee have debt that averages around $25,000.
Under the bill, governing boards must give public notice 15 days prior to a meeting to adopt an increase in tuition and mandatory fees in order to allow for public comment and awareness. Any tuition increase must be substantiated by stating the amount of increase, the reason for the increase, and any steps that may have been taken to control it.
The legislation also requires each university to provide in a student’s acceptance letter a “predictive cost estimate,” projecting how much tuition and fees will costs for a four-year period.
Finally, the proposal calls for the governing boards of each university to submit a report to be distributed to the General Assembly with information on how the tuition increases where spent during the previous year.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration where it is scheduled to be heard on February 27.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation on Wednesday establishing a Tennessee Suicide Mortality Data Review and Prevention Team in the Department of Health to address the growing number of adult suicides in Tennessee. The Suicide Prevention Act of 2018 calls for the team to gather suicide data identifying causes and factors in order to direct limited prevention resources in the most effective way possible.
There were 1,110 suicide deaths in 2016, which is the highest number recorded in Tennessee in over 35 years of record-keeping. This is compared to 945 deaths in 2014 and 1,065 deaths in 2015.
Under the bill, the team would be composed of a physician and a nurse appointed by the Commissioner of Health, as well as designees from the Departments of Health and Mental Health and the chairs of the health committees in the Senate and House of Representatives. The group would make recommendations for changes to any state law or policy that would promote the prevention of suicide deaths or improvements to the way suicides are investigated and/or reported. They could also propose strategies for prevention of suicide deaths on which TSPN can focus. Recommendations would be made to the health committees by January 2020.
The legislation dovetails with the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, as issued by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, that calls for local health officials to routinely collect, analyze, report, and use suicide-related data to implement prevention efforts.
Legislation bolstering Tennessee’s Go Build Tennessee Program, which encourages and promotes career opportunities in the construction industry, was approved by Senate Commerce Committee this week. Senate Bill 1922 clarifies that the annual 50 percent transfer of revenue from the contractor’s license be used solely for the implementation, administration and management of the non-profit program.
The goal is to encourage and promote career opportunities in Tennessee’s secondary schools, postsecondary schools, colleges of applied technology and community colleges. The Go Build Tennessee website features 109 in-state training programs of the top demanded occupations. These occupations include carpenters, welders, road builders, electricians, masons, equipment operators, plumbers, and pipe fitters and more.
In Alabama, where the program originated in 2010, they have been able to increase construction-related Career and Technical Education (CTE) course enrollments by 24 percent. Tennessee’s Go Build Tennessee Program has communicated with students, parents and teachers in all 95 counties of the state as they widen their efforts to attract more skilled tradesmen to these high demand jobs.

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