Sen. Steve Southerland updates constituents on state issues

Steve’s Senate in a Minute: (2/18/22)

The Judiciary Committee this week unanimously passed legislation aimed at enhancing the support system for youth in foster care.

Senate Bill 2398 proposes the state reimburse eligible relatives of foster youth to support the cost of raising the child. It would also expand eligibility of 18 to 21-year-olds who are transitioning from state custody to adulthood to access services.

There are many relatives of foster youth who would like to care for the child, but lack the means to do so. To keep foster children in the care of relatives in such situations, this bill proposes reimbursing the relative caregiver 50 percent of the full foster care rate for the care of the child if certain conditions are met.

The second provision of the bill expands eligibility for state services among foster youth who have aged out of the foster care system. Under present law, foster youth between the ages of 18 to 21 can continue to receive services provided they are in school. This bill would allow youth in the job market to also be eligible for those benefits. The move would extend benefits to as many as 300 additional foster youth a year.

COVID-19 Vaccine Exemptions

Last year, an executive order was issued requiring healthcare workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The order, which was initially enjoined by federal courts before being upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, included provisions that compel applicable employers to honor religious and medical exemptions.

Senate Bill 1823 proposes to codify into state law medical and religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination mandates. The bill also goes a step further in assisting those seeking such an exemption by providing a state enforcement mechanism.

Under the federal order, those wishing to obtain an exemption must hire an attorney and work with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to challenge the requirement. This bill would allow those seeking an exemption to also work with the Attorney General, who could then take civil action against that employer if they fail to honor the exemption.

The medical exemption can be obtained via a note from a Tennessee physician while the religious exemption can be obtained simply by declaring a strongly held religious reason for not getting vaccinated.

State Park Maintenance

The Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee this week signed off on my bill, Senate Bill 2418, which establishes the State Parks Hospitality Maintenance and Improvement Fund. The bill would require at least 2 percent of the gross revenue created by park facilities to be deposited into the fund each fiscal year. These funds will then be used for maintenance expenses.

The fund will allow the Department of Environment and Conservation to sustain maintenance and replacement costs through self-funding rather than requesting regular allocations from the general fund for those expenses. With this legislation, we are trying to make the parks self-sufficient and less prone to maintenance and improvement backlogs.

Thank you for following this column and don’t forget to keep an eye out for unclaimed funds letters from my office! They are not a scam! I encourage you to contact my office to share your thoughts and concerns. My office can be reached by phone at: (800) 449-8366, extension: 13851 or by e-mail at: sen.steve.southerland@capitol.tn.gov. Thank you for the honor to serve you in state government and God bless!