Capitol Hill Week: Education headlines Capitol Hill Week

(NASHVILLE, TN), April 14, 2011 — Education headlined this week’s action on Capitol Hill as Governor Bill Haslam signed major tenure reform legislation and the Senate Education Committee approved a bill to allow students to use their HOPE scholarships during the summer, if they so choose, to help boost the number of post-secondary graduates in the state. 

Tennessee can’t remain near the bottom in education if we want to be the No. 1 location in the Southeast for high quality jobs. The bills are two of several initiatives proposed by the Governor and Republican lawmakers that seek to reform education, from pre-kindergarten through postsecondary, to grow the number of college graduates and provide a better educated work force for employers looking to relocate or expand in Tennessee.  

 “Last year, the General Assembly passed the Complete College Tennessee Act with the goal of raising educational attainment rates in Tennessee by promoting and incentivizing college completion,” said Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), sponsor of the bill.  “The HOPE scholarship bill builds on that legislation by giving students the option to attend summer classes in order to progress and graduate in a timely manner.  It also allows our colleges and universities to better utilize their buildings and campuses all year long.”

Current law allows up to five years on the lottery scholarship but does not include funding for summer semesters.  Senate Bill 1529, which is also sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), redefines “academic year” for the purpose of the lottery scholarship program and includes the summer semester, making it possible for student to use their lottery scholarships during the summer.

The bill extends summer eligibility to all current and future lottery scholarship recipients, but it grandfathers in all but current freshmen.  A 120-hour cap on lottery funding, with exceptions allowed for programs that require more than 120 hours for completion, will apply to students who first received a lottery scholarship in the fall semester of 2010 or thereafter.  Students who first received the lottery scholarship prior to the fall semester of 2010 (current sophomores, juniors, and seniors) will be eligible for summer funding while having up to five years to complete their studies utilizing scholarship money.  For those students who will be subject to the 120-hour cap, courses taken this summer (2011) that do not receive lottery funding will not count against their cap.

“Many students do not have the money, without the help of lottery scholarship funds, to take summer courses to finish college on time,” added Tracy.  “This bill will help students find the resources to complete their academic requirements and, at the same time, will help Tennessee raise our graduation completion rates, which is critically important to draw new jobs to our state.”

Governor signs teacher tenure reform bill – Before a crowd of supporters, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed his tenure reform bill into law, marking his first legislative victory and helping solidify Tennessee at the forefront of education reform in the country.  The legislation builds on the bold initiatives passed last year with Tennessee’s First to the Top program to give Tennessee students more opportunities to succeed.

Senate Bill 1528 changes a teacher’s probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure from three to five years as well as links tenure status to performance evaluations, utilizing Tennessee’s extensive student data that is the envy of states around the nation.
The legislation also gives principals the flexibility to keep a non-tenured teacher after the five year period. Previously a teacher would either receive tenure or be terminated after three years.

“This is the next step in the continuum of education reform,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, sponsor of the bill. “Last year, Tennessee made great strides in First to the Top in beginning to address the unacceptably low educational attainment in our state.  In step two of these efforts, we once again have the opportunity to lead the nation in education reform by developing a system that treats teachers as professionals and recognizes the critical impact of their work.  Effectiveness must be the core criteria for gaining and retaining teacher tenure.”

“True tenure reform has been a dream of Republican legislators for as long as I can remember,” said Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey. “I am proud and honored to stand with our Republican governor as we usher in the beginning of a new era in education in Tennessee where the interests of children come first and our focus remains on creating the most qualified teachers in the nation.”

Other Senate sponsors of the bill include Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), and Senators Jim Tracy (R-Murfreesboro), Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), Bo Watson (R-Hixson), and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville).

Legislation aiming to curb meth production is approved by Senate Judiciary Committee

The Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee has approved major legislation to stiffen penalties for making methamphetamines in the presence of a child and to implement a statewide electronic tracking system to curb meth production in the state.  The system, called NPLEx (National Precursor Log Exchange), would monitor and block illegal purchases of over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine (PSE), a key ingredient in methamphetamine production.

The legislation is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).  Beavers and sponsors of other legislation to curb meth production have been working for the past two months to find a way to address Tennessee’s growing methamphetamine problem.

“We have worked very hard to come up with a plan to address the illegal use of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine products to make meth, without infringing on the ability of law-abiding citizens to purchase these cold medications legitimately,” said Senator Beavers.  “This bill will give us the real time tracking needed to stop an illegal transaction and provides pharmacists the right to decline the sale if it is deemed not to be for a legitimate medical purpose.  The proposal also prescribes tougher penalties against meth cookers who endanger children and those who go from store to store to buy pseudoephedrine products.” 

There is currently no mechanism in place in Tennessee to block illegal PSE sales in real time, as many pharmacies and retailers rely on handwritten, paper logbooks to track purchases. As a result, criminals have learned to circumvent the current system.

Senate Bill 1265 requires that as of January 1, 2012, all pharmacies must use NPLEx, which would export the data to law enforcement.   The NPLEx system will be at no cost to pharmacies or the state.  The proposal calls for a pharmacist or pharmacy intern to counsel the potential purchaser of a product containing pseudoephedrine before the transaction takes place and may decline the sale if it is deemed not to be for a legitimate medical purpose. 

The bill also sets amounts of pseudoephedrine that can be purchased.  A buyer cannot purchase more than 3.6 grams of a pseudoephedrine product per day or more than 9 grams per 30-day period unless they have a valid prescription or face a Class A misdemeanor penalty.  Doctor or pharmacy shopping to obtain more than that limit, often referred to as “smurfing,” would become a Class A misdemeanor subject to a fine of $1,000 for the first offense and $2,000 for second and subsequent offenses.  The bill also changes the amount of pseudoephedrine in a person’s possession necessary to establish intent to manufacture meth from 20 grams to 15 grams.  Fines assessed under the proposal will be used for cleanup of meth labs.

In addition, the bill calls for the Comptroller to conduct a thorough study of meth and the availability of pseudoephedrine as a factor in the manufacture of meth, with the results of the study to be released no later than January 1, 2013.

“E-tracking will give local law enforcement officials a powerful investigative tool to track meth production,” said Seantor Beavers.  “Meth has destroyed many lives in Tennessee.  I am pleased this bill is proceeding through the legislature and believe it will help fight the terrible problem we face with this illegal drug in our state.”

In Brief…

911 Calls – The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted this week to approve legislation requiring permission from the person whose voice is recorded on a 911 before the transmission can be broadcast to the public.  Senate Bill 1665, as amended, clarifies that all calls and tapes will remain public record.  The bill requires that any broadcast or publication of a call is prohibited without written consent of the caller whose voice is recorded, or their designated representative or legal guardian.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), does not apply to court orders or subpoenas regarding 911 calls.

Road Funds / Advertising – Two bills, Senate Bill 31 and Senate Bill 32, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), passed through the Senate Finance Committee this week to allow companies to advertise on the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s (TDOT) emergency trucks and messaging boards respectively.  Tennessee’s road fund is in dire need of additional funding as the stimulus money for transportation expires and economic conditions continue to present the need for budget cutbacks.  The funds raised by the effort would go to TDOT to build or repair roads.  Under the bill commercial sponsorship cannot include alcohol, tobacco, adult-oriented establishments, political candidates or issue or any unlawful activities. 

Hospitals — Senate Bill 483, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), was approved this week by the Senate Finance Committee to continue the hospital assessment adopted last year and to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to hospitals in the state.   The hospitals asked the General Assembly to enact the coverage assessment for another year in order to raise $870 million total, after receiving matching federal funds.  The assessment is used to draw down federal funds available through a Medicaid match program approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  It will continue to provide the critical dollars necessary to provide hospitals a portion of their unreimbursed TennCare costs.  A few examples of programs, in addition to the reduction in payments to hospitals and health professionals, that would be affected without the assessment are: critical access hospitals; the Graduate Medical Education program; 8-visit limit imposed on outpatient services, x-rays, and physician office procedures; various therapies; and, the enrollment cap for the medically needy. 

Crime Victims Week – This week has been designated as National Crime Victims’ Rights Week to raise public awareness regarding the human cost of crime and spotlight any resources available to assist victims.  One such resource is the Treasury Department’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund which was designed to reimburse victims of violent crime and their loved ones for some of the out-of-pocket expenses they incur that are not covered through other resources.  These expenses include unpaid medical bills, lost wages, mental health counseling or funeral costs for loved ones.  Last year the fund helped more than 2,000 victims who received $11.3 million and almost $2.2 million in reimbursement to health care providers for performing forensic exams on sexual assault victims.  To learn more about the program go to http://treasury.tn.gov/injury/index.html

Equal Opportunity Scholarships — The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2-2 to approve legislation giving parents of low income students an opportunity to receive an “Equal Opportunity Scholarship” to attend the school of their choice, including public charter schools, private schools, or other public schools if space is available.  Senate Bill 486, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), applies to students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in Memphis, Shelby County, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville schools.  The scholarships would be in the amount of half the money that state and local school systems spend on each child. 

Revenue Collections — Tennessee revenue collections for March continued to exceed the budgeted expectations. The Department of Finance and Administration announced that overall March revenues were $815.5 million, which is $9.5 million more than the state budgeted.  It marks the eighth consecutive positive growth month for this fiscal year.  The general fund was over collected by $9.6 million and the four other funds were under collected by $100,000.  The year-to-date growth rate for eight months was positive 4.45%.  Year-to-date collections through March compared to the February revision are $2.3 million above the total estimate, and $6.0 million above the general fund estimate. The four other funds that share in state tax collections are $3.7 below the revised estimate.

Blue Alert — The full Senate gave final approval to legislation that would allow law enforcement to immediately put out information about suspects when a police officer is missing, injured or killed in the line of duty.  Senate Bill 655, which is sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), would work similar to the America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) system used to get instant information out regarding serious child abduction cases.    The Blue Alert would be used when a suspect has not been apprehended and is considered a serious threat to the public.  The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) would use the statewide infrastructure of the AMBER Alert system to facilitate a Blue Alert.

Property owner’s rights / Spotlights — State Senators passed a bill this week that would allow property owners, or those whom they give permission, to use a spotlight on their own property at night without fear they are in violation of the state’s hunting laws.  Currently, it is unlawful for any person in a vehicle to shine a spotlight in any field, woodland, or forest, or the waters at night due to a prohibition on hunting deer utilizing this illegal method.  The law, however, leaves property owners at risk of being in violation if they are checking their own animals at night.  This bill gives property owners the right to shine a light in their own fields or woodlands, as long as they are not hunting illegally, without fear they are in violation of Tennessee law.  Senate Bill 836 is sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

Newly appointed Education Commissioner presents budget — Newly appointed Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman appeared before the Senate Education Committee this week to present that agency’s budget.  The new Commissioner complimented lawmakers for passage of legislation allowing Tennessee to win the Race to the Top competition.  Huffman said the state is on the forefront of collecting data, a fact that gives Tennessee an edge in reform efforts. Commissioner Huffman is the former executive vice president of Teach for America, a nationwide organization that recruits educators. He is an attorney who taught in the classroom and has a decade of experience as an administrator under his belt.  The Commissioner is tasked with guiding and implementing the much-needed reforms that are at the heart of the education initiatives moving through the General Assembly.

State Election Commission – The full Senate voted to make permanent a change made to the composition of the State Election Commission which added two members to panel.  State law previously required that the political composition of the five-member State Election Commission be three members of the majority party and two members of the minority party.  However, as a result of the 2008 election, state law required that a majority of the members be comprised of the majority party, thus two new commissioners were added including the first woman in Tennessee history to serve on the Commission.  SB 1255, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), removes the provision requiring two members to rotate off the Commission when their terms of office expire by request of the Board who said the current composition allows them to work more effectively and efficiently in carrying out their business.  The bill does not require any addition funding as the commissioners only receive nominal reimbursement for travel and carryout their duties as a public service to the state.

Anti-terrorism – Two expert witnesses appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to testify on Senate Bill 1028, the “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011.”  Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Meyers, told committee members there is a “documented Tennessee nexus to terrorism.”  Meyers was joined by former Inspector General of the Department of Defense, Joseph Schmitz, who also testified in favor of the bill and provided information regarding the constitutionality of the measure.  The anti-terrorism bill provides that the Director of Tennessee’s Office of Homeland Security can make a recommendation to the Attorney General and the Governor to “designate” a terrorist entity, effectively isolating them from support.  Once designated, anyone who knowingly provides material support or resources may be prosecuted or fined under the bill.   “Apart from the FBI special agent, the border patrolman or the alert immigration officer, it is your ‘beat cops,’ your county deputies and your highway patrolman, who have the closest eye to the ground of potential threats,” said Meyers, a 30-year Army veteran whose experience includes planning defense strategies to counter the nexus of terrorism.  A vote on the bill, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesoboro), was deferred until next week. 

Voting machines – The Senate State and Local Government Committee has Senate Bill 1203 to allow cash-strapped Tennessee counties determine whether or not to replace their voting machines under the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act.  The vote came after both Democrat and Republican county mayors from across the state expressed strong support for flexibility regarding the law due to the costs to taxpayers, availability for up-to-date federally certified machines and the fact that the machines will have to be replaced again in the immediate future to comply with new standards from Washington.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), gives counties who want to proceed, an opportunity to tap into HAVA (Help America Vote Act) funds to assist them with the purchase.   

Election Process / Tie Vote – Members of the Senate Finance Committee have approved a bill to allow county commissions to call for a run off election in cases where there is a tie vote for a county office.  Under present law, if there is a tie vote between two or more persons having the highest number of votes for an office, the county legislative body cast the deciding vote to break the tie.  Senate Bill 1225, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), rewrites that law to place counties in the same posture as cities under state law, so that there will be an opportunity for a run-off election to let the peoples’ voice be heard.

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