Capitol Hill Week: Legislature, Governor focus on jobs, education and government efficiency

NASHVILLE, TN), April 21, 2011 – Senate Committees worked at “full steam” this week as they wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government and moved a number of important bills to the Senate floor for final action.  Two Senate committees, the Transportation Committee, and the Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee, have closed for the year.  The remaining committees are preparing to conclude their business within the next two to three weeks, as the General Assembly is working to adjourn the 2011 legislative session before Memorial Day.
 

Jobs plan announced — Jobs, education and finding government efficiencies continue to be the focus on Capitol Hill, both in the legislature and the governor’s office, as Governor Bill Haslam announced his Jobs4TN Plan this week.  The plan was developed over a 45-day period and involved interviews with more than 300 stakeholders, community leaders, and national experts as well as through seven roundtables across the state.

The Jobs4TN plan focuses on prioritizing the strategic recruitment of target industries; assisting existing Tennessee businesses in expansions and remaining competitive; supporting regional and rural economic development strategies; as well as investing in innovation and reducing business regulation.  The plan regionalizes job creation strategies by focusing on industry clusters where Tennessee already has a competitive advantage. 

Tennessee will concentrate its recruitment efforts on six target clusters in which the state has a clear competitive advantage: automotive; chemicals and plastics; transportation, logistics and distribution services; business services; healthcare; advanced manufacturing; and, energy technologies.  In addition, the Department of Economic and Community Development will fundamentally restructure its field staff to recognize efficiencies and maximize its resources.  The plan includes establishing a “jobs base camp” in each of nine regions across the state. Each base camp will work with local partners to develop and/or revise a regional economic develop plan.

The goal is to make Tennessee the number one location in the Southeast for high-quality jobs by creating the right business climate.  Legislation considered in the Senate this week focusing on education, tort reform and lessening burdensome regulations on businesses are an important part of that effort.  

Major amendment adopted to collective bargaining bill ensures teacher input
— On the education front, the Senate Education Committee approved a major amendment to legislation that would delete provisions of state law put into place in 1978 which set apart the right for teachers’ unions to use collective bargaining to negotiate terms and conditions of professional service with local boards of education.  The amendment to Senate Bill 113 sets up a process to ensure that every teacher has a right to make his or her voice heard regarding the terms of employment.

“I am grateful to the teachers from across the states who have expressed their concerns and suggestions regarding this legislation,” said Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), sponsor of the bill.  “Educators want to be heard, and we should listen.  This bill, as amended, will ensure that school boards maintain cooperative collaboration with our teachers.”

The amendment adds requirements on local education authorities (LEAs) to draw up an employee manual to address matters pertinent to employment and provide teachers with an opportunity to make their voices heard.  The manual includes such matters as salaries, wages, benefits (insurance and retirement benefits), leave, student disciplinary procedures and working conditions.  The State Board of Education will review current teacher contracts with boards throughout the state and identify “best practices” and model those with sample language in the manual by August of this year.  The boards, however, will be free to develop their own manual. 

There is a 45-day period prior to adoption of the manual at the local level during which time teachers will be allowed to provide written input.  After the input from teachers is collected, the board will adopt the manual and make it available for their review.  Then a public hearing will be held in which local elected officials, teachers and parents can also provide input into the development of the employee manual.  The manual must be fully adopted by April 17, 2012, and will take effect July 1, 2012. 

The professional manual would be binding on the LEA until a new one is adopted.   The amendment requires the manual to be reviewed a minimum of every three years. 

The bill, as amended, guarantees the right of every teacher to have his/her voice heard, not solely those of union members through a union leader.  It now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

“Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act” passes Senate — Legislation giving low income students an opportunity to receive an “Equal Opportunity Scholarship” to attend the school of their choice has received final approval in the full Senate.  The bill applies to students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in Memphis, Shelby County, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville schools.
 
“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend,” said Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), sponsor of the bill.  “With this bill, children need no longer be victims of their own geography.”

Prime co-sponsor Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) added, “Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood.  Equal Opportunity Scholarships will allow all children to receive the quality education they deserve.”

“By introducing more competition and choice, Equal Opportunity Scholarships have proven in other states to make all schools run more efficiently,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), a prime co-sponsor.

The scholarships would be in the amount of half the money that state and local school systems spend on each child, which amounts to $5,400 per year in Memphis City Schools, $4,200 in Shelby County Schools, $5,400 in Nashville Schools, $4,600 in Chattanooga Schools, and $4,300 in Knoxville Schools. 

The scholarship money could be used to attend any school that parents choose, including public charter schools, parochial schools, independent schools, or other public schools within the district if space is available.
 
Nine of the ten “random-assignment” studies on opportunity scholarships have concluded that reading and math scores of students with opportunity scholarships increased 6-12 percentage points after the first few years compared to low-income students who lost the lottery to receive a scholarship.  In the newly reinstated D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, students receiving the scholarship graduated at a rate 12 percent higher than those low-income students who lost the lottery to receive a scholarship.  Random-assignment studies are considered the “gold standard” in social science research because they are apples-to-apples comparisons, controlling for income status and parental involvement.

Twenty-one of the twenty-two empirical studies of the effects of opportunity scholarships on public schools have shown public school student scores increase 3-15 percent when opportunity scholarships are offered.

Equal Opportunity Scholarships increase the money available per pupil in public schools.  When a student leaves a public school to attend another school, not one local dollar leaves the school system.  The school district retains half the funds that were spent on the student at the public school, which ranges from $4,200 to $5,400. Therefore, per pupil expenditures at the public school increase.

“Virtual Schools” bill gains final Senate approval  – The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 714, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), to allow both private and home school students to enroll in virtual school courses offered by public schools.
 
Currently, home school and private school students cannot enroll to take virtual courses from a public school, even though parents may need help in courses they do not feel qualified to teach.  For example, private and home school students may need to take certain foreign languages that their current school does not provide but are precluded from enrolling in public school virtual courses because of existing law.
 
The bill authorizes any student who is eligible for enrollment in a public school in Tennessee to enroll in a virtual school. Students currently attending a nonpublic school may be charged a tuition fee. It also requires an evaluation by the school annually regarding student achievement under the program and a review of its financial and operational performance.

Financial literacy bill continues efforts to ensure students have early foundation in the basics of money management — Legislation strengthening efforts to ensure Tennessee has a strong financial literacy curriculum was approved by the full Senate on Monday night.   Senate Bill 912, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) and Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City),  requires the State Board of Education, in consultation with the Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission, to develop guidelines to strengthen personal finance standards and require that certain financial literacy concepts are included as part of the testing standards for social studies.

“This bill continues our efforts to ensure students have an early foundation in the basics of money management to help give them the tools they need to make good financial decisions that will positively impact their future,” said Senator Overbey.  “Tennessee is at the top of the nation in the number of bankruptcies and this legislation is an important step in helping create opportunities to teach good financial practices early in life to get us back on the right track.”

The Commission has been working with financial literacy efforts like the Smart Tennessee initiative, which is a statewide program to integrate financial literacy into the existing K-12 curriculum.  Financial support for that program is provided through a unique public/private partnership between the State of Tennessee and First Tennessee Foundation and is now providing financial literacy curriculum across the state.
 
This year’s legislation requires TNFLC to conduct a formal review of personal financial standards taught in grades K-8 and recommend revisions to the Department of Education and the State Board of Education.  This includes recommending the best means to incorporate the personal finance concepts into existing standardized Social Studies testing for grades five and eight.

To learn more about literacy efforts and curriculum in Tennessee, visit:  http://treasury.tn.gov/FinLit/FLCClearinghouse.html

Senate approves resolution giving voters the right to restore their voice regarding what state law should be regarding abortions

The State Senate voted 24 to 8 to give Tennesseans the opportunity to restore their voice in determining what state law should be regarding abortions.  The supermajority is two votes more than needed by the Senate to put the constitutional resolution on the ballot.

The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 127 sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), addresses a State Supreme Court decision in 2000 that struck down provisions in Tennessee law calling for women to receive “informed consent” information about the surgery and wait 48 hours before they receive an abortion.  The court also ruled against a state requirement that all abortions after the first trimester be performed in a hospital. That ruling made Tennessee more liberal than the U.S. Supreme Court required in Roe v. Wade and made the right to abortion a “fundamental right” in Tennessee.

“This resolution was a long time coming,” said Senator Beavers.  “I am very pleased it has finally passed.  It will enable Tennessee to begin the process to restore the right of the people to decide through their elected legislature what Tennessee law should be regarding abortions within the bounds of federal court decisions.  The only way to restore the people’s voice is to change the Constitution and give the legislature authority to write commonsense laws.”

The resolution would allow citizens to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to say that the right to an abortion is only protected under the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.  It would give the people the right, through their elected state representatives and senators, to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape, incest or life of the mother.  Beavers said the practical effect of the resolution would be to bring Tennessee back into a position of neutrality so the people’s elected representatives can decide within the bounds of federal decisions what protections can be put into place.

The bill is co-sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senator Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), Senator Doug Henry (D-Nashville), and Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge).

If approved by a super majority in the House of Representatives, citizens could expect to see the resolution on the ballot in November 2014.

In Brief…

Civil Justice Act gets first Senate hearing — The Judiciary Committee heard testimony this week regarding the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011.  The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda.  The sponsors say the legislation will provide certainty and predictability for businesses, while ensuring that injured plaintiffs receive 100percent of the economic, quantifiable damages that they suffer.  Tennessee is the only state in the southeast that has no limits on punitive damages. The legislation would provide certainty and predictability to attract businesses and, therefore, high quality jobs to Tennessee.  According to a recent study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, the proposal is estimated to bring as many as 30,000 new jobs per year if it passes.  A vote on the bill is expected in the Committee next week. 

Secret Ballot Protection Act — Legislation designed to protect the rights of employees to vote on whether or not they want to unionize by a secret ballot was approved in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week.  The legislation is a counter measure to dangerous federal card check legislation that has been proposed in Congress.  That proposal would subject employees to intimidation by allowing unions to organize simply by persuading a majority of employees to sign a union representation card.  Senate Bill 1745, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), defines the denial of secret-ballot elections as an unfair labor practice.  Sponsors say the bill is consistent with our state’s Constitution and court decisions that provide that all elections in Tennessee shall be by a method guaranteeing ballot secrecy.

MOMs — Legislation that strengthens Tennessee’s status as a Right to Work state has won approval in the full Senate.  Senate Bill 1031, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), amends the state’s Right to Work law to prohibit maintenance of membership clauses in collective bargaining agreements.  Tennessee is one of twenty-two Right to Work states across the nation which prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers making membership or payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment, either before or after hiring.  Tennessee’s Right to Work law, however, does not ban maintenance of membership clauses within collective bargaining agreements.  These are clauses which sometimes are included in collective bargaining agreements which mandate that, once an employee joins a union, the employee cannot leave the union until the collective bargaining agreement expires.
The bill is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

911 Calls — The full Senate 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 just 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.

Hospitals — Senate Bill 483, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), was approved on final consideration in the Senate on Thursday.  The bill would continue the hospital assessment adopted last year to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to Tennessee hospitals.   The hospitals asked the General Assembly to enact the coverage assessment for another year in order to raise $450 million in state funds to draw down $870.5 million in 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. 

Election Process / Tie Vote — 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 has received final approval by the full Senate.  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 casts 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.

Molly’s Plant Food / Bath Salts — The Senate approved and sent to the governor a bill to prohibit possession and sale of methcathinone.  The drug, which is commonly referred to as “bath salts” or “Molly plant food,” is currently being sold legally in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 396 would make the sale of the drug a misdemeanor.

Meth vehicles — Members of the Senate Transportation Committee voted this week to require notice must be given to the Department of Revenue if a vehicle is impounded due to the manufacture of meth within 30 days of the impoundment.  Senate Bill 266, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), defines a methamphetamine vehicle as any passenger motor vehicle that has been impounded by a law enforcement agency based on a charge of manufacture of meth on or within the vehicle. 

Transportation / coordination — Senate Bill 523, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), was passed by the Senate Transportation Committee this week to create an Interagency Transportation Coordination Committee to coordinate the transportation efforts of state and local governments.  The committee will create a five-year strategic transportation coordination plan to guide its work to improve transportation coordination, the methods of delivery of passenger transportation, effectiveness of services and overall financial efficiency.  A study conducted in 2008 identified at least eight separate programs, outside of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, that expended approximately $101 million to support the provision of human service transportation.  The report recommended increased coordination to leverage funds and stretch limited resources. 

Government efficiency — A bill aiming to streamline the legislative process and save taxpayer dollars has cleared the Senate Finance Committee.  Senate Bill 725, sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), avoids duplication in state government by eliminating 11 joint oversight committees and shifting their responsibilities to the standing committees of each house of the General Assembly, saving the state $851,800.

Photo ID — The Senate Transportation Committee voted this week to approve Senate Bill 1666 to require the Department of Safety to issue a photo identification license free of charge to any person who does not have one and needs it for voting purposes.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).  Legislation is pending in the General Assembly which requires voters to present valid photo identification at the polls. That proposal, Senate Bill 16, is designed to reduce voter fraud and provides exemptions for those voting absentee, overseas, in nursing homes and for the infirm and indigent, who may not be able to obtain proper identification. 
 
Curbing prescription drug abuse — Legislation designed to curb the abuse of prescription drugs at pain clinics in Tennessee received final approval this week.  Senate Bill 1258, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), would require all pain clinics in Tennessee to obtain a certificate by the Department of Health.  The Commissioner of Health, in consultation with the Boards of Medical Examiners, Osteopathic Examination, Nursing, and the Committee on Physician’s Assistants, would promulgate rules necessary to operate these clinics.  They would also have the authority to examine pain clinics, their staff and patient records, to ensure compliance with those rules.  This includes the ability to investigate complaints or violations.  Under the bill, the respective boards would be authorized to take action against violators.  Tennessee ranks second in the nation in regard to the overutilization of prescription pain medications, having exceeded the national average for controlled substance use for many years.

New job investment —   Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam joined with officials from Rutherford County in announcing plans by Valeo to locate a manufacturing facility for automotive parts in Smyrna, Tennessee. The company plans to invest up to $5.4 million, creating 63 jobs within a year of occupancy.

Adventure Tourism / Rural Job Creation — The Senate Environment Committee has approved legislation to enact the Tennessee Adventure Tourism and Rural Development Act.  The objective is to establish a plan for Tennessee to promote outdoor recreational opportunities in rural, high-employment areas of the state.  Senate Bill 1205, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), would direct the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Conservation and Environment to perform a study and create a plan to promote adventure tourism and other recreational and economic development activities in rural areas. 

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Posted in Weekly Review

Leadership