Jobs take center stage on Capitol Hill as Tennessee continues successful efforts to improve state’s economy

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 1, 2012 —  Jobs and the economy took center stage on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers heard good news regarding Tennessee’s economic prospects, including the forecast that employers may see reductions in their unemployment premiums as early as July.   Tennessee Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Karla Davis and Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bill Hagerty appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee to present their budget requests and brief members on developments taking place on Tennessee’s jobs front.

Jobs / Amazon — Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee’s Tax Subcommittee approved a bill, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), to solidify a jobs agreement reached last year between Governor Bill Haslam, legislative leaders and Amazon officials.  When all five centers are built and staffed, Amazon will have a $350 million investment and 3,500 full-time workers in Tennessee, in addition to thousands of seasonal employment opportunities. 

Senate Bill 2232 establishes requirements for determining whether certain business affiliates have a physical presence in Tennessee sufficient to establish nexus for sales and use tax purposes. Nexus is a legal term referring to connection or jurisdiction within a State.

The legislation will ensure that Amazon will pay Tennessee sales taxes if a national online sales tax law is not passed by the federal government by 2014. Under the bill, the new Amazon fulfillment centers located across the State will meet the requirement for establishing nexus in Tennessee.  Currently, Tennessee law requires that consumers pay use tax to the Tennessee Department of Revenue when making an online purchase from any retailer that does not collect sales tax.

Job creation reaches highest mark since 2007 — Amazon is one of many job successes this year according to Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty.  The Commissioner told Senate Commerce Committee members this week that Tennessee had a very productive year with the creation of 28,500 jobs in the state, the highest mark since 2007.  The Commissioner attributed the success to a realignment the Department took after Governor Haslam ordered a “top to bottom review” of its operations. 

“The result of that has been a fabulous job number in what has overall been a very tough economic environment,” Hagerty said.  “The majority of job creation in this state comes from existing businesses as they expand.  My challenge to the department has been to make sure that we maintain a 98 percent plus market share of all expansion that happens with Tennessee companies –and it is working.”

Although the focus is on expanding within Tennessee, Hagerty said Governor Haslam and the Department continue to be “very aggressive” in recruiting worldwide, visiting seven different countries in the last half of last year.    The department is pursuing a new initiative to open up the market for export opportunities to increase the output from Tennessee companies.  In addition, they are working on a co-investment fund to make money available for early stage capital to attract new private equity into the state for Tennessee entrepreneurs. 

“This is very promising news,” said Senator Jack Johnson, Chairman of the Committee.  “Bringing more economic opportunities to our state is job one this year, and we have seen great success recently in meeting that objective.”

Unemployment Fund Projected to Trigger Employer Premium Decrease in July — Likewise, Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Karla Davis reported on her department’s activities this week, which included good news regarding Tennessee’s Unemployment Trust Fund.  As of February 1, the balance of the fund is over $306 million. 

“Because of the wisdom of the Legislature in passing the bill in 2009, our Trust Fund balance is solvent and we believe it will continue to remain so,” said Davis.  “There are many states that are billions of dollars in debt to the federal government.” 

The 2009 law contained triggers for higher premiums when the state’s unemployment fund goes down to insure solvency and keep the state from the federal mandates associated with borrowing or insolvency.  The law also contained a 0.6 percent premium in order to keep the fund solvent.  Those triggers, however, reverse to lower premiums upon reaching levels which ensure solvency of the fund.  

Tennessee employers are currently paying premiums based on Tax Table 1, which assesses the highest level of premiums.  The Trust Fund is expected to trigger Tax Table 2 in the immediate future.  Thus, the assessment will result in a lower premium to employers in July of this year.  The study also forecasts that the Trust Fund will hit the $650 million threshold in the third quarter of 2014.  At that time there will be a further decrease in the tax as well as an elimination of the 0.6 percent solvency fee.   

TEAM Act overcomes first hurdle with passage in the Senate State and Local Government Committee

Legislation revising Tennessee’s antiquated civil service system overcame its first hurdle this week as Senate Bill 2246 progressed through the Senate State and Local Government Committee.  The action on the Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management (TEAM) Act of 2012 came after several changes were made improving the bill, including an amendment sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) which ensures veterans will continue to be given preference in hiring and promotions for state jobs.  The action also came after a number of agreements and concessions were made between the Haslam administration, State Employees Association and others regarding certain provisions in the legislation. 

Whereas the original bill insured veterans an interview, the Norris amendment requires that a veteran or a spouse of a disabled or deceased veteran be placed on the list of eligibles and if the minimum qualifications, skills and abilities, competencies and knowledge of the veteran and any other applicant are equal, preference would be given to the veteran for the position.   

Currently, state law provides honorably discharged veterans preference in applying for civil service positions.  These preference points are used in civil service hiring to give a leg up to veterans looking for jobs after leaving the armed forces.  Spouses of veterans disabled or killed in the line of duty also receive preference.
 
The Norris amendment also ensures that seniority is considered as a key factor in cases of Reduction in Force (RIF).  

The purpose of the TEAM Act, which is proposed by Governor Bill Haslam and sponsored by Senator Norris and Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), is to establish a system that will attract, select, retain and promote the best applicants and employees in Tennessee state government.  It also aims to give agencies greater flexibility in personnel management and increase customer-focused effectiveness for citizens who access a wide variety of state government services.  Johnson said the genesis of the bill came from the Governor’s Top to Bottom Review of state government with every Commissioner listing the antiquated and inefficient hiring process as one of their chief concerns in improving services and efficiencies within their department. 

Tennessee has just over 40,000 employees, of which 6,000 are executive service who do not have civil service protection, with the remainder as career service who do have certain protections under the system.   Approximately 40 percent of Tennessee’s state employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. 

“In order to meet the challenges of the future, state government must have the flexibility to attract and select applicants best suited for positions based on knowledge, skills and abilities, and methods available to retain and reward those employees based on performance,” said Johnson.

Currently, there are 549 registers for Tennessee State Government with over 100,000 applicants.  In most cases, applicants have remained on the register even though they may be deceased, found other jobs or moved to another state, which is a huge impediment for those who may legitimately be seeking employment or for existing employees applying for promotion.

“We have a hiring process that was designed for the first half of the 20th century.  We need one for the first half of the 21st century.  That is what we are striving to do today,” said Johnson.

Key provisions in the bill include:
 Employees
• Renames civil service as state service and career service employees as preferred service employees.
• Establishes methods for rewarding performance with pay.
• Provides funding for a salary survey designed to determine where the salaries for various job classifications are in relation to the overall market, and funds dedicated to take a first step in addressing recommendations from the survey.
Hiring
• Creates a new hiring system where agencies will be required to identify minimum qualifications for an open position and specify the specific knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies needed.
• Position openings would be announced for a minimum of one week
• Newly hired employees in the preferred category will have a one year probationary period, upon completion of which they will obtain the preferred designation. 
• Referred list of eligibles would include all applicants meeting the pre-established minimum qualifications.
• Agencies would be required to interview a minimum of three candidates
Reduction in Force (RIF)
• Employees affected by a RIF would receive a minimum of 30 days notice.
• In a RIF, the order of layoff would be based on performance first, then seniority, disciplinary record, skills and abilities.
• Covered employees affected by RIF would be granted an interview for positions in the same classification they held prior to the RIF for a period of one year, provided they apply for the position.
Appeals
• Provides a new system to improve the lengthy and complicated process for appeals brought by state employees who feel they have been treated unfairly, some of which have been stalled for years. 
• All preferred employees would have the right to appeal a dismissal, demotion or suspension identifying the law, rule or policy concerning the employee.
• The appeal process would have three steps, each with a time limit, ending with a Board of Appeals housed in the Department of Human Resources. 

Voluntary Yellow Dot Program would alert emergency medical personnel of important health information in cases of a car crash or road emergency

Legislation establishing a voluntary “Yellow Dot” program in Tennessee to alert emergency medical personnel to important health information of the driver or a passenger was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee this week.  Senate Bill 2277, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), is designed to assist citizens and first responders in the event of an automobile crash or other medical emergency involving the participant’s vehicle.  The “Yellow Dot” program would be a free service provided to individuals of all ages, with an emphasis on senior citizens.

“This program can help save lives during the critical “golden hour” by improving communication at a time when accident victims may be unable to communicate for themselves,” said Senator Tracy.  “Having this information following a crash helps first responders positively identify the person, get in touch with family or emergency contacts and ensures that the person’s current medications and pre-existing medical conditions are considered when treatment is administered for injuries.”

Participants of the program would receive a “Yellow Dot” decal, a “Yellow Dot” folder and an information form with the participant’s name, an identifying photo, emergency contact information, personal physicians’ information, medical conditions, recent surgeries, allergies and medications being used. A “Yellow Dot” decal on the driver’s side rear window of a vehicle alerts first responders to check in the glove compartment for the corresponding “Yellow Dot” folder.

 “Time is critical in an emergency situation, added Tracy. “This important program would give emergency responders a unique and effective program, which could make the difference between life and death for individuals involved in crashes.”

Legislation giving teachers more authority to relocate a student for safety reasons receives final approval

The State Senate unanimously approved legislation today giving teachers more authority to relocate a student who poses a safety threat without fear of being found liable.  Senate Bill 3116, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), requires local education boards to adopt a policy authorizing a teacher’s ability to temporarily move a student to a different location for the student’s safety or the safety of others.  The bill also requires principals to fully support the authority of teachers in taking the action when it is done according to the policy.

Gresham said the genesis of the bill came as she listened to teachers who were concerned about liability while performing assigned duties or that a lawsuit could be brought against them if they try to remove a student during an altercation.  The legislation is supported by the Tennessee School Board Association, the Tennessee Teacher Association, and the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

The policy required under the measure would also cover teachers’ authorization to intervene in a physical altercation between two or more students or between a student and Local Education Agency (LEA) employee.  It also allows for the use of reasonable or justifiable force upon a student if the student is unwilling to cooperate and it becomes necessary to end the altercation by relocating the student to another area.

“We have been listening to teachers who are very concerned about their ability to perform their duties and protect other students or themselves without fear that they will be sued,” said Senator Gresham.  “Teachers should not have to fear they will be found personally liable for standing in a doorway to stop a physical altercation between two students.  They should have full authority to remove a student to another location even if it involves the use of force.”

If steps beyond the use of reasonable or justifiable force are required, the proposal says the student would remain in place until law enforcement officers or school resource officers arrive.

“This bill would apply to acts committed on school property, as well as those at official school functions, including sporting events and approved field trips,” added Gresham.  “In addition to teachers, it would apply to administrators, school support staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school resource officers, and others working in the school who interact with students.”

Gresham said teachers must file a brief report with the principal detailing the situation that required the relocation of the student.  If it is found that the student’s behavior violated the LEA’s zero tolerance policy, the report would become part of the student’s permanent record. The student is then subject to additional disciplinary action that may include suspension or expulsion from the school. The principal or their designee must notify the teacher involved of the actions taken to address the behavior of the relocated student.

The bill does not apply to special needs students.

“We must give our teachers the tools to maintain order and provide for the safety of their students, themselves, and others,” added Gresham.  “This bill would go far to accomplish this.”

Legislation would give security officers at Tennessee’s Category I nuclear power plants authority to use deadly force in cases of severe threats of sabotage 

Legislation that gives security officers at Tennessee’s two Category 1 nuclear power plants the authority to use deadly force to prevent an act of radioactive sabotage has been approved unanimously by the State Senate.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), would effect officers at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Watts Bar Power Plant in Rhea County and the Sequoyah Power Plant in Hamilton County.

“It is critically important that the scope of authority for nuclear facility security officers is clearly spelled out in state law,” said Senator Yager.   “There should be no uncertainty as to whether they have the authority to effectively defend the public as well as themselves, against acts of radioactive sabotage.”

Dr. Mark Finley, General Manager of Nuclear Security at TVA, told lawmakers that officers at Watts Bar and Sequoyah are currently operating under the Castle Doctrine.   The Castle Doctrine is a self-defense provision that allows for the use of force, including deadly force, when threatened within one’s home.  Finley said Senate Bill 2651 expands beyond that law, due to the safety implications to the public posed by threats of radioactive sabotage. He explained that there are a wide range of responses that plant security officers would use upon being faced with a threat, with deadly force being used as the last resort. 

“This would clarify the regulations that they have to operate under and how they can use a continuum of force,” said Finley.  “The bill would also identify the nuances that have been in place since 9-11, the sophistication of the adversaries, or the bad guys that would attempt to gain entry into our facilities.  This identifies the different techniques that they use, how specialized they are and how concealing they are.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) prescribes stringent qualifications and training for nuclear security officers.  The facilities have a security plan that is regulated and inspected by the NRC every year.  TVA also has a nuclear facility training program for the officers which is part of the plan approved and inspected by the NRC annually. 

Finley said the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has categorized nuclear power sites across the nation as a very hard target after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  He said that although there was a move to federalize nuclear facility security officers after 9-11, the NRC and Congress opted not to adopt that course of action.

“State law needs to mirror the course of action that is recommended by the highly trained federal experts on this matter,” added Yager. “This new law would give our security personnel at these facilities the tools and the authority to do their job and protect the public.”
 
Similar legislation has been approved in Alabama, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

Issues in Brief

Voter ID – Eighty two percent of Tennesseans consider the new voter identification law “a good idea that should be kept in place,” according to a new Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) poll.  About four in five Tennesseans (83 percent) say they have heard that voters will be asked to show a photo ID at the polls starting this year, up significantly from last fall’s 71 percent.  The law was sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

DUI / Child Endangerment — Legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that ensures a multiple DUI offender receives the appropriate punishment when he or she endangers a child in their vehicle by driving under the influence.  Currently, multiple offenders do not receive an enhanced sentence like first offenders due to ambiguity in the language of a 2005 law which enhanced penalties for child endangerment for DUI offenders.  Senate Bill 2607 makes sure state law is clear for multiple DUI offenders and that the punishment for child endangerment, which is 30 days, runs consecutively with any other sentence received.  The bill is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).

Equal Access to Public Property Act — The House of Representatives has approved a Senate amendment and sent to the Governor legislation to create order in the use of Tennessee’s public lands.  Senate Bill 2508, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), makes it a misdemeanor offense to engage in the activity of camping on property owned by the state knowing that the area is not designated for that use.  The “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012,” comes after reports of potential health threats, theft, lewd behavior and other crimes on the Capitol’s War Memorial Plaza in association with the “Occupy Nashville” encampment. 

AG Action on Mortgages — Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper told members of the Judiciary Committee this week that the state will participate in the $25 billion agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers.  The agreement arises from an investigation into unacceptable nationwide mortgage servicing and foreclosure practices. Once approved by the court, the agreement will provide an estimated $146 million in relief to Tennessee homeowners and addresses future mortgage loan servicing practices.

“Scenic Vistas” Act — The Senate Energy and Environment Committee approved legislation this week ensuring that mountain top removal mining, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the federal Office of Surface Mining, is banned in Tennessee.  State law already prohibits this form of surface mining that involves the blasting of the summit of a mountain to expose underlying coal seams.  Senate Bill 577, as amended, adds the federal definition of the practice to Tennessee’s law to ensure that there is no misinterpretation that mountain top mining is prohibited in the state.

Heart Screenings / Newborns – The Senate approved a House amendment and sent to the Governor legislation to help detect serious heart defects in  newborns before they cause permanent harm to the child or death is on its way to the Governor after the Senate adopted a minor House amendment.  Senate Bill 65, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), requires the state’s Genetic Advisory Committee to develop a program to screen newborns for critical cyanotic congenital heart disease (CCCHD) using pulse oximetry on or before January 1, 2013. Cyanotic heart disease is a congenital heart defect, present at birth, which results in low blood oxygen levels causing the skin to look blue.  Congenital heart disease is responsible for more deaths in the first year of life than any other birth defects.  Research shows that children who are diagnosed with CCCHD later in life tend to require more hospital care, greater resources, and have worse long-term health outcomes.

Veterans / Charitable Funds — A resolution seeking to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to allow 501 (c) (19) charitable veterans groups to raise funds, in the same manner as other 501 (c) (3) charitable organizations has been approved upon third reading in the State Senate.  Veterans groups were left out of the Constitutional Amendment approved by voters in 2002 that allowed charitable groups registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501 (c) (3) organization to conduct an annual fundraising event.  Senate Joint Resolution 222, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), requires that any funds raised by the games go to purposes that benefit the community, veterans or retired veterans.  It must be approved by both the 107th General Assembly, currently in session, and the 108th, which will take office in 2013, before going to voters in a statewide referendum in November 2014, where it must receive a plurality of votes cast in the race for governor. 

Lottery Funds – Lottery profits in Tennessee are up by $10 million for a record year according to Rebecca Paul Hargrove, President and CEO of the Tennessee Lottery.  Hargrove appeared before the Senate Education Committee to present the Lottery Corporation’s budget and brief lawmakers on their progress.  Since the Lottery began selling tickets on January 20, 2004, it has raised more than $2.2 billion for these programs. In addition to the educational beneficiaries, players have won over $5 billion
in prizes.

DNR Orders / Support Staff — The State Senate has approved a bill that authorizes direct support personnel to follow the same Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders as licensed professionals in a healthcare facility.  Senate Bill 2227, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), ensures that other direct care staff honors the person’s or their family’s directive for end of life decisions by observing DNR orders.

###

 

Posted in Weekly Review