Lawmakers, governor focus on educating Tennessee’s workforce for jobs of the future

 (NASHVILLE, TN), February 18, 2011 – Senate and House Republican leaders stood with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam this week as he announced a legislative package that focuses on preparing Tennessee students for the workplace.  Haslam’s legislative proposals also include key legislation to address needed changes in Tennessee’s civil justice system.

“We must focus on a better educated workforce to provide the jobs of the future and make Tennessee the number one location for economic development in the Southeast,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) “However, in order to draw the kind of jobs that are going to give our citizens that competitive edge in the global economy of the 21st century, we must provide a world class education for our students. That is why the education reform measures pending before the legislature this year are so important to the success of our students and to the state as a whole.”

Almost two-thirds of the estimated 15.6 million net new jobs created in the U.S. over the next few decades will be in occupations that require at least some post-secondary education or considerable on-the-job training. The majority of these opportunities are for workers with education and training beyond high school.  The fastest-growing occupations are in high-tech math and science fields like network systems and data analysts, software engineers, financial advisors, and healthcare workers.  

Legislation in Governor Haslam’s package include proposals to:
•    Make tenure tied to classroom performance; extend probationary time from    three to five years
•    Lift the cap on charter schools and allow open enrollment
•    Allow the state’s Achievement School District (part of First to the Top) to authorize charter schools
•    Extend use of the lottery scholarship for summer courses and cap the total number of hours based on required degree completion

Similarly, Governor Haslam’s legislative package offers proposals to establish limits on non-economic damages for both health care liability actions and other personal injury actions.  The bill places limits on punitive damages and clarifies standards for assessing such damages, as well as the venues in which a legal action can be filed.

The proposed cap on non-economic damages is $750,000 per injured plaintiff outside of the health care liability context and $750,000 per occurrence in the health care liability context.  The proposed cap on punitive damages is $500,000 or two times compensatory damages, whichever is greater.  The legislation also proposes replacing the term “medical malpractice” with “health care liability action.” 

Commerce Committee hears testimony regarding impact of Obamacare/ Tennessee Health Freedom Act Clears first hurdle

The impact of President Obama’s health care plan passed by Congress last year headlined this week’s Commerce Committee agenda as members were briefed on the next steps required to implement the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” in Tennessee.  The plan is expected to cost the state $1.2 to $1.5 billion by 2018, with the most significant impact of the Obama health care plan to the state taking place in the 2013-14 budget year.

Unless other action is taken at the federal level, Tennessee will begin planning “ramp-up” initiatives at the state level immediately to implement the federal law.   Three key Senate Committees are closely watching developments regarding the implementation of the plan in the state.  The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Committee is taking a broader and more comprehensive look at all aspects of the new law, including how it may impact demand for healthcare services.  The Senate Commerce Committee is focusing on the new health insurance requirements that were enacted under the new federal law.  The Senate Government Operations Committee will be monitoring any new rules or regulations proposed in conjunction with the plan. 

Much of the federal health care initiative will be put into place through rules and regulations as mandated by the federal government, rather than legislative action at the state level.  A federal mandate for mandatory health insurance coverage is scheduled for 2014.  This is also when state-based health care insurance exchanges must be operational.  There must be an exchange for businesses with no more than 100 employees, referred to as the Small Business Health Option Program (SHOP), and a non-group market exchange.  

In fiscal year 2015-16, the federal match rate for the plan will change, shifting more of the cost burden to states.  In 2018, the federal tax will be levied on “Cadillac health plans.”

Members of the committee also heard testimony regarding the impact of the new federal law upon our state’s health care workforce.  There is potential for a sudden increase in demand for services without any significant rise in the supply of health care providers. The supply question will be of great importance by 2014 when every citizen will be required to purchase health insurance, including those who have previously been denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition.

Health Freedom Act clears first hurdle — In related news, the Tennessee Health Care Freedom Act cleared its first hurdle this week with approval from the Senate Commerce Committee.  The bill would allow Tennessee patients to make their own health care choices, regardless of the federal action taken in Washington last year. 

Senate Bill 79, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), does not seek to “nullify” any federal law, as it would still allow individuals the option to participate in a federal program. However, it acknowledges the right of Tennesseans to refuse to participate in a government-run health insurance program.  The legislation seeks to protect a citizen’s right to participate, or not participate, in any healthcare system in Tennessee, and would prohibit the federal government from imposing fines or penalties on that person’s decision. 

Legislation would abolish teachers’ unions’ ability to negotiate terms and conditions of professional service with local boards of education

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee voted to abolish teachers’ unions’ ability to negotiate terms and conditions of professional service with local boards of education.   The legislation, Senate Bill 113, would delete provisions of state law put into place in the 1970’s which set apart this right for teachers’ unions.  No other public employees in the state can use collective bargaining.

The legislation would not affect current teacher contracts as clearly defined by the bill. As a result, the salaries and benefits of educators will not decrease upon passage. 

Currently, there are 44 school systems that are not involved in the collective bargaining process.  These systems report a collaborative, cooperative relationship that exists among teachers, school boards, and superintendents.  They also have comparable or slightly higher teacher compensation packages. 

An absence of collective bargaining would guarantee the right of every teacher to have his/her voice heard, not solely those of union members through a union leader.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).

Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee Passes E-Tracking Legislation To Help Fight Meth Production

The Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 325 this week, which calls for the implementation of a statewide, industry-funded electronic tracking system.  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.

“I commend the Senate Judiciary Committee for supporting a solution that will prevent illicit methamphetamine production in Tennessee while maintaining consumer access to important cold and allergy medications,” said Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “E-tracking is the only solution that will stop illegal sales of pseudoephedrine products by providing a real-time, preventive system in every Tennessee pharmacy.”

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. The bill would provide a secure, interconnected electronic logbook that allows pharmacists and retailers to refuse an illegal sale based on purchases made elsewhere in the state or beyond its borders.

“Most importantly, electronic tracking preserves access to the trusted medicines that many Tennesseans rely on and trust for cold and allergy relief,” continued Sen. Beavers.

E-tracking, which has been adopted by 12 states nationwide, will give local law enforcement officials a powerful investigative tool to track meth production across state lines. E-tracking allows law enforcement to find previously undiscovered meth labs and helps them identify meth cooks.

“No State Income Tax” Amendment clears first hurdle

A “No State Income Tax” constitutional amendment cleared its first hurdle in the legislature this week with approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The amendment, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), would clarify a prohibition in the Tennessee Constitution against an income tax and a payroll tax. 

The proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 18, specifies that the legislature as well as Tennessee counties and cities shall be prohibited from passing either an income tax or a payroll tax, which is a tax on employers that is measured by the wages they pay their workers.  A payroll tax has been proposed as a way around an income tax, and a 2.5 percent payroll tax was proposed in recent years by elected officials in Shelby County.  Kelsey won passage of the resolution by a vote of 25-7 last year in the Senate, but the resolution stalled in a House Subcommittee during the waning days of the 2010 legislative session.  

Lawmakers unveil plan to combat illegal immigration

A group of Republican lawmakers, including Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) unveiled a comprehensive plan this week to combat illegal immigration in Tennessee. The plan calls for three distinct principles to address different areas of the law that need to be strengthened in order for private businesses and state and local law enforcement agencies to have the authority to effectively deal with illegal immigration.

The proposals include the “Lawful Immigration Enforcement Act” which calls for state and local law enforcement to determine the legal status of an individual in question in the course of a lawful stop.  If the individual is determined to have unlawful status, authorities must detain and turn over the individual to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Another proposal, called the “Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act” would give state agencies authorization to verify the lawful status of an alien in Tennessee.
Any person found to be an unlawful alien would be prohibited from receiving any benefits.

Finally, another proposal calls for employers—both public and private—to submit the names and Social Security numbers of employees hired after October 1, 2011 to the federal Department of Homeland Security for verification.  The “E-Verify” system is 97.4 percent accurate.  Currently, over 4,000 Tennessee businesses participate in the E-Verify system.

Bills in Brief

Tennessee’s finances among best in nation  – State Comptroller Justin Wilson briefed members of the Senate Finance Committee this week Tennessee regarding the state’s financial status.  Tennessee’s general obligation bond debt burden of about $300 per person is one of the lowest in the country.  This is compared to local government in the state, some of which owe more than 10 times as much and the federal government, which owes more than 100 times as much per person according to Wilson.  Financial experts have placed Tennessee among the best states in the nation in terms of low indebtedness and unfunded liabilities.

Photo Identification — On Monday, the full Senate passed Senate Bill 16 which requires voters to present valid photo identification when at the polls. The bill is designed to reduce voter fraud and provides exemptions for those voting absentee, overseas, in nursing homes and for the infirmed and indigent, who may not be able to obtain proper identification.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

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