LEAP legislation introduced to educate and employ Tennesseans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The legislative pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as Senate Committees continued to hear budget presentations from various departments and agencies of state government and listened to a wide variety of legislative proposals under consideration this year.  The deadline for the introduction of bills for the 2013 legislative session passed last Thursday.  A total of 1,394 bills have been filed for consideration in the State Senate, including newly filed legislation creating an innovative statewide initiative merging traditional college coursework with technical training to address the skilled labor shortage faced by Tennessee employers. 

Senate Bill 1330, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), creates the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) allowing students at Tennessee’s technology centers and community colleges to combine occupational training in a high-skill or high-technology industry with academic credit and to apply that experience toward a degree.  The legislation directs several state entities to work together in both establishing and carrying out the initiative.  

“I’ve met with a number of industries in high-tech manufacturing ready to expand in Tennessee but for a lack of qualified employees, and I know of many Tennesseans who can’t afford to attend school while sacrificing a paying job,” Norris said.  “This promotes the best of both worlds for employers, employees and the economy of Tennessee.”

The legislation is drafted so that wages or other compensation received by students will not impact eligibility for state need-based financial assistance or grants.  Norris and his staff consulted with major employers in Tennessee and other southern states, as well as overseas, to study what are referred to as “cooperative education” programs. Students are paid to learn while applying what they learn at work for credit toward a degree.

“This is not unlike the old apprentice programs of generations past, where students get a practical utilization of what they’re learning from the books,” Norris said.  “But we’re adding a modern higher education component to address what Tennessee employers keep asking for:  job candidates with the requisite skills needed in today’s technologically-advanced workplace.”

Jason Bates, Administration Manager of Toyota’s Bodine facility in Jackson, stated that industry continually faces the need for qualified workers.  “Despite today’s challenging economic environment, manufacturing facilities all across our state struggle to fill positions with individuals educated in advanced manufacturing,” Bates said.  “Support for education in manufacturing technology is critical for Tennessee’s growth.” 

“Oftentimes, there is a communications gap between educators and economic developers. LEAP will help coordinate job training between the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Economic and Community Development with higher education,” Norris said.  “This will allow us to educate and employ the skilled workers that prospective employers actually need right now.”

Dr. Richard Rhoda, Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, agreed.  “This program recognizes that an important outcome of a student’s education is job opportunity,” Rhoda said.  “Having employers work closely with state agencies creates increased collaboration and focus across the board, giving students the opportunity to attain credentials.”

Senate Health and Welfare Committee approves bill to ban the misuse of welfare benefits

Legislation to curb abuse of purchases made through Electronic Benefit Transaction (EBT) cards used by recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program sailed through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week.  Senate Bill 244, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), prohibits use of a welfare recipient’s EBT card in liquor stores, adult cabarets, casinos and other gambling facilities.

“It is outrageous that these benefit cards, which are meant to help feed families with children in times of desperate need, are reported to have been misused for purchases like alcohol, gambling and adult cabarets,” said Senator Tracy.  “Tennessee law should make it perfectly clear that we will not tolerate this fraudulent use of taxpayer money.”

The legislation comes after a report was released last summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which uncovered numerous examples of abuse by welfare recipients.  The Center reported one transaction at a liquor store totaling $790. 

Under the bill, welfare recipients who use EBT benefits at liquor stores, adult cabarets or gambling establishments would be subject to disqualification from the program as permitted by federal law.  The measure also calls for those misused benefits to be recouped by the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

In addition, the legislation prescribes civil penalties to businesses that sell those products and accept EBT benefits as payment in violation of the law. The fine for a violation by the seller would be $1000 for the first violation, $2500 for the second violation within five years and $5000 for a third or subsequent violation within five years.

The bill also bans the use of EBT benefits at an ATM located inside a liquor store, adult cabaret, casino or gambling establishment.   

“Many taxpayers struggle to make ends meet and to pay their taxes,” added Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen.  “The selfish misuse of the welfare system undermines those who truly need and utilize temporary assistance lawfully and causes widespread public distrust in government services. Taxpayers should not tolerate it.”

“Founding Fathers Plan Plus” resolution win easy approval on final consideration in State Senate

The full Senate voted 29 to 2 on Thursday to adopt major legislation, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), altering the way Tennessee’s appellate judges are chosen, mirroring the Founding Fathers plan in the U.S. Constitution.  Senate Joint Resolution 2, named the “Founding Fathers Plan Plus,” would allow the governor to appoint judges for eight-year terms subject to confirmation by the legislature. 

The vote came after Attorney General Robert Cooper issued an opinion stating the language in the resolution was clear and unambiguous and did not conflict with any other constitutional provisions.

Approval by the 108th General Assembly requires a two-thirds plurality and is step two of a three-step process of amending the state constitution.  Step one occurred when the resolution passed the Senate and the House with bipartisan support last year.  If approved by a two-thirds vote of the House of Representatives, the resolution initiates step three which is a ratification vote by the people on the November 2014 ballot.

 “This amendment follows the tried and true system of our founding fathers,” said Sen. Kelsey.  “It will put to rest the constitutional questions surrounding how we pick judges.” 

Currently, Tennessee’s Plan for selecting Supreme Court and other appellate judges includes a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission who reviews applicants and sends the governor a panel of three nominees for consideration.  The governor must then appoint one of the nominees or reject the panel and request a second panel.  After being appointed through this process, the appellate judges must stand for approval by the voters after completion of their term, with the people deciding whether to “retain” or “replace” them.

The Founding Fathers Plan Plus improves upon the federal system by prohibiting legislative inaction.  Tennessee lawmakers would be forced to vote on judicial nominees within sixty days, or the nominees would be confirmed by default.  The sixty-day clock runs from either the date of the appointment, if made during the annual legislative session, or the date of the convening of the annual legislative session, if made out of session.  Unlike the federal plan, the Tennessee bill would also add confirmation by the House of Representatives, in addition to the Senate.

Legislation to protect student athletes with concussions overcomes first hurdle with approval of Senate Education Committee

Legislation designed to protect student athletes who suffer concussions from risking further medical complications or death overcame its first hurdle this week with passage in the Senate Education Committee.  Senate Bill 882, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), ensures guidelines are in place to help coaches, youth athletic instructors and parents recognize a concussion and its symptoms in order to keep an injured player from risking their health by returning to competition too soon.

“This is a much needed bill,” said Senator Tracy, who has been a high school coach and NCAA basketball referee.  “Education and instruction regarding concussions can help avoid a preventable tragedy.” 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that from 2001-2009, concussions among youth increased 60%, leading the agency to label concussion frequency as reaching “epidemic” proportions.  Approximately 70.5% of sports-related emergency visits for traumatic brain injuries were among youth aged 10-19.  Moreover, once an athlete has suffered an initial concussion, his or her chances of a second one are 3 to 6 times greater than an athlete who has never sustained a concussion. 

“This legislation provides better protection for Tennessee’s youth athletes by requiring a more uniform and formal approach to the treatment of concussions. We applaud the sponsors of the bill and urge you to support its passage during this legislative session. Parents, coaches and teachers will benefit from this measure. And, most importantly, so will our kids.” said Adolpho Birch, Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs for the National Football League (NFL).

The bill requires schools and community youth athletics authorities where the majority of students are under the age of 18 to adopt guidelines based on those developed by the Tennessee Department of Health (DOH).   The guidelines must include the nature and risk of concussions, training in recognizing signs and symptoms of head injuries, and the necessity of obtaining medical attention for injured youth athletes.

The legislation also requires that coaches, volunteers and team medical providers complete a “concussion recognition and head injury safety education course” program that would be available on the DOH website, free of charge.  Coaches, as well as parents, must then sign and return concussion and head injury information sheets annually to school administrators or directors for community organizations to show they have reviewed the guidelines. 

In addition, schools and organizations must have a policy of removing youth who show signs of concussion from activity for medical evaluation by a team doctor or designated person.  Youth cannot return to any activity or competition until evaluation and written clearance by a doctor who has either received training from the National Federation of State High School Associations or reviewed the CDC’s Concussion Toolkit for Physicians.

Sports that lead to greatest frequency of concussions are football for males and soccer for females.  Forty-three states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws protecting athletes under the age of 18 from returning to play too soon after suffering the effects of a concussion. 

Legislation focuses on government efficiency

The Senate Government Operations Committee approved a proposal creating the Office of the Repealer, a one-time, four-year position with the sole responsibility of making recommendations to the legislature in areas of government waste, duplication, and out-of-date regulations that should be removed from the law books.  Senate Bill 595, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Collierville), will take recommendations directly from the public, including input received from business-owners, educators, activists, and concerned citizens from across the state.

The Office of the Repealer will be housed under the Secretary of State and will be implemented using funding previously approved for a now obsolete staff position, thus costing no additional money to Tennessee taxpayers.

“We are committed to cutting government waste, increasing legislative transparency, and putting more hard-earned money back in the pockets of all Tennesseans,” said Senator Johnson.  

State working to improve unemployment insurance claims  process
Commerce Committee hears testimony regarding the health of Tennessee’s Unemployment Trust Fund

The Senate Commerce Committee heard from the Department of Labor and other economic experts regarding the current and future status of the state’s unemployment benefits system.  Turner Nash, Assistant Administrator for Employment Security at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, gave a presentation to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on the impact the unemployment insurance program has had on Tennessee. The program has exceeded 450,000 unemployment claims over the past year, including initial claims, federal extensions, as well as extended benefits claims. 

The employment security process begins at claim centers, which are located in Davidson County, Shelby County, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. Throughout fiscal year 2012, over 8.9 million calls were logged into these centers. This number does not count the calls that constituents placed directly with their legislators or other governmental departments.

The Department of Labor found it difficult, with current staff levels, to efficiently deal with this number of claims and has been working diligently to expedite the process with some recent success. The department has investigated implementing text messaging, e-mail, and online chat systems to better, more efficiently answer claims and calls.  The State Information Data Exchange System (SIDES) is an e-response program that opens communication between employers, claimants and the Department of Labor.

“Many times a claimant will be unsure of an employer’s address or other needed information. SIDES enables a quick transfer of that information so that the claim can be processed in a timely manner,” said Nash. Under the current system, a written notice is mailed to the employer and the employer has seven days to respond. SIDES operates through an email system and the transfer of information would be almost instantaneous. This system also allows employers to attach up to ten document of support.  SIDES is free for employers, provides a secure network for information exchange and greatly reduces the department’s paperwork. In addition to SIDES, the department has more than doubled the number of phone lines available from 299 to 618.

The Commerce Committee also heard testimony regarding the health of Tennessee’s Unemployment Benefits Trust Fund.  As of February 8, 2013 the Trust Fund contained $569 million, an 86% increase from February 2012.  Tennessee, unlike many other states, did not have to borrow from the federal government in order to pay for unemployment benefits during the recession.  Dr. William Fox, Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told committee members that the state should have at least $1 billion in the Trust Fund to be prepared for an economic downturn.

In Brief…

Financial Literacy — Young Tennesseans are now learning how to balance a checkbook, develop a household budget and plan for future expenses in the same place they learn many other valuable skills – the classroom.  The training is part of the Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission efforts to teach financial literacy at a young age according to State Treasurer David Lillard who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week.  The financial literacy program was created under legislation sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).  The budget includes an appropriation to supplement private donations to help teachers will receive training on how to teach financial literacy skills to students.  Tennessee has one of the highest bankruptcy rates in the nation.  Lillard said that the earlier we teach children how to manage money, the greater the chance is that they will stay on the right track. 

Oak Ridge / Manhattan Project — The Senate Finance Committee has approved SJR 88, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), urging Congress to expeditiously designate the Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge Tennessee, Los Alamos, New Mexico and the Tri-Cities area of Washington State as part of the National Park System.  The resolution states, “The Manhattan Project represents a highly significant and unique chapter in Tennessee History, with tens of thousands of Tennesseans having worked on the effort.”  The resolution also cites the many beneficial technologies, including nuclear medicine and nuclear energy, have been developed from Manhattan Project era-research conducted in Oak Ridge.

Underground Utilities / Safety — Legislation was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week to create an advisory committee to evaluate, review and ensure federal compliance with the Tennessee’s underground utility damage prevention program.  Senate Bill 851, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), creates the Underground Utility Damage Prevention Advisory Committee to ensure public safety, protect federal funds and see if additional safety measures are needed.  In July 2012, the Comptroller released a performance audit, which found that penalties under the Tennessee underground utility damage prevention program were not compliant with federal law and risked the loss of federal funding.

Governor Rejects State Insurance Exchanges – Governor Bill Haslam sent another  letter to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in response to a February 14 deadline for establishing a state-federal partnership to operate a Health Care Exchange system under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.  The letter reiterated his December 10 response that the state would not establish an exchange.  Originally, it was thought that only states with small populations such as Delaware or Montana would rely on the federal government to build their exchanges.  As of February 15, the Kaiser Foundation reports that 26 states will be run by a federal exchange, while only 17 states and the District of Columbia have submitted a state-based exchange plan.  The remaining 7 states will establish a state-federal partnership to operate an exchange system.

Court Reporters / Fairness — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this week aiming to protect the impartiality of court reporting.  Senate Bill 443, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), prohibits third party contracts between a court reporter and a person or entity with a financial interest in the outcome of the litigation.  The legislation also prohibits the restriction of the attorney choice in the selection of a court reporter to make sure the transcript is fair to both sides. 

Tennessee 3rd in nation for quality of roads — Tennessee is third in the nation in the quality of roads according to Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation John Schroer who appeared before the Senate Transportation Committee this week.  Tennessee has achieved high marks for road quality, despite spending less money per capita than a majority of states with a gasoline tax that is ranked 14th lowest in the nation.  Schroer said these statistics show the state’s Department of Transportation is working as efficiently and effectively as possible to maximize the impact of state road money in maintaining and improving Tennessee roads.

Education Spending — State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told members of the Senate Education Committee that more than half of Tennessee teachers are advancing student learning.  The Commissioner appeared before the committee to present his budget for the 20132-2014 fiscal year.  Huffman also said Tennessee was one of the few states that increased education spending during the recession, including an increase in teacher pay.  The state’s education budget recommendation is $5.4 billion of which 96% will be passed to local school systems. 

Bigamy – Legislation was approved by the full Senate this week that raises the fine for bigamy from $2,500 to $5,000 punishable as a Class A Misdemeanor.  Senate Bill 542, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), makes the offense continuous rather than upon the date of the second marriage, so that even if it is discovered after the statute of limitation expires, charges can be prosecuted. 


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