(NASHVILLE, TN), March 12, 2015 — Education headlined this week’s action on Capitol Hill as State Senators approved two key bills in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, including legislation to launch a pilot program to help adults complete their degree in Tennessee’s community colleges. Senate Bill 605 establishes a Community College Reconnect Grant which is a last-dollar scholarship to adults who want to return to community college and complete their associate’s degree in applied science.
I was happy to support this Reconnect Grant program and am convinced many of my neighbors will use it at Vol State. In Tennessee, adults currently make up roughly 30 percent of enrolled public undergraduate students, which equates to 65,000 adult learners. The prospective adult student pool of Tennesseans with some college but no degree is over 900,000. The legislation would bolster the state’s “Drive to 55” efforts by focusing on the recruitment, retention, and completion of degrees by adults in higher education. Drive to 55 is an initiative which aims to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
Adults who meet all of the qualifications will be expected to enroll in a Tennessee public community college in the 2016-2017 academic year. Key qualifications to receive the grant include Tennessee residency for at least one year preceding the date of application for the grant; completion of at least 30 hours towards completing an associate of applied science degree; and, an adjusted gross income of less than $36,000. Grant recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA and enroll in at least 9 semester hours in the fall and spring semesters.
In order to fund this program, there will be a one-time expense to the lottery fund of $1.5 million, which will cover roughly 800 recipients. The bill now goes to the floor for final consideration.
Teacher Protection Act — Similarly, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee approved legislation proposed by Governor Bill Haslam which I am co-sponsoring that would automatically provide teachers and student teachers with professional liability insurance. “The Educator Protection Act of 2015” would provide insurance coverage to about 78,000 full- and/or part-time teachers and 9,000 student teachers at no cost to the educators so they do not have to worry about the liability of lawsuits during the course of their employment.
Currently, teachers must find their own coverage if they are not protected by professional liability insurance provided by their local school system. Senate Bill 604 creates a special account within Tennessee Department of Treasury that would be invested by the Treasurer and administered by the state’s Board of Claims to provide liability coverage. Governor Haslam has provided $5 million in the state’s budget proposal to pay for the program.
Shaky Federal Highway Trust Funds Causes Grave Concerns about the State’s Ability to keep up with Transportation Needs
Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer appeared before the Senate Transportation this week to present his budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year which begins July 1. The Commissioner’s proposal is complicated by a shaky Federal Highway Trust Fund that has caused grave concerns about the state’s ability to keep up with transportation needs.
Fifty-four percent of TDOT dollars come from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which has experienced huge deficits. Over the past six years, the federal government has transferred approximately $62 billion to the Highway Trust Fund to cover the shortfalls, and it is estimated that the deficit in the program will continue over the next six years and will need an influx of $90 billion.
Congress has provided a series of short-term expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund to states, with the latest set to expire May 31. This action leaves Tennessee with $267 million in funds that cannot be obligated for road projects until further Congressional action is taken.
Schroer said that TDOT has taken steps to help cushion inaction from Congress by setting back emergency cash. The department has reduced highway bid letting by $250 million last year, along with converting advanced construction on its bridge bonds to transfer those to cash. That action has caused the delay of 50 projects and moved 33 more to the next fiscal year for a letting.
At the same time, Schroer said costs for road work have more than doubled since 1990 for resurfacing projects. This is in addition to the escalating cost of purchasing right-of-ways. “We have several projects where the right-of-way is higher than the construction cost,” he said.
Road safety is very important to our district. Just last week we had a fatality on State Route 109, south of Gallatin. It involved a mother of two small children. I will be talking with the Commissioner and hopefully we can get this project back on track.
Legislation Aims to Curb Teen Abuse of Dextromethorphan
The full Senate has approved a bill which I am sponsoring that aims to prevent teenagers from abusing the drug dextromethorphan (DM) (DXM). Senate Bill 45 calls for those selling the product to verify proof of age. Customers under age 18 would be directed to the pharmacist, who could either write a prescription or refuse the sale.
Dextromethorphan is an ingredient found in cough and cold medicines. Although the product is quite safe when taken as recommended, large doses can cause hallucinogenic trips and pose serious risks. According to a study cited by WebMD, one in 10 American teenagers has abused products with DXM to get high, making it more popular in that age group than cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and meth.
I hope you will feel free to contact me regarding the issues of importance to you or if I can help you with a state government matter. You can contact me at [email protected] or call me at 615 741-1999. You can also write me at 301 6th Avenue North, Suite 10 A Legislative Plaza, Nashville, Tennessee 37243. I look forward to hearing from you.