Press Release from Democrats in the Tennessee Senate, June 11, 2010:
Tennessee Values Mark Senate Democrats’ Work in 2010 Legislative Session
Education, jobs support highlight accomplishments
NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats closed the 106th General Assembly session having passed significant legislation to reform education, create jobs and keep Tennesseans safe.
Senate Democrats led the General Assembly from the first day of work, when lawmakers were called into a two-week special session on education. Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) carried the Tennessee First to the Top 2010 legislation vital to the state’s application in the federal Race to the Top education competition.
As debate increased over student data and teacher evaluations, Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) and Sen. Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) presented an amendment to create the Teacher Professional Development Fund, which for the first time in Tennessee’s history provided dedicated funding for teacher training.
The hard work of Senate Democratic leadership paid off when, on March 29, Tennessee and Delaware were announced as the only winners of the first round of the Race to the Top competition. Tennessee was awarded approximately $500 million over four years for education reform, with half of the funds to go directly to local school districts and up to $65 million to go in the Teacher Professional Development Fund.
“I believe this Race to the Top victory will prove to be a historical turning point for education in Tennessee,” Kyle said. “Our hard work paid off in winning these crucial federal funds, but the real work is just now beginning to ensure our children receive the education they deserve.”
Senate Democrats then turned their attention to higher education, where Kyle once again sponsored major legislation to reform and mainstream Tennessee’s higher education system. The Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 sought to make it easier for Tennesseans to obtain the degrees they need to obtain the high-tech, high-paying jobs of the future. Out of every 100 ninth-graders in Tennessee, only 19 earn a college degree.
The bill emphasizes results at state colleges and universities by linking state funding to graduation rates. Transferring from community colleges will also be easier, as a student who earns an associate degree at a Tennessee community college will now be able to transfer to a public university as a junior.
“Tennessee ranks near the bottom of every national education study. By removing barriers to a college degree, we build bridges to a better economic future,” Finney said.
Jobs and assistance
Senate Democrats continued to fight for job creation beyond educational training. With many counties in Tennessee still facing double-digit unemployment, Senate Democrats know that families are hurting and that Tennesseans need help. That’s why Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) sponsored a bill (SB3870/HB3804) to expand federal energy assistance to low-income families by raising the ceiling for eligibility. In the midst of a recession, Henry knew that more families are facing reduced incomes and looming bills. His leadership provided needed assistance for potentially thousands of Tennessee families.
To help Tennessee veterans get back to work, Finney and Sen. Tim Barnes (D-Adams) sponsored legislation (SB3857/HB3819) to expand civil service points eligibility for all honorably discharged Tennessee veterans. Increased points are given to veterans of wars and those with service-connected disabilities. The preference points will be awarded to veterans who are registered Tennessee voters or have been Tennessee residents for at least two years. Spouses of veterans disabled or killed in the line of duty would also receive preference points under the bill.
In West Tennessee, which is suffering through some of the worst unemployment in the state, good news came in the budget. Finney fought for dedicated funding to develop the West Tennessee megasite, which he helped pass last year. That funding came through in the final budget, which includes $22.3 million in state dollars and an additional $9.6 million in federal funds that await Congressional approval. The megasite is similar to areas that now host Volkswagen in Chattanooga and Hemlock Semiconductor in Clarksville.
“Job creation in Tennessee requires an investment on the part of businesses, but we must show we’re willing to make an investment to bring them here,” Finney said. “These funds show we’re serious about bringing new, high-paying jobs to West Tennessee.”
Sen. Henry fought throughout the session for the most significant public safety legislation this year: a bill to increase the minimum jail time for armed robbers from two years to nearly six. The bill (Senate Bill 3431) increases the minimum served sentence for armed robbers from 30 percent to 70 percent, and ensures limited prison space will be used efficiently by placing certain non-violent property offenders in community corrections programs that force them to pay restitution to their victims.
The bill is tough on crime because it’s smart on crime, and is supported by Tennessee police chiefs and district attorneys. The legislation actually saves the state $532.400 per year, because small-time criminals aren’t using valuable state resources.
“This legislation is going to keep violent criminals behind bars longer and will make our streets safer for our citizens and their families,” Henry said. “Our citizens should know that a violent criminal is going to pay for the crime the first time.”
Henry and Sen. Joe Haynes (D-Goodlettsville) led efforts to secure $20 million in tax relief for flood victims in Middle and West Tennessee. The sales tax exemption for major appliance, furniture and building material purchases will save Tennesseans thousands of dollars as they work to rebuild their homes and their lives in the wake of the May floods.
Sen. Thelma Harper (D-Nashville) ensured that New Visions Youth Development Center would stay open. The center for troubled teenage girls was created four years ago and keeps girls separate from the boys center at Woodland Hills, which has been plagued by claims of sexual abuse from youth against staff. New Visions was scheduled to close in earlier budget proposals, but Harper’s diligence got the attention necessary to keep it open.
Legislation from Finney (Senate Bill 3198) will require corporations to publicly disclose their political donations for independent expenditures. Independent expenditures advocate or argue against a particular candidate without the consent of any other candidate. Current law prohibits direct contributions from corporations to candidates.
The legislation comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that it was unconstitutional to limit corporate independent expenditures. The state attorney general later opined that, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, corporations could potentially keep such spending secret. Finney’s bill closes that loophole..