This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A task force appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam has begun studying the state’s school funding formula. The panel held its first meeting on Monday. It was formed amid criticism that the Basic Education Program, or BEP, is not adequately funding districts statewide. The program hasn’t been fully funded since it was overhauled about seven years ago under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. In December, the Metro Nashville school board voted unanimously to ask officials to fund public education in a way that would allow those districts to meet rigorous new academic standards.
Gov. Bill Haslam, top state officials, Republican lawmakers and others convened Monday to take a fresh look at how Tennessee divvies out school funds across 141 local school districts. But during the months-long process ahead, the governor’s task force won’t be exploring an area Metro and Tennessee’s other big-city school districts have sought to bring to the forefront: “fully funding” the state’s education funding program. “The purpose of the task force is not to say, ‘Tennessee needs to spend hundreds of millions of [more] dollars’ — more money that we may or may not have,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who chairs Haslam’s BEP Task Force.
Gov. Bill Haslam says his task force studying Tennessee’s school funding formula will focus primarily on whether the money is distributed fairly under prior court rulings and not whether an injection of new cash is needed. “We’re doing this because the formula hasn’t been reviewed in seven years,” Haslam said Monday after the panel held its first meeting. “And no matter who you ask, everybody feels they’re treated unfairly on this, or almost everyone does.” As a result, Haslam said, “I think it’s important that we consistently review it. Third, we just want to come up with something that is as equitable as it can be and meets our kind of court-imposed restrictions.”
A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that education isn’t only linked to better wages, but also better health. Researchers with the University of Chicago, Arizona State University and the University of Maryland developed an economic model to determine the effect of different levels of education on health, health-related behaviors and labor market outcomes. They found that those with more schooling have not only better wages, but also better overall health and healthier behaviors.
The high cost of attending a university has created a need for greater accountability and also understanding outcomes in higher education, Sharon Gaber, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas, told University of Memphis students and faculty Monday afternoon. Gaber and three other candidates to replace interim U of M president R. Brad Martin visited campus last week and this week for second-round interviews with the search committee and to participate in campus forums at the University Center with faculty, students and staff. She shared the story of a University of Arkansas student who visited the provost’s office after failing a class needed for graduation 10 times to stress a point about the need for better academic guidance and counseling.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire’s now 1-1 on his two bills delving into the controversial issue of in-state college tuition rates and illegal immigration. Senators overwhelmingly voted 20-9 Monday night to grant in-state tuition rates to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. The bill now goes to the House. But the Chattanooga Republican shelved his second, more controversial measure that sought to grant in-state tuition to children who are here illegally but have spent at least five years attending Tennessee schools and graduated high school with a B average. He said he didn’t have enough votes to get that measure through the Senate Education Committee on which he serves.
The Senate on Monday approved 20-9 legislation that will allow the children of illegal immigrants who were born in the United States and now reside in Tennessee to get in-state tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities. But a bill to allow in-state tuition to students who are themselves illegal immigrants, provided they have resided in the state for five years and have grades qualifying them for lottery scholarships, was taken “off notice” in a committee, signaling that efforts toward passage have ended. The bill winning Senate approval (SB2115) led to a sharp exchange in floor debate Monday between the sponsor, Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, and Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville.
The state Senate on Monday approved and sent to the House a bill allowing U.S.-born children of undocumented aliens who have lived in Tennessee for at least a year to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Earlier in the day, the Senate Education Committee delayed for a year consideration of a companion bill that would allow students who are undocumented themselves to pay in-state tuition rates. Both measures are supported by the business community and immigrant groups. Senate Bill 2115 won Senate approval on a 20-9 vote and is set for a House floor vote April 7.
Tennessee senators drew a line Monday, over the cost of college for students whose parents are undocumented immigrants. The Senate voted to let those born in the U.S. pay in-state rates—but sidelined a proposal to help undocumented students born elsewhere. Senator Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, says his two proposals “shocked” people at first. The more controversial one would’ve granted in-state rates for undocumented students whose parents brought them across the border as kids. But Gardenhire couldn’t rustle up the votes to move it forward, pointing to outside groups he says “drew a line in the sand” over immigration.
A Republican state senator dropped legislation Monday that would have extended in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants, saying he doesn’t have the support to pass the measure this year. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire withdrew Senate Bill 1951, which would have offered in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who come to the United States as children, spend at least five years in Tennessee schools, graduate and meet academic eligibility requirements. Gardenhire said he lacked enough votes to get the bill through the legislature this year. “The burden’s on me to be able to educate my colleagues and to educate the public,” he said.
A proposal that could lead to tighter state regulation of the growing hospice care industry is on life support as the sponsor attempts to come up with last-minute amendments to save it. The 11th-hour reprieve came during a hearing last week of the House health subcommittee in which the sponsor, Nashville Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell, conceded that he had been unable to come up with amendments to move the bill. Though Mitchell had conceded that the bill was not ready for a vote, Committee Chairman Rep. Barrett Rich, a Somerville Republican, told Mitchell that rather than let the bill die, the panel would give Mitchell another week to come up with amendments.
A year after a tense legislative battle, a proposal to allow Tennessee authorities to arrest women for damage done to their infants by drug use during pregnancy has moved closer to passage. Women have been protected from prosecution since state lawmakers eliminated the criminal penalty two years ago. The state has moved toward emphasizing treatment over punishment. But a push to reinstate criminal charges, framed around the growing number of cases identified by the state, has gained momentum this year. Prior opposition has relaxed this year as state health and substance abuse agencies, along with leaders of children’s hospitals, have helped modify the proposal.
The Tennessee Senate is slowing down legislation that would have been devastating to a Nashville mass transit project, allowing a friendlier House bill to catch up and giving hope to the project’s supporters. The House Transportation Committee approved a bill last week that would only require transit projects that run on state roads, such as Nashville’s Amp proposal, to be approved by groups that already have to sign off. The Senate bill would go much further, prohibiting buses from picking up or dropping off passengers in center lanes of state roads. That language would keep the Amp, a bus rapid transit project, from going forward in its present form, though engineers are still working on the final design.
The Tennessee Senate voted 31-0 Monday to study building a monorail that would connect Nashville and Murfreesboro. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 2515, which gives the state Department of Transportation a year to report on the feasibility of a monorail along the busy Interstate 24 corridor. The bill is still pending in the state House of Representatives. State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said the population of Rutherford County has been projected to double by 2025 yet CSX, which controls the rail line along the highway, will not consider passenger transit. “Basically, we just want to see what the numbers are,” he said.
A proposal that would give students free religious expression is headed to the governor for his consideration. The Senate approved the measure 32-0 on Monday. It overwhelmingly passed the House 90-2 earlier this month. Under the proposal, a student could express beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content. Sponsors say the legislation was proposed after a 10-year-old student was given an assignment to write about the person she most admires and she chose God. The teacher asked her to choose another subject.
House and Senate committees are scheduled to take up bills seeking to undo the legal definition of Tennessee whiskey enacted last year. The current law requires spirits to be charcoal mellowed and stored in unused oak barrels in order to print “Tennessee whiskey” on their labels. The law was passed at the behest of Jack Daniel’s, which distills its whiskey about 65 miles south of the state Capitol, in Lynchburg. Some smaller distillers including George Dickel, Pritchard’s and startups like Full Throttle oppose the law as too restrictive. But other new distillers agree with Jack Daniel’s that dialing back the law could lead to quality problems like artificial colors and flavoring.
The House gave final legislative approval Monday to a bill allowing anyone to carry a switchblade of any length in Tennessee. Previous law prohibits carrying a knife with a blade longer than four inches. The bill by Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, won House approval 75-16 and now goes to the governor, who has not signaled any opposition to it. It won Senate approval 24-1 on March 3. Dennis said during a brief floor debate that when the bill becomes law, “It would be legal to carry any length of knife,” prompting a pair of Democrats to question its purpose.
A bill proposed by Senator Frank Niceley seeks to clarify the current traffic law regarding yellow lights at intersections. The current bill states that drivers facing a yellow light are warned that a red light, or “stop” signal,” will immediately follow. It continues by saying that a driver “must not enter or cross the intersection when the red or ‘stop’ signal is exhibited.” While it insinuates drivers do not need to stop at an intersection when a yellow light is displayed, Sen. Niceley proposes to clarify this insinuation. The addition to the bill would therefore authorize, in written law, that when given a yellow signal, drivers are allowed to proceed with caution through yellow lights if they cannot stop safely.
Sen. Stacey Campfield said Monday he is dropping efforts to put new restrictions on University of Tennessee student fees — through bills inspired by controversy over UT Sex Week — because of steps school officials have pledged to take voluntarily. Campfield cited a letter, dated Friday, from UT President Joe DiPietro to House Speaker Beth Harwell, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and two other legislators. Based on the letter and conversations with UT officials, the senator said he understands that the university has agreed to make payment of student fees that go to pay for some events optional rather than mandatory.
There’s a seeming paranoia in the state legislature this spring: Committee chairmen want reassurances—guarantees, even—before they sign off on proposals. They’re scared bills they let out will change a week later, to do radically different things. So, Committee Chairmen like Mark White keep asking members to promise they won’t let approved bills shape-shift into something unauthorized. An example came during a recent meeting of the House Education Subcommittee, when White spoke to Rep. Raumesh Akbari: WHITE: “If your bill, when it moves out of this committee, is amended in any way, other than the intention of your bill, will you bring it back to this subcommittee?” AKBARI: “I definitely will.” WHITE: “OK, thank you very… You forget to say cross your heart and hope to die.” AKBARI: “Cross my heart, hope to die, so help me God.” (laughing)
Legislative leaders and several groups are launching a new initiative to encourage healthy eating in Tennessee. A news conference is scheduled at the state Capitol on Tuesday to announce the plan. Officials say the long-term goal of the initiative will be to provide an appropriate forum to find solutions to creating healthier lifestyles. Tennessee currently ranks among the highest in the nation for obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. The news conference coincides with “Ag Day on the Hill,” an annual legislative event to promote the state’s farm products.
It looks like Tennessee’s craft brewers are inching closer to getting high-gravity beers into grocery stores. Amendments are being attached to House Bill 47 and Senate Bill 289, which deal with residency requirements for the issuance of a retail license to sell alcohol. The language is being worked out, but both amendments are scheduled to be heard Tuesday morning in committee meetings. According to a post on the “Fix the Beer Cap” coalition Facebook page, “the new deal would get high-gravity beer out into grocery stores once wine in grocery.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the General Assembly recently authorized supermarket wine sales in Tennessee, but for the law to be enacted in Montgomery County, another key step must be taken – and that’s up to the voting public. Clarksville and Montgomery County officials, retailers and consumers have been awaiting more information on how the law specifically affects the local community, and when it might take effect. On Monday, Clarksville’s state Rep. Joe Pitts supplied The Leaf-Chronicle, upon request, with a copy of the written provision in the state law, which says a referendum would be the next required step in the process. So, wine in grocery stores is still by no means a done deal.
Uninsured Tennesseans have until next Monday to sign up for a health plan under the Affordable Care Act. If they don’t enroll by then, they’ll face a fine (in the form of a tax penalty) and won’t be able to get insurance until next year. Rick McDowell, a 58-year-old janitor who works downtown, felt the deadline approaching. So on Monday he signed up for coverage by calling the federal health-care hotline. “I’m relieved, really,” he says. “I knew it was something I needed. I couldn’t afford to pay the penalty, so I really needed to do that.” After a 45-minute call, he landed a subsidized plan, and it’ll cost him about $74 a month.
For many Tennessee property owners in flood-prone areas, a move by Congress to soften steep increases to subsidized insurance policies may come as little comfort. A new law signed by President Barack Obama last week dials back some of most dramatic hikes in the price of national flood insurance, but Federal Emergency Management Agency statistics reviewed by The Associated Press show that 7,780 flood insurance policies in Tennessee still face soaring insurance rates. About 5,550 policies covering mostly primary residences could be raised by up to 18 percent per year, though FEMA hasn’t said how high the rate increases will be.
Federal regulators and Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper will meet with the public, payday lending officials and consumer advocates in Nashville today as part of a push to further regulate the payday lending industry and cut back on so-called “debt traps” that mire consumers in a cycle of poverty. Richard Cordray, director of the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will release a study — purportedly the most in-depth analysis to date — showing that four out of five payday loans are rolled over or renewed every 14 days. In many instances, borrowers end up paying more in fees than the amount of money they originally borrowed.
When students at Lockeland Elementary School took their seats for a state writing assessment last month, the third-grade daughter of Jenel Cassidy went to another room and read a book. A half-dozen students at the East Nashville school have done just the same this year — opting out while classmates complete tests designed to track their comprehension. These were choices of parents fed up with a school culture they say relies too heavily on testing — one they say reduces young kids to data points while undermining the purpose of the classroom. “It was brand-spanking new that we learned we could do this,” said Cassidy, who sat her child out of a two-hour assessment that is part of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.
As Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise proposal moves through the General Assembly, and appears likely to pass, there are important considerations that go beyond providing a “free” community college higher education opportunity to Tennessee high school graduates. We support the governor’s plan because it eliminates a major stumbling block for many students who want to further their education after high school. It also is a way to greatly improve the state’s workforce readiness, and that is a key factor in long-term economic development. Good jobs today and in the future demand some level of post-secondary education. While eliminating the financial challenge of going to college is important, it also raises the issue of perceived value.
A bill moving through the state Legislature that would ban United Nations election observers from Tennessee provides a classic portrait in political pandering. Sponsored by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, and Sen.Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, the bill states that “Any representative of the United Nations appearing without a treaty ratified by the United States senate stating that the United Nations can monitor elections in this state, shall not monitor elections in this state.” In discussion of the bill before it was passed in the House on a 75-20 vote, Van Huss characterized the bill as an assertion of state and national sovereignty.