This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature proposal to create a program that would cover a full ride at two-year colleges for any high school graduate is scheduled to be heard by a key legislative committee on Tuesday. Called “Tennessee Promise,” the plan is on the calendar of the Senate Finance Committee. It’s a cornerstone of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign to improve the state’s graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state. Haslam wants to pay for the program by using $300 million in excess lottery reserve funds and join it with a $47 million endowment.
For the most part, higher education is less expensive in Canada than it is in the U.S. But it certainly isn’t cheap with an average year costing students more than $6,000 per year. If you are sinking into student debt, paying off student loans or know the pain of paying them off, you are going to wish you lived in Tennessee. “Even at a community college, it’s not cheap. You’ve got all that debt…waiting for you,” said Cody Mitchell, 22, who spoke to legislators. He has earned a business degree at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn. “That money can go to a lot of other things.”
With $302 billion in federal transportation funding still hanging in the balance, the Tennessee Department of Transportation isn’t rushing into any new projects. Gov. Bill Haslam and TDOT last week unveiled a three-year, $1.5 billion budget for 59 transportation project phases in 41 counties and 14 statewide programs. But as sizable as that investment seems, it’s conservative compared to what it could be, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said in a release. TDOT depends on federal funding for about half of its infrastructure improvements fund, which will run out of money by Sept. 30 if a federal bill isn’t approved.
A father who lost his son while doing roadwork is making a public plea, asking drivers to be careful on Tennessee roadways. “It’s something you never get over,” said Jimmy McNeece, who works for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. He lost his only child 14 years ago. His son, 22-year-old Jay McNeece, decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for TDOT. He was in a work zone just outside Springfield when he was struck by a motorist. “The day of the accident, he was working in the survey crew and this lady speeding down the highway hit him,” recalled Jimmy. Jay is one of 109 TDOT employees killed on the job since 1948. Since his son’s death, Jimmy has served as a TDOT safety coordinator.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is accepting welcoming comments for its 2015 fishing regulations. Public comments will be considered by fisheries managers and may be presented as proposals for regulation changes. Comments may be submitted by mail to: Fish Comments, TWRA, Fisheries Management Division, P.O. 40747, Nashville, TN 37204 or emailed to TWRA.Comment@tn.gov. Please include “Fish Comments” on the subject line of emailed submissions. The fishing regulations are usually set each year during the October meeting by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission. This comment period concerning fishing regulations will be open until May 6, 2014.
If Tennessee adopts a new school voucher program, will enough private schools participate to feed the demand envisioned by lawmakers? An ongoing market analysis sponsored by the Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education and Human Development suggests a severe shortage in seats. Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill would let low-income students who attend the bottom 5 percent of public schools in Tennessee have first priority of 5,000 scholarships during its first year. Though this includes a handful of schools in Nashville and elsewhere, it would make Memphis ground zero for allowing public money to go toward private schooling.
Legislation to block student learning gains from playing a role in teacher licensing decisions is steamrolling to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk as lawmakers ask him to undo one of his administration’s most contested education policies. The Tennessee House of Representatives voted 88-0 on Monday night to approve House Bill 1375, sponsored by Republican John Forgety, which would prohibit license decisions from being based on student growth data compiled from the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. The Senate version, Senate Bill 2240, passed by a 26-6 vote last week.
Tennessee lawmakers approved a bill Monday that would extend in-state tuition to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants, saying they are residents of the state despite their parents’ status. The state House of Representatives voted 63-27 to approve Senate Bill 2115, sending it to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. The bill, one of two dealing with in-state tuition and undocumented immigrants, appeared to mark at least a slight shift on immigration policy for the Republican-dominated state legislature.
A bill granting in-state college tuition to U.S.-born Tennessee high school graduates whose parents are living in the country illegally is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam. House members voted 63-27 for the bill, which previously passed the Senate. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said current policies at the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents systems don’t allow U.S.-born children of parents living here illegally to attend public colleges at in-state rates. “I think that a higher education does our state good … All we’re doing is taking a financial barrier out,” said White, who called it “an issue for young people who graduate from our Tennessee high schools.”
Students whose parents entered the U.S. illegally will be allowed to pay in-state tuition at Tennessee colleges, under a bill now on its way to the governor. The bill passed the House 63 to 27, with little debate, marking a distinct shift from a few years ago, when lawmakers called such young people “anchor babies” and sought to make Tennessee a less welcoming place for undocumented immigrants. House Education Subcommittee Chairman Mark White notes students born in the U.S. are citizens, regardless of their parents’ legal status.
A measure to allow criminal assault charges against Tennessee women who harm their fetuses by using drugs while pregnant moved one step closer to passage Monday. After a legislative defeat a year ago, the proposal passed the state Senate without debate on Monday and remains under consideration in the House. Lawmakers previously eliminated the criminal penalty two years ago to protect women from prosecution but some have moved to bring it back. The proposal would allow prosecutors to bring misdemeanor assault charges against mothers in cases in which babies are born drug-dependent. It would allow those women to avoid prosecution if they enter and complete rehab.
Tennesseans picking up prescriptions for painkillers would have to show ID, under a proposal headed toward votes Tuesday in a House committee and on the Senate floor. Lawmakers want to stop criminals from getting someone else’s prescription drugs. It’s not clear how often that happens, but the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Tommy Farmer figures the number is in the thousands. Farmer says while some drugstores already ask for ID, all that’s legally required is an address. And he questions why it’s easier to pick up Oxycontin than alcohol: “You have to have and present a driver’s license to buy beer, pseudoephedrine, many times tobacco, and vote,” Farmer noted.
The state Senate approved a bill Monday night that reduces the maximum lifetime benefits under the state’s main welfare program from the current five years to four years, with limited exceptions. The House version is up for review Tuesday in the House Finance Subcommittee. If it becomes law, it would apply to welfare applicants starting on and after July 1, 2015. “This bill puts the temporary back in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, told his colleagues before the Senate approved it on a 21-9 vote. “Even California gives only four years.”
State lawmakers are making it easier for communities to fix problem bridges. Every two years, inspectors check and rank the bridges across the state that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. According to TDOT, there are more than 2,000 bridges that need attention, but paying for repairs has been a real roadblock for many counties. The Rural Bridge Relief Act of 2014 was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam last week and makes it easier for communities to access state funds to upgrade, repair, and rehabilitate bridges that have fallen into disrepair over the years.
Tennessee lawmakers are seriously considering a new proposal to roll back the state’s tax on investments, even as they wrestle with a growing hole in the state budget. More than 90 legislators have signed onto a pledge from a prominent anti-tax organization to support a measure that eventually would end the “Hall income tax,” Tennessee’s tax on income from stocks and bonds. House Speaker Beth Harwell, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, other Republicans and even some Democrats are saying they back legislation that would tie cuts to the state’s 6 percent investment tax to growth of other revenue. The initiative appears to be gaining steam in the final days before state lawmakers adjourn for the year and return to their districts to campaign for re-election.
The state legislature on Monday abolished the special tax professional hockey and basketball players pay when they play in Tennessee. For NHL players, the so-called jock tax would end once it is signed by Gov. Bill Haslam and becomes law. For NBA players, it will continue for two more years. The House vote was 66-25 and the Senate vote was 30-2. The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, said his goal was to end a constitutionally suspect law. Alexander said the jock tax likely would fail to pass legal challenges because professional hockey and basketball players have been subject to the tax since 2009, but professional football players are exempt.
A plan to put ‘In God We Trust’ on the state capitol is moving forward. A bill, sponsored by State Senator Stacey Campfield, passed the Tennessee Monday evening. Some lawmakers questioned why Tennessee would put a national motto on a state building. But in the end, the bill easily passed. The House will vote on its version of the bill on Wednesday.
On Monday, state lawmakers honored an East Tennessee soldier injured in battle. The Senate honored Army Master Sergeant Michael Trost for his service. The wounded warrior from Maryville suffered a number of injuries, including the loss of one of his legs, during an attack in Afghanistan more than two years ago. He recently returned from Brooke Army Medical Center where he received a new leg brace that allows him to run again. Trost is not originally from Tennessee, but said he’s now proud to call the Volunteer State home. “I love this state, it’s been a privilege to serve in the U.S. Army, and also as a Tennessee resident, I can’t tell you how grateful i am to everybody here in this state. Y’all make me feel very welcome,” said Trost.
The Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps is asking Gov. Bill Haslam to let them know when he is going to make a speech. A letter emailed to Haslam’s office on Friday said reporters were aware of at least five events in the previous month that were not listed on Haslam’s public schedule. They include speeches to the Tennessee Medical Association and the Tennessee Municipal League. In a response sent Monday, Haslam Director of Communications Alexia Poe said the governor had been available to Tennessee media on 32 of the 68 business days in 2014. She said the governor’s office follows the lead of the groups that invite Haslam to speak on whether to allow media. That is a change from Gov. Phil Bredesen, who allowed media to attend all speeches.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, asked Attorney General Eric Holder to consider a request to have the Department of Justice monitor the Shelby County Election Commission’s operations. The request came last week from Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Shelby County mayor in the May 6 county primary election. Whalum lost a 2012 Shelby County Schools board race to Kevin Woods by 106 votes, but Whalum sued after the election, claiming errors. He won his suit in Chancery Court in August 2013, and the case remains on appeal.
An Ohio-based galvanizing company plans to invest as much as $10 million to build a new plant north of Memphis, creating 45 or more jobs. Voigt & Schweitzer, which has filed a series of building permits for a 65,718-square-foot facility at 3328 Fite Road, will create 25-30 jobs initially, and increase the total staff to 45 or more in the next two or three years, the Commercial Appeal reported today. The plant should open by Oct. 1, the report said. Jobs will include truck drivers, maintenance workers, managers and salespeople, among others, the report said. The pay scale hasn’t been announced.
Expansion talks at Volkswagen’s lone U.S. plant have ground to a halt amid disagreements about the role of organized labor at the factory in Tennessee. An acrimonious vote in February at the plant in Chattanooga resulted in the narrow defeat of the United Auto Workers union. Since then, the union has challenged the outcome of the vote with the National Labor Relations Board; a top labor representative on Volkswagen’s supervisory board told Chattanooga workers that U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam “interfered outrageously” in the election; and the governor has suggested that the state has been unable to engage in negotiations with a VW official with final decision-making power.
A group opposing the United Auto Workers’ attempt to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga says the company may be planning to throw out the election results and recognize the union anyway. The anti-union group, called the Center for Worker Freedom, said in an statement Monday that “Volkswagen is considering disregarding the election results” and accepting the union authorization cards collected from workers by the union last year. UAW officials originally said they have enough cards to be legally recognized, but that the company had pushed for the employee vote.
Volkswagen risks labor and political blowback if, as an anti-union group claimed Monday, the carmaker ignores February’s vote at the Chattanooga plant and aligns with the United Auto Workers, an industry analyst says. “It’s like VW said ‘Vote’… and then not respecting it,” said Cars.com chief analyst Jesse Toprak. “It doesn’t seem like it would be smart for VW.” The Center for Worker Freedom charged Monday that VW’s top managers are considering sidestepping the election in which workers voted by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin against recognizing the union.
Tennessee is widely regarded as one of the best places to live and work in America. It seems hardly a week goes by that our state is not recognized as a top spot to relocate, start a business, start a family or begin a new career. Dedicated people across our state have worked together for many years to get Tennessee to where it is today. We have made tremendous strides and should be commended for how far we have come. As we look toward the future and the challenges and opportunities we face, there is one crucial area in which we all still have work to do: our health.
Earlier this year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam promised teachers and state employees a pay raise in the new budget year. Haslam announced last week those pay hikes would have to wait at least another year. The governor told the Associated Press that a decline in state revenues had created a $160 million deficit in the new fiscal year. To close that shortfall, Haslam said he would have to delay his pledge to increase pay for teachers and state employees. Haslam said he regretted not being able to give a 1 percent pay increase to state employees and 2 percent to teachers, but stressed that his administration has been able to give some pay increases since he took office in 2011.
The upside-down nature of the Tennessee General Assembly was on display again last week as lawmakers who continually attest to their support for free speech and representative government squelched legislation that would allow minor parties to appear on state ballots. Members of the Republican supermajority, and before them majority Democrats, have managed to keep any third parties off Tennessee ballots. They achieved this through setting a ridiculously high bar for qualification: About 40,000 signatures, or 2.5 percent of the total ballots cast in the most recent gubernatorial election, are required to get any party represented.