Religious Indoctrination Focus of Bill by Rep. Butt

Republican state Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia wants to quell concerns among lawmakers and some parents around the state that Tennessee public schools may be inappropriately promoting Islam.

Under legislation Butt has filed for consideration in the General Assembly’s 2016 session, the state board of education would be prohibited from requiring that kids be taught “religious doctrine” prior to the 10th grade.

Sheila Butt

Sheila Butt

House Bill 1418 would also require that in classes where older students learn about “comparative religion as it relates to history or geography,” teachers take steps to ensure “no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over another religion.”

“If the curriculum standards in grades prior to grades ten through twelve (10–12) include a reference to a specific religion or the role and importance of a religion in history or geography, then the state board shall ensure that the reference does not amount to teaching any form of religious doctrine to the students,” Butt’s legislation declares.

Butt, a Christian motivational speaker by trade, is the Tennessee House GOP supermajority’s legislative floor leader. She also serves on the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee.

She told the Tennesseean this week that HB1418 is not an attack on religion in general, or Islam in particular. Rather, she is concerned with “balancing the teaching of religion in education.”

“I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh, eighth grade is not age appropriate,” she told the paper. “They are not able to discern a lot of times whether its indoctrination or whether they’re learning about what a religion teaches.”

The state’s Department of Education is in the process of reviewing social studies standards.

Butt said she’s encountered “quite a bit of confusion as far as who is in charge of standards and curriculum.” For that reason, state lawmakers need to get more involved in discussions over what subject matter is suitable for public school students, she said.

During a stopover in Butt’s Maury County district last month, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sought to clarify the roles between local and state education officials on setting classroom programs of study.

“Certainly, we are setting that expectation, but how’s it done, what instructional practices are used, what strategies are used, what curriculum is used is absolutely a local decision,” McQueen said in a Columbia Daily Herald story about her visit.

candice mcqueen 2015

Candice McQueen

“Our intent has been to use the standards to actually look at world religions and world cultures and see how it impacts world history,” McQueen continued. “The way a parent can then talk about that at home is certainly an approach that will be individualized. They should take that information and have those conversations with students through their own belief system and weigh that appropriately inside their own homes.”

Haslam, TN Lawmakers Optimistic VW Will Overcome Emissions Scandal

Volkswagen still has vocal supporters in Gov. Bill Haslam and Chattanooga-area lawmakers who joined him outside the carmaker’s Hamilton County plant this week to publicly display faith in the controversy-beset company.

Haslam paid a visit to workers at the southeast Tennessee factory on Wednesday to express his support for their hard work and focus in what are troubling times for the corporation as a whole.

“Everybody knows about Volkswagen’s struggles,” the governor told reporters gathered across the road from VW’s plant following his visit to the facility. “What is getting lost in that story it that there are some men and women right here in Tennessee, in Chattanooga, who are producing a great product, who have nothing at all to do with the problems that have been created. They are doing everything that they can to get past that.”

Haslam said he found it “impressive” that the plant is still “putting out a great product” in the midst of a roiling controversy that began recently when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had discovered about half a million VW automobiles were using emission control systems that were rigged to fool government pollution regulators.

U.S. Volkswagen CEO Michael Horn told a Congressional hearing Thursday that 11 million of the German automaker’s cars worldwide are fitted with emissions-test “defeat” software that can sense the difference between road-driving and lab-operating conditions.

But Gov. Haslam told reporters Wednesday that, “for better or worse,” Tennessee taxpayers are “married” to Volkswagen at this point.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the state of Tennessee divvied out an estimated $358.2 million of the original $577.4 million in incentives that Volkswagen wrangled seven years ago as a condition of building its billion-dollar facility in Hamilton County. The other $219.2 million was supplied from local governments. State and county taxpayers this year financed another $260 million in incentives to win the job of producing a new sports utility vehicle line for VW.

“We have a concern about taxpayer’s dollars that have been invested in this facility, really twice: in the original plant, and the second one when they agreed to build the SUV here,” Haslam said Wednesday. “Obviously, there is a lot of concern that taxpayer’s dollars are being protected. I think the mechanism is in place to do that.”

The governor said he supports enforcing so-called “clawback” provisions that allow the state to revoke and retract taxpayer funding from companies found not to be living up to promises they made in exchange for subsides and incentives.

Still, Haslam said he’s confident VW will ultimately put the current scandal in the rearview mirror and earn its way back as world leader in automotive sales.

Volkswagen is a “solid investment” for taxpayers, Haslam said.

Haslam rejected criticism that the VW scandal — as well as past failures by incentive-receiving companies to deliver on the promise of job-creation, like happened in Clarksville with Hemlock Semiconductor — shows why spending taxpayer dollars on corporate giveaways is a bad idea.

“I disagree with the conclusion,” Haslam said.

The governor said nobody in his administration — nor the administration of Democrat Phil Bredesen, the prior Tennessee governor who offered VW hundreds of millions in publicly financed support to locate in Chattanooga — anticipated such impropriety.

“I don’t think anybody could foresee this happening,” said Haslam. “I would love to know the person who could have told you this was coming around the corner.”

The Republican governor, who prior to winning election to Tennessee’s highest office in 2010 served eight years as mayor of Knoxville, said he still believes the state’s deal with VW was prudent. If the future proves otherwise, “we have the provisions in place to bring the money back,” said Haslam.

“We have to do our homework up front to make certain that we have the provisions in place to protect our taxpayers,” he said. “That’s No. 1. And No. 2 is that we are making wise investments.”

Among the lawmakers who participated in the press event with Gov. Haslam were Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson of Hixson and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, both Republicans.

Watson and McCormick have each been critical of Volkswagen management for flirting with the prospect of inviting the Detroit-based United Auto Workers union into the Hamilton County factory to represent Tennessee workers.

But on Wednesday, both backed Haslam in supporting the company in its time of trouble.

“I think you are going to see a sort of rise-from-the-ashes kind of story that comes out of this plant,” said Watson, vice chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

McCormick seconded that sentiment.

“This is going to be a bump in the road for them. There have been other car companies that have had problems much greater than what is happening with Volkswagen, and they have bounced back fine — and Volkswagen will too,” he said.

Other area lawmakers who attended the event were Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Reps. JoAnne Favors of Chattanooga, Kevin Brooks of Cleveland and Mike Carter of Ooltewah. Favors is a Democrat, the others are Republicans.

A state legislative subcommittee is scheduled to meet Oct. 29 at the Hamilton County Department of Education to inquire into “the financial impact on the state from the Volkswagen misconduct.”

Ramsey: Christians Should Arm Themselves

In response to a New York Post story reporting that Christians were “singled out” for murder by a mass shooter in Oregon on Monday, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey took to Facebook to encourage gun-ownership among Tennesseans “serious about their faith.”

The Republican Tennessee Senate speaker asserted that “perpetrators are motivated by aggressive secularism, jihadist extremism or racial supremacy” and are actively targeting “Christians and defenders of the West.”

At the conclusion of his post, Ramsey provided a link to Tennessee’s state webpage that gives information about obtaining a handgun-carry permit.

“Our enemies are armed,” wrote Ramsey. “We must do likewise.”

In Tennessee, more than half a million people are licensed to carry firearms in public.

President Barak Obama, a Democrat, seized upon the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., to call for more gun control.

“It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun,” said the president. “And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they’ll argue. Fewer gun safety laws. Does anybody really believe that?”

Obama declared that it is a “political choice” that people in this country make “to allow this to happen every few months in America.”

“We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction,” said the president.

The shooting has reportedly left more than a dozen people dead.

Below is Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s post in full:

As I scroll through the news this morning I am saddened to read the details of the horrible tragedy in Oregon. My heart goes out to the citizens of Roseburg — especially the families and loved ones of those murdered.

The recent spike in mass shootings across the nation is truly troubling. Whether the perpetrators are motivated by aggressive secularism, jihadist extremism or racial supremacy, their targets remain the same: Christians and defenders of the West.

While this is not the time for widespread panic, it is a time to prepare. I would encourage my fellow Christians who are serious about their faith to think about getting a handgun carry permit. I have always believed that it is better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.

Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise.

Vanderbilt Study May Strengthen Calls to Defund Pre-K

The General Assembly’s most vocal foe of Tennessee’s publicly funded prekindergarten initiative is hopeful the latest study calling into question the early childhood learning program’s effectiveness will spur conversations about doing away with it altogether.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, described the conclusions outlined in a research report released this week from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College as “invaluable.” While discussion in the past has tended toward whether to expand the state’s $86 million or so a year pre-K program, Dunn argues that the most logical focus of debate now ought to be whether to downsize or eliminate it.

bill dunn 2015

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville

“It is obvious we have spent a lot of money on this program, and the Vanderbilt study shows that in many cases the children who participate actually do worse,” Dunn, a member of the House Education Instruction & Programs Committee, told TNReport. “I think that in the private sector, if somebody were doing something and getting worse and worse results, they would quit doing it. I think if a private individual was spending a lot of money to get worse results, they would quit doing it.”

The Vanderbilt study — “A Randomized Control Trial of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade” —was initiated in 2009 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The study’s authors describe their “rigorous, independent evaluation of the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program” as a landmark analysis.

“It is the first prospective randomized control trial of a scaled up state‐funded, targeted pre‐kindergarten program that has been undertaken,” declared the executive summary of the study’s findings, released to the public on Monday.

The results left the pre-K study investigators like Peabody Research Institute Director Mark Lipsey “stunned” and asking “a lot of questions” about how such a highly touted education initiative could perform so seemingly poorly when put to statistical scrutiny.

Few lasting benefits could be identified for the lower-income children who participate in Tennessee’s more than 900 government-funded pre-K classrooms. Rather, in key assessments of performance and temperament, children who attended pre-K exhibited inferior development over time than their peers who entered kindergarten with no formal academic preparation.

The study did find that at the start of kindergarten, children who’d attended pre-K indeed rated “better prepared for kindergarten work.” They also displayed “better behaviors related to learning in the classroom” and were observed engaging in “more positive peer relations.”

But by the end of the year, kids who didn’t attended pre-K “had caught up to the (pre-K) children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures,” researchers found.

By the time the children were in second grade, pre-K kids and the kids who didn’t attend pre-K “began to diverge.” According to the study, children who attended pre-K began “scoring lower…on most of the measures” than children who did not attend pre-K.

Similarly, the beneficial “behavioral effects” pre-K instilled in kids early on appeared to lag with passage of time — to the point that, “in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings.”

vanderbilt pre-k study report sept 2015“First grade teachers rated (pre-K) children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the study’s authors observed. “It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for (pre-K) children in second and third grades.”

By second and third grades both groups of children were rated by teachers as exhibiting similar “behaviors and feelings.”

“There was a marginally significant effect for positive peer relations favoring the (pre-K) children by third grade teachers,” the study determined.

During a panel discussion on pre-K in Nashville last week, one of the study’s primary researchers suggested that, in absence of any systematic analysis of student-performance data or consistent evaluation of individual programs, the promise of pre-K may have been oversold over the years.


Dale Farran, associate director of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute

Undoubtedly, not all pre-K programs around the state, and for that matter the country, are of the same caliber, said Peabody Research Institute Senior Associate Director Dale Farran. From classroom to classroom, “teachers were doing vastly different things,” she said.

“We are pushing the benefits of pre-K without taking the time to define what we really mean and worse, to determine if what we implement has the outcomes we have promised,” said Farran. “It is time to take a step back and try and determine what it really is that we want to scale up…and then how we can take that vision and make it happen with consistency.”

Rep. Dunn agrees that taking a step back and re-evaluating the program ought to be a top priority over the coming months.

But he’s more of a mind to roll pre-K back than scale it up.

“If we are trying to get kids ready for kindergarten, then what does that really look like? If that is the goal, we should approach it in a different way,” he said. “I don’t think it takes a whole year to get ready for kindergarten. And in the past I have proposed that if we used the summer months before kindergarten for at-risk kids to get up to speed, you would probably get the same effect, at about two-thirds less of the cost.”

Dunn may have a powerful ally in Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

The Tennessee Senate’s presiding lawmaker has never expressed much regard for pre-K. Last year he described pre-K as “a liberal, feel-good program that’s not working.”

In an emailed statement to TNReport on Wednesday, Ramsey said the Vanderbilt study serves as confirmation that “pre-K’s effectiveness is marginal at best and all but disappears over the long term.”

“It is time to face the hard truth that, while well-intentioned, government funded pre-K is ultimately a misallocation of resources,” said the Blountville Republican. “Tennessee is one of the most-improved states in the nation in education and we must do what we can to remain so. We need to train our focus on those areas where we can affect the lives of our children and get results: K-12 and higher education.”

Dunn, too, proposes routing state taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on pre-K back into K-12 education.

“I have always believed that putting great teachers in the classroom is important. Maybe we can have a conversation about teacher salaries, or something along those lines,” he told TNReport.

Jim Wrye, a spokesman and lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said he’s heard talk like that from Dunn before. But even in wake of the Vanderbilt research report, Wrye doesn’t think it’s a very good suggestion.

“We would rather not take from one area in providing services to children and provide it to another,” he said. “Our position is that, overall, Tennessee education is woefully underfunded.”

Wrye added, “TEA has always been a supporter of early childhood education and believing that high-quality education with a teacher that is empowered to teach and grow the level of learning in the student is really critical to their future.”

Nevertheless, Wrye said the Vanderbilt study warrants close examination by everyone interested in education policy in Tennessee.

“Good lord, having a seven- or eight-year-old being burned out on education? We need to start asking ourselves, What are we demanding of our kids and how is it affecting the classroom and the joy of learning?” he said. “That is a really disconcerting outcome.”

Wrye suggested the study could in fact be interpreted as an indictment of high-pressure test-taking situations in early grade school.

“We think it is an incredibly bad policy idea, the idea of pushing such young children into that sort of memorization-regurgitation role,” he said. “The idea that you are going to gain meaningful data out of standardized tests for six-year-olds makes no sense to us whatsoever. So, policies that really drive high-stakes standardized testing can burn kids out, there is no doubt about it.”

Dunn’s view is that the Vanderbilt results — and results like it from previous studies, including an assessment commissioned several years ago by the Tennessee comptroller’s office — show that pushing kids into schoolroom settings too early can produce negative outcomes.

“I think what we are finding, and that people need to recognize is, maybe, just maybe, putting a bunch of four-year-olds in a classroom is not a good idea,” he said. “We have to remember that there are 19 other four-year-olds in the classroom influencing the children, too. And if they are a bad influence, that could lead to problems down the road.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, who for years has indicated he’ll rely heavily on the Vanderbilt study’s results to chart his administration’s long-rang thinking on pre-K, said earlier this week that he’s yet to fully examine the findings.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, quickly put out a statement after release of the Vanderbilt report Monday declaring his full support for continued taxpayer financing of pre-K.

“Students have better attitudes about school and are better prepared for classroom instruction when they have access to high-quality pre-K programs. Our challenge is to sustain that growth as students move to higher grade levels,” Fitzhugh said. “So the question is not does early childhood education work — it does. The question is whether Tennessee will invest in the education infrastructure necessary to support those gains long-term. That remains to be seen, but certainly is something of which I am in favor.”

‘Stop Obamacare Act’ Doesn’t Violate State Constitution: AG

Proponents of expanding Medicaid in Tennessee got another dose of bad news last week when the state’s ranking government lawyers doused the idea that an anti-Obamacare law passed in 2014 might be unconstitutional.

Introduced by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin, the so-called “Stop Obamacare Act” won passage about a year and a half ago along GOP-dominated party lines, 64-23 in the House and 23-6 in the Senate.

It was designed by the Republican sponsors to put up roadblocks to Affordable Care Act implementation in the Volunteer State by mandating that lawmakers get the final up-or-down vote on any agreement a Tennessee governor makes with the federal government that expands Medicaid eligibility under President Obama’s signature health-care reform initiative.

The Stop Obamacare Act falls well within lawmakers’ constitutional authority and doesn’t violate the Tennessee Constitution’s “separation of powers” principles, according to an opinion co-authored by Attorney General Herb Slatery and Solicitor General Andrée Sophia Blumstein.

The Kelsey-Durham law “involves nothing more than an exercise of legislative authority by the General Assembly through constitutionally permissible means,” the attorney’s wrote in their opinion, published Sept. 14.

sos haslam yarbroSenate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville had requested the opinion. Yarbro, a freshman state legislator, also asked for basic clarification as to whether the governor in fact needs acquiescence from both chambers of the General Assembly to implement a Medicaid expansion agreement, as the Stop Obamacare Act purports to require.

While the governor is free to negotiate all he wants with the federal government, he must indeed win the Legislature’s stamp of approval to enact any agreement with Washington that expands the number of low-income Tennesseans eligible for taxpayer-financed health care, wrote Slatery and Blumstein.

“Because the General Assembly has authorized the executive branch to negotiate and cooperate with the federal government regarding expansion of the Medicaid program, the absence of a joint resolution passed pursuant to (state law) would not prohibit the governor from negotiating an agreement with the federal government to expand Medicaid,” the opinion stated. “Absence of authorization by the General Assembly in the form of a joint resolution would, however, prohibit the governor from making a final decision to bind the State of Tennessee to that agreement or to implement that agreement.”

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam presented a plan to the General Assembly back in January seeking to enlarge the state’s publicly funded medical-coverage eligibility pool by about 300,000 Tennesseans of modest means.

Haslam promoted his “Insure Tennessee” proposal as a more market-oriented approach to government-funded coverage than simply expanding traditional Medicaid.

Haslam secured the Obama administration’s blessing on the policy, but Insure Tennessee died in state legislative committees, both during a special session and then again after the issue was resurrected a couple months later.

Key Republicans in the General Assembly, like House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, have said there’s little chance any kind of Medicaid expansion legislation will succeed until Obama is out of office.

Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, told TNReport recently he expects Insure Tennessee will remain an oft-discussed topic during the 2016 legislative session.

But the bulk of GOP lawmakers won’t give their endorsement to any plan that doesn’t involve the state assuming greatly more in the way of administrative control over the Medicaid program than under the current arrangement with the federal government, he predicted.

“It will come up, but I don’t foresee it passing,” McNally said in a Sept. 10 interview.

McNally said “something similar to a block grant” issued to Tennessee “on a permanent basis” that included a lot more flexibility to create and administer policy might win majority support in the General Assembly.

Haslam Concludes Initial Campaign to Highlight Highway-Funding Shortfall

Gov. Bill Haslam has wrapped up his tour around Tennessee to drum up support for potentially raising the state’s 21.4 cent per gallon tax on gasoline.

Haslam participated in conferences with local political and business leaders for the past six weeks in 15 towns and cities across the Volunteer State. Joining him to highlight road infrastructure deficiencies, highway and bridge maintenance needs and funding deficits for such projects were Transportation Commissioner John Schroer and other TDOT staff.

Despite his concerted effort to stress shortages of state and federal transportation dollars, the Republican Tennessee governor told reporters following the final meeting in Lenoir City on Sept. 10 that he’s not yet sure if he’ll be proposing a tax hike in the coming legislative session, which gets underway in January.

Part of the purpose of the tour around the state, in addition to getting a better sense of the transportation priorities on the minds of local elected leaders, has been to prime the pump for the possibility of a tax-hike proposal.

“The good thing about conversations is that people get a better grasp of what the situation is,” said Haslam last week.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy is planning to begin a tour of his own around the state staring Thursday to further explore road infrastructure needs, as well as the general public’s tolerance level for paying government more at the gas pump.

Haslam said he’s fully supportive of Tracy riding the road-funding circuit himself this fall.

However, Tracy is skeptical the GOP-run General Assembly is prepared to take up a fuel tax increase next year.

The Republican from Shelbyville has also said a priority of his own in 2016 is to siphon more than $260 million from the general fund back into the state’s road construction-and-maintenance accounts.

Tracy argues that money was “raided” from the roads budget back when Democrats controlled the Legislature in the 2000s.

Jim Tracy Bill Haslam“We have a covenant with our citizens that the gas tax charged by the state at the pump is dedicated to transportation-related purposes and not something totally unrelated,” Tracy said in a press release announcing that he and Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, are sponsoring a bill in 2016 to refill the money into road funding. “It is such an important principle in some states that it is provided for in their Constitutions. This money should have never been diverted for other state government purposes and should have been paid back at the first available opportunity. It’s past time we pay it back.”

Haslam affirms he’s open to discussing that issue in the context of larger state general fund budget deliberations with the Legislature. But the amount Tracy and Smith are talking about doesn’t come close to addressing the $6 billion or so backlog in transportation construction and maintenance that the state is facing, said the governor.

“That’s a possibility,” Haslam said of the Tracy-Smith bill to route more than a quarter of a billion back to roads. “But the point I would make is that doesn’t solve our problem. That would take care of one road. Alcoa Highway in Knoxville that they’ve been working on since before I was the mayor of Knoxville — so, for at least the last 15 years people have been saying it is coming — well, it still hasn’t happened. And just that project alone has a $270 million price tag on it. Same thing in Memphis. There is one road in Memphis, Lamar Avenue, that we need to fix. Same thing, $270 million price tag.”

Throughout the statewide tour, Haslam and TDOT staff have been emphasizing a 2015 Tennessee Comptroller’s report that concluded current-level gas-tax revenues are insufficient to maintain existing roads and bridges in the state.

“Cars and trucks are more fuel-efficient, construction and labor costs have risen, and Congress has not passed a long-term transportation funding bill in 10 years,” a press release from the governor’s office this week declared. “Tennessee’s population is expected to grow by 2 million by 2040, which puts a greater demand on the state’s infrastructure.”

Tracy Maps Out Tour Across TN to Discuss Roads, Possible Gas Tax Hike

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy is planning an info-gathering, public-opinion-gauging trek of his own to follow-up Gov. Bill Haslam’s roadshow to talk up Tennessee’s transportation needs.

The Shelbyville Republican announced this week he’ll be visiting eight cities across Tennessee over the next several weeks, beginning in Nashville on Sept. 17.

Among the topics that’ll come up is upping the portion of pennies state government will siphon off per gallon of gas motorists purchase.

Tracy’s plan is to facilitate community forums on the conditions, needs and funding picture involving the state’s transportation system.

A press release from his office said the meetings will include presentations from the state comptroller’s office and road-infrastructure planning experts.

Although the prospect of raising gas and diesel taxes in the state is in the discussion mix, Tracy — along with other powerful GOP state lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and House Speaker Beth Harwell — has indicated he doesn’t expect the General Assembly to pass a hike in the 2016 legislative session.

“We’re a long ways from getting there, because we’ve got a lot of studying to do to figure out how much we’re going to need to fulfill the roads and the bridges across the state,” Tracy told TNReport.

“I want to see what our needs are to the next 10 to 15 years,” he said. “We don’t need a band-aid approach. We’re not running this like Congress is. Congress is patching it three months at a time. Tennessee is one of the best run states in the country — we want to keep it that way and to do that we have to plan for the future.”

TN Fuel Efficiency Chart Haslam administrationGov. Haslam has been meeting over the summer with business leaders, politicians, roadbuilders and freight haulers to impress upon them that there’s a long-range road-building and repair funding deficit looming in Tennessee.

The state has a transportation project backlog in excess of $6 billion, according to Haslam.

The governor told TNReport last month he’s acutely aware that the topic of raising gas taxes — or any tax — is typically an unpopular one in Tennessee. But Haslam hopes people connect good roads with improved long-term prospects for a good economy.

“I think the more you talk about this, the more people understand the need,” said the governor. “In general, when we talk about changing the way we pay for anything, nobody likes that idea. But when you explain, ‘Hey, you are actually paying 30-50 percent less to drive on our roads than you did 20 years ago.’ And those roads cost twice as much to maintain and build. People understand that — that you just can’t keep going that direction and have it work forever.”

Haslam hasn’t yet committed to proposing a gas tax hike when the Legislature convenes in January. But vehicles are getting better and better fuel efficiency, and the administration argues that the current 21.4 cents per gallon levy isn’t covering new construction and maintenance costs — a perspective backed by the state’s comptroller.

“In the last several years, revenues dedicated to transportation have stagnated in Tennessee and across the country,” according to a report issued earlier this year by the state’s Office of Research and Education Accountability.  “Tennessee’s fuel taxes are not expected to be sufficient to maintain existing infrastructure and meet long-term transportation demands.”

The governor has said he’s uninterested in either the state taking on debt to pay for highways in Tennessee, or introducing toll roads as a new revenue stream.

Tennessee’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a nation group associated with the billionaire Koch brothers that advocates lower taxes and shrinking government, is leading the charge to defeat any effort to make motorists pay more at Volunteer State fuel pumps.

AFPTN, which successfully lobbied last winter to derail the Haslam administration’s plan to expand Medicaid in Tennessee, is pressing federal and state lawmakers to fight against any gas tax increase proposals in Nashville or Washington.

Haslam’s tour of the state to discuss “transportation and infrastructure needs” winds up next week, with stops in Chattanooga and Cleveland on Wednesday, and Knoxville and Lenoir City on Thursday.

Dates and venues for Sen. Tracy’s transportation forums are listed below:

Thursday, September 17th at 2:00 p.m. CDT
Legislative Plaza, Senate Hearing Room
301 6th Avenue NorthNashville, TN 37243

Tuesday, September 22nd at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Cherry Theater at Columbia State Community College
1665 Hampshire Pike
Columbia, TN 38401

Tuesday, September 29th at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Shelby County Board of Commissioner’s Chambers
160 North Main Street
Memphis, TN

Tuesday, September 29th at 6:00 p.m. CDT
The Carroll Bank and Trust Community Room
19510 West Main St.
Huntingdon, TN 38344

Thursday, October 1st at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Northwest Tennessee Development District Office
124 Weldon Drive
Martin, TN 38237

Thursday, October 1st at 2:00 p.m. CDT
Southwest Tennessee Development District Office
102 E. College Street
Jackson, TN 38301

Thursday, October 15th at 10:00 a.m. EDT
Bridgewater Place
205 Bridgewater Road
Knoxville, TN 37923

Wednesday, October 28th at 2:00 p.m. EDT
Hamilton County Commission Room
624 Georgia Avenue #401
Chattanooga, TN 37402

Thursday, October 29th at 10:00 a.m. EDT
Kingsport Center for Higher Education
300 West Market Street
Kingsport, TN 37660

No GOP Presidential Endorsement from Haslam Yet

With just over six months to go until the Republican presidential primary in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t ready to pick a favorite.

Given that he’s still serving as chairman of the Republican Governors Association — a post he was tapped for last November, and will hold until a new chairperson is selected this November — Haslam said Thursday he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to take a side yet.

“We have four existing governors running and five former governors, so it’s probably best for me to stay out of it until I am either not in this role or that field narrows some,” Haslam said following a stop off in Shelbyville on his tour across the state to discuss transportation and road funding.

The sitting governors include Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and John Kasich of Ohio.

The former governors are Jeb Bush of Florida, Rick Perry of Texas, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and George Pataki of New York.

Seventeen recognizable candidates are currently hunting the GOP nomination.

Haslam said he doesn’t doubt that front runner Donald Trump is hitting on themes that resonate with Tennessee Republican voters, just as he is across the country. National polls show the blunt-spoken New York billionaire plainly leading the GOP field — and even in other some of the establishment-favorites’ home states, like Bush’s Florida.

But Tennessee’s governor said a lot of debating and campaigning has yet to be done before the Volunteer State’s GOP presidential primary on Super Tuesday — March 1 — and he suggested that politicians with real-world governing experience will gain ground as the candidates’ policy proposals get fleshed out and vetted.

“More and more, the race will turn down to who can actually solve the very real problems that we have,” he said.

Nashville’s ‘Local Hire’ Amendment May Come Under Legislative Fire

Tennessee GOP lawmakers who’ve in the past taken steps to thwart locally enacted economic regulations that exceed state and federal requirements say they’re undeniably rubbed the wrong way by Metro Nashville voters approving a “local hire” measure earlier this month.

And that may very well result in the General Assembly taking a vote of its own on Amendment 3 after the Legislature convenes for its 2016 session.

Jack Johnson, chairman of the state Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, told TNReport last week he basically loathes the ballot measure local voters approved by a large margin on Aug. 6.

“It’s awful. It’s awful,” the Williamson County lawmaker said of Amendment 3.

“It is a very, very bad and dangerous precedent for a political subdivision in the state of Tennessee like Metro Nashville to be enacting these types of policies that are hostile toward business, hostile toward economic growth,” said Johnson. “And so I do expect the General Assembly to take a good look at it when we reconvene.”

Amendment 3 earned 58 percent of the vote in the election, and it was the only question on the ballot to win consent.

Metro Nashville’s charter now requires that 40 percent of the labor performed on new building projects involving $100,000 or more of Metro financing be carried out by workers who reside in Davidson County.

Amendment 3 also tacked on new charter language requiring “that a significant effort be made to ensure that no less than Ten Percent (10%) of the Total Construction Worker Hours are performed by low income residents of Davidson County.”

Amendment 3’s supporters argued that it will help fight local poverty and alleviate joblessness. Opponents say it will expand government bureaucracy and balloon construction costs.

Gov. Bill Haslam indicated after the election that he, like outgoing Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, considers himself in the latter camp. Haslam told TNReport last week that he regards the measure as “problematic.”

“I just don’t think that there is any doubt that it will make projects more expensive and take them longer to get done,” said the governor, although he added that he is uncertain at this time what, if anything, the state will do in response.

Johnson noted that the Legislature under Republican leadership over the past several years has shown a willingness to thwart local regulatory efforts deemed damaging to the state’s pro-business reputation.

“I understand that the voters of Nashville approved it, but still, we have to look at the state in totality in terms of our economic progress, and we can’t have these bad policies being implemented, especially in our state capital,” said Johnson.

In 2013, Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin co-sponsored legislation — which ultimately became law — prohibiting local governments from mandating more stringent employee-benefit packages or higher minimum-wage requirements than already required by state or federal law.

Kelsey, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told TNReport after the Amendment 3 vote that he regards it as an attempt to “unfairly discriminate against citizens from other counties” in Middle Tennessee.

“There is a serious equal-protection constitutional question that needs to be investigated and I look forward to researching that question,” Kelsey said.

Casada, too, doubts the legality of Amendment 3. And like local opponents of the measure who spoke out against it during the campaign, he predicts the requirement “will drive up the costs of projects.”

“I don’t think it is prudent,” said Casada, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, which controls 73 of the lower chamber’s 99 seats.

The state’s attorney general hasn’t yet weighed in on the legality of Amendment 3, but could if asked to do so by the governor or a state lawmaker.

John Finch, a local building company executive who heads a business coalition opposed to Amendment 3, said the future now holds uncertainty for construction projects in Davidson County. Unless it is struck down by the courts or nullified by the Legislature, Middle Tennessee’s economy will suffer, he said.

“Nashville is part of the regional economy,” Finch told TNReport. “Nashville needs for General Motors to come and have a giant plant in Spring Hill. Nashville needs for manufacturing plants and other important developments to be in the surrounding counties. And we need the workers who live in the surrounding communities to be able to work on Nashville projects.”

Nashville’s two finalists for mayor — Metro Councilwoman Megan Barry and former Metro School Board Chairman David Fox — were on opposite sides of the Amendment 3 debate.

Barry told Nashville Public Radio that she supported Amendment 3, but won’t in fact be surprised if the state ultimately overturns it. Fox said he believes Amendment 3 was “well-intended,” but that Davidson County currently has “a huge labor shortage,” and the local-hire mandate will “kill projects.”

Haslam: State Only Associates with Planned Parenthood as Required by Federal Law

Responding to inquiries from Republican lawmakers about Tennessee government’s relationships to Planned Parenthood in wake of the controversial “sting” videos released this summer by a national anti-abortion group, Gov. Bill Haslam sent a letter Wednesday assuring them tax dollars are not used to fund abortions “except as required by federal law.”

“My staff and I have heard from many of you recently who share our shock and concern at the callous disregard for life displayed in the undercover videos of persons employed by Planned Parenthood,” wrote Haslam in an Aug. 12 correspondence to GOP legislators that his office released to the media on Thursday (see below).

“You understandably want to make sure the activities discussed in these videos are not happening i n Tennessee,” the governor’s letter stated.

Haslam noted that “it is a Class E felony to buy or sell an aborted fetus” in Tennessee.

“I would strongly encourage law enforcement and the district attorneys across the state to prosecute anyone who violates that law to the fullest extent possible,” he wrote.

Haslam declared the state’s Department of Health “does not perform ANY abortion related services in any of their local health departments.”

Clinics and surgery centers that receive taxpayer monies are prohibited from using the funds to perform abortions “except as required by federal law when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the woman is in danger of death without such a procedure,” according to Haslam’s letter.

The governor added that while Tennessee “does not contract directly with Planned Parenthood nor send any state dollars to them at our initiative,” there are “a few instances in which the state indirectly interacts with the organization.”

Haslam said the state’s HIV/AIDS and syphilis prevention vendors in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville subcontract with Planned Parenthood “to assist with those services.”

“In 2011, my administration attempted to terminate such sub-contracts with Planned Parenthood,” wrote Haslam. However, Planned Parenthood sued and won in federal court, he said.

Haslam also said TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program that serves primarily low-income women and children, doesn’t pay for abortions “except as required by federal law” with respect to rape, incest or if the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life.

“No other circumstances are covered,” wrote the governor.

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Government Operations Committee are scheduled Wednesday to conduct hearings on Planned Parenthood operations in Tennessee. Gov. Haslam’s Department of Health commissioner, John Dreyzehner, is scheduled to appear.

The governor’s full letter is below:

Download (PDF, 110KB)