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TN Pols Make Play for Manning

Peyton Manning is looking for a new home where he can set up under center, and state politicians are making no secret of their desire for the former UT gridiron titan to choose Tennessee again.

Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives “wholeheartedly” signaled a bipartisan hope that the legendary Rocky Top signal-caller “remember his roots in the Volunteer State as he makes his decision about where to play football in 2012.”

“The whereases and wherefores are legal terms to say that Peyton Manning was a great UT football player, a great pro-football player, a great Tennessean and we want him,” House Clerk Joe McCord said to the audible agreement and appreciation of the chamber.

The resolution, HJR0785, was passed easily by a voice vote.

At an event at Lipscomb University this week Gov. Bill Haslam said he’d been passing texts to Manning, and had even gone so far as to offer the superstar QB “free temporary housing in the governor’s residence” if he needs some downtime in Nashville to make a decision.

Since his release from the Indianapolis Colts on March 7, Manning, the NFL’s only four-time league MVP, has become this off-season’s most sought-after free agent. The 14-year veteran — six times the AFC’s player of the year — has been scrambling around the country meeting with teams to discuss offers.

Wednesday, Manning spent about eight hours meeting with the Titans in Nashville. Team owner Bud Adams reportedly tossed up a Hail Mary in the form of a “contract for life” if the Super Bowl XLI MVP would agree to play out his career calling plays at LP Field.

Guv Opts to Water Down Charter School Bill

Gov. Bill Haslam’s office is introducing a last-minute rewrite on his pledge to give charter schools greater flexibility just as GOP lawmakers start counting down the days until they adjourn.

The changes would give school districts the power to deny charter applications based on their price tags — assuming they can convince the state treasurer that the cost presents a “substantial negative fiscal impact” that the district cannot absorb.

But exactly how those decisions would be made is still up in the air, admitted Sen. Jamie Woodson, a high-ranking Republican and education reform leader pushing the bill.

“The pure definition of what is substantial financial impact is, I will admit…yet to be determined,” she told the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee shortly before the body voted 8-2 to send the plan to the Senate floor.

Republican leaders in both chambers hope to wrap up the year’s legislative session this weekend, although House Chief Clerk Joe McCord said Thursday lawmakers may need a few more days to finish their business. Either way, the governor’s administration is running out of time to tweak the bill.

The price on Haslam’s original charter school proposal, HB1989, slowed the measure down to a halt in both chambers earlier this session, with it sitting for almost two months in the Senate and a month in the House while Democrats wrangled with Republicans and the Haslam administration over details of the bill.

Critics took issue with every major thrust of the plan, including lifting the 90-school cap on the number of charters throughout the state and allowing the state’s virtual school district in charge of turning around failing schools to OK charter applications.

The administration wouldn’t budge much there, or on Democratic efforts to include specific language mandating that the majority of charter school enrollees be at-risk students who come from under-performing schools, struggle academically or come from low-income families. All those issues stayed put.

But the big issue came down to the price tag, and some Republicans split with their caucus and voiced reservation about the local cost of the school choice legislation.

Under the original version, the proposal would have cost local public school districts about $4.3 million statewide by shifting dollars to the independently run public schools when the expansion gets off the ground in 2013-14. But that total would climb to $25 million by 2022, according to the Fiscal Review committee.

The new version of the bill requires local school districts that want to reject a charter proposal to send an analysis to the state Treasurer detailing their inability to “adjust expenses on a system-wide basis due to the transfer of students into the proposed charter school.”

The school district and charter school applicant would both have five business days to send their own analysis of the figures to the treasurer after the district rejects the charter.

The treasurer’s office, now manned by David Lillard, can consult the Department of Education, the local board of education and the charter applicant in deciding the merits of the rejection. It can also ask for outside experts to review the contested financial data, although the final decision must be made within 30 days.

Even if the treasurer strikes down the local school district’s claims about financial stability, the charter school applicant must still contest the school district’s original charter denial to the state Board of Education within five days of the Treasurer’s decision.

The new proposal would cost the state about $50,000 a year in the event the state treasurer seeks outside help weighing the financial statements. Local expenditures in the school districts would be at least $1 million, according to the fiscal note, though researchers admitted they couldn’t pinpoint a specific number because there are too many unknowns.

According to the new fiscal note:

“While the exact fiscal impact is dependent on multiple unknown factors, it is assumed that the (Local Education Agency) will be able to account for half of the shift through normal system-wide adjustments and the net increase in permissive local expenditures is estimated to exceed $1,000,000 statewide.”

The concession won’t water down the bill, according to Will Cromer, the administration’s policy director. Instead, it creates an method for testing whether school districts really can’t absorb new charter schools.

“It creates the process to make that claim, but there’s also a process to evaluate the claim,” he said.

The charter schools bill passed in the Senate committee Wednesday with Democrats Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, and Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, voting no. Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, was the only Democrat to vote for the bill. In the House, the measure won on a voice vote, although Reps. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, expressed dissent during committee discussions.

The debate boils down to a philosophical difference about money following the student, said a lobbyist for charter schools — whether parents or school administrators and educational professionals ought to decide where a child can get a publicly-funded education.

The charter school legislation is one of the signature education reform measures Haslam has presented in his first year as governor, along with changes in teacher tenure law, which Haslam has already signed.

Mike Morrow contributed to this report.
Clarification: If the Treasurer disagrees with the local school board’s assertion that opening the charter school would cause undue financial burden, the charter school must still appeal the local school board’s original denial to the state Board of Education, under the proposed amendment.

Voters to Decide if ‘Personal Right’ to Hunt & Fish is Reasonable

The term “reasonable” doesn’t appear in the U.S. or Tennessee Constitutions, except for proscriptions against the government carrying out “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

But the Tennessee Wildlife Federation — with the endorsement of all but three members of the state Legislature — wants to add that word, and 59 or so others, in the form of a constitutional amendment that would place hunting and fishing on the list of legally protected rights enjoyed by Tennesseans.

The amendment, which if passed would be added to the section of the Tennessee Constitution that grants state government the authority “to enact laws for the protection and preservation of game and fish,” reads as follows:

“The citizens of this state shall have the personal right to hunt and fish, subject to reasonable regulations and restrictions prescribed by law. The recognition of this right does not abrogate any private or public property rights, nor does it limit the state’s power to regulate commercial activity. Traditional manners and means may be used to take non-threatened species.”

The process of getting the measure before voters has been years in the making. Conceived in 2004, the language has twice been approved by the General Assembly — most recently, this past legislative session — and must now attract “yes” votes from a majority of voters participating in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

Critics of the amendment suggest that a change to the Constitution is unnecessary and excessive.

Argues the state’s largest metropolitan newspaper, “a simple resolution would have sufficed to send the message that hunting and fishing is here to stay.” Furthermore, the use of the word “reasonable” is “vague and open to interpretation.” It could, for example, embolden litigious malcontents to challenge licensing and fee requirements placed upon sportsmen by the Tennessee Department of Fish and Wildlife and thus jeopardize “a crucial revenue source,” the Tennessean editorial board worries.

Those concerns, however, don’t appear to be shared by state government wildlife managers.

Nat Johnson, TWRA assistant executive director of staff operations, said the term “reasonable” sounds reasonable enough to officials and attorneys with the department, although he noted that the agency cannot by law take a formal stance of support or opposition on the measure.

Officials do, however, offer that they in no way see the language of the amendment as hindering “the responsibilities of the agency to set manner and means” for taking fish and wildlife, said Johnson, who also serves as TWRA’s legislative liaison to the Tennessee General Assembly.

“Legal staff has looked at this, and they have not seen it become an issue in any other states,” he said. “They haven’t seen that it provided any avenues for people to challenge a state’s ability to regulate and set reasonable rules and regulations.”

More than a dozen other states have guarantees of hunters’ rights written into their constitutions, and others are considering measures.

Tennessee Wildlife Federation CEO Michael Butler told TNReport his group consulted closely with state wildlife officials, constitutional attorneys and the chief legislative sponsors of the amendment, Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, and Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, to ensure that the amendment language enumerates the desired right without undermining state government fish and wildlife management authority.

“Most people already think they have a right to hunt and fish. So for most people, this amendment is just confirming what they already thought,” Butler said. “They can’t really imagine not being able to do it.”

However, the whole point of the amendment, he said, is to add a layer of legal defense against political activists and pressure groups that believe hunting and fishing not only aren’t “rights,” but probably shouldn’t even be tolerated by government.

Constitutionally speaking, “all it would take now to get rid of a hunting or fishing season is a vote by the Legislature,” Butler said.

Johnson confirmed that the department advised the wildlife federation on the amendment “almost since its inception.”

“We worked to achieve a comfort level that we thought everybody could live with,” he said.

Vanderbilt constitutional law professor James Blumstein noted that although the term “reasonable” isn’t one you’ll find in constitutional language, it “permeates our law.”

While a subjective interpretation might at times be “fairly debatable,” Blumstein said, judges generally approach it from the standpoint of asking if government has “a rational basis for doing something, and that it meets a reasonableness test.”

“There will be some deference to the regulation, but the regulations have to be reasonable,” he said. In situations where hunting rights conflict with public safety, private property or species management goals, Blumstein said he believes the amendment leaves the government “ample authority to regulate.”

“But what the government cannot do is to simply say we’re against hunting, on the grounds of policy, or that we think that is immoral or that it’s inappropriate in some way, and just have a flat-out ban,” Blumstein said. “Most rights in the Constitution are not absolute rights, and this is recognizing that the right to hunt may exist, but it is not absolute.”