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McCormick: Collective Bargaining Bill In Trouble

A key House committee on Tuesday threw cold water on efforts to repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, which requires that local Tennessee school districts collectively bargain with teacher unions.

The setback caused one of the chamber’s top Republicans to concede that HB130 is on the ropes this year. Asked if he thinks “the bill is in trouble,” House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick said, “I think so. That is an accurate statement.”

Five House Republicans in the House finance committee broke ranks and voted with Democrats 14-11 to kick HB130 back to the Education Committee, where it already passed back in March.

The Education Committee is currently closed now, although it was reported late Tuesday afternoon that the committee’s chairman, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, said he’s willing to open it back up to hear the bill.

Nevertheless, time is not on the bill’s side, said McCormick, who added lawmakers are wanting the session over by the end of May.

Furthermore, the bill still isn’t at the point where it can pass the House finance committee, said McCormick — and might, he added, even have trouble on the House floor where Republicans outnumber Democrats 64-34.

“That one has not ripened to the point where we can get more than 50 of our members, or a majority of that committee,” said McCormick, who represents eastern Hamilton County. “It just doesn’t have the votes on the finance committee.”

Democrats, who’ve all year opposed doing away with state-mandated collective bargaining in school districts where teachers unionize, took issue Tuesday with the latest amendment to HB130, which would generally mirror changes made to the Senate’s version. SB113 won approval on the floor 18-14 in the Senate Monday night.

They were joined in their protests by five Republicans, including Rep. Jimmy Eldridge of Jackson, who initiated the call to return the bill — and the new amendment — to the education committee.

Republicans voting with Democrats on the committee included Eldridge, Rep. Scotty Campbell, of Mountain City, Rep. Jim Coley of Bartlett, Rep. Mike Harrison of Rogersville and Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Rutledge.

“There’s some work to be done, some persuasion to be done and the bill’s sponsor will be working on it. She’s a hard worker, and I’m sure she’ll be back next year working on it,” McCormick said after the committee adjourned.

Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters immediately after the vote that she did not see the vote as a set back, but rather a move to further vet the bill.

Gov. Bill Haslam weighed in on the bill Tuesday with reporters, saying he was generally in favor of the collective bargaining ban, pending input from the House.

Although the plan is in turmoil, the bill is far from dead. It may yet find its way back to the House finance committee and from there the House floor in some form. There are also a few other seldom used — and difficult to pull off — legislative maneuvers that could advance the bill straight to the House floor, assuming there are enough votes to support it.

Haslam Comfortable With Ban On Collective Bargaining

Gov. Bill Haslam says he is now leaning toward plans to eliminate collective bargaining for Tennessee teachers, although he still wants to consult members of the state House of Representatives before endorsing the plan.

“I’d say I’m comfortable with it pending some voice from the House,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday after attending the state’s annual Holocaust Commission Day of Remembrance in the Capitol Building. “We’re going to let everybody have a seat at the table. That was the direction I was comfortable going.”

Collective bargaining has been one of the most contentious issues in the Legislature as lawmakers have swayed between banning unions from negotiating teachers’ contracts and limiting the issues those unions can discuss at the negotiating table.

Early this year, Haslam supported the former. He, along with House Speaker Beth Harwell, helped develop that proposal, allowing unions to continue hammering out issues like salary, benefits and working conditions with school boards.

But Harwell has recently favored a version in the Senate that repeals collective bargaining as long as teachers and their union representatives can still debate labor issues with the school board.

The catch, according to that version of the bill, is that the school board members can still refuse teachers or unions’ requests.

The Senate OK’ed that version Monday, 18-14, largely on a party line vote. The House Finance Ways and Means committee expects to take up the measure Tuesday.

Ramsey Proud of Senate’s Teacher Collective Bargaining Repeal Vote

Press Release from Ron Ramsey, Speaker of the Tennessee Senate, May 2, 2011:

Bill increases collaboration between local school boards and teachers

(Nashville) – Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R – Blountville) emphasized his ongoing support tonight for Senate Bill 113, a crucial piece of education reform legislation sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) which passed on the floor of the Senate by a vote of 18 to 14.

The bill has now cleared the Senate committee system two times after being amended to make explicit the increased collaboration the bill fosters between teachers and their local school boards.

“Union contracts have hamstrung our local school boards for too long,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey. “More than a year ago our state raced to the top and planted our flag as a beacon for education reform in the nation — but our journey is not over.”

“In 1978 the General Assembly gave a monopoly to one government union and allowed that union to strangle the hope of education reform in this state,” said Sen. Jack Johnson. “This bill rectifies that mistake and gives power back to locally-elected school boards and teachers. The passage of this measure is necessary if we mean to continue on the path of education reform we have embarked upon.”

“We have a historic opportunity to make this session of the General Assembly a landmark for the cause of reform. This bill creates a collaborative environment between teachers and their local board which will ultimately result in putting a quality teacher in every classroom.”

“This bill has been debated extensively and amended effectively,” Lt. Governor Ramsey continued. “I’m proud of the Senate for passing this measure and I trust the state House will follow suit.”

The bill as amended will end long term union contracts that local governments and taxpayers cannot afford and provides for a policy manual that would outline how every local school board will set policies on salaries, wages, benefits, including insurance and retirement benefits, leaves of absence, student discipline procedures and working conditions for teachers.

The companion House bill sponsored by Rep. Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville) is currently awaiting action in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Governor Announces SBA Disaster Loans

Press Release from State of Tennessee, March 24, 2011

Knox and surrounding counties eligible for low-interest loans to individuals and businesses

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced today the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has granted his request for a disaster declaration for Knox and eight contiguous counties in Tennessee following the severe storms and flooding in February.

“The notice we received from the federal government is welcome news for Tennesseans in these counties,” said Haslam. “I’m pleased the federal government has granted this declaration to provide them some relief.”

An SBA disaster declaration makes homeowners and businesses affected by the disaster eligible for low interest loans. In this case, the rate for homeowners will be 2.56 percent or 5.12 percent, depending on whether they can get credit elsewhere, and business rates range from 4 to 6 percent.

SBA declarations make victims in adjacent counties eligible for aid as well, so the declaration includes the Tennessee counties of Anderson, Blount, Grainger, Jefferson, Loudon, Roane, Sevier and Union.

Those affected have until May 23, 2011, to apply for relief from physical damage and until Dec. 23, 2011, to apply for relief from economic injury caused by the Feb. 28, 2011, storms and flooding.

Applicants can contact the SBA’s Disaster Assistance Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955, email disastercustomerservice@sba.gov or visit SBA’s website at www.sba.gov. Hearing impaired individuals may call (800) 877-8339.

Applicants may also apply online using the Electronic Loan Application (ELA) via SBA’s secure website at https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

Lt. Gov. Favors Collective Bargaining Ban

Statement from Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey; March 17, 2011:

I am writing to you today regarding a time-sensitive matter on which I need your support.

The state legislature is debating Senate Bill 113/House Bill 130, a proposal that would prevent government employee unions from locking taxpayers into long-term union contracts that we cannot afford. You have seen a version of this same debate play out in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and other states. Now it’s Tennessee’s turn.

As a conservative, I believe leaders should treat every dollar that comes into state government as carefully as we would treat our own. We should spend money frugally. We should tax minimally. And we should take conservative budgetary actions to avoid crises before they happen.

That is exactly what the Senate Education Committee has done in passing Senate Bill 113. It would classify teachers and other educators as essential government employees — much in the same manner as we classify law enforcement professionals — and end the use of union contracts in that field. I am a strong backer of this legislation for both financial and philosophical reasons.

First, we must take this step to avoid serious state financial problems down the road. For many counties in Tennessee, the union contract process is non-controversial and collegial. But in many of our larger counties, the process exposes the taxpayers to long term risks. And as we have seen in other places, financial risk for Shelby County, Davidson County or Rutherford County is a danger to every taxpayer statewide.

Secondly, I am convinced that ending the practice of factory-style, iron-clad, union contracts in education is essential to meaningful reform of our schools. The union lobbyists who benefit from union contract laws are the same lobbyists who strangle every attempt to pay our best teachers more — and reward them for their great performance. A one-size-fits-all union contract will always penalize the most talented educators and prevent us from ensuring the best results for our children. I have great respect for our state’s talented educators. I believe they deserve to be treated and compensated like the professionals they are and that’s why I am working hard to bring our laws into the 21st century.

As Republicans, we worked very hard to win the trust of Tennesseans and the responsibility of governing as the majority party in the State Capitol. We must honor the trust of the Tennesseans who sent us here by implementing the common-sense, conservative philosophy of our state’s people. Stand with me in this cause to make sure we as Republicans are who we say we are. Let your voice be heard in Nashville today.

Sincerely,

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey

Senate, House Taking Up Haslam’s Teacher Tenure Initiative

In debates over education reform this year, Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to make it harder for teachers to earn and keep tenure hasn’t been as starkly polarizing as other Republican-backed legislation.

But it is nonetheless provoking resistance from the Tennessee Education Association, the union that represents more than 50,000 of the state’s public school employees.

Eight Republicans and one Democrat in the House Education Subcommittee voted Wednesday to approve Haslam’s tenure reforms. Four Democrats voted against the bill. The full Senate is expected to vote on its version of the legislation Thursday morning. (UPDATE: the Senate bill passed 21-12)

The tenure measure would require new teachers to spend five instead of three years in the classroom before earning tenure, which generally offers job protection. A series of evaluations would determine whether an educator could be put on probation or have her tenure revoked.

The legislation would not affect teachers who currently have tenure. If passed into law, teachers who have tenure as of the next school year would continue to use the current system while those who have yet to receive tenure will be subject to the new rules.

The proposal is a centerpiece to Haslam’s education-reform agenda, which also calls for lifting restrictions on charter schools and allowing students to use lottery scholarships for summer courses.

The governor says it is currently difficult to get rid of public school teachers who aren’t performing at a level of proficiency deemed adequate by their superiors.

According to a 2008 Legislative Brief from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability (pdf):

The number of annual teacher dismissals and cost per dismissal hearing cannot be calculated with any precision. The Tennessee Department of Education retains no records of the number of dismissals. Despite a lack of concrete data, the estimated number of dismissal cases is fewer than 50 per year – less than one-tenth of a percent of Tennessee’s total teaching force – according to the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) and the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA), with the majority of hearings occurring in the state’s largest school systems. Although only an estimate, this number suggests a very small percentage of Tennessee’s teachers are ultimately dismissed from their teaching duties.

Haslam said Wednesday that OREA’s report — issued when John G. Morgan, now chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, was the state’s comptroller — reveals why tenure reform is necessary.

“I think that does show that maybe the way it’s set up now, it’s too hard to replace teachers who aren’t effective,” said the governor. “I think way more of our teachers in Tennessee are good than are bad. I want to be really clear about that. But we need to have the mechanism to replace teachers who aren’t working well.”

Given the bundle of bills that more directly aim to pare the influence of the TEA — banning collective bargaining, eliminating payroll deductions of union dues, doing away with TEA’s ability to select members of the state retirement board — the prospect of curbed tenure protection has provoked relatively little controversy. When about 3,000 union demonstrators marched on Capitol Hill Saturday to protest the mainly Republican-driven education reforms, tenure was hardly mentioned.

But the TEA is by no means unconcerned with Haslam’s plan — as evidenced by a strong showing of union members sitting in on Wednesday’s hearing and the fact that most of the House subcommittee’s Democrats opposed the bill.

Union leaders worry that the plan will base teachers’ probationary period on a set of largely untested measures. The system will leave holes for teachers who can’t be measured by standardized test scores, known as Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System or TVASS, and may leave other teachers continually in a “probationary” status, TEA President Gera Summerford said.

“Not every student can be an ‘A’ student. And not every teacher can be a top-level teacher,” Summerford said. “It depends on so many conditions, the students that you teach, the environment in which you teach, the community in which you teach.”

She said the TEA is willing to look at some aspects of the tenure law, but wants to make sure teachers still have rights to challenge potential dismissals.

Democrats are too, said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. But they’d like to put off some of the bill’s changes until the state can thoroughly vet the new teacher evaluation system.

Studies in other states show it’s both difficult and expensive to give failing teachers the boot. In Illinois, which is home to some 95,000 tenured teachers, only one or two are fired each year for poor performance, according to one analysis.

Memphis Rep. John DeBerry, the lone Democrat who joined with House Education Committee Republicans in voting for the tenure bill Wednesday, said TEA needs to accept that when they signed on to reforms as part of the state’s desire to win $500 million in Race to the Top education funds last year, they were agreeing to an all-out education overhaul.

“Part of Race to the Top was changing tenure and changing education as we know it,” said DeBerry.

Likelihood of TN Quorum Strike Small, But Not Impossible

The kind of walkout staged by Democratic state lawmakers to deprive the Wisconsin Legislature of a budget quorum is technically a possibility here. However, minority party leaders in both chambers say it’s not part of any plans they currently have.

“It is a legitimate parliamentary procedure, but it is one that is not very productive,” said Jim Kyle, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

Senate Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state Capitol last week, sending their 14 members across state lines, out of the reach of local law enforcement sent by the Senate speaker to escort them back to the Capitol.

The move was part of a plan to delay a vote on legislation that would strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights and increase the amounts employees must contribute to their pension and health care costs by 8 percent. A similar situation is unfolding in Indiana.

Republicans here in Tennessee are pushing legislation as well to strip down the influence unionized public employees, namely teachers, wield in the state.

But Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, downplayed the likelihood of a walkout. “I can’t imagine us being in a situation to do something like that,” he said.

A walkout is “completely off the table” right now, Fitzhugh continued, adding that he doesn’t think it’s likely in the future, either, and his caucus would rather try to work out any disagreements with Republicans face-to-face.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney said members of his party are talking about staying engaged in the legislative process and working “to fix some of these issues,” not running away from them.

Gov. Bill Haslam so far has steered clear of offering his opinion on eliminating teachers’ ability to collectively bargain. But he said today he doubts the Volunteer State will see the same type of drama going on in Wisconsin regardless of what union-related issues the Legislature takes up.

“I think we’ll have a very different discussion in Tennessee.” he said. “Our pension plan is very different from theirs. Our budget situation is very different from theirs. I don’t think you’ll see anything like that here.”

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a first for Tennessee.

In 1866, opponents of the 14th Amendment refused to show up for the ratification vote.

“To overcome this difficulty, amendment supporters had two Tennessee legislators forcibly seized and held in an anteroom as the vote proceeded. In vain did the speaker attempt to proclaim the two men absent (they refused to answer the roll); the vote in favor of the amendment went ahead anyway,” wrote one historian.

Longtime Capitol watchers say there were rumors of a walkout during contentious political battles over a proposed state income tax in 2000.

Because Republicans so thoroughly defeated Democrats across the state in last year’s election — voters sent only 13 senators and 34 representatives with a D after their name to Capitol Hill — GOP lawmakers have enough muscle to approve just about any legislation they want.

That leaves only three real parliamentary options for the minority party, said Russell Humphrey, the chief Senate clerk.

“One is the option provided to be heard, voice their concerns in a reasonable manner whether it be in committee or on the floor,” Humphrey said. “Two is to try to effectuate delay, which they can do through a couple different rules.

“And the third is to absent themselves, to leave. Aside from those three opportunities, that’s the only opportunity the minority group has to effectuate any kind of change on legislation.”

According to the Tennessee Constitution, both chambers need a minimum of two-thirds of the legislative body present to conduct business.

In the House, where Republicans number 64, the threshold is 66 members.

In the Senate, where there are 20 GOP members, the threshold is 22.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said a Democratic walkout would be “a disaster.”

“Let me assure you the Republicans were in a minority for 140 years, that never happened. Let’s hope that (with) the Democrats in the minority — and just because they’re being outvoted on an issue — that they don’t decide to shirk their responsibility to the voters and the citizens of the state of Tennessee and leave the state,” he said.

Both the lieutenant governor and the House speaker have the power to send out the sergeant at arms or state troopers to arrest lawmakers and drag them back to the Capitol building.

In Wisconsin’s case, lawmakers crossed over state lines, out of reach of state law enforcement. The Speaker sent two state troopers to the Democratic leader’s home to convey the “seriousness” of the situation, according to local reports, but they have yet to come back to the Capitol.

As the battle brews in Wisconsin, Fitzhugh said he is adamant Democrats can make change without a high-profile legislative boycott.

“I don’t think we’d ever do anything like that,” he said.

Government Workers’ Union Endorses Finney

Press Release from Lowe Finney for State Senate, July 26, 2010:

Employees Association Backs District 27 Senator

JACKSON – The Tennessee State Employees Association has announced its endorsement of State Sen. Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) for State Senate District 27.

“Senator Finney has shown during his time in the State Senate that he is willing to listen to state employees and act fairly and promptly on their behalf. We fully support Lowe Finney for State Senate,” said James Braswell, chairman of the Tennessee Employees Action Movement, the political arm of TSEA.

Established in 1974, TSEA is a nonprofit association that advocates for the interests of approximately 45,000 state employees in Tennessee. The organization has successfully fought for retirement benefits, longevity pay and whistleblower protection for state employees, among its many accomplishments.

This year, Finney helped pass a budget that saved more than 550 state jobs that would have been eliminated under a previous budget proposal. He also helped pass a recession assistance package, contingent on economic recovery, and protected employees’ retirement plans.

“We have a responsibility in state government to respect and help our employees,” Finney said. “I’m honored to receive the TSEA’s endorsement, and I look forward to continuing to work with them on the issues that face thousands of Tennessee employees.”

In addition to the TSEA announcement, Finney recently received endorsements from the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Tennessee Education Association.

More Federal Relief for TN Farmers

State of Tennessee press release, Jan 22, 2010:

Bredesen Announces Federal Farm Assistance for Five Counties

21 Counties Now Qualify as Primary Natural Disaster Designation

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved his request for federal farm assistance for five additional Tennessee counties due to excessive rain and flooding that occurred in September and October.

“The 2009 growing season was certainly unpredictable and challenging for many of our state’s farmers. This disaster designation will be important for helping those who experienced significant crop losses during last year’s unusually wet harvest,” said Bredesen. “I’m pleased that USDA has responded so promptly to my request.”

Bredesen made the request in a Dec. 11 letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The five counties designated as primary natural disaster areas include: Claiborne, Cocke, Rutherford, Sevier and Union.

The designation makes farmers in these counties eligible to apply for assistance, including emergency loans and supplemental farm payments, through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. Also qualifying as secondary, adjoining disaster counties are: Anderson, Bedford, Blount, Campbell, Cannon, Coffee, Davidson, Grainger, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Jefferson, Knox, Marshall and Williamson.

With today’s announcement, a total of 21 Tennessee counties have qualified for a primary natural disaster designation due to excessive rain during the 2009 harvest. Last month, USDA named 16 other counties as primary natural disasters including: Bradley, Chester, Cumberland, Hamilton, Hardeman, Lauderdale, Macon, McMinn, McNairy, Meigs, Polk, Rhea, Shelby, Smith, Trousdale and Wilson.

Farmers in affected counties reported crop losses ranging from 20 to 50 percent for major crops including corn, soybeans, cotton and tobacco. Some counties reported receiving record rainfall of as much as 10 to 12 inches during what are normally the driest months of the year.

USDA projected significantly higher yields in 2009 for most major Tennessee crops as compared to the previous two drought years; however, heavy rains hurt both crop yields and quality because of rotting, mold and other disease problems. Farmers also reported losses for hay, pumpkins and other specialty crops.

Statewide, the 2009 harvest was three to four weeks behind the five-year average due to the unusually wet weather according to the Tennessee Field Office of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. For the latest information on the 2009 crop harvest, visit www.nass.usda.gov/tn.