TN Senate Democratic Caucus Update: March 19-24

Press Release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, March 24, 2011:

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE

Mountaintop Removal

Senate Bills 577 and 578, which would effectively ban the practice known as “mountaintop removal coal mining” were delayed one week in the Senate Environment, Conservation, and Tourism committee. Republicans attempted to delay the bills two weeks, which would have placed them in jeopardy of not being heard before the committee’s April 13 closing date. One Republican voted with Democrats and another abstained in order to let the two-week proposal fail. The bills sponsored by Senator Eric Stewart are now scheduled to be heard Wednesday, March 30.

Open Records

Senator Roy Herron successfully amended a bill Monday to require that foundations that contract with the University of Tennessee be required to hold open meetings and maintain publicly accessible financial records. Senate Bill 336 authorizes the UT Board of Trustees to designate and enter into agreements with foundations designed to raise money and support the university. Herron’s amendment requires that most meetings of the foundation be open to the public, and that all expenditures by the foundations be made public record.

Such oversight is crucial given past problems with the UT Foundation, which a 2003 audit found that the foundation could be used to circumvent accountability laws for public funds and assets. Former UT President John Shumaker was forced to resign amid ethical and financial violations involving the foundation.

Race to the Top and Complete College Updates

Several updates on the Complete College Tennessee Act were presented to the Education Committee on Wednesday. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission outlined that the state is seeking to improve its higher-education standards through a new funding formula based on outcomes in lieu of enrollment; a Performance Funding program that focuses on quality assurance; and the establishment of institutional mission statements to reduce redundancy in programs.

A presentation was also given updating the committee on Tennessee’s First to the Top initiative. The presentation outlined new programs aimed at helping Tennessee improve its K-12 education, including the creation of a comprehensive student information database that is accessible to every teacher in the state and a new emphasis on recruiting and retaining good teachers.

Communications

Thursday the Senate passed Senate Bill 598 with a compromise amendment that gives rural telephone companies more time to reduce their intrastate connection rates. The bill was initially resisted by rural phone companies but supported by large telecommunication companies such as AT&T. Under the new amendment, both sides have agreed to support its passage in both houses.