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Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Feds Charge Texan for Bomb Threat to Murfreesboro Mosque

A Texas man has been indicted for threatening to bomb a planned Muslim community center in Murfreesboro.

Law enforcement say Javier Alan Correa, 24, of Corpus Christi, called the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro on Sept. 5, 2011, and said there was a bomb in the building that would explode on the anniversary of Sept. 11.

He has been charged with intentionally obstructing a free exercise of religion by threat of force and with using an instrument of interstate commerce to threaten to destroy a building with explosives, said Jerry Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Although Correa has not been taken into custody, the U.S. Attorney’s office is in communication with his legal counsel to discuss surrender, Martin said.

If convicted, Correa faces up to 20 years in prison.

The mosque’s approval in 2010 sparked protests and a lawsuit, even as construction has moved forward at the site southeast of Murfreesboro. A judge earlier this month ruled that the public notice for a meeting to approve the construction plans was inadequate, which has put in limbo plans to have a first section of the building open in time for Ramadan at the end of July.

Federal investigators are also still looking into an incident of arson at the site in 2010.

“These despicable acts are not only illegal, but are also completely contrary to our American way of life,” Martin said. “So let there be no question. If you interfere with anyone’s constitutionally guaranteed right to worship and assemble, you will face federal prosecution and severe penalties.”

In Nov. 2010, the Department of Justice also filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in relation to the ongoing lawsuit, in which plaintiffs had asserted that Islam is not a legitimate religion.

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Business and Economy NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Legislature Expands Cigarette Tax to Include ‘Roll-Your-Own’ Sellers

The Tennessee Legislature has passed a bill to require roll-your-own tobacco shops and their customers to pay more in taxes, but they’re refusing to call the plan a tax increase.

The measure, HB1054/SB1738, would require owners of corner stores that offer roll-your-own cigarette services to pay a $500-per-machine licensing fee, pay the same tax per pack as pre-rolled cigarettes, and pay into a massive settlement between cigarette makers and the states. Lawmakers say they are concerned about loss of revenues and want the state’s tax policy to be fair.

The “crux of the argument” for this bill is that, although the roll-your-own cigarettes are nearly identical to prepackaged cigarettes, they are taxed at a much lower rate, meaning that they are sold for a much lower price, said Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, on the House floor, April 30.

“The conventional cigarettes are taxed under the agreement, the Federal MSA directory, the Attorney General’s directory, and created the escrow account and the payments – we get over $140 million a year, because of the lawsuit that was settled some time ago,” McDaniel said. “We could endanger, I believe, that agreement, where we’re getting that money into our state system, into our revenues.”

McDaniel was referring to a settlement reached in 1998 between the top four cigarette companies and the states. The companies were required to end certain marketing techniques and pay a minimum of $206 billion to the states over a 25-year period. The agreement also made the companies exempt from future private liability suits that might be brought against them in regards to harm caused by tobacco use.

The bill passed the House 68-22.

While the House bill passed with little-to-no discussion, it was a different story in the Senate.

“The dilemma we have as a state — and we’re not the only state that’s addressing this — is how do we treat these cigarettes that are manufactured, that are made in a machine in eight minutes, and you walk out of the store” said Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, sponsor of the bill. “They’re not paying the (Tobacco) Master Settlement Agreement fees, they’re not paying the $0.62 state tax, and they’re not paying federal tax on these cigarettes.”

Much of the debate on the Senate floor wasn’t regarding the regulation of commerce or revenue lost by the state, but about the length of time to give businesses to adapt and comply with the measure. The Senate settled on a compliance date of July 1, 2013.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said the state should be more aggressive and bring the money in starting in January of that year. His amendment failed.

“In the meantime, the state of Tennessee is losing a lot of revenue from taxes, as well as your other convenience stores in your district are losing business, because people are going to be driven to the location where they can get cheaper cigarettes,” Ketron said.

Ketron admitted to looking for competitive advantages when he himself ran a convenience store, including buying his own machine to produce ice himself. He said that store owners who have roll-your-own machines, which cost $30,000, have an unfair advantage.

“This is not a tax bill. All it’s doing is leveling the playing field. They can still sell these cigarettes cheaper than what your name-brand cigarettes will be sold for by the carton.”

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, compared this legislative issue to last year’s Amazon bill and recommended more time to allow the affected shop proprietors to comply.

“I think if we were truly advocates for small business, we would give them the same courtesy that we’ve given to large business and allow them more time to adapt,” Watson said.

The Senate passed the bill 26-5 on April 25.

The House held steady with Jan. 1, 2014 as the effective date for the bill, despite the Senate’s amendment changing the date.  Following a conference committee between the chambers, they agreed upon yet another compromise, officially setting the effective date for Oct. 1, 2013.

The bill now travels to the governor for his signature.

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., recently introduced a measure in Congress to label roll-your-own tobacco shops as manufacturers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Legislature Targets 18-21-Year-Olds in Liquor Stores

The General Assembly passed a bill last week to stiffen penalties for people 18 to 21 who refuse to leave a liquor store at the request of the owner.

The bill, HB2459/SB2544, was originally much more strict and required that anyone under the age of 21 be accompanied by someone over the drinking age. It was amended to its current form.

“A person may be charged with a criminal trespass if the person is between 18 and 21 years, visibly intoxicated, or otherwise disruptive, once the owner of a retail package store has asked the person to leave and the person remains,” said Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, sponsor of the bill.

The necessity of the bill was questioned by Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, as this would already be illegal under current Tennessee law.

“This is just clarifying the law that’s already on the books, and we’re putting this in the code that deals with alcohol, that deals with package stores,” Eldridge said.

According to Eldridge, the state has had an underage drinking problem for many years, and in 2010, Tennessee citizens spent more than $1.3 billion dealing with this problem.

The source for Eldridge’s claims is a report on underage drinking in Tennessee by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a group that advocates stricter drug and alcohol laws. According to the report, the costs to citizens of Tennessee is divided as follows: $88 million for “medical costs,” $452 million for “work lost costs” and $740 million for “pain and suffering costs.”

Rep. Joe Towns Jr., D-Memphis, voiced skepticism at the figures cited in the study — and the ability of the law to address any the received problem of 18-21-year-olds drinking.

“I just have concerns when we so easily criminalize these young people, because when you’re 18, 19 years old, you do a lot of silly stuff,” said Towns. “And I don’t think we should so easily criminalize the behaviors of our college students or of our kids who are not yet matured in mind, but legally they’re 18 to 21 years old.”

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Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Legislature Approves Study of Special Courts for Vets

Tennessee veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems stemming from military service could soon have their own special courts should they find themselves facing prosecution in the state’s criminal justice system.

The House unanimously passed a bill today, HB3394/SB3222, which directs the Administrative Office of the Courts to study whether it’s feasible for the state to establish specialized courts for veterans. The bill also passed the Senate unanimously on April 12.

Such courts have been established in states around the country, including Oklahoma, New York and California. They are aimed at getting treatment for veterans who commit offenses and helping them adjust to to post-battlefield life.

Passage of the bill in Tennessee is the first step in a two-step process, said Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, the sponsor in the House. Once the study is complete, Ragan said he plans to draft legislation based on the results.

Ragan said Wednesday on the House floor one of the “obvious reasons” he is sponsoring the bill is the announced “drawdown” of U.S. troops serving overseas, which will “bring a large number of veterans back to our state.”

“In some cases they’re going to be suffering from a number of maladies, not the least of which is post-traumatic stress syndrome, and traumatic brain injuries,” said Ragan. “We need to prepare our court systems to deal with them fairly, and to be able to refer them to the proper treatment locations in lieu of putting them in jail.”

The bill also gives Tennessee the opportunity to create a “customized” solution for taking care of struggling veterans that will attract more federal funding through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ragan said.

“The purpose of the bill, and the study that’s going forward, is to provide some training to the judicial system personnel, judges, and other personnel to be able to help these veterans as they come into the system,” Ragan said. He added that there was a single court in the state that receives help from a representative of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and that it has been successful for that court.

“We want to spread those benefits throughout the state, and that will continue,” said Ragan, a retired Air Force pilot.

Ragan’s measure drew support across partisan lines.

There aren’t many locations for PTSD evaluation and treatment for veterans in Tennessee, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, He expressed hope the study would provide for more locations.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, spoke in support of the measure for similar reasons.

“I would hope, if, for whatever reason, they find a new court system is not feasible, that they can change the procedure and the law to give this benefit to those who are laboring under these particular conditions that are part of our veterans,” Fitzhugh said.

Several meetings have been scheduled over the summer as part of the study, with an interim report scheduled for August and a final report scheduled in December, Ragan said.

“When we come back next session, we can address this issue in a more complete and, shall we say, comprehensive way,” Ragan said.

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Education NewsTracker

Lawmakers Pass Measure Encouraging Parental Involvement in Education

Churches and nonprofits would have an easier time setting up parenting classes for school districts under a bill that passed the Senate Monday 30-0.

The bill, SB3606, encourages school districts to develop and provide these programs for parents by partnering with a range of organizations, such as nonprofit and for-profit groups and community and faith-based organizations.

“This would encourage the (school districts) to develop low-cost, or no-cost, parenting classes with community organizations,” said Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, describing the bill to the Senate Education Committee on March 28. “It would authorize (them) to solicit private donations to fund parental involvement reward programs.”

Schools with a high percentage of parents attending the classes would be rewarded with supplies, field trips, or other prizes. Districts could design the programs with rewards for classes as well.

The bill would also direct schools to encourage parents who attend classes to be role models for parents who don’t attend the classes, or those whose children have yet to enter school, Haynes said.

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously.

Some examples of topics provided by the bill that parental involvement classes might address are ways to be a positive role model, the importance of sleep and good nutrition, good study and homework habits, how to maximize parent-teacher conferences and how to prepare students for college or the workforce.

“I think that’s why we’re actively engaged in programs– it’s the thing my wife’s focused on the most — of how do we encourage parents to get involved?” Gov. Bill Haslam said at a hunger awareness event in Nashville Monday. “Because, if you compare test scores, the biggest differential between schools, you can almost trace the parental involvement.”

The bill passed the House 98-0 on March 19. The bill goes next to the governor for his approval.

The bill is not expected to cost state taxpayers, according to legislative research. Lawmakers envision the outside groups will pick up the tab.

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NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Volunteer State Taxpayers Off the Hook Earliest: Study

Tennessee, which has one of the highest combined state-and-local sales tax rates in the country, also has the lowest overall tax burden, according to a report released recently by one of the nation’s oldest organizations that tracks such data.

The Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation releases its Tax Freedom Day report each year. The study calculates how many days into the year all Americans would have to work if they were forced to work every day — with no weekends or holidays off — until they fulfilled the year’s tax burdens their elected officials have shouldered them with. This year’s U.S. Tax Freedom date is April 17, but Tennesseans fulfilled their theoretical tax obligation work-load on March 31, making the state the earliest in the country this year.

The Foundation calculates the freedom date by “dividing the official government tally of all taxes collected in each year by the official government tally of all income earned in each year,” according to its website.

“Tennessee is a very low tax state overall, and though it has the highest sales tax, it has no individual income tax,”said  Will McBride, author of the Tax Foundation study.

McBride added that the group lumps state sales and property taxes together, and that when taken together, the state ranks below average in tax burden. “The main reason is that the federal personal income tax is the largest tax burden and that’s driven by average income,” he said. “And Tennessee is a below average income state, as are many of the surrounding states.”

The Tennessee Senate’s Republican and Democratic leaders were both circumspect when TNReport asked for their views on the state’s No. 1 ranking.

“It’s a good thing,” said Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “But we need to keep it all in perspective. It’s compared to other states, and some states are mighty bad. I’m glad we’re on the better end of that scale, and we want to keep us that way.”

The state has to be mindful of the fact that there will be several bills coming through in the future that cost money, and lawmakers need to manage the budget to live within the state’s means but still be able to meet those needs, Norris said.

“What it does mean is we provide minimal government services, and we are dependent on the private sector to direct the government in more of a way where there’s more government spending,” said Memphis Democrat Jim Kyle, the Senate minority leader. “We have fewer social programs, we depend more on charity.

“But we’re also one of the highest-rated states with a percentage of people who are charitable givers. It just shows that Tennesseans are more self-reliant, and seem to be pleased with that,” he said.

The flip side is that people who for example are mentally or physically disabled or have children with special needs don’t get the taxpayer-financed assistance that may be available in higher-tax states, Kyle said.

The fact that it took the state a shorter period of time to pay the taxes that were owed is a good sign for Tennessee, said Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the House Finance Committee.

“Next year, I think we’ll be two or three days earlier than we were this year, with lowering taxes,” Sargent said.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

Governor: Veto Often Makes Little Sense; Best to Work with Lawmakers for Fitting Compromises

Although Gov. Bill Haslam sees it as part of his job to rein in exceedingly controversial or notably weird bills the Legislature may be pushing, Haslam said Tuesday he’s actually rather hesitant to veto legislation that doesn’t seem imminently harmful to the state.

The governor pointed out that regardless of his views on any particular piece of legislation, if the Legislature is of a mind to make something law, it is going to happen with or without his approval.

“Some of those laws pass with 80 percent vote,” said Haslam. “In the end, a governor’s veto can be overridden with just one vote positive.”

Gov. Haslam fielded reporters’ questions Tuesday outside the spring 2012 College Completion Academy conference, where he was moderating a forum on how to increase student graduation and retention rates in the state. The event took place at the Cool Springs Marriott.

Here are some excerpts of the press conference:

Q: Are you working to try to head off the “Guns in Trunks” bill, or get it modified?

Haslam: Like I said all along, we don’t like the current form, so yeah, I think it’s safe to say that we’d like to see something different come out of that. I think it’s a fairly heated discussion in a lot of fronts right now.

Q: The big problem is the whole — is it just the hunting license piece, that that opened it up to a lot more people?

Haslam: I think the schools – I think the folks here would tell you that schools are a concern. I think there’s some other pieces – like I said, I just all along felt like it was a little too broad, and would like to see it narrowed some, and I think several people feel that way.

Q: You’ve mentioned frustration at some of the coverage of state government instead of the Legislature specifically. You’ve had to work as a sort of moderating force, to some extent, during the session. Is that somewhere you hope to be as governor, and cover the drawbacks of some of the more extreme elements of your own party?

Haslam: I think maybe what any governor focuses on, if you look at governors around the country, we’re charged with running state government on a day-to-day basis and all of the services you’re provided. So we’re always going to tend to focus more on service delivery and those key things about – I’ve said before, that’s what I see state government being, ‘How do we provide the very best service?’ So, I don’t think my situation is any different than other governors. I have some Democratic governor friends who say, ‘Oh, yeah, people in my party are trying to pass this and that, and I’m trying to bring them back to focus on these things.’ I don’t think my situation’s all that unusual.

Q: The stuff that may not make a whole lot of change in the law, why wouldn’t you veto these sort of laws that don’t do anything?

Haslam: It’s a fair question, but some of those laws pass with 80 percent vote. In the end, a governor’s veto can be overridden with just one vote positive. So I think the lesson is to try to engage in the process as much as you can. And then there’s certain things that are things that you might say, ‘That’s not exactly what I would do, but I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful to the state.’ Other things you say, ‘I think that is harmful to the state,’ and you jump in.

Q: Governor, you engaged in a bit of media criticism in there, which is similar to things we’ve heard before about you think we should pay more attention to the weightier issues. One might argue that the media only covers what happens, and to some extent the Legislature provides the fodder. Is it really a criticism of the Legislature in this regard, that they’re doing lackey things, and the media covers it?

Haslam: No, I would come back and say then, look at the amount of coverage on certain issues which may or may not ever get passed … and then weigh them against their impact on the state. Whether that be an education initiative, or changing the tax structure, or some crime prevention, those are things that really, really impact Tennesseans every day. And some of the ones that grab headlines, I think they’re fun for discussion, but a month from now and a year from now they’re really not going to impact Tennessee that much.

Q: But you don’t blame the lawmakers for bringing those in the first place, knowing full well that they’re shiny objects that will draw attention?

Haslam: (Laughing) You’re pointing fingers awfully a lot. I will blame them when the media says, ‘Yeah, we can do a better job of being substantive about issue coverage.’

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Education NewsTracker

Online Learning Advocates See Virtual Schooling as Integral to Education Reform

Students in Tennessee could click their way through more courses, if a Capitol Hill push to embrace online classes for K-12 education gains traction.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would bring requirements such as teacher-student ratios, which public schools that have traditional buildings and classrooms already adhere to, to bear for their online counterparts. That bill has not yet made it to either chamber of the Legislature for a floor vote.

Advocates recently laid out their position that while virtual schooling is edgy and perhaps intimidating to some, it is a potent tool for keeping students engaged and in school.

Virtual schools do the most to innovate education and level the playing field for kids everywhere, compared to other areas of technological reform in education, said Susan Patrick, president & CEO of the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning and a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. Patrick was speaking at a forum at the Sheraton Wednesday hosted by the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank.

“What’s one thing we know about research on the brain and student learning?” Patrick asked. “It’s that not all kids learn in the same way at the same time.”

Even though the U.S. is innovating with virtual schools, those innovations are uneven from state to state, Patrick said.

“Right now we have 30 of 50 states that allow for full-time virtual schools, and there are about 225 of those across the country,” Patrick said, and added that although their numbers are dropping, about 30 states have state virtual schools.

Tennessee lost its state-run online education program, e4TN, because it had been fully funded with federal education technology dollars, it was one of the best uses of such money by the states, according to Patrick.

But virtual schools still exist in Tennessee, like the Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) program in Putnam County.

The VITAL program allows students in the Putnam County School District to enroll in online classes that may not be provided on-site. Students coordinate their online coursework with an on-site facilitator and attend a lab at the school during which they can work on their coursework at their own pace, the website says.

Some students may qualify for independent study after a few weeks of enrollment, provided they score high enough on progress reports. The progress reports are e-mailed by the instructor to the on-site facilitator, student, parents and virtual learning coordinator twice a month.

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the Virtual Public Schools Act, opening the way for school boards, the state and charter schools to sponsor online schools. The bill, HB1030, set curriculum requirements and required teachers in virtual schools to be certified in the same manner as teachers in traditional, physical schools.

A bill this year would update those requirements. The bill, HB3062, allows the State Board of Education to set new teacher-pupil ratios for online instruction programs and requires that the education programs maintain those ratios.

It also requires programs to offer the same amount of time to students to learn and work, as is offered in other education programs, while at the same time allowing for students to work at their own pace.

“There are many reasons why kids choose not to finish school, and anything we can do to encourage them to stay in school, and to get their diploma, is a good thing,” said Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, sponsor of the bill. “It’s my hope, that through virtual education, we’re able to offer other programs or services that we may or may not be able to in other schools.”

The bill passed the House Finance Committee on last week, on its way to the floor. Its companion bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill originally contained a requirement that at least one online course would be necessary for graduation of all students that enter the 9th grade in the 2013-2014 school year. This provision was removed because of the cost, Williams said.

However, not all members of the Legislature feel that virtual schools are the way to go in state education reform. Skeptics see gaps in accountability and the potential for shifting money away from the traditional public school system.

“You know I was not for virtual education, and I still am not for it,” Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said in the House Education committee on Feb. 28. “They haven’t convinced me, and I think it’s wrong that a kid can start out in kindergarten and go through the 12th grade and never set foot in a school.”

But this is not reflective of the trend in online education, Patrick says.

“The biggest driver nationally of online courses is that the students otherwise do not have access to the course in their high school,” Patrick said at the Beacon Center forum. “So, 97 percent of these kids that are learning online are learning in a high school environment, taking individual courses.”

Patrick also explained how the other countries around the globe have been experimenting with virtual education as a way to keep up with the changing world.

Turkey developed world-class Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses for online, she said, and four years into the program almost all of Turkey’s 16 million students are using online education.

In Canada, the province of Ontario has invested in the full range of K-12 digital education, including four digital versions of each course for high school students.

Additionally, British Columbia has 14 percent of its high school students taking online courses. By comparison, only 1.8 million out of 50 million students in the U.S., or more than 3 percent, use supplemental online learning, while only 250,000 use it full-time, Patrick said.

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Featured NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Requirement that Seniors Get Photo Taken for State ID Passes TN Senate

A bill passed the state Senate on Monday, 21-11, requiring all Tennesseans to have a photograph on their driver’s license, regardless of age, by removing a senior-citizen exemption that has existed since the mid-80s.

The bill, SB2267, removes from law the exemption for people 60 and older and requires a photo on all licenses issued or renewed after Jan. 1, 2013.

The proposal saw almost no debate on the floor, with the only vocal opposition coming from Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, who said that he would follow the lead of Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who as governor a couple decades ago vetoed a similar bill because of the perceived inconvenience to senior citizens.

“We should not require our senior citizens to go stand in lines and endure additional hardships, absent some compelling reason,” said Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who voted against it. “And no such compelling reason has been given, nor can be given.”

The proposal follows up on the GOP’s push last year to require that all voters present a photo ID at the polls to cast their ballot. Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to repeal that requirement, arguing that not all voters have an ID with their picture on it.

Although the state’s new voter ID requirements were considered controversial, a statewide poll by Middle Tennessee State University found that four out of five Tennesseans are in favor of them, and only 285 voters, out of 620,000, reported having problems casting ballots because of the new law on Super Tuesday.

“I think a photo ID in this world today in 2012 is very important,” Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, the Senate’s transportation committee chairman, said last week. “You have to have photo ID to check into a hotel, photo ID to buy beer at a convenience store. To ship a UPS package you need to have photo ID, so I think it’s important to do that today.

The bill is estimated to cost state taxpayers $10,000 for computer programming to require photos on all licenses. The bill also means an influx of $98,000 in revenue a year from people who will have to pay an extra $2.50 to put a photo on their driver’s license.

According to the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, the bill is necessary to ensure that the state doesn’t have any laws that are in conflict — or, in lawmaker terms, competing.

Last year’s voter ID law could be seen as competing with the current driver’s license exemption for older residents, Sexton told the House Transportation Committee at a March 6 meeting. The purpose of the provision is to make sure all of the state’s laws are in compliance, he said, adding that Tennessee is the only state that has an age exemption for driver’s licenses.

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, argued the measure was well-intended but unnecessary.

“Why don’t we just let the seniors choose?” Stewart said. “The ones that want to vote, they can go get the license or they can go figure out a number of ways to accomplish that.”

The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Finance Subcommittee this week.

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NewsTracker

Harwell Squeezes Victory from Ramsey in Goat Milk-Off

In honor of “Ag Day on the Hill,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell faced off in a goat-milking contest Tuesday, with Harwell, a first-time milker, besting Ramsey, 700 ml to 350 ml.

Ramsey, who said that he grew up on a dairy farm, accused Harwell, a city-dweller, of cheating after watching House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent pour extra milk into the speaker’s bucket.

“You’ve never seen cold milk come out of goat before, that’s all I’ll say, ok,” Ramsey said after Harwell was presented with the award, a milk bucket inscribed to “the one person with a lot of pull on Capitol Hill.”

Although the milk-off usually involves cows, this year the Tennessee Farm Bureau chose to use goats because Tennessee is number two in the nation for production in the goat and sheep industry, said Pettus Read, bureau spokesman.

The event is intended to “highlight the importance of farming and forestry to the state of Tennessee,” according to a press release from the Department of Agriculture. The release identifies agriculture as an important Tennessee industry that boosts the state’s annual economy by $71 billion and provides jobs for nearly 364,000 people.

Prior to the milk-off, Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson thanked Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, for organizing the event, and read a proclamation from Gov. Bill Haslam, declaring that the General Assembly would celebrate Ag Day.

Agriculture plays an important part in Tennessee’s economy, representing nearly 78,000 farms and 10.9 million acres of land, and annually generating more than $3 billion in farm income and almost $1 billion in Agricultural exports, according to the proclamation.

“I think that the best thing that we can do is show that agriculture in Tennessee is such a huge industry, but it’s also a very diverse industry,” Holt said, and added that having “Ag Day” at the Capitol is a good way to showcase the positive side of agriculture to people who might only see the negative side.

Among the many booths set up for the event was one from the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Council. Soybeans have a myriad of uses, according to a pamphlet from the council, which include biodiesel, paint, plastics, pharmaceuticals, burgers, chips, and glue.

“Soybeans is one of the major crops for Tennessee, so our farmers are very interested in making sure that all the representatives stay aware of soybeans,” said Julie McKelvey, of the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Council, and added that the inheritance tax is also a big deal for many involved in agriculture.

Gov. Bill Haslam proposed at the beginning of this legislative session to raise the exemption for the inheritance tax from $1 million to $1.25 million, and, although leadership supports the exemption, the legislation hasn’t experienced much movement.

Raising the inheritance tax exemption is something that many involved in agriculture have reason to support, said Darrell Ailshie, general manager of the Livestock Marketing Group for the Tennessee Livestock Producers.

“Most farmers are not cash rich, but they have a lot of investment in the land, they have investment in equipment, and the ability to put that in the hands of another generation that continue to produce food and fiber for us is extremely important,” Ailshie said. “ And we just want our legislators to know that we’re behind them, and that we support the process in the repeal of this inheritance tax.”

Ag Day is important in Ailshie’s eyes, not only because of how important agriculture is to the state, but also because it gives those involved in agriculture an opportunity to share their important issues with lawmakers.

“Agriculture is a big business, and it’s an important business to everybody, not just the folks in the rural areas or the folks on the farm,” Ailshie said. “It affects the folks that live in downtown, our cities, and across the state, because we provide their food and fiber in the safest, most abundant manner that we possibly can.”