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Kelsey Files Bill to Offer ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ with a Local Control Provision

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; January 16, 2015:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), January 16, 2015  – State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), filed legislation yesterday afternoon to create Opportunity Scholarships with a new “Local Control” provision. Senate Bill 122 mirrors Gov. Haslam’s “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” that passed the Senate last year with the addition of a new “Local Control” provision.

“All children deserve the chance for a quality education,” said Sen. Kelsey.  “This bill will focus on low-income children but will give local school boards more control in how to best design the scholarships for their students.”

As in the governor’s bill, Opportunity Scholarships of roughly $6,500 would be offered to low-income students to attend the school of their parents’ choice. The scholarships would be offered to all students eligible for free and reduced price lunch in schools performing in the bottom 5% of schools in the state. Free and reduced price lunch is offered to families making up to $44,000 annually for a family of four.

The scholarship program would be capped at 5,000 students in year one, 7,500 in year two, 10,000 in year three, and 20,000 in year four and thereafter.   If those caps are not reached each year, scholarships would be offered to other low-income children in those counties in which a school in the bottom 5% of schools is located.

The new local control provision would allow any local school board and county commission to opt into the program if it wants to. Local control would include the option to waive the low-income requirement. The “Local Control” provision could help residents in fast-growing counties save millions in property taxes. Rather than building a new $25 million school every two years, counties could instead send some new students into the Opportunity Scholarship program. A recent study by the Friedman Foundation estimates the bill could save Williamson County $319 million over the next five years and prevent a potential property tax rate hike of 6 to 7%.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” added Kelsey, who first introduced the idea in the Tennessee legislature ten years ago.

Last year, the bill passed the Senate as well as the House Education Committee before getting stuck in the House Finance Committee. New committee assignments for the next two years will be announced in the General Assembly tomorrow.

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown.  He served as a member of the Senate Education Committee and as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the last General Assembly.

House Limits Local Authority on Wage-Setting Mandates

Despite a rather testy exchange between the two parties’ caucus chairs about the “Tennessee Wage Protection Act” on the House floor Thursday, the bill passed 66-27-1 and heads for the Senate committee process beginning next week.

The chamber’s approval moves House Bill 501 one stop closer to ending a four-year battle to prohibit cities and counties from setting wages, family leave and insurance benefits that private businesses must offer employees as a condition of obtaining local-government contracts or operating in the jurisdiction.

“These are issues best left up to the state and federal governments, not local government,” Republican Caucus Chair Glen Casada said.

If the bill becomes law, it would nullify regulations passed in Nashville and Shelby County requiring businesses contracting with those governments to offer a certain level of wages and benefits to employees.

“Once again we have a piece of legislation that will tie the hands of the local government. You are preventing them from being able to negotiate good contracts,” said Democratic Rep. Larry Miller, whose amendment to exempt his home of Memphis and Shelby County was tabled.

The issue of prevailing wages brought Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner to the floor. He grilled Casada on whether he knew what a prevailing wage was, and a touchy back and forth ensued.

According to the bill, when awarding contracts local governments cannot “require a prevailing wage be paid in excess of the wages established by the prevailing wage commission for state highway construction projects in accordance with title (state law) or the Tennessee occupational wages prepared annually by the department of labor and workforce development, employment security division, labor market information for state building projects.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of Memphis, questioned the differences in the costs of living in Shelby County and Crockett County, population 14,500, and suggested the local officials there know what’s best for their workers.

Casada fired back: “If a local government, and I’m not going to use any names, mandates 30 bucks an hour for a construction job, that drives up the cost of that construction, and it causes that entity go further in debt. In turn, that causes taxes to go up on the taxpayers of that community. This bill is an attempt to stop that.”

Parkinson complained of the hypocrisy he perceives in the Republican-run Legislature dictating mandates on local governments when often GOP lawmakers criticize federal intervention in state affairs.

“When the federal government puts things on us that take away personal freedom or economic freedom, that’s wrong,” Casada replied. “When local government does the same invasion on local folks, it’s up to us to protect the citizens of the state.”

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick got in the last word before the vote. Decisions made by local governments reach beyond their jurisdictional boundaries, he said.

“Big cities affect the whole state. They don’t just affect their city limits,” the fifth-term Republican from Hixson said. “They are economic generators for the surrounding counties. That alone is reason enough not to let them set up some little people’s republic in some city in the state of Tennessee.”

The vote went mostly along partisan lines. Republicans siding with Democrats against the bill included Mark Pody of Lebanon and David Alexander of Winchester. Joining them was Kent Williams, an independent. Charles Curtiss of Sparta was the only Democrat to vote in favor of HB501.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667. 

Unpleasantness Mounting for Community with Sewer Problems

If something smells funny in Mt. Pleasant, it could be the faulty $8 million sewer lagoon — which promises to ding taxpayers twice as the city asks for state assistance to pay for it.

The (Columbia) Daily Herald reports Mt. Pleasant officials have asked for state aid in paying off the loan on the wastewater lagoon, whose poor performance has spurred environmental fines. Local and state officials met earlier this week, and state Sen. Bill Ketron tells the Herald that options include freezing payments owed by the city.

Ketron said officials hope to hear back within 60 days on whether the city will receive assistance. He said much of the meeting focused on an engineer describing the problems the city was having with its wastewater lagoon.

Mt. Pleasant has been plagued by sewage overflows and an aging wastewater system.

The town hoped to address those problems with a multimillion-dollar lagoon system.

Ketron said (the state Department of Environment and Conservation) is threatening to fine the city because of problems with the lagoon, even though the department approved plans for the lagoon system.

Memphis Charter Schools Face Uncharted Waters

Amid the uncertainties surrounding the proposed merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems is the question of what would happen to the city’s 25 charter schools.

The answer changes depending on who you talk to.

It would be up to the county school board to decide the future of those charter schools contracted with Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken said.

“Our understanding of the laws as they exist today is if the city school board goes out of business due to the referendum … then that would become a decision of our board, the existing Shelby County School Board, and they would have to make that determination in terms of the charter schools,” he told TNReport.

But Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat and the Senate Education Committee’s vice-chairman, struck a more hopeful note — saying that in the event of a merger, there’s a chance nothing would dramatically change with existing charter schools.

Those schools would likely have to meet with Shelby County officials and may have to tweak some terms of their contracts with the school district, but the issue of their continued operations shouldn’t automatically or necessarily be jeopardized, he said.

According to Tennessee state law, a charter school can be discontinued for only three reasons: violating the conditions, standards or procedures of the charter agreement; failing to meet adequate yearly progress towards achievement; or failing to meet financial standards of operation.

While the language suggests the charter schools would continue to function, the Tennessee Department of Education wouldn’t comment on whether those guidelines mean that Shelby County Schools would have to accept the schools in the event Memphis ultimately hands over the school system.

“The state wants to ensure the least amount of disruption for students and staff,” Department of Education spokeswoman Amanda Maynord Anderson said in an e-mailed statement. “Obviously, we are anticipating the plan forthcoming from Shelby and Memphis. It is our hope the plan will lay out the best course of action for all involved.”

Voters in Memphis will go to the polls March 8 to decide whether the 103,000-student Memphis City Schools will merge with Shelby County Schools, home to 47,000 students.

The already touchy issue heated up this week when Gov. Bill Haslam and Acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith directed local schools officials to submit a plan for the merger’s transition and for how teachers would be affected.

Charter school backers say the schools would remain intact regardless of any changes to the district structure, but have noticed that nervous parents and teachers are already considering applying to new schools.

“It’s difficult enough to run these schools in these environments without having these politics chasing them around,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association. “These schools need to not focus on politics but on academics.”

Sen. Mark Norris, who is spearheading an effort to delay the potential takeover by two and a half years with a piece of legislation that zipped through the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, said he isn’t sure exactly that the future holds for the charter schools.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Norris. “I mean, in the final analysis, there may be some need to renegotiate the contracts given some of the financial realities, but I don’t know enough about the contracts or how they interact to really say.”

The drama surrounding the merger began late last year when the Memphis City School Board decided to dissolve the school district in hopes to merge with Shelby County. Since then, the situation has been in constant flux and is now heading to Memphis voters in a referendum.

Norris’ bill calls for the two school districts to develop a comprehensive transition plan with the help of a state-appointed commission before the actual merger could take place. Under the plan, the districts could merge no earlier than 2013.

Some Democrats are criticizing the plan, saying it represents an unwanted state government attempt to butt in on a local issue. The transition plan and its timeline should be left to the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, they say.

“It seems to me that I’ve listened for the last several years to people complaining about Washington controlling us. And here we are, Nashville, trying to control Memphis. That’s a serious issue,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, just moments before a party-line 6-3 vote of Republicans approving the legislation.

The measure will go before the House Education Committee Thursday and is expected to be voted on in the House and Senate chambers Monday.

McWherter, Haslam Denounce Mosque Fire, Laud Zoning

Both major party candidates for Tennessee governor denounced the burning of construction equipment at the site of a new mosque in Murfreesboro over the weekend.

And both also reiterated earlier statements that local zoning officials should decide if and where controversial building occurs.

Candidates Mike McWherter, a Democrat, and Bill Haslam, a Republican, addressed the issue Tuesday night at a “Student Town Hall” forum sponsored by Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte.

Asked how “as governor (he) would balance freedom of religion with concerns about security,” McWherter said that while he’s a “huge proponent of religious freedom” he “understand(s) the constraints and problems you have when you locate an institution like that inside of a quiet neighborhood.”

“As a community you ought to be able to have some zoning restrictions, and make sure that the house you bought is something that you can continue to resell, and will not disturb your neighborhood,” he continued.

McWherter, a businessman from Jackson, went on to denounce the perpetrators of the crime, calling it an “atrocity.”

Responding to a question from a reporter outside the forum later, Haslam took a similar tack.

“No one should condone what’s just happened, OK. It’s just not acceptable in any way, and those folks should be found and appropriately punished,” said the Knoxville mayor.

On the issue of whether the mosque should be built, Haslam said it is a “local land-use issue.”

“As somebody who has been a mayor, I didn’t want the state or federal government telling us what to do,” he said. “That’s where you follow constitutional guidelines and local land-use planning and you let the local land-use people decide.”

Federal law enforcement agencies are investigating the setting ablaze of a piece of earth-moving equipment in the early morning hours of Aug. 28 at the location of a proposed 52,000-square-foot Islamic religious center in Rutherford County.

A local FBI official was quoted by CNN as saying that while the the cause of the fire is believed to have been arson, “We have no reason to think it’s a hate crime.”

A statement issued by an Islamic Center of Murfreesboro spokewoman Monday declared “we feel heartbroken that we have been a victim of yet another shameful crime, however, we are grateful to the majority members of this community who expressed their support.”

“We believe that this event was instigated by the hate campaign that our Muslim community has been subjected to recently,” the release continued.

Bredesen’s Restaurant Menu Veto Could Be Toast

The Tennessee Senate voted 24-7 to set aside Gov. Phil Bredesen’s veto of a bill prohibiting local health boards from mandating that restaurants provide caloric information on their menus.

The veto override has yet to pass the House of Representatives, where the original bill the governor vetoed passed 79-12 last year.

The bill the General Assembly approved last summer was a response to a push by the Metro Davidson County Board of Health to require that chain restaurants count calories in the products they sell and make that information available on their menus.

In his statement explaining the veto, Bredesen wrote, “Providing consumers with accurate, easy to understand nutritional information about the content of the food they are purchasing is a common-sense measure that could help Tennessee address its obesity epidemic.”

Fans of the bill say the legislation is necessary to prevent a patchwork of differing regulations and levels of enforcement across Tennessee that in the end could bite into already struggling local economies.

“If all these small health departments or agencies across the state were to be making those decisions, then we would have a mixture of what is required,” said Diane Black, R-Gallatin. “However, if a local elected body makes that decision, then that would be at least an opportunity for those who are being impacted by this legislation to address those folks and to also hold them accountable for what they do on a local basis. But again, this is non-elected bodies that we’re talking about here. Not elected bodies.”

Jim Kyle, the Senate Democratic minority leader and a candidate for governor, was one of the seven voting against the override. He ridiculed what he described as an effort by the Legislature to undermine local government authority.

“This isn’t about menus. This isn’t about food. This isn’t about health,” said Kyle. “This is about respecting elected local officials making the decision in their local community for their constituents. This is preempting local government. I find it amazing those who have railed at the federal government about preempting state government would come and support preempting local government by state government.”

Kyle was one of only three senators who voted against the original bill last summer. No Republicans opposed the override or the legislation when it passed last year.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he understands Kyle’s argument but believes the legislation will help rein in run-away bureaucracies (see video above).

A study released last fall by the journal Health Affairs questioned whether calorie labels on fast food menus actually influence people’s decision making about the foods they order.

“We found that 27.7 percent who saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices,” reported the team of New York University researchers. “However, we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling. We encourage more research on menu labeling and greater attention to evaluating and implementing other obesity-related policies.”

Mark Todd Engler can be reached at markengler@tnreport.com.

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report. She can be reached at andreazelinski@tnreport.com.