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UPDATED: Corker, Congress Vote to Poke the Bear

Updated Dec. 16, 1:25pm: The White House has indicated President Barack Obama intends to sign legislation unanimously approved by Congress to provide $350 million of “lethal aid” to Ukraine and impose further sanctions on Russia.

TNReport initially reported the legislation had passed the Senate, but hadn’t yet receive full congressional approval. However, on Dec. 11, new legislation — identical to the Senate bill — was introduced in the House of Representatives and was approved by the full House “without objection” later that day, according to Congress.gov. The Senate then approved the House bill on voice vote Dec. 13.

“Because the bill included loan guarantee provisions and thus, involved raising revenues, a new bill had to be introduced and passed in the House,” according to a press release from House sponsor Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Penn, who is also co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Monday urged Obama to sign the legislation, which he said would “underline our strong moral commitment to the cause of the Ukrainian people.”

Previous Post, Dec. 14, 8pm:

Tennessee’s junior senator, next in line to lead the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Republicans take control of the chamber in January, wants America more involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Bob Corker, the wealthy former Chattanooga mayor who came of military age during the Vietnam War but never served in the armed forces, is becoming one of the most influential voices in Congress on foreign policy.

His approach of late has been to favor American military interventions and involvement in overseas conflicts. With respect to the regional disharmony in Eastern Europe, he supports the United States sending “lethal aid” to the Ukrainian military in their battle against forces loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And with the Senate’s unanimous passage of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, the nation is one step closer to realizing Corker’s vision.

While the House has yet to vote on the Senate’s legislation — it was referred to committee Dec. 2, according to Congress.gov — last week a House resolution was passed “strongly condemning” the forcible annexation of the Crimean region by Russia, and calling for further sanctions on Russia and aid to Ukraine.  Only 10 representatives voted against the House resolution — five members of each party. Of Tennessee’s House delegation, only Republican Rep. John Duncan, TN-02, and Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, TN-05, voted against the measure.

The Senate’s Ukraine Freedom Support Act, passed on a voice vote Thursday, authorizes the offer of “lethal aid” to Ukraine, and includes sanctions on Roboronexport, a Russian state agency promoting defense and arms trade, and Gazprom, a major Russian state-controlled natural gas company.

The approved version of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, sponsored by Corker and outgoing Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was softened from its original form, which included further sanctions on Russia’s energy industry and designations for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as”major non-NATO allies.”

Russian officials have announced they “will not be able to leave this without a response.”

However, while Corker maintains the need for U.S. action to address Putin’s geopolitical overreach, he acknowledged the aid package won’t necessarily turn the tide for Ukraine.

“The lethal support to me is something that certainly is not going to mean that they would ever be able to stand up to Russia. It’s not going to happen. It raises the price, it shows a little bit of a deeper commitment,” Corker said while speaking about the Iranian nuclear program at a Foreign Policy Initiative conference sponsored by Raytheon, an American defense contractor and industrial corporation. The Foreign Policy Initiative is a non-profit think tank supporting U.S. global involvement, a strong military and the spread of democracy.

Corker added the best time for action would have been while the Russian president was preparing to invade Ukraine. But now, “we waited too long, the genie’s out of the bottle,” Corker said. “It’s very difficult to see how we don’t end up in a frozen conflict there.”

Putin is riding a “nationalistic wave” that he will likely “ride even harder” given Russia’s recent economic hardships, including the possibility of recession in 2015, said Corker.  According to a National Public Radio report from last week, Russia’s economy is taking big hits from Western sanctions, the ruble’s recent loss of value and falling oil prices.

When asked about how falling oil prices will effect Russia, Corker joked, “It’s actually much better than any of the sanctions we’ve put in place, right?”

Corker said at the conference he hopes the president will follow congressional lead, because of the legislation’s strong bipartisan support and unanimous approval by the Senate committee.

During Putin’s December 4 “State of the Nation” speech, he denounced Western nations for attacks on the Russian Federation, and alleged Russia’s opponents will find any excuse to impose sanctions on the Eurasian nation.

And in September, Putin called on military leaders to update the nation’s military doctrine to meet changing global politics and military challenges, such as the Syrian civil war and the Ukrainian conflict.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Army announced it would be deploying 100 armored vehicles across Eastern Europe in an effort to deter further “Russian aggression.”

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TN Military Department Focused on Energy Conservation

The spigot of funds the federal government has been pouring into state-level armed forces readiness since the attacks of 9/11 has been ebbing, and that presents challenges for the Tennessee Military Department, the agency’s commanding officer told Gov. Bill Haslam during budget hearings recently.

But Maj. Gen. Max Haston said his department is capable of doing more with less.

“Overall sir, our goals are designed to increase efficiency and effectiveness while providing the state with an invaluable response force and a management team that’s always focused on return on the investment, value added,” Haston said.

Since a high of $43 million in 2003, the state’s annual federal “homeland security” funds have shrunk to $3.9 million in 2014.

State funds only make up 22 percent of the department’s total $69.3 million budget request, or $15.8 million. Federal funding amounts to $51.2 million, and the additional $2.3 million comes from interdepartmental revenue.

tennessee military department logoThe military department oversees the Tennessee Army and Air National Guard, as well as the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

The Volunteer State’s current National Guard force of around 14,000 is comprised of 10,668 guardsmen and about 3,450 in the Air Guard. The peak of Tennessee’s guard deployment was in 2005-06, when more than 50 percent of the state’s forces were deployed, Haston said. Currently there are 467 army and 69 air guardsmen from Tennessee deployed as part of the U.S. fighting forces in Afghanistan, he said.

The Tennessee departments of Veterans Affairs and Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services announced in September “the number of suicides by veterans increased from 197 in 2012 to 214 in 2013.” And in October, a Pentagon medical statistics journal showed suicides –taking the lives of three out of 10 servicemembers — replaced “war” as the leading means of death for American troops in 2012 and 2013.

Haston said five years ago his department began outreach to soldiers to help fill “the gap” in post-deployment counseling, with which they have helped more than 600 current and former servicemembers and family receive since 2013. Haston added more than 80 guard members  have been talked down from hurting themselves since the department partnered with the Jason Foundation in 2011 for the “Guard Your Buddy” program.

Additionally, the partnership with Dollar General — “Paychecks for Patriots” — has put more than 3,000 people to work, and “continues to grow every day,” Haston said.

TEMA head David Purkey said less funding means less training and equipment for his agency. All federal funds are being used to sustain current operations, and the agency is “struggling with that,” Purkey said. Because “all state funding for TEMA goes to match federal programs” — which have increased 8.5 percent over the past 5 years — cutting state funds will cut federal funds, he added.

TEMA held 17 state-level exercises in 2014 with 2,730 participants from local, state and federal partners, including an active shooter event at TVA’s Sequoyah Nuclear Plant that was completed with “no deficiencies,” Haston said. The agency also instructed more than 7,852 students in 430 training classes, including hazmat, search and rescue and tracking classes, he said.

Although sequestration cuts and reduced periods for federal grants are challenges for them, department training won’t be immediately impacted, though they will have “to be creative in our training,” Haston said. The department invested in a lot of “simulations” in the past, so units can receive adequate training without adding travel and other associated training costs, he said.

Given the levels of federal funding, as well as cost-shared activities, Haston said he had to be specific about where cuts are made, and the department’s 7 percent reduction plan is focused on expenses in facility maintenance and supplies, and also in armory utilities.

Utility costs are the department’s greatest expense, Haston said. This year they’ve created a new checklist for administrative officers to use while inspecting facilities to ensure they’re meeting standards, he added. He said the department has decreased electricity use by 19 percent over the past four years, and is continuing to look for ways to improve energy efficiency.

The Army Aviation move from Smyrna to Berry Field is about 20 percent complete and will help the department’s energy efficiency goals, Haston said.

Additionally, Haston informed Haslam he’s requested federal permission to use the Air Guard’s Cyber Security Squadron to help provide cyber security for Tennessee, which he said would be better than an outside agency. “It’s a tool in the governor’s tool box, I think we need to be able to use it.”

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Press Releases

Tracy: Senate Should Say ‘No’ to Obama on Syria Force Request

Press release from the Jim Tracy Campaign for U.S. Senate; September 4, 2013:

Murfreesboro, TN-Republican 4th district candidate Jim Tracy stated Wednesday that President Obama’s lack of a strategic plan for military force in Syria should result in a no vote.

“Based on what I have seen, I do not believe the President has outlined a compelling case or a coherent objective to Congress in his request for authorization to use military force in Syria,” said Tracy.

“There is no doubt the Assad regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons is unacceptable and that his growing dependence on Iran is a threat to stability in the Middle East. But President Obama’s weak and ineffective approach over the last few years in this part of the world continues to weaken our nation’s stature overseas,” said Tracy. “That weakened stature is why Assad ignored President Obama in the first place. The President “leads” from behind and when he inches toward action, he does so without a clear sense of purpose or an attainable conclusion. This administration, at this point in time, cannot be trusted with an authorization of military force in Syria. Congress should reject the President’s ill-conceived, ill-timed request.”

To learn more about Jim Tracy visit www.tracyfortn.com

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Press Releases

Corker Supports Foreign Relations Committee Resolution for Limited Force in Syria

Press release from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee;

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, today made the following statement regarding committee passage of a limited authorization for the use of military force in Syria.

“None of us want the U.S. mired down in another conflict, so the committee has significantly limited the president’s original authorization, while still providing for an appropriate use of force in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It prevents boots on the ground, limits the duration of any military action, and requires a progress report on the administration’s overall Syria policy,” said Corker. “As we now move to the full Senate, the American people deserve a full and open debate about U.S. interests in Syria.”

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New TN Vet Appreciation Effort Allows Voting ‘in Honor’ of Military Service

In time for Election Day, the Tennessee Secretary of State has unveiled a program that allows voters to honor current and former members of the military as they cast their ballot.

It’s called the Tennessee Honor Vote program. Those who pledge to vote in the upcoming election can name a member of the military on the Secretary of State’s website alongside their own name and declare that they will be voting in honor of that service member.

“We developed it, set up a website where people can go and log and name the soldier,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. “They can put their years of service, what branch they served in, even put a message in, in honor or in memory of that soldier.”

Many have left messages. These can be viewed on the site, allowing Tennesseans to get a glimpse of the sacrifices that veterans have made — and see the pain and patience of those left at home.

For example, the website shows that Pamela Ann Bently, a voter from Greeneville, is honoring Capt. Jackson Dale Blankenship.

She writes:

Jackson was deployed to Afghanistan during the deadliest year of the war 2010,where he was a combat platoon leader. He received an impact Army Achievement medal for his efforts during Operation Hell’s needle in the Surkagen Valley in September 2010. Jackson has received 2 Commendation medals for service, one for Afghanistan and one for Germany. He is currently training, preparing to take Company command. He has also held rank as a battalion staff primary. Jackson risked his life to save 3 wounded soldiers. He dragged them from a tank after an IED bomb went off under them.

Army serviceman Ryan Christopher Smith is being honored by Angela Beverly, of Pleasant View. She tells how difficult being deployed can be on a family.

Has served three tours in the Middle East. Sacrificed family time. 1st tour occurred two weeks after the birth of his 1st child, Emma. He moved to Tennessee from Ohio. His second tour occurred when his daughter had just turned three. His wife, a doctor doing her residency at Vanderbilt, cared for Emma on her own. The closest family was 7 hours away. He was able to return right before Christmas. The last tour is scheduled within the next three weeks. He now has a 7 month old son as well.

And it’s not just veterans from the conflicts in the Middle East. The site shows many honoring veterans from every branch of the service and many who served in peacetime, the Cold War, as well as World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Barbara Johnston Skelton, of Church Hill, wrote that she was casting her ballot in honor of Navy Captain Charles E. Johnston, M.D.:

Served 3 tours in Vietnam as medical officer for a marine unit. He told us that everyone in the unit had 2 Purple Heart citations. They all refused the third because they would be sent home if they took a third. He said they went over as a unit and they were coming home as a unit.

Hargett said he was surprised that the site has become so popular so quickly.

As of Wednesday morning, 2,400 Tennesseans had pledged to cast a vote in honor of a veteran or current member of the armed forces, according to the Tennessee Honor Vote website.

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Press Releases

TN to Allow Benefits for Military Spouses Unemployed Due to Post Transfers

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development; August 10, 2012: 

Tennessee Becomes 40th State to Allow Benefits for Trailing Spouses

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Commissioner of Labor & Workforce Development Karla Davis is announcing changes to unemployment laws that allow a spouse of military personnel facing a military transfer to collect unemployment benefits if they quit their job. In most cases voluntarily quitting a job makes an applicant ineligible for unemployment benefits.

“This expansion of eligibility for unemployment is the right thing to do in supporting Tennessee’s military families whom are often affected by military transfers,” said Labor Commissioner Karla Davis. “Lawmakers and the Governor have created this temporary assistance and protected employers from additional tax burdens, which is ideal for everyone involved.” Typically employers pay higher taxes when they lay off a worker and unemployment insurance is approved.

The bill that was sponsored by Senator Tim Barnes and state Representative Joe Pitts of Clarksville was signed by Governor Haslam in April, but $278,800 in appropriations for the measure became available to claimants in July.

“The Governor’s support of this bill shows that Tennesseans truly care about our military families,” State Representative Joe Pitts said. “This is a tangible way to show our support and gratitude to our veterans, and I’m humbled to have the opportunity to do so.”

“With the passage of unemployment benefits for military spouses, Tennessee became the twelfth state in the nation to attain all of the Department of Defense’s desired outcomes regarding military spouses,” said Sen. Barnes. “I am proud that Tennessee is leading the way in showing how our military families should be treated.”

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development projects more than 70 families could take advantage of the benefits during this fiscal year. Funding for these benefits is paid from the state’s General Fund rather than from the state’s unemployment trust fund.

The only exception to the new eligibility laws are assignments outside the United States, Canada, or any United States territory. Federal law prohibits the payment of unemployment benefits to claimants outside these areas.

Claims can be filed on the Internet at www.tn.gov/labor-wfd or by the phone. A dedicated phone line has been established to take initial claims for military spouses. The number is 1-866-331-1271 ext 7590.

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False Claims About Military Service Criminalized Under Bill

A guy could soon face steep penalties for attempting to impress women in bars with bogus claims of combat heroism following the Senate’s passage Monday of a bill that criminalizes impersonating military personnel.

The measure, HB2491/SB2287, makes it a Class B misdemeanor to falsely represent yourself as a military service-member with the intent to deceive — whether or not any benefit is received. The offense would carry a fine of up to $500, as well as the possibility of six months in jail.

The bill passed the Senate easily, 33-0, and the House almost as easily on Feb. 16, 93-2, with Knoxville Republicans Rep. Bill Dunn and Sen. Becky Massey, neither of whom are veterans, sponsoring the measure.

“You know, there are people going into bars, and trying to get free drinks by passing themselves off as military people,” Dunn said. “And once again, they’re stealing something that others rightfully earned by putting their lives on the line.”

Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, one of only two that opposed the measure in the House, said that it can go both ways, and she was concerned that it might unintentionally make things more difficult for veterans.

“As a matter of fact, I had a vet come up to me right after that vote and say, ‘Thank you so much for voting no for that, because I’d hate to have to prove to everybody in the world that I was a member of the armed forces,’” Butt said. “So you can look at that both ways, and I thought that was just a slippery vote right there.”

However, individuals won’t to come to the attention of law enforcement unless they are turned in, and the burden of proof would rest on the accusers, according to Dunn.

Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, the other opposing vote, said that he thought the bill went further than necessary.

“If you lie to commit fraud and harm someone, that’s one thing,” Kernell said. “What if we had a bill that simply said it’s a misdemeanor to lie? I don’t think the courts would uphold that, so I think the bill needs to be written differently.”

Next, the bill heads to the governor’s desk for his approval.

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Haslam Salutes State Workers Who Served in Armed Forces

Gov. Bill Haslam told a gathering Monday honoring veterans that the reason he was chosen to visit Iraq and Afghanistan this summer was because Tennessee has one of the strongest contingents of military service personnel in the country.

Haslam spoke at an event on the plaza of the Tennessee Tower in a ceremony that honored a group of state employees who are also veterans. New employees as well as some of the longest-serving employees of the state were among those recognized with certificates.

Veterans Day is Friday.

Haslam said that even though Tennessee is the 17th largest state, it has one of the highest rates of military service in the country.

He went to Iraq and Afghanistan with the governors of Nevada, Kentucky and Utah.

“We were all feeling kind of special. We were on this military jet. They were taking care of us,” Haslam said. “Finally somebody said, ‘How did you pick the four of us to go on this trip?'”

He said they were told it was because their states represented more service members per capita than other states.

“They didn’t invite us because of who we are but because of the positions that we have,” Haslam said. “I got to go somewhere I didn’t deserve because of something other people had done.”

Haslam told the crowd that they all got to enjoy Monday’s event on a warm, sunny day in Nashville “because of other less desirable places — muddy battlefields in Europe, battleships in the Pacific and hot, hot deserts in the Middle East. I could go on and on.”

Major Gen. Mike Maloan, deputy commander of the Tennessee National Guard, talked about the state’s long history of military service, dating back to 1780, before Tennessee was a state, when Col. John Sevier, who would become Gov. John Sevier, made a call to arms to fight against the British, who were defeated in the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Many-Bears Grinder, a Bronze Star Medal recipient and a veteran of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, spoke to the crowd. Haslam noted that Grinder has also lost a child in military duty.

First Lady Crissy Haslam read the records of the employees who were honored. The program’s moderator, Yvette Martinez, a press aide to Haslam, is a former Marine.

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Press Releases

Senate Dems Weekly Update, Week of April 24-29

Press Release from the Senate Democratic Caucus, April 29

Storm Damage Relief

This week’s storms and tornadoes have left 34 people dead in Tennessee, over 100 homes damaged or destroyed, and thousands more without power, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA). Reports of injuries and damages are still coming in, and residents who need assistance are encouraged to contact TEMA by dialing 2-1-1. This line is also available for those would like to volunteer goods, service, or money to aid the relief effort. TEMA strongly suggests that everyone use extreme caution in flooded areas, especially when driving.

Regressive Education Measures

Senate Bill 113, the bill that would abolish the ability of teachers to bargain collectively with school boards, was once again delayed on the Senate floor because of a new amendment that makes significant changes to the bill. As amended, SB113 would require all local school boards to create a personnel policy manual in which teachers, community members and others can submit input for changes. However, it does not guarantee changes will be included. As amended, the bill still repeals the Education Professional Negotiations Act that guarantees teachers collective bargaining rights.

Preserving Military Medals

Senate Bill 572, a bill sponsored by Senator Andy Berke that would preserve unclaimed military medals, passed 7-0 through a Senate committee Tuesday. This bill would require the state treasurer to hold any abandoned military medal until the owner or the proper beneficiaries could be identified for the return of the medal.

“Veterans’ medals are timeless treasures that should never be sold or auctioned,” Berke said. “This bill would ensure that they are given the respect they deserve and are returned to their rightful owners.”

The Senate State and Local Government Committee passed the bill, which will now go to the Senate floor. The House version of the bill awaits a hearing in the Calendar and Rules Committee.

Democratic Response to ECD Shakeup

On Thursday, Chairman Lowe Finney and Democratic House Leader Craig Fitzhugh responded to Governor Bill Haslam’s announcement concerning the restructuring of the Department of Economic and Community Development that will shift focus away from attracting jobs from outside of Tennessee in favor of growing jobs with in-state companies. They highlighted the fact that Governor Phil Bredesen’s efforts brought over 200,000 jobs and $34 billion in economic development to Tennessee, and that to shift the focus of the department now sends the wrong message. The full Commercial Appeal op-ed can be found online here.

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Press Releases

Sens. Finney, Barnes Support Unemployment Benefits For Military Spouces

Press Release from state Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, and Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, March 9, 2010:

Bill would support veterans’ families

NASHVILLE – Sen. Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) and Sen. Tim Barnes (D-Adams) want to help Tennessee military families by extending unemployment benefits to individuals who leave their jobs to accompany their spouses on a military transfer.

“The military families in my district move in and out so much that many spouses are constantly on the job search,” Barnes said. “We must help our military families in those times between jobs, so that they can continue to provide for their children.”

The bill (SB3213/HB3449) would require the state to pay unemployment benefits for those who left their jobs as a result of a spouse’s military transfer. About 2,300 Tennessee military spouses are employed and have to transfer each year.

Kansas enacted a similar law and processed 67 such unemployment claims in 2007. Tennessee would likely see about 100 unemployment claims from military spouses each year, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, resulting in an estimated cost of about $365,400.

“This bill isn’t going to break the bank, and it certainly will mean a lot to military families who already sacrifice so much to serve our state and our country,” Finney said.

The bill passed a Senate committee Tuesday. The House version of the bill is in subcommittee. The text of the bill can be found here.