Education Featured Liberty and Justice News NewsTracker

Prayer-Around-the-Flagpole Bill Passes Senate

Tennessee senators gave nearly unanimous support Thursday to legislation allowing teachers to participate in student-initiated religious activities on school grounds before or after the instructional day.

The House version of the bill passed several weeks ago with all ayes. Now it heads to the governor’s desk.

Dickson Republican Jim Summerville, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said the bill is probably redundant, adding “superfluous language” to the code, and that it simply affirms teachers’ First Amendment rights.

Rep. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, brought the bill in response to restrictions imposed by the Cheatham County Board of Education after it reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. In its lawsuit, the ACLU said a planned prayer had taken place at a graduation ceremony and that Gideons International had been allowed to distribute Bibles during classes.

An attorney who represented the school board in that case has said that this bill, and others like it, would change nothing about that agreement.

In the Senate Thursday, the lone nay came from Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis. Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, was in the chamber but declined to vote either way. Whether the bill makes any significant change to the current law, Marrero said her vote was a matter of principle.

“I really do believe that we should take our children to the religious institution of our choice on Sunday and that we should guide them in religious instruction in their home,” she said. “But I don’t think that our teachers should be involved in religious instruction of our children.”

Marrero also expressed concern for students who might feel left out if  teachers aligns themselves with students of a certain denomination or religion.

ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg told TNReport in an email that the bill was “unnecessary, overreaching and irresponsible.”

“County school boards are charged with ensuring that students from all faiths can make religious decisions with their families and faith communities, free from fear of coercion by school officials,” she said. “Under the First Amendment, public school staff already have the right to practice their religion, so long as they do it in a way that does not influence students. Therefore, the only purpose for this bill is to open a door to allow school personnel to practice religion in a way that does influence students.”

Weinberg also cited another Tennessee case, Doe v. Wilson County School System, in which Judge Robert Echols wrote, of a National Day of Prayer event, that “young students and their parents understandably could have thought that the teachers and school principal were present as representatives of the school and as such their actions were an endorsement of the religious event.”

Summerville, however, reiterated the bill’s language, which states that such activities must be initiated by students and must not conflict with the “responsibilities or assignments” of school personnel.

Business and Economy Featured News

Lawmakers, Haslam Sideline Talk of Gas Tax Increase

Lawmakers have mulled for years whether to restructure gasoline taxes to make up for consumer shifts to fuel-efficient vehicles, but the House Transportation Committee chairman says there’s little desire to tackle that right now.

“There’s no political will for a gas tax increase when you’re dealing with gas over $3 a gallon,” said Chairman Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, adding options could include charging drivers a tax based on their mileage.

“It’s just a matter of coming out with something that will have enough votes to pass. There just really hasn’t been any particular solution or idea we’ve come to agreement on,” he said.

Gas collections that fund state transportation will eventually stall out, Tennessee Department of Transportation officials warned earlier this month, although Gov. Bill Haslam has ruled out reconfiguring the gas tax for at least two years.

“We’re not close to proposing a change on that, but I think all of us can look and say logically there’s no way 10 years from now we’re doing it the same way we are now,” Haslam said last week.

“It will not be something we propose doing this year and probably not next,” he said.

At a budget hearing this month, TDOT officials said that the state will need to figure out how else to fund the department amid rising costs to fix roads as gas tax collections continue to stagnate as they did this past year.

Tennessee taxes gasoline at 21.4 cents a gallon, which ranks among some of the lowest rates in the nation. The feds tax gas at 18.4 cents per gallon, for a total rate in Tennessee of 39.8 cents.

Last year the state collected $606 million in gasoline taxes, slightly up from $601 million the year before. Back in 2008, just before the recession settled in, the state collected $622 million in gasoline taxes.

About 40 percent of those dollars are siphoned off for cities and counties or deposited into the state’s general fund. The remaining $255 million last year stayed with TDOT, although state officials said they didn’t know exactly how much is directed to road projects versus non-road or administrative costs, saying the dollars are used throughout the department.

TDOT officials are proposing an $800 million state budget for next year, an 8 percent decrease from last year.

Tennessee roads are consistently rated by truckers and industry experts as among the best in the nation, according to Overdrive Magazine and the Asphalt Pavement Alliance.

Although the governor says he’s not focused on addressing the gas tax now, any conversation down the road should include ensuring the user tax on gas is spent on roads instead of giving it away to non-road projects, according to one key interest group.

“The state fuel tax is a user fee. Meanwhile, we’re seeing the growth in that slow down. It’s the only mechanism we have,” said Kent Starwalt, executive vice president of the Tennessee Road Builders Association.

The association has supported efforts in the General Assembly to find a dedicated funding source for mass transit like light rail. But until that happens, the gas tax “is the only mechanism we have,” Starwalt said.

The declining use of gasoline is a “big, big issue” in Tennessee and the country, Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said during his department’s budget hearing.

Gas tax collections have been flat if not down slightly, said Schroer. Some of that is due to the recession, but it’s also indicative of drivers shifting to more fuel-efficient vehicles, he said.

“The trend for us is going the wrong direction as far as the amount of money we will see. We will, I think, in my opinion, continue to see less and less as we go along,” said Schroer, who said his office has spoken to legislative leaders on both the House and Senate transportation committees.

“The issue is it costs more and more to do what we’re doing, and we have more capacity, and we have an older, deteriorating infrastructure that gets more expensive to fix every single year,” he said. “It is an issue that not only we as a state are going to have to address but nationally we have to address it as well.”

Press Releases

AG Opines On Former Clarksville Mayor’s Hiring as CDE Lightband Superintendent

Press Release from Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams; March 25, 2011:


NASHVILLE – State Senator Tim Barnes and fellow members of the Montgomery

County Delegation received a supplemental opinion from Attorney General Robert Cooper on Friday regarding former Clarksville mayor Johnny Piper’s hiring as superintendent of CDE Lightband.

The opinion states that the power board may not be legally composed if it was formed under a 1935 state law creating municipal power boards, but it also states that the AG’s office does not have sufficient information to determine if that is the case.

At the time of Piper’s hiring, the CDE Lightband board was composed of seven members – all Piper appointees – who were to serve three-year terms, as laid out in the Clarksville charter. The state law provides for a different composition than the requirements in the Clarksville charter.

The opinion also addressed a request regarding how to bring the board into compliance, should it be found to be improperly composed. The opinion states that neither the 1935 state law nor the charter provides such a remedy.

Cooper earlier opined that the 1935 state law supersedes a Clarksville city law prohibiting elected officials from interviewing for a local department head position for one year after leaving office. Piper accepted the $140,000 superintendent job days before his mayoral term expired on Dec. 31, 2010.

Barnes, State Representatives Curtis Johnson, Joe Pitts, and Phillip Johnson

requested the supplemental AG opinion on behalf of current Clarksville mayor Kim McMillan.

Press Releases

Montgomery Co. Lawmakers Ask AG for Opinion on Johnny Piper Hire

Press Release from Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, Jan 13, 2011:

Former Clarksville mayor takes $140,000 job as utility superintendent

NASHVILLE – State lawmakers representing Montgomery County have requested an opinion from Attorney General Bob Cooper concerning former Clarksville mayor Johnny Piper’s hiring as superintendent of CDE Lightband, a $140,000 job that he accepted while still mayor of the city.

“Clearly there are questions here that need answers: legal questions, governing questions, and most important, ethical questions,” State Senator Tim Barnes said. “When an elected official agrees to take a six-figure government job while still in office, there should be all kinds of questions.”

Barnes, State Representatives Joe Pitts, Curtis Johnson and Phillip Johnson issued the request Thursday on behalf of current Clarksville mayor Kim McMillan. The request asks the AG whether the city can impose the same ethics regulations on CDE that it imposes on other city departments.

“We have a responsibility to seek some clarity of these recent events in response to the hundreds of citizens who have contacted us expressing outrage regarding this matter,” Pitts said.

Piper accepted the $140,000 superintendent job days before his mayoral term expired on Dec. 31, 2010. Clarksville ethics laws state that elected officials cannot interview for a department head in local government for one year after leaving office, and cannot interview for any government position for three months after their term expires.

CDE lawyers have argued that the city laws do not apply to the utility because it was created under a 1935 state law that does not contain the same regulations. Barnes and other lawmakers point out that the state law allows for local governments to create additional ethical safeguards like the ones in the Clarksville city code. Without them, mayors could appoint people who could later turn around and hire them as soon as their term expired.

“Our ethics regulations were created for scenarios like the one we’re facing now,” said Curtis Johnson, appointed Thursday as the House Ethics Committee Chairman. “The minute we create exceptions, we open the floodgates for abuse.”