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Alexander Advocates ‘Weeding the Garden’ of Federal Higher Ed Regulations

Press releases from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; March 2, 2015:

Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander

The Higher Education Act totals nearly 1,000 pages. There are more than 1,000 pages in the official Code of Federal Regulations devoted to higher education, and on average every workday the Department of Education issues one new sub-regulatory guidance directive or clarification.

No one has taken the time to weed the garden, and America’s 6,000 colleges and universities are living in a “jungle of red tape” that is expensive, confusing and unnecessary.

The result of this piling up of regulations is that one of the greatest obstacles to innovation and cost consciousness in higher education has become the federal government.

That is why the Senate education committee that I chair held our first hearing this Congress on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act last week, during which we discussed how findings in a report by a group of distinguished educators—and commissioned by Senators Mikulski, Burr, Bennet, and me—can help guide our efforts to weed the garden and allow colleges to spend more of their time and money educating students. Educators who worked on the report included Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nick Zeppos—who co-chaired the effort and also testified at the education committee—and Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association.

The document entitled “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” outlines 59 specific regulations, requirements and areas for Congress and the Department of Education to consider—listing 10 especially problematic regulations.

The report makes clear that colleges and taxpayers expect appropriate regulation. But neither taxpayers nor colleges are well-served by the jungle that exists today. Consumer information that is too complicated to understand is worthless.

Colleges must report the amount of foreign gifts they receive and disclose the number of fire drills that occurred on campus. “Gainful employment” disclosures require 30 different pieces of information for each academic program subject to the regulation.

When a student withdraws from college before a certain time period, a student’s federal money must be returned to the government. This is a simple concept, yet the regulations and guidance implementing this are ridiculously complex – 200 paragraphs of regulatory text accompanied by 200 pages in the Federal Student Aid Handbook.

Institutions offering distance education are subject to an additional set of bureaucracy that can result in additional costs of $500,000 to $1 million for compliance.

All of these are examples of colleges and universities spending time and money on compliance with federal rules – and not on students. These examples, and others like them, represent sloppy, inefficient governing that wastes money, hurts students, discourages productivity and impedes research.

With bipartisan support and this groundbreaking report, I feel sure that our committee can send a Higher Education Act reauthorization bill to the Senate floor this year that will eliminate unnecessary red tape, save student’s money, and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation in the best system of higher education in the world.

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Alexander: Bipartisan Report on Higher Ed Regs Finds ‘Jungle of Red Tape’

Press release from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; February 24, 2015:

Study says Vanderbilt University spends $150 million, or 11 percent of its expenditures, annually, complying with federal rules and regulations

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, today said a report released by a task force of college and university leaders—and commissioned by a bipartisan group of senators—shows colleges in a jungle of red tape that “should be an embarrassment to all of us in the federal government.”

At a hearing on the report, Alexander said: “These should not be excused as normal, run-of-the mill problems of government. These examples, and others like them, are sloppy, inefficient governing that wastes money, hurts students, discourages productivity and impedes research.”

Alexander, along with Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), commissioned the report from the group in November 2013, seeking specific recommendations on reducing, eliminating or streamlining duplicative, costly or confusing regulations before the committee began work on a ninth reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Alexander said he would work with Ranking Member Murray (D-Wash.) to discuss how to develop a bipartisan process to take full advantage of the recommendations in this report and to include many of them in reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The senators will also schedule additional hearings to gather comment on the report from institutions not directly involved with the report and consumers of higher education, including parents, students, and taxpayers.

Alexander added, “I have talked with Secretary Duncan more than once about this effort, and he is eager to do his part to solve the problem. I look forward to working with him and with the President on eliminating unnecessary red tape, saving students money, and removing unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation in the best system of higher education in the world.‎”

The full text of Alexander’s opening statement follows:

This morning we are holding our first hearing this Congress on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act which will focus on the final report from the Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education.

Over a year ago, Vanderbilt University hired the Boston Consulting Group to determine how much it costs the university to comply with federal rules and regulations.

The answer: $150 million, or 11 percent of the university’s total non-hospital expenditures last year.

Vanderbilt Chancellor Nick Zeppos says that this adds about $11,000 in additional tuition per year for each of the university’s 12,757 students.

Each year, 20 million American families fill out a complicated, 108-question form called the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to obtain a  grant or loan to help pay for college. Several experts testified before our committee that just two questions would tell the Department of Education 95 percent of what it needs to know to determine a student’s eligibility for a grant or loan: One, what is your family size? And, two, what is your family income?

So, in January a bipartisan group of six senators introduced legislation to simplify the student aid application and repayment process, including reducing the 108-question FAFSA form to just two questions. If our legislation becomes law, then families, guidance counselors, and admissions officers would save millions of hours.

Most important, according to financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, the complicated, 108-question form discourages up to 2 million Americans each year from applying for aid. Last fall, the president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis told me that the complex form turns away from his campus 1,500 students each semester.

Tennessee has become the first state to make community college tuition-free for qualifying students. But first, each student must fill out the FAFSA. Now that tuition is free, the principal obstacle for a qualified Tennessee student to obtain two more years of education after high school is not money: it is this unnecessarily complicated federal form.

Ten years ago, then again three years ago, surveys by the National Academy of Sciences found that principal investigators spend 42 percent of their time associated with federal research projects on administrative tasks instead of research.

I asked the head of the National Academies what a reasonable percent of time would be for a researcher to spend on administrative tasks. He replied: perhaps 10 percent or even less.

How many billions could we save if we reduced the administrative burden?

Taxpayers spend more than $30 billion a year on research and development at colleges and universities.

This year, the average annual cost of NIH research project grant ‎is $480,000. If we reduce spending on unnecessary red tape by $1 billion, the NIH could potentially fund more than a thousand multi-year grants.

These should not be excused as normal, run-of-the-mill problems of government. These examples, and others like them, represent sloppy, inefficient governing that wastes money, hurts students, discourages productivity and impedes research.

Such waste should be an embarrassment to all of us in the federal government.

And let me make clear:  let’s not just blame President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. They have contributed to the problem, but so has every president and every education secretary—and that includes me—since 1965 when the first Higher Education Act was enacted.

And the list of those embarrassed should also include the Congress of the United States for year after year adding to and tolerating a pile of conflicting, confusing regulations.

The Higher Education Act totals nearly 1,000 pages; there are over 1,000 pages in the official Code of Federal Regulations devoted to higher education; and on average every workday the Department of Education issues one new sub-regulatory guidance directive or clarification.

No one has taken the time to “weed the garden.”

The result of this piling up of regulations is that one of the greatest obstacles to innovation and cost consciousness in higher education has become—us, the federal government.

So if all of us created this mess, then it is up to all of us to fix it.

That is why more than a year ago, four members of this committee—two Democrats and two Republicans—asked a group of distinguished educators to examine the current state of federal rules and regulations for colleges and universities. We asked them not just to tell us the problem, but to give us specific solutions.

They have done so in a remarkable document entitled “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” in which they outline 59 specific regulations, requirements and areas for Congress and the Department of Education to consider —listing 10 especially problematic regulations.

I thank Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nick Zeppos and University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan for leading the effort.

In their own words, America’s 6,000 colleges and universities live in a “jungle of red tape” that is expensive and confusing and unnecessary.

The report makes clear that colleges and taxpayers expect appropriate regulation. But neither taxpayers nor colleges are well-served by the jungle that exists today. Consumer information that is too complicated to understand is worthless.

Colleges must report the amount of foreign gifts they receive; disclose the number of fires drills that occurred on campus. “Gainful employment” disclosures require 30 different pieces of information for each academic program subject to the regulation.

When a student withdraws from college before a certain time period, a student’s federal money must be returned to the government. This is a simple concept.

Yet the regulations and guidance implementing this are ridiculously complex – 200 paragraphs of regulatory text accompanied by 200 pages in the Federal Student Aid handbook.

The University of Colorado reports that they have two full-time staff devoted to this issue. One to do the calculation and the other one to recheck the other’s work. Ohio State University estimates that it spends around $200,000 annually on compliance for this regulation.

Institutions offering distance education are subject to an additional set of bureaucracy that can result in additional costs of $500,000 to a million dollars for compliance.

All of these are examples of colleges and universities spending time and money on compliance with federal rules and not on students.

Senator Murray and I will discuss how to develop a bipartisan process to take full advantage of the recommendations in this report and to include many of them in reauthorization of the High Education Act, which we plan to do this year.

We will schedule additional hearings to gather comment on the report from institutions not directly involved with the report and consumers of higher education, including parents, students, and taxpayers.

Some of the recommendations require a change in the law.  Many can be fixed by the Department itself.

I have talked with Secretary Duncan more than once about this effort and he is eager to do his part to solve the problem. I look forward to working with him and with President Obama on eliminating unnecessary red tape, saving students money, and removing unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation in the best system of higher education in the world.

This is not a new subject for me. One of the first things I did as a Senator was try to simplify student aid and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). And I’m told the net result was the reduction of approximately 7 questions. Those have been replaced by many more now.

Although I voted against the final reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 2008, I authored a provision in the bill that required the Secretary of Education to publish a “compliance calendar” so schools can see all of their deadlines.

Unfortunately, 7 years later, the Department of Education has yet to implement this provision.

With bipartisan support and this groundbreaking report we have today, I’m counting on this effort to get farther than that one.

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TWRA Seeking Public Comments on 2014-15 Fishing Regs

Press release from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency; August 26, 2013:

KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Fisheries Division announced its proposed 2014-15 sport fish and commercial fishing regulation changes during the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission’s August meeting. TWRA Fisheries Division Chief Bobby Wilson made the proposals at the Aug. 22-23 meeting of the TFWC held in Knoxville.

The public is invited to provide comments on the 2014-15 proposals. The comment period for the commercial fishing regulations will be until Sept. 18. The deadline for the sport fishing comments is Oct. 10. Comments may be sent to TWRA.Comment@tn.gov, or TWRA, Fisheries Division, P.O. Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204. Please include “2014 Fish Comments” on the subject line of emailed submissions.

The TFWC will vote on the commercial fishing proposals at its Sept. 19-20 meeting in Nashville. The sport fish regulations will be voted on the TFWC’s meeting to be held Oct. 17-18 in Kingsport. If approved, the changes would become effective March 1, 2014.

2014-15 Sport Fishing Proposals:

Statewide:

Crayfish: Proposal would establish the harvest of crayfish as food. Currently, crayfish may be taken from most waters except for those already restricted under the live bait proclamation.

Region I:

Kentucky Lake: Increase the minimum length on sauger from 14 to 15 inches.
Maples Creek and Brown’s Creek lakes: Decrease the minimum length limit on crappie from 10 to 8 inches.

Region II:

Woodhaven Lake (Montgomery Bell State Park): Remove the no harvest restriction on largemouth bass, allowing 5 bass per day with no length limit. (same as statewide)

Region III:

Caney Fork Watershed (Center Hill Reservoir, Great Falls Reservoir, Calfkiller, Collins, Caney Fork, and Rocky rivers): Increase the minimum length on muskellunge from 36 to 50 inches.

Big Lost, Goforth, Spring, Greasy, Tumbling, and Turtletown creeks (Polk County): All these creeks will be closed on Friday from March 1 through June 1 (previously July 1).
Cherokee Reservoir: Change the paddlefish snagging season from March 1-15 to April 1-15.

Fort Loudoun, Melton Hill, and Chilhowee reservoirs: Change walleye and sauger restrictions. Currently walleye and sauger have a 15-inch minimum length limit with a creel limit of 10 in combination. The new regulations will follow the statewide regulation for each species (walleye 5 per day, 16-inch length limit; sauger 10 per day, 15-inch minimum length limit).

Rocky Fork: Define the Wild Trout Regulation section as upstream of Rocky Fork Road and State Park Entrance Road Junction.

2014-15 Commercial Fishing Proposals:

Define and add Beech River to the Rivers Section that is open to commercial fishing. This area is currently open but the description is not clear.

Add “turtle traps” to the list of gears that will be allowed to be fished in the creeks and and embayments on Kentucky Lake in April and May.

List the 14 species of turtles are currently allowed to be harvested at the Reelfoot La

Delete the word “inlet” from the description of closed areas.

Define the season for turtle harvests as the months of March through October.

Change hoop net definition to allow for the use of hoop nets with a mesh size of 1 inch and larger and not allow the use of wings or leads. Also, there will no longer be a closed season on using hoop nets. In addition, restrict the mesh size on wings and leads to one inch or smaller for fyke nets, tap nets, and pound nets.

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TWRA Seeking Public Comments on 2013-14 Hunting Season Regulations

Press release from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency; January 16, 2012: 

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is soliciting comments for its 2013-14 hunting seasons’ regulations. This is an opportunity for the public to provide ideas and share concerns about hunting regulations with TWRA staff.

Public comments will be considered by TWRA’s Wildlife Division staff and may be presented as proposals for regulation changes. Comments may be submitted by mail to: 2013-14 Hunting Season Comments, TWRA, Wildlife and Forestry Division, P.O. Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204 or emailed to twra.comment@tn.gov. Please include “Hunting Season Comments” on the subject line of emailed submissions.

The comment period concerning the 2013-14 hunting season regulations began on Jan. 15, 2013 and will be open until Monday, Feb. 25.

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Beacon Center: TN Policy Snapshot

Newsletter from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; July 31, 2012: 

Elvis, liquor, and your tax dollars

What do these three things have in common? For one, Tennessee’s welfare program. Our intrepid investigative reporter, Chris Butler, recently dug through nearly 140,000 transactions by Memphis welfare recipients using their cash benefits in the form of Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT cards. Among the purchases with no government oversight included transactions at liquor stores (one totaling $790), Greyhound bus tickets, Orpheum Theater concert tickets, and a tour of Graceland. Where else did they spend your money? Read the entire article at TennesseeWatchdog.org to find out.

Beacon calls for state-led welfare reform

As a result of Butler’s hard-hitting report, WMC-TV Channel 5 in Memphis ran an exclusive on his findings. As the station noted, Beacon is calling on state lawmakers to pass a law prohibiting the use of EBT cards to purchase alcohol and other non-essential items, and is also pushing for more state oversight of the welfare program. Beacon is further urging lawmakers to rebuff President Obama’s recent attempt to nix the work requirement in the existing welfare law. Watch the Channel 5 story, which details Beacon’s findings and our solution to the problem, at this link.

Taxi regs harm consumers, cost jobs

After it was discovered that bureaucrats with the Metro Nashville Transportation Licensing Commission were posing as police officers and targeting smaller limo and sedan companies, the commission has come under much scrutiny. In a recent article appearing in the Tennessean, Beacon research associate Steven Strausbaugh explains how the commission’s regulations are bad for consumers and for job creation in the Music City. Strausbuaugh calls for the elimination of the commission and a return to free market principles in the transportation business. Read more here.

Government gets into the airport business

Tennessee Watchdog has been hot on the trail of the situation at the Chattanooga Airport, where the government is funding a competitor to TacAir, a fixed base of operations that provides fuel and other services at the airport. Now, as Tennessee Watchdog’s Chris Butler explains, the issue has caught the attention of a national aviation group. The National Air Transportation Association has asked Gov. Bill Haslam to investigate why taxpayers are footing such a massive bill to unnecessarily compete against a private FBO. Read Butler’s entire story at TennesseeWatchdog.org.

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Business and Economy Featured News

State Labor Dept. Typically Sides with Employers on Challenged Unemployment Claims

More than two-thirds of unemployment claims initially disputed by business owners and managers this year were decided in favor of the employers, according to the agency that regulates private workplace relations in the state.

The numbers, provided to TNReport by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, seem to contrast with assertions made recently by Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who insisted to reporters during a press conference this month that the state almost always sides with fired employees when deciding if they’re entitled to receive unemployment benefits.

In 68 percent of 28,860 appealed unemployment claims challenging whether an out-of-work Tennessean was entitled to unemployment benefits, the state labor department favored employers.

Ramsey said he believes as many as “nine out of 10” Tennesseans fired for work-related misconduct are still issued unemployment benefits despite employer challenges.

“There are plenty of examples that they get it. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not nine times out of 10. But if I’m going to say that, I want to back it up. I will say the majority of the time. I’ll bet on that. I’ll bet you $10,000. Just kidding,” Ramsey told reporters.

To be sure, few employers ever challenge a dismissed worker’s claim for unemployment compensation. Just 7.7 percent of total claims were challenged last year, a state labor department spokesman said.

The department reports that only 28,860 of the 372,688 new claims filed so far this year came down to a face-off between an employer and former employee to determine if unemployment benefits were lawfully entitled.

A lobbyist and executive representing Tennessee small businesses said he figured the total number of contested cases would be much higher.

“It doesn’t match up with what we’re hearing anecdotally,” said Jim Brown, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business’s Tennessee Chapter, who has sat in on a handful of business round table meetings this fall.

“It just may be that we’re hearing from a lot of people who are a part of those numbers,” Brown added.

More than 19,600 contested cases, or 68 percent, were ruled in favor of the employer, according to the Department of Labor.

Tennessee Republican state lawmakers, who dominate both chambers of the General Assembly, are expected to take a hard look at stats like those as they consider tightening unemployment-benefit eligibility as part of their overall effort to streamline and ease  regulations on business in order to prompt job-growth and spur economic development.

Ramsey, who is leading the charge to revamp the state’s unemployment benefits system, said he understands his political detractors will say he’s “hard-hearted” for making that issue a priority. Ramsey said he anticipates he’ll be portrayed by political detractors as attempting to “take their unemployment away.”

Ramsey, who is speaker of the Tennessee Senate, has also declared his support for drug-testing recipients of government aid and benefits.

“But folks, this is your money that we’re trying to protect here,” Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, told the Nashville Chamber of Commerce this month.

“If you were fired from your job for just cause, maybe even for stealing from your employer or chronic absenteeism, you shouldn’t be able to draw unemployment. Yet we don’t have that education on the lower level here to make sure that happens.”

The Department of Labor approved benefits to almost six of every 10 claimants in the budget year that ended June 30.

About 79 percent of those beneficiaries were laid off, 10 percent fired for misconduct that was not work-related, and another 10 percent were no longer working for other reasons, such as illness. One percent issued unemployment benefits had voluntarily quit.

In Tennessee, being fired doesn’t necessarily exclude someone from being eligible to collect benefits. Workers must be fired for work-related disciplinary reasons that are documented or witnessed, and the burden of proof rests with the employers.

The first 26 weeks a jobless worker is on unemployment is paid for by Tennessee employers who pay the state a tax on the first $9,000 an employee earns each year.

Unemployment claims are on the decline after topping off with more than one half million initial claims in 2009. That year, 604,081 initial claims were filed, followed by 418,772 the year after, according to the labor department.

Ramsey says he believes there are people on Tennessee’s jobless-benefits rolls who probably shouldn’t be there — or who may be hanging around taking unemployment when there is work available.

Lawmakers last year gave employers more tools to contest unemployment benefits for former employees. The law now allows them to submit personnel or other business records in addition to witness testimony.

The state’s benefits system was recently identified in a federal study for overpaying $310 million in jobless benefits over the last three years, although agency officials dispute the study’s findings.

Only about 10 percent of Tennessee’s roughly 120,000 people on unemployment currently have to provide any documentation that they’re applying for jobs, the agency said.

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Business and Economy Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

VIDEOS: ‘We Stand With Gibson’

A rally thrown by Tea Party activists in support of Gibson Guitar Corp. in light of a recent federal raid on the company drew hundreds to Nashville Saturday to listen to music and speakers denounce government overreach.

Guests at the “We Stand With Gibson” rally included Gibson Guitar owner Henry Juszkiewicz, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, conservative radio talk show hosts Phil Valentine, Steve Gill and others. They urged the audience to let the federal government know their displeasure with the government over the Aug. 24 raid in which federal agents confiscated imported wood, guitars and files from Gibson’s Nashville and Memphis locations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argues that the wood, grown in India, was illegally imported in violation of Indian law and the U.S. Lacey Act. Gibson maintains that the wood is, in fact, legal — and that the Indian government approves of its exportation to the United States where companies like Gibson and others use it in the manufacture of stringed musical instruments.

 

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Business and Economy Featured

Ramsey Supports Cost-to-Business Estimates for Proposed Legislation

Tennessee House Republicans made a point Thursday of declaring their interest in identifying burdensome regulations they can lift from businesses in the state.

In the same vein, the Senate’s top lawmaker wants to add one on government: A requirement that bills under consideration in the General Assembly include an estimate of the costs they’d potentially have on Tennessee employers.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he wants legislators and the public to be fully aware of the price of new mandates and regulations before they’re passed on to the private sector.

“Right now we’re just ignoring it and putting it directly onto business,” the Blountville Republican said. “What does this cost a business when we pass a bill?

“In the long run, it will save the state money and save businesses money” to attempt to calculate those costs up front, he said.

The idea comes most recently from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, which released a report last week detailing why the state should crunch the numbers to determine what kind of effect legislation has on commerce and industry.

“Legislation impacts business, and lawmakers need to connect the dots on that,” said Justin Owen, TCPR’s executive director.

Democrats might not necessarily balk at the idea. But the key is making sure any system for estimating those costs is accurate, objective and avoids “garbage in, garbage out” results, said Craig Fitzhugh, the House minority leader.

The Ripley lawmaker, a banker by profession, says projections as to how legislation would affect businesses in Tennessee could indeed be useful in formulating policy. However, he’d like to see a system for doing it phased in over time to ensure the processes for collecting relevant data are reliable — and that the Office of Fiscal Review has sufficient extra staff to effectively handle the added workload.

“I would hate to start trying to do something like that and skimp on the resources and end up with some bad data that leads us to pass legislation or not pass legislation,” Fitzhugh said.

Legislators express mixed opinions about fiscal notes, the price tags that attempt to detail how much pending legislation will cost the state or yield in tax, fee or fine revenues. Those estimates can end up killing a bill if a substantial cost to government is projected — even as politicians at the Capitol often questioned the scope or accuracy of the calculations.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are spending the political off-season examining business regulations and methods for facilitating job growth as they approach the legislative session that begins in January.

The governor has spent his summer traveling the state looking for feedback and ideas about job growth. Meanwhile, House Republicans have begun meeting with small business owners to discuss their perceptions of problematic and unnecessary regulations at both the state and federal level in Tennessee, and Democrats from both chambers are embarking on a jobs tour later this month.

The biggest gripes from business owners center on regulations which they say are too stringent — such as the one the federal government sought to enforce when it raided Gibson Guitar Corp. in Nashville and Memphis last month for allegedly possessing illegally obtained wood from a foreign country.

While the state has control over only Tennessee regulations, Ramsey wants the federal government to account for its actions, which he says at this point appear to him a stark and possibly politically motivated example of regulatory abuse.

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Business and Economy Liberty and Justice News

‘English-on-the-Job’ Bill Advances

Legislation that would allow employers to require that their employees speak English in the workplace passed a House subcommittee on Wednesday, but not without some back-and-forth between the bill’s sponsor and the Tennessee state government’s human rights overseer.

The bill would shield Tennessee businesses from some discrimination lawsuits. It is designed to serve the interests of “business necessity and safe workplace environment,” according to the chief sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.

But Tennessee Human Rights Commission Executive Director Beverly Watts initially spoke against the legislation, in part because she said her agency doesn’t have funding to deal with the possible fallout from the bill.

“We believe that it will increase our workload,” she said. “Right now we’re about 2,000 calls above what we were last year. And this bill will also create some language requirements that we cannot necessarily fulfill with our current staff. We have staff (members) that are bilingual in Spanish only, but there are many, many more languages.”

Watts also said training employers about the proposed law would be another additional cost for the agency.

The big snag, however, was Watts’ opposition to the portion of the bill that read, “it shall not be unlawful” for English to be required to be spoken in the workplace. But an employer could only make it a requirement if speaking English is a safety factor or if it is necessary for doing business. “If you read ‘it is not unlawful,’ I might just look at it and decide, ‘I can do this,’ whatever ‘this’ may be, and not look at the controlling parameters,” she said.

“To determine if it is unlawful or not, in my opinion, would require us to do an investigation because (a case) cannot on its face be determined to be discriminatory or non-discriminatory just by viewing it,” Watts said. “There might be some additional factors that need to be looked at.”

“So, when it’s written this way, I think it’s broader than if it is says, ‘it’s allowable,’” Watts continued. “In essence, we want employers to know what they can do.”

Watts’ concerns drew an impatient response from Rep. Hill.

“There was a representative or a member from the Human Rights Commission at every single meeting that we had,” he said. “She still has not talked to me about the legislation directly this year, and, of course, at the last second, she comes and opposes this legislation.”

Subcommittee Chairman Mike McDonald, D-Portland, then suggested Hill and Watts get together to discuss their differences. Hill initially refused.

“We’ve had enough meetings,” Hill said. “I have met with every single person about a half a dozen times now and I’m really tired of being hijacked at the last second on something as important as this piece of legislation.”

“We can play ‘what if’ scenarios all day long with the director’s previous comments,” he continued. “The bottom line is ‘it might do this; it could do that’ and (Fiscal Review Committee Executive Director Jim White) and his fiscal staff said it would not.”

Watts said she had not been in town for the meetings, and she maintained that representatives from the Human Rights Commission who did attend never agreed to the language of the bill.

After Hill and Watts huddled while the subcommittee handled other legislation, Hill agreed to an amendment that changed the words “it shall not be unlawful” to “it shall be an allowable employment practice.”

The bill now heads to the Consumer and Employee Affairs Committee, which meets Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.