March 11, 2011

On March 11, 2011, in News from Nashville 2011, by Mark Norris

Capitol Hill Week: Full Senate passes Teacher Tenure Reform and “No Income Tax” Constitutional Amendment Resolution

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 11, 2011 –   The State Senate passed two major bills this week with bi-partisan support, including teacher tenure legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).  The measure, which builds on the bold initiatives passed last year with Tennessee’s First to the Top program, is designed to improve student achievement and give Tennessee students more opportunities to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“This is our next step in the continuum of education reform that began in earnest last year with passage of our First to the Top legislation,” said Leader Norris.  “That made us eligible to win Race to the Top.  The next step is to focus on teacher tenure reform.  We must keep our focus on uplifting the children, not on upsetting the adults.”

Key Provisions of the Senate Bill 1528 include:

  • Extends teacher tenure probationary period from three to five years
  • Ties the teacher evaluation system to tenure eligibility and requires a teacher to score in the top two (out of a total of five) effectiveness categories on the evaluation in the two years immediately preceding becoming eligible for tenure
  • Expands the definition of “inefficiency” as a grounds for dismissal of a tenured teacher to include evaluations demonstrating an overall performance effectiveness level that is “below expectations” or “significantly below expectations”
  • For teachers tenured after the enactment of the new law, it requires a return to probationary status after two consecutive years scoring in the bottom two effectiveness categories of the evaluation
  • Moves non-renewal deadline from May 15 to June 15

Tennessee currently ranks 46th in student overall academic achievement.

The legislation uses the work of First to the Top which, in collaboration with teachers, creates an evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness.   The reform initiative passed last year requires annual evaluations using teacher effect data in teacher and principal evaluations.  The evaluation system capitalizes on Tennessee’s two decades of experience with the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) in evaluating student achievement on a year-to-year basis. 

“Teachers are the primary driver of the evaluation process,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), co-sponsor of the bill.  “The Teacher Evaluation Advisory Council is working diligently by supervising and digging into how we can assure these are reliable and fair evaluations. This legislation gives Tennessee schools the power to identify, reward and retain great effective teachers. Making tenure more meaningful is crucial to improving student achievement.  I strongly support this legislation, and think it is important to teachers and the overall education reform process.  Every student in Tennessee deserves a great teacher and a great education.”

The deadline for the evaluations to be put into place under the First to the Top law is July 2011.  There has been a diligent process for determining what measure should be used for non-tested subject areas.

Due to the importance of the teacher tenure reform measure to the state’s economy and jobs, last week Tennessee’s four biggest urban chambers of commerce endorsed the initiative.  The bill also received approval in the House Education Subcommittee and is now pending action before the full House Education Committee next week.

No state income tax resolution — In other major floor action this week, the Senate voted 28 to 5 to approve a “No State Income Tax” amendment resolution to Tennessee’s Constitution if approved by voters in 2014.  The proposal, sponsored by State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), would clarify that an income tax and a payroll tax are prohibited by the Tennessee Constitution.

“If this amendment passes, Tennessee will never face an income tax battle again,” said Senator Kelsey.  “Not having a state income tax has already brought jobs to Tennessee.  Being able to tell prospective businesses that we will never have an income tax will bring even more jobs and help Tennessee become the number one state in the Southeast for high quality jobs.”

The proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 18, specifies that the legislature as well as Tennessee counties and cities shall be prohibited from passing either an income tax or payroll tax, which is a tax on employers measured by the wages they pay their workers.  A payroll tax has been proposed as a way around an income tax.  An effort to impose a local payroll tax was defeated by voters in the City of Memphis in 2004, but was proposed again in recent years by elected officials in Shelby County.

The most serious attempt to pass a statewide income tax was in 2002, when the proposal received 45 of the 50 votes necessary for passage in the House of Representatives.  Last year, eight state lawmakers co-sponsored legislation to implement a state income tax.

In order for a constitutional amendment to pass, it must first be approved by a simple majority in both the House and the Senate this year.  Then, it must be approved by a two-thirds vote in each chamber during the next General Assembly in 2013-2014.  After that the amendment would be placed on the next gubernatorial ballot for ratification by the people in November 2014.

Senator Kerry Roberts takes oath of office

State Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) took the oath of office on Wednesday after being elected on Tuesday in a landslide victory to represent the 18th Senatorial District. The district includes Sumner and Robertson Counties.  The special election was called after the resignation of Congressman Diane Black who was elected to Congress in November. 

“I am very honored to have the opportunity to represent the citizens of Sumner and Robertson Counties in the State Senate,” Senator Roberts said.  “I will work very hard to represent the people of this district and honor the oath that I have taken today as I fulfill the duties of serving as their voice on Capitol Hill. I look forward to working on the issues we face in Tennessee, including providing more job opportunities for our citizens and improving education. 

Roberts is a small business owner who resides in Robertson County.  Lt. Governor Ramsey, who administered the oath of office, has appointed Roberts to serve on the General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee, the Government Operations Committee, and the Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee.

General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee takes action to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to Tennessee hospitals

The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee has approved legislation to continue the hospital assessment adopted last year to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to Tennessee hospitals.   The hospitals asked the General Assembly to enact the coverage assessment for another year in order to raise $870 million total, after receiving matching federal funds. 

The assessment is used to draw down federal funds available through a Medicaid match program approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  It will continue to provide the critical dollars necessary to provide hospitals a portion of their unreimbursed TennCare costs. 

“Hospitals already provide about $2 billion in uncompensated TennCare, Medicare, charity care and unpaid debt,” said Senator Doug Overbey, sponsor of the legislation.  “An additional $870 million in cuts would be catastrophic, especially to our rural hospitals which are critical in saving the lives of Tennesseans who live in the most remote parts of the state.”  

Like last year’s action, language in the bill ensures that any assessment imposed by this legislation would not be passed along to patients.  The assessment is based on 4.52 percent of a hospital’s net patient revenue, according to its 2008 Medicare cost report, a slight increase due to increased enrollment, utilization and medical cost inflation.  Local government hospitals, critical access hospitals, freestanding rehabilitation hospitals, long-term acute care hospitals and pediatric research hospitals are not included in the assessment, as well as state mental health institutes.

A few examples of programs, in addition to the reduction in payments to hospitals and health professionals that would be effected without the assessment are: critical access hospitals; the Graduate Medical Education program; 8-visit limit imposed on outpatient services, x-rays, and physician office procedures; various therapies; and, the enrollment cap for the medically needy. 

In Brief…

Post-Conviction Fund — The Senate Government Operations Committee has approved a bill sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and Government Operations Chairman Bo Watson (R-Hixson) to reconstitute Tennessee’s Post-Conviction Defender Commission and replace it with a “Post-Conviction Defender’s Oversight Commission.”  The Post-Conviction Defender Commission is an independent agency that was created to oversee the operating budget of the Post-Conviction Defender.  This bill clearly spells out the new Oversight Commission’s duties would be strictly administrative in nature, overseeing budget, staffing and caseload concerns, rather than assisting the post-conviction defender in providing legal representation to cases. 

There are three defense funds for indigent defendants into which public money is appropriated, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Public Defender’s Conference and the Post-Conviction Defenders.  The Post Conviction Fund is used to represent those on death row.  Cases involving those convicted of capital crimes are over three times more costly than cases for other defendants.  This bill provides more accountability to make sure that public funds are used as efficiently and effectively as possible, while maintaining the rights of individuals facing execution by the State of Tennessee to ensure that the death penalty is not imposed or carried out in an arbitrary manner.

Tennessee State Patrol – Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) guided passage of Senate Bill 1494 through the Transportation Committee this week.  The bill would drop the word “highway” from the name of Tennessee’s State Highway Patrol. The name change was requested to better reflect the many other activities the officers do like riot squads, bomb detection units and SWAT teams.

Child Sex Abuse State Plan — Members of Tennessee’s Children’s Justice Task Force appeared before the Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee this week to discuss that group’s 2011 Child Sex Abuse State Plan.  In addition to writing a state plan, the Task Force advises and assists the state departments in carrying out their duties related to child protection.  They also make policy and training recommendations concerning the handling of these cases.

Several steps have been taken to curb abuse, including better training for investigators, additional public awareness campaigns, including education for children, better access to services and more trained facilitators to intervene as quickly as possible.  The group cited several accomplishments over the past three years in addressing child sexual abuse and child fatalities.  There has been a 31 percent decline in sexual abuse from 3,613 cases in 2008 to 2,752 cases in 2010.  Likewise, child fatalities declined in Tennessee from 55 in 2008 to 46 in 2009.

Budget Address – Governor Bill Haslam will deliver his first Budget / State of the State Address on Monday, March 14th. The House and Senate will meet in a Joint Convention to hear the governor who will speak at 6:00p.m.  The address will be broadcast statewide.  In addition to the budget, Governor Haslam will also talk about job creation, education reform, and civil justice.

Railroads —   The Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony this week regarding the importance of Tennessee’s railroads to the state’s economy and relieving highway congestion.  Tennessee’s Shortline Railroads still play a vital role in the movement of freight to and from the state’s vital industries. Each year, railroads have kept hundreds of thousands of trucks off the highways, which has been especially important to help curb accidents on the state’s rural roads and secondary highways.  The officials said that since 1980 railroads have reduced accidents by 75 percent.  

Teacher organizations – The full Senate approved a bill to ensure that all teacher organizations will have access to potential recruits.  Senate Bill 330 requires the state’s public colleges and universities to give equal access to any professional educator’s organization if access to students in teacher training programs is granted.  “Our college classrooms, our college campuses are a marketplace of ideas,” said Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), who is sponsor of the bill.  “This legislation lets all ideas compete to allow our future teachers to freely choose which organization, if any, that the want to join.” 

Health Freedom Act goes to governor — The House of Representatives passed legislation and sent to the governor legislation already approved by the Senate to allow Tennessee patients to make their own health care choices regardless of the federal action taken in Washington last year.  Senate Bill 79, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), does not seek to “nullify” any federal law, as it would allow individuals the option to participate in a federal program. However, it acknowledges the right of Tennesseans to refuse to participate in a government-run health insurance program.  The legislation, called the Tennessee Health Care Freedom Act, seeks to protect a citizen’s right to participate, or not participate, in any healthcare system in Tennessee, and would prohibit the federal government from imposing fines or penalties on that person’s decision. 

Teachers / TCRS — The full Senate voted this week to change the method of appointment to serve on the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System by broadening the base of Tennessee teachers eligible.  Senate Bill 102 , sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), calls for three active teachers and one retired teacher to be appointed to the Board.  Current law requires appointment of three teachers by the Tennessee Education Association, even though an estimated half of Tennessee’s teachers belong to the organization.  The legislation, as amended, allows professional employee education groups to recommend appointees to the Speaker of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives to provide greater fairness so all teachers can be considered for appointment to the TCRS Board.  

Environment / Waste Management — The Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee heard testimony this week from Waste Management Corporation regarding the company’s shifting capital investment away from landfills and toward recycling plants known as Materials Recovery Facilities (“MRFs”).  These MRFs enable single-stream recycling which allows consumers to place all recyclables into one bin.  These materials are then separated using forced air, optical scanning, and heavy-duty magnets.   Company representatives said they are giving a priority to the recycling of organic materials such as food scraps, yard trimmings, and wood waste.  This organic waste can be turned into compost and biogas which can be burned to generate electricity.

Job Creation  / VIAM — Governor Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty along with Ryuji Matsumoto, president of VIAM Manufacturing Inc., announced plans this week to locate VICAM in Manchester, Tenn. The company is a newly formed subsidiary of leading nonwoven materials producer Japan Vilene Company (JVC) to be managed by VIAM Manufacturing and utilize technology developed by Oyama Chemical. VICAM will build a facility for the production of a polyester-based carpet fiber that is expected to open in January 2012, and represents an investment of $32 million and 70 new jobs when all phases of construction are complete.

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