March 28, 2011

On March 28, 2011, in News from Nashville 2011, by Mark Norris

FromMark’s Desk

It has been a few weeks since my last update from Nashville, and as you can see by the highlights below, we have been busy.  Governor Haslam delivered the “State of the State” address where he laid out his budget for the upcoming fiscal year.  I anticipate working with him closely on the budget as I have his legislative initiatives. 

Many groups have come to visit Nashville already this year.  If you are at the Capitol, please come by our office to say hello. 





Governor’s Tenure Reform Passed in Senate 

The State Senate passed 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. 

Budget and Education Highlights

Governor Haslam presents State of the State  

Governor Bill Haslam presented his State of the State / Budget Address to the General Assembly outlining his proposals to deal with the state’s current budget crunch, while working towards reforming education and making our economy stronger to welcome new jobs to Tennessee.  The $30.2 billion balanced budget is almost $2 billion less than the current 2010-11 budget of $32 billion.  It contains no new taxes and maintains essential government services by focusing reductions in administrative areas to minimize any impact felt by Tennessee taxpayers. 

The Governor said the budget calls for the state to spend less money but work harder to stretch public dollars, including making state government more “customer friendly” for Tennesseans.  At the same time, the Governor asked lawmakers to assist in transforming how government works to reflect current economic conditions.  

“I want to emphasize that our current financial constraints are not a temporary condition,” said Governor Haslam.  “I think what we are seeing in government today really is the ‘new normal.’  Every government, ours included, will be forced to transform how it sets priorities and makes choices.” 

Tennessee is in better economic condition than most states, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat amid huge budget deficits.  Over the last three years, Tennessee has reduced discretionary spending by 21 percent.    

Some of the highlights of the 2011-12 budget include:

  • $300 million will be used for medical inflation for TennCare and CoverKids; to fund the Basic Education Program; for state health insurance premiums and for state employee pay raises of 1.6 percent.
  • There will be 1,180 fewer state positions – almost 90 percent of the reductions coming from eliminating unfilled positions and the projects tied to non-recurring state and federal stimulus funds.
  • Provides for an average departmental reduction throughout state government of 2.5 percent.
  • It restores $69.3 million to the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account, increasing it to $283.6 million at June 30, 2011, and $326.6 million at June 30, 2012.  (Before the economic downturn, on June 20, 2008, the fund was at $750 million.)
  • $186 million in Economic and Community Development projects, construction of a new $7 million public intermodal facility at Port Cates Landing, which anticipates a $13 million federal grant and $10 million operating grant for the Memphis Research Consortium to encourage collaboration in research and strategy in the health field.
  • The proposed budget is based on a realistically conservative 3.65 percent revenue growth at $473 million.  

Governor Haslam asked the General Assembly to join him in reviewing the state’s boards and commissions to see whether 140 are necessary.  He noted the progress of Senate Government Operations Committee over the past 18 months in looking into the matter.  He also asked the General Assembly to examine how much state government authority through rules and regulations has been shifted to these agencies.  

The budget proposal, also called the appropriations bill, now travels to the Finance Committees of both Houses for discussion there.  The budget will continue to be a top priority for the remainder of this legislative session.   

Education Reform Highlighted — Governor Haslam’s State of the State address also highlighted his legislative agenda which includes several education reform measures designed to prepare students to compete in a globally competitive marketplace.  The proposals include removing the 90-cap limit on charter schools; use of lottery scholarships during the summer term to aid timely graduation from the state’s technical centers, community colleges and four-year institutions; and, teacher tenure reform. 

“Every discussion we have about education should always begin and end with what is best for the child in the classroom,” Haslam said.  “In education we are blessed with the tools to be game changers for all students.  Better teachers; improved school leadership with great principals; standards of academic excellence; parental involvement and students who are challenged to learn – that can and will happen in Tennessee.” 

National Foundation CEO tells Senate Education Committee that Complete College Act
places state at the cutting edge of higher education reform nationally

Lumina Foundation CEO Jamie Merisotis appeared before the Senate Education Committee  to emphasize the importance of increasing the number of post-secondary graduates in Tennessee, praise Tennessee’s new Complete College Act and offer resources from his organization for continued reform.  Merisotis told Education Committee members, “No committee in the Tennessee Senate is more vital to the future of your state than the one in this room.”

The Lumina Foundation for Education, based in Indianapolis, is the nation’s largest private foundation dedicated exclusively to increasing students’ access to and success in postsecondary education.  The foundation’s goal is that, by the year 2025, 60 percent of working-age Americans will hold high-quality college degrees or credentials. The national degree-attainment rate currently is just below 40 percent, while Tennessee’s proportion of working-age residents with a college education stands at 32 percent.   

Merisotis praised Tennessee’s landmark Complete College Tennessee Act as huge step forward and model legislation for other states.  Among other items, that legislation retooled the state’s funding formula for higher education to make it substantially based on outcomes by looking at end of term enrollment or student retention as well as timely progress toward degree attainment and degree completion.   

“By rewarding institutions for graduating students, the Complete College Tennessee Act has again placed the state at the cutting edge of higher education reform nationally,” Merisotis said.  “With this legislation, you wisely made an explicit link between the taxpayer money you provide to colleges and universities each year to the results they are able to achieve for the students and state residents.”    

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, 63 percent of all of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. Between now and 2018, Tennessee will need to fill about 900,000 job openings resulting from job creation, retirements and other factors. Of these expected vacancies, more than half will require workers with college degrees or other postsecondary credentials.  

Legislation closes loophole in state’s insanity defense law
by calling for immediate evaluation after acquittal

The full Senate has voted to authorize a court to order defendants who are in custody and found not guilty by reason of insanity of a felony offense against the person, to remain in custody after the verdict to receive an outpatient mental health evaluation.  Senate Bill 1532, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), applies to such offenses as felony sex offenses, assaults, kidnappings, and robberies. 

The bill follows an incident where a Bristol man was acquitted for the murder of his father by reason of insanity and released from jail without receiving a mental health evaluation.  This was due to recent changes in Tennessee law calling for the evaluations to be done on an outpatient basis.  Although an evaluation was ordered, it did not call for the person acquitted to remain in custody until it could be performed.  Upon going home after his release, the acquitted man became angry and headed for a closet where guns were located. 

“In most states the decision of inpatient or outpatient evaluation is left to the court,” said Senator Overbey.  “Allowing the person to immediately go out into the community can be a very dangerous situation.  We need to close the loophole created when changes were made to our law in order to ensure immediate evaluation of the person acquitted under this defense.”  

Tennessee courts are required to order outpatient evaluations for all individuals acquitted of a criminal offense when found not guilty by reason of insanity.  There is no mechanism, however, that allows the court to detain a potentially violent individual in the time period between the verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity and the outpatient evaluation.  The legislation would address this issue by requiring the court to immediately issue an order for an outpatient evaluation.   

“This is a protective bill to ensure appropriate safety measures are taken upon the acquittal of those found not guilty by reason of insanity,” added Senator Norris.  “I am very pleased the Senate voted unanimously to approve the bill.” 

The bill is pending action in the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Subcommittee. 

Telecommunications bill clears full Senate 

The full Senate passed legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), that would reduce the disparity between intrastate and interstate access fees currently paid by larger telecommunications companies to smaller cooperatives or companies that generally serve rural customers.  After an agreement was reached among all interested parties, the legislation would reduce the disparity between intrastate and interstate access fees by a rate of 20 percent each year for the next five years beginning April 1, 2012 and each subsequent April 1. 

Senate Bill 598 establishes a requirement that all telephone companies in Tennessee charge other telephone companies the same rate for connecting calls into their network, whether the calls originate inside or outside the state.  It establishes a defined transition period during which intrastate access rates will be brought down in equal steps to the same level as interstate access rates.   

The bill also provides the ability for telephone companies to account for increases in interstate access rate changes, which are federally governed, and change their intrastate rates to mirror federal changes.  In addition, it requires all telephone companies to file and maintain a tariff price list with the Tennessee Regulatory Authority setting their access rates and structures. 

“This is part of a long period of transition arising out of deregulation,” Senator Norris said.  “The future of all of these providers is very bright, with the dissemination and provision of other services that are now available.  This will put us in line with 22 other states that have dealt with this issue.” 

In Brief… 

Patient Safety / Peer Review The full Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) to enact the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2011.  Senate Bill 484, as introduced and passed by the Senate, reverses a Tennessee Supreme Court decision in Lee Medical, Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515 (Tenn. 2010), that overturned a major portion of the long-standing Tennessee peer review statute vital to health care providers in their efforts to improve patient safety and quality within their organizations.  This legislation rewrites the peer statute to put back into place the same protections that health providers have always considered available to them in their patient safety efforts.  The legislation maintains the same immunity provisions for participants in the quality improvement process as contained in the original peer review statute and explicitly defines which entities may create Quality Improvement Committees and claim the privilege that “peer review” documents are not subject to discovery.   

Road Funds / AdvertisingSenate Bill 32 passed through the Transportation Committee  to authorize the Department of Transportation to allow commercial advertising on the Tennessee 511 system, which provides current information on state-wide traffic conditions.  The bill, as amended, prohibits advertising of alcohol products, tobacco, campaign advertising or adult-oriented businesses.  Money gained from the advertising would be deposited into the highway fund to be used solely for transportation purposes.   

Health Care CompactSenate Bill 326 was approved in the Senate General Welfare Committee calling for Tennessee to join an interstate compact with the express purpose of returning the responsibility and authority for regulating health care to the states.  There are also plans to file the “Health Care Compact” in a number of state legislatures during their 2011 sessions.  The Health Care Compact provides a legal framework in which states can create their own healthcare systems. It essentially provides a permanent waiver to each member state to create whatever healthcare regulations the legislature deems best for the citizens of that state.  The structure protects Medicare and Medicaid funding by allowing member states to access federal tax revenues directly and without strings attached.  

DUI / Driver’s Licenses — The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved Senate Bill 343 which increases from three to five years, the minimum time period a driver’s license may be revoked for a third DUI offense. The legislation increases, from six to eight years, the minimum time period a driver license may be revoked for a fourth or subsequent offense.  Alcohol-related fatalities represent 31 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities.  

Charter School Grant — Tennessee has received a grant of nearly $40 million to grow and support charter schools in Tennessee.  The funds are part of a broad public-private partnership to increase the number of high performing charter schools in the state.  The unprecedented public-private partnership creates a $30 million charter growth fund built through a $10 million grant in First to the Top funding and $20 million in private funds raised in partnership with the Charter School Growth Fund and the Center for Charter School Excellence in Tennessee.  The funds will provide for the launch of 40 new startup charter schools and the growth of 4 to 6 charter school management organizations. 

Government efficiency – A bill aiming to streamline the legislative process and save taxpayer dollars has cleared the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee.  Senate Bill 725 avoids duplication in state government by eliminating 11 joint oversight committees and shifting their responsibilities to the standing committees of each house of the General Assembly, saving the state $851,800. 

911 Funds — The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 293 to protect funds collected for Tennessee’s 911 emergency communications system from being diverted for other general fund purposes.  Ten million dollars have been diverted over the past several years.  This bill would ensure that citizens who are depending on the 911 emergency communications system will continue to be able to access emergency personnel in a timely fashion.   

Railroads —   The Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony tregarding 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.    

Teachers / TCRS — The full Senate voted 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 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.

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