March 31, 2011

On March 31, 2011, in News from Nashville 2011, by Mark Norris

Capitol Hill Week: Senate Education Committee approves bill promoting growth of quality public charter schools

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 31, 2011 —  The Senate Education Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville),  Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), and Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to create an environment that promotes the growth of high quality public charter schools in Tennessee. The bill is one of three education reform measures proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to improve student achievement by giving students the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

 “Public charter schools are a critical tool to improve public education and provide every child in Tennessee the opportunity to receive a great education,” said Speaker Woodson.  “This bill creates an environment that promotes the growth of high quality charter schools, allows districts access to innovative tools to address their unique challenges, and gives many more parents the option of sending their child to a school that better suits his or her needs.”

Key provisions of the Senate Bill 1523 include:

  • Removes the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state
  • Allows for open enrollment in charter schools (removes eligibility restrictions while maintaining current system that gives preference to certain applicants and provides for a lottery system when applications exceed the number of seats available in the school)
  • Gives preference in the application process to proposed charter schools that demonstrate a capability to support certain high-need populations
  • Provides the Achievement School District with the ability to authorize charter schools within the district
  • Allows for appeal of charter revocation or nonrenewal to State Board of Education except when those decisions are based on the current AYP accountability guidelines for charters (maintains high accountability standards)
  •  Removes “automatic repeal” provision so that there is no automatic sunset date on the charter law 

“High quality charter schools serve as laboratories of learning for struggling school districts,” added Leader Norris.  “We have attracted significant investments to help more quality charter schools get started in our state. However, we are missing the flexibility within our law to foster that growth.”

 “The national spotlight is now on Tennessee’s education reform efforts,” added Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).  “This legislation makes commonsense changes which are a critical part of our strategy to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools.”

Recently, Tennessee was awarded $40 million in investments to support new charter schools in Tennessee.   The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of the measure’s financial impact.

Race to the Top — Action on the education reform bill came one day after the first anniversary of Tennessee’s Race to the Top win.  The Senate Education Committee heard testimony that, since being awarded upward of $501 million, school districts have begun executing a dramatic set of school reforms as a result of the bold initiatives passed last year.

The first year has been a combination of planning and successes.  The plan focuses on three main student performance goals: young students’ academic readiness, high school graduates’ readiness for college and careers, and higher rates of graduates enrolling and succeeding in post-secondary education.
 
Tennessee’s complete Race to the Top proposal and other First to the Top accomplishments are detailed on the Tennessee First to the Top website at www.tn.gov/firsttothetop. 

SJR 127 to restore the people’s voice on state’s abortion laws
meets first test of 2011 with passage in Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6 to 3 this week to give Tennesseans the opportunity to restore their voice in determining what state law should be regarding abortions.  The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 127, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) addresses a State Supreme Court decision in 2000 that struck down provisions in Tennessee law allowing women to receive “informed consent” information about the surgery and to wait 48 hours before they receive an abortion.

The court also ruled against a state requirement that all abortions after the first trimester be performed in a hospital. That ruling made Tennessee more liberal than the U.S. Supreme Court required in “Roe v. Wade” and made the right to abortion a “fundamental right” in Tennessee.

“I am pleased that this resolution has been approved by our Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Senator Beavers.  “This would enable Tennessee to begin the process to restore the right of the people to decide through their elected legislature what protections should be in place regarding abortions.  The only way to restore these protections is to change the constitution and give the legislature authority to write commonsense laws.”

The resolution would allow citizens to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to say that the right to an abortion is only protected under the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.  It would give the people the right, through their elected state representatives and senators, to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape, incest or life of the mother.  The practical effect of the legislation would be to bring Tennessee back into a position of neutrality so the people’s elected representatives can decide within the bounds of federal decisions what protections can be put into place.

The resolution was approved by the 106th General Assembly by a simple majority.  The amendment process requires a two-thirds majority in the current General Assembly before citizens will see it on the ballot in November 2014. 

Comprehensive legislation approved by Senate Transportation Committee would
provide statewide guidelines for unmanned traffic enforcement cameras

The Senate Transportation Committee has approved comprehensive legislation to provide statewide guidelines to govern the use of unmanned traffic cameras.  The proposal comes after much legislative debate on the matter during the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions.   The use of automated systems for surveillance of intersections and roadways is growing as more communities across the state are utilizing the devices.   Opponents of the cameras have argued that the motivation behind the cameras is money instead of safety, while those who favor the cameras claim that the devices have made streets safer by reducing the number of crashes. 

“The purpose of this bill is to give uniform standards across the state,” said Senator Jim Tracy, who is sponsor of the bill and Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.  “We have worked on this proposal for several years and have put together a very comprehensive bill.” 

Senate Bill 1684, as amended, includes statewide provisions that:

  • Invalidate traffic camera citations issued for failure to make a complete stop before making a right hand turn at a red signal unless clearly marked signs are posted saying “No Turn on Red.”
  • Clarify that advance signage to inform drivers is required of at least 500 feet, but not more than 1000 feet, before the enforcement area of the unmanned traffic enforcement camera.
  • Require an independent traffic engineering study before any new camera can be set up to assure that the proposed camera meets certain criteria to ensure that the purpose is to improve traffic safety.
  • Prohibit speed trap cameras by banning the use of traffic enforcement cameras on any highway within one mile of a reduction of speed limits of 10 mph or greater.
  • Provide that no more than one citation shall be issued for each offense committed.
  • Vehicle registration information must be consistent with the evidence recorded by the enforcement camera or the citation is invalid.
  • Mandate that notice of violations be mailed to the alleged offender within 20 days and that all responses and payments be made to a Tennessee address.
  • Set the fine at $50 if the violator elects not to contest and provides that citation notices must list any additional late fees or court costs separately in the event they    should decide to go to court and are found guilty.
  • Amend current law to allow only POST certified or state-commissioned law enforcement officers to view evidence from a traffic enforcement camera and issue the citation.  Present law only requires an “employee” of the law enforcement agency.”

“My goal is to protect the public from abuse of these camera systems by providing clear guidelines to ensure that the focus is on public safety,” added Tracy.  “I am very pleased with the bill’s progress and believe the chances of passage are excellentThe bill would not affect current unmanned traffic enforcement contracts in place.  If passed, the law would become effective July 1, 2011.

Judiciary Committee approves bill calling for popular election
of state’s appellate and Supreme Court Judges

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill calling for a change in the method for selecting the state’s appellate and Supreme Court Judges.  Senate Bill 127, sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), calls for judges to be popularly elected in the same manner as other candidates for office, like those competing for governor, state representatives, or state senate.  Tennessee currently uses the “Tennessee Plan” for selecting appellate and Supreme Court judges. 

Under the current Tennessee Plan, a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission sends the governor a panel of three nominees for consideration after reviewing nominees.  The governor must then appoint one of the nominees or reject the panel of three and request a second panel.  After being appointed through this process, the judges serve until the term for which they were appointed expires at which time they must stand for approval by the voters in an election where the voters will decide whether or not to “retain” or “replace” them. 

Tennessee’s Constitution says judges must be “elected by the qualified voters of the state.” Much of the debate has focused on whether or not the selection process with a retention vote meets that constitutional test.  While the constitutionality of the plan has been affirmed twice by Court decisions, many legal scholars dispute the ruling.

Passage of the bill came after Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) was asked to break a 4-4 tie on the measure.  Afterwards, Ramsey said he took the step because he believes the state constitution is unambiguous in its proscription that judges “shall be elected” in the state of Tennessee.

“While I do not believe electing judges in statewide elections is the best policy for our state, our Constitution is very clear on this matter,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey.

“Our Constitution is what we swear by oath to uphold,” said Senator Campfield.  “The Constitution says the members of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of this state — not selected, not appointed, but elected.  Everybody in here knows what election means because we have all been through it.  If any of us said there is not going to be an election (for State Senate) anymore and that it would be by a retention vote, they would laugh every one of us out of office.” 

In Brief…

Cutting Red Tape — Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey this week announced he will launch a website dedicated to shining a light on unnecessary government regulation.  TNRedtape.com’s mission is to be a space on the web where regular Tennesseans can have a voice and seek relief from oppressive government red tape.  The site offers the opportunity to small business owners to tell their story of overbearing government regulation and how it has affected their lives.  The most flagrant examples will be highlighted on the blog and the site will also aggregate stories of government red tape in the news.

Government Efficiency — The State Senate voted 31 to 0 this week to terminate the Occupational Safety and health Administration Labor Advisory Council.  The action on Senate Bill 213, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Bo Watson (R-Hixson), comes as a result of the General Assembly’s sunset review process.  The purpose of sunset review is to identify and eliminate waste, duplication and inefficiency in government agencies. In his State of the State Address, Governor Haslam asked the General Assembly to join him in reviewing the state’s boards and commissions to see whether 140 are necessary.  He also noted the progress of the Senate Government Operations Committee and its Chairman, Bo Watson, in this regards.  The full Senate also approved Senate Bill 240 by Senator Watson this week.  That legislation will complete the wind down process of the Board of Review in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development which was terminated by the General Assembly last year.  The duties of that board will be absorbed by the Department of Labor. 

Animal fighting – The Senate Judiciary Committee this week approved the “Animal Fighting Enforcement Act,” which strengthens penalties for attending dog fights and cockfights.  Senate Bill 785, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), imposes a fine of $2,500 for the Class A misdemeanor of cock fighting, increases the penalty for a 2nd or subsequent conviction of cock fighting from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony, enhances the penalty for being a spectator at an animal fight from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor, and imposes a $2,500 fine for such violation.  The link between animal cruelty and other forms of illegal activities is a national concern.  Other states like North and South Carolina have driven animal fighting to Tennessee due to increased penalties imposed in their states. 

Consumers / Banks — The State Senate has approved Senate Bill 1800, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), to help provide consumers notice regarding a solicitation that might appear that it is coming from their bank.  A problem has arisen where companies obtain mortgage information and contact the customer offering to refinance their mortgage but are not affiliated with the bank.  By using the bank’s logo when making contact with the customer, it becomes a misrepresentation because the customer thinks that their lending institution is offering the new financing.  The bill clarifies that it is unlawful for a person, “other than the lender or a person authorized by the lender” to use a loan number, loan amount, or other specific loan information that is not publicly available in a solicitation for the purchase of services or products unless it clearly states in bold face type the name, address and phone number of the solicitor.  It must also contain a statement that the person making the solicitation is not authorized or affiliated with the bank, nor does it contain loan information provided by them.

Military Parents / Child Custody — The State Senate has voted to approved legislation sponsored by Senator Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) to require a court to hold an expedited hearing, if appropriate, for a temporary modification to a decree for child custody or visitation when a parent, who is to be mobilized into military duty, requires immediate attention. With the substantially increased activity of our armed forces around the world today, Senate Bill 721recognizes the need to protect the rights of both service members and their children.  The legislation requires the court to allow testimony to be given by electronic means while the military parent is out of the state, if necessary.  It also authorizes the court to permanently modify a decree of child custody or visitation if a parent volunteers for successive or frequent duties that remove the parent from the state. 

Budget Hearings — The State Senate budget hearings have begun as state departments and agencies appeared before committees this week to review their requests in the 2011-12 appropriations bill.  Senate Committees will continue the hearings for the next several weeks.  The budget is traditionally one of the last bills to be passed before adjournment. 

Teacher tenure reform bill goes to governor –   The full Senate approved a minor amendment to Senate Bill 1528 regarding teacher tenure reform and sent the bill to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), changes a teacher’s probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure from three to five years as well as links tenure status to performance evaluations, among other changes.  The legislation builds on the bold initiatives passed last year with Tennessee’s First to the Top program to give Tennessee students more opportunities to succeed.

Cost savings / uncontested city elections – The full Senate voted this week to approve Senate Bill 922, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), designed to save Tennessee cities money spent on early voting when there is no opposition in a city election.  The bill would remove the requirement that an early voting period be held for any municipal election if there is no opposition for any of the offices involved, including any write-in candidate that has filed notice.  The legislation only applies in cases when the election is not held in conjunction with a primary election, the regular August or November general elections, or any special primary or special general election for state or federal offices.

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