March 22, 2014

Bills approved by Senate State and Local Government Committee Vouchsafe a Citizens’ Right to Vote Prior to Annexation

Some of the most important bills of the 2014 legislative session advanced in the Senate this week as committees are working to complete their business in anticipation of adjournment in April. This includes two major bills approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee which vouchsafe citizens’ right to vote prior to annexation. The legislation eliminates forced annexation, which has been the primary form used by municipalities to increase their boundaries over the last several decades in Tennessee.

Senate Bill 869, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), requires a referendum of residents within the area to be annexed by a municipal ordinance prior to annexation; while Senate Bill 2464, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), accomplishes a referendum process by repealing annexation by ordinance completely.

“This bill is not driven by any particular special interest group,” said Speaker Watson. “It is not driven by a professional consultant or a lobbyist. It is driven by the citizens and the representatives who represent them.”

“Above all, the people’s right to vote is preserved under this legislation,” added Senator Crowe.

In addition, committee members approved Senate Bill 2472, by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), to continue the moratorium on annexation passed by the General Assembly last year until May 15, 2015. It specifically directs the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to study the collateral effects of the repeal. This includes the rights of businesses and property owners not residing in the area who would not be qualified to vote in a referendum and how to deal with situations where utilities have already been extended in anticipation of annexation. TACIR has already released an Interim Report on Annexation which examines Tennessee’s annexation laws and compares and contrasts how similar issues are handled in other states.

“Tennessee is an outlier in its enabling of municipalities to annex by ordinance,” said Leader Norris. “It is a thing of the past and we need to embrace that fact and uphold the citizen’s right to vote. There are issues incidental to that which have to be dealt with and one of the reasons to keep the moratorium factor afloat is to provide incentive for those governmental entities to stay around the table and work with us to address remote or collateral issues. It is one package, that we are also in a belt and suspenders way, extending the moratorium so that the other work can be accomplished.”

The three bills now move to the Senate floor for final consideration, where, at a later point, sponsors will agree on either one or two of the proposals that will carry the intent of all of them.

Senate Education Committee approves “Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act”

The “Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act,” which provides Tennessee high school graduates with last dollar tuition assistance to state community colleges and colleges of applied technology, was approved by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Senate Bill 2471, proposed by Governor Bill Haslam and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), allows students graduating from a community college to use the state’s transfer pathways program if they choose to attend a four-year school, making it possible to start as a junior.

The bill, as amended, makes less of an alteration to the current $4,000 per year Hope Scholarship awards at four-year schools than proposed under the original legislation. Starting with the high school class which graduates in 2015, awards at four-year universities under the bill will be $3,500 per school year during a student’s freshman and sophomore years and increase to $4,500 per year in the junior and senior years.

The legislation builds on the Tennessee Complete College Act passed in 2010 and the ambitious “Drive to 55” initiative launched by Governor Bill Haslam last year. The goal is to bring the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications from 32% to 55% by the year 2025. The proposal aims to boost efforts to reach the 41 percent of Tennessee high school graduates who do not pursue postsecondary education, many of which are due to financial barriers. Statistics show that these students are more successful in attaining a post-secondary degree or certification if they attend community college, with many moving on to four-year institutions afterwards.

To pay for the plan, the proposal calls for transferring approximately $300 million in lottery reserve funds, which would be added to the $47 million already placed in an endowment for student scholarships. It is estimated that the cost of the Tennessee Promise scholarships will be approximately $34 million annually. The governor has recommended $110 million should remain in the lottery reserve fund to help ensure adequate funding moving forward.

“Citizens have heard a lot about where we are, not only as a state in the nation, but a nation in the world,” said Norris, who, as Chairman of the Council of State Governments, has launched a national “State Pathways to Prosperity.” Among other goals, the initiative aims to help states develop innovative policies to prepare students with the foundational skills they need to succeed. “We have learned that we have a skills gap in Tennessee, and we are not alone. We have an education gap that we must address if we are to close that skills gap and meet the challenges of advanced industries in the 21st century. This innovative act will help fill that need.”

The U.S. trails 11 other developed nations in post-secondary attainment among those 25 to 34 years of age. The nation has fallen even farther behind in the percentage of young adults graduating from high school, trailing 21 developed nations. A 2012 program for international student assessments, which measures the performance of 15-year-olds in 65 countries, ranked the United States 20th, 23rd and 30th in reading, science and math, respectively.

The legislation now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact before moving to the floor for final action.

Senate approves legislation to block federal intrusion into Tennessee’s curriculum and to prevent data-mining of student information
Bill overhauls Textbook Commission

The Tennessee Senate overwhelmingly approved three key bills on Monday that will block federal intrusion into Tennessee’s curriculum, reform the state’s textbook commission and prevent data-mining of student information in the state’s public schools. Passage of the legislation comes after the Senate Education Committee conducted fact-finding hearings last year to address concerns regarding Common Core. The Committee also held multiple hearings in cooperation with the Government Operations Committee in response to inappropriate language and a controversial interpretation of facts contained in textbooks which were approved by the state’s Textbook Commission.

“I am very proud of the work done by our Committees in examining the facts and letting them be our guide in addressing many legitimate concerns surrounding both Common Core and the process in which our state textbooks are selected,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville). “These bills protect us from federal intrusion into our curriculum so it reflects Tennessee values and overhauls the way we select textbooks to help ensure students are presented with unbiased factual information.”

Senate Joint Resolution 491, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), provides that the state, not the federal government, should determine the content of Tennessee’s state academic standards and the measures used to assess how well students have mastered them. The state education sovereignty resolution spells out that Tennessee considers any collection of student data by the federal government an overreach of the federal government’s constitutional authority. The resolution extends to organizations contracted to conduct tests on students in Tennessee in regard to any potential sharing or allowing access to pupil data.

Likewise, the full Senate approved Senate Bill 1835, sponsored by Sen. Gresham, which puts the force of Tennessee law behind the principles set out in the state education sovereignty resolution. The Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act reiterates the federal government has no constitutional right to set educational standards and ensures that any partnership with a consortium is totally at the discretion of the state. “It also provides greater transparency to parents regarding the child’s progress and ensures that data collected by the state should be used for the sole purpose of tracking academic progress and the needs of the student,” Gresham said.

Senate Bill 1602, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), vacates the current Textbook Selection Commission and replaces it with a new State Textbook and Instructional Materials Commission to provide greater transparency and more public input in the textbook selection process. The bill ensures the commission and those who review the textbooks have significant guidance by providing better training for members; provides specific review criteria that must be considered when recommending books for approval; makes textbook companies financially responsible for fixing any mistakes in their materials; and, requires publishers to submit complete books for online review by the public. The bill requires the commission to consider public comment regarding textbook selection.

Bills in Brief

College Savings — Legislation which incentivizes college savings has met the final approval of the State Senate. The state’s TNStars College Savings 529 Program offers parents and other relatives with a low-cost way to save for children’s college expenses with attractive investment options and special tax advantages. However, current law does not specifically provide that the board may establish multiple plans. Senate Bill 2106 , sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), allows the State Treasurer to establish more than one 529 college savings plan, including an advisor-sold plan.

Meth / TAMP Act — Legislation to combat the manufacture of methamphetamines in Tennessee is headed to the Senate floor for final consideration after being approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week. Senate Bill 1751, the Tennessee Anti-Meth Production (TAMP) Act, cuts the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be bought in Tennessee from the current limit of 9 grams a month to 4.8 grams, which is equivalent to 40 12-hour tablets. The bill targets so-called ‘smurfers’ who buy from a variety of stores in small quantities until they have enough to manufacture meth. Tennessee ranks second in the nation, behind Indiana, in meth lab seizures last year. The legislation sets an annual limit on pseudoephedrine purchases of 14.4 grams. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

Wine in Grocery Stores – Governor Bill Haslam held a ceremony on Thursday to sign Senate Bill 837 that would let Tennesseans in certain communities vote on whether to allow the sale of wine in retail food stores via a local referendum. The referendum bill applies to communities that currently allow retail package stores, liquor-by-the-drink establishments or both. Thirty-six states, including six of Tennessee’s border states, allow the sale of wine in retail food stores. In order to place the referendum on the ballot, a petition must be presented to the county election commission where the referendum is to be held. The petition must include signatures from 10 percent of the jurisdiction’s population that voted in the last gubernatorial election. The first opportunity that a referendum could be on the ballot is November 2014. If approved by the voters, wine sales in food stores could begin on July 1, 2016. The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

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