News from Nashville – February 5, 2016

On February 5, 2016, in News from Nashville 2016, by Mark Norris

February 5, 2016

Senator Norris at Northeast State Community College in Blountville at the VETS Campus designation

Senator Norris at Northeast State Community College in Blountville
at the VETS Campus designation

Northeast Community College Designated a VETS Campus

Posted on February 3, 2016 by Darlene Schlicher

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) visited the Tri-Cities area on Thursday and Friday. He was the keynote speaker at Northeast State Community College’s Blountville Campus on Friday recognizing the VETS Campus designation.

Northeast State Community College was the 11th school to receive this distinction and joins Austin Peay State University, Chattanooga State Community College, Cleveland State Community College, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Pellissippi State Community College, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, University of Memphis, University of Tennessee, Volunteer State Community College and Walter State Community College.

Senator Norris was introduced by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and accompanied by Dr. Russ Deaton, the Interim Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC).

The 2014 VETS Act, authored and passed by Norris, provides in-state tuition to veterans upon discharge, and incentivizes “vets-friendly” campuses.

Norris chairs the Veterans Subcommittee in the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

The son of a B-24 pilot, Senator Norris has sponsored and passed many laws helping Tennessee veterans, including the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, legislation helping deployed parents deal with custody issues, enhanced Prior Learning Assessments for academic credit to vets for service-related training, and Vets Reconnect.

Northeast Community College received $94,000 under a Veterans Reconnect grant last year. That grant funded the Veterans Affairs Endowed Scholarship and the Veterans Emergency Scholarship. It enabled the purchase of new IT equipment, furniture and televisions for both the Blountville and Johnson City Campus Vet Centers, new IT equipment for the Veterans Affairs Office and the purchase of books entitled “Life During College – The Veteran’s Guide to Success” with information on the differences between military and college culture, study habits, managing finances and maximizing benefits, and employment-seeking skills.

Governor Bill Haslam’s unveils 2016-2017 budget focusing on education

Governor Bill Haslam delivered his proposal to fund state government for the 2016-2017 fiscal year in his annual State of the State Address this week, unveiling a balanced $34.8 billion proposal that makes the largest investment in K-12 education without a tax increase in Tennessee’s history. The governor’s Fiscal Year 2016-2017 budget proposes 261 million in new dollars for Tennessee public education, including $104.6 million for teacher salaries. It also builds up state reserves, puts Tennessee on the path to catch up on long-deferred maintenance of buildings, reinvests in the state workforce and focuses one-time dollars on reducing the state’s ongoing costs.

In his speech, Gov. Haslam highlighted the collaborative effort with the General Assembly to grow Tennessee’s economy, reduce ongoing costs, provide high quality service to taxpayers and maintain fiscal discipline that has positioned Tennessee to invest in its priorities. The governor said that the budget proposal takes advantage of a strengthening economy combined with the hard work and discipline of departments of state government and the conservative fiscal strategy employed by the General Assembly, the state’s constitutional officers and his administration.

“By managing wisely and investing strategically, we’re making tax dollars work harder for Tennesseans. This is what we do,” Haslam said.

Including the current fiscal year’s appropriation, state government will invest more than 414 million in new dollars in Tennessee schools. Haslam proposed funding the 12th month of health insurance for teachers and doubling the state’s recurring contribution for technology needs at schools.

The governor’s proposal puts $100 million into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, bringing it to an estimated $668 million on June 30, 2017; $60 million for salary increases for state employees; and another $36 million for market rate adjustments for state employees making less than $50,000 annually.

Gov. Haslam proposed significant investments in higher education and the Drive to 55 initiative, the state’s effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential to 55 percent by 2025, including:

  • $50 million for the Complete College funding formula for higher education;
  • $20 million for the Drive to 55 Capacity Fund to help community and technical colleges meet the growing demand for degrees and certificates; and
  • $10 million for the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP), helping communities align degree and course offerings with the needs of the local workforce.

“My focus has been and remains on the ‘Four E’s of Tennessee:’ Employment, Education, Economic Opportunity and Efficiency,” commented Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who carries the Governor’s Budget through the legislative process. “This budget reflects and furthers that focus through additional funding for the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) I crafted in 2013. The Tennessee Higher Education Commissions 2016 LEAP Report, released last month, calls for more funding for expansion, and this budget answers that call.”

The proposal invests $581.6 million in state and other funds to build new buildings and fix existing higher education and general state government facilities. This includes the top recommended capital projects for both the University of Tennessee (UT) system and the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR):

  • $85.5 million for a new Tennessee Tech University laboratory science building;
  • $39 million for a new dentistry building at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis;
  • $38.8 million for Tennessee State University’s new health science building; and
  • $36 million for renovations to UT-Chattanooga academic buildings.

Other notable budget investments are:

  • $130 million from the General Fund to repay the Highway Fund;
  • $24 million in state funds for the Employment and Community First (ECF) CHOICES program to allow the state to serve more people currently on the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ waiting list and others eligible for services;
  • $12.8 million for facilities and homeland security upgrades for the Military Department;
  • $10 million for the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Rural Development Initiative;
  • $1.27 million to increase the number of drug recovery courts from 41 to 50 and for two additional veterans courts.

“We have been very prudent with Tennessee’s finances. We have the lowest state debt in the nation and nothing in this budget will create new debt,” added Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), who is Vice-Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “Rather, this budget increases the state’s savings account which declined greatly during the recession years to ensure we have the financial safety net we need in the event of a downturn in the economy. I look forward to working with the administration as this budget moves forward.”

Legislation calling for online voter registration advances in the Senate State and Local Government Committee

Legislation providing for the establishment of an online voter registration system for Tennesseans was unanimously approved by members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. Under Senate Bill 1626 / House Bill 1742, sponsored by Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), voters with an unexpired driver’s license or personal identification card issued by the Department of Safety will be able to go to an official state website where they will be able to register to vote online.

“In an electronic age, it makes sense to provide electronic registration if we have proper safeguards and validation steps,” said Senator Yager. “This legislation provides those assurances to make voter registration more convenient for Tennesseans and hopefully encourages more citizens to participate in the election process.”

The voter registration application would be reviewed electronically. If the request is confirmed to be valid, the new registration would be added to the state’s voter registration list after being reviewed by the respective county election commission office. The validation step is done by comparing the information on the online registration form against the information provided by the same individual when he or she received a driver’s license or their state-issued identification card.

The signature already on record with the state would become the signature on record for voting. If the information does not match, the applicant would be directed to print and complete the application and mail it to the county election commission office in their county of residence to be processed.

Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia offer online registration, and another two states have passed legislation to create online voter registration systems, but have not yet implemented them.

Bills to help military service members and veterans advance in Senate Committees

Three legislative measures that would help military service members and veterans advanced in Senate Committees this week. These include a resolution sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) asking Congress and President Obama to review and revise the law and policy regarding the carrying of firearms by military service members on military installations or facilities. Bell said the revisions are needed so that personnel can both help prevent and more readily defend themselves from terrorist attacks.

The Department of Defense restricts the carrying of firearms and the use of deadly force by military and civilian personnel on military installations through the issuance of Directive 5210.56. Senate Joint Resolution 391 comes after acts of domestic terrorism occurred on military facilities including Fort Hood in 2009, a Little Rock military recruiting center in 2009, the Washington Navy Yard in 2013 and Chattanooga on July 16, 2015. The resolution recognizes the mounting threat of domestic attacks inspired by Islamic State and also encourages the Secretary of Defense to review and revise the directive to reduce the restrictions currently in place in order to protect U.S. Armed Forces personnel.

Having met the approval of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, the resolution now goes to the Senate floor for final approval.

Legislation was approved in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Tuesday to protect National Guard reservists from losing their jobs in connection with their service. State law currently provides protection for residents who take a leave of absence in accordance with orders from the Tennessee Army and Air National Guard; however the protections are not provided to reservists who work here but serve in another state’s reserves. Senate Bill 1444 extends the protection to members of the Army or Air National Guard of any other state.

This bill now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact.

The Senate Education Committee voted to give in-state tuition and fees to dependent children of military parents if the parent perished as the result of a targeted attack that occurred in Tennessee, regardless of their place of residency. Senate Bill 1431 would affect the children of the five military service members who perished in the Chattanooga terrorist attack.

The Chattanooga terrorist attack victims, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan, Marine Staff Sergeant David A. Wyatt, Marine Sergeant Carson A. Holmquist, Navy Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith, and Lance Corporal Squire K. Wells, were mentioned by Governor Haslam in his State of the State Address this week. The Governor said that his budget proposal will include homeland security upgrades for the military department. Some of the security measures could include installation of new barriers, security cameras and magnetic locks.

In other news regarding veterans this week, Northeast State Community College will become the thirteenth campus in Tennessee to receive a VETS Campus designation. The Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials. The “VETS Campus” designation recognizes and promotes schools that make veteran enrollment a priority. Higher education institutions that satisfy veteran-friendly criteria, such as specialized orientation and the availability of mentoring programs, can receive the designation.

Austin Peay State University, Chattanooga State Community College, Cleveland State Community College, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Pellissippi State Community College, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, University of Memphis, University of Tennessee, Volunteer State Community College and Walter State Community College are already recognized as VETS Campuses.

In Brief

Teachers / Sexual Offenses — Legislation was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week that requires a teacher who is convicted of a misdemeanor sexual offense with a student to forfeit retirement benefits under any plan within the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS). Senate Bill 1656, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), applies to teachers joining the TCRS on or after July 1, 2016. TCRS pensions are already forfeited for felons if the act in which they were convicted was job related. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for a final vote.

E-Verify — In the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, members voted to approve a bill to put some teeth into Tennessee’s E-Verify law. Under current law, all private employers with six or more employees must register and utilize E-Verify or request and maintain one of the listed identity/employment authorization documents from a newly hired employee or non-employee to ensure the applicant is in the U.S. legally. Senate Bill 1965 provides that any employer with 25 or more employees must enroll in the online E-Verify system, removing an option that maintaining paper documents is sufficient for compliance. The bill decreases from 60 to 30 the number of days that an employer has to remedy a non-compliance finding after receipt of an initial order for violation of the state’s E-Verify requirements. It also creates an additional $500 civil penalty per day if the employer fails to use E-Verify or provide an affidavit of undue hardship. The legislation is designed to target bad actors who find it more advantageous to pay a one-time $500 fine for hiring illegal aliens than to follow Tennessee’s E-Verify law. The bill is sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) and now goes to the Senate floor for consideration by the full Senate.

Roddie Edmonds Honored for Heroism — The State Senate honored Army Master Sargent Roddie Edmonds this week in a resolution recognizing his heroism in saving the lives of 200 Jewish-American soldiers. Edmonds, a Knoxville native, was the senior leader of POWs captured by Germans in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge. When a gun was placed to his head and he was asked to identify American-Jewish captives serving with him, Edmonds refused saying, “We are all Jews here.” The Nazi officer relented due to Edmonds heroic action saving the Jewish American POWs from being separated and transported to slave labor camps, concentrations camps or worse. Edmonds passed away in 1985 but he is being honored posthumously by Israel’s Righteous Among Nations for his actions. Senate Joint Resolution 454 is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).

Prescription Drug Abuse — The Senate Health Committee approved legislation designed to reduce the rampant overprescribing of pain killers across the state by enhancing oversight of pain management clinics. Senate Bill 1466, sponsored by Senators Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), reflects negotiations with stakeholders that empower the state to accomplish this task without overburdening those physicians whom are providing quality care to their patients. Tennessee is still a close second behind Alabama as the worst state in the nation for the use of opioids per capita despite improvements made as a result of the General Assembly’s efforts to attack the problem. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for approval.


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