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Legislative review: Education bills top Senate agenda

Staff Reports • Dec 15, 2015 at 2:39 PM

Passage of key legislation in the Senate Education Committee, including a bill rewriting the state’s Textbook Commission, topped a busy week at the Capitol in Nashville. 

The commission, which is responsible for recommending an official list of textbooks for approval by the state Board of Education, came under fire by a group of parents last year for having adopted books containing inappropriate language and controversial interpretations of historical facts. 

Senate Bill 1602 is designed to provide greater transparency and more public input in the textbook selection process. In addition, it addresses how the books are chosen at the local level and the process under which an objection can be appealed.     

Sen. Mae Beavers has also filed legislation to halt the implementation of “Common Core” standards and curriculum in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 2405 bans the use of the Common Core standards, and allows the state to come up with its own Tennessee-specific curriculum and standards. The bill currently awaits debate in the Senate Education Committee; however, it appears to have hit a roadblock in the House Education Subcommittee, and its fate in the legislature is unclear.

 In other action in the Senate Education Committee, it approved a resolution expressing Tennessee’s sovereignty over how students are educated in the state. Senate Joint Resolution 491 provides 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 Tennessee considers any collection of student data by the federal government an overreach of the federal government’s constitutional authority. It also extends to organizations contracted to conduct tests on students in Tennessee in regards to any potential sharing or allowing access to pupil data.

Legislation which requires the governor to receive approval from the General Assembly through joint resolution before expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, was approved this week by the full Senate. Senate Bill 804, which is cosponsored by Beavers, is limited to the expansion of optional enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, which is also known as Obamacare.   

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that states have the right to opt out of Medicaid expansion without losing pre-existing federal Medicaid funding.

Under the Medicaid expansion envisioned by Obamacare, Tennessee is estimated to pay $200 million a year for its 10-percent share to expand Medicaid to individuals with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level.  The federal government promised to pay 100 percent of the expansion cost for the first three years, diminishing to 90 percent in future years. 

However, many financial experts are skeptical about the federal government’s ability to maintain the level of funding promised due to mounting national debt. Other states that have opted not to expand their Medicaid programs have also cited their doubt that the federal government will keep its promised level of funding, thus leaving state taxpayers to foot the bill.

 The bill now goes to the governor for his signature before becoming law.

Legislation that would return millions of dollars to taxpayers in the form of bridge infrastructure improvements was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee last week. The County Bridge Relief Act of 2014 changes the way Tennessee currently manages its State Aid Bridge Grant Program to make it easier for communities to access state funds to upgrade, repair, and rehabilitate bridges that have fallen into disrepair over the years.

The legislation helps to unlock $9.54 million in local money that has been sitting unused for a number of years to help aid communities with important bridge infrastructure projects. The money is unused mostly due to the local match required to access the funds. Currently, in order to receive funding through the Bridge Grant Program, a 20 percent local match must be made by local governments. 

However, because many localities cannot afford the match, a large percentage of the bridge funding set aside by the state has gone unused.  Senate Bill 1679 reduces this local match percentage to 2 percent.  In addition, it allows local governments to match the rate by using in-kind services as approved by the Commissioner of Transportation.  This gives road departments the opportunity to invest sweat equity to satisfy the program’s requirements. 

Tax reform groups and legislators held a press conference last week to announce support for a proposal phasing out the Hall Income Tax on stocks and bonds. 

The group maintains that the Hall Tax hits senior citizens who rely on investment income for retirement the hardest, providing a disincentive for saving or driving retirees to move out of state. 

Senate Bill 1427 would phase out the state portion of the tax over a period of six years.  The measure also includes provisions to ensure that the phase out is done in a fiscally responsible manner. The bill was scheduled to be considered Monday in the Senate Tax Subcommittee.

State senators gave final approval to a pension reform bill last week for governmental entities outside the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System. Senate Bill 2079 helps to ensure these localities have the adequate funding to pay retirees. The measure requires that TCRS and each local government entity with a defined benefit pension plan calculate an actuarially determined contribution, which will include normal costs and the amortization of any unfunded liabilities. Last year, the director of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System requested actuarial and financial information from local governmental entities with defined benefit pension plans which are not enrolled in TCRS.  The survey found there were 31 local government pension plans external to TCRS, 13 of which did not pay 100 percent of the annual required contribution in 2012.

The Senate passed two more bills in a series of legislation aiming to curb human trafficking in Tennessee. Eleven measures have been proposed this year by the Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition to toughen state laws, help survivors, and aid law enforcement in the quest to eradicate human trafficking in Tennessee. 

Senate Bill 2564 ensures that those who are guilty of patronizing prostitution of a minor would be placed on the state’s Sex Offender Registry. 

Similarly, the full Senate approved Senate Bill 2040, which treats out-of-state sexual offenders the same way we treat in-state sexual offenders for the purpose of being placed on the Sex Offender Registry. 

Members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee also congratulated Commissioner of Human Services Raquel Hatter last week for her department’s work with the Human Trafficking Task Force in providing more information.  Hatter provided committee members with the latest report, the Human Trafficking Services Coordination and Service Delivery Plan. The report stems from enactment of legislation in 2012 calling for the Department of Human Services to collaborate with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Department of Intellectual and Development Disabilities, Department of Health, Department of Children’s Services and Tennessee Bureau of Investigations to develop a comprehensive plan for the delivery of services to human trafficking victims throughout the state. 

A task force consisting of 80-plus partners from various sectors, including survivors, provider agencies, non-governmental organizations, law enforcement, faith-based communities, various ethnic communities, national organizations, etc. was formed to assist in the effort.

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