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Gov. Lee talks education savings accounts before first bill hearing

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters on March 19, 2019, about his proposal to introduce an education savings account program in Tennessee. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee spoke to reporters at the Cordell Hull building just minutes before his bill seeking to introduce education savings accounts, or ESAs, in Tennessee. (UPDATE: The bill cleared the subcommittee on a voice vote) Here’s a transcript of what Lee had to say:

Lee: Homeschooling parents are very encouraged by the ESA bill. As more folks understand my commitment to strengthening public schools and providing choice at the same time, I think it’s something that’s really going to help Tennessee. I’m really excited about it.

Q: Which homeschoolers will be eligible?

Lee: If a family is in the district that qualifies, and they are currently in a public school, then they would qualify for an ESA.

Q: Any concerns about possibility of fraud?

Lee: There’s a strong accountability component to this in that money can only be used for approved purchases and approved vendors, so that we can be certain that the money that goes with the child will go for educational expenses only.

Q: The bill doesn’t require attendance in failing school. One could attend a fairly good public school and still qualify. What’s the rationale?

Lee: The goal is for children who are in a district that have failing schools. So, it’s targeted at kids in failing schools. Most kids that are not in failing schools will stay in their public schools. Data has shown that. Our public schools across Tennessee are high quality public schools for the most part. That’s why we’re investing so heavily in them. That’s why I believe in public schools. And I think the children that are in failing schools should have an opportunity to have access. And this is what that is targeted at.

Q: Embattled Rep. David Byrd could be key to the fate of this bill. Will pressure be brought to bear to influence his vote?

Lee: I am so trusting that representatives and legislators will vote on what they think is best for Tennesseans. That’s what I’m asking them to do, is to consider these children that I’m hopeful will have a choice as a result of this besides the choice of a failing school. And I trust that’s going to happen.

Lawsuit challenging same-sex marriage dismissed in Bradley County

Former Sen. David Fowler (R-Signal Mountain), right, speaks to Rep. Darren Jernigan (D-Nashville) on March 7, 2018.

Different court, same result. A judge in Bradley County has dismissed a lawsuit filed by former state Sen. David Fowler, the head of the state chapter of the Family Action Council, seeking to challenge same-sex marriage licenses in Tennessee, the Cleveland Banner reports.

The case was filed on behalf of the Rev. Guinn E. Green, pastor of the Kinser Church of God, and Bradley County Commissioner Howard Thompson against County Clerk Donna Simpson for issuing the marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. The lawsuit claimed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling had essentially voided Tennessee’s marriage laws, which define that union as being only being being a man and a woman.

In his ruling late last week, Circuit Court Judge Michael Pemberton noted a similar case, Grant et. al. v.  Elaine Anderson, was decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in May 2018. It found the petitioners did not have standing to bring the case.

“Given the identical nature in each case,” Pemberton said, he was “constrained to follow the law set down by the Court of Appeals.”

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Here’s a look at income limits for Lee’s school voucher proposal

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to provide vouchers to cover private school tuition through education savings accounts, or ESAs, would limit eligibility to families earning double the maximum family income to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. That school lunch program is pegged to 185% of federal poverty guidelines.

Eligibility for the ESA program would be limited to families living within counties with at least three schools in the bottom 10% — but actual attendance in a failing school would not be required to qualify.

A household is defined as the total number of parents and children in the family. Here’s a look at what those limits would be under the proposal headed for its first House subcommittee hearing this week:

Household size Federal poverty guidelines Reduced Price Meals—185% Tennessee ESA proposal
2  $     16,460  $     30,451  $     60,902
3  $     20,780  $     38,443  $     76,886
4  $     25,100  $     46,435  $     92,870
5  $     29,420  $     54,427  $   108,854
6  $     33,740  $     62,419  $   124,838
7  $     38,060  $     70,411  $   140,822
8  $     42,380  $     78,403  $   156,806

UT plans to create tuition-free program for families making less than $50,000

UT Interim President Randy Boyd gives the State of the University Address at the Nashville Public Library. (Photo credit: University of Tennessee)

Interim University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd is introducing a free tuition program for students from households earning less than $50,000 per year, which is just above federal poverty guidelines for a family of four.

Students must qualify for lottery scholarships to be eligible for the program. The initiative seeks to emulate the popular Tennessee Promise scholarships for community college students, though that program doesn’t set income limits or academic requirements.

Here’s the full release from the University of Tennessee:

NASHVILLE – University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd has announced the creation of “UT Promise,” a financial aid program that will provide free tuition to qualifying Tennessee residents enrolling at University of Tennessee campuses located in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin. 

The announcement was made at the annual State of UT Address held at the Nashville Public Library.

“It is critically important that we take a lead role in ensuring students can achieve their dream of obtaining an undergraduate college degree,” Boyd said. “It is our mission and responsibility to do everything  we can to ease the financial burden for our middle- and working-class families, and UT Promise is an ideal conduit to achieve that.”

UT Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program that will guarantee free tuition and fees for students with a family household income of under $50,000 and after other financial aid is received (such as Pell Grants, HOPE Scholarship, or other institutional scholarships).  Students must qualify for the Hope Scholarship and meet the academic qualifications for the institution to be eligible for this new scholarship. To help ensure success, students will be matched with volunteer mentors and will complete four hours of service learning each semester.  

UT Promise will welcome its first class in the fall of 2020, and the scholarship program will include those students who were previously enrolled in college when the program begins in 2020.  Qualifying Tennessee residents who meet the criteria for UT Promise can transfer from any institution. UT Promise is an expansion of scholarship offerings and does not replace existing scholarships.

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Pre-meetings flourish in Tennessee House

The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert seeks good answers to the question of why lawmakers see the need to hold pre-meetings before their regularly scheduled (and live-streamed) meetings. Spoiler alert: There are none.

The pre-meetings are held in hard-to-find — and often changing — locations, with schedules buried in obscure sections of the legislative website. Conference rooms are packed with lawmakers and lobbyists and usually include few members of the public.

From Ebert’s fine report:

Technically, no votes are taken in pre-meetings — that’s what the committee meetings are for. But as some bills are considered in committees, it is clear lawmakers have a sense of the measure’s fate even before a vote.

This year, the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee found several instances of lawmakers counting or influencing members’ votes on legislation.

When Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, presented a bill on March 5, he was told a poll of members would be conducted before the legislation would go before the House State Committee.

“Out of respect for you, of course, I’m going to take time between now and over the next 90 minutes here to try to get a poll here,” (Chairman Kelly) Keisling said.

Bill would target landlords of people in U.S. without authorization

The House is advancing legislation targeting landlords who rent to people without proper authorization to be in the country, the AP’s Jonathan Mattise reports. 

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) who saw the defeat of another one of his measures seeking to help fund President Donald Trump’s border wall through fees charged on international money transfers from people in Tennessee who can’t present a driver’s license.

The landlord vote advanced out of the House Business Subcommittee on a 5-1 vote. It now heads to the full Commerce Committee.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director at Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, condemned the legislation.

“Representative Griffey’s despicable bill seeks to strip the most basic of human needs from hardworking Tennesseans– the roof over their heads.,” she said in a release. “The bill puts thousands of children at risk of homelessness and harm,  and detrimentally affects their health and their ability to get an education.”

Club for Growth launches website targeting Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam gives his farewell address before the inauguration ceremony for Gov. Bill Lee in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Club for Growth, a conservative Super PAC, is taking aim at former Gov. Bill Haslam’s potential candidacy for the U.S. Senate. The Knoxville Republican is expected to make a decision about whether to run this spring.

The group has expressed support for U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Ashland City) to jump into the race to succeed Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) next year. Club for Growth agitated on Republican Marsha Blackburn’s behalf in her successful bid for the Senate last year.

“Deciding to run for the United States Senate would be different than deciding if I am going to go work for this bank or that insurance company or whatever,” Haslam said a Freed-Hardeman University forum last week.  “At the end of the day, for all of us, it’s about where can we be the most useful. Where can our gifts and the world’s needs intersect.”

The Club for Growth ad and the related DirtyBillHaslam.com website take aim over the scandal at the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain controlled by the former governor and his family.

“Governor, don’t run,” Club for Growth Action President David McIntosh said in a release. “You have a legacy as governor and clearly don’t have the fire in the belly nor desire to serve in the U.S. Senate.”

Lee signs executive order in response to February flooding

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has signed an executive order in response to widespread flooding, beginning the process for seeking a federal disaster declaration in the affected counties.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE — Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order enabling further recovery efforts and beginning the process for declaring a federal disaster after record rains in February caused statewide damage.

“As waters recede and we are now able to fully review the extent of flooding damage across our state, I signed an executive order as a key step in working with the federal government for further recovery efforts,” said Lee. “We thank the first responders who are working diligently to keep citizens safe and deliver services.”

Currently, 83 counties have reported damage. The Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) have been coordinating with local authorities to collect the necessary data for further recovery efforts.

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Report: House payroll grows under Casada

The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert reports that new House Speaker Glen Casada has increased payroll costs in the lower chamber of the General Assembly, compared with his predecessor (a fellow Republican), in large part due to salary hikes for existing staffers and the hiring of more personnel.

Ebert’s analysis shows Casada presides over a $5.1 million payroll for employees in his office, House leadership, and committees. Last year at this time, that payroll stood at $3.8 million. Casada’s office says much of that change is due to reclassification of House employees.

That may not be the last of the increased spending: The General Assembly is in line to receive a $7 million budget increase under Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s annual spending plan introduced this week.

Casada said  House employees have been “under-compensated for the last several years.”

“With our new House leadership team in place, we are modernizing operations to fulfill our constitutional responsibilities to represent constituents effectively, and to craft and enact laws that provide solutions and meet the needs of our state,” he told the newspaper.

Salaries for the eight staffers in the speaker’s office this year total nearly $942,000. Last year, the five employees in then-House Speaker Beth Harwell’s office earned $545,000.

Read the full story here.

 

 

Here are Gov. Lee’s proposed raises for state employees

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here’s a look at the $157 million in state employee raises Republican Gov. Bill Lee is proposing for the upcoming budget year:

1. State Employees Salary Pool:

a. 2% Salary Pool – Pay for performance – TEAM Act agencies: $28.8 million (effective 1/1/2020).
b. 2% Salary Pool – Across the board – Non-TEAM Act agencies: $6.7 million (effective 7/1/2019).
c. Market rate adjustment: $18.5 million. 

2. Higher Education Included in Funding Formula:

a. 2% Salary Pool – Formula Units: $22 million. 
b. 2% Salary Pool – Non-Formula Units: $8.5 million

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