The 2016 Tennessee General Assembly has concluded their business at hand and has adjourned “sine die” which means that there is not a date for future meetings. As it is my believe that knowledge is power, and power resides with the people, it has been my endeavor to inform my constituents as much as possible. Here is a summary of the 2016 session with highlights of some of the bills, accomplishments, and insight into some of the “inside baseball” that took place with education and the economy.
Two bills dealing with education were holdovers from 2015. HB 1049 was the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, while the other was HB 675 which gave in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants. HB 1049, otherwise known as the “voucher bill”, would have provided at risk children in underperforming schools the opportunity to use a scholarship to pay tuition at participating private schools. To say that this was a contentious bill is an understatement. For me, as I was approached by all sides on this issue, I looked to see how Tennessee could maximize the liberty of students and parents without negatively impacting those students, teachers, or schools that felt “left behind”.
To me, I was disappointed in the actions of many behind the scenes on this issue. Misinformation, negative emotions, and confusion surrounded this issue. In the end, the sponsor, Chairman Dunn, decided to lay the bill on the desk of the House when he determined that he was not confident that he had the votes. I would personally like to commend Chairman Dunn for that action, as it showed a statesmanlike approach that is often missing in politics.
HB 675, in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, failed to receive the required 50 votes to pass in 2015; however, the bill did not technically fail. So, it was sent back to Calendar and Rules Committee for 2016. Prior to session, I researched the issue and published my findings. In-state tuition only covers between 25-75% of the actual cost to educate a student. That means that taxpayers and donors pay for the rest. It is my understanding that several legislators that voted affirmative in 2015 had changed their minds, and the bill wouldn’t have had enough votes to pass this year. The sponsor decided not to run the bill this year.
With a lot of concerns about questions on student assessments, I co-sponsored HB 1537, the Tennessee Student Assessment Transparency Act. The bill requires the annual release of statewide assessment questions and answers. This change in assessment procedure will provide parents, teachers, and students more information about the tests students take and more information about ways to best support students in their goals.
I, also, co-sponsored HB 1905 which set forth regulations on teaching of religion in schools. Constitutionality, transparency, as well as curriculum and textbook appropriateness were addressed in the bill.
As it is no secret, TNReady was an absolute failure this year. I held a bill that had the caption to address the teacher evaluation process that TNReady impacted. We put pressure on the Dept. of Education and the administration to do something about the tests. In the end, the administration used a bill held by Rep. Forgety to give teachers the option to use the scores or not for their evaluations. As such, my bill, which originally dealt with validity of the tests, did not get in good enough workable form for me to get it passed this year. However, as we have found out from the TNReady process, everything I have said about validity, or lack thereof, in the evaluation process is true. I have spoken with several representatives who are willing to work with me next year on this issue.
Our legislature has been working hard to overcome the Obama economy, and the work has been paying off. Tennessee ranks number one in the southeast, and number two overall in the the United States for job growth over the past year. The private sector in Tennessee has created over 325,000 jobs since 2011. The latest unemployment rate is 4.5%, and more Tennesseans have a job than at any point in state history!
As good as Tennessee is doing, we need to keep improving. This year, I co-sponsored HB2570 which is the Rural Economic Opportunity Act of 2016. The legislation has two main parts. First, the bill would implement a new program called ‘PREP’ or ‘Propelling Rural Economic Progress’. This innovative program would allow grants from the PREP fund to be used to help rural counties build sites and infrastructure to make their communities more attractive to prospective companies.
Second, the legislation would restructure the county tier system making it easier for businesses in rural counties to qualify for job tax credits. This, in turn, would make it easier for these same businesses to expand and hire new workers.
Perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments was HB 813 which phased out the Hall income tax. I was proud to be able to co-sponsor the bill, but even more proud when Rep. Billy Spivey offered an amendment on the House floor that changed the bill to require the phase out of the Hall tax to be completed by January 2021. Tennessee joins Alaska as the only states to completely remove their income taxes on citizens.
One other pro-worker and pro-business bill that I co-sponsored was HB 2201, the “Right to Earn a Living Act.” It was signed into law by the Governor and states that all entry regulations by an agency with respect to businesses, professions, and occupations shall be limited to those demonstrably necessary and carefully tailored to fulfill legitimate public health, safety, or welfare objectives. In other words, agencies will have to demonstrate the necessity of regulations that may hinder entry into work.
One final bill I would like to highlight is HB 2512 by Rep. Andy Holt and Sen. Mark Green. The bill passed both houses and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. I’m a bit surprised that I was the only other co-sponsor of this piece of legislation. It takes on abuses of the unemployment system and is estimated to save the state’s unemployment trust fund over half a million dollars over the next 10 years. In turn, this legislation will help small businesses to save money on their unemployment insurance.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to have updates summarizing healthcare, transportation, the budget, 2nd Amendment, and other issues. I hope you find these updates useful. I believe that knowledge is power, and power is with the people.
Dr. Bryan Terry