Haslam reveals his 2016 legislative agenda

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday released his administration’s 42-bill agenda for this year’s legislative session that includes an effort to restructure higher education governance that led to the early retirement of the chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents schools.

The Republican governor wants to give more autonomy to the six four-year colleges to allow the Regents system to focus more on promoting graduation rates from the state’s two-year community and technical colleges.

Chancellor John Morgan earlier this month described the plan as “unworkable” in announcing retirement a year earlier than planned. Morgan said the changes would hurt would hurt oversight and accountability efforts.

But Haslam’s proposal is popular among lawmakers who would be able to tout more local control over regional schools in their home districts. Though one hang-up could develop over Haslam’s proposal to appoint all of the 12 members for each six school boards, which would control budgets, tuition and the selection of college presidents.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said lawmakers should have at least some say who serves on the boards of Austin Peay in Clarksville, East Tennessee in Johnson City, Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee State in Nashville and the University of Memphis.

Other bills in the governor’s legislative agenda would:

— Increase sentencing requirements for serious crimes while taking steps to reduce recidivism by expanding services and drug treatment for offenders.

— Make handgun carry permits valid for eight years, up from the current five-year permit.

— Add reporting requirements for the disposal of human fetal tissue after abortions.

“The Fetal Remains Act strengthens accountability and transparency for surgery centers performing abortions,” Haslam said in the release.

Haslam announced earlier this month that he would not try to get lawmakers to approve the state’s first gas tax increase since 1989, avoiding what would have become a similar showdown with fellow Republicans that he faced with his unsuccessful bid to expand Medicaid in Tennessee last year.

Haslam’s sweeping effort to privatize the maintenance of state buildings is absent from his legislative agenda. Lawmakers like Ramsey support the outsourcing plan, but have urged Haslam to get the Legislature to approve those changes.

The governor has so far declined to commit to seeking legislative approval while his administration has been working on a “business justification” for the outsourcing plan.

Note: The governor’s press release is below.

News release from the governor’s office
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced his legislative agenda for the 2016 session, continuing his focus on education, public safety and efficient and effective state government.

“A major focus this session will be on the next step in the Drive to 55: making sure our colleges and universities are organized and empowered in the best way to increase student success and the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or credential,” Haslam said. “You’ll also see a focus on public safety with legislation that makes smarter use of prison bed space and stiffens penalties for the most serious offenses driving Tennessee’s violent crime rate, including continuing to address domestic violence in Tennessee.”

The governor’s legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), includes:

The Focus On College and University Success (FOCUS) Act is the next step in the Drive to 55: ensuring that Tennessee’s public colleges and universities are organized, supported and empowered in their efforts to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential to 55 percent by 2025. To enhance student success across higher education, the legislation provides more focused support for the Tennessee Board of Regents’ (TBR) 13 community and 27 technical colleges; increases autonomy by creating local boards for Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University and the University of Memphis; and strengthens the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC).

The Higher Education Authorization Act aligns the for-profit higher education sector with the Drive to 55 by reshaping its regulatory framework, providing fast-track authorization for currently accredited institutions and directing THEC to redesign regulation for non-accredited institutions. This statute was last updated in 1974, and these changes will transform a cumbersome and outdated structure in order to increase productivity and modernize consumer protections.

The Public Safety Act of 2016 is an initial step in implementing recommendations by the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism. Of the 12,588 people entering state prison last year, 5,061 – or 40 percent – were probationers or parolees sent to prison because they violated supervision conditions. The bill retools community supervision to reduce the number of people returning to prison for probation and parole violations when their noncompliance does not rise to the level of a new criminal offense. This legislation also addresses the most serious offenses driving Tennessee’s violent crime rate by establishing mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of three or more charges of aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, or drug trafficking and increasing the penalty for three or more domestic violence convictions to a Class E felony. The legislation would also allow law enforcement to seek an order of protection on a domestic violence victim’s behalf.

To address concerns raised regarding the selling of human fetal tissue, the Fetal Remains Act requires increased reporting of the disposition of fetal remains, prohibits reimbursement of any costs associated with shipping an aborted fetus or fetal remains and establishes a mandatory interim assessment process for an ambulatory surgical treatment center performing more than 50 abortions annually.

The Efficiency in Handgun Permitting Act improves the process for gun owners and lowers the fee associated with obtaining a handgun carry permit. It extends the current five-year handgun carry permit to eight years, lowers the initial handgun permit fee from $115 for five years to $100 for eight years and expands the renewal cycle from six months to eight years after the expiration of a permit before a person must reapply as a “new” applicant. Under this proposal background checks will continue to be conducted at the time of initial issuance and at the time of renewal. Additionally, an internal background check will be conducted in the fourth year of the eight-year permit.

“The Fetal Remains Act strengthens accountability and transparency for surgery centers performing abortions,” Haslam said. “The procedure for obtaining a handgun carry permit can be more customer friendly without harming the integrity of the permitting process, and this legislation achieves that.”

The governor will also have legislation around a budget-related initiative in education.

A total of 42 bills have been filed on behalf of the administration, but the above pieces of legislation represent the governor’s priorities.

For more information on the governor’s bills, visit www.tn.gov/governor/topic/2016-legislation