By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennesseans drawing unemployment benefits will soon lose a weekly $15-per-child allowance as part of a new law signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
The Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Friday that the change will help bolster the state unemployment trust fund, which could lead to a reduction in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.
According to the department’s projections, ending the allowance for dependent children in the budget year beginning July 1 will save the state $40 million per year.
Lawmakers created the child allowance in 2009 in order to qualify for a nearly $142 million federal stimulus grant. Now that that money had been spent, the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year passed a bill to end the program. It passed 66-23 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.
“That benefit was nice while it lasted and while it was being paid for with federal dollars,” said Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, a main sponsor of the bill to make the benefit changes.
NASHVILLE – Legislation tying parents’ welfare benefits to their children’s performance in school advanced another step Wednesday despite contentions that it amounts to a “mean-spirited” attack against vulnerable families.
The House Health Committee approved the bill (HB261) on a 10-8 vote after extended debate, including testimony from spokeswomen from a social workers organization and a group advocating for domestic violence victims.
Both opposed the measure, which would cut benefits of parents of a child failing in school by 30 percent in some circumstances.
The measure is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday. (UPDATE Note: The vote was postpone for a week, until next Thursday.)
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, said the bill as amended would apply only to the “worst of the worst” parents. The bill does not apply when a child has a learning disability or a physical handicap. As amended, it also allows the penalty to be avoided if the parent attends two parent teacher conferences, an eight-hour parenting class, arranges tutoring or enrolls the child in summer school.
“What I keep hearing from teachers and educators is that we need to do whatever we can to make parents more accountable,” said Dennis. “This bill does just that.”
But critics argued the bill effectively makes a child responsible for a family’s financial well-being, increasing stress on the youths.
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, a teacher, said some children could even face physical threats.
“I know it will be putting some of my kids in danger if their grades go down (and benefit checks go down because of it),” she said.
Similar concerns were voiced by Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. She envisioned situations with a mother leaving an abusive situation, causing stress on her children that causes their school performance to plummet – then seeing family income cut to create still more stress.
“It’s just mean-spirited,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.
But Dennis and some other Republicans on the committee said any pressure will be on parents, who need prodding to help their children get an education.
“I think we’re putting the burden squarely on the shoulders of the parents,” said Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville.
Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, rejected contentions that the bill could leave some children hungry.
“I’m more worried about a child starving for a lifetime (because of not getting an education) rather than for a few days,” Doss said.
All Democrats on the commtttee voted against the bill, joined by two Republicans. All 10 yes votes came from Republicans.
Gov. Bill Haslam, meanwhile, has told reporters he has misgivings about the bill — enough that he would consider vetoing it should the legislation reach his desk.
“Listen, I believe in incentives for the right type of thing,” the governor said. “I’m not sure you have the direct connection there between children’s grades and parents receiving benefits. There’s too many things that can be a disconnect there.”
Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation to slash dependent benefits for unemployed Tennesseans as a way to rein in a program that was expanded in 2009 under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, reports The Tennessean. The bill (HB639), which cleared a key House committee with little resistance on Tuesday, would save the state an estimated $62.5 million annually, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor. Those savings are necessary, supporters say, because $141 million in federal funds given to the state under the stimulus have run out, and Tennessee employers have had to pick up the bill.
A Democratic leader in the House called the proposal a bad bill that would hurt the unemployed in the state. But Republican leadership, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, said the state was fixing what amounted to an unfunded mandate.
Consideration of the bill comes one week after the Department of Labor’s unemployment benefits program was blistered in a state audit that found fraud and mismanagement that “threatened the integrity” of the unemployment benefits system.
“This is the very definition of an unfunded mandate,” said state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, adding that the state needed to halt the expanded benefits in order to preserve the health of the unemployment insurance fund. “Experts say there’s no way our fund could withstand another recession.”
Under current state law, unemployed workers receive $15 per week for each dependent, with a cap of $50 per week, in addition to their regular unemployment check. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and in the Senate by Ramsey and Johnson, would end such dependent benefits.
Unemployment checks for individuals are capped at $275 per week. A family with four or more dependents receives an additional $50 each week.
The bill cleared the House Consumer and Human Resources committee Tuesday with a voice vote, though Democrats such as Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, expressed their opposition.
Sen. Mike Bell has proposed what he calls “a complete rewrite of the knife laws in Tennessee,” repealing present provisions that effectively prohibit use of “switchblades” and apparently ban use of knives with blades longer than four inches for self-defense.
Bell’s bill (SB1015) would also override multiple city and county government ordinances that restrict knives. It was approved on a 7-1 vote Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with one member abstaining.
The Riceville Republican said he began looking into knife laws after a judge told him “a couple of years ago” he tried to order a knife from an online retailer and was told the company did not ship to Tennessee because it read state law to ban knives with blades longer than 4 inches.
He has since learned, Bell said, that “thousands of people throughout Tennessee” are violating state law by having “switchblade knives,” which he said are more properly called “spring-loaded knives.”
Bell said the present ban on switchblades, which are useful for people who need to open a knife with one hand in some situations, was banned in Tennessee and many other states after ” hysteria caused by Hollywood movies.”
Actually, he said officials of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation say they are rarely, if ever, used in crime. Further, with only a slight variation in opening procedure, a knife can avoid the switchblade designation and be legal, he said.
The bill repeals several provisions of current law, including those on the crime of carrying a knife “for the purpose of going armed.” The law now forbids having a knife with a blade of more than 4 inches for such purposes, he said, unless it is used in hunting, fishing, camping or “other lawful activity.”
Effectively, Bell said, that means a person cannot carry a knife for self-defense. He said his 18-year-old daughter cannot legally get a handgun carry permit to possess a gun for self-defense and should be able to carry a long-bladed knife instead.
The only no vote on the committee Tuesday came from Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, who said a law enforcement officer had contacted him with concerns about the bill.
Bell said pre-emption of local ordinances is needed to provide statewide uniformity in laws. Clarksville, for example, prohibits knifes with blades longer than 3 inches, shorter than the state standard. Knoxville’s city ordinance, he said, is roughly the same as current state law, though using an array of undefined terms that include “razor, dirk, Bowie knife or other knife of like form” and, in another place, “sword cane” and “ice pick” — if the named items are “for the purpose of going armed.”
Note: There is a national ‘knife rights’ effort, subject of a Mother Jones story. HT/Jeff Woods
About 93,000 low-income Tennesseans would pay $3.50 per month more for basic landline phone service with passage of legislation moving quickly through the Legislature with support of AT&T, a company now losing money under the present system.
“It ends a mandate to fund social programs without being reimbursed,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in the only reference to the provision within SB1180 during a Senate committee hearing.
The measure — known as “the AT&T bill,” though Norris pointed out that it impacts other telecommunications companies as well — was approved unanimously by the Senate Commerce Committee and awaits a Senate floor vote this evening. A House committee, meanwhile, approved the companion bill last week — sponsored by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, unanimously without any discussion.
The provision on “Lifeline” service, intended to assure the poor have access to basic phone service, is part of a package to eliminate what McCormick called in brief remarks to the House committee “obsolete language” and “regulatory underbrush” that could “hinder investment in Tennessee.”
State Sen. Stacey Campfield has proposed legislation that would cut welfare benefits to parents whose children fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” in school, a move he says should inspire parents to take a more active role in helping students learn.
While the Knoxville Republican says SB132 is a step toward “breaking the cycle of poverty,” Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, says it could make life more difficult for parents and children who are already struggling.
Campfield said in an interview that the best way to “break the cycle of poverty” is through education and a child’s success in schooling rests on a “three-legged stool” – teachers, schools and parents.(Note: His blog post on the bill is HERE.)
He said Tennessee has already embarked on education reforms designed to improve the quality of teachers and the quality of schools. There should also be a focus on the “third leg,” parents, he said.
“We’ve set the tone (through legislation) to push and improve teachers and schools,” Campfield said. “Now is the time to push those parents. This bill is giving them motivation to do more to help their children learn in school.”
To get state funding for new programs in Tennessee higher education, older ones will have to go, reports the Chattanooga TFP. “What we want to know is: If you want to invest in something new, creative, what are you going to divest? Most great businesses do that,” Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday at a roundtable of legislators and business and higher education leaders in Chattanooga.
Still, while he said he’s committed to ending Tennessee’s decades-long practice of slashing post-secondary education funding, it doesn’t appear that new funding will be available anytime soon.
Haslam spoke at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the seventh and last in a series of statewide discussions. The listening tour was meant to inform the governor’s policy decisions as he sets out to overhaul higher education.
With continued cost increases, particularly for Medicaid, Haslam said, colleges and universities must prioritize where they spend their money. The state has cut higher education funding for decades, putting more burden on families and students through tuition and fee hikes.
“When we look at capital for post-secondary education, we’re going to look at: Are we putting that where the demand is? … I think you’ll see us funding post-secondary education more strategically because of some of these conversations,” Haslam said.
“Part of the issue is on us. And part of it’s on post-secondary to figure out how we’re going to do this in a more effective way.
Members of the Loudon County Tea Party are calling on Loudon County Commission to make good on a promise to discuss cutting their pay in half, reports the News Sentinel. The issue should have been on Monday’s commission budget workshop agenda, according to Wayne Schnell, a leader of the Cross-County Tea Party group.
“We are concerned that this issue is being swept under the carpet and will not be addressed,” he said.
When the commission’s budget committee recommended in May that commissioners take a pay cut to help balance the 2012-13 budget, most commissioners seemed to agree it was a good idea.
The committee proposed that yearly pay for commissioners be cut from $8,000 to $4,000.
“I thought that it was appropriate because we were asking other departments to make sacrifices,” said Commissioner Sharon Yarborough.
At the June commission meeting, Commissioner Don Miller provided data showing that Loudon commissioners are the fifth highest paid among Tennessee counties.
When it came time to vote on the budget amendments, however, the pay cut wasn’t included.
After a lengthy discussion, the commission voted to table the issue until the next budget committee meeting.
Schnell said he expected to see the item on Monday’s workshop agenda.
“Was this issue settled behind closed doors?” he said.
After Monday’s meeting, Yarborough said she had asked for the pay cut proposal to be put on the agenda. She later learned that other commissioners, as yet unidentified, asked that the issue not be on the agenda, she said.
Among their concerns was the fact that not all commissioners would be at the workshop. Commissioners Bob Franke and Austin Shaver were absent.
If some commissioners decided privately to remove the item from the agenda it would in effect be deliberating on the issue and a violation of the state’s open meetings act, according to Loudon County activist Pat Hunter.
“Agreeing in private not to discuss an issue is like voting against,” she said.
News release from Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle:
NASHVILLE – Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle called on Governor Bill Haslam and lawmakers to introduce larger cuts to the food tax and to freeze college tuition rates amidst news that the state government has nearly $225 million in excess funds.
“The Governor has said he believes we should provide the best services at the lowest cost possible,” Kyle said. “It’s time to take out the scissors and give the people of Tennessee new, lower prices on food and education.”
Lawmakers this year repealed the state’s gift and inheritance taxes, saving some of the wealthiest Tennesseans millions in current and future taxes, while approving a .25 percent decrease in the food tax – meaning middle-class Tennesseans will save only 25 cents per $100 of groceries.
Kyle also encouraged Haslam and higher education leaders to hold the line on college tuition rates. The same week the excess revenues were announced, state community colleges and universities proposed tuition increases ranging from 4 to 7 percent.
“We’re asking Tennesseans to pay more for college while saying that we have all this extra money,” Kyle said. “Something doesn’t add up.”
Note: See also Rick Locker’s write-up.
The Senate passed and sent to Gov. Bill Haslam Friday legislation abolishing Tennessee’s inheritance tax and lowering the sales tax on groceries.
Legislative leaders, meanwhile, said they will also back passage of a third bill that would repeal the state’s gift tax. Haslam has said he supports that move as well.
The bill providing a phased-in elimination of the inheritance tax, HB3760, passed the Senate 32-1. The House had approved earlier, 88-8.
As approved, the bill calls for raising the current exemption for the inheritance tax from $1 million to $1.25 million this year and increase the exemption annually until 2016, when the tax would be eliminated entirely.
The sole no vote in the Senate came from Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who had attempted to amend the bill to block the final step, leaving the exemption at the scheduled $5 million level for estates of those dying in 2015.