Blake Farmer (Nashville Public Radio)

Capitol Hill Reporter and Assistant News Director at WPLN in Nashville
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State lawmakers raised several reservations but ultimately passed Gov. Bill Haslam’s school voucher program in its first test.

Two members of the House Education Subcommittee voted no, including one Republican. The former school superintendent says he doesn’t believe public money should be diverted to private schools. Democrat Joe Pitts of Clarksville voted no after asking if private schools would be forced to still provide a free lunch. Only poor students could qualify for vouchers under the plan.

“I’m just really concerned that we’re targeting that at-risk population, but we’re really not doing anything else to supply that basic human need, which is food,” Pitts said.

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Bills in the Tennessee legislature that attempt to block the enforcement of federal gun laws in the state are unconstitutional. That’s according to a just-released opinion from the state’s top lawyer.

The leader of the largest Christian denomination in the state begged state lawmakers not to expand what kinds of stores can sell wine. Until now, this year’s debate over wine in grocery stores has been about economics and fairness, not morality.

The legislation would ultimately leave it up to each city to vote on whether to allow wine in supermarkets. It’s similar to the way towns can vote on sales of liquor by the drink, and Randy Davis of the Tennessee Baptist Convention says such policies involving alcohol divide families.

“It gets bad in these towns over these kinds of issues,” he said.

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A new retirement system being contemplated by the Tennessee legislature would require new state employees and school teachers to potentially work more years. And their guaranteed money would be cut by roughly a third.

State Treasurer David Lillard says change is necessary because any new hires are adding to the state pension’s unfunded deficit. His plan would move to what’s known as a hybrid pension system, which has been adopted in states like Georgia and Virginia. It shifts more of the responsibility of saving for retirement to individuals in an effort to decrease the state’s exposure to volatility in the stock market.

However, the new retirement plan would include some guaranteed money, which Lillard says is important.

“We do believe that in order to get an employee a much better opportunity to have a truly sufficient benefit, you need a floor, basically," he said.

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Legislation that would prevent the renaming or moving of war-related monuments in Tennessee passed the state House last night. The bill comes as city officials in Memphis have renamed three Confederate-themed parks.

Democrats tried to get the bill’s sponsor – Republican Steve McDaniel – to admit he was responding to the name changes in Memphis, which he denied. Rep. Johnnie Turner asked what if Jews hadn’t been allowed to tear down Nazi statues.

The traditional state pension would begin to be phased out under a plan to be presented to state lawmakers today. In recent decades, the rap on state jobs is that the pay may be less than the private sector, but the benefits are good – especially the retirement plan. Lester Hines took a job in the state codes department seven years ago.

“It was good deal for me. I was almost 50 years old and didn’t have a pension."

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Some state senators held their noses and voted Thursday for a constitutional amendment regarding how judges are chosen in Tennessee. The measure largely keeps the current system in tact with appointments by the governor and retention elections every eight years.  Blake Farmer reports.

Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet would prefer direct elections of judges, but she signed off. She believes Tennesseans will ultimately reject the constitutional amendment that would be on the ballot next year.

Lawmakers in Tennessee are watching Florida closely after the state’s conservative Republican governor went along with a major piece of the Affordable Care Act. Governor Bill Haslam is still on the fence about expanding the state’s Medicaid program – known as TennCare.

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Tennessee’s institutions of higher education are still trying to scuttle legislative tweaks to their admissions and hiring processes. A proposed law intended to make sure no preference is shown on the basis of race or gender was again delayed in a state Senate committee.

Universities are worried about the possibly broad interpretation of what “preference” could mean.

A key legislative committee has put off a bill taking aim at federal gun laws. The measure would make it a crime for officers to enforce any national gun restrictions in Tennessee, but there are constitutional questions.

Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet says the way she sees it, states have a choice about whether federal laws infringe on the right to bear arms.

She argued her point before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she chaired just last year.

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