Blake Farmer

The state Senator shepherding Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s school voucher bill through the legislature says it doesn’t go nearly far enough. He says he will offer an amendment making many more students eligible to have their private school tuition paid with public money.

With proposed restrictions limiting vouchers to poor students attending struggling schools, Senator Brian Kelsey says just 3.5 percent of Tennessee students would qualify. And only a fraction of those would take the offer.

“After we do all this heavy lifting to work on this bill this year, if we end up with only two-thousandths of one percent of students being helped by it, I will be sorely disappointed,” said Sen. Kelsey.

Kelsey has yet to outline his amendment and says he will discuss it with the governor, who earlier this week said he likes his voucher bill the way it is.

A proposal allowing Tennessee handgun carry permit holders to store firearms in their cars nearly anywhere they are parked is headed for a final vote Thursday morning.

Democrats want to make schools, long-term parking lots and unemployment offices off limits. 

The bill’s sponsor has said he is not interested in exemptions. But Nashville Democrat Mike Turner says they should at least be considered, like one allowing any employer to opt out.

“If I’m a business owner, I probably don’t want you carrying on my property and I at least want to have the choice to deny you that right if I want to," said Turner.

Tennessee's largest employers have been less vocal about their opposition to the guns-in-trunks legislation this year. The bill gives the property owner immunity if anyone is hurt with a gun stored on site. It also is restricted to Tennesseans with handgun permits.

Tennessee lawmakers raised several reservations but ultimately passed Governor 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,” said Pitts.

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

The Tennessee Attorney General memo says the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause trumps state statutes, making it unlawful to nullify firearms laws made on the national level. He goes on to say the state legislature also can’t take a backdoor route and criminalize the enforcement of gun laws in Tennessee, which is exactly what a bill from Senator Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet does.

“I think he has an opinion just like the rest of us have an opinion,” says Beavers.

She says she will continue to push her legislation anyway, arguing that the Tenth Amendment gives states the right to govern themselves.

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,” says the Tennessee Treasurer.

The traditional state pension would begin to be phased out under a plan to be presented to Tennessee lawmakers Monday. 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," he says. "I was almost 50 years old and didn’t have a pension."

Tennessee’s state pension system is less generous than some states. It’s also more financially sound. But those who manage it say the system is unsustainable.

If a proposal from the state treasurer gets approval in the legislature, the state would be more involved in helping workers save for retirement rather than promising a set amount.

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.

For the first three years, the federal government would pay the entire cost of insuring thousands of new TennCare recipients.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott said he could not “in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care.” Tennessee Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says having such a conservative leading the way could provide “cover” to lawmakers. But Governor Haslam would still have to sell an expansion, Ramsey says.

A bill to create an authorizing body for charter schools in Tennessee has been delayed. The sponsor now says he’s listening to critics, who say the legislation unfairly singles out Nashville and Memphis.

As written, the bill would give charter schools a way to open in Tennessee’s two largest urban areas without asking the school board – officially known as the local education authority or LEA. 

Rep. Mark White is the sponsor and says he could be on-board with a true statewide charter authorizer if local school boards do the initial vetting.

“If we go back to the LEAs – letting them have first input on this – this will be a statewide application,” said Rep. White.

There is confusion among the sponsors of so-called ‘Guns-in-Trunks’ legislation in Tennessee.  They disagree on whether employers could fire a worker for keeping a gun in their car at the company parking lot, even though it could soon be legal.

During a hearing in the House, Rep. Jeremy Faison said he believed a business owner could still terminate someone storing a weapon in a vehicle.

The legislation doesn’t specifically address the issue, but Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he believes gun-carrying employees will be safe from their bosses.

“I feel confident that if they fired someone and they said that was the reason, that employer would be in for a lawsuit and he would lose," says Ramsey.

A few Tennessee lawmakers are voicing concerns with a bill that aims to end any preference shown to minority groups on public college campuses. The legislation was delayed after a long committee hearing at the state capitol.

The proposal comes from out of state. A former university Regent in California who is an African American has helped pass similarly worded constitutional amendments in a few western states.

Ward Connerly says he’s attempting to re-level the playing field after years of informal affirmative action.

“We have evolved this theory that as long as we’re discriminating for good things, that that’s alright," said Connerly.

The so-called “guns in trunks” bill is up for a vote in the full Tennessee Senate Monday, and it now appears set for smooth sailing in the state House. Speaker Beth Harwell says the controversial measure will likely pass her chamber.

The bill is revised from last year, when Harwell and other Republican leaders prevented it from coming to a vote at the wishes of big employers.

“By limiting it to gun carrying permit holders put some safeguards in place. And the liability issue, we just had to address that. That’s just something we had to do for business,” said Harwell.

The legislation includes immunity for the property owner if someone is shot with a gun stored in their parking lot. However, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce is still opposed, saying that business owners should have the right to prevent firearms from being brought on to their property, including parking lots.

Tennessee's hospitals are playing out the “what if’s” as lawmakers consider whether to expand Medicaid as part of the federal health care overhaul. Their study says 90,000 Tennessee jobs could be lost if the expansion does not occur. 

Without expanding who is covered by Medicaid – known as TennCare in Tennessee – hospitals say there could be a “recessionary impact.” Hospitals agreed to cuts that total billions of dollars, believing they would see fewer uninsured. But that assumption is in jeopardy.

State Senator Brian Kelsey is trying to prevent the state from expanding Medicaid.

“Look, my job is not to bail out the special interest hospital lobby. My job is to represent Tennessee taxpayers," said the Germantown Republican.

Closely watched legislation in Tennessee that would allow guns to be stored in cars – even on someone else’s private property – is headed for a vote in the full state Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the so-called “guns in trunks” measure against the wishes of some of the state’s largest employers. Bill Ozier, chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, says plans to expand or invest in the state hinge on whether a corporation can still keep weapons out of their own parking lots.

“It is certainly more of a concern than you might otherwise think," said Ozier.

The bill has yet to begin making its way through the Tennessee House.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a momentous Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're expecting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to make an announcement today. From now on, women will formally be allowed to serve in ground combat.

INSKEEP: To sense just how dramatic this change is, consider how many other milestones the military passed before reaching this one. The move for women comes 65 years after the Armed Forces ended racial segregation.

The U.S. Army has been ramping up instruction in the languages of Afghanistan, even as troop levels in the country decrease in preparation for the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014.

This year, key installations have added several hundred speakers of Pashto and Dari to their ranks, more than doubling the number of soldiers trained in the Afghan languages.

But it's not just the country's languages that are foreign to U.S. soldiers — it's the culture, as well.

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