KNOXVILLE (ETSPJ) – It was a full house at the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ annual legislative luncheon.
Thirteen lawmakers attended the Jan. 14 event at Buddy’s BBQ Bearden Banquet Hall, including Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), Rep. Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville), Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), Rep. Roger Kane ( R-Knoxville), Rep. Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City), Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Rep. Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville), Sen.Ken Yager (R-Kingston), Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville), Rep. Eddie Smith (R-Knoxville), Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville). WATE 6 On Your Side Anchor Kristin Farley moderated the panel.
One of the topics lawmakers spoke at length about was outsourcing at the University of Tennessee. Several lawmakers attending the luncheon signed a letter to UT President Joe DiPietro with concerns about Gov. Bill Haslam’s outsourcing plan.
“We want Dr. Joe DiPietro and Dr. Davenport to know that there will be members of the Tennessee General Assembly that stand by them with their decision, and they’re not going to be left alone,” Briggs said. He said Haslam has stated that if the university believes outsourcing is not in its best interest, UT will have the ability to opt-out.
Sens. Kane, Massey and McNally spoke about the gas tax and how to fund a state backlog of transportation projects for Tennessee. Kane said he thought the funding would have to come from multiple sources and that lawmakers are still working on the best way to fund those projects.
“I think that for something to pass it has to be a comprehensive plan,” Massey said. “I know a number of the House members have been meeting with the governor on some potential ideas and proposals there. So, there is a lot of input, and it has been almost 30 years since an increase has been made, so technically we’ve had a tax decrease at the pump, because we’re all getting a lot more fuel-efficient cars than we did in ’89.”
Massey said an increase of 7 to 8 cents a gallon would equate to about $30 a year for an average driver. She said the plan would increase the diesel fee, and there also would be the potential for some kind of fee for alternative vehicles.
“Probably the larger portion of the gas tax, like most taxes, are paid by people traveling through Tennessee, since we’re bordered by eight other states, and I think it needs to be a comprehensive plan and I think it needs to be as low as possible, but still meet the needs and certainly making it revenue neutral,” McNally said.
Yager, Matlock and Kane also spoke on the state’s lawsuit that challenges the federal government for noncompliance of the Refugee Act of 1980 based on the 10th Amendment. Matlock said the lawsuit is not against immigration, but he thinks Tennessee should have more of a say in how immigration takes place.
“The federal government has never been very forthcoming in providing information on how the refugees are venturing to Tennessee, despite our requests,” Yager said. “What we can see from the free settlement of children who came up from Mexico, the federal government didn’t tell us who these children are, where they’re located at. I mean from the state level that would be great so we could allocate ESL teachers to communities where there is a large immigrant population. We found out about the children from the Health and Human Resources website. The federal government never contacted the state to say, you have 1,500 children who have been relocated to your state. That’s a problem.”
Topics on education varied from recess to school bus safety. Smith said he had several concerns about if seat belts are the best option, particularly for buses that carry both elementary and high school students.
“We need to look at putting more money, instead of seat belts, into getting better bus drivers … more qualified bus drivers on our buses to make sure that they are paying attention,” Smith said.
Ramsey said, “the statistics are mixed as far as the safety of the seat belts and I will allow both sides to come and convince me during the next year if indeed the seat belts are going to provide a margin of safety in balance with how much they are going to cost.”
Yager said any changes could result in millions of dollars in expense to school boards and counties and he could not support any unfunded mandate passed on to county commissions or a local school board.
“I’m sure legislation would be appropriate, but you know the two tragic wrecks in Knoxville and Chattanooga both involved contract drivers,” Yager said. “Some of our local governments contract the drivers out, others the bus drivers work directly for them. When you contract your drivers out, you have less control over and less oversight. Perhaps our local board and the county commissions want to look at whether or not contract driving is the right approach.”
Dunn said he also planned to help repeal and replace legislation that requires three 15-minute periods of unstructured physical activity per day for early grades.
“When I was principal for the day, I found out that it is very hard to work that into the school schedule because different children are in different places at different times,” Dunn said. “I listened to the teachers and the principals, so I think the best approach is I know we’ve heard a lot about repeal and replace at the federal level, well this is a true case where I think the first step is we need to repeal it as soon as possible so that the schools can start working their own schedule and then if someone wants to come back in behind it and replace it with something that actually works when we talk to the educators.”
Kane talked about three bills addressing open records for body camera video. He sits on the advisory committee with Yager and said a bill will likely be refiled against this year.
“Law enforcement is mainly interested in excluding redacted portions of information that might be outside of evidentiary prospects,” Kane said. “The media is interested in making sure that that is available to the public. We will have to come to some sort of an agreement as we did on charges and fees last year for open records.”
Lawmakers also spoke on a law passed in 2016 that allows counselors to refuse treatment based on religious beliefs, funding for the Knox County Safety Center, open carry for gun owners, diversity funding at the University of Tennessee, women’s reproductive rights, nutrition in schools, the state’s grading system for schools, regulations on food stamps and term limits.
Transcript from legislative luncheon
KRISTIN FARLEY: As many people know, we have about a 6 billion backlog of projects right now. Traditionally, the gas tax has been talked about as a way to pay for this. There’s a lot of talk about that right now in Nashville and we’ve been talking a lot about that locally as well, do you think that is the solution…. raising the gas tax?
REP. ROGER KANE: I think it’s going to take a lot of things you know, when people say, you know you have a surplus budget, why don’t you just use that, well, when you talk about six billion it’s six thousand million, so last year we gave like 254 million back to the TDOT fund, well that only means we need another 600-750 million more until we’re just caught up on the backlog projects. You now, these are things that we have the EPA has done their work, we own the land, we just need concrete and people on the ground. It’s going to take multiple sources, besides just the surplus and we’re just going to have to work on it this session to figure out what’s best for that.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Senator Duncan Massey. I wanted to open this up to you as well, you and I had a discussion about this recently concerning the gas tax and there is talks of possibly lowering other taxes to offset this if this happens. What are your thoughts on this going forward?
SENATOR BECKY DUNCAN MASSEY: Well I think there is a lot of interest in the potential if there is an increase in the transportation and infrastructure user fee to offset some of that and there is a lot of interest in potentially lowering the food tax. So, I would say that I think that in the past year or so there has been some proposals, but it was piecemealing things together and I think that for something to pass it has to be a comprehensive plan. I think we’re talking about 7 or 8 cents a gallon, which would equate to, you know, about $30 a year for an average driver, but it would increase the diesel fee, so it’s more than the regular gas and because our trucks in use put an extensive amount of wear on the roads, there would be potentially some kind of fee for alternative fuel vehicles, because they do use the roads. So, it’s going to be a multi-faceted plan that I think will be something, a proposal pulled together and I know a number of the House members have been meeting with the governor on some potential ideas and proposals there. So there is a lot of input and it has been almost 30 years since an increase has been made, so technically we’ve had a tax decrease at the pump, because we’re all getting a lot more fuel efficient cars than we did in ’89. One thing that I said is, the one thing that people turn out for more than any other issue for our state government is a road issue and people want to keep their roads good, so somehow someway, we have to figure out that what we’re doing is the right thing and the surplus is not going to take care of the roads.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Lt. Governor, I need to ask you, obviously high profile passion, a lot of experience on the finance committee as well… do you think this is the most pressing financial issue facing our state this session.
SENATOR RANDY MCNALLY: We have a lot of pressing financial issues. I’d certainly agree with Roger and Becky. Probably a larger portion of the gas tax. Probably the larger portion of the gas tax, like most taxes, are paid by people travelling through Tennessee, since we’re bordered by eight other states and I think it needs to be a comprehensive plan and I think it needs to be as low as possible, but still meet the needs and certainly making it revenue neutral counter-balances it with some cuts in the general fund taxation I think.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Alright, let’s switch gears for a minute and talk a little bit about the Knox County Safety Center. I want to bring in Representative Smith. I know that you, along with Senator Massey are working to secure funding for this project. How likely do you think we are to secure funding for that project this session and how are you going about convincing other lawmakers to get behind this.
REPRESENTATIVE EDDIE SMITH: We recognize that we have an issue with the mentally ill being put in jail right now and it has become a revolving door. We’re spending millions of dollars in Knox County just with that revolving door, so we’re trying to divert and do something different and what we’ve got to look at. In talking with a lot of my colleagues, you know, Knox County is farther ahead of most of the rest of our communities around the state in dealing with this issue and looking at alternatives. In fact, a few years ago there was temporary AOT law that passed that was a pilot program and we’re looking to expand that, so that’s one segment of this that we’re looking at. The other part is we’ve put a request into the governor that is included in his budget. If that is not there, Senator Massey and I are already filing bills by doing a direct request through the Department of Mental Health at $1.5 million per year over three years, setting up a pilot so that we can see over the next three years enough savings on the county level that they can step in and get funds through the AOT and then the third segment of that is doing a budget amendment. If the first two don’t work out, if we get to the end of the session we will do a budget amendment to find the money that way.
KRISTIN FARLEY: And this kind of naturally flows into a question we have from the audience and excuse me if I cannot read everyone’s name here, this is about mental health and the person writes, this is concerning the counselor bill-SB001, I believe. “I have serious concerns about the approval of the bill that would exempt counselors from serving person seeking medical help for their mental illness.” Who wants to address this issue? Dr. Briggs?
SENATOR RICHARD BRIGGS: I think that card addressed may have been addressed to me directly. We had a bill last year and let me summarize what it is to you. There is an association of therapists and the state, rather than having their own rules and regulations on who can be licensed, uses the ethics, the standards that this organization does, since we don’t have our own state… and this has done in other parts and across the nation we have the association for the association of hospitals, which really is a government agency, but the government uses that as their accreditation, the accrediting organization and one of the new, in 2014, one of the new points that was added to this association’s recommendations was that every counselor had to take any patient that showed up at his door and what happened with this is that there were counselors that said, first off, there may be people that come here that, first of all, I don’t feel comfortable treating. I think it could be just something that they don’t take care of. The second thing that came up, there may be people that want treatment for things that, and I think what we put in our law that are contrary to my deeply held principals and when I’m looking at this I’m trying to look at this from a philosophically and what’s best for patients and it was a very controversial bill, but I’m going to use, the best example I can give is me as a medical doctor. The first principal that I feel is that the government and the legislature should not be practicing medicine, telling professionals what they need to do and what they don’t need to do. The second principal I had is that there are positions and there are therapists that have deeply held principals that they don’t agree with and I’ll tell you, give you a couple of examples on the medical side, because this is what I can speak to the most. Going back to 1978 when I was first licensed as a physician. I don’t believe we should be giving people opiates for every problem that they come in with regarding pain management. The government starting in the early 90s, and this is the government, not an organization, in the early 90s, came in and said, you’re not treating pain properly, this joint commission for the accreditation of hospitals sanctioned hospitals because they weren’t writing enough scripts for OxyContin. The government told us that OxyContin was a non-addicting drug and you will get penalties if you don’t treat with it. The Tennessee State Legislature in 2001, again trying to practice medicine, said that doctors had to treat patients for pain, even if they, in principal felt that this was wrong. If you don’t treat them with opiates, by law they had to refer them to a pain clinic. Then the third step of that is the federal government, and Rep. Dunn knows all about this, but the federal government more recently would go to doctors themselves and they went out with a questionnaire for pain and the questionnaire said “did your doctors give you the pain medicine that you wanted for pain?” and if you checked no, the doctor would get a penalty from company and look where it has lead us. I have deeply held principals. Now let me back up and say in 2015, finally, remember we finally overturned that law and that was good, we finally got out of it. I have deeply held principals about the death penalty. There is a lot of people right now that say because the death penalty is inhumane, that physicians should be involved in this. Physicians, right now, cannot be involved in the death penalty either way, but they may say the most humane thing to do is let the doctors do this. I have a deeply held principle, that I don’t want to be involved in any death penalty cases. I could say the same thing now, this is where some physicians are going to have different opinions. I don’t believe in physician-assisted suicide. I don’t believe that the government, by law, should come to me and say, you have to participate in this, this is the law. You can’t turn that patient down, you can’t refer that patient to someone else. What the law had and I personally thought that this counselors law that we’re talking about is very reasonable. It said if a therapist had a deeply held principle where he didn’t want to treat a patient for some reason, number one, he didn’t have to do it, number two, by law, he had to arrange an appointment for a person he thought was an appropriate person for that patient to go to and then number three, if it were an emergency, then he would have to treat them. If a therapist has someone coming in that was suicidal, then by law, they would have to treat that patient until after he got over the emergency. So people are talking about why some of the legislators have been opposed to this law, but this is what we’re talking about, that there is a deeply held principle that therapist has. If he feels it is better to refer that patient to someone else for whatever reason, he has to do it or he has the option of doing it unless it is an emergency.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Any other lawmakers want to chime in on this issue?
SENATOR BECKY DUNCAN MASSEY: I think the proposal this year is that the state will set up their own licensing standards as opposed to automatically taking the federal ones….
SENATOR RICHARD BRIGGS: …from that organization. That’s what the law is about this year. This all started… this debate all really started last year.
REP. ROGER KANE: This organization is not being used nationwide, it’s what, nine state using it? It’s not every state using this organization’s guidelines.
SENATOR RANDY MCNALLY: And I feel that whether it is pharmacists, counselors, physicians or whoever, a private outside organization should not be dictating the behavior in Tennessee. What they can do is, they can propose rule changes that goes through a committee and is voted upon then by our entire legislator, but to give private, non-elected bodies the ability to do that I think is wrong.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Ok, let’s go ahead and shift gears to another question from the audience here today. The question is, do any of you believe the open carry handgun bill will reduce gun deaths in Tennessee? Who wants to field this first?
REP. MARTIN DANIELS: I’ll be on the civil justice committee this upcoming session and we will dealing with this issue and I’m always mindful that constitutional rights, including second amendment rights, are not absolute. However, I want to provide… I’m always in favor of expanding or protecting the constitutional rights. Now, uh, whether the open carry law will help people defend themselves, I think this is a very crucial issue and I’d like to take a look and see what other states, how it’s working out in other states open carry law and see if there is any adverse impact there. So I remain undecided on how I will vote on this issue, but I’m interested in allowing people to defend themselves with a minimal amount of bureaucracy.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Rep. Zachary, do you want to chime in as well?
REP. JASON ZACHARY: Very similar to what Martin said, I mean, based on the question, it’s not as much about will this eliminate death, as much as reinforcing the constitutional principals that we already have in place and I think from my perspective, and I haven’t read the bill or seen the details of the bill, but one thing that is important to remember is that 98 percent of all mass shootings have occurred in gun free zones and so anybody that is proposing a bill, and that’s according to the Heritage Foundation, so anybody that is proposing one of those bills, and I’ve talk to the gentleman Micah Van Huss, who is one of the sponsors of those bills, the intent is eliminate some of those gun free zones by reinforcing and reinstituting the constitutional rights that we already have in place.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Any other lawmaker want to chime in?
REP. RICK STAPLES: The majority of the deaths that have taken place across our state have been in inner-city and mostly African American youth. This particular bill doesn’t really address how people are getting their hands on these guns, so I think we need to be looking at wholesale gun dealers. Speaking of gun free zones, here in East Knox there are gun free zones, but there is still Chilhowee Park, which has a gun show three or four times a year, so that’s a contradiction within itself. So this is not really addressing how young people are getting their hands on these guns, to commit these violent crimes so what we need to look at is who is selling these guns to people and where are they getting them from. That’s really the question. If that question is really addressing, how do we stop so many deaths due to gun violence. You have to look at how these deaths are taking place.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Alright, Rep. Staples. Thank you. I’m going to move on to another question. This person in the audience has to leave early so we want to try to get this out here. It says we are in the midst of a global refugee crisis. There were 65 million people forcibly displaced in the world. Governor Haslam recently said he no longer opposes refugee resettlement, in the state of Tennessee. Will you change your positions and invite opportunities for refugees to call Tennessee home. Let’s start with Sen. Yager on this one.
SEN. KEN YAGER: Well, I think that all of us…. the question is a little wrong first of all. I think there are some legitimate concerns that are involved with the resettling and redirecting refugee question. I think that the legislator will be bringing a lawsuit soon on the cost of resettlement to the state of Tennessee and whether or not the federal government is going by current statute, to provide the reimbursement for that cost that we provide. So that is one issue there that is a very important issue to Tennesseans, who would pay the bill. I support a lawsuit. I appreciate Governor Haslam’s sentiments on the issue, but I think that no one is against immigration and probably many of us in this room are for immigration, but it ought to be lawfully and the state certainly has a role and should have a role in that immigration, hence this lawsuit.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Rep. Matlock, would you like to chime in as well?
REP. JIMMY MATLOCK: I think the question is not, are we as a state rejecting people, the question is are we as a state allowed to interact with the federal government seemed to be at the time forcing that upon us. I think each of us has an illustration in our own lives of a family, someone that we know personally, that has been a great member of our society, that came in through this method, but I would stand with, I think most of these legislators that think, we in Tennessee would like to have a say in how that is done and what is happening at the federal level, we would be forced to take without any….
REP. ROGER KANE: What we can see from the free settlement of children who came up from Mexico, the federal government didn’t tell us who these children are, where they’re located at. I mean from the state level that would be great so we could allocate ESL teachers to communities where there is a large immigrant population. We found out about the children from the Health and Human Resources website. The federal government never contacted the state to say, you have 1,500 children who have been relocated to your state. That’s a problem, because even if it is the same thing at the federal level with the other democrats. We just get them and there is not a good conversation going on how we have to provide the resources and the federal government is saying take them, so that is a problem for us.
REP. KEN YAGER: The federal government has never been very forthcoming in providing information on how the refugees are venturing to Tennessee, despite our requests, as Rep. Kane has said. What I acquired a couple years ago when this issue really picked up, when I inquired to the governor’s office, I learned that they depended on the human resources’ website to get information, which kind of shocked me and I just think the federal government’s inability to contribute the information that we need as a state has contributed to this. As I said earlier, I think the result of this is this lawsuit.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Well, let’s go ahead and move on to another topic. This is one that is very close to many people here in the Knoxville area. Again, coming from our audience… can you discuss how diversity and inclusion at the University of Tennessee, that office has been defunded by all of you. Again, just reading the question.
REP. BECKY DUNCAN MASSEY: I’m going to start out with that because we did not defund the diversity at UT. There was a diverting of the funds to other diversity efforts and Knox County and the delegation worked with the university on how to look at, to make sure that the funds being used for the diversity were being used for the intended use and that it was used in the wisest manner and the best thing. So, basically, the university asked, we did basically what I call a reset button for one year to give them a chance to evaluate all their efforts and to make sure that the diversity funding was being used in a manner that they thought was getting the best use of their dollars. So we worked with the university on the legislation that was passed last year.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Anybody else want to chime in on this? I was in Nashville and this was a heated discussion at many points. I know Rep. Smith you were there as well as part of that discussion and what would you like to say about this? Some people say there is a lot of misconceptions about what happened, other people say, obviously by that question alone, it was defunded.
REP. EDDIE SMITH: Look at the numbers, because they tell the truth. Over $6 million a year is spent on diversity efforts at UT. The one office we’re talking about where we diverted funds from minority scholarships and engineering was no more than $175,000. That tells you all you need to know. We did not take the money. It is still there and it is still being used. When the UT administration was coming to us, one of the purpose of the diversity was to go into all 95 counties of our state to attract students of all different backgrounds, both socio-economic spectrums to the university. There were six or seven counties in our state where we have no students from those counties coming to UT, to any of our colleges in UT and it is the land grant university. That is why we recommended that they focus on going and getting those students in our state to enter the college as we continue the Drive To 55.
REP. ROGER KANE: And a lot of those numbers when we looked at them in the education committee, you know, we’ve gone from like one percent international students to two percent. Ok, we’re spending $25 million to do that? You know, you should get a better rate of return. Women actually have gone down and minorities have gone up, well that is just trading spaces. I mean, it’s really not creating diversity. I think Rep. Dunn mentioned at one point, if you look at this panel that is in front of you, we look rather homogeneous, but we’re incredibly diverse. We really are. I’ll take my case for example, you see me as a white, middle-aged man, but my mother is Jewish, my father is Catholic and I’m Baptist. Is that not diversity? You know, I grew up in Houston, probably one of the most diverse towns you will ever see. We have entire street signs that are in English and Chinese and Vietnamese for those folks. I mean we have one of the largest gay populations in the country, we have one of the largest black populations and that’s the school I went to. I’m surrounded by diversity, but you see me as a white middle-aged man. That’s all you see, but we’re so much more than that and even the diversity center. It’s how you count people and in Rep. Dunn’s example that he gave, he had a woman who said I’m a lesbian Pilipino. She had forgotten all of the other benefits that she gets, that she’s a woman, she’s funny, she has black hair. Those are all diversity things. She had forgotten all of those things, because in her strive to be diverse, she had honed in on two things and that’s it.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Rep. Staples, do you want to chime in on this. What are your thoughts?
REP. RICK STAPLES: Well, first of all, I didn’t vote on that last year. So, I’m going to get that out there and I’m the only member that has a beard, so… in talking with the president, I do like what the university is planning to do to tackle the issue of diversity going forward. They realize that they want to be a diverse institution and going to the Southeastern region, but also looking for guidance about going into the inner cities and keeping talent that we have, such as at Austin-East High School, their robotics team. The University of Tennessee is really working harder to try to recruit more of the people here. There’s work being done and conversations are taking place and with the University of Tennessee being in my district in particularly… Eddie has some of it too, but I haven’t really worked with them yet, but I have had some great conversations on things that we want to make sure move forward with this, so that when an issue like this comes up again, the community, the taxpayers that pay to keep the doors open at the University of Tennessee, feel comfortable.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Let’s talk a little bit about education, but a little bit different here. I want to talk about school buses and school bus safety. This is obviously a topic that I think all of us in this room has thought a lot about over the last couple years with two tragedies, one here in Knox County and one down in Chattanooga, just a few months ago. There is a push by some for seatbelts on school buses. Just this week we heard someone come out very adamantly against that, saying it would cause more problems. This is something that is going to be a topic this session likely, where do you stand on this? Let’s go ahead and begin with Rep. Ramsey.
REP. BOB RAMSEY: I’d be glad to start the conversation. This is not a new issue. I’ve been in the legislature for eight years and each year this issue has come up and I hate to shock all of you, but I am not an expert and I don’t think any of us are experts on everything, so we go to the store. We go, I have three LEAs in my district and the first place I go when I have a question like this is to one of them to get their expertise. This issue has come up in the past. The statistics are mixed as far as the safety of the seatbelts and I will allow both sides to come and convince me during the next year if indeed the seatbelts are going to provide a margin of safety in balance with how much they are going to cost. What Blount county has done since we encountered these problems in Chattanooga and the one up toward Sevier County is we have installed cameras, two cameras on the side of each bus. Already, there have been some infractions and some complaints have been discovered. So these are not only to watch the students, but they are to watch the drivers. So I think both of the instances that the moderator referred to are driver instances. We have installed these, I think it was like $80,000 for our Blount County system alone and we have also put in GPSs. For many, many years, our commercial truck drivers have always had GPS programs on their trucks so that their companies can tell exactly how fast they’re going, where they are and if there is any sort of infraction, any problems, the company knows exactly the truth behind the situation. We have done that, I think it is a rental program and in Blount County we’ve put that on our buses for $30 per month per bus or something like that. So I am open to the people that know about these things, the people that have collected the statistics for years. I’m open to the discussion and the debate that is going to happen and we’ll try to make the best decision, for the most effect to expense. This is not a new situation.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Rep. Smith?
REP. EDDIE SMITH: And I’ll chime in there because I worked with former Rep. Armstrong on the legislation over the last two years and it’s not an easy, simple topic. When you think about it, in Knox County we have buses that primarily run middle school, high school and those that run elementary, but in a lot of our rural areas, they double up. So how do you design a seatbelt where you can put three elementary kids on a seat and then turn around and put two high school students on the seat belt for the proposed age group. The next factor comes in because the buses are exposed to the elements, you know, how do you go in and do the retrofitting to ensure that in case of a crash, it doesn’t bust loose or isn’t damaged. How much infrastructure and support has to be done or do they have to scrap those buses and then buy new buses. Then you get into the scenario of the kindergartener, how do you make sure that the seatbelt is something that they can easily remove in case we have an incident like we saw in Blount County this week when a bus catches fire, but it’s also safe in case of a roll-over. Those are a lot of the things that are going into the discussions that we are having. But then, the part that nobody seems to talk about is how do we increase our safety bubble around the buses? Senator Massey and I passed a law last year raising penalties for bus drivers that are caught texting and driving, but do we need to look at putting more money, instead of seatbelts, into getting better bus drivers, more qualified bus drivers on our buses to make sure that they are paying attention, that we’re getting those. My dad is a truck driver. He’s not allowed to use a cell phone, except with a hands-free device. He’s not allowed to touch the phone in the 18-wheeler. So, those are a lot of the things, but then, when you look at airplanes, we have black boxes that tell the NTSB every single thing about that plane in case of an accident. Can we look at something similar to put on buses so we know how fast the bus was going, was their failure of a system, you know, capturing video inside and outside, because a lot of buses, the stop sign is irrelevant to a lot of drivers outside of that school bus. So that is all of the things that we have to talk about, more so than just seat belt. We need to increase the safety bubble around those school buses.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Senator Yager?
SENATOR KEN YAGER: There are two points I would like to add. First of all, I’m sure legislation would be appropriate, but you know the two tragic wrecks in Knoxville and Chattanooga both involved contract drivers. Some of our local governments contract the drivers out, others the bus drivers work directly for them. When you contract your drivers out, you have less control over and less oversight. Perhaps our local board and the county commissions want to look at whether or not contract driving is the right approach. The other one is that I would be very reluctant to see any unfunded mandates put on local government. Rep. Smith and others have already demonstrated that the approach… any changes… could result in millions of dollars in expenses to the local government and I personally cannot support any unfunded mandate put on your board, your commissions, but if we want to do something, the state is going to have to find the money to do it.
REP. BECKY DUNCAN MASSEY: The estimate is like around $50 million over the next seven years to the state and $250 to the locals. So, the GPSs do take into consideration the speed, like they did in Blount County, because like I have them on my vehicles at Sertoma and you get notified if anybody speeds or if there is any problems with the vehicles, so that is one area, so we just need to look. It is comprehensive. Senator Briggs and I serve on the Senate transportation committee and I’m sure we will have hearings on it.
KRISTIN FARLEY: So many people want to know why it is so hard to find good qualified bus drivers. We even had shortages at the start of the school year, why is that and as we’re talking about this very issue, is there anything being done to attract better, more qualified drivers to our school system.
SENATOR KEN YAGER: That would be a question for our school systems. Yeah, it’s mainly a local government. The state does provide transportation money, but it is up to the local government to figure out how it is spent. One thing the governor will do when he gives his budget address on January 30 will be to put additional money in for driver training and programs to help the local school boards with the checking on drivers. That should be in his budget address.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Ok, let’s go ahead and go to another question from our audience. This one is rather lengthy, but I do need to read the whole thing, so bare with me for a moment here. Millions of tax dollars have gone to equip officers with body cameras to increase transparency of how officers perform in encounters with the public. Body cameras are viewed as protection for all parties, both officers and citizens, well now some jurisdictions seek to exempt body camera footage from the state public records act, a compromise position is to release footage only after all legal actions, including appeals, have been exhausted, meaning years after the encounter in some instances. Do you think the Tennessee General Session in this session will enact this exception into the Tennessee Public Records Act?
REP. BILL DUNN: I’ll be glad, with Senator Yager, to answer this question…
KRISTIN FARLEY: Are you sure about that?
REP. ROGER KANE: And I know that it is a large issue and I know its something that is very important to you. Senator Yager and I have chaired senate and house committees for state government. We are automatically put on as non-voting members to the advisory committees for open records… open government project. Last year we had three bills that addressed the body cam evidence and there are no regulations for that at the moment outside of public records. So anything that happens now or in the past is under our current public directories provisions guidelines. Last year we had the three bills. They came from different points of view. One was predominantly interested in protecting law enforcement. The other was predominantly interested in protecting the government, as far as the regulations that surround bodycam evidence. Since we had no consensus and really the procedure for setting up regulations and guidelines for public records is done through the comptroller’s office, the counsel of open records, when I first went on to the Aycock Organization, I thought the counsel was spelled S-I-L and it was a group of people, but it is one person. So essentially when legislation comes through the house or the senate, it goes to that particular person in the comptroller’s office and they refer it to the advisory committee, which Senator Yager and I sit on, the advisory committee contacts… there were 14 organizations represented and about half of them have to do with media organizations and so they said their suggestions and we said we would go through it and see what was best for the public at large. Where we stand right now is that the bill is going to be refilled this year. We have started a process to gather input from all 14 members of the advisory committee. That includes your association here. We compiled all of that information and made it into a booklet form. These bills, if they proceed, were going to make these booklets available to members of the committees and to the advisory committee, which you will be a part of and so we are going to try to come sort of consensus as far as how the body camera evidence is dealt with. Law enforcement is mainly interested in excluding redacted portions of… redacted portions of information that might be outside of evidentiary prospects. The media is interested in making sure that that is available to the public. We will have to come to some sort of an agreement as we did on charges and fees last year for open records. The agreement was that we wouldn’t make an agreement, so that is how it is now. But, the issue is huge because when you talk about body camera footage, we’re talking about not only law enforcement, but there are so many law enforcement agencies, the TBI, the beverage control commission. We even have revenue services, the IRS has bodycams. So, we’ve got cameras on drones, we have got footage for evidence in every community, every municipality and the drones that does all of their work for surveying, so this is a huge issue and won’t be decided in one or two bills, but you’re interest are being represented at the moment.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Senator Yager, do you want to chime in as well?
SENATOR KEN YAGER: I think Representative Bill Dunn did a good job at it. He has done outstanding job as co-chair of this committee and has done most of the work, frankly and I appreciate that. It’s going to be a compromise I don’t know if we can have a compromise this year. I don’t know if it will happen this year for reasons that he has set out. There are some legitimate arguments that some of the information on these body cams that is collected through the body cameras should be an exception to the rule, but I think that it will have a good reason for that, because wherever possible we want to make sure that the information is available to the public and there is the divide that we’re trying to work on. It will be a compromise issue that we’ll get on to with everybody on the… I just think that we have a lot of work to do on it based on the committee work that he and I have served on. I don’t know if it will be ready this year.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Ok, let’s shift gears and talk about something that came out yesterday. There was a letter sent to President Joe DiPietro. This was concerning outsourcing. I said I wasn’t going to ask you guys to raise your hands, concerning anything, but all the lawmakers that signed that letter, can you raise your hands just to give us an idea… ok, I would like to have someone that signed this letter to explain, to someone who may not have had the opportunity to read this letter on outsourcing… then Senator Briggs you have just been nominated to explain the letter to everyone. People can find it online. We’ve posted it on our website, WATE.com, I’m sure the other media outlets have as well, but explain that letter and tell everyone why you have found it so important to send.
SENATOR RICHARD BRIGGS: Two statements that I would like to make before I even talk about this is that first of all, this is not intended to be a challenge to the university or Dr. DiPietro or any the university’s administration and it wasn’t certainly meant to be a challenge to the governor. I think that the governor’s plan to have government become more efficient and be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money is very important and I think all of us support that. But what the letter intended to do is to point out to Dr. DiPietro that there is several issues that are in play here. You know, one of those, and this is what Governor Haslam has even talked to me about, is what is the most efficient way to run government and to save money and to approach the problem at the university. And just like government, the best government is the one that is closed to the people. I think the best business decisions are the ones that are made by the people closest to the business being run. We gave the example in the letter of when there is certain events, such as athletic events or conferences or other things that are occurring at the University of Tennessee, rather than trying to cover all of this in a contract or in a budget or in contract amendments, is that the administrators there should have the opportunity in the interest of the government and to save money to have the right person at the right place at the right time to most efficiently take care of that. Also, there can be special issues, particularly that a university can come up. For example, they’re getting ready to build a $100 million plus engineering building at the University of Tennessee that will have a linear accelerator. I think the best business practice will have the person at the university who knows what there needs to have those people that are maintaining that linear accelerator to be able to decide who those people are, rather to have a company from Chicago. We have a lot of expertise up at Oak Ridge and the University may decide we do want to outsource part of that, that we do want to have some company at Oak Ridge to come in and maintain the area around that linear accelerator. That is a good business practice. If they do outsource certain areas, the university can say, this is not working without having to go back and renegotiate a very complex statewide contract. The second issue deals with the workers at the University of Tennessee and we, you know, we reminded everyone in the letter that every member of this general assembly has constituents that work for the Tennessee state government in some form or fashion and that we are all watching this with a lot of interest. The people that work at the university, obviously, despite assurances by the governor, and Governor Haslam has given assurances that these people will be looked after, but some of these assurances that they will still have a job may be the difference between driving a few blocks or a mile or two down the road to go to work at the University of Tennessee. They may have to drive 50 miles if they want to keep their job and so you also, even though materially they may or may not lose out, also psychologically that uncertainty is there. And then, finally, you have the idea that the people that work for the University of Tennessee, that is a very special institution, there is a lot of loyalty that people have just by working there. Once you outsource, those people’s loyalty is going to go to whoever the big company is that has the contract or the subcontractor that has the contract, so you won’t have as much loyalty at the university. And the very last part is that we mentioned that we wanted to certain, because Governor Haslam has said publically, and he means it, again this is not a confrontational letter to the governor, he said that if the university examines every aspect of this, he feels that that if it is not right for the university, they will have the ability to opt out. We want Dr. Joe DiPietro and Dr. Davenport to know that there will be members of the Tennessee General Assembly that stand by them with their decision and they’re not going to be left out there alone where they feel that there is pressure.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Ok, let’s move on to another question that we have from our audience, this one wants to know, where any of you at Muslim day at the capitol yesterday and if so, what was your experience.
SENATOR RICHARD BRIGGS: I didn’t know about it. We went out of session on noon on Thursday and I was down here…
SENATOR RANDY MCNALLY: I was glad to be a Bryceville Elementary a couple of weeks ago for a reading program, because of the snow we couldn’t go, but I did go up there for the reading program and we missed it.
SEN. BECKY DUNCAN MASSEY: The good thing about our state legislature is that we’re in Knoxville or are in our hometowns a whole lot more than we are in Nashville, so we stay closer to the folks that we represent.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Ok, here’s another question from the audience. If the state should not tell doctors how to treat their patients, why does Tennessee impose a waiting period and pass laws that reduce women’s access to reproductive healthcare.
SENATOR RANDY MCNALLY: Well I think that the state should minimize the ability or the law that passes dealing with that procession. I certainly agree in part with Dr. Briggs on that, but I do feel in part that there are certain standards that the state needs to address like health and safety standards and I think that is where the Supreme Court is going to come down to issues that deal with issues that deal with health and public safety and appropriately addressed by the state.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Anybody else want to address that?
SENATOR RICHARD BRIGGS: I will, and this is one of those probably stay away from, but I will address it and I think we do have to give a balanced view on that. I think we have the 48 hour waiting period is what we passed two years ago on this and I don’t think that is unreasonable. The decision for what I’ve been told, and I believe the decision is a very difficult decision to have an abortion, and what we wanted to try to avoid on that decision is the first thing that the women thinking, if it is really an unwanted pregnancy, is I’m going to have an abortion. We hear from many women that after sleeping on it and a little bit of consideration they probably need to wait 48 hours on it. There is not a lot of surgery that we do, particularly something major, elected surgery, something that is not an emergency that we don’t have to postpone the procedure just for scheduling and we can argue about this, but to me, this is really a big decision. You are taking a life. We can argue about that, but it is pretty big. It is a little bit different from getting a tooth filled. And we do allow in this state, we do allow abortions to occur. We are trying to make it in as safe as an environment as possible for the women, but it is still a big decision that I think should be made rationally and people do have a right to an abortion in this state and there can be other things made, but I think that the 48 hour period of reflection is for some women will say later, I’m glad that I had extra time to think about it, but as a man, I had even commenting on it, because as a principal, I don’t like to comment on things that maybe I don’t fully understand.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Rep. Zachary?
REPRESENTATIVE JASON ZACHARY: Sure and I think ultimately, we’re in specifically to Tennessee with the legislature we have now, you’re looking at a pro-life legislature and so I think for the majority of us that serve in Tennessee it is about protecting the sanctity of life and so it is different for every state, but for us, any step that we can take, I know most of us, the guys that I’m sitting with right now have a 100 percent pro-life rating. Any steps that we can take to protect the sanctity of life is steps that we are going to take.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Alright, now I do want to remind our audience that if you are hearing things that you want to comment, you guys are being wonderful about not jumping up and voicing them, but you have those cards to write your questions. So, get those up to me and we will continue the conversation on a particular topic if I get those questions. I also want to go back to something Rep. Dunn, something from this week, sorry, you’re not going to escape, you’re not. I know you were very vocal about wanting to appeal the recess or physical education act that was passed last year. Explain that to everyone and what you see as a possible solution if you do have one as well.
REPRESENTATIVE BILL DUNN: Well there is a distinction between recess and physical education. My bill would not affect physical education, which is sort of seen as a class. What was passed dealt more with recess. unstructured physical activity or play and it was so exact that in the early grades there will be three fifteen minute periods for each child during the day to have unstructured physical activity and when I was principal for the day I found out that it is very hard to work that into the school schedule, because different children are in different places at different times, so how do you get each child to have that and so I listened to the teachers and the principals, so I think the best approach is I know we’ve heard a lot about repeal and replace at the federal level, well this is a true case where I think the first step is we need to repeal it as soon as possible so that the schools can start working their own schedule and then if someone wants to come back in behind it and replace it with something that actually works when we talk to the educators, then I think that would happen, but it was very well intentioned, but I think everybody would agree that the children do need to get up occasionally and move about and burn off energy, but it was so exact that mandate to the schools was just not working.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Another question from our audience concerning education, there is a proposal to grade schools using an A through F grading system. This type of grading system does not really give any real information about school areas of excellence or areas in need of improvement. Where does this proposal stand right now?
REPRESENTATIVE EDDIE SMITH: If I’m not mistaken, that went through the education committee last year and it was passed, so what you’re seeing is language in laws that have already been enacted. The purpose was, there is an A through F, but there is also a lot more information on the school as it relates to proficiency, you know where students are doing well, what grades are doing, listed for that school as part of that, but it’s hard for most people to dig through all of that and they want to know when they’re looking at a community where does this school stand and that was the genesis behind that original legislation.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Again, another question from the audience here, again a little bit lengthy. It says, I’m here regarding the bill proposed by Sheila Butts regarding junk food, sweets and fats and foods. Is this another way of shaming recipients without proposing a bill to increase minimum wage so that people are not dependent. I’m assuming we’re talking about food stamps here. I’m not as familiar with this. Does anyone want to address this?
REPRESENTATIVE JIMMY MATLOCK: I spoke with Sheila for just a quick second this week about that and I actually concur with her. I think because those dollars flow we have a responsibility to see what happens to those dollars and I think we, along with that, have the possibilities of, if we have the information that says eating correctly to health is important, I think we in the government, because we have funding, have the right to dictate to some extent what you can buy and I would support that entirely.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Any other lawmaker agree with that or want to chime in on that?
SENATOR BECKY DUNCAN MASSEY: I’m not as familiar with the bill. I have not seen it, but it could be similar to the WIC funding that can be used for women with young children, you know, for milk and bread, and the basics and you know, things that you really need to stay healthy, so it could be really similar to that. I know we do have a tremendous health problem in Tennessee and as far as obesity. Back in the ‘90s, the worst state in the country only had about 20 percent obesity rate. Now, the best state has 20 percent and Tennessee, along with several other states, is up to about a third of our adults or obese or morbidly obese, so we have to look at different areas. I haven’t seen the bill. I don’t know, but we do need to be doing a better job to try to get our population healthier.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Alright, I’m getting a few more questions here. I’ve also just received notice that we need to wrap up by 1:05, so we only have about 6 or 7 minutes left everyone.
REPRESENTATIVE EDDIE SMITH: Kristin, let me just say this real quick, because I know we are going to be ending soon, if you have a question, you didn’t get answered, to any one of these, a lot of will be able to hang around for a few minutes. Just grab us and ask that question, if you don’t get to ask at the podium.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Yes, and I think it is a wonderful thing to kind of point out here. Our lawmakers do make themselves very accessible and I’m sure there are a lot of you with follow-up questions. Be sure to reach out to them. They are here today because they want to answer your questions and continue the discussion, so something to think about here. This is kind of a follow-up to what we were just talking about, with healthy foods, someone wanting to know, are you looking at what is being provided in public schools. It’s not a very healthy menu.
REPRESENTATIVE EDDIE SMITH: Well, I actually brought a bill to two years ago that would allow the local school board, if they wanted to opt-out of the federal requirement for schools to provide a better lunch, if they can find that money locally, they can do that, so that option is out there, but it will cost more money on the local level, because we do receive money on the local level from them and with that comes strings or they lose the federal funding. So, this is a bill that is out there. I believe Germantown is the only one who is using it that has decided to find the funding locally to provide better meal choices so the students will eat them, because a lot of the stuff ends up in the trash and we’ve seen that even here in Knox County.
REPRESENTATIVE RICK STAPLES: I just would like to respond back to the previous question in regards to the bill and I haven’t seen it or read it and because I hear something I don’t agree with, I don’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction, just to keep talking, but to that point exactly with the schools, if we are going to attack certain issues, especially with choices or if I don’t like the terminology, but with any government body dictating anything to the people that elected us, you’re their servants, you need to listen and react to that wisdom, but having said that, we have a lot of rural areas and inner-city areas that don’t have healthy choices for food, that are food deserts and if we’re going to look at addressing bills and if we have concerns about where that money is going, we don’t know if it is going to be an individual trying to make a birthday cake or they may be a diabetic. So again, I think once again we have to start looking at the kind of things before you start making decisions. If you’re going to attack something in concern about health, look at those individuals that live in food desserts, let’s address that. Let’s also look at our schools with that question. When we’re talking about our children, unfortunately when we do care a lot about the money and numbers, but I think we have to remember we are talking about our babies and our future, so if you are really concerned about education and really concerned about how healthy are children are, let’s look at our schools and look at the food choices they are making and I know that is a delayed reaction, but it just didn’t sit right in my holster.
KRISTIN FARLEY: This kind of goes in line with what we were talking about just a moment ago about not all of the questions being answered today, someone does want to know how do you actively engage with all of your constituents, not just the ones that are the loudest or the most vocal. Maybe I’ll follow up on that saying, what is the best way for them to reach out to you if they don’t get a chance to talk to you here today, email, phone call, snail mail, what’s the best?
REPRESENTATIVE BECKY DUNCAN MASSEY: I meet people at the grocery store. I mean it is really every way. I mean we are out amongst our community, Randy comes and talks to me at church. You’re at everything and everywhere you go you talk to a different group of people, you know whether I’m at Sertoma at work, I have my staff come in and talk to me about issues. It’s everything all and above. People come meet with you, they set up meetings and then if people come to Nashville, email, call, so everything works together, but I think this whole delegation works very hard to be at everything, to show up, to be accessible and to respond to the communications from the people in Knox County.
REPRESENTATIVE EDDIE SMITH: I’d like to follow up on that, you know, send an original email. On some controversial bills… there was one last year I can tell you that I have 1,200 emails from all the same email that came out from a server that just fired them off and I missed several emails because they just got buried in all of that. Imagine trying to go through that. So send an email, but then if you don’t hear back from us in a day or so, either call the office or send another email. It honestly may have just gotten caught up in that tidal wave as we go through, and you can imagine just with different things that we have dealt with over the last two years, the times that that would have happened, so send us an email, let us know your thoughts and if you don’t hear back, follow back up and try to get in touch with us, especially if you see, watch the newspaper or the news and you’ll know if there is something controversial that is going on, it is probably lighting up our email.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Ok, we only have two minutes. I have one last question I want to get in and I’m going to start with Representative Daniel because I feel like you’re way down there and you haven’t touched many questions down there. Someone wants to know what are your thoughts on turn limits for state representatives and senators.
REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN DANIEL: I think it would be fine, the problem is to make them consistent so if we enact a term limit for representatives that is say six terms, it would need to make that consistent with senators, so three four year terms for senators, so I personally support that. I think on the state level it is not as important as it is on the federal level, because we do have high turnover on the state level to a certain extent. So on the federal level I would support term limits. I wouldn’t be opposed on a state level, but I think the turnover is much higher. I mean I’ve been here a year and a half and we have about 16 new members, so I don’t think it is as important on the state level.
KRISTIN FARLEY: Alright, unfortunately everybody, we are out of time, but let’s give our state lawmakers a big round of applause today.