Legislative news from the House

by | April 20, 2017 6:31 am

Last Updated: April 20, 2017 at 7:23 am

Paul Sherrell

From State Representative Paul Sherrell

Legislation to help adults, National Guard members access higher education wins House approval

A key legislative initiative spearheaded by House Republicans to help adults without a degree access higher education, as well as a bill aimed at expanding access to college for Tennessee military men and women won approval last week after passing the full House floor with bipartisan support.

House Bill 531, named the Tennessee Reconnect Act, would make Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all Tennessee adults without a degree access to community college tuition-free — and at no cost to taxpayers.

Currently, Tennessee adults without a degree or certificate can already attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) tuition-free, and House Bill 531 would add community colleges into that same category. The legislation expands on a program launched in 2015 aimed at attracting approximately 900,000 Tennesseans who have earned some college credit, but not enough to earn a degree.

To be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, a student must be a Tennessee resident for at least one year preceding the date of application and must not already have an associate or bachelor degree. Other requirements include completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) where the applicant is deemed an independent student, participation in an approved advising program, and enrollment in any of the state’s 13 public community college’s degree or certificate programs for six semester hours. In order to maintain the Tennessee Reconnect grant, the student must enroll in classes leading to an associate’s degree or certificate continuously and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.

Supporters of the legislation agree the new Reconnect program is a tremendous investment in the state’s economy, giving adults new opportunities for career growth while also providing employers with the skills and credentials they are seeking from the workforce.

The program will begin with the 2018-19 school year upon approval.

On the same front last week, the House also approved a legislative initiative aimed at expanding access to education in the state for Tennessee National Guardsmen. The bill, named the Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen (STRONG) Act creates a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard funding toward a first-time bachelor’s degree through a tuition reimbursement program.

The STRONG Act provides an opportunity for those who protect and serve our state and country to receive their bachelor’s degree, a move that gives Tennessee’s National Guard a competitive edge in recruitment. As a last-dollar reimbursement, the amount of state tuition reimbursement is offset by any other funds received.

To be eligible, the individual must be currently serving with the Tennessee National Guard in good standing, have applied for federal tuition assistance, and be admitted to any Tennessee public community college, public university, or private college or university which is regionally accredited. The student must maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0.

Currently in Tennessee, 27.7% of veterans have some college or an associate’s degree, while 24.3% have a bachelor’s degree.

Earlier this year, the legislature passed House Bill 433 that will also assist Tennessee veterans by simplifying the process which determines how military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities.

As the 2017 legislative session continues, House Republicans remain committed to helping veterans, their families, and all those involved with protecting Tennessee and the United States on a daily basis.

Broadband Accessibility Act heads to governor’s desk for final signature

House Bill 529, the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, is now headed to the desk of Governor Bill Haslam to be signed into law after clearing its final hurdle with support on the full House floor.

As passed, the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act seeks to expand broadband internet services across the state, especially to Tennessee’s rural areas that currently completely lack coverage.

Tennessee ranks 29th in the country for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility to high speed internet. While only 2 percent of the state’s urban citizens lack access, 34 percent of rural residents are without coverage, placing them at a distinct disadvantage over their city counterparts.

House Bill 529 addresses broadband accessibility and adoption through business investment and deregulation. Coupled with the state budget, the legislation makes targeted investments through grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. The legislation also permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service — something they have been completely unable to do in the past.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) produced a report that outlined several municipal broadband failures and made recommendations about how more Tennesseans can adopt broadband services. Of particular interest, the report noted, is finding ways to provide broadband access to Tennessee’s rural areas.

New legislation continues health benefits for families of first responders killed in line of duty

House Republicans advanced legislation last week that continues health coverage to families of first responders killed in the line of duty.

Under House Bill 466, spouses and children of full-time police officers, firefighters, and other first responders who are killed in the line of duty would receive health benefits for a period of two years following the death of their loved one.

Family members of fallen Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP), Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) officers would also be covered under this legislation.

The bill will be heard by the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee this week.

The full text of the bill can be accessed by visiting the Tennessee General Assembly website at: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/110/Bill/HB0466.pdf

State Department protects water quality by providing options for unwanted household pharmaceuticals

More than 80,000 pounds of medication collected in 2016

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) expanded its efforts to protect water quality in Tennessee last week by working with statewide partners to provide more options for the disposal of unwanted medications. Collection programs reduce the amount of pharmaceutical products being flushed, poured down drains, and sent to landfills.

Through TDEC’s Unwanted Household Pharmaceutical Collection Program, there are now 224 permanent collection bins for expired, unused, or unwanted household medications across all of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

In 2016, more than 80,000 lbs. of medication was collected — almost five times more than during the program’s first year in 2012. In 2017, more than 11,000 lbs. of unwanted pharmaceuticals has already been recovered and prevented from entering Tennessee’s waterways.

Flushing or washing drugs down the sink allows chemicals to enter the watershed and groundwater, where they can impact drinking water and stream ecosystems. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to adequately remove chemicals found in drugs, and drugs that end up landfilled as trash also end up in the watershed.

Since 2012, TDEC has been working to expand collection sites with partners including local law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Tennessee Department of Health, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

To ensure all 95 counties had access to at least one collection bin, TDEC partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to secure funding for the remaining counties. Grant funding from the USDA covered almost 75 percent of the expansion’s total cost.

YEAR   POUNDS COLLECTED

2012   15,905.91

2013   23,501.63

2014   22,086.96

2015   56,197.48

2016   82,021.03

For a map of bin locations statewide, visit http://tn.gov/environment/article/sp-unwanted-pharmaceuticals.

In addition to these permanent collection bins, the national Drug Enforcement Agency is also hosting a Drug Take-Back Day on April 29. Drop-off locations for this event can be found here: https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/.

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