From the Hill: Bill in committee would strengthen state’s sexual offender laws

By State Rep. Matthew Hill
A bill some say would strengthen the state’s sexual offender laws and ensure Tennessee is completely in compliance with the federal government’s Adam Walsh Act was discussed at length last week in the House Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 2789 would require violent juvenile sexual offenders age 14 or older to register on a sexual offender registry. Due to some concerns regarding juveniles who may not re-offend, an amendment was added to the bill.
Currently, juveniles are assessed by mental health professionals after being adjudicated for a violent sexual crime. The Tennessee Association of Mental Health Organizations agreed to assess the juveniles as “high-risk” and “low-risk,” with those assessed as “high-risk” being required to register.
The bill states a person must stay on the registry for 25 years, then may apply for removal.
If the person is convicted of an additional offense, they must stay on the registry for life. These are the minimum requirements that keep the legislation in compliance with the Adam Walsh Act.
The federal government signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act into law in 2006. State compliance is tied to grant money. Fiscal analysts say Tennessee is eligible to receive over $50 million in grant funding, but 10 percent of it is in jeopardy unless House Bill 2789 passes.
After four and a half hours of discussion, the bill was deferred for one week and will be heard again in the Judiciary Committee this week.
LICENSES IN ENGLISH
A bill requiring the written portion of the driver’s license exam be administered in English only passed out the House Public Safety Subcommittee.
The legislation was last run in 2007, and the Senate was successful in passing it, however, some House members blocked the measure in a subcommittee, and the bill died on a tie vote.
In 1984, Tennessee adopted a law making English the official language of the state. The law reads in part, “All communications and publications…produced by governmental entities in Tennessee shall be in English.”
The Tennessee Department of Safety does not apply the phrase to driver’s license examinations or driver’s license study guides, however. Currently, TDOS administers the test in English, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese.
Having passed out of the House Public Safety Subcommittee, House Bill 262 will next be heard in the full House Transportation Committee.
RX DRUG LAWS
The Senate and House Judiciary Committees approved legislation to attack a major source of illegal drug activity.
House Bill 3221 would stiffen penalties against those who get prescriptions in another state and return to illegally distribute them here.
Action on the bill follows a 96.6 percent increase in drug-related deaths, according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. Some attribute the increase to the misuse of prescription drugs obtained legally from out-of-state ‘pill mills.’
The legislation increases penalties for illegal trafficking of out-of-state drugs from a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a 30-day jail term and up to $50 in fines, to a Class D felony, with two to 12 years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.
EDUCATION BILL
House Bill 3105 passed out of the House Education Committee and would require local boards of education to give preference to a parent’s request in classroom placement of multiple birth siblings.
SEX OFFENDER ISSUE
A bill that would prohibit physicians who are on the sexual offender registry from treating children under 18 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and will now be heard in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
DUI IGNITION LOCKS
House Bill 2768 moved out of the House Judiciary Co mittee and will next be heard in the House Budget Subcommittee. The bill would require certain DUI offenders to have an ignition interlock device placed on their vehicle.

From the Hill: State leaders work to shrink budget shortfall, save major money

By State Rep. Matt Hill
The Extraordinary Session that lasted nearly a month is one step closer to paying off in a big way, as the United States Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” finalists were announced last week.
Tennessee is on the list of states that will move forward in the process, along with 15 others. The eventual winners will receive a boost in education funding.
Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina will compete with Tennessee.
Tennessee submitted the state’s application to compete for up to $501.8 million in funds under the Race to the Top program in January.
The application was submitted on the same day the president called for adding $1.3 billion to the budget for the program.
The program currently has $4.3 billion allocated to reward states which are implementing significant reforms in four education areas: enhancing standards and assessments; improving the collection and use of data; increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution; and turning around struggling schools.
ENGLISH ON THE JOB
A proposal that would clarify that it is not against the law for businesses to require English to be spoken on the job moved forward last week.
House Bill 2685 moved out of the Employee Affairs Subcommittee, and will next face the House Consumer and Employee Affairs Committee.
Several lawmakers have supported the legislation, which has hit roadblocks in committees before. This year, however, the bill passed out of the subcommittee unanimously.
The bill does allow for some exceptions such as lunch hours or other designated breaks.
The proposed law is designed to protect businesses from the frivolous lawsuits that can emerge when private business policies are set perfectly within their rights.
The bill is also primarily a safety precaution for workers.
Businesses where employees are continuously handling toxic products or food containers have a need to require English.
Other businesses, for example many factories, have signs displayed in English that communicate critical safety information. These business practices are the ones the bill is designed to protect.
FRAUDULENT
CONTRACTORS
To help protect consumers from fraudulent contractors, legislators voted to pass House Bill 2625 out of the House Judiciary Committee.
This bill creates a criminal offense for a home contractor who defrauds a homeowner by not making substantial progress on a home improvement project within 90 days and then fails to refund money paid under a contract within 10 days of a written request.
Consumers will be able to file complaints with the state’s Consumer Protection Division. In its current form, the bill applies to written and oral contractual agreements.
Violators will be punished based upon the value of the property or services and will be subject to punishment from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B felony.
Within 30 days of a conviction, the Board of Licensing Contractors will be required to revoke a contractor’s license and post his or her name, license number, and violation on the state’s website for three years. This will serve as a resource for consumers to check when selecting a contractor.
The legislation will prohibit a contractor from receiving a new license during the term of the imposed sentence. Violators who have been convicted two or more times for the same violation will not be eligible for a license.
SEX OFFENDERS
AS PHYSICIANS
House Bill 3063 passed out the Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee and will next be heard in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill prohibits physicians on the sexual offender registry from treating children under 18.
AGGRAVATED RAPE
AN ADULT OFFENSE
A bill that adds aggravated rape of a child to the list of offenses for which a juvenile may be transferred to adult court also passed out of the Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee. House Bill 2438 will be heard in Judiciary Committee this week.
NO FLOOR ON AMOUNT GOVERNMENT PAYS
Legislation that could potentially save local governments across the state money passed on the House floor unanimously last week. House Bill 2552 clarifies the law on the purchase of used or secondhand items purchased by local government.
As the law is currently written, local governments could not purchase equipment that is more than 10 percent above market value, or 10 percent below. This bill essentially clarifies that there is no floor on how much a local government may pay.
FETUS A VICTIM, TOO
House Bill 3495 specifies that when someone commits a homicide or assault against a pregnant woman, the woman’s fetus, regardless of viability, is also considered a victim of the offense.
The legislation passed out of the Public Health and Family Assistance Subcommittee and will next be heard by the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

Is town big enough to be bypassed?

The North Jonesborough Historic Parkway is a proposed solution to traffic congestion in Tennessee’s Oldest Town. Jonesborough officials are considering this “pass through” to ease the daily commute for drivers from Greeneville to Johnson City along with snarled traffic at the intersection where 11-E meets Boones Creek Road.
Town Administrator Bob Browning says: “We wanted to create an alternative route on the north and south sides of Jonesborough. Any reduction of traffic on our busiest intersection is an improvement.”
The North Side Parkway would begin on Ben Gamble Road, proceed through the Meadows subdivision, and come out farther down on Boones Creek Road. The alternative route would be an optimal connection for trucks which would no longer have to use Highway 81 through town and Washington Drive to connect with Highway 11-E.
Several proposed routes are being considered through the property behind and next to Ben Gamble and 11-E.
“The longer we wait, the more money it will cost and the more winding it will be,” says Town Engineer Todd Wood.
Town officials are hoping that the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) will consider the new parkway when a signalization project gets underway at the Persimmon Ridge intersection. This project includes aligning Ben Gamble and New Hope roads.
Jonesborough wants the State of Tennessee to redesign their signalization efforts to further angle the highway to create the parkway’s beginning. It is felt that if the Town moves quickly, TDOT would be able to amend its original project and effectively “cost-share” the parkway’s first phase of construction.
The opinions of Town of Jonesborough officials indicate that the commercial strip running the length of Jackson Boulevard together with the 11-E / Boones Creek Road intersection have become too congested with traffic. The volume on this highway has also been affected by the opening of the new “George P. Jaynes Justice Center.”
Because of the traffic moving from Johnson City to the Justice Center, any proposed Parkway should be designed to provide better access to this facility. Currently, difficult turns on a largely unsignalized highway are required to travel to and from this Center where all the courts in Washington Court are being held.
Should the realignment and construction of a parkway take place, will Jonesborough again look to the placement of red light cameras on the highway’s intersections? A parkway implies restricted access and the public needs to know what plans are being made to accommodate traffic from Meadows subdivision and other parts of the community.
The issue of the use of the red light cameras has been a topic for debate in the State Legislature. Members of the Legislature have decided to hold a bill that would regulate the cameras in the group’s Transportation Committee until April 1. The Tennessee Municipal League along with state law enforcement groups have been asked to prepare a suggested “compromise bill” to calm the debate between factions who feel the red light cameras are unconstitutional and those who extol their use as safety devices. Other citizens groups complain that the companies who have installed the cameras appear to gain the most revenue from their use – revenue that in many instances leaves the State.
While “time” may be of the essence in the development of the North Jonesborough Historic Parkway, citizen input for this project is essential. It is incumbent upon both State and Town officials to move the project from a concept to a plan that has maps, charts and traffic counts justifying the construction of a parkway. Officials must also articulate where red lights and access to the parkway will be located and what land will be acquired for the highway’s new alignment.
The Town of Jonesborough should be candid about suggested speed limits on the new route, and whether an extension of the concept will lead to a proposed “South Jonesborough Historic Parkway.” Will the Town eventually develop a “traffic loop” like those found in metropolitan areas around cities on the interstates in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville? What kind of signage will then be developed to direct motorists to historic sites in Jonesborough?
Is the Town of Jonesborough “big enough” for parkways bypassing the community? Let the Herald & Tribune know your thoughts in a “Letter to the Editor” sent to P.O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659, by fax to 753-6528 or e-mail [email protected]

When in doubt, ask the skunk cabbage

A 19th century writer, Alexandre Dumas was asked whence came the drive and energy for his prolific literary output. “I don’t know,” he responded. “Ask a plum tree how it produces plums.”
These days, as winter has lingered with snow and icy temperatures, one might ask this question of some herbaceous plant-family members. Skunk cabbage, a wildflower native of the eastern US deciduous forest region blooms in mid to late winter, defying snow and frozen ground and frigid air temperatures. It is among a very few flower species which have learned some tricks, over the 470 million-year span since the green plants moved on land, to generate their own heat.
Skunk cabbage stokes its furnace so effectively that it melts away snow and ice in a circular patch around itself, the result of dramatically increasing its respiration rate and rapidly burning starch from its underground stem. Botany researcher Roger Knutson studied the plant and its winter-flowering habit for nearly a decade. “At air temperatures near freezing,” he noted, “a seemingly inactive skunk cabbage spadix is using oxygen and burning food at a rate nearly equal to that of a hummingbird.” A thick, fleshy hood (spathe) surrounds the flower parts (spadix), insulating them so well that the interior retains a nearly constant, 72 to 74 degree temperature, “regardless of the temperature of surrounding air and soil.” It seems to have “not only a furnace but a thermostat as well,” Knutson notes. The year’s first nectar and pollen await honeybees and early spring insects in its “tiny island of dependable, near-tropical warmth.”
As well, its subterranean workings are remarkable. A massive stem stores the food its leaves produce during the summer. Hundreds of pencil-size, contractible roots extend down and out from it.
After anchoring themselves in the soil, they “shorten in unison,” wrinkling their surfaces and pulling the large stem deep underground where the food larder for winter blossoming will be safe from frost.
So sturdy and enduring is skunk cabbage, in bogs and other wetlands where it made its home, that individual plants can live hundreds of years. As another 20th century botanist attested: “Thus it happens that the skunk cabbage that is seen today growing unpretentiously in any bog may not improbably have occupied that very spot long years before Columbus set foot upon our shores and may continue there a thousand years and more from now if only the fates are kind.”
Alas, they haven’t been. Most historic wetlands were drained long ago and development for human “progress” steadily eats away at those still left. Against bulldozers in their erstwhile home, even this plant’s remarkable soil anchoring and other adaptations for life in a harsh world cannot endure. Tennessee now has it hanging on precariously in a few places in three counties in our region, its conservation status “extremely rare and critically imperiled.”
In our modern habit of earth consumption for more human “convenience” contraptions, the inexorable displacement of humble skunk cabbage and other plants and wildlife represents a loss of priceless value.

Depot deal shows value of TIF

Use of TIF (Tax Increment Financing) by the City of Johnson City to assist in the renovation of a downtown depot should be instructive to members of the Washington County Commission. Approval by the Commission occurred earlier this year after a spirited debate about the value of the program.
Now, the Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) is in the process of purchasing and converting the former Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Depot into a multi-purpose facility that will assist in the planned revival of downtown Johnson City.
In order to purchase the property, Johnson City Commissioners have approved an advance of $275,000 on projected tax increment financing (TIF) revenues so that the Development Authority could purchase the depot in time to qualify for a possible grant of $211,000 from the State of Tennessee.
The grant award should be announced sometime in April by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
As explained by JCDA Executive Commissioner Suzanne Kuehn: “The train station was eligible under two different criteria. One was historic preservation, and the grant also mentions operations of a historic transportation site.”
Apparently the JCDA took a calculated risk in its willingness to spend TIF money just as it is reaching the point of annual TIF income. The depot facility at the present time is little more than an empty shell.
If renovated according to present proposals, the depot could include a café, a bike rental as part of a soon-to-be completed recreational trail coming from East Tennessee State University with a possible terminus in Elizabethton, as well as a railroad history museum. Proposals for the depot’s second floor include office space utilization.
The site’s railroad platform could be the location of both the downtown farmers market and a cluster of year-round booth spaces for produce and flowers, plus locally produced food and crafts.
Kuehn praised both Johnson City for its flexibility in financing and the Washington County Commission for joining the TIF program and increasing its income. The JCDA controls the TIF funds, which result from increased property values in the center city “TIF district.” Collected TIF tax funds are then directed to projects like the depot purchase and renovation.
The Executive Commissioner added: “It’s not only the City Commission. I thank the board – we’re taking a risk, but it’s a calculated risk, and the County Commission staying steadfast with it – is really encouraging.”
County Commissioners nearly reversed their commitment to include county tax increment revenues in the TIF program before upholding TIF in a close vote.
County Commissioners deserve praise for voting in favor of the program. Consideration of expansion of the program to include areas in Jonesborough and Washington County seems appropriate in light of this example of benefits from use of TIF revenues.
Candidates for various county offices should have an interest in and opinion about the TIF program.
The Herald & Tribune always welcomes “Letters to the Editor” concerning such topics. Please address them to P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659; fax the newspaper at 423-753-6528 or e-mail comments to [email protected]

Cleaning up the air – the wrong way

In a certain town in a certain southeastern state, a strange plan for clearing up the air has been hatched. Air pollution has long been a growing problem, costly in lives lost and in health-treatment needs for many illnesses. By the mid 1990s in said state, for instance, five times more persons than in 1960 died of obstructive lung diseases each year, thanks to numerous, obnoxious and toxic pollutants in the air.
To quite a large extent, the problem is traceable to a car-centered system for getting around. The Clean Air Act in 1990, therefore, established a new approach to transportation decision-making. States and communities would be obliged to implement programs to reduce their air-pollution loads, risking loss of highway funding where standards were not attained. The law’s ISTEA portions provided broad eligibility and funding for transportation to be diversified, such as through development or expansion of mass transit, and bicycle and pedestrian, non-motorized travel infrastructure. Through reducing vehicular travel and shifting investment to make transportation inter-modal, air pollution would be reduced and the environmental harm from vehicle traffic lessened.
The opportunities proffered under the law were little used by said state, as its own attorney general testified lately, nor by the town in question. In the latter, for example, a visioning study fourteen years ago saw citizens stating their wish for “pedestrian accessibility to all parts of the town, bicycle and walking trails” linking to nearby towns and “adequate mass transit” to employment centers, commercial-corridor shopping and town-center amenities. The Community Plan seeking this transportation vision seems then to have been promptly buried.
On the contrary, a new plan would further strengthen the service infrastructure for motor traffic. A gas station and car wash, though these are quite abundant would be added, in an environmentally sensitive location. In a most extraordinary somersault from the ISTEA notions, the plan asserts to “reduce air pollution by reducing the amount of miles driven.” It deems people in the town to differ from those elsewhere by routinely making separate car trips to fill up gas tanks or use a commercial wash. Were it so, and the closest existing facilities of this kind being some 650 yards away, all those extra excursions would indeed add up to quite a few miles over time, whose air pollution the new station would avoid. In other words, it views the town inhabitants to not act in the money-and time-thrifty way of planning these chores together with other trips, that people generally are wont to do. In this way, the plan figures air-pollution savings from an additional commercial facility that, in actuality, fosters more vehicular travel and pollution, not less.
To accommodate the space needs of the “pollution-reducing” development, a stream would need to be moved out of the way. The state in question announced its concurrence with the above line of reasoning and agreement, therefore, to permit the stream’s relocation.
Be game, now, little creek and downstream waters and creatures! Your ordeal will serve the entirely noble cause of cleaning up our air.

From the Hill: State leaders work to shrink budget shortfall, save major money

By State Rep. Matt Hill
Lawmakers continued their examination of the budget last week, amid reports that revenues continue to slide.
The state has seen revenues decline for 20 straight months, a new record. Despite the dismal numbers, leaders remain focused on their goal of a balanced budget that keeps priorities in place and view the current budget situation as an opportunity to return government to the basics.
Based on tentative numbers, the total budget will shrink this fiscal year by roughly $1.5 billion. Analysts say the state’s sales tax revenue—the primary source of revenue—has dropped sharply over the last 20 months.
KEEPING SOME ‘CLAWBACK PAYMENTS’
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that Tennessee could keep some of the “clawback payments” associated with prescription drug coverage. The temporary change means the state could save $120 million, going a long way in softening the blow of the Governor’s call for $200 million in reductions from TennCare.
Some Tennesseans that are Medicaid-waiver enrollees are also enrolled in Medicare. The federal government requires the state to contribute some of its TennCare funds in lieu of paying twice for the benefits that both programs cover, called “clawback payments.” Temporarily, the federal government will be forgiving those payments, thus saving the $120 million.
Tennessee joined several other states in asking the federal government to suspend the payments, because the federal stimulus aid for Medicaid meant the state would have paid less for prescription drugs in the next two budgets. At the end of last week the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services agreed, leading them to temporarily suspend the payments.
PASS THE BOTTLE LEGISLATION
The ‘Pass the Bottle’ legislation appeared before the House Local Government Subcommittee, eventually winning the approval of the committee. The bill passed with a 5-3 vote. House Bill 2744 would ban open containers in the passenger areas of vehicles, and make a violation a misdemeanor, subjecting a guilty party to a fine. Currently, no driver may consume an alcoholic beverage or possess an open container of such while operating a motor vehicle, but passengers may consume alcohol. The sponsor argued this policy invites drivers to drink as long as there is a passenger to which they can “pass the bottle.”
The bill was filed last year and experienced resistance in subcommittees.
Opponents expressed concern over the ability of sober drivers to take friends home who are drinking, and also regarding sporting events, such as University of Tennessee football games. Despite these objections, the sponsor said the state must reform its drunk driving laws.
In 2008, an estimated 11,773 people died in drunk driving related crashes.
Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost the public an estimated $114.3 billion in 2000, including $51.1 billion in monetary costs and an estimated $63.2 billion in quality of life losses. People other than the drinking driver paid $71.6 billion of the alcohol-related crash bill, which is 63 percent of the total cost of these crashes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Having won approval from the Local Government Subcommittee, the bill now faces the full House State and Local Government Committee and is scheduled to be heard today.
TRAFFIC CAMERAS CONTROVERSY
The controversy over traffic cameras continues, and legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on the cameras is being held in the Transportation Committee until April 1. The bill would prohibit city and county governments from signing new contracts for a two-year period, giving the Tennessee General Assembly time to study the issue further.
The state’s Attorney General also released an opinion last week that said the cameras are constitutional. A lawmaker asked the Attorney General to decide whether or not the cameras violate the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, which allows the accused to confront any witnesses against them. The AG opinion stated, in response, “The confrontation clause embraces testimonial statements. Photographs are not testimonial statements.”
Although the opinion did not directly address many of the issues the legislature is examining, it indicated there are certain areas that could be open to scrutiny. The opinion also stated that certain restrictions the legislature is considering placing on the cameras would be constitutional, as long as the restrictions were “reasonable.”
The City of Gallatin in Sumner County was the first to implement the cameras in 2006, and has since added additional cameras. City officials say the cameras have significantly reduced T-bone crashes at major intersections.
Currently, 16 Tennessee cities utilize the cameras for traffic enforcement, including red light and speed cameras.
FELONY MEANS FORFEIT
House Bill 2349 would require any member of the General Assembly convicted of a felony related to public office to forfeit their state health benefits.
The measure would allow family members who may be covered under the plan to continue utilizing it provided they continue paying the premiums. The bill advanced from the House State and Local Government Committee and will next be heard in the Budget Subcommittee. Because the legislation will not cost the state any money, leaders are optimistic it will advance through Finance, Ways and Means.
STATE GOVERNMENT EFFICIENCY
House Bill 3007, which encourages state government efficiency through innovative techniques and public input, moved through the committee system and could be set for a vote on the floor as early as this week.
House Bill 270, requiring citizenship status to be proven prior to registration to vote was passed out of the House State and Local Government Committee last week.

Chamber should include county, Jonesborough in the ‘adventure’

Once again, it is time to renew our Chamber of Commerce membership, something the Herald & Tribune has done for many, many years.
When the membership renewal form arrived a few days ago, we were surprised to see a new logo for the former Johnson City/Washington County/Jonesborough Chamber of Commerce. In the upper lefthand corner of the envelope was a new, bright red logo which stated, “Start Your Adventure Johnson City, Tennessee.”
That revived a perpetual concern that the local Chamber of Commerce, which has always insisted that it works for all three business communities, focuses almost entirely on Johnson City. With the new logo, that would now appear to be official.
The Herald & Tribune has been the Washington County-Jonesborough newspaper since 1869. One of our primary functions, beyond carrying the local news, is to promote and provide a platform for our local businesses.
During a monthly Chamber breakfast in Jonesborough, where it’s only held once in a year, Chamber chief executive officer Gary Mabrey promised more would be done to promote Jonesborough/Washington County businesses. He went so far as to say that a “satellite office” of the Chamber would soon be located in Jonesborough.
That was nearly 10 years ago. We are still waiting.
We have watched as the responsibility of the development of the county’s industrial park landed primarily on the shoulders of Washington County and Jonesborough officials. We have watched as the Chamber backed away from their Partners In Education program which brought much needed sponsorship funding to county schools. We have watched as Jonesborough, on the threshold of building a thriving business district, does so on its own.
We believe Jonesborough and Washington County are the calling cards for the Chamber. In a Chamber website listing labeled “Johnson City Contact Information,” 62 percent of the listings are not in Johnson City. Instead the listing touts the International Storytelling Center, the Gray Fossil Site & Museum, Positive Solutions Tours and more. It becomes very apparent that Washington County and Jonesborough have become vital parts of the economic engine.
Many local business owners seem to agree that perhaps the time is right for a separate Chamber of Commerce – one which works for and actively promotes the businesses and economic welfare of the county and the state’s oldest town.
Our community is the invitation, but they’re having the party in Johnson City. It is time for the Chamber to “dance with the one who brought you.”
What do our readers think? Send a Letter to the Editor with your opinions to P.O. Box 277, Jonesborough TN 37659, fax it to (423) 753-6528, or send it by e-mail to [email protected]

Help eradicate invasive weeds from our Park

In his book, The Diversity of Life, Harvard professor E.O. Wilson describes what happened when British colonists introduced, as a “sports fish,” the Nile perch into Africa’s Lake Victoria. One of the world’s richest in freshwater fishes, the lake was home to almost 400 species of herbivorous small fish. Being algae- and detritus eaters, these kept the lake waters healthy and provided for much of the protein needs of people in shoreline communities. Within barely more than two decades the introduced perch, a predator fish that can grow to six-foot length and 200-pound weight, eliminated 60 percent of the native fish species. With these and their organic-matter recycling lost from the lake, the water’s oxygen became depleted in large areas, causing “dead zones” uninhabitable to any fish. The livelihoods of local fishermen, too, was lost, as they could not compete against big fishing fleets that had come in.
The perch, a profitable catch for large commercial boats and processed in foreign-owned, largely automated processing plants onshore, would be marketed in Europe and elsewhere. Local people, unable to afford the commercial fish would resort to processing fish waste, that is, head, backbone and tail, as new food source.
The Lake saw more disaster when a foreign plant, water-hyacinth established itself there. Within a decade after first sighting in 1988, this weed suffocated areas of large extent with thick vegetation mats. Breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, they also choked off sunlight to lower water levels, enlarged the dead zones that kill off fish and other aquatic animals, clogged irrigation canals and water pipes and, like the perch, caused devastation for the Lake’s native aquatic species and shoreline communities. The hyacinth, native to South America, had been introduced as a landscaping plant to nearby Rwanda, by Belgian colonists seeking to beautify their estates.
Though Lake Victoria may exemplify, in Dr. Wilson’s words, “the most catastrophic extinction episode of recent history,” the planet’s biological endowment is being decimated through foreign-species impacts, worldwide. In the US, nearly half the plants and animals on the threatened or endangered species list are at risk primarily through various foreign interlopers. The Department of Agriculture estimates at $138 billion a year their cost, through losses in agriculture or damage-control expenditures, to the US economy.
The Legislature, through a Joint Resolution, is raising awareness of this increasingly urgent problem. Recognizing the invasive plants’ injuriousness and costliness to “our state’s natural areas, wildlands, farmlands, managed forests, recreation areas and parks, and home landscapes,” the Resolution designates Feb. 22-27 as “Invasive Weed Awareness Week” in Tennessee.
In sections of Persimmon Ridge Park, trees and native herbaceous plants are being choked by Multiflora rose and various other woody invasives. Citizen volunteers are starting an effort to rid the Park of these, through manual removal methods. A first, 2-hour work session is planned for the first day of spring, Saturday, March 20, beginning at 10 a.m. Any citizens wishing to participate are invited and should come to the picnic pavilion behind the Wetlands Water Park at that time.

From the Hill: State bill could invite public to submit ways to streamline budget

By State Rep. Matthew Hill
The second session of the 106th General Assembly is picking up steam, as bills from agriculture to zoo regulations are keeping lawmakers and committees busy.
All thirteen House committees have begun meeting on a regular basis, as well as the twenty-four subcommittees. Monday evening and Thursday morning sessions have met as usual, but Wednesday afternoon sessions are being cancelled for budget hearings. Budget hearings are expected to continue for the next few weeks as we are given a better picture of the state’s financial situation. Below is a snapshot of some legislation making its way through the committee system.
A bill that aims to improve the efficiency of state departments was passed in a House subcommittee last week. House Bill 3007 encourages departments to seek input from both employees and the public in order to create more efficient operations.
Other states have successfully implemented similar programs, and say that employees and the public have submitted innovative approaches and methodologies. Lawmakers hope the measure, if utilized by departments, will result in cost-savings for state government.
A bill that will help further protect the voting process from fraud and abuse was passed out of the House Election Subcommittee this week. House Bill 270 will require that voter registration forms carry a disclaimer that clarifies giving false information to register to vote carries a criminal penalty, and also requires that the applicant affirm that they are lawfully in the United States. The bill will now move to the House State and Local Government Committee.
Another measure presented in the House Elections Subcommittee will make it easier for troops overseas to vote absentee if passed into law. House Bill 2799 would allow election commissions to e-mail ballots that troops could then print and return by mail. Currently, election administrators mail the ballots overseas and do not utilize electronic means. The bill passed unanimously.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the Pew Research Center for People and Press report that one-third of states do not allow enough time for overseas voters, listing Tennessee as one of 16 states that sent ballots after the date necessary for voters to meet deadlines. Last year, at least seven states enacted legislation to authorize some form of electronic transmission. The committee will vote on the bill next week.
House Bill 2768 which requires ignition interlock devices to be installed in the vehicles of DUI offenders, moved out of a subcommittee this week.
Filed last year, the original bill required anyone convicted of a DUI with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 or higher be ordered to use the ignition interlock device (IID). Ignition interlock devices, which are designed to test the driver’s BAC level, have been implemented around the country. If the driver’s BAC level is above the set limit, the car will not start. The bill has been amended to raise the BAC level to .15, but the sponsor will still support the bill at the .08 level. The measure is expected to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee this week.
Numerous bills were filed this year to either ban or lessen the impact of traffic cameras in Tennessee. Cities and counties in Tennessee have increasingly turned to the automated systems for surveillance of intersections and roadways.
The Tennessee General Assembly has studied the use of traffic cameras over the summer and fall. Legislators have echoed criticisms from constituents that in addition to a violation of rights, the motivation behind the cameras is money, not safety.
House Bill 2516 will be heard in the House Transportation Committee this week, and bans the cameras altogether. Several weeks ago, a Transportation subcommittee passed legislation that directs the state comptroller to study the systems and places a two-year moratorium on new cameras.
House Joint Resolution 746 urges 911 call centers to accept text messages.
An Iowa 911 call center was the first to implement the idea, and reported that the program has been most beneficial to the deaf and hard of hearing, but has also been of help to kidnap victims who can’t risk drawing their captor’s attention by calling.
Legislators have, for several years, filed and supported legislation that would require any member of the Tennessee General Assembly convicted of a felony to forfeit their state health insurance benefits.
House Bill 2349 was approved by the State Government Subcommittee this week, and has been placed on the agenda in the House State and Local Government Committee. The bill would require any member of the legislature to forfeit state health insurance benefits provided the conviction was in relation to their elected office, and would not apply retroactively or to family members who might be covered.
Tennessee Valley Authority officials testified before the House Conservation and Environment Committee last week, saying that the ash spill clean-up is continuing as expected, and TVA will continue to test the water downstream indefinitely. A retaining wall collapsed in December of 2008 and dumped fly ash from TVA’s Kingston’s plant into the Emory River. TVA reported that 70 percent of the clean-up is completed and set an ambitious timeline for the entire project to be completed by May of 2010.
Here is some of the legislation scheduled to be heard in committee this week. House Bill 0262 requires that all written examinations for driver license or intermediate driver license be in English. House Bill 0791 expands the offense of identity theft to include when someone knowingly obtains, possesses, buys, or uses the personal identifying information of another, including any dead or fictitious person, to obtain or attempt to obtain employment.
House Bill 2744 creates a misdemeanor offense of possessing an open container of alcohol within the passenger area of a vehicle on a public highway. House Bill 3737 requires the Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning to disseminate its annual report regarding the voluntary pre-K program to the public via its web site. House Bill 2685 authorizes employers to require English be spoken in the workplace if necessary to conduct the employer’s business. House Bill 3173 clarifies that abortions performed during viability of the fetus must be performed in a hospital.

What are the plans for the Jonesborough courthouse?

With the November 2009 opening of the George P. Jaynes Justice Center, all court services moved to the new facility off 11-E, along with many county services. The move left courtrooms and some offices open in the Main Street Courthouse.
A plan has yet to be announced for the space left in the Jonesborough facility. One body that still uses the courthouse is the Washington County Commission, but the commissioners do have the option of holding their meetings at the Justice Center.
That seems a smart move to make, considering the space restrictions of the current meeting space and the opportunities for use of the vacated meeting room. For years, meetings at the Downtown County Court House in Jonesborough have often been crowded. The space between the “bar” of the courtroom and judge’s bench is not large meaning that some commission members end up sitting in the jury box.
There is a large, Circuit Court courtroom at the Justice Center that could be utilized for commission meetings. With desks or other seating, the courtroom could be turned into a professional looking room for county business.
The County Commission could remodel the present chambers into a meeting room with permanent seating for members. Another use might be the establishment of office space for a Washington County Archive.
The proximity of the former courtroom to the facility that for many years housed the county jail makes establishment of the archive office a logical choice. Books and other records are currently being stored in the former jail cells. If the space is going to be used for storage, an upgrading of a heating and cooling system for the former county jail would be a necessity.
If both the Commission Chambers and an Archive are desired, the office portion of the archive could be located in the former Grand Jury Room or in the former Judges Office complex at the front of the court house.
Hopefully, grant funding could assist Washington County in the establishment of an archive.
The Register of Deeds office needs additional space for records. This space is now available on the first floor of the Downtown Court House in Jonesborough.
The Washington County deed records are some of the most historically valuable records in the State of Tennessee. They are being safely stored and preserved at the present time and should stay in the custody of the Register.
However, certain county records appear to be “at risk” currently. While adequately maintained by the Clerk, the records are in the “basement” of the Downtown Court House.
The building is in a flood plain and the basement area is subject to water damage from flooding. There has been at least one incident in the last few years when water did invade this area when electricity went off in the historic district of Jonesborough.
What do readers think concerning use of the Jonesborough courthouse space? Write your “Letter to the Editor” addressed to P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659; fax the newspaper at 423-753-6528 or e-mail your opinion to [email protected]

Taxpayer bailout of big industry – again?

A chapter on the economics of nuclear power, in a 1979 book by Ralph Nader, reads like an oracle for the latest developments in Washington. “As if the threats to health and safety of present and future generations, occupational safety, national security, civil liberties, and to the environment were not enough,” it explains, “nuclear power is also afflicted with economic problems. Utility public relations claims to the contrary, nuclear power is an economic disaster. Plant construction costs and uranium costs are both skyrocketing. Financing . . . is increasingly uncertain. As a result, the giant corporations that make up the atomic industry are coming to Washington to ask for government bailouts. Federal subsidies to nuclear power are already large, but the future promises subsidies that will be much greater and more overt, if the atomic industry continues.”
The industry seemed to be quiescent after this, with utility customers in their electric bill, however, paying for its 1970’s construction boom ever since. The dormancy formally broken early this century, its full public-relations force was unleashed to promote views of need and beneficence of nuclear power. In January, McClatchy Newspapers reported industry outlays for lobbying and campaign-contributions: $663 million this decade, peaking at $84 million in the first nine months of 2009.
The non-competitiveness of its product, when compared with other energy sources, may not deter Washington’s renewed largesse. The US Senate is holding hostage the Administration’s energy bill to the demand, by Lamar Alexander and other GOP proponents principally, that the taxpayer shoulder the loan guarantees for 100 new nuclear plants. President Obama, seemingly in hopes of some minority party buy-in for legislation to curb the greenhouse effect that is creating havoc here and around the globe, is responding to the maneuver. Recently, he announced not only the release of an $18 billion loan-guarantee fund approved under the Bush Administration but plans to add $36 billion to it. It would put the industry well on its way toward the $100 billion bailout it says it needs, minimally, from the federal government.
The Congressional Budget Office has determined that the risk of default of these loans is “well above 50 percent.”
As one more in a series of analyses showing the disastrous economics of nuclear power, the journal Science in November 2009 outlined “A path to sustainable energy by 2030.” Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land “dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe,” the authors state, and renewable sources can provide all the world’s energy needs “at cost less than the projected cost per kilowatt-hour for fossil-fuel and nuclear power.” Besides higher cost than electricity from renewables, nuclear power also emits “up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.”
The industry’s PR pronouncements, and politicians and media boosters assert nuclear energy to be “clean,” and “carbon-free.” Remarkable that GOP Senators, while inveighing against budget deficits, should make this nuclear-bailout demand, and the President seemingly to accede to it.

From the Hill: Lawmakers hear update on ‘Race to the Top’ funds application

By State Rep. Matt Hill

I want to start out this week’s column by saying “thank you” to everyone who attended my town hall meetings last week. I enjoyed listening to comments and input as session in Nashville is in full swing. If you were unable to come out, please do not hesitate to contact me with any concerns or questions you might have.
In session news, a bill that will protect the voting process from fraud and abuse was presented in the House Election Subcommittee last week.
House Bill 270 will require that voter registration forms carry a disclaimer that clarifies giving false information to register to vote carries a criminal penalty, and also requires that the applicant affirm that they are lawfully in the United States. An amendment was offered, and the bill was discussed by the committee. It is expected to be up for a vote this week.
Another measure presented in the House Elections Subcommittee would make it easier for troops overseas to vote absentee. House Bill 2799 would allow election commissions to email ballots that troops could then print and return by mail.
Currently, election administrators mail the ballots overseas and do not utilize electronic means.
The legislation hit a roadblock in the Elections Subcommittee last year, as the bill failed on a party line vote.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the Pew Research Center for People and Press reports that one-third of states do not allow enough time for overseas voters, listing Tennessee as one of 16 states that sent ballots after the date necessary for voters to meet deadlines. Last year, at least seven states enacted legislation to authorize some form of electronic transmission. The committee will vote on the bill this week.
A bill that will prohibit certain local entities from requiring nutritional labeling on menus will now become law. The law was passed last year by both the House and Senate but was then vetoed by the Governor. The legislation was filed as several states, municipalities and cities began considering laws that mandated chain restaurants put calories and other nutritional information on menus.
Lawmakers arguing in favor of the bill say that mandating chain restaurants to put certain nutritional information on menus places an unnecessary burden on restaurant owners in an already struggling economy and creates an atmosphere that is unfriendly to business owners.
They also argue that often, the laws are selective, targeting only large restaurant chains. In addition, if every city enacted something different, large or even medium-sized companies would have difficulty in following the laws properly.
The legislation was amended to prohibit non-elected bodies from making the decision to require nutritional information on menus, such as a local Board of Health. It also specifies that if the federal government passes legislation requiring menu labeling and the federal action specifically authorizes state departments to enforce such action, then the Tennessee Department of Health will be the department that is primarily responsible for the implementation and supervision of the new requirements.
The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) released a summary of the state’s ‘Race to the Top’ (RTTT) application, taking a straightforward look at the key points in the document. The summary mirrors the application and breaks it down into seven sections: governance and oversight; standards and assessments; data systems; teachers and leaders; low-performing schools; STEM; and budget.
If Tennessee wins the RTTT funds, districts will have 90 days to submit a plan outlining how they will locally implement the program. The Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation, and Development (TN CRED) will be created, and will identify best practices and research the impact of the RTTT grant.
By 2010, the application specifies that Common Core Standards will be adopted and are to be closely related to the Tennessee Diploma Project. The application also explains how the training programs for teachers and administrators are to be set up, and includes other details on professional development.
The state’s current data system, the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) was considered by lawmakers to be one of its strongest areas in relation to other states. The application goes one step further, in expanding the ‘data dashboard’ that is used by teachers and principles to see students’ data.
Part of the grant will be used to attract teachers to subjects that are currently experiencing a shortage of quality teachers.
In addition, the state will create a 15-member Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee to develop new ideas in relation to the way teachers are evaluated, based on a number of measures.
Finally, the application addresses low-performing schools, breaking them into three subgroups: focus schools, renewal schools, and the Achievement School District (ASD).
Those classified as being ‘focus schools’ will use teacher training, consultants, and System Targeted Teams to improve. Renewal schools will require more intervention and are required to partner with a private provider, higher education organization, or a collaboration of non-profits on a strategy to turn the school around.
The ASD will be run by the Tennessee Department of Education and will be “persistently low-achieving schools” which need the most attention. Currently 13 schools are ASD eligible.
The application was submitted last month after the legislature wrapped a special session on education to compete against other states across the nation for the federal government’s ‘Race to the Top’ funding. Grant recipients will be notified by the end of March.
House Bill 2789, introduced last week, would create a violent juvenile sexual offender registry. The bill passed out of the House Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee.
The House Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee is expected to take up DUI ignition interlock legislation.
House Bill 2768 would require a device to be attached to the vehicle of certain DUI offenders and will only operate if the offenders have not consumed alcohol.

What is the county going to do with the ‘white elephant’?

Sale of the Downtown Centre Courthouse in Johnson City is high on the to-do list for Washington County Mayor George Jaynes as he begins his final year in office. The placement of a “For Future Sale” sign on the building is an indication of the challenges facing the county in disposing of the building.
Built as a parking garage with revenue sharing funds from the federal government, Johnson City never found an acceptable use for the facility dubbed by many residents as a “White Elephant.” The title seemed appropriate since the building was large and had a white exterior. The term “White Elephant” is also an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.
Washington County is now experiencing the latter as it pays for the upkeep of a building that houses only two offices, the County Trustee and the County Clerk’s Office. While it seems unfair to require Johnson City residents to drive to Jonesborough to obtain licenses or pay taxes, a much smaller facility would adequately meet these needs. In fact, a drive through facility such as those maintained as branch banking facilities would be ideal.
Commissioner Mark Hicks said at the January County Commission meeting that he would inquire whether Johnson City wanted to “buy back” the Downtown Centre. The building was dedicated for county use in 1987 and continued to function as a courthouse until 2009. Washington County did receive value by using the facility for more than 20 years until settlement of ground under the building caused concern about the structure’s safety. Apparently, the foundation of the parking garage (but not the floor on which the county offices and courtrooms were located) after an engineering study is now considered sound. Now that Jonesborough is housing all the courts in the new “George P. Jaynes Justice Center of Washington County” officials feel the Johnson City building may be worth as much as $2 million.
From time-to-time, Hicks has also mentioned that an 1891 Act of the Tennessee General Assembly established separate law and chancery courts in Johnson City. The County Commissioner does not think the law has been repealed and wonders what will happen if a court challenge is made claiming trials for Johnson City residents must be held in their community.
Suggestions for use of the Downtown Centre have included utilization as Johnson City Juvenile Court, a headquarters for the Downtown Development District, and additional office space for the City of Johnson City.
The City of Johnson City announced in late January that it has ambitious plans for downtown. A $3.5 million project will establish “The Warehouse Commons,” the first of nine planned phases for downtown Johnson City flood control and redevelopment. The concept includes a “Warehouse Park” to be constructed in the redevelopment proposal.
As many as $30 million could be expended in this long-term initiative. Inclusion of the Downtown Centre in the city’s planning seems logical. However, Washington County should not be expected to wait for months or years until Johnson City decides whether it will include the Downtown Centre in the redevelopment.
With several candidates running for County Mayor to replace Jaynes, it will be interesting to see if they have proposals concerning what to do with the building.
The candidates, along with interested readers, are invited to write a Letter to the Editor concerning their views. The newspaper can be contacted by mail at P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, TN 37659, by e-mail at [email protected], by fax at 423-753-6528 or during office hours Monday through Friday at 702 West Jackson Boulevard.

County teachers face too much ‘test pressure’

Washington County teachers apparently will have to “take another one for the team” when the new educational mandates go into effect.
In order to qualify for much needed monies from the federal government, teachers will be facing even more demands to show results from standardized tests as a measurement of their students’ academic improvements.
This time, not only will money be on the line, but in some cases, teachers’ employment futures will be on the block, based on how well or how poorly their students do.
The Tennessee legislature recently approved Governor Phil Bredesen’s plan to base 50 percent of public school teachers’ job evaluations on their students’ academic performance.
This is a drastic departure from the way Tennessee has always approached teacher evaluations.
For the first time, decisions about tenure, job retention, termination and compensation will sit squarely on the shoulders of student academic gains.
As usual, it’s all about the money. Tennessee lawmakers apparently felt they had no choice but to make this decision, in order to put the state in a competitive position for their fair share of a $485 million in federal grants.
That’s a big carrot to dangle and it was irresistible. The bill won a 29-3 Senate vote and the House agreed with an 83-9 vote.
With already mounting complaints about “teaching to the test,” this decision only drives the nail a little deeper. Thirty-five percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation will be based on student improvements on standardized test scores.
The other 15 percent will be measured by methods yet to be determined, but possibilities include reading assessments, college entrance tests, end-of-year subject tests and advance-placement testing.
Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes made the comment to the Herald & Tribune in a recent interview that “we live and die by testing.” Never before has that been so true. And, despite Dykes’ best efforts to push the testing dates back as far as possible, curves keep getting thrown at the Washington County school system. More and more days missed due to inclement weather means fewer and fewer days to get ready for the all-important tests.
No doubt, our teachers are feeling the pressure.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer to the issue at this point. But as teachers work even harder than before to get ready for testing, the families of school-age children need to be mindful that they too are part of this team. Making sure your students are doing their homework, catching up on work missed, and studying materials that teachers send home is more important than ever.
This is no time for parents to sit back and expect the teachers to leap giant buildings in a single bound. They are not superheroes. They are hard-working professionals faced with a daunting task. And, unless they are successful, everyone loses.
With so much at risk, we urge you to become a team player with your children’s teachers. That is the only way we can all reach the goals that have been so politically and financially laid out before us.

Legislation to end ‘savage arts’ of shark finning

On October 3, 1793 in a small town in Pennsylvania, the Northumberland Gazette published a letter from a reader called ‘M.S.’ about the “ungenerous, mean sport” of angling.
This practice, it stated, “beguiles to death” a harmless trout, drives it from one end of its habitation to the other, “in the most agonizing distress, till spent and breathless, he yields to his destiny and the savage arts of man.”
M.S. would undoubtedly feel even more outraged at the practice of civilized man today, in regard to sharks.
Dominant inhabitants of the world’s oceans, these graceful and intelligent creatures have been around since the dinosaurs roamed the land, pre-dating humans by millions of years.
Against the human predator, however, they are defenseless. Millions being killed every year, population stocks in many species have shrunk by more than 90 percent since the 1970s, threatening their extinction.
A practice that chopped off people’s arms and legs, merely to get the 3-millimeter living (and keratin producing) portion of the matrix of their nails would be considered wasteful in the extreme, and condemned even more if the victims, minus limbs, were left to bleed to death.
It’s quite like “harvesting” sharks for their rudder organ, the fins. These being hacked off, usually off live animals, these are thrown back into the ocean, drowning and bleeding to death since now unable to swim.
Flavorless but reportedly giving a chewy “feel,” shark-fin soup is marketed as a delicacy.
Its consumption, restricted to the imperial family and persons of wealth in earlier times in China, has ballooned in that country. It can cost upwards of $100 per bowl, so a CNN report in 2008, or as little as $10 a bowl in buffet-style eateries where it is now widely offered.
Sharks of any age, size, or species are fair game in the lucrative enterprise that supplies the fin commodity. The global “free-market” at its worst, one would think, or yet its best, depending on one’s view as to its purpose in “serving” human amenities and whims.
A bill in the U.S. Congress, following passage in the House of Representatives last year is headed for the Senate. The bill (S. 850), Shark Conservation Act of 2009, would end finning in U.S. waters and by U.S .registered ships through requiring that any “landed” fins, or sharks, must be “naturally attached.” It encourages other nations, through sanctions if needed, to implement shark fishing regulations consistent with those placed on U.S. fishermen.
The citizen plea of two centuries ago is apt and urgent today, in support of this bill.
“Fish are a species of animals which ought to be exempt from our tyranny,” M.S. demanded. “They inhabit an element of their own: they encroach not on our rights, nor do they destroy our property.”
Torturing and dragging them “from the bosom of their home, to feed the luxurious appetite of man ought to be discountenanced with all force.”
One hopes for sentiments along these lines from Tennessee’s senators, in regard to the Shark Conservation bill.

Legislators receive 612-page budget, begin deliberations

COMMENTARY FROM STATE REP. MATTHEW HILL
The 106th General Assembly was presented with the proposed 2010-2011 state budget, as the Governor addressed a joint convention last Monday. Overall, the proposal includes a 5 to 6 percent decrease in the budget total, with roughly $200 million being used from both the Rainy Day Fund and the TennCare reserve fund.
Budget hearings are beginning in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee. Representatives from the various departments will be available during the hearings to answer questions.
In his speech, the Governor presented a quick overview of the 612-page budget that was delivered to legislators’ offices the same day. Though some specifics regarding revenue and proposed expenditures were outlined, I remain committed to fully discussing the budget over the coming weeks as I learn more details.
The Department of Safety had originally prepared to cut state troopers in 13 rural counties, but the proposed budget includes a driver’s license renewal fee increase intended to avoid layoffs and pay for new radio equipment for state troopers. Currently, it costs $19.50 every five years to renew a Tennessee driver’s license. The proposal increases that fee to $46 every eight years, which state officials say will make the process more efficient. Please let me know how you feel about this proposed fee increase.
The Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System was not on the chopping block, as the system will receive an infusion of $82 million to shore up the fund. K-12 also escaped major cuts, with the proposal protecting BEP funding and even includes $47 million in growth. K-12 capital projects were cut, as were many capital projects across the state. However, money will not leave the classrooms in the budget as proposed.
In addition, the state will mostly avoid mass layoffs and the budget includes a one-time bonus of 3 percent for state employees. The Governor did outline a plan to eliminate 456 unfilled positions. The Governor addressed, that we “must adjust our expenses to match our income.” With the state in its 20th straight month of revenue decline—a record—some reductions are inevitable. They include $200 million in recurring reductions in TennCare; $64 million reduction in higher education; $20 million recurring reductions in K-12 capital projects; and $16 million in recurring Child Services.
The technical corrections bill originates in the Department of Revenue and proposes revenue increases through specific changes to the Tennessee Code.
This year, the legislation includes a tax on real estate investment trusts, and an increase in the cable tax, totaling $49.8 million among a few other smaller proposals.
The first $15 of cable TV service is currently taxed at 8.25 percent, with the rest being exempt. On the other hand, satellite TV is taxed at 8.25 percent, but without the $15 exemption. The technical corrections bill proposes to tax an entire cable TV bill at 8.25, bringing it in line with satellite service. Again, I would like your input on this proposed increase.
The “Secret Ballot Protection Act” appeared in the Employee Affairs Subcommittee last week, and was killed by Democrats on a straight party line vote. The proposal defines the denial of secret-ballot elections as an unfair labor practice. It also establishes penalties (class C misdemeanor) and civil remedies for violation.
The bill is a remedy for “card check,” which has been proposed in Congress. Card check would require unionization ballots to be public, so that unions could see if a worker voted for or against unionization. Currently, the vote on whether to unionize is a secret ballot, which protects workers from undue harassment by union leaders. The Secret Ballot Protection Act would declare that those votes remain private in order to protect workers.
The Republican sponsor argued that voting is sacred whether it is in the voting booth or the workplace, and that the bill is consistent with the state’s Constitution in guaranteeing ballot secrecy. Ultimately, however, the bill failed along party lines.
A bill that would have barred some local entities from requiring nutritional labeling on menus passed both the House and Senate last year, but was then vetoed by the Governor. Last year, lawmakers arguing in favor of the bill said mandating chain restaurants to put certain nutritional information on menus places an unnecessary burden on restaurant owners in an already struggling economy and creates an atmosphere that is unfriendly to business owners.
The legislation was amended to prohibit non-elected bodies from making the decision to require nutritional information on menus. It also specifies that if the federal government passes legislation requiring menu labeling and the federal action specifically authorizes state departments to enforce such action, then the Tennessee Department of Health will be the department that is primarily responsible for the implementation and supervision of the new requirements.
The Senate has already voted on the veto override, with a vote of 24- to 7. The House is expected to take up the veto override this week.
I am looking forward to seeing you and your family at one of my town hall meetings this week. I will be hosting meetings Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Cranberry Thistle, on Main Street in Jonesborough. We will meet from 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m. I will also be at the Telford Diner Friday, Feb. 12, from 5:30 p.m.- 7 p.m. Thank you for allowing me to serve you in Nashville.

Remembering Nobel prize winner Albert Camus

Another literature Nobel prize recipient — Albert Camus — was remembered in January who died, tragically, in an automobile accident that month, in 1960. Forty-seven at the time of his death, he had been one of the century’s most prolific and celebrated writers, devoting his literary career and social-political activism to the causes of peace, liberty, human dignity, freedom from oppression.
In the long struggle for these ideals, he would draw inspiration and spiritual uplifting from nature’s beauty in the landscape and seasons. “If I want to write about men,” he said, “how can I separate myself from the landscape?” His ten most favorite words, he noted, included “earth, desert, summer, sea, [and] world.”
Raised by a grandmother, in very poor circumstances in the then French colony of Algiers, as journalist for an Algerian newspaper he later documented the hardships of the indigenous Muslim population whose lands had been appropriated by French settlers, colonial administrators, and wealthy people.
One evening, watching night fall, he would write: “At that hour when the shadow which descends from the mountains to this splendid earth brings rest to the heart of the most hardened man, I knew nevertheless that there was no peace for those who, on the other side of the valley, were gathered around a biscuit of inferior barley. I also know how sweet it would have been to abandon oneself to an evening so magnificent, but that the misery represented by the fires on the opposite hill placed a kind of ban on the beauty of the world.”
A resistance worker during the German occupation of Paris, Camus maintained a lifelong, committed opposition to war and the horrors it inflicted on people. The carnage in Europe, over 25 years, had left 70 million men, women and children uprooted, deported, or killed. The resumption of colonial war, by France, in Indochina equally roused his opposition as did the war in Korea, or Stalin’s war against the Hungarian people. As the only national newspaper, Le Combat on whose staff Camus worked had editorialized against “the last degree of savagery” faced by humanity after development and use of the atom bomb. Untiringly he would continue to warn against the dangers of war, especially in the nuclear age, support alternative social-service options for conscientious objectors, and defend man’s ultimate right-to-life, against the death penalty. Though admitting hard battles ahead in the struggle for a world without violence, he retained the conviction that “peace will return to this disemboweled earth” and a new generation “remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant.”
Throughout life, he would find comfort, strength, hope in the beauty and resilience of nature.
“I would wait patiently all winter,” he wrote, “because I knew that in the course of one night, one cold, pure February night, the almond trees would be covered with white flowers. I would marvel then at the sight of this fragile snow resisting the rains and the wind from the sea. Every year it lasted just long enough to prepare fruit.”

Courthouse development, tourist zone could help Jonesborough

A ‘Courthouse Revitalization and Tourist Development Zone’ for the downtown historic district in Jonesborough is a great idea.
Residents of Tennessee’s oldest town have tried to think of ways to get increased funding for a heritage district centered around the Washington County Courthouse.
The Jonesborough idea has received the backing of the Washington County Commission. “What we have here is a great opportunity,” said Town Mayor Kelly Wolfe appearing before the commissioners on Monday, Jan. 25.
“Jonesborough has struggled to interest the state (in providing tourism dollars),” he said. If approved by the Tennessee Legislature, the Act would allow the state portion of sales tax generated in the district to be returned for projects in Jonesborough.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) is the sponsor of the legislation that includes properties located within about 700 feet of Washington County’s Downtown Courthouse plus a public arts facility – identified at the meeting as the Booker T. Washington School facility.
The act also states: “The governing body of a municipality may designate the boundaries of a courthouse square revitalization and tourism development zone by adoption of an ordinance or resolution.”
Wolfe told the County Commission that various proposals have been made to get the state to provide more developmental dollars to Washington County, including a suggestion that a state park be established, an idea that has since been abandoned. Major improvements within the zone for which the revenue could be used include: improvements to and expansion of the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center; development of a new Visitor Center annex and history museum interpretive facility adjacent to the 1779 Chester Inn; moving the Christopher Taylor Log House to a more suitable location in Heritage Park near the one room Oak Hill School House; acquisition and restoration of the Jackson Theater; development of a Preservation Field School and a World of Stories Plaza at the International Storytelling Center.
Other possible uses of funding would include the restoration and development of interpretive areas in the McKinney Center at Booker T. Washington School, placement of interpretation panels in the downtown historic district, important landscaping improvements, and development of a Railroad Museum in partnership with the Watauga Valley Railroad Association.
“Jonesborough has a tourism base that is unique,” Mayor Wolfe continued in saying that the development zone would be a further example of County and Town cooperative projects. He cited the construction of rest room facilities and improvement of the parking lot behind the Downtown Courthouse as projects underway that will benefit both governmental entities.
The act as now proposed will not involve any money from the county budget and educational funds in the tax collections will go to Washington County Schools. When asked if the State of Tennessee had agreed to the diversion of the sales tax money, Wolfe answered that “No, convincing the state is about to begin.” He told commissioners that Tennessee has funded six Courthouse Square Revitalization Zones, none of which are located in Northeast Tennessee. Their vote he said endorses the idea of allowing Jonesborough to receive sales tax revenue.
“What we can do is create a district around [Main Street] courthouse and get taxes back that can be used for improvements,” Jonesborough Town Administrator Bob Browning explains.
Browning believes Jonesborough can convince state representatives and senators to require the State of Tennessee to invest sales tax revenue that it would normally keep back into Main Street heritage and history projects as an economic development tool.
Under the proposed legislation, the amount of money generated over and beyond what has been collected in past years, based upon a certain time period comparison, is given back to the locality.
Jonesborough officials hope to combine the notion of a ‘tourist development zone’ with “courthouse square revitalization” to capture almost all of the sales tax revenue generated by local merchants.
“That’s what we’re really interested in,” Browning explained to Herald & Tribune Assistant Editor Kate Prahlad. “We’re creating sort of a combination thing.”
“The justification to the state is that we’re the oldest town and a serious tourist destination,” Browning said. He continued: “The state funds state parks that have tourist components to them, but it doesn’t happen in Jonesborough and Washington County. We don’t get any ongoing state allocation like other counties.”
What do readers think?
E-mail your ideas to [email protected], fax the newspaper at 423-753-6528 or write a “Letter to the Editor” addressed to the paper at P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659.

Save the stream, skip the station

The two dozen people who attended a public hearing earlier this month concerning an application to relocate a portion of a stream on property located on Highway 11-E across from Persimmon Ridge set an example more residents should follow.
The hearing conducted by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation took place on a January evening when a bout of winter weather created dangerous driving conditions. Despite these challenges, citizens stayed and spoke out.
A proposed development by applicants John Molder and Sonja Bailey would permit the relocation of a stream in order to construct a gas station on the northeast corner of New Hope Road and Highway 11-E. The proposed development would require the relocation of 245 feet of a stream and would impact .094 acres of wetland.
Not only did the people who attended the meeting speak out, they also are now entitled to appeal the TDEC decision should the State issue a permit for the project.
Officials are now in the process of reviewing the application and comments to decide whether to deny a permit, issue one or provide for a conditional permit. The public comment period on the project ended on Jan. 22.
Residents who attended the meeting appeared knowledgeable, an essential requirement for those individuals who desired to publicly present their opinions.
Jeff Dupre, of Jonesborough, called the project “the establishment of a polluting business” and said “we’re going to wind up with a lot of stuff going into the creek that we don’t want.”
Charles Gutierrez, of Jonesborough, said he was “opposed to any construction near a water source” and voiced concern over “piecemealing” the 4.4 acres of wetlands in the area.
Local environmentalist Frances Lamberts commented on the possible adverse affects of the proposal, calling for more data before a decision is made.
Engineer Todd Wood spoke on behalf of the owners, explaining the entire property is approximately 5 acres in size, with .2 acres of wetlands within its boundaries. That .2 acres is part of a 4.4 acres of total wetlands in the surrounding area. In order to build the gas station, 245 feet of the 285-feet-long westerly stream needs to be relocated, he said.
Wood indicated that the stream becomes more of a “ditch” at some point and his proposals would “provide a better habitat” for aquatic life and “take a stream that is not of high quality itself” and make it better.
The stream relocation proposed to site another gas station should not have priority over preserving the environment.
The Herald & Tribune continuously promotes and reports on the activities of the business and commercial districts of Jonesborough.
However, the newspaper also wants TDEC to listen to citizen concerns on this issue and arrive at a solution that preserves the stream and adjacent wetlands.
What to readers think? Address “Letters to the Editor” to P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659. Fax letters to 423-753-6528 or e-mail them to [email protected]
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