- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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Feb. 29

The Knoxville News Sentinel on a bill to ban the use of state gas tax revenues for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects:

A bill that as introduced would ban the use of state gas tax revenues for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects in Tennessee apparently would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, jeopardizing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transportation funds.

The measure faces key subcommittee votes this week - in the Revenue Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday and in the House Transportation Subcommittee on Wednesday.

While roads and bridges rightly remain the highest priority for infrastructure funding, there is a need for sidewalks and bike paths as well. Bike paths and greenways might seem frivolous to some, but they contribute to the health and well-being of many citizens. Sidewalks provide safety to pedestrians and are vital to those who must use wheelchairs.

The bill would restrict gas tax revenues “solely for the construction, improvement, and maintenance of highways, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure that is open to the use of the public for vehicular travel.” The measure specifically bans the use of gas tax revenues for pedestrian and bicycle paths, including greenways, and sidewalks. Cities and counties also would be unable to use those dollars as matches to grants.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation contends the bill as introduced would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, primarily because governments are required to put curb cuts into sidewalks and otherwise accommodate people with disabilities. Such a violation puts at risk nearly $875 million in federal transportation money - the amount TDOT expects to receive in the upcoming fiscal year. According to TDOT, the agency spends only about $180 million, a mere 1 percent of its revenues, on bicycle and pedestrian projects.

An alternative version of the bill that would be less sweeping has been proposed, the Chattanooga Times Free Press has reported, but a new legal analysis and cost estimate would not surface until and unless the bill is formally amended.

The city of Knoxville, which has made sidewalk and bike lane improvements a priority under Mayor Madeline Rogero, would be harmed by passage of the bill. For example, a $1 million project to improve pedestrian mobility and bike safety on Kingston Pike is 95 percent funded by a TDOT grant.

The state faces a growing backlog of infrastructure projects already and cannot put needed federal dollars at risk. The bill sprang forth from the debate over raising the gas tax to pay for some of the $6.1 billion in deferred projects statewide. The gas tax, which accounts for 21 percent of TDOT’s revenues, has not been raised since 1989. Gov. Bill Haslam floated the idea of raising the gas tax before the current session began, but legislators shot it down.

Instead of coming up with a long-term solution, lawmakers have been tinkering around the edges with this bill and another that would have established a fee for electric and hybrid vehicles had it not been killed in the Senate Transportation Committee. The Legislature needs to stop frittering away its time and get to the heart of the matter - finding revenues to pay for roads, bridges and, yes, the occasional bike path.

Online:

http://www.knoxnews.com/

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Feb. 28

The Johnson City Press on paying those who care for those with disabilities:

Organizations charged with providing key support services to Tennesseans with an intellectual or developmental disability are in jeopardy of not fulfilling their mission. As Lee Chase, the executive director of Dawn of Hope, told us last week, his and other support agencies are having difficulty in finding and keeping qualified employees to carry out this important task.

The problem is the $8.61 an hour wage that the state pays the some 20,000 direct service providers who care for the 8,000 Tennesseans with an intellectual or developmental disability. There is an average of 211 of these workers in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

Not everyone is suited for this line of work. Chase says many of the service recipients (who are often living in group homes with two or three other service recipients) are totally dependent on their caregivers for their daily needs.

Dawn of Hope and other like organizations have replaced many of the state’s institutional care facilities. While the daily cost of care at a state institution is $1,069 per patient, a group home can provide those services at a cost of $235 a day.

These services are delivered by dedicated employees who are required to be constantly trained and acquainted with their duties. The problem, Chase says, is service organizations can’t keep qualified service providers in their employment. Most service organizations are seeing a turnover rate of 46 percent or more.

Chase says 34 percent of his new hires quit after just three months. And he says all give the same reason for leaving - the pay is too low for such a demanding job. Direct service providers would have to work 42 hours of overtime just to earn the average weekly salary ($874) in Tennessee.

And while state employees who do the same job as that of a private service provider have seen their salaries increased by 16 percent over the last decade, direct service providers for Dawn of Hope have seen only a 1.9 percent increase in their wages in the same period.

This needs to be rectified. Chase says his and other service organizations are asking Gov. Bill Haslam to amend his proposed 2016-17 state budget to include a $1 an hour wage hike for direct service providers. This would require $20 million in additional state dollars that would be matched by $40 million in federal funds.

Tennessee Community Organizations (an association made up of Dawn of Hope and other service providers) are hopeful that Haslam will step up to the plate. But if he doesn’t, the group plans to ask members of the state General Assembly to put the pay increase in the next budget.

We, too, hope the governor will address this serious problem by including a modest pay increase in the budget for workers who are caring for some of the most vulnerable citizens of our state.

Let Gov. Haslam know you also want to see a wage increase for service providers by calling his office in Nashville at (615) 741-2001 or by going to tn.gov/governor/topic/contact to send an email.

Online:

http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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Feb. 27

The Jackson Sun on Gov. Bill Haslam’s Public Safety Action Plan:

In February, the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Bill Gibbons, and other state officials visited The Jackson Sun editorial board to promote Gov. Bill Haslam’s Public Safety Action Plan.

The plan is a series of bills designed to make our state safer over the next three years.

One of the goals of the plan is to help decrease the growing prison inmate population, thereby reducing prison crowding and the need to build more prison space.

Jackson-Madison County is dealing with jail overcrowding itself. In fact, it is one of the most expensive problems the county is dealing with. The crowding problem at the Criminal Justice Complex has led to studies being conducted to try a solution to the expensive problem, which likely will involve construction of more jail space.

The crowding was also blamed as a contributing factor when two inmates at the Madison County Jail Annex were able to overpower two female correctional officers in late 2014. According to Sheriff John Mehr, the inmates, both juveniles, were being held at the annex because of crowding at the Criminal Justice Complex, and the juveniles were facing “serious charges.”

Part of the governor’s proposed Public Safety Act is to decrease prison crowding is to allow parole officers the latitude to increase or decrease sanctions on parolees depending on their behavior. The goal is to bring people back into compliance so they are successful, officials said. They don’t want people locked up who don’t need to be locked up (non-violent offenders) but at the same time they don’t want them to go without consequences for bad behavior.

While the governor’s plan is geared more toward state prisons, it would also affect the population of our county jail. We are intrigued to see both the state and county working so diligently in coming up with possible solutions to similar problems.

In Madison County, if a non-violent offender who violates terms of his parole can face consequences without being placed back in jail, it will help with jail crowding, save taxpayer money and help keep the jail safer for employees and inmates. If the alternative is a rehabilitation program, ideally the offender can be a constructive member of the community and not end up back in jail in the future.

For this to work, however, it will be imperative to have a good assessment system in place to make sure the offenders don’t represent a threat to our community. If such a system is in place, we believe the governor’s plan is a viable option.

Online:

http://www.jacksonsun.com/

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