- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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June 2

The Knoxville News Sentinel on the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s diversity funding:

The University of Tennessee Knoxville has to decide how to spend $445,882 the legislature took away for a year because it was unhappy with how the Office for Diversity and Inclusion was using the funds to support racial and cultural diversity on campus.

The funds were diverted to establish minority engineering scholarships, with 30 students awarded $4,000 each year over the next four years. Remaining funds are being set aside for future scholarships.

The money returns July 1, but Chancellor Beverly Davenport is not disclosing her plan yet. The clock is ticking, and a lot of stakeholders are watching.

What she decides will be symbolic of how the university - and specifically Davenport - views racial and cultural diversity on campus in the aftermath of multiple controversies involving the diversity office, ultimately concluding with the legislative funds withdrawal.

Some lawmakers believed the funds were being spent on “meaningless” programs and proposed an office of intellectual diversity to protect conservative viewpoints on campus, which they felt were being thwarted. Some students and faculty felt lawmakers were meddling with university affairs and protested the incursion.

The proposal was not approved, but it was illustrative of how broadly - or narrowly - diversity is viewed across the spectrum.

A spokesman for Davenport says there are no plans yet to reinstate the diversity office or to rehire a vice chancellor to run it. A large portion of the funding - $181,638 - was spent on the vice chancellor, who has left the university.

Beyond that, he says, discussions are taking place.

Under the law restoring the funding, none of it can be spent “to promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support Sex Week,” some of the underlying disputations leading to defunding.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, says he’s disappointed the university has chosen not to continue diverting the funds to minority engineering scholarships.

He says he’s standing by to take the money away again if the university doesn’t apply it to “something very useful instead of something very divisive.”

Mary McAplin, a professor and associate department head in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-chair of the Pride Center Working Group, says she’s concerned about the university’s transparency on the future of diversity initiatives.

She says the average faculty member has no clue what’s going on, and the university is being secretive about its intentions.

“We’re just being told, ‘I’m very supportive of diversity. Trust me, I’ll do what’s right,’” McAplin says.

Davenport would do well to seek input from these various groups, publicly air the concerns and then be transparent in her decision-making on how to spend the money.

The university does not need another round of controversy on its diversity efforts with lawmakers waiting in the wings.

Online: http://www.knoxnews.com/

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June 1

Bristol Herald Courier on Amtrak:

The only thing louder than the whistle of an Amtrak train right now is Bristolians’ excitement over the successful results of the passenger rail service feasibility study.

We are finally seeing notable progress on the proposed expansion of commuter train service extending from Roanoke to Bristol Train Station. With the recent completion of Amtrak’s economic feasibility study as reported in the Bristol Herald Courier on Sunday, only two studies spanning approximately three years remain before the project may be considered for initiation.

And though we previously contemplated possible issues with bringing passenger rails back (for example, that any increase in coal freight from federal coal legislation rollbacks could affect rail availability for passenger trains), these don’t seem to be active concerns at the moment. Another plus for Bristol.

Bristol also has a nest of offerings, from the logistics (for example, a remodeled train station) to the surrounding morale. Though the outcome of this proposal is to be determined, it’s safe to say the outlook of Amtrak here seems bright.

The potential prosperity must motivate us to keep that momentum going. And when we say “us,” we speak particularly to the other half of the Twin City. Bristol, Virginia, can’t do this alone, after all.

Both Bristol, Tennessee, and the state of Tennessee need to be more involved in the oversight of the Amtrak venture. The financial demand, prospective benefits and advantages for the state’s transportation goals demonstrate grounds for commitment.

A prime opportunity for the city’s other half to assist comes in light of the financial reality of Bristol, Virginia. Funding for help from the Industrial Development Authority was originally factored in to the 2017-18 budget for Bristol, Virginia, but the current draft omits this allocation. With that amount now being redistributed elsewhere, the shortage could threaten or at least stall the project for the interim - unless the silent partner can offer to pick up some slack.

Consider what a revolving amount of travelers could mean for the local business climate. The rail extension involves the Northeast Regional trains, the busiest of Amtrak’s trains. Estimating from the overachieving success of the previous rail expansion into Lynchburg and Amtrak’s projected profits from increased ridership, both sides of Bristol can expect some exceptional incoming revenue. Let’s also entertain the concept of transit-oriented development, where mixed-use establishments (retail, food, entertainment and the like) emerge around public transit and make the walkability of the neighborhood itself a destination. The increased foot traffic and potential to attract new businesses means Bristol, Tennessee, really should invest in the project to see its share of the benefits.

A broader view with the state’s responsibility should look in the direction of the Department of Transportation, if only because its support can encourage a mutually beneficial payoff between rail service and its own projects. According to the TDOT’s website, all of its 19 transportation projects in Northeast Tennessee (what they call Region 1) are highway or infrastructure-oriented. Rail service in Tennessee currently exists only along the state’s western border. That means that any TDOT discussion about passenger rails has nothing geographically to do with us, and any discussion about our region only involves our roads.

Instead, the TDOT should refocus with Bristol’s rail service potential in mind because it could alleviate highway congestion. Most of the transportation projects in our region involve highway expansion. If travelers were diverted to rail service, a marked percentage of vehicles would be off the roads, thereby easing traffic, the impact on highway infrastructure and maintenance and potentially the number of vehicular accidents.

For Tennesseans, the idea of potentially defining Bristol as a transportation hub with rail, road and flight access should be more than enough to entice.

We and Bristol residents want to see this project accelerate, but it needs at least the whole city if not the state to get on board.

Online: http://www.heraldcourier.com/

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June 7

Johnson City Press on campaign finance:

A report released last year found that it’s getting more difficult for voters to find out who is behind the negative campaign ads they are seeing, hearing or reading. That’s because the fallout from a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down in 2010 makes it possible for money to flow anonymously from one political action committee to another.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, this so-called “dark money” flows even faster in state elections than it does in federal races. Its study found that just 29 cents of every $1 of independent political spending going to state and local races in 2014 could be tracked easily to its original individual donor.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Center for Public Integrity released a joint report in 2014 that gave a failing grade to Tennessee’s campaign finance laws. That’s because Tennessee is one of 36 states with campaign finance disclosure laws so weak that dark money from outside groups, such as nonprofit issues-oriented groups and big-spending political action committees, often go unreported in state elections.

It’s also troubling to learn that the two boards responsible for enforcing Tennessee’s anemic finance and campaign ethics laws have few oversight powers. The (Nashville) Tennessean reported last week that the state Registry of Election Finance and the Tennessee Ethics Commission have collected just 21 percent of the total $730,000 they have levied in civil penalties since 2010.

The deficiencies in Tennessee’s laws come as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision. That ruling has led to practically unlimited spending by individuals, corporations and labor unions in federal races. What has gone unnoticed by some, however, is how the Supreme Court’s decision impacts states.

As a result of weak local regulations, shadowy groups are now able to go virtually undetected as they spend big money in state and local races. Dark money is something that many Tennessee legislators don’t want to talk about. It’s a problem that doesn’t make the headlines. Nonetheless, it’s a problem.

Online: http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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