- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:


April 23

The Commercial Appeal on legislations regarding state’s colleges and universities:

The General Assembly exhibited its affinity for government overreach in at least two cases this week - it’s hard to keep track of all of them - that smash the whole notion that governing least is governing best.

As legislators were preparing to head home, their itch to micromanage the state’s colleges and universities erupted.

Who knew that legislators know more about how to manage a college campus than professional educators? When it comes to guns on campus and efforts to promote diversity, apparently they do.

One can only hope that Gov. Bill Haslam, fresh off his astute veto of a bill that would have made the Holy Bible an official state document, will get the veto pen out again for a bill passed by the House that would allow faculty and staff with handgun carry permits to be armed on the campuses of public colleges and universities.

We agree wholeheartedly with Southwest Tennessee Community College President Tracy D. Hall on this matter, as expressed in a recent guest column on these pages - that students and employees are safer if deadly weapons are restricted to certified police officers trained to deal with emergencies involving firearms.

The bill passed the Senate and House this week by comfortable margins. Haslam is said to be skeptical because it doesn’t give institutions the power to opt out, a route that one can imagine most if not all Tennessee colleges and universities to take if given the option.

The legislature also waded deep into the management of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus this week with competing versions of a bill that would strip funding from the University of Tennessee Office of Diversity and Inclusion, sending either some or all of the money to a fund that would provide scholarships to minority engineering students.

Thursday night, lawmakers settled their differences and approved a bill that diverts - for one year only - about $436,000 from the UT diversity office into the minority-student engineering scholarships. The bill is headed for Haslam’s desk, where he can sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

The attempt to stamp out the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is a gross overreaction to a couple of missteps by the office in recent months, offending some legislators with recommendations to use gender-neutral pronouns on campus and to consider avoiding planning religious-themed parties and decorations.

It is also a rather transparent slap at the notion that schools ought to be promoting understanding among various cultures. In fact, efforts to promote diversity on campus on the whole have been useful and reasonable.

And the school’s administration already has shown that it is capable of correcting any instances of overreach. Granting scholarships to minority engineering students? A great idea. But not at the expense of a necessary component of the well-rounded education that helps students negotiate a multicultural world.




April 25

The Knoxville News Sentinel on eliminating the Hall tax:

On Friday, the last day of the 2016 legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers cut the Hall income tax on dividends and interest and declared their intent to phase it out by 2022.

Cutting the rate is one matter; eliminating the tax altogether is unwise because it would make Tennessee even more dependent on its highest-in-the-nation sales tax and harms local governments.

Gov. Bill Haslam expressed concerns about eliminating the Hall tax after the 109th General Assembly adjourned. “I would have been much more comfortable with having something that just did it this year, where we know what the state’s fiscal situation is every time we make that decision,” he said.

Haslam stopped short of saying he would veto the legislation, but it is something he should consider.

The Hall tax is a 6 percent levy on investment income. There are numerous exemptions, however, including interest on government bonds, bank and credit union accounts, certificates of deposit, money-market accounts and more. The bill would cut the rate from 6 percent to 5 percent - a 17 percent reduction - this tax year. The intent is to cut the rate by 1 percentage point per year until it evaporates.

The tax affects only a small number of Tennesseans. The state Department of Revenue says 204,944 taxpayers - out of a population over the age of 20 of about 4.65 million - filed Hall income tax returns for 2014. Half the returns filed had a liability of $266 or less, according to the Department of Revenue.

The tax generated $303.4 million in fiscal year 2014-15. The revenues are split between the state, which keeps 62.5 percent of the total, and local governments where the taxpayers live. According to the Department of Revenue, the city of Knoxville received $10 million in 2014-15, while Knox County netted $3.3 million. Farragut has averaged $536,000 in Hall tax revenue over the last five years.

Local governments would have to find a way to replace that lost revenue, which varies from year to year. Knoxville officials typically count on about $4.9 million from the Hall tax and use any surpluses for one-time projects that otherwise would have to be funded through borrowing.

Supporters of eliminating the tax often claim it would benefit seniors. The Legislature, however, already has made accommodations for retirees of modest means. People 65 and older are exempt from paying the Hall tax if their income from all sources is under $68,000 for joint filers and $37,000 or less for single filers. To put that in perspective, the threshold for joint filers is more than four times the federal poverty rate for a family of two. In addition, the first $1,250 in taxable dividend and interest income is exempt for single filers. The threshold for joint filers is $2,500.

The tax does not apply to Social Security benefits, pension income or withdrawals from 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts, so the primary retirement income sources for most Tennesseans are not affected.

No one likes to pay taxes, but they are necessary for the state and local communities to function. Tennessee is too reliant on sales taxes and needs to retain a variety of options to weather future economic storms. Eliminating the Hall tax without a provision for replacing the lost revenue is shortsighted and detrimental to the state’s long-term financial health.




April 24

Bristol Herald Courier on Gov. Haslam’s decision to veto the Bible bill:

Rejecting the effort to establish the Bible as Tennessee’s official state book is the right move.

And Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of the measure should have been the final word on the subject.

Thank goodness enough Tennessee House members agreed. Attempts to override the governor’s veto failed Wednesday in the Tennessee House - following two hours of debate, and a handful of switched votes.

Tennessee does not need to adopt the Bible as the state book.

Set aside for a minute that naming any religious text as an “official” anything of the government violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. And that it violates the Tennessee Constitution, which states that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”

A stickier dilemma is that such action would trivialize as irrelevant both the Bible and the words within it that are so sacred to so many.

Naming state birds, state flowers, reptiles or whatever, is an effort to create a sense of identity, or a symbol of significance for the state. Often, so-chosen objects promote the amenities of an area, natural or even political, social or historical - as an icon of secular ideals. And that’s the dilemma, as Haslam pointed out in a letter explaining his veto.

“If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we shouldn’t be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance,” Haslam wrote to Speaker of the House Beth Harwell. “If we are recognizing the Bible as a sacred text, then we are violating the Constitution.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey took it a step further, saying “We don’t need to put the Bible beside salamanders, tulip poplars and ‘Rocky Top’ to appreciate its importance to our state.”

Setting the Bible as the state book says Tennessee identifies with Christianity first and foremost - thereby establishing a link between the state and religion, but more dangerously to just one version of religion.

The implication is clear, and according to some supporters intended as an effort to make the world a better place. We agree that promoting Christian values is a positive approach to improving our world. But that can be done without adopting the Bible as the state book.

Besides, while most Tennessee residents might be Christian, the tenants of our government are designed to allow anyone the freedom to practice any religion, or even none at all. And we’d all be hard-pressed to prove that Christianity corners the market on good works or good people.

Selecting the Bible as the state book wouldn’t have required all residents to practice Christianity, but it would have signaled state-sponsored favoritism of one mode of worship. And that’s just the kind of oppression the Pilgrims were escaping when they came here, where they could worship the way they believed instead of the way the king required. It’s the very danger the Founding Fathers sought to guard against in writing the First Amendment.

Supporters of the bill saw it as a way to prevent efforts to drive religion from the public square; yet such a designation would do just that for religions other than Christianity. And while we understand their concern, the need is quite unnecessary.

The very laws that keep church and state separate also provide and protect the practice and discussion of religious belief and virtue anywhere in our country, including the public square. More importantly, those laws provide the freedom for individuals to act in the manner in which their beliefs provide.

As they say, actions speak louder than words, or, shall we say, state symbols.



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