- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:


Sept. 7

The Tennessean on special legislative sessions:

Tennessee is already way behind in keeping up with the state’s highway funding needs.

So, it was a foregone conclusion that Gov. Bill Haslam would call lawmakers into special session in September to prevent the loss of $60 million in federal roads funds.

While it appears small in the context of the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s $1.875 billion budget, it is important because the state also has a $6 billion backlog in projects.

Translation: Tennessee lacks the money to build critical roads and infrastructure.

This special session, which will cost lawmakers $25,000 a day, finally creates the opportunity for legislators to have a serious conversation about long-term road financing.

It was a happy accident that lawmakers, with Haslam’s signature, passed a law that altered the blood-alcohol level requirement from .02 to .08 for 18- to 20-year-olds. It was an effort to strengthen penalties for underage drinkers.

However, the federal government insists on the “zero tolerance” blood-alcohol level of .02 and will penalize Tennessee financially if the state does not conform to the national standard.

The feds are being intransigent, but they control the purse strings on this matter. Lawmakers should make the necessary fixes to secure the money and set the framework for how they are going to address long-term needs when they return for the 2017 regular session.

This is a conversation they have been avoiding for the past two years as they wrestled with frivolous, political concerns like an attempt to regulate bathroom access and a bill, ultimately vetoed by Haslam, that would have made the Holy Bible the state’s official book.

Transportation and infrastructure are a fundamental part of government’s role in protecting and promoting public safety and commerce, and in encouraging the ever-growing number of tourists to continue visiting Tennessee annually.

Last year Haslam embarked on a multicity transportation tour where he listened to the wants of local officials and presented the financial picture.

He said then that the present path does not work, and he promised to make transportation a significant priority during his second term.

There have been some important steps taken.

Haslam agreed to repay $142 million of the $262 million that the state had borrowed from the highway fund to cover a general fund gap.

Last spring the governor presented a plan, which, with the newly passed federal highway funding law, will help build $2 billion in road and infrastructure projects over a three-year period.

It is a start, but it is not enough.

While Tennessee’s roads are highly rated, congestion and wear and tear are getting worse.

As a pay-as-you-go state, Tennessee does not borrow money to build roads.

The most significant revenue source from the state is the gas tax, which at 21.4 cents per gallon has not been raised since 1989. Meanwhile, the value of the tax has dropped in half, the cost to build roads has tripled, and many vehicles have become extremely fuel efficient while others do not even use gasoline to power them.

An increase in the gas tax is the easiest thing to do because the mechanism exists to collect it.

However, there are numerous options the state could and should explore. Why not look at a financing structure that puts the burden on the drivers who use the roads the most? A mileage tax or tolls or a fee on heavier vehicles could address that.

It may be tempting for legislators, once back in Nashville this month, to get distracted by other concerns.

While taking a vote on Insure Tennessee and voting to expel Reps. Jeremy Durham and Joe Armstrong for bad behavior would be welcome, there also is the prospect of more frivolous legislation being considered before November’s presidential election.

The best thing lawmakers could do is keep focused on the assigned task and use this time as a jumping-off point for greater action on transportation in the months ahead.




Sept. 7

The Knoxville News Sentinel on DUI revisions:

Gov. Bill Haslam had little choice in calling a special legislative session to save $60 million in federal highway funds.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said Tennessee’s revised DUI law is not in compliance with federal law, which requires states to set the maximum blood-alcohol level for drivers younger than 21 at 0.02 percent.

Earlier this year Tennessee lawmakers, in a good-faith effort to enhance the penalties for underage drunk driving, raised the allowable limit for drivers 18 to 20 to 0.08, the same as for those over the age of 21.

The penalties for those drivers are aligned with those over 21 as well. Drivers aged 16 and 17 whose blood alcohol content is above 0.02 are charged with driving while impaired. Punishment is a one-year driver’s license suspension and a $250 fine. Drivers aged 18 to 20, plus those 21 and over, are charged with driving under the influence and must serve a mandatory 48 hours in jail, pay a fine of up to $1,500 and have their licenses suspended for a year.

Under federal law, however, the 0.02 percent level for drivers under the age of 21 is required.

Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notified state officials Tennessee could lose 8 percent, or $60 million, in highway funding if it did not comply with the federal law by Oct. 1.

The Haslam administration and Attorney General Herbert Slatery III contended that another state law, which makes it a crime for anyone under the age of 21 to consume alcohol, achieves the same ends as the federal law. After weeks of negotiations, however, federal officials did not budge from their position, so Haslam announced on Friday he would call for a special session. No date was set, but the deadline is less than a month away.

Haslam said he was disappointed federal officials would not compromise, but the blame lies squarely with the Legislature. Lawmakers should have known that federal highway funds come with strings attached, and that some of those strings are attached to drunk driving laws. At the very least, the bill’s sponsors should have contacted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or sought Slatery’s advice before changing the law.

Refreshingly, the bill’s House sponsor, Republican Rep. William Lamberth of Cottontown, took responsibility for the legislation’s shortcomings in a conversation with The Tennessean.

“I feel very passionately about getting this right,” Lamberth said. “I’m embarrassed that I filed a bill that has put us in this situation and has endangered any of our funding for any of our highways.”

Still, he also alleged federal officials played politics with the decision. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper first brought public attention to the issue. All 11 members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, including Cooper, signed onto a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx offering to help resolve the impasse to no avail.

Lawmakers have no viable option other than to repeal the law. They should now have learned that they need to explore the ramifications of their bills before, not after, they vote.




Sept. 7

The Commercial Appeal on school building sponsors:

There are pitfalls for public school systems to navigate as they allow sponsors to fund and slap their names on new or improved facilities. But it would be a mistake to discourage the trend. Public schools need all the friends they can get.

A pilot project under development at Shelby County Schools should provide an informative test run for the concept. White Station High School parent Richard Myers wants to find sponsorships for a library, an outdoor courtyard and a classroom addition at his son’s school.

And then he wants to move on to a similar endeavor at Whitehaven High.

Therein lies a crucial element to the plan. Sponsorships must not be allowed to create a system of the haves and the have-nots in the public schools, an uncomfortable reminder of the days when districts offered separate and unequal facilities for black and white students.

More basically, sponsorships can’t be used as a rationale for underfunding public schools from public coffers. It remains the responsibility of state and local governments to educate children in the community.

Again, Myers’ plan, which would not relieve the district from its responsibility to address deferred maintenance at White Station, reflects that principle.

The plan was made possible last fall when the Shelby County Schools Board of Education changed its policy to allow the sale of naming rights. Next step for Myers: persuading the board to approve the specific White Station plan.

We say give it a go. For a pilot project, this one is set on a productive course.

It could bring needed improvements to one of the county’s most academically successful schools, including a badly needed two-story, 10-classroom expansion.

It could establish a precedent that would lead to improvements at other schools throughout the district - improvements that, along with enhanced academic programs such as optional schools, would give more affluent families a reason to choose Shelby County Schools for their children.

It could engage people and businesses in the public school system who have only viewed it from a distance heretofore, giving them something specific they can point to as their contribution to public education in Shelby County and demonstrate their civic-minded impulses.

Preparing the budget for Shelby County Schools will never become a cakewalk. The district’s fiscal challenges will continue to grow as the student population and public funding that is tied to the population falls. That goes for capital projects as well as routine operations and the fulfillment of responsibilities to its retirees.

But if sponsorships for new school facilities are successful, they could enhance the image of a school district that - as everyone knows - has a crucial mission to fulfill if Memphis as a community has a chance to prosper and grow.



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