VOL. 131 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 1, 2016
View From the Hill
Refugees, Regents, Privatization On Tap for New Session
By Sam Stockard
State Sen. Ken Yager isn’t quite ready for the state of Tennessee to reclaim the Refugee Resettlement Program from Catholic Charities.
“I’m not advocating that. I am advocating a little bit more accountability and closer review of the funding,” said Yager, a Kingston Republican who chaired a December joint meeting of Senate and House State and Local Government committees.
Expect a raft of refugee-related legislation when the General Assembly gavels into session Jan. 12. Other issues that legislators may take up include the FOCUS Act, government privatization, crime and school vouchers.
Amid fear refugees could embed themselves within 10,000 Syrian refugees slated to come to America, some legislators want Tennessee to take back the refugee program after the state stopped administering it under former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Yager, instead, calls the situation a matter of “risk management.”
“I’m here and probably you because my parents’ forebears emigrated here. We’re a nation of immigrants and the Native Americans, put together we populate the United States,” Yager said after the early December hearing.
“It isn’t about anti-immigration. It’s about protecting our citizens, and that’s what we were trying to get to today, to get information so we as a state might find ways to minimize our risk.”
Amid rising fear after the terrorist bombings in Paris, Gov. Bill Haslam sought a pause in the nation’s refugee resettlement program until states could get a better understanding of how it works. One of the Paris bombers was said to have a Syrian ID (although investigators now say this was a fake), and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey sought an immigration moratorium on countries with terrorism links.
With Syria the focal point of war, some 10,000 refugees from that country are expected to come to the United States, raising concerns terrorists could embed themselves in the refugee flow.
Intelligence expert David Shedd told lawmakers the lack of U.S. presence on the ground in Syria makes it difficult to tell whether potential refugees are telling the truth about their names and addresses, a stumbling block in the earliest part of the vetting process, which is handled by international and U.S. intelligence agencies.
Yet Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security officials explain the multi-step vetting process refugees go through and provided information showing only a small number of refugees have been involved in terrorist plots on U.S. soil, with most of those taking place years after they entered the country.
Yager said he feels better about the program’s potential risk factor after hearing those presentations, though he makes note of the inability to obtain crucial information about Syrian people when they first seek refugee status.
The senator says he believes state input into the federal refugee program could be handled through the governor’s office. But he still wants to take a closer look at funding for the refugee program, funded mainly by the federal government, to provide more accountability.
Holly Johnson, coordinator for Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program, which is run through nonprofit Catholic Charities, said she would never advocate for less security.
“That’s why the program works, because bad guys don’t get in through the refugee program,” she said.
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, points out the information provided in the hearing shows terrorists have not used the Refugee Resettlement Program to attack the United States and notes any risk linked to it is outweighed by visa travel programs, which have much less vetting, and radicalization of citizens.
“Up to today, the discussion of Syrian refugees has generated more heat than light,” Yarbro said.
Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, is considering tightening a 2011 law he sponsored requiring communication between the refugee program and state and local officials, enabling county and city leaders to determine whether they have the capacity to handle refugee influx. Tracy says he wants to put more restrictions on it.
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, also is proposing legislation to track how much Tennessee spends on refugees once they arrive in Tennessee, from health care to cash assistance. His bill could complement a call by some lawmakers for Tennessee to join a states’ rights lawsuit challenging forced participation in the federal program.
Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, asked the attorney general to consider a legal challenge of refugee resettlement because the federal government hasn’t communicated regularly with state officials.
Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, testified during the hearing, “So far, to this point, we feel there has not been adequate compliance with this mandate under federal law.”
Whether this is a simple communication breakdown or a computer snafu is unclear.
Johnson contends she has been sending quarterly reports by email to state officials, as well as local officials. Yager, however, said he didn’t start receiving them until after checking on the reports in the wake of the Paris attack. He’s not sure where the “disconnect” occurred.
In her defense, Johnson says, “I hadn’t heard anything until three weeks ago.” That was in November when the attacks took place and hysteria began.
Gov. Haslam’s FOCUS Act, a proposal to realign higher education by putting the Tennessee Board of Regents over community colleges and colleges of applied technology and setting up boards to oversee TBR universities such as Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis, is drawing support from most corners.
It’s another brick in the wall for Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, an effort to put degrees or certificates in the hands of 55 percent of Tennesseans by 2025, widely backed to ensure people are prepared for the job market.
“We are on the pathway to prosperity. The FOCUS Act moves us forward more quickly; more efficiently, which keeps us competitive as a state with a skilled and ready workforce,” said Sen. Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican who is sponsoring the bill.
But expect debate this session over the details of this issue, which stretches back almost as far as creation of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission in the late 1960s.
For instance, Sen. Ketron says he disagrees with the governor’s plan to take sole authority for appointing university board members, who will have the power to hire and fire presidents, set budgets and determine academic programs. Those proposals would be submitted to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which will take on a stronger position in overseeing universities.
“Governors come and go. He will only be there for a few more years,” Ketron said. The Murfreesboro Republican says the House and Senate speakers should join the governor in this role.
“They have a better feel from their respective caucuses, as well as the governor, as opposed to making it political,” Ketron said.
As far as costs are concerned, Ketron said he believes the state will have fewer paid positions in the Tennessee Board of Regents as it takes on a different responsibility. Meanwhile, board members for universities will be volunteers who help guide those institutions, basically alumni and boosters.
“So I see it as being advantageous,” Ketron said. “But then more emphasis will be placed on THEC to make sure the University of Tennessee doesn’t walk away with all the money.”
The senator points out THEC was created in the late ’60s as a referee of sorts between the UT system and the other universities under TBR, and at some point, the battle for higher education funding turned into a political struggle.
“I think it will be more even balanced with this new structure,” he said.
Legislators are likely to keep looking at the governor’s proposal to outsource state departments. Everything from parks to prisons and universities is under consideration, though the private sector drew back from bidding to run park restaurants, marinas and golf courses.
In the outsourcing arena, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, requested an audit of an expiring contract with JLL (Jones Lang Laselle commercial real estate services) to determine cost savings and quality of services for management and maintenance of state buildings.
“Privatization does nothing but eliminate accountability and quality of services and spend taxpayers’ dollars to increase profits for private companies,” Clemmons said.
“They are hell-bent on cutting state government down to the nitty gritty bare bones. They’re so focused on that, and making money for their friends, and they don’t even do anything to try to hide it.”
Haslam and Ramsey, on the other hand, say Tennessee is obligated to consider privatizing departments to determine whether the state can save money.
The governor repeatedly points toward the need to cut costs in higher education so students and parents won’t pay so much for tuition.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, is pushing two pieces of anti-crime legislation this year, one targeting aggravated burglary and another designed to crack down on carjacking.
Kelsey’s bills would lengthen prison sentences for both types of conviction, adding them to the list of crimes requiring offenders to serve no less than 85 percent of their sentence before they’re eligible for parole.
Especially aggravated burglary involves violent incidents in which the victim suffers an injury during a home or business invasion.
“Keeping people safe in their homes is the most important role of government,” Kelsey said. “It is time we get serious and require those who commit really violent crimes to serve their full sentences.”
Department of Correction statistics show offenders typically serve only about half of the average sentence of 9.8 years for the crime.
Even worse, nearly half of those convicted of especially aggravated burglary will commit the crime again and be sent back to prison within three years of release.
Gov. Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism earlier this year recommended increasing penalties for aggravate burglary but didn’t deal with especially aggravate burglary. Kelsey’s legislation will keep those offenders in prison at least three years longer.
Kelsey introduced his plans for carjacking legislation this summer amid a spate of incidents in the Memphis area. State figures show the average carjacker, who uses deadly force or intimidation to take a person’s vehicle – often while they’re sitting in traffic – serves less than five years.
“A red light is meant to keep you safe from other drivers, not put you in danger of being carjacked,” Kelsey said. “It is a travesty that carjackers only have to serve 30 percent of their sentence.”
And much more
Vouchers of public money to fund the move of students from failing public schools into private schools will see another push and a better chance for passage this session. Committee chairmanship moves could create smoother sailing for the bill.
Look for legislation, as well, prohibiting Metro Nashville from requiring a certain percentage of jobs for publicly funded projects to come from Davidson County residents.
Two items likely to hit a brick wall are a gas tax increase and Insure Tennessee.
Although the governor says he would present a reform plan to provide more funds for road and bridge construction after touring the state this year, Republican legislators are showing no stomach for raising taxes, especially with primary elections looming in late summer.
They aren’t showing much appetite, either, for the Obamacare-funded proposal to catch up to 280,000 Tennesseans caught in an insurance gap.
One more thing: Despite a number of critical issues, look for a quick session, one ending in early April, if not sooner.
Some Democrats, in fact, are predicting the Legislature will convene Jan. 12 and close out the session a week later.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.