In an apparent effort to thwart an overhaul of the state’s federally funded health-care-for-the-poor program, House Democrats attempted to make an early dash for the exits at the Tennessee statehouse Thursday.

The Democrats’ seeming goal was to deprive the Republican-run chamber of a quorum necessary to conduct official legislative business as the 2019 session’s last day drew to a close. Their aim was to prevent the General Assembly from approving a late-hour measure seeking greater state autonomy from the federal government for managing Tennessee’s Medicaid program, TennCare.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart said members of his party — who’re outnumbered by GOP lawmakers 73-26 in the House and 28-5 in the Senate — were angry about not receiving a key appointment to a legislative conference committee working on the issue. Conference committees are typically assigned by the House and Senate speakers to smooth over discrepancies between companion bills already passed by both chambers.

“What a bad precedent to exclude any member of the minority party from such an important and weighty matter,” Stewart said.

Despite Democrats’ efforts, the TennCare “block grant” measure ultimately garnered General Assembly approval. It authorizes Gov. Bill Lee to negotiate with the Trump administration to acquire TennCare operating funds in a lump sum.

Here’s a summary of the end-of-session antics from the Nashville Post:

Most Democrats sought to leave the chamber in protest, but the speaker briefly ordered the doors locked. A physical scuffle ensued as Democrats made their way out. Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) said he was grabbed around the neck but did not know who did it, but Rules Chair Matthew Hill said he would launch an investigation into Hardaway for assaulting a sergeant at arms, citing television news footage of the incident.

Much of the Democratic caucus huddled outside of the chamber, where Caucus Chair Mike Stewart called the speaker’s order “outrageous.” Republicans could normally form the required quorum without any Democrats, but some from the majority party had already left for the week, so Republicans were unable to conduct business without the minority party.

(Republican Speaker Glen) Casada cited House Rule 20, which allows the speaker to order the sergeant at arms to retrieve House members. Eventually, Democrats returned to the chamber and made a quorum. Both chambers approved the compromise deal, despite what House Minority Leader Karen Camper called the “dangerous precedent” of excluding the minority party from the House conference delegation.

The discord continued later in the evening as state troopers removed a protestor in the gallery who was calling for Casada to resign.

Stewart, who represents a Nashville district, claimed that forcing legislators to perform their functions typified a “lawlessness” and “culture of arrogance” that’s been on display since Casada took over as House speaker this year.

Casada accused Democrats of conspiring to shirk their duties as public officeholders. “It was a serious offense, what they did,” Casada said in a press conference later. “It hasn’t been done in many, many years — probably back since the Civil War.”

“This is a sacred duty and obligation,” he continued. “They chose to turn their backs on the responsibility that has been given to them.”

The Tennessee Legislature this week approved a measure that proposes creating a nine-member statewide commission to authorize new charter schools and oversee their subsequent performance.

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a school-choice proponent, has been promoting the legislation.

Under the provisions of Senate Bill 796, the “Public Charter School Commission” would act as an appeals board for hearing challenges to a local board of education’s decision to reject a charter school application. If the commission reverses the local board’s decision and subsequently approves the charter school, then the commission members would thereafter serve as that charter school’s oversight authority.

The legislation passed by decisive margins in both General Assembly chambers — 61-37 in the House and 27-3 in the Senate. State Reps. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, and John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, were the only Upper Cumberland lawmakers voting against the bill.

The new commission would supersede the charter-school oversight responsibilities currently administered by the State Board of Education, according to one of the legislation’s primary Senate sponsors, Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey.

The State BOE would, however, ultimately oversee the Charter School Commission.

“Most public charter schools in our state are offering a great education to our lowest income children for free,” Kelsey said in a press release. “We are hopeful that this legislation will encourage more high-quality schools to open in Tennessee.”

Kelsey predicts that the measure will create an environment wherein charter schools are held to higher standards. Senate Bill 796 will also ensure that “low-performing charters” are more effectively weeded out, he said.

Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether internet giants like Facebook and Google are handling users’ personal information in irresponsible or illegal fashion.

Blackburn, a Republican, and Klobuchar, a Democrat, made the request to FTC in a jointly signed letter this week. They said the message was drafted “in response to concerns regarding potential privacy, data security, and antitrust violations involving online platforms.”

Blackburn said in a statement that her constituents are worried not only about online privacy, but whether internet companies can gain possession and claim ownership of users’ personal information.

“The FTC has a responsibility to hold technology companies accountable for securing their platforms,” said Blackburn. She went on, “Companies like Facebook and Google have transformed society in revolutionary ways and need to recognize that with that power comes the responsibility to secure their online platforms.”

Klobuchar said “market dominance” established by immense online companies “has amplified concerns about how those companies protect consumers’ online information and about possible anticompetitive conduct that could harm consumers, innovation, and small business growth.”

The senators’ letter also asks that FTC break with its standard practice of keeping silent during investigations and instead inform the public forthrightly when major online platforms are under formal examination for potentially unscrupulous activity.

Klobuchar and Blackburn are the first women ever elected to represent their respective states in the U.S. Senate. Klobuchar announced last month that she’s running for president in 2020.

Their full letter to the Federal Trade Commission is below:

Dear Chairman Simons and Commissioners Phillips, Chopra, Slaughter, and Wilson:

We write to urge the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action in response to concerns regarding potential privacy, data security, and antitrust violations involving online platforms. We also call on the FTC to provide additional transparency into its ongoing investigations to ensure that consumers are protected from harmful conduct relating to digital markets.

In the past few years, rapid changes in technology have reshaped our economy and transformed the daily lives of millions of Americans—in many ways for the better. But during that same time, a small number of firms have grown to dominate key digital markets. For example, in digital search, Google, Inc. now has approximately 90 percent of web search volume, and in digital advertising, Google and Facebook account for nearly 60 percent of U.S. digital ad spending, with Amazon a distant third at just under 9 percent. This type of market dominance has amplified concerns about how those companies protect consumers’ online information and about possible anticompetitive conduct that could harm consumers, innovation, and small business growth.

The intensive collection and monetization of consumers’ personal data by digital platforms, as well as reported breaches of consumer data held by these companies, has raised significant questions regarding privacy and data security. In particular, some have expressed concern that Facebook’s recently announced plans to integrate its three messaging platforms—WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger—may lead to Facebook sharing user data between its platforms. As Congress considers legislation to enact stronger safeguards for consumers’ online privacy, we urge the FTC to use its existing authority to protect the privacy and security of consumers’ online data.

We understand that the FTC does not typically comment on nonpublic investigations, but the public discussion surrounding Google and other companies’ conduct have made this a uniquely important national issue. Accordingly, we respectfully request that the FTC consider publicly disclosing whether it is conducting an investigation of Google and/or other major online platforms and describe, in general terms, the nature of the conduct under examination in any such investigations. Going forward, we also encourage the FTC to disclose the existence of non-public investigations that may be of significant public interest, consistent with the FTC’s legal obligations.

Thank you for your attention to these critical issues.

Sincerely,

Amy Klobuchar                                                  Marsha Blackburn

United States Senator                                       United States Senator

In wake of the blockbuster news that Robert Mueller’s two-year collusion investigation turned up no proof that Donald Trump illegally coordinated or improperly communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 election, a pair of Republican Tennessee congressional lawmakers took the opportunity to take a swipe at one of Congress’s most visible and vocal proselytizers of the conspiracy theory.

Freshmen Reps. Mark Green of Clarksville and Tim Burchett of Knoxville collaborated this week on a video lampoon jeering California Rep. Adam Schiff, an unremitting and unapologetic Trump-Russia collusion-monger.

D.C.-based political website TheHill.com picked up the social media send up:

In a video posted by Rep. Mark Green, the congressman and fellow Tennessee GOP Rep. Tim Burchett pretended to unveil an exclusive copy of the “Schiff report,” or the evidence that Schiff has asserted exists to prove collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. “I got the Schiff report!” Burchett, dressed in a brown overcoat, tells a grinning Green in the video before handing over a manilla envelope marked as such.

“Holy cow, he’s got the Schiff report,” Green exclaims in response. “There’s gotta be proof of collusion, evidence in here, right?”

The two then open the envelope, revealing it to be empty.

House Republicans have been calling this week for Schiff to step down from his post as chairman of the chamber’s intelligence committee.

“The findings of the special counsel conclusively refute your past and present assertions and have exposed you as having abused your position to knowingly promote false information, having damaged the integrity of this Committee, and undermined faith in U.S. government institutions,” the nine Republican members of Schiff’s committee wrote to him in a letter delivered March 24.

They concluded, “we have no faith in your ability to discharge your duties in a manner consistent with your constitutional responsibility and urge your immediate resignation as chairman of this committee.”

Schiff maintains he’s done nothing discreditable, and that when Mueller’s full report is made public it will substantiate accusations of wrongdoing against Trump and his family.

Democrats hold a 13-9 majority on the House Intelligence Committee.

The Republican letter calling on Chairman Schiff to step down followed a notice to Congress from U.S. Attorney General William Barr declaring that Mueller’s “special counsel investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.”

Stiffer fines, more jail time soon likely for illegally flying remote controlled aircraft over ‘critical infrastructure’

A measure that will significantly increase the penalty for flying drones in off-limits airspace has passed both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Senate Bill 306 cleared the House of Representatives last week on a 95-1 vote. It passed the Senate 30-0 on Feb. 25. The bill now awaits a signature from Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

The legislation is sponsored by a pair of East Tennessee Republicans — Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol and Rep. Bud Hulsey of Kingsport.

Hulsey said SB306 “enhances the penalty for flying a drone over critical infrastructure from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class E felony.”

A Class C misdemeanor carries a possible 30-day sentence and a $50 fine. Conviction of a Class E felony may result in a 1-6 year prison sentence and up to a $3,0000 fine.

Under current Tennessee law, a person who “knowingly uses an unmanned aircraft within 250 feet of the perimeter of any critical infrastructure facility for the purpose of conducting surveillance of, gathering evidence or collecting information about, or photographically or electronically recording critical infrastructure data” is guilty of a Class C misdemeanor, a legislative background analysis of the proposed measure reported.

According to Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts, no one has ever actually been convicted of flying a drone in restricted airspace under the state’s existing law.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Mike Bell remarked during a February committee hearing that, because the Class C misdemeanor penalty is relatively insubstantial, it has “not been worth it to the sheriffs or the DAs to prosecute.”

Sen. Lundberg said he decided to propose a punishment increase after hearing complaints about unauthorized drones “from a number of industries across the state.”

“The reason for the change is, candididly, there is a proliferation obviously of drones.” Lundberg told the Judiciary Committee.

“With that proliferation, we need more of an impediment for folks who are flying these over critical infrastructure,” he said. “A Class C misdemeanor does not provide that.”

Man fished out of lake after landing in troubled waters

A Williamson County angler got himself and his boat into what could have become a life-ending predicament on Center Hill Lake this week were it not for quick and competent action by marina workers in the vicinity.

Smithville radio station WJLE reported that the fisherman got too close to the moving water near the dam gates on Friday and lost control of his boat.

According to WJLE:

The current pulled his boat up against one of the spill gates causing it to turn up on its side in the water. The man, who was not wearing a life jacket, fell into the lake but he was able to grab onto the boat and managed to pull himself up and stand on the side of the vessel with it partly submerged until help arrived.

A passing boater spotted him and went nearby to the marina at Edgar Evins State Park to get help. Workers from the boat dock boarded a pontoon boat and rescued the man. He was brought back to the marina uninjured.

WJLE reported that the boat was salvaged and towed to the marina with assistance from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers.

Center Hill Lake, Dale Hollow, Percy Priest and Lake Cumberland in Kentucky have for nearly a month been discharging vast quantities of water in wake of record February rainfall in the region, making for deceptive and dangerous currents near dam release gates.

“It will take several months to reduce these lake levels to more seasonal levels,” Anthony Rodino, a Nashville-based Army Corps of Engineers water management specialist, predicted at the beginning of March.

A new study from the state comptroller’s office reveals a pervasive connection between underperforming teachers and lower-than-optimal student test scores.

Tennessee’s Office of Research and Education Accountability released a report this week seeking to assess the negative impacts that underachieving teachers may have on student performance and academic success.

The report determined that students’ performance demonstrably suffers when they’re taught by a subpar-rated teacher for two consecutive years.

Graphic Source: Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (March 2019)

A press release from the office of Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, who oversees OREA, indicated that the study’s results show that students who endure “ineffective teachers” for consecutive years “were less likely than their peers to be proficient or advanced on the state’s assessments.”

“Student achievement also suffered with the largest effects found for the highest and lowest performing students,” the press release stated. “These results are consistent with other research indicating that ineffective teachers have negative academic impacts on students.”

OREA’s research into the issue — which was conducted at the request of Tennessee Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville — showed that between 2013 and 2015 more than 8,000 students in Tennessee were taught in consecutive years by teachers with low evaluation scores in math or English or both.

Students in need of special education efforts or enrolled in “high poverty” school were much more likely to receive instruction from underperforming teachers, the report found.

The OREA report suggests that altering education policy in Tennessee to ensure an “increase equitable access to effective teachers for all students” is something for the Legislature to consider. The report also recommends that policymakers contemplate establishing provisions to ensure students are not assigned to classrooms run by ineffective teachers in consecutive years, and that the Tennessee Department of Education be required to track the problem and report back to lawmakers on it annually.

U.S. senators from the Volunteer State, both Republicans, have staked out opposing positions on the effort to thwart President Donald Trump’s declaration of “national emergency” regarding border enforcement.

The final Senate vote tally on Thursday was 59-41 in favor of blocking Trump’s Feb. 15 emergency declaration. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the resolution last month on a 245–182 vote. Thirteen House Republicans joined all the members of the chamber-controlling Democratic caucus to vote in favor of the measure.

On Friday, President Trump vetoed the legislation. “Congress has the freedom to pass this resolution and I have the duty to veto it,” the president said.

By way of joining 11 other Senate Republicans and all 45 Democrats plus two independents in attempting to scuttle the president’s emergency declaration, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander declared that while he supports Trump in general “on border security,” he believes funding a border wall through national-emergency declaration to be “inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution.”

“Never before has a president asked for funding, Congress has not provided it, and the president then has used the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to spend the money anyway,” said Alexander, who announced last year that he’ll not seek re-election in 2020. “The problem with this is that after a Revolutionary War against a king, our nation’s founders gave to Congress the power to approve all spending so that the president would not have too much power. This check on the executive is a crucial source of our freedom.”

Marsha Blackburn, a former Tennessee General Assembly lawmaker and congresswoman now in her first year as Tennessee’s first female member of the U.S. Senate, voiced opposition to what she termed, “Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s resolution.”

“I support President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency and I reject the resolution of disapproval,” Blackburn said in a March 14 press release statement. Last November, she decisively beat former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, in the general election.

New or Not New Emergency Debate?

Alexander said he believes a “dangerous precedent” is being set by Trump — that future Democrat commanders-in-chief may one day also assert unjustified declarations of national emergency to advance controversial agendas.

“Already, Democrat presidential candidates are saying they would declare emergencies to tear down the existing border wall, take away guns, stop oil exports, shut down offshore drilling and other leftwing enterprises — all without the approval of Congress,” Alexander said.

Blackburn noted that presidential declarations of national emergencies have become commonplace over the past several decades. “(P)residents from both political parties have declared national emergencies in the United States over situations far less dire than the security and humanitarian crisis that is currently plaguing the southern border,” said Blackburn.

“The National Emergencies Act has been used seventeen times by President Bill Clinton, twelve times by President George W. Bush, thirteen times by President Barack Obama, and three times by President Trump,” she said.

High water levels and a raging Caney Fork River at the Center Lake headwaters have proved too extreme even for world class whitewater kayakers.

The USA Freestyle Kayak Trials scheduled for Rock Island this weekend have been cancelled “Due to flooding in the river gorge,” according to Team USA’s Facebook page.

The event will instead be held at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Swain County North Carolina. It will be used to select the US Freestyle Kayak Team to represent to compete this summer at the ICF Freestyle World Championships in Spain.

A certification clinic for ICF Freestyle Kayak judging is still scheduled for next week at Rock Island as of this posting.

The Tennessee General Assembly is considering a measure declaring its members “strongly support” that Congress mandate the Tennessee Valley Authority to henceforth make all the agency’s governing board and subcommittee meetings open to the public.

The legislation in Washington is called the “Tennessee Valley Authority Transparency Act,” and is sponsored by U.S. Reps. Tim Burchett and Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

The state Legislature’s resolution is SJR 192 and is sponsored by Ken Yager, R-Kingston. Its is scheduled for a Tennessee Senate floor vote Monday.

Yager’s hometown is where the cataclysmic TVA coal-ash spill in December 2008 buried the surrounding river valley in a billion gallons of gloppy gray waste material. The Kingston Steam Plant disaster is claimed to have resulted in serious, even terminal, health problems for local residents and cleanup workers who came in prolonged contact with the potentially toxic sludge, dust and residues.

Yager’s resolution states “it is vitally important to the citizens of Tennessee that TVA, as an entity created and protected by Congress, should conduct their business in the open and be as transparent as possible.”

“I just think in the spirit of transparency and open government that all of their meetings should be open,” said Yager, a 3-term state senator who prior to entering the Legislature also served stints as attorney and mayor for Roane County.

Under current rules, TVA decides for itself “which meetings it allows the public to attend as well as whether it will provide any minutes or summaries of meetings to the public,” according to the pro-transparency group, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “Despite being a government body created by Congress, and its members confirmed by the U.S. Senate, there is no requirement that deliberations of its full board or subcommittees be open to the public.”

Burchett said expanding the citizenry’s access to public-sector information always has been and remains one of his priorities as a politician.

“Both in the state legislature and as mayor I focused on increasing openness and transparency in government, and this bill continues those efforts at the federal level,” Burchett said in a Jan. 31 press release announcing his filing of the “Tennessee Valley Authority Transparency Act.”

The bill was the first piece of legislation Burchett filed after becoming a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected to Congress last November, winning 67 percent of the vote over Democrat Renee Hoyos, former executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

Burchett and Cohen also this winter sent a joint letter to TVA President William D. Johnson “demanding answers about TVA’s announcement that ratepayers might have to pay for the misdeeds of the contractor it used for cleanup work at its Kingston plant following the nation’s worst coal ash spill,” according to a Feb. 8 press release from the Knox County congressman.

“TVA’s congressionally mandated mission is to improve the quality of life in the Valley through the integrated management of the region’s resources,” Reps. Cohen and Burchett said in their letter. “Regrettably, it seems that TVA’s irresponsible actions have achieved the opposite effect — more than 40 workers have died, including at least two TVA employees, and more than 400 are sick.”