NASHVILLE — The state House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved Gov. Bill Haslam's Tennessee Reconnect initiative, which offers many Tennessee adults the chance to attend community colleges tuition free.
The vote was 87-6. It's still making its way through Senate committees.
"This is a great opportunity for our state to step up and increase the opportunity for hard-working Tennesseans," Rep. said Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro. "This proposal will make Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults community college education tuition free. It will pay dividends for our workforce."
Haslam is using the legislation to expand his existing Tennessee Promise program, which already offers "last dollar" lottery-funded scholarships to Tennessee high school graduates to attend community colleges or colleges of applied technology.
The governor says the move to adults is necessary to meet his Drive to 55 initiative calling for 55 percent of Tennessee adults to have some type of post-high school degree or certification by 2025.
The state has a special state lottery reserve with interest and earnings paying for the tuition. Would-be students must first submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what federal college assistance they are eligible for.
Powers said an estimated 21,000 adults will apply for the grant to attend an institution in 2018. Adults who already have a two-year or four-year degree are not eligible.
In other legislative action Thursday:
- The House voted 63-23 and sent to Haslam a bill carving out an exemption in state law to allow groups of large trucks to travel closely together in a "unified manner" in a convoy — dubbed a "platoon" — under electronically coordinated control.
Currently, trucks are required to maintain 300-foot distances on Tennessee interstates, although lawmakers agreed most openly flout the law without any repercussions from law enforcement.
Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, who owns a trucking company, said the platoons operate in several states and save on fuel costs and efficiency. Trucks are tied together by software. The legislation requires a human operator in each vehicle.
But Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, who once drove tractor-trailer trucks, sought to stop the legislation. He warned colleagues that allowing 18-wheelers and other trucks to travel in tandem in a convoy is not just dangerous but hateful to their constituents.
"This is about safety for our citizens," Keisling said of his opposition, charging the bill "is about creating millions of dollars for an out-of-state software company."
Noting he once drove manual-tandem trucks, Keisling warned there was "nothing in this bill that prohibits hazardous material from being transported in a platoon operation."
While Marsh said the platoon would be limited to two trucks, Keisling pointed out the bill puts no limit on how many trucks can be electronically linked together in a convoy.
"Sure, I've seen the software," Keisling said. "Depicts two trucks pulling single, 53-foot trailers. And the territory is western Colorado and Utah. Why? I'll tell you why. Because there's not traffic out there."
Keisling said remote, flat western states are no comparison to crowded Tennessee urban areas in a state that also includes mountains. While the convoys would be restricted to use in the right lane, Keisling warned of massive left-lane lines seeking to pass them.
At one point, he began quoting from the 1970s country hit "Convoy" by C.W. McCall about a huge truck convoy barreling across the U.S.
Marsh said the legislation simply allows a pilot project to test the platooning software on Tennessee roads. Rules would be promulgated by the Tennessee Department of Safety and the state transportation department, he noted. Truck companies would be required to comply with the rules, he said.
"I do think it's worth a pilot project and discussion and to make sure we can do it and do it safely and economically," Marsh said, adding state agencies will decide who is eligible.
Moreover, Marsh argued, the software only allows for two trucks that would have brakes and gas pedals connected electronically. When the lead truck brakes or hits the gas, the second vehicle would move correspondingly, he said.
The Senate bill, which passed unanimously, was sponsored by Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville. The Tennessee Trucking Association and Federal Express both support the legislation, lawmakers said.
- In a nod to the Chattanooga school bus tragedy, senators voted 29-0 to raise the required age for bus drivers from 21 to 25.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, is one of several pending measures in the General Assembly after the Nov. 21 Hamilton County school bus crash that left six Woodmore Elementary School children dead and others injured.
Bus driver Johnthony Walker, 24, has been indicted on six counts of vehicular homicide, as well as other charges. He was a driver for Durham School Services, which operates under a contract with the county school system.
"Maybe we need to look at these contractors a little harder," said Haile, adding, "we may need to tighten up on them a little."
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, noted Haslam has a more comprehensive bill dealing with drivers, school system oversight and contractors.
The House companion bill to Haile's measure is in the lower chamber's Transportation Committee.
Gardenhire and Rep. JoAnne Favors also have legislation that would require new school buses purchased after July 1, 2019, to be equipped with safety restraint systems, a measure being fought by at least some school systems and bus drivers.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @Andy Sher1.