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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam talks about education and his budget at a recent Times Free Press editorial board meeting.

NASHVILLE -- Amid praise from rural lawmakers, the Tennessee House on Thursday unanimously approved Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to boost economic development in small communities in the state.

The Rural Economic Opportunity Act of 2016 passed on a 97-0 vote. It's awaiting approval in the Senate Finance Committee.

Haslam's proposal does two things. First, it implements Haslam's "Propelling Rural Economic Progress Fund," announced last year, which provides money to help rural counties build sites and develop infrastructure to encourage companies to consider locating operations to rural communities. 

Haslam's budget proposes $10 million for the fund in the fiscal year beginning this July 1.

Secondly, the bill restructures the current state's current counties' current three-tier county system for business-tax credits given to new or expanding businesses hiring set numbers of workers.

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The number of new jobs required for business-tax credits in Tier 3 counties drops from 25 to 20. The bill also creates a fourth tier where business' can qualify for the tax credits with ten new jobs.

"It'll help our small rural counties," Rep. Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, the bill's sponsor, told the House.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, D-Sparta, called it "very good legislation for our small, distressed counties."

In a later statement, Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, said "our rural communities are lagging behind other parts in the state economically, and this legislation will help remedy that."

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, noted that in 2015 she had created a task force on rural economic development and the bill "will greatly aid those efforts of making our rural communities more prosperous."

In other House action Thursday, representatives took final action and sent to Haslam legislation that grants  civil immunity to some civic organizations and professionals dispensing previously owned eyeglasses to needy Tennesseans.

The immunity is provided to a sponsoring organization, a free clinic and any optometrist, ophthalmologist, or dispensing optician providing services at the free clinic, or a tax exempt organization that provides previously owned eyeglasses to a sponsoring organization or free clinic.

Travis sponsored the House bill while Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, handled the Senate companion bill.

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