Haslam Bills Meet Resistance

Last week was trying for Gov. Bill Haslam after a number of his high-profile bills faced turmoil and criticism from both Democrats and the GOP faithful in the Legislature.

Haslam has dozens of legislative initiatives he’d like the General Assembly to pass this year, ranging from lowering the tax on food to overhauling how state workers are hired and fired.

Here is a breakdown of the status of some of his proposed bills:

Classroom Sizes Bill A Bust (SB2210/HB2348): Haslam spent weeks trying to sell the public on increasing pay for teachers in challenging schools and difficult subjects by letting districts adjust average class sizes. No dice. The governor dropped that plan after hearing teachers and lawmakers argue stacking more students in the classroom is a bad idea.

Ownership Trips Up Economic Development Bill (SB2207/HB2345): The administration wants to collect certain financial information on businesses wanting tax breaks but says companies will only comply if the state keeps that info secret. There’s been some resistance from the Legislature, where leaders say info on the winning companies should be public. Edits are in the works. The bill faces floor votes in each chamber as early as Thursday.

State Employees Steps Away from TEAM Act (SB2246/HB2384): Haslam wants to do away with “bumping,” which lets laid-off state workers take jobs of lower seniority workers, creating a domino effect. The state employees union says Haslam’s plan could lead to political hiring and firing and stopped negotiating with the administration. The bill is now in State and Local Government committees to be heard Tuesday.

Inheritance Awaiting a Price Tag (SB3762/HB3760): For all the Republicans’ enthusiasm for reducing the tax on inheritances, Haslam’s plan to up the $1 million exemption to $1.25 million hasn’t budged. The office that estimates the fiscal impact of legislation has yet to calculate the price tag for this bill, which is why it hasn’t moved.

Slice the Food Tax Also On Hold (SB3763/HB3761): Lawmakers across the political spectrum are hungry to reduce the food tax, although some want it cut differently. Haslam’s proposal would drop the 5.5 percent tax to 5.3 percent. Lawmakers have placed this bill on the back burner, parking it in finance subcommittees while awaiting an estimate of its fiscal impact.

Boards and Commissions Begin To Move: (SB2247/HB2385SB2248/HB2386SB2249/HB2387): The governor wants to eliminate redundancies by restructuring 22 state boards and commissions, including a panel that oversees Haslam family-owned gas stations. The Senate unanimously OK’d one bill shifting some duties from the Board of Probation and Parole to the Board of Correction Thursday, but two other bills have yet to be heard in committee.

Occupiers, Pack Up Those Tents, House Says

House lawmakers OK’d a measure Thursday that would oust tent-living Occupy Nashville protesters from the Capitol Hill grounds.

The bill would prohibit people from pitching tents on state government property where camping is not expressly permitted. For example, the bill could be broadly interpreted to forbid, say, camping outside rest stops along I-40 to lobby for better vending machines, as well as any overnight demonstrations to bring attention to the state flower at this state-run iris garden. Most assuredly, there would be no 24-hour vigils at the cosmetology board for tougher standards for state-licensed manicurists.

The Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 still has a little ways to go before it lands on the governor’s desk. Gov. Bill Haslam said this week he expects to sign the measure although he plans to exercise little enforcement until his staff irons out policies for using state government space and queries the state’s top lawyer about the next legal move.

“We’ll have to talk with the Attorney General and others to decide once you pass the law exactly what does that give the state the authority to do,” Haslam said.

The bill – HB2638 – bans anyone from camping, including “laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping,” on government-owned property not designated for camping, punishable with a fine up to $2,500 and up to 364 days jail time.

The measure easily passed the House, 70-26, with seven Democrats breaking ranks to join the GOP.

The legislation clearly would change the nature of the Occupy Nashville protests that target corporate influence on government.

Republicans have seen the protest as an eyesore. Dozens of tents line the perimeter of the plaza just outside many of their office windows. Haslam ended up on the losing side of a federal injunction last year when a federal judge said the state didn’t have the authority to arrest protesters camping outside the seat of state government.

Democrats argue banning tents on properties like War Memorial Plaza — which the movement claimed as its home — equates to an infringement on free speech rights.

Republicans argue the issue is about protecting taxpayer property.

“When do you have to have a tent to protest?” bill sponsor Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, asked rhetorically on the House floor as Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, argued against the bill.

Towns’ answer: “When it’s cold.”

One Republican suggested lawmakers opposing the camping ban exempt legislative offices in their own districts so protesters would have a place to pitch tents.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who has hinted an interested in running for Nashville mayor someday, said there are too many rules about when and where to protest, including city rules forbidding Occupy Nashville from camping on Metro property.

“The act of protest itself is kind of rubbing up against the system as-is,” Turner, D-Old Hickory, told reporters. “So if you have to protest, but the government laid out the rules of how you’re supposed to protest, your protest probably wouldn’t be very effective.”

The Senate is set to pick up the bill next Thursday.

No Netflix Bill Rewrite

The revision planned for last year’s controversial “Netflix bill” has been deemed unnecessary by the legislation’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who withdrew it from consideration Wednesday.

McCormick said prosecuting lawful account sharing was not the intent of the bill. “For you to be breaking the law it required criminal intent — and…sharing inside the family under the terms of the subscription agreement certainly cannot, and does not, meet that test,”  said the Chattanooga Republican.

Netflix, and other subscription services, have user agreements that allow sharing and for account sharing to be considered criminal intent, the individual in question would have to be making money from the act.

The original bill was carried by McCormick with, he said, the intention of protecting intellectual property rights of musicians by limiting the sharing of passwords for subscription-based services like Rhapsody. However, the lawmaker soon encountered unintended consequences.

The bill was perceived by some to potentially make it illegal for family members and close friends to share their passwords for subscription video services like Netflix, and McCormick received several emails on the subject.

Though McCormick has said that the bill should be reviewed and revised to fix the problematic language, he has also said that he agrees that the Legislature files too many bills.

After reviewing the subscription agreements and the language of the bill, McCormick said that a revision isn’t needed.

Bill to Make Occupy Nashville Decamp Moves Along

Tents and other “living quarters” would not be allowed on public spaces, under a bill advancing at the Capitol aimed at the Occupy Nashville protest – whose members have been camped on War Memorial Plaza for four months.

Members of that group say the bill would limit free speech and criminalize homelessness. On Wednesday it moved out of a subcommittee to the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill, HB2638, aims to prevent “people from living on publicly-owned property not designated for residential use and prohibits people using publicly-owned property from posing a health hazard or threat to the safety and welfare of others.”

“It is not a bill that will make the protest on the plaza end. It is not a bill that denies First Amendment rights to any individual,” said Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, the sponsor of the bill. “What this bill does, though, it restores the entire public’s right to utilize all the public property around the state, not just a single group.”

Occupy Nashville released an open letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, the General Assembly and the Highway Patrol in response to this bill’s filing.

The bill was amended Wednesday morning to provide the state with the right to prevent people from camping on public grounds where camping is not permitted.

The new amendment, which is named the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012,” is based on a 1984 federal law, supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, that gives the states the right to do this, Watson said.

Additionally, the amendment would change a violation of the no-camping law from a Class C to a Class B misdemeanor, raising the fine from $50 to $500. However, the amendment doesn’t allow for incarceration as a form of punishment.

“This seems to me to be sweeping legislation that could be used to silence dissent and punish our unhoused brothers and sisters for their poverty,” said Bill Howell, a member of Occupy Nashville and the progressive group Tennesseans for Fair Taxation at the subcommittee meeting. “What we see on the plaza every day is the direct result of bad public policy, both state and federal, that has served to further enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.”

Howell said people participating in the round-the-clock protest could catch cold if tents were banned.

The Occupy movement claims the bill is unconstitutional.

“The $500 fine is an infringement of free speech because it would have a negative effect on 24-hour vigils,” said Jane Steinfels Hussain, a group spokeswoman.

Last fall, when the Occupy movement was evicted from Legislative Plaza, Gov. Bill Haslam said that the reasoning behind the new policy was public safety, not to prevent free speech.

A few weeks later Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that although he believes in freedom of speech, the Occupy movement had overstepped its bounds.

The Occupy Nashville group has said it is opposed to the corrupting influence of corporate money on the political process.

ECD ‘Due Diligence Bill’ Advances in Senate

Gov. Bill Haslam, who wants to expand taxpayer-funded grants to business, is also suggesting that extra information collected to pick the winners be kept hidden from public view.

“Due diligence” documents such as corporate financial statements, budgets, cash flow reports and ownership information would be reviewed by politicians and agency staff but would not be open under a measure, Senate Bill 2207, that advanced out of a Senate committee Tuesday on an 8-0 vote with little debate.

Haslam, a Republican, wants to pump $70 million into the Fast Track grant program which is used to entice companies like Amazon to locate in Tennessee in addition to tax incentives and tax credits. Under SB2207, the state would collect more information from applying businesses but share none of it with taxpayers.

“You have to recognize that as a private company, that they have a need to keep information private,” Sen. Bo Watson, a Hixson Republican and the bill’s co-prime sponsor, told TNReport.

Both Haslam and his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, have faced criticism for keeping lucrative state deals with corporations shrouded in secrecy. In some cases, it’s hard for the public to even know the final tally of incentives provided because of the privacy of tax information, though in the case of Volkswagen, the bill reached hundreds of millions of dollars for expenses like buying land and training employees to work for the car manufacturer.

The measure comes from a long list of bills Haslam wants to see passed this year, including one that would give the Department of Economic and Community Development more flexibility to offer Fast Track grants for high-impact relocations and expansions.

“Using hard dollars from the FastTrack program is more transparent than the tax incentive process, which is completely confidential under law,” Clint Brewer, an ECD spokesman, said via email. “The due diligence bill does not hide anything ECD is doing, it only protects private company finances.”

The “due diligence” business details, which lawmakers want to add as an exemption from open records laws, are additional bits of information Watson says will help the agency do its “homework.”

Under that legislation, the State Funding Board would be able to review insider details for Fast Track grants but the group — made up of the top five officers in the executive branch — will also be required to keep that information confidential.

ECD now decides which companies to invest in without that “due diligence” level of insider information. It now reviews and keeps proprietary information and any trade secrets close to the vest.

One government transparency advocate contends the documents Haslam is looking to keep out of the public eye are already protected under state law. But push comes to shove, the most important information that needs to be public are the final details of the arrangement: Who is getting how much money?

“Our concern was that language dealing with ownership could be construed to say that they didn’t have to say who they were giving grants to,” said Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, who is not fighting the bill because the company name would still be public information on the final ECD contract, even if the owner’s name isn’t.

“Eventually people are able to find out who they are. Volkswagen LLC is still Volkswagen.”

Governor Prioritizes Ag Enhancement Grants

Gov. Bill Haslam has said little about the particulars of what he expects to write into next year’s state budget plan. But he hinted Monday that he’s agreeable to permanently stashing away $21 million for Tennessee crop and livestock producer subsidies.

The Agriculture Enhancement Grants are government financial supports for an industry Haslam says funnels $78 billion a year back into the state economy and employs about 350,000 people.

“That’s a staggering factor and it’s something that we think about when we come up with our economic plans and our strategies for the future,” Haslam said in his keynote speech at the Tennessee Farm Bureau’s 90th annual statewide conference in Franklin Monday.

The grants are now paid for with one-time dollars, meaning those funds are the most likely to be cut or eliminated year to year.

Haslam is poised to cut as much as $400 million in next year’s spending plan and asked state agencies to show him how they’d cut 5 percent from their budget. The governor says he’s “hopeful” he’ll be able to avoid cutting each department by that much.

Last month, agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson outlined for the governor the agency’s proposed $87.5 million spending proposal for the coming fiscal year during a budget hearing which included options to offset about $1.9 million in spending through “reduced operating expenses” and “delayed equipment purchases.”

Haslam told reporters after his speech Monday the grants are key to the state’s agricultural environment and said he wants “to make certain that recurs because that $21 million is really important.”

He said it’s critical, in part, because “the vast majority of our business comes from existing companies and farms like yours in Tennessee and we want to recognize and reward and pay attention to that,” Haslam told the bureau.

“You make investment decisions every year and that’s why I love the reality and the truth-based business that you’re in. When people invest their own capitol, they understand what’s required.”

Haslam to Attend TN Farm Bureau Annual Meeting

Gov. Bill Haslam is scheduled to drop in on the 90th annual statewide conference of the Tennessee Farm Bureau today in Cool Springs.

The governor’s thinking on the state Department of Agriculture‘s budget and policy priorities will likely be on the minds of many in attendance.

Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson and others in his department outlined the agency’s proposed $87.5 million spending proposal for the coming fiscal year during a hearing before the governor on Nov. 22.

In keeping with Haslam’s call for agencies to offer up at least 5 percent in proposed cuts to their spending, Johnson said the Department of Agriculture is prepared to offset about $1.9 million in spending through “reduced operating expenses” and “delayed equipment purchases.” Of the total department budget, about $38.2 million is discretionary, Johnson said.

Johnson also said the department plans to bump up revenues for the agency by approving more intensive timber-harvesting on state-owned forests. “Our plan is in keeping with the sound environmental standards for maintaining the health of our state-owned forests,” Johnson said.

Of that total state ag department’s proposed budget, about $11.11 million is federal money, a reduction of $7.3 million from the current year, said Johnson.

The Haslam administration has in the past been supportive of the state’s farm subsidy program, funded this year to the tune of $21 million. The governor has said he understands “how important it is.”

According to the department, “The Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program is a cost share initiative administered by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to help farmers make long-term, strategic investments to increase profitability.”

Under the program, farmers can qualify for the state to pay them for up to 50 percent of the costs of certain crop and livestock production.

“For every dollar the state invests, studies show a return of nearly four dollars in additional economic activity in the community,” Johnson said.

“The idea behind the ag enhancement program was to reinvest some of the tobacco revenues the state receives back into our rural communities, which have suffered from a major decline in tobacco production over the past decade,” Johnson said. “Back in 1999, when the state started receiving its share of the Master Settlement Agreement, farm income from tobacco was nearly $240 million. Last year farm receipts from tobacco were $97 million — a tremendous loss of economic activity in our rural communities that has been compounded over a 12-year period.”

TDEC: Budget Reductions May Drain Other Revenues

State environmental regulators say they’re willing to chop $4.4 million worth of green from their budget next year but warned the governor that some of those cuts come with strings attached.

More than half the department’s $349 million budget comes from the federal government, often in the form of federal matching funds that would shrink or disappear if state spending were cut, according to Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Robert Martineau.

“We don’t want to leave that federal money on the table,” Martineau told Gov. Bill Haslam at a Capitol Hill budget hearing Nov. 15.

The department is requesting a $166 million state budget, although $85.8 million comes from dedicated state funding such as fees and revenues. TDEC oversees 53 state parks, which welcome 30 million visitors annually, but is also a major enforcer and administrator for state and federal government regulations like those that address clean air and water.

Cuts that would reduce the department’s budget by 5 percent, as requested by Haslam, include reducing funding to maintain and fix parks and equipment, and leasing out or closing parks with outdated facilities and limited visitors. But moves to close those state parks would result in more than $1 million in lost revenue, and eliminating 23 jobs in the Bureau of Environment would mean losing more than a half-million dollars in federal funds and fees, Martineau said.

Haslam is expected to cut as much as $400 million from this year’s estimated $30 billion budget to make up for increased costs in state government that are outpacing growth in state revenues.

“As we’ve told other folks, it’s our firm hope obviously we don’t have to ask everybody to do the full 5 percent,” Haslam told Martineau at the hearing.

Separately from the cuts, TDEC is asking Haslam for a $6.8 million permanent increase in dedicated funds instead of one-time money to help local governments and the state acquire park space and another $1.4 million next year to leverage federal money for a clean water program.

The department isn’t without its critics. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has called the agency “out of control” and launched a website in his push to roll back regulations he believes trip up businesses, including those at TDEC.

Haslam made a point over the summer to suggest that state agencies re-evaluate some of their regulations in a way that takes pressure off businesses, but none of those issues arose in TDEC’s budget hearing.

The department has managed to speed up some of its permitting processes, Finance and Administration Commissioner Mark Emkes said, and suggested other agencies mirror those efforts.

“Without spending hardly any money you’re becoming more effective and efficient, and we need to follow your example, all of us,” he told Martineau at the hearing.

Tea Partiers In Tune With Gibson

Organizers for Saturday afternoon’s “We Stand With Gibson” rally/concert in Nashville say the event is geared more toward people seeking a good time than looking for a political rant fest.

Clearly, though, with a line-up that, in addition to musical performers, includes conservative radio hosts Steve Gill and Phil Valentine, and Memphis Tea Party founder Mark Skoda — as well as U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Gibson Guitar’s CEO himself, Henry Juszkiewicz — there’ll no doubt be plenty of fire-breathing to accompany the cool harmonies.

The purpose of the event is, after all, to raise awareness and fuel outrage about an incident that one function organizer says has galvanized anti-government sentiment like no other in quite a while.

“I don’t think any other issue has captured the passions of tea partiers like this one has in the last year,” said Ben Cunningham, a blogger and spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt.

“There is near universal agreement among the tea party and conservative groups that the raids — the one that occurred in August and the one that occurred two years ago — were an overreach by the federal government. It was an abuse of power and authority,” said Cunningham.

The purpose of the “We Stand With Gibson” event is to say to the federal government, “Back off,” Cunningham said during a press conference Wednesday.

The gathering, which is scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. at the Scoreboard Restaurant & Sports Bar, was also planned with the idea in mind of people coming together in support of others facing difficulty and uncertainty — like they did during the floods of 2010, Ken Marrero, a blogger and rally organizer, added.

The victims in this case, said Marrero, are Juszkiewicz and the employees of Gibson. Their place of work was inundated back in August with federal agents who allege Gibson illegally imported wood from India in violation of a recently amended U.S. law known as the Lacey Act.

The agents seized wood, guitars and other company property, according to the company. No charges have been filed, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency conducting the investigation, is reportedly considering filing a criminal complaint.

In a sworn statement filed last month, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Kevin L. Seiler wrote that after reviewing Juszkiewicz’s public statements in the wake of the raid on Gibson, “it is clear that Gibson understands the purpose of the Lacey Act, and understands that the (seized company property), which is fingerboard blanks, are not finished fingerboards and thus Gibson is aware that its order for fingerboard blanks was an order for contraband ebony wood or ebony wood which is illegal to possess.”

Marrero said he supports the idea of government regulating natural resource extraction and prohibiting Americans from violating the environmental and wildlife protection laws of other countries, which is ostensibly the purpose of the Lacey Act.

But he thinks the federal agents stepped way over the line in the Gibson case, both in the way they are interpreting the law and the way they executed the raid.

Marrero said it is his understanding that Indian law — at least according to the Indian government — has not been violated. India’s deputy director-general of foreign trade reportedly stated in a Sept. 16 letter, “Fingerboard is a finished product and not wood in primary form,” and that the “foreign trade policy of the government of India allows free export of such finished products of wood.”

Marrero wonders why the United States government “is enforcing a law that the Indian government doesn’t even consider is a violation.”

“How is that right?” he said.

Cunningham, too, condemns what he described as the “hideously complex” web of regulations that businesses and taxpayers have to understand, negotiate and abide by to remain in compliance with federal law.

“We have all kinds of these 2,000-page laws that empower bureaucrats to be petty tyrants,” said Cunningham. “Think of the IRS code.”

In any event, said Cunningham, when government officials do perceive that some nonviolent violation of a rule or regulation has occurred, the proper course is to “call (an alleged violator) up on the phone and say, ‘We are concerned about this law and your compliance with the law.'”

“You don’t send armed agents with their guns drawn into their corporate headquarters. That is an abuse of power, and that is our government abusing the power that we grant to them,” said Cunningham. “And that is why we are here — we are holding them accountable for this abuse of power. It’s got to stop. And we the people are coming here on Saturday to say that to our federal government.”

Bikers Butt Heads With Bean Counters

Even with Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny in the saddle of an effort to allow motorcycle riders to opt out of wearing helmets, he says he’s still only got a “50/50” shot of getting the bill to the floor next year.

And even then, that doesn’t mean it’ll get much more traction.

“I think it’s going to happen eventually. It’s manifest destiny,” said Matheny, a Tullahoma Republican who is trying to rev up support among lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee to allow bikers with at least $15,000 of medical insurance coverage to ditch their helmets if they’re at least 21 years old.

The issue has been cruising around Capitol Hill for almost a decade under different sponsors as advocates for a helmet-free lifestyle argue they should have the freedom to choose whether to wear a lid. They add that loosening up the laws will boost tourism revenues by attracting more bikers to the state.

Meanwhile, opponents say changing the law will lead to more fatalities and boost health care costs.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, passing the legislation would have an indirect increase in costs to public health systems for state and local governments, including an estimate that TennCare costs could increase by $2 million.

“I understand the proponents talk about freedom, nobody’s against freedom,” said Gary Zelizer, director of government affairs for the Tennessee Medical Association. Zelizer argues that the bill would lead to deaths of teenagers riding without a helmet, even though they would not be covered by the exemption. “I hear the tourism issue. But should those be at the expense of our kids?… Is that what you really want to do?”

Some 158,000 motorcycles were registered in Tennessee last year, according to state agencies. About 4,700 bikers are involved in crashes each year, with roughly one in five resulting in head injuries, according to the fiscal note.

When Florida implemented a law similar to Matheny’s proposal, the state saw a more than 80 percent increase in head injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Earlier this year, the bill languished in committee until the Transportation Subcommittee agreed to study the issue over the summer. Members plan to sit down with the Fiscal Review team to examine exactly how it developed its price tag, which Matheny says will help the measure get past a major road block.

Matheny, who rides horses instead of a hog, said he would be equally upset if the state required him to wear a helmet on horseback, and suggested bikers should have the choice to sign some sort of liability waiver stating they understand the risks of biking sans helmet.

“Giving personal responsibility back to people, and letting them be responsible for their own actions if they know the inherent risk, is not something that is alien to this General Assembly,” Matheny said.