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Conservative Group Backs Effort to Ban Mountaintop Mining

Legislation to protect Tennessee’s mountains has new, if somewhat unexpected, support: the Tennessee Conservative Union.

Citing the involvement of the “Red Chinese” in mountaintop removal mining, the conservative organization has launched a statewide media effort to ban the harvesting of coal by blowing the tops off Tennessee’s mountains.

“Tennessee has become the first state in our great nation to permit the Red Chinese to destroy our mountains and take our coal,” a gravelly, male voice warns in the ad released by the TCU, alluding to a Chinese company reportedly indicating an intention last year to invest in the Tennessee-based Triple H Coal Company.

According to the company’s website, Triple H is “one of the fastest growing coal mining operations in the Tennessee Coal Mining Reserve. We supply the increasing demand for clean coal energy to the U.S. domestic market as well as rapid expanding emerging markets such as China. Triple H’s Tennessee mines cover a surface area of over 30,000 mineral acres and consist of nine seams that are located throughout the Tennessee Coal Reserve.”

An email to the company asking for comment went unanswered.

The conservative Tennessee group joins environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices in pushing back against mountaintop removal.

Appalachian Voices is eager to work with “anyone who supports protecting Tennessee’s mountains,” said JW Randolph, director of the Tennessee branch of the environmental group.

“From my perspective, we don’t care if they’re from China or Chattanooga – they can be from anywhere. Blowing up mountains is a bad idea,” Randolph said. “The fact that everybody from the most liberal and progressive people in the state support protecting our mountains, and the most conservative people in our state support protecting our mountains, I think, gives me a lot of hope.”

The “Scenic Vistas Protection Act,” HB43/SB99, sponsored by Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, would seek to prevent mountaintop removal operations by prohibiting the issuance of water quality control permits for certain projects. The bill would affect projects altering ridgelines at an elevation higher than 2,000 feet above sea level.

That’s on the low end of the height range for the Great Smoky Mountains, which range from 875 feet to 6,643 feet – the elevation of Clingmans Dome.

According to the bill, previously issued permits for mountaintop removal activities could only be renewed by the original applicant. The measure doesn’t expand or change the allowed surface area of mining operations or previously allowed actions and is not otherwise against the law. The bill also does not allow permits to be transferred from one person to another.

Although both the bill’s primary sponsors are Democrats, it appears to have at least some bipartisan support. Two Republicans in the House have signed on as co-prime sponsors: Bill Dunn, of Knoxville, who has been honored as the TCU Legislator of the Year, and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Gloria JohnsonGloria Johnson

“I think that the citizens – the majority of citizens of Tennessee – are supportive of that bill and don’t want to see any more mountaintop removal,” Johnson said.

During the 2012 legislative session the bill was sent to a summer study panel, where no action was taken on it.

The bill, important because of its intent to “preserve” one of the state’s “greatest assets,” has been heard before the state Legislature in various forms over the last three years, said sponsor Sen. Lowe Finney, of Jackson.

“What you’re seeing is a lot of people realize that this is an issue that can be addressed, that should be addressed and people from all over the state are taking an interest in it,” said Finney, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Coal could be mined more responsibly, and it would benefit Tennesseans to not destroy and desecrate one of the powerful symbols of the state’s history, said Charles White, an active member of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. He added that coal can be mined in other ways that would provide more jobs and be more “environmentally” cost-effective.

“It’s high time for our elected officials to give this legislation a chance to be discussed by the full House and Senate,” White said.

The Scenic Vistas Act is scheduled to be heard in both the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources committee and the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee Wednesday.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, also have a bill (HB0875/SB1139) that aims to stem water pollution from surface mining. The bill would prohibit the issuance of permits that allow mining waste within 100 feet of any stream’s high water mark. The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Retiring, Defeated Lawmakers on Taxpayer-Funded Getaway

Updated Aug. 7, 2012: Sen. Roy Herron called and said he had planned to attend the conference but decided against it due to a family emergency.

Six Tennessee legislators leaving the General Assembly this year are expected in Chicago this week on what could amount to a taxpayer-funded junket.

Four retiring legislators and two state reps who lost their bids for re-election in last week’s primary have given the state notice they plan to get reimbursed for attending the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in the Windy City that began Monday, a trip that could cost as much as than $2,500 in registration, airfare, hotel stay, per diem and cab rides.

They are Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

One of the General Assembly’s highest-ranking Republicans says he trusts that the departing lawmakers have good reasons behind their decisions to make the trip.

“I know it will be beneficial to the others who attend to get the benefit of their wisdom and their years of service,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “I think discretion is the better part of valor with these things, and obviously they’ve exercised their discretion and think it’s fine to go. I’m not passing judgment on it.”

Legislators are permitted to let taxpayers foot the bill for out-of-state legislative trips, complete with a per diem, travel and lodging expenses. Even outgoing lawmakers are entitled, said Connie Ridley, director of Tennessee’s office of Legislative Affairs.

“Members of the General Assembly serve as a legislator until the general election in November,” Ridley said in an email. “They are no longer eligible for compensation of any form the evening before the November general election.”

Richardson says she may have lost her primary election, but she still has legislative responsibilities to handle at the conference.

“I signed up because I am one of the representatives, there’s just a couple of us, who represent Tennessee on the Health Committee,” she said. “These are working committees where we share what we’ve done, and find out what other states have done and make policy recommendations for states. So, because I represent Tennessee on the health committee, I still need to come to the meeting.”

Attempts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.

A handful of retiring lawmakers are also on the trip, including Naifeh and Faulk, according to their offices. Herron and Harmon’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Legislators can collect a $173 per diem each of the four days of the conference, for $692 total. Registration to the NCSL event ranges from $549 to $690, depending on when lawmakers registered for the conference online. Guests were encouraged to reserve rooms in downtown Chicago with rates ranging from $199 to $227 a night if locked in prior to Aug. 1. Lawmakers can also be reimbursed for airfare, which runs about $300 roundtrip, and cab rides, which average between $25 to $42 from the airport to the convention site.

If lawmakers decide against splitting hotels and cab fare, the cost to taxpayers could approach almost $2,500 for the four-day, three-night trip.

But no money has left the taxpayers’ pocket yet, Ridley said. Lawmakers will have to submit receipts to have their travel expenses paid for once they return, although the conference’s registration will be billed directly to the state.

While the practice is legal and learning how other state legislatures are tackling difficult policy issues is valuable, sending outgoing lawmakers on an out-of-town trip is still “questionable,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a government accountability advocacy group.

“I have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of those going who will not be coming back, whether by the election or their own choice,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to do something in public life, they could make good public use of that.”

Here are the other 22 lawmakers slated to attend, according to the office of Legislative Administration:

House of Representatives

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory

Senate

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville

Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis

Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis

Sen. Steve Sutherland, R-Morristown

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

Committee Pushes Back on Voter ID

A slow day on the Hill ended with a late surprise, as a bill to repeal the state’s new voter ID law passed the House State and Local Government Subcommittee.

The measure, HB2176, brought by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, passed by a vote of 5-3, with Reps. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, and Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, voting aye with the Democrats. Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, was absent. Even with his vote, though, Republicans would have had to call in the speaker or speaker pro tempore, as they did earlier in the day, to even up the tally.

“People have to show up and vote, and plus we didn’t have the votes, anyway,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick. “I think Rep. Williams has consistently said he wasn’t for voter ID, and I think Chairman (Bob) Ramsey has been consistent in his opposition to it, too. If we’d had [everyone here] we could have stopped it.”

Still, the Chattanooga Republican wasn’t too concerned about the bill going forward.

“I just think the majority of our members think we did the right thing last year, and I think they’ll back us up,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to take care of it in full committee, if everyone shows up.”

Naturally, Turner was more optimistic after the unexpected initial victory.

“It’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “There’s people, I think, on both sides of the aisle that are concerned about this, and I hope we fix it. We didn’t need to do it in the first place. I hope it doesn’t become a partisan thing. I just hope we fix this thing.”

The state’s coordinator of elections, Mark Goins, immediately tried to quell the stir outside the committee meeting room. He expressed concern that news of the subcommittee vote would harm the state’s “education efforts.”

“It’s still the law until it’s not the law,” he said. “I want to make sure everyone understands that they still have to have a photo ID in November, until the Legislature says otherwise. That’s what I’m concerned about right now.

“This just passed the subcommittee. For it to be repealed, it has a long way to go, and I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Rep. Bob Ramsey Replaces Rep. Todd As Committee Chairman

Press Release from Speaker Beth Harwell; Nov. 14, 2011:

Harwell appoints Rep. Bob Ramsey as Chair of House State and Local Government Committee

(November 14, 2011, NASHVILLE) – House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) today announced the appointment of Representative Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville) as Chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee. Ramsey previously served as Vice-Chairman of the committee.

“Bob Ramsey will do an excellent job as Chairman of the State and Local Government Committee,” said Speaker Harwell. “His past experience as Chairman of the Blount County Commission will benefit the committee tremendously, and I look forward to working closely with him next year.”

Speaker Harwell also announced the appointment of Representative Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville) as Vice-Chairman of the full committee, meaning that he will serve as Chairman of the State and Local Government Subcommittee.

“Rep. Haynes will be an asset to Chairman Ramsey as Vice-Chairman of the full committee, and Chairman of the Subcommittee,” said Harwell. “Rep. Ramsey and Rep. Haynes have both the skills and passion to guide the committees through the remainder of the 107th General Assembly,” Speaker Harwell stated.

The House State and Local Government Committee is often referred complex legislation addressing such matters as local and municipal affairs, powers to tax and raise revenue, local ordinances, local government employees, local government expenditures, and election laws.

House Approves Collective Bargaining Limitations

The Tennessee House and Senate have approved competing plans overhauling the state’s collective bargaining laws.

But both chambers’ leaders believe they’ll ultimately end up banning unions from negotiating teachers’ labor contracts once everything is said and done.

“I think the vote today indicated that we can get it passed if it’s reasonably drawn and reasonably written. I think we have the opportunity to pass it here,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters after she presided over a grueling four-hour debate on her chamber’s floor.

On a 59-39 vote, majority Republicans moved to scale back teachers’ collective bargaining powers.

Opponents included all the House Democrats, one independent and five Republicans. They pitched more than two dozen alternatives to weaken or derail the bill, but only a few tinkering with technicalities passed — the rest were either tabled or later withdrawn.

One opponent to SB113/HB13o, Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland, wheeled out an easel and poster boards to help illustrate what he thinks collective bargaining has accomplished to aide teachers beyond helping them get better contracts. The system has allowed them to pressure school boards into purchasing additional “instructional supplies” and other educational materials for their classrooms, he said.

A band of Republicans railed against the bill, too. The GOP caucus members who voted against SB113/HB130 included Reps. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Mike Harrison of Rogersville, Dennis “Coach Roach of Rutledge, Dale Ford of Jonesborough and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Independent Kent Williams also voted against the anti-collective bargaining legislation. The former state House speaker from Elizabethton hinted during the floor debate that the bill was no more than “political payback” because the Tennessee Education Association gives dramatically more money in campaign contributions to the Democratic Party than they do the GOP.

Republicans maintained that their efforts were solely about improving education in Tennessee, and that ultimately everyone — teachers, students and taxpayers — would benefit from loosening the union’s grip on policy and personnel discussions.

GOP lawmakers said they believe the TEA has become a force of obstructionism in education reform discussions over the years, and that the process of collective bargaining between a school board and a single employee organization to the exclusion of all others thwarts input and exchange of new ideas.

“We have allowed a professional organization to hijack education in our state for their own agenda,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican.

Far from being an “attack on teachers,” as opponents of the legislation have painted GOP efforts for months this session, SB113/HB130 represents “the most empowering legislation I’ve seen in a long time for teachers,”said Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

Eliminating collective bargaining and allowing school boards to consider other viewpoints and voices when drafting new contracts for education professionals “will help (teachers) succeed,” said Lundberg.

Under the House proposal, teachers unions would no longer be able to negotiate salaries, merit pay, use of grant funding, teacher evaluations, personnel decisions along with policies relating to special education programs like virtual school districts.

Unions would, however, still be able to hammer out issues like benefits and staffing decisions.

Powerful Senate Republicans though have said all along they will accept nothing less than a complete repeal of the 1978 Education Professionals Negotiations Act, which mandates that school districts negotiate with a recognized teachers union.

Not only would the Senate prefer no mandate to collective bargaining, but they’d rather teachers and unions “collaborate” with school districts on issues they want to debate on — but ultimately leave those policy decisions entirely up to the school board.

The rest, they say, they’re happy to compromise on.

So what happens now?

The two chambers will likely play a short game of legislative ping-pong where the Senate rejects the House version of the collective bargaining overhaul then the House turns down the Senate version.

Then speakers from both chambers will name three lawmakers to represent the chamber in a conference committee, essentially a compromise group meant to hash out the differences between the two bills.

Harwell said she’d consider naming Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, bill sponsor Debra Maggart of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville to the committee. Although she will make the committee assignments later in the week, it’s unclear whether she’ll swap any of those members for a Democrat as conference committees traditionally included a member of the minority party.