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School-Voucher Bill Moving Forward in Legislature

The debate on school choice is underway in Tennessee Legislature and one measure, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, is working its way forward.

Last week the Senate Education Committee approved the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, on a vote of 8-0.

Senate Bill 999 would provide scholarships for private-school tuition to low-income students in the state’s worst-performing public schools.

The total number of vouchers the state would award would gradually increase from 5,000 available scholarships in the 2015-16 school year to a peak of 20,000 from the 2018-19 school year forward. The fiscal note on the legislation indicates a cost of $125,000 for the Department of Education to implement the policy.

The House companion legislation — HB1049 — sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, also easily cleared the House Education Planning & Administration subcommittee last week on a vote of 7-1, though not without debate.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat who is also a teacher, said the “gains and strides” made in education the last few years would be endangered by potentially removing $70 million from local school district. Dunlap said he’s “very, very concerned about the future of public education” as a result.

Rep. Dunn said critics of school vouchers, like Dunlap, appear more interested in protecting the status quo and putting “the emphasis on the system” rather than focusing on academic achievement outcomes.

“I’d like to put emphasis on the student,” said Dunn.

The Tennessee Education Association, many local school officials across the state and most Democrats in the Legislature have steadfastly opposed enabling parents to spend public monies on private education for their children.

“You’re taking away funding from an already underfunded school and putting it in vouchers. I don’t think it’s productive for public schools or private schools,”said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the Memphis Daily News in February.

A February 2013 MTSU Poll found that while 46 percent of Tennesseans oppose vouchers, 40 percent favor the idea and 12 percent were undecided at the time.

Dunn’s legislation is scheduled to be heard in full Committee next Tuesday. Gardenhire’s Senate bill is assigned to the Finance Committee, but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Another school choice proposal, sponsored by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not received as warm a welcome.

Both Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey have said that Kelsey’s legislation is unlikely to be funded, even if it passes the Legislature.

Haslam told reporters during a press conference last week that Gardenhire’s proposal was in line with what he’s indicated the administration would be willing to fund, and as such, he intends to fund that legislation rather than Kelsey’s more expansive plan.

While both Kelsey and Haslam are supporters of vouchers, they have clashed over the scope of such legislation in the past. In 2013, Ramsey pointed the finger at Kelsey as to why the voucher bill failed in the Senate. Kelsey had indicated earlier that year that he wanted to amend Haslam’s proposal to extend it to more Tennessee students.

TN Senate Dems Criticize Haslam, Lawmakers for Opposition to FCC Municipal Broadband Ruling

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; March 3, 2015:

Consumers want choices, not government obstruction to limit Internet options

NASHVILLE – Tennessee lawmakers should embrace competition when it comes to broadband services, not work to limit consumer choice, Democratic leaders said.

“Anyone who has spent hours on the phone with a service provider to dispute a bill or get proper services knows consumers need more choices when it comes to Internet service,” Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said. “It is disturbing to see lawmakers act so quickly to limit consumer choice when Tennesseans are demanding more.”

Last week the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Chattanooga’s EPB could provide lightning-speed Internet outside the municipal power distributor’s service area. The move would mean new options for consumers in the Chattanooga area and increased broadband speeds, which are a critical tool for economic development outside of major cities.

However, the governor, the attorney general and other lawmakers have stood in opposition to consumer choice, even considering a lawsuit against the federal government at great cost to the taxpayer.

“Communities like mine in rural West Tennessee don’t care so much about these technicalities,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “They care less about service areas and more about having access to fast, reliable Internet. If a provider wants to bring that to my constituents, I don’t think I want the state to get in the way.”

The decision whether to sue the FCC on this issue will be a true test of the attorney general’s independence.

“With the FCC ruling, consumers consider this matter settled,” Sen. Harris said. “No one wants to see our attorney general give in to demands from lawmakers who want to play politics rather than do what’s best for consumers and our economy.”

Responses to Gov. Haslam’s State of the State Address

Press release from Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; February 9, 2015:

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) made the statement below following Governor Bill Haslam’s State of the State address:

“Governor Haslam has delivered yet another outstanding State of the State address setting an agenda that will continue to make Tennessee the best state in the union to live, work and raise a family. Four years of conservative governance has brought Tennesseans more jobs, lower taxes and smaller and more efficient government. We have accomplished much together in the past four years, but there is still much left to do. I particularly appreciate Governor Haslam’s continued focus on education reform building upon Tennessee’s strong record of improvement. I look forward to working with Governor Haslam as we reward good teachers and lift our expectations up to a true Tennessee standard that challenges and prepares students for the high quality jobs of the future.”

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; February 9, 2015:

Sen. Yarbro confident Insure Tennessee will be reintroduced

NASHVILLE – Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus released the following statements in response to Gov. Bill Haslam’s state of the state address:

“Making health care affordable for everyone is the most important issue facing our state,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro said. “We need the governor and common sense legislators of both parties to come together around a plan. I am confident that Insure Tennessee will be reintroduced during this session.”

“Our state is making extraordinary gains in education, and I would be very troubled to see that progress stop over one party’s partisan political objections,” Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said. “We need to continue to support the highest standards for our students and keep up the progress we’ve made.”

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; February 9, 2015:

Looks for more middle-class outward approach

Nashville, TN: House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) issued the following statement following Governor Haslam’s State of the State speech:

“Though I am pleased to hear our teachers are finally getting the raise they were promised last year, I didn’t hear much about helping the working people of our state just a week after this body denied them health care. We’re still not talking about paid family leave, overtime compensation, and parental involvement in schools. Democrats think we need a more middle-class outward approach and that’s what you’ll see from us over the next few weeks.”

 

Fitzhugh Accuses GOP of Getting ‘Cold Feet’ on Insure Tennessee

Press release from Tennessee House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley; February 4, 2015:

Nashville, TN: House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh issued the following statement after the failure of Insure Tennessee:

“When 280,000 Tennesseans are just hours away from getting insurance, Republicans get cold feet and walk away. This is an insult to Governor Haslam, a betrayal of our constituents and proves that Republicans are totally incapable of governing. In my 21 years of service, I cannot recall being more disappointed than I am today.

I hope no Republican has the audacity to file for per diem, because they wasted three days looking for an excuse to vote against Insure Tennessee. For my part, I will return all mine later this week. Going forward I hope the Governor calls us back into special session again and again until we get this right. This isn’t over.”

Fitzhugh Calls on General Assembly to Pass Insure TN

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; February 4, 2015:

Fitzhugh Statement on Billion Dollars Lost
Time for General Assembly to pass Insure Tennessee

Nashville, TN: House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) issued the following statement marking the 400th day without a solution for those in the Medicaid gap, as well as the $1 billon mark for funds lost:

“Today is a sad anniversary for Tennessee as we mark the 400th day with no solution for those in the Medicaid gap. As of this morning, our tax payers have lost $1 billion—that’s billion with a ‘B’—to other states, while 800 totally preventable deaths have occurred because working people could not afford coverage. When a solution is so close, delaying passage any further is a moral crisis of the first degree. There are 280,000 working people waiting for the General Assembly to make the right decision. It’s time to act now and pass Insure Tennessee.”

Fitzhugh: ‘Overwhelming Majority’ of House Democrats Support Haslam’s Medicaid Expansion

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; January 30, 2015:

Overwhelming number of House Democrats prepared to support plan

Nashville, TN: House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh issued the following statement on Insure Tennessee after meeting with his caucus members late Thursday afternoon:

“For the last two-years, House Democrats have fought hard to extend health care coverage to the 330,000 Tennesseans who fall in the Medicaid gap. These are able-bodied, working men and women who make too little to qualify for a subsidy on the federal exchange, but earn too much for our traditional Medicaid program.

After 349 days and $872,500,000 lost, Governor Haslam put forward Insure Tennessee as a conservative counter-proposal to traditional Medicaid expansion. Churches and hospitals, business leaders and community activists, chambers of commerce & workers organizations have all expressed their support for this plan.

Insure Tennessee is not traditional Medicaid expansion. This approach is much less generous in terms of coverage and benefits than House Democrats would prefer, but we understand the numbers. While members of both parties still have concerns, we feel strongly that they can be alleviated by giving this legislation a full and fair hearing. Whatever political differences may exist, we can all agree that the lives of the 200,000 Tennesseans this plan covers far outweigh any objection raised by special interest groups.

After studying this waiver, listening to our constituents and meeting together on Thursday, the overwhelming majority of House Democrats are prepared to support the Insure Tennessee plan. It is not perfect; our members have many questions, but the time has come for Tennessee to address this issue once and for all.

Next week our state will mark a sad anniversary as we pass the $1 billion lost mark; the lives lost tell an even greater story of our moral failure to protect the least among us. It is our hope that all members will put aside politics and answer instead to a higher power. That is our prayer and the goal toward which we will work—together with Republicans—over the next week.”

Fitzhugh Celebrates Fall with New Call for Medicaid Expansion

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; September 23, 2014:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (September 23, 2014) – House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh is celebrating the beginning of fall as a countdown to the release of Governor Haslam’s long-awaited “Tennessee Plan” to expand Medicaid.

To mark the start of the season, Leader Fitzhugh has released a video asking Governor Haslam to make good on his pledge. Transcript to follow:

“Hi, I’m House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

“Today marks the beginning of fall. This is the time of year that I look forward to cooler weather, changing leaves and UT Football.

“This year, I’m also looking forward to Governor Haslam’s “Tennessee Plan” for expanding Medicaid. A few weeks back, the Governor promised to submit a plan this fall.

“Well, Governor, fall starts today and the countdown for Medicaid expansion begins anew. I hope the Governor makes good on his promise. Meanwhile, we’ll be back throughout the coming weeks with updates about how the Governor’s dithering affects you, the tax payer.

“Again, I’m House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. Fall is here and—I truly hope—we can soon say the same thing about the Governor’s Tennessee Plan. Thanks.”

In August, Governor Haslam told reporters that he would probably go to the Department of Health and Human Services with a plan this fall that “makes sense for Tennessee.” Over the past year, House Democrats have implored Governor Haslam to follow the lead of Republican Governors like John Kasich of Ohio and Jan Brewer of Arizona who have put the residents of their state first by accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid.

It has been 545 days since Governor Haslam announced to a joint convention of legislators that he would seek a “Tennessee Plan” to expand Medicaid, and 266 since Tennessee began losing $2.5 million a day in federal funds, costing taxpayers $665,000,000 in lost revenue.

Slatery a ‘Wonderful Choice’ to Replace Cooper: Bredesen

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, said he’d have preferred that the five members of Tennessee’s Supreme Court, composed of two Republicans and three Democrats, award Robert E. Cooper with another eight-year term as attorney general.

But Bredesen said the court wasn’t in a position to allow Cooper to continue serving as the state’s most influential government attorney. “I had hoped that he would be able to stay. As a practical matter, that was almost impossible with the changes that have taken place in the governor’s office and so forth,” Bredesen said following an event in Knoxville to promote Amendment 2.

“I am sorry Bob didn’t stay. But if he were not going to stay, this is a wonderful choice to replace him,” Bredesen said of the court’s selection of Herb Slatery, Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief legal advisor since 2011.

Cooper served as the Bredesen administration’s legal counsel from 2003-2006 and was campaign treasurer on Bredesen’s first gubernatorial run in 2002.

Bredesen’s comments indicated he isn’t inclined, at least publicly, to share in criticisms expressed by other prominent Tennessee Democrats, like House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, alleging that the Supreme Court succumbed to partisan political pressure in selecting Slatery.

Fitzhugh issued a statement Monday charging that the court had “capitulated” to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and “the very special interest groups” that unsuccessfully campaigned this summer to replace the three Democratic justices initially appointed by Bredesen.

Herron’s statement said, “It appears to many that General Cooper’s party affiliation was used against him.”

Slatery won appointment over a field of seven other applicants, among them Cooper, Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts Director Bill Young, Republican state Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville, former solicitor general Mark Fulks, Eugene N. Bulso, Jr, a Nashville business lawyer, Andrew Tillman, a former chancery court judge from the Upper Cumberland region, and Nashville attorney William Helou.

Ramsey issued a statement Monday hailing the court’s decision to appoint a Republican attorney general, who he predicted “will be a strong advocate for the people of Tennessee and a vigilant defender of Tennessee’s conservative reforms.”

The lieutenant governor had in fact indicated in comments to the media last week that “Bill Young may be handicapped somewhat because he at least has the impression that he’s Ron Ramsey’s candidate.” On Monday, Ramsey revealed he had met earlier with Chief Justice Sharon Lee and Justice Gary Wade “to bury the hatchet” with respect to the retention campaign fight, and also to lobby for “a more conservative AG.”

Cooper is in the processes of transitioning out of the attorney general’s office, a space he’s occupied since 2006.

Following a swearing-in ceremony for Chief Justice Lee in Knoxville Wednesday, Slatery told TNReport he’s in the process of preparing to move into his new role as attorney general. But he said a date hasn’t yet formally been set for when he will officially take over. “We’re are trying to figure that out right now. There is a transition and we want to be sure we leave my office (as the governor’s lawyer) in real good shape,” he said, adding that Cooper “continues to hold the office until the successor comes on.”

Regarding the allegations by Herron and Fitzhugh that the Supreme Court felt pressured to pick a Republican, Slatery said, “I am not going to be partisan, and they know that,” he said.

With respect to the court’s decision-making, Slatery said, “I don’t think it was a real political process.”

Justice Bivins Calls for ‘Yes on 2’ at TN Farm Bureau Federation Conference

Press release from the Vote Yes on 2 Campaign; August 22, 2014:

Nashville, Tenn. – Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeff Bivins, speaking at the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation Annual Presidents Conference on August 14, urged those in attendance to Vote YES on 2 when they go to polls this fall. The Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation is also urging the passage of Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 keeps the best parts of our current system by continuing to trust the Governor to appoint the most qualified persons as appellate judges, while adding a new layer of accountability by having our elected representatives in the legislature confirm or reject the Governor’s appointees. Most importantly, Amendment 2 protects the right of Tennesseans to vote to keep or fire the judges at the end of their respective terms.

Justice Bivins said Amendment 2 brings important new clarity and accountability to the process of selecting Tennessee’s Supreme Court and appellate court judges. But he warned that failure to pass Amendment 2 could open the door to costly statewide judicial races, full of negative advertising largely funded by out of state special interests.

“You got a taste in these past weeks with the negative advertisements and the mailers.” Justice Bivins said. “But you saw only the tip of the iceberg of what can happen.”

“Our Farm Bureau policy supports an independent and qualified judiciary,” said Lacy Upchurch, President of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. “Our grassroots members have directed us to work to ensure partisan politics and campaign fundraising do not influence the selection and retention of judges. We support the Yes on 2 efforts and believe passage will provide a judicial system of which we can all be proud.”

Amendment 2 enjoys strong support from a diverse and bipartisan group of top leaders from across the state, including Governor Bill Haslam, former Governor Phil Bredesen, former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, former Governor Winfield Dunn, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, Speaker Beth Harwell, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, large majorities in the State House and Senate, and many more.

Amendment 2 has also been endorsed by other leading organizations including the Tennessee Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, Fraternal Order of Police, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Election Day is November 4, 2014, and early voting on the constitutional amendments begins October 15, 2014. For more information, visit VoteYes2.org.

Ball Announces 2014 Campaign Team

Press release from the Campaign for Gordon Ball for U.S. Senate; August 21, 2014:

U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Gordon Ball announced Wednesday the 2014 Election Campaign Team to lead the way in challenging career politician Sen. Lamar Alexander in the General Election.

The campaign election team will be headed by democratic leaders from across the state of Tennessee. Former U.S. Congressional Representative for the 4th District Lincoln Davis. He will lead a team comprising chairs representing the three grand division including former U.S. Senate democrat candidate Terry Adams and 15th District Representative Joe E. Armstrong for the Eastern Division. Nashville Businessman Bill Freeman and Nashville Metro Council Member-At-Large Jerry Maynard will be co-chairs in Middle Tennessee working with the Gordon Ball for Senate campaign. West Tennessee will be headed by co-chairs Minority House Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh and TN Democratic Party Secretary and member of the DNC, Gale Jones Carson.

“Tennesseans are facing issues which need to be addressed because our state’s families, students and seniors are struggling..” Ball said. “Our campaign team is ready to bring tennessee common sense, compassion and leadership to solve the problems that our state is facing. We believe that we help our neighbors, we don’t abandon them because it is inconvenient or will interfere with political special interest groups dictating an agenda from DC that doesn’t help average people . We must push the discussion for a higher minimum wage, keeping our hospitals open by accepting Medicaid Expansion and taking care of our veterans.

“I am humbled to have these amazing state-wide leaders willing to stand with me as we work toward the next generation. None of us are taking anything for granted. We must do what is right. It isn’t going to be easy. We know this but we aren’t afraid. We won’t back down,” Ball added. “There is so much we can do together and we all are ready to get to work.”

For more information, visit www.gordonballsenate.com