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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

ECD Drafting ‘Clawback’ Clauses for Subsidy Agreements

A state agency that doles out millions in taxpayer dollars to businesses promising to make work for struggling Tennesseans is formulating procedures to take money back from companies that don’t deliver the good jobs.

The Department of Economic and Community Development is working out details of a “clawback” provision it plans to insert into FastTrack grant agreements, according to the agency’s communications director, Clint Brewer.

“It’s not the issue that businesses haven’t done what they said they’re going to do. The issue is we want to be following the best practices we can,” said Brewer, assistant ECD commissioner. “To do that, we have to be the best stewards of public money we can be.”

Most ECD contracts currently don’t include a clawback provision, said Brewer. The lack of such recourse was at one time a particularly frustrating state of affairs to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican. Ramsey criticized the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen for making deals like $101 million in handouts to Electrolux for hinting at the creation of 1,250 jobs, even though the formal arrangement explicitly disallowed state officials from trying to recoup taxpayer resources if the company failed to produce.

Brewer said the department is now “on the brink of beginning to use that language in a new standard FastTrack contract,” but wouldn’t say specifically when the agency would start.

“It has taken us the better part of the last 18 months – obviously with a lot of other things going on – to work through the process of determining what legal precedent and black letter law would allow,” he said.

Making businesses promise to give taxpayers back some of their money should not only be required, but be publicly disclosed, said Dick Williams, with Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a pro-income tax coalition of progressive activists and public-sector union groups.

“If something doesn’t work out, then the taxpayers ought to get back some, if not all, of the money they gave them,” Williams said. “Certainly, we shouldn’t assume they’ll all be successful.”

This year, lawmakers agreed to more than double the FastTrack program to $80 million. Since 2006, the state has allotted an average of $38.5 million in tax dollars annually to the FastTrack program.

The program offers businesses grants or loans for expenses like job training, infrastructure improvement, equipment, and temporary office space related to relocation or expansion. The taxpayer money is funneled through local governments or their economic development branches to issue to companies.

Changing how grant contracts are written is one of a handful of changes economic development officials are talking about making this year.

Last week, the department loaded agency statistics and records online in an attempt to increase accessibility to government documents, with plans to add a searchable database and other features by the time legislators are back on Capitol Hill next year.

The new “Open ECD” website lists business and incentives information for state-issued FastTrack grants, tax incentives, TNInvestco projects and community block grants — and how many jobs the money has reportedly created.

None of the information is new, says Brewer, but it’s now accessible without having to file open records requests to look at them, “so you can see on the back end how those jobs have stood up.”

Open government advocates generally applaud the effort to make information easier for the public to get to, but warn that the website shouldn’t be a substitute for agencies filling specific open records requests.

“That’s commendable as long as that does not become a substitute for normal, routine public records requests,” said Frank Gibson, director of public policy for the Tennessee Press Association.

“My big concern about them is at some point (when) you make a public records request, they’ll say it’s on their website. But is all the information you’re asking about on their website?” he said.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Kent Flanagan calls the site “a great starting point,” but says he’s waiting to see how good the department is at updating people who sign up for alerts when ECD documents are posted.

“It’s not about what happened three months ago. It’s about what happened this morning,” he said.

Governor Wants Standardized State-Agency Open-Records Request Processes, Policies

Gov. Bill Haslam has said there are instances when groups or individuals make sweeping public-records requests that aren’t entirely legitimate.

When it happens, government staff-time and taxpayer resources can be wasted trying to fulfill seemingly gratuitous demands — and it’s a problem the governor says his administration is setting out to address this year.

“It is the public’s right to know, and that’s been firmly established,” Haslam told reporters Monday after speaking at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association in Nashville. “On the other hand, just blanket fishing expeditions that cost the taxpayers’ money, it still takes people’s time and work to go get those. I think there needs to be a way for how we decide what’s legitimate and what’s not there.”

Agencies across state government have varying methods for handling requests for public documents, but that, too, is going to change this year, Haslam said.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is make sure we’re being consistent across state government because we have not been, and every department’s been handling that different,” he said.

Haslam first floated his plan to revise the policy during the Tennessee Press Association’s annual conference in Nashville last month. The Republican governor said there needs to be balance between facilitating the public’s right to know and putting the brakes on unfocused requests for mounds of documents that are costly for public agencies to produce.

When he was running for re-election as mayor, Haslam told the group, the City of Knoxville was inundated with open-ended open-records requests from political operatives trolling for intelligence they could use against him. However, the changes Haslam is currently advocating would apply only to state agencies. Haslam also said during the TPA conference that he thinks journalists nowadays turn to public document requests much sooner in their reporting than they did a decade ago.

The governor’s office has so far met once with representatives of stakeholder interests, including the press association, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Associated Press about how they’d like to see the policy crafted. Additional meetings are expected in the coming weeks and months.

Kent Flanagan, TCOG’s executive director, said that as a matter of general principle “any information request” submitted to a government agency “should be regarded as legitimate.”

Flanagan added, though, that he is so far satisfied with talks with the governor’s staff about establishing uniformity among agencies responding to records requests. He added, “If it seems too broad, (state officials) have a right to tell us, ‘Hey, that’s too broad. Can you narrow that down?’”

“We want to make sure that any such situation is addressed in a manner that doesn’t hurt the agency or hurt the requester,” Flanagan continued.

Other government observers are a little more worried.

“I have a concern that he’s tending to come from a business point of view and would be more inclined to closing records than I would be comfortable with,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a left-leaning nonprofit advocacy group.

Some issues are dicey to make public, Williams admits, like luring businesses to release more insider information in order to help the state gain a better understanding of a business it wants to give taxpayer dollars to, such as the governor is proposing this year.

But entitling government employees to themselves pass judgement on what constitutes a “legitimate” request for public information is problematic, he said.

“A fishing expedition just to be fishing, or to tie somebody up, is not appropriate,” said Williams. “On the other hand, if there’s a suspicion that there’s a dead fish there, maybe you need to go on a fishing expedition.”

The state’s Open Records Act outlines that “all state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours … be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state.”

Since taking office last year the governor’s office has gotten on average fewer than two records requests per month, according to an accounting requested by TNReport of all the open-records requests submitted to the administration.

His office has handled some 25 official queries for public records since his 2011 inauguration, the state reported.

Five of the requests sought details about what went into decisions to arrest Occupy Nashville protesters shortly after their October arrests.

Three requests looked for documents from the Department of Economic and Community Development, which issues tax breaks and incentives to businesses, and another three looked for information from the Department of Safety and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Other requests ranged from information about prisons and death row inmates to the list of people scrubbed from the governor’s daily news digest.

All but two requests came from people representing news outlets.

This week marks Sunshine Week, an annual recognition of the importance of open government.