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AG Issues Opinion on Kyle Senate Seat Vacancy

Tennessee’s top lawyer has waded into the issue of how to pick nominees for November’s general election to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Kyle.

Unless the executive committee members are selected at large, the candidates for Senate are to be “nominated by the members of the party’s county executive committee who represent the precincts composing Senate District 30,” according to Attorney General Bob Cooper’s opinion. The Shelby County Democratic Party’s website says that county executive committee members are “elected from each state House District in Shelby County.”

The executive committee for the county’s Republican Party has members elected both at-large and by district, according to the Shelby County GOP.

The AG released the opinion Thursday morning in response to a request from Kyle, who won a Shelby County Chancery Court judgeship on August 7, and is leaving the General Assembly after 31 years in the Senate. Kyle has said he’ll resign by the end of August.

Kyle was joined in making the inquiry to Cooper’s office by Memphis Democratic Reps. Antonio Parkinson and G.A. Hardaway, who, along with Kyle’s wife, Sara, and former state Sen. Beverly Marrero, have shown interest in filling Kyle’s chair.

On the Republican side, former U.S. Senate candidate and Memphis millionaire radio station owner Dr. George Flinn has indicated he’s considering a run. Barring a significant upset, though, the seat is expected to stay in Democratic hands.

According to the attorney general’s opinion, any House member currently running for reelection who has won their primary, but also wishes to run for the Senate vacancy, must withdraw from the House race before the party’s executive committee meets to make their selection. However, Cooper also wrote that if the candidate withdraws from that race, the party won’t be allowed to nominate another candidate.

The opinion was sought amidst some confusion about whether or not the caucus process the county party officials wanted to use would meet statutory requirements.

While he had not yet read the opinion Thursday afternoon, the spokesman for the Tennessee Department of State, Blake Fontenay, said the Division of Elections would “defer” to the the decision of the state’s attorney, and “would act consistently with their ruling.”

Kyle Seeks AG Opinion on Filling His Senate Vacancy

The Shelby County Democratic Party is preparing to select a nominee to fill the vacancy Memphis Sen. Jim Kyle’s departure from the state Legislature will create. But the outgoing upper-chamber minority leader has concerns about how that process will unfold.

On Friday, Kyle, who is retiring after 31 years in the Senate, requested that the state attorney general issue an opinion that sorts out the legal issues surrounding how to select a nominee to run as his replacement to the General Assembly.

Kyle’s request comes on the heels of Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, a former state senator, telling local party officials that there was confusion about the local caucus process they’ve indicated they will employ to select the nominee. Herron has concerns about the timing of the caucus, who can vote at the caucus, whether the decision would be made by a majority or plurality of votes and whether it would be a public roll-call vote or by secret ballot, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Kyle won a Shelby County judgeship on Aug. 7. and will resign from the Legislature after he’s sworn-in on Aug. 29. However, state law doesn’t provide for a government-run open primary when the timing of a vacancy in the Senate occurs so close to voters going to the polls in November. Instead, officials from the county parties are authorized to choose nominees for the general election ballot.

Democrats such as Sara Kyle, Sen. Kyle’s wife, and former state Sen. Beverly Marrero, who Kyle defeated in the 2012 primary, have expressed interest in the seat. Additionally, current Shelby County Tennessee House members Antonio “2-Shay” Parkinson and G.A. Hardaway, may also be looking to move to the General Assembly’s upper chamber.

Following the GOP-led redistricting in 2011, Marrero and Kyle found themselves opponents in the 2012 Democratic primary. After her primary loss, Marrero told TNReport that she felt “betrayed” by Kyle’s request to Republicans that he be drawn into a race against her instead of State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Youth Head-Injury Bill Clears Legislature

Legislation that would establish guidelines for addressing concussion injuries among young Tennessee organized-sports participants has cleared the General Assembly and is headed to the governor’s desk. 

Senate Bill 882 was substituted for HB867 in House Thursday. The measure passed in both chambers by overwhelming majorities – 90-3 in the House, 30-0 last month in the Senate.

“What this does is protect youth who are injured in sports with concussions,” Rep. Cameron Sexton, sponsor of the House bill, told the lower chamber Thursday. “Unfortunately, right now, there’s a lot of people in the United States and in Tennessee who do not know what a concussion looks like.”

The Crossville Republican said the bill would require any youth athletic program to establish concussion policies that include what information is given to all parties, as well as how to evaluate athletes suspected of suffering from such injuries.

The bill covers public or private elementary, middle and high schools, as well as “any city, county, business or non-profit organization that organizes a community-based youth athletic activity for which an activity fee is charged.”

“TSSAA [Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association] has had this policy in effect for the last three years,” Sexton said. “We’re just mirroring their policy for all youth sports in the state of Tennessee.”

In addition, all coaches, whether employed or volunteer, as well as school athletic directors and directors of community-based youth athletic programs would be required to complete an annual safety program on recognizing concussions and head injuries.

Sexton said the Tennessee Department of Health will develop the Internet-based course that will be free for users. It will include a “concussion signs and symptoms checklist” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If Gov. Bill Haslam signs the legislation into law, Tennessee would join 42 other states and the District of Columbia in having such provisions on the books, which received praise only from the Democrats’ side of the aisle.

Democratic House Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Shipley joined Rep. Dennis Powell of Nashville and Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis in commending the sponsor for bringing the bill.

Fitzhugh praised “a good bipartisan effort,” while Powell, who noted that he “suffered several concussions” while playing high school and college football, said he wished the law had been in place then.

Hardaway added that from his experience in coaching four youth sports, “there are instances where ignorance is a dangerous thing, especially in an authority figure that’s exercising the control over our children.”

However, others cautioned that legislating such policies is not necessarily a good thing.

Republican Rep. Mark Pody told the sponsor that while it’s a good bill, “I always have to ponder why we’re continuing to tell the locals what they have to do.”

The Lebanon representative, along with fellow Republicans Rep. David Alexander of Winchester and Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden, voted against the bill.

“I think there’s good merit for the bill,” Holt told TNReport.com after the session. “But I think the bill did dabble into a little bit too much of a mandating sense. We can’t mandate everything about every potential liability that’s out there.

“I think that parents are smart enough. I think coaches and trainers are smart enough, and well positioned in addressing these issues without us having to file a piece of legislation that mandates it.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Drug Testing Bills Still Floating Around Statehouse

Lawmakers who want to drug-test their peers are slowly flushing those plans down the toilet as they struggle to fight high costs for their plans.

Meanwhile, a lawmaker who wants citizens on the state benefits rolls to provide a urine sample before collecting government handouts says he’ll be ready to pitch his bill soon.

“We have limited tax dollars and we want the dollars that we do have to go to people so they can do everything they can to get off the benefits,” said Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.

Campfield expects to push SB2580 next week mandating drug tests for those collecting welfare benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, legislation he said he spend most of the summer refining.

He says he is waiting on revisions to the price tag, which he expects will translate to state government savings over time as benefits recipients test positive for drugs. The fiscal note should be available this week, he said, and he expects to bring the measure up in committee in late February or early March.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is an advocate of requiring recipients of government dollars, such as those collecting unemployment benefits and worker’s compensation, to submit to drug tests. Ramsey has also said he supports drug testing public servants and even key personnel that contract with the state.

Several Democratic lawmakers are taking Ramsey up on his word and have proposed bills requiring lawmakers and their staffs to submit to drug tests, including Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar.

But Shaw said he’ll likely delay or take his bill, HB2411, out of committee when it is up for debate Tuesday because it has a $30,000 price tag every two years.

“I’m a little bit fed up with legislators passing laws they don’t live up to themselves,” said Shaw. “I can’t deny that some people do abuse social services but I’m willing to be tested first and foremost.”

Rep. G. A. Hardaway, who also wants lawmakers to take drug tests, took HB2432 and HB2433 off notice in the House Judiciary Subcommittee earlier this month to do more research on private sector drug testing. As is, his plan would cost $11,500 to drug tests legislators every two years. To lower the costs, Hardaway said legislators should pay for their own drug tests.

Hardaway says he expects to repitch his plans to the committee as early as this week.

“I don’t care how well we test, people still probably think we’re on drugs with the bills we’re churning out,” said Hardaway, D-Memphis.

TNGOP Slams Dems Voting Against Income Tax Ban

Press Release from the Republican Party of Tennessee, Jan. 19, 2012:

Once Again, Tennessee Democrats Stand Up For A State Income Tax

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding language to ban a state income tax. SJR 221, sponsored by Representative Glen Casada, passed the Republican-controlled House by a vote of 73-17-3.

The amendment will now have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate in the next session. The amendment will then be placed on the ballot, coinciding with a gubernatorial election, to allow Tennessee voters to approve.  “I applaud our Republican leadership for moving us one step closer to solidifying the unconstitutionality of a state income tax. However, several Tennessee Democrats once again showed their liberal mindset by reinforcing their belief that government should not be restricted from  dipping into your paycheck,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

“While Tennesseans work hard to get through this economic recession, Tennessee Democrats are content with duplicating President Obama’s philosophy of raising taxes to meet reckless government spending, instead of reducing government to meet current revenue,” said Devaney.

Democrats Who Voted Against Banning a State Income Tax: Karen Camper, Barbara Cooper, Charles Curtiss, Lois Deberry, G.A. Hardaway, Bill Harmon, Mike Kernell, Larry Miller, Gary Moore, Jimmy Naifeh, Joe Pitts, Jeanne Richardson, Johnny Shaw, Mike Stewart, Harry Tindell, Joe Towns, and Johnnie Turner.

1-2-3, Go! Redistricting Maps Advance

Tweaks to the lines on redrawn Democratic districts in the state House came down to something like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

House lawmakers approved the new maps 67-25-3 Thursday. Speaker Beth Harwell said she had politely encouraged Democrats to throw some votes her party’s way for the sake of bipartisanship appearances.

“I said to (Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner), ‘If we are making these concessions for some of your members, I would appreciate votes from your caucus,’” she said.

That left the #1 and #2 Democrats to figure out who would make Harwell feel appreciated.

“I’d like to think it was a little punitive, maybe, because the discussions were pretty hot and heavy,” Turner, of Old Hickory, said. … “I thought it was worth that to save a couple of our members.”

Turner threw down rock to Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s paper in their session to make sure the speaker got at least one leadership vote from their side. Turner was one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican-drawn maps, while Fitzhugh toed the party line.

“Everybody we had that was paired, we tried to do so something about that,” said Turner, who had been one of the most vocal critics of GOP maps. “In areas where it didn’t impact their members, they decided to give us a couple of those back.”

In the final hours before the map was approved by the chamber, Republicans agreed to make these concessions to preserve incumbent advantage:

  • Separate Democrats Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart, who had been drawn into the same south Nashville district.
  • Return Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, to the district he represents now. He had been lumped into the same district as Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
  • Adjust the lines in the district represented by Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville.

Democrats pitched a handful of other amendments to the maps on the House floor, mainly attempts to make more Shelby County districts represent a greater percentage of minorities. All those attempts failed.

The maps fell “way short on minority representation,” according to Turner, although he said he wanted to talk to the Tennessee Democratic Party, the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and other “interested parties” before deciding whether to challenge the lawsuit in court.

Harwell said the Democratic votes symbolize that the map has bipartisan support.

“Bottom line is, surely it sends a clear message that a majority of the members in this General Assembly is pleased with it, and I think the people of this state will be well represented by this map,” she said. “No one can doubt that we have drawn these lines fairly, that there’s proper representation from each district.”

In the new map, sitting House members who would have to run against other legislators (unless they relocated) are situated in:

  • District 28 in Hamilton County: Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga
  • District 31 in Sequatchie, Bledsoe, Rhea and part of Roane counties: Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
  • District 86 in Shelby County: Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis
  • District 98 in Shelby County: Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The Senate is expected to vote on its maps and OK the House drawings Friday. If approved by both chambers, the maps will go to the governor for his approval.

Lawmakers’ Reactions to Haslam’s Handling of Occupy Nashville Mixed

While Gov. Bill Haslam was defending the state’s actions in the arrests of Occupy Nashville protesters, the feeling was not unanimous at Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Some lawmakers said the situation should have been handled differently. And then there were the protesters.

When protester Steven Pottinger of Nashville heard that Haslam had defended the arrests on the grounds of safety and the need to address unsanitary conditions, Pottinger replied, “If he doesn’t like the sanitary issues, provide us with Port-a-Johns.”

Pottinger and protester Elizabeth Johnson of Memphis said there were portable toilets at the site when the protest began but that they’re gone now.

In terms of safety, Occupy Nashville protesters are taking matters somewhat into their own hands. At their “General Assembly” meeting Tuesday night, protesters agreed to a code of conduct and vowed that people disruptive to the movement by starting fights or committing crimes would be compelled to leave by their own security team.

Legislators didn’t seem especially caught up in the issue, but the matter did stir some broad opinions.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, sided with the protesters.

“I think the protesters have every right, as I understand the judge ruled, to handle themselves as protesters with an understanding that it’s got to be peaceful, it’s got to be respectful. But if they’re not breaking any laws, then they certainly in my opinion have a right to peaceful protest on public property,” Hardaway said. “Of all things, we’re talking about the Capitol, where we make the laws.

“If we can’t stand to have a little inconvenience, a little noise with some extra people here at the people’s house, then I don’t know what we’re doing up here.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, said he hadn’t followed the events closely, but he said he was troubled about legal aspects of the issue.

“I’d have some legal problems with the way a new policy was initiated and enforced, and I think the judicial system obviously had the same problem,” Fitzhugh said.

“So I think it would behoove us all to make sure that we do things in due time and legally if there is a situation we want to avoid in the future. Make sure the appropriate policy is there.”

Haslam said Tuesday the goal was not to remove people from Legislative Plaza but to provide a safe environment, adding that the problem was that the protesters wanted to stay indefinitely, 24 hours a day.

Not everyone disagreed with the governor.

“I do believe you have the right to protest your government. Of course you do. I do wish more attention, though, would have been paid to what was going on down here leading up to this,” said Rep. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, the House Republican Caucus chair.

“We’ve had a lot of unhappy staff, and they should be, because unfortunately and sadly some of the folks that are out there protesting have been doing things during the day in broad daylight they shouldn’t be doing and causing a lot of concern.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit claiming the arrests were violations of free speech. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger granted a temporary restraining order against arrests, and the state did not contest the order.

State troopers arrested 29 protesters at Legislative Plaza on Friday morning and 26 on Saturday, enforcing a new curfew that had been put into effect in response to complaints.

The state, citing “criminal activity and deteriorating sanitary conditions,” imposed a curfew on Oct. 27, closing Legislative Plaza from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. When protesters, who had been on the scene for several days, did not leave, they were first arrested Friday at 3 a.m. A magistrate in Nashville, however, would not jail the protesters.

Haslam expressed no regret Tuesday about his decisions, although he did say Commissioner of Safety Bill Gibbons contacted an editor to express regrets about the arrest of reporter Jonathan Meador of the Nashville Scene in the roundup. Chris Ferrell, CEO of SouthComm Inc., which publishes the Nashville Scene, said Tuesday he did not consider Gibbons’ response an apology.

“It was more of a rationalization for their actions than an apology,” Ferrell said when contacted by phone.

Ferrell had publicly asked Haslam for an apology for Meador’s arrest. Ferrell talked to Gibbons on Monday, and Gibbons sent a follow-up e-mail. Ferrell said the conversation lasted two or three minutes.

But when asked if he was satisfied with the response he received, Ferrell said, “No. Because they still haven’t apologized for what seems to me a clear violation of the First Amendment, that when the officers grabbed Jonathan he clearly identified himself as a journalist.

“They should have verified that and then let him go. The fact that they did not, I think, is of concern to journalists everywhere.”

Ferrell said he had not talked to Haslam, although he had tried to contact the governor through his communications office as recently as Monday.

Gibbons’ statement to Ferrell said, in part: “Obviously, it was not our intention to take any member of the press doing his or her job into custody for trespassing. I regret any confusion regarding Mr. Meador’s role.”

The Middle Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists also issued a formal request for an apology. A journalist from Middle Tennessee State University was also reportedly among those arrested.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, was at a higher education event Haslam attended in Cool Springs Tuesday and said he felt action was necessary.

“Look, I’ve been up there, and it stinks,” Casada said. “They’re doing acts that aren’t appropriate in public.

“They are using the restroom, if you will, without facilities, just on the grounds. It’s just an unsafe environment, and the governor had to act. And he did the right thing.”

Black Caucus Says GOP Has Cut Them Out of Redistricting Talks

House members of the legislative Black Caucus say Republicans have so far shut them out of discussions about redrawing their districts and are preparing to file a lawsuit if nothing changes.

But House Speaker Beth Harwell called those threats “counterproductive” and vowed that the GOP leadership’s goal is to vote in a new map with the full chamber support, despite comments from her top lieutenant that a much lower threshold is possible.

“It’s a work in progress, and I would like to request that work be allowed to continue without the threat of a lawsuit,” she said via email.

“As I’ve said before, our goal has always been to draw fair and legal lines, and to get 99 votes in the House.”

GOP Leader Gerald McCormick told TNReport earlier this month that redistricting inevitably brings some controversy.

“But we’ll work our way through it and eventually get something that 50 or more can vote for, and that’s what we’ll go with,” he told TNReport in an interview Oct. 12.

In 2002, the House OK’d the new House map 92-4.

In a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Black Caucus members said it is unrealistic to think that any party can fairly reshape their predominantly minority districts without their input.

“We don’t believe you can put all of the ingredients in a cake, then invite us in and ask whether we would want to put into it. Then you’ll end up with a mess,” said G.A. Hardaway, Caucus vice-chairman.

He said the caucus wants a seat at the table with Republican and Democratic leaders to ensure their districts are redrawn in line with the Voting Rights Act, which protects against unfairly marginalizing minorities.

“I don’t think there’s any other way to do it. Now, we don’t want to come in after the fact and tell you what’s wrong,” he said.

So far, few have had a front-and-center seat to watch leaders redraw the legislative maps, a process done after the U.S. Census every 10 years. Republican leaders in both chambers have said they are beginning to meet behind closed doors with members to talk about their district lines.

“It is well established that one of the many criteria we use in developing redistricting concepts is compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise,” said Harwell. “We are trying to work with every member of the General Assembly to hear their concerns, and there are no exceptions due to party or caucus.”

If the caucus’ arguments fall on deaf GOP ears, Hardaway said his members are prepared to challenge the new maps in court.