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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.

Amendment for Popular Election of State Attorney General Falls Short in Senate

The Tennessee Senate failed Wednesday to approve a proposal to let voters pick who serves as the state’s most powerful lawyer.

The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 123, is a constitutional amendment sponsored by Mt. Juliet Republican Mae Beavers. It calls for contested statewide elections for attorney general beginning in 2020.

The upper chamber’s vote on SJR123 was 15 in favor and 14 opposed. One senator, Republican Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, abstained. The resolution needed 17 votes to win passage. Three senators didn’t vote: Republicans Janice Bowling and Todd Gardenhire, of Tullahoma and Chattanooga, respectively, and Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.

According to the Senate clerk, because SJR123 wasn’t defeated outright with at least 17 senators voting “no,” it is technically still alive and could be brought up for a floor vote again this session if Beavers requests it. In the event that happens and it is approved, SJR123 would have to pass by a two-thirds majority in the next legislative session and then win in a statewide referendum.

Another measure that proposes altering the attorney general selection process passed last year in the Senate, 22-9. It awaits action in the House. That proposal, SJR196 by Clarksville Republican Mark Green, would rewrite the state’s constitution to allow for the Legislature to appoint the attorney general.

SJR196 states, “Beginning January 2019, and every four year thereafter, an attorney general and reporter for the state shall be appointed by joint vote of both houses of the General Assembly and shall hold office for a term of four years and until a successor is appointed.”

If it is approved in the House, that measure, too, must win passage next session by two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate and subsequently go before the voters.

Presently under the state constitution, the Tennessee Supreme Court appoints the attorney general to terms of eight years. The term of Robert Cooper, who currently holds the office, expires this year.

According to the National Association of Attorneys General, Tennessee is the only state in which the holder of the office is appointed by the state Supreme Court. Forty-three states elect their attorneys general. In fives state the post is assigned by the governor and in Maine the attorney general is selected by secret ballot of the state’s legislature.

Kyle: Haslam Should Reconsider Shoring Up Head Start, Meals on Wheels w/ State Funds

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; October 17, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Now that Gov. Haslam has changed his position on using state dollars to make up federal funds lost during Washington’s budget crises, state Sen. Jim Kyle urged Gov. Haslam to revisit his position to allow sequestration cuts that reduce the availability of services like Head Start and Meals on Wheels.

“The governor is to be congratulated for his efforts to shore up our tourism industry as our state faced a catastrophic loss of funding for national parks during the shutdown,” Sen. Kyle said. “However, thousands of Tennessee families are still going hungry because of Washington’s dysfunction, and I am calling on the governor to take another look at the impact of cuts to Head Start and Meals on Wheels.

Several programs for the poor have steadily lost federal funding this year because of the sequestration cuts. Meals on Wheels has lost at least $1 million, and 1,200 children have lost seats in Head Start programs.

Last year, Gov. Haslam said he was unequivocally against using state dollars to make up the difference. On Nov. 20, he told the Nashville City Paper:

“In most of those cases when the federal money is taken away, the program that it’s funding will go away as well because we just literally, don’t have the state dollars to come in and replace all those federal dollars,” Haslam said.

“Now that the governor has changed his position, state leaders have a duty to working families and retired veterans who will continue to suffer due to Washington’s dysfunction, even after the shutdown ends,” Sen. Kyle said. “I am calling on the governor to revisit these programs and change his position.”

Finney, Kyle Release Statements on Passing of State Rep. Lois DeBerry

Statement from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; July 28, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Senate Democratic leaders issued the following statement on the passing of Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry:

“Lois DeBerry was a peerless leader for her community, her city and for all women” state Sen. Jim Kyle said. “It’s a uniquely American story – a woman who became frustrated with the conditions in her community and dedicated her life to making it better, rising to heights that no African American woman had seen before in Tennessee. We are deeply saddened by her passing.”

“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry,” state Sen. Lowe Finney said. “She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her, and by her words could inspire people to take action and get involved. Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”

Kyle Spars With State Housing Agency on Memphis Blight

Memphis area state Sen. Jim Kyle took representatives from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to task Wednesday over what he sees as their failure to address abandoned housing and urban blight issues in his district.

While many lawmakers from less populated districts commended the agency’s work in their areas during a Government Operations Joint Subcommittee meeting, Kyle expressed frustration that the THDA hasn’t taken a more active role in repurposing abandoned homes, which he said encourage crime and contribute to poverty because they drive down property values in already poor neighborhoods.

“This agency is not seeing urban blight as part of its mission,” the Shelby County Democrat told THDA representatives. “If it is part of your mission, you’re not reaching the bar on your mission. If it’s not part of your mission, it needs to be,” he said.

“I’ve got 2,000 vacant homes in one neighborhood in my district, “ Kyle continued. “And for some reason those properties are just sitting there. I’ve got people living under bridges and I’ve got 2,000 empty homes.”

Housing Development Agency director Ralph Perrey, who testified before the subcommittee Wednesday, responded by defending the agency’s work in urban areas, telling legislators that they have had success with smaller initiatives and partnerships but that the issue of urban blight largely fell outside the scope of their purview and resources.

“We are actively engaged with nonprofit partners, with the city of Memphis, with Memphis housing,” Perrey told TNReport following the hearing. “I think within the bounds of what we were set up to do, we have been very actively engaged over there.”

“We were set up to be a housing finance agency and over the years we have also become the state’s instrument for implementing a variety of federal programs in Tennessee but we are not the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Perrey continued. “We do not have hundreds of millions of dollars of appropriated dollars as the feds do to put to work in an area.”

Kyle, however, didn’t seem to be buying it, telling TNReport “They really need to change their minds on that or face a battle for their existence.”

“We have a Tennessee Housing Development Agency and we have a lot of vacant homes in urban areas,” the senator added. “They need to be part of the solution.”

TN Legislature Forging Ahead with Plan to Finish by Week’s End

The final countdown to the end of Tennessee’s current legislative session appeared to have begun in earnest Wednesday. The Senate approving their version of the state budget and the House Republican Caucus voted to finish their business by Friday afternoon instead of continuing into next week.

The Senate budget, crafted by the Haslam administration and guided through the chamber by Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, coasted through with the support of the GOP supermajority.

Democrats in the Senate were vocal in their opposition to some aspects of the roughly $32 million package, or, more accurately, to nearly $2 million that wasn’t being spent.

Memphis Democrat Jim Kyle expressed frustration with the fellow senators following the floor session, telling reporters “we’re leaving $1.9 million and we’re refusing to appropriate it, which means the money goes into a fund the governor will then spend next year, as opposed to…very worthwhile projects.”

“We’re not funding them for reasons that the majority would not ever explain,” Kyle continued. “We’re saying we’re not going to feed people we could be feeding… we’re not going to provide healthcare, we’re not going to provide social services for people who have been receiving it.”

Norris characterized the decision to hold back a portion of funds as “ the most prudent course of action to follow.”

The House passed the budget bill 82-14. Lower-chamber Democrats tried to amend it to leave open the possibility of snatching up federal Medicaid-expansion dollars under the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans shot that effort down.

A first-term House GOP lawmaker, James Van Huss of Jonesborough, tried to delay a vote on the budget until Thursday, saying he hadn’t had time to absorb all its details. But that request died as well on a 54-36 vote.

A member of Harwell’s staff estimated for TNReport that upwards of 50 items remain left to consider.

Senate Majority Leader Norris told reporters Wednesday that he is confident the upper chamber can finish its business by the end of the week as well.

GOP-Backed ‘Wage Protection Act’ Heads to Haslam’s Desk

Unlike the testy exchanges on the House floor, the Tennessee Wage Protection Act’s passage in the upper chamber, 25-6-1, was met with only an explanation and a lone voice of opposition.

Brian KelseyBrian Kelsey

Sen. Brian Kelsey, sponsor of SB35, moved Thursday to conform and substitute his bill with HB501, which passed the House 66-27-1 earlier this month.

“House Bill 501 will ensure that commerce can work cleanly and efficiently in Tennessee by making sure that our wage and benefit restrictions are made at the state level,” the Republican from Germantown said.

Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, rose in opposition: “This is another one of our preemption bills. I would just point out to the Senate that if you think a community is smart enough to decide whether they should have wine in grocery stores, then I think you ought to be able to think that they’re smart enough on how to set their wage and contracts.”

Every Democrat in the Senate voted against the bill while every Republican, except one, voted in favor of it. Republican Rep. Steven Dickerson of Nashville cast his vote as present, not voting.

Passage by the Senate moves the legislation one step closer to ending a four-year battle to prohibit local governments from setting wages, family leave and insurance benefits that private businesses must offer employees. It also blocks local regulations that address wage theft.

Having passed both chambers, the legislation now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk, where there is no certainty that he will sign it.

“I’m not a fan of the living wage,” Haslam has said. But local “governments should be able to decide for themselves if they want to do that.”

The House sponsor of the legislation, GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin, told TNReport earlier this month he’s confident the governor will sign the bill.

If the bill becomes law it’ll nullify bills passed in Nashville and Shelby County that require businesses that contract with those governments to offer a certain level of wages and benefits to employees.

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

Senate Approves ‘Repealer’ to Root Out Bad Laws, Regs

Legislation to create a state Office of the Repealer passed the Senate 30-1-1 Thursday, while the House version still has a couple of committee hurdles to clear next week.

The Repealer’s job would be to go through Tennessee code and make recommendations to the Legislature on laws, rules and regulations that need to be repealed or modified because they are no longer relevant, overly burdensome or outdated.

Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis cast the only no vote and was the only one to speak out against the legislation. Fellow Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville, abstained.

“Simply to explain my vote, it is somewhat ironic that we’re creating an office to try to find duplicitous government agencies and rules when its creation duplicates the work of the Government Operations Committee,” Kyle said.

“To create another branch of government to do exactly what we’re already doing is doubling up and spending money that doesn’t need to be spent,” he continued.

According to Sen. Jack Johnson, sponsor of SB595, there is no fiscal note attached to the legislation, as the position will fill an existing vacant position within the Secretary of State’s office.

Responding to Kyle’s argument, the Franklin Republican said,“There is no single individual in all of state government whose sole responsibility is to try and shrink the green books.” Johnson was referring to the bound issues of the Tennessee Code Annotated.

Johnson said he thinks it “entirely reasonable that we dedicate a single position to meet with our business owners, to meet with citizens across the state, who have to interact with state government day in and day out, and identify things that we don’t need anymore.”

Answering to the Secretary of State, the Repealer would be required to set up an online system to receive recommendations from the public, which he or she would be required to take into consideration. 

The bill sets up the post for four years, “at which time such position will cease to exist.”

Sen. Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, offered a single amendment that passed on a voice vote. The amendment adds both chambers’ government operations committees to the list of those receiving recommendations from the Repealer, as well as quarterly updates of his or her actions.

HB 500 is on the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee’s calendar for Wed., April 3.

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

Tracy, Weaver File Bill to ‘Curb Abuse’ of EBT Benefits Program

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; January 29, 2013:

(NASHVILLE) — State Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) have filed legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly to curb abuse of purchases made through Electronic Benefit Transaction (EBT) cards used by recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Senate Bill 244 prohibits use of a welfare recipient’s EBT card in establishments that primarily sell tobacco products, tattoo facilities, psychic services, adult cabarets, and any establishment open to the public where liquor, wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages are served for consumption on the premises.

“It is outrageous that these benefit cards, which are meant to help feed families with children in times of desperate need, are reported to have been misused for everything from theatre tickets and a tour of Graceland, to the purchase of alcohol and nightclub entertainment,” said Senator Tracy. “Tennessee law should make it perfectly clear that we will not tolerate this fraudulent use of taxpayer money.”

The legislation comes after a report was released last summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which uncovered numerous examples of abuse by welfare recipients. According to the report, EBT cards were swiped at liquor stores, nightclubs, malls, retail outlets, and adult entertainment establishments, as well as for a hotel stay and UPS services, among others. The Center reported one transaction at a liquor store totaling $790.

“This money is supposed to be used to feed children in struggling families, providing them with essentials until the family gets back on their feet,” added Rep. Weaver. “We need to put some teeth in our law to ensure that this abuse does not happen again.”

Under the bill, welfare recipients who use EBT benefits for alcohol, tobacco or a lottery ticket would be subject to disqualification from the program. The legislation also prescribes civil penalties to businesses that sell those products and accept EBT benefits as payment in violation of the law. The fine for a violation by the seller would be $100 for the first violation, $500 for the second violation within five years, and $1,000 for a third or subsequent violation within five years.

In addition, the legislation calls for welfare recipients who purchasing items or services banned under the proposed act to reimburse the state for the illegal purchase.

“Many taxpayers struggle to make ends meet and to pay their taxes,” added Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen. “The selfish misuse of the welfare system undermines those who truly need and utilize temporary assistance lawfully and causes widespread public distrust in government services. Taxpayers should not tolerate it.”