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TN House Dems Mourn Passing of State Rep. Lois DeBerry

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; July 28, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry passed away today from complications resulting from a four year battle with pancreatic cancer. In the years following her diagnosis, Speaker Pro Tem Emeritus DeBerry remained positive and upbeat while channeling her energy and passion into helping raise the awareness of this deadly disease.

Rep. DeBerry defied the odds which show that nearly 80% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer succumb to the disease within the first year. In 2012, three years after her initial diagnosis, DeBerry joined with Governor Haslam in proclaiming November to be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in order to promote awareness and support efforts to create better treatments for this aggressive form of cancer.

“Tennessee owes Lois DeBerry a debt of gratitude for her immeasurable contributions to improving the health, welfare, and well-being of the people of our state,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “Lois was an irreplaceable member of our caucus and she will always have a place in our hearts and memories.”

In May of 2011, the legislature passed House Joint Resolution 516, sponsored by Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, which named honored Rep. DeBerry with the title of “Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus.” In accepting the honor of the position, DeBerry told her colleagues that “I’ve never done anything to get a return, every decision that I’ve tried make came from my heart.”

Through her status as Dean of the House, Speaker Pro Tem DeBerry acted as a mentor and leader for many legislators over her forty years of service to the state.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work with Rep. DeBerry,” said Rep. Karen Camper. “When I first got elected she took me under her wing and helped teach me how to best represent the needs of my constituents. I know there were many other legislators like me over the years, both Democrat and Republican, who benefited from her wisdom and generosity. I am truly blessed to have known and worked with Rep. Lois DeBerry.”

In memory of Rep. DeBerry, donations can be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at www.pancan.org.

McCormick: Lawmakers’ Travel Rules Need Changing

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pick up the tab for lame-duck lawmakers taking out-of-state trips, says House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick.

But he won’t ask outgoing legislators who traveled to Chicago this week for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual summit to pay the bill themselves, he told reporters Thursday. The lawmakers are either retiring or have been booted by voters in the primary but still chose to take the publicly-funded trip, TNReport revealed Tuesday.

“I think the rules ought to be changed in the future, though,” McCormick said, although he didn’t say whether he would spearhead revising the practice.

“They’re on the way out. They’re not going to have much time to use their experience to benefit the taxpayers and their constituents,” he said. “But the ones that are there now, they did it under the old rules.”

When asked why the rule hadn’t been changed in the two years Republicans have been running the chamber, he said he “just wasn’t thinking.”

“If I lose a primary two years from now, I will not be going on trips,” he told reporters.

House Speaker Beth Harwell said she allows legislators to be reimbursed for one out-of-state legislative trip per year, and she has no problem sending retiring and outgoing lawmakers to the conference if that is the one they choose to go to.

“I don’t think in any way it was an attempt to misuse the system,” she told TNReport. “That was their one trip, and so that was decided many months ago by my staff. So, I’ll respect their decision as legislators that that’s they way they chose to use their legislative trip.”

The House and Senate speakers gave four retiring lawmakers the green light to get reimbursed for the trip, which could cost as much as $2,500 in registration, airfare, hotel stay, per diem and cab rides.

Those lawmakers are Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, was also approved to go on the trip, but said he decided against it after family emergency.

Both House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, were in attendance at the conference, according to legislative staff, although both had lost their bids for re-election less than a week before in the primary.

Outgoing lawmakers can collect payments such as per diem and travel benefits up to the day before the November election. The state constitution outlines that members belong to the Legislature beginning the day they win the general election, and thus stop earning any compensation the close of day the on the eve of the election, said Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Affairs.

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

Online Learning Advocates See Virtual Schooling as Integral to Education Reform

Students in Tennessee could click their way through more courses, if a Capitol Hill push to embrace online classes for K-12 education gains traction.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would bring requirements such as teacher-student ratios, which public schools that have traditional buildings and classrooms already adhere to, to bear for their online counterparts. That bill has not yet made it to either chamber of the Legislature for a floor vote.

Advocates recently laid out their position that while virtual schooling is edgy and perhaps intimidating to some, it is a potent tool for keeping students engaged and in school.

Virtual schools do the most to innovate education and level the playing field for kids everywhere, compared to other areas of technological reform in education, said Susan Patrick, president & CEO of the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning and a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. Patrick was speaking at a forum at the Sheraton Wednesday hosted by the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank.

“What’s one thing we know about research on the brain and student learning?” Patrick asked. “It’s that not all kids learn in the same way at the same time.”

Even though the U.S. is innovating with virtual schools, those innovations are uneven from state to state, Patrick said.

“Right now we have 30 of 50 states that allow for full-time virtual schools, and there are about 225 of those across the country,” Patrick said, and added that although their numbers are dropping, about 30 states have state virtual schools.

Tennessee lost its state-run online education program, e4TN, because it had been fully funded with federal education technology dollars, it was one of the best uses of such money by the states, according to Patrick.

But virtual schools still exist in Tennessee, like the Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) program in Putnam County.

The VITAL program allows students in the Putnam County School District to enroll in online classes that may not be provided on-site. Students coordinate their online coursework with an on-site facilitator and attend a lab at the school during which they can work on their coursework at their own pace, the website says.

Some students may qualify for independent study after a few weeks of enrollment, provided they score high enough on progress reports. The progress reports are e-mailed by the instructor to the on-site facilitator, student, parents and virtual learning coordinator twice a month.

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the Virtual Public Schools Act, opening the way for school boards, the state and charter schools to sponsor online schools. The bill, HB1030, set curriculum requirements and required teachers in virtual schools to be certified in the same manner as teachers in traditional, physical schools.

A bill this year would update those requirements. The bill, HB3062, allows the State Board of Education to set new teacher-pupil ratios for online instruction programs and requires that the education programs maintain those ratios.

It also requires programs to offer the same amount of time to students to learn and work, as is offered in other education programs, while at the same time allowing for students to work at their own pace.

“There are many reasons why kids choose not to finish school, and anything we can do to encourage them to stay in school, and to get their diploma, is a good thing,” said Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, sponsor of the bill. “It’s my hope, that through virtual education, we’re able to offer other programs or services that we may or may not be able to in other schools.”

The bill passed the House Finance Committee on last week, on its way to the floor. Its companion bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill originally contained a requirement that at least one online course would be necessary for graduation of all students that enter the 9th grade in the 2013-2014 school year. This provision was removed because of the cost, Williams said.

However, not all members of the Legislature feel that virtual schools are the way to go in state education reform. Skeptics see gaps in accountability and the potential for shifting money away from the traditional public school system.

“You know I was not for virtual education, and I still am not for it,” Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said in the House Education committee on Feb. 28. “They haven’t convinced me, and I think it’s wrong that a kid can start out in kindergarten and go through the 12th grade and never set foot in a school.”

But this is not reflective of the trend in online education, Patrick says.

“The biggest driver nationally of online courses is that the students otherwise do not have access to the course in their high school,” Patrick said at the Beacon Center forum. “So, 97 percent of these kids that are learning online are learning in a high school environment, taking individual courses.”

Patrick also explained how the other countries around the globe have been experimenting with virtual education as a way to keep up with the changing world.

Turkey developed world-class Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses for online, she said, and four years into the program almost all of Turkey’s 16 million students are using online education.

In Canada, the province of Ontario has invested in the full range of K-12 digital education, including four digital versions of each course for high school students.

Additionally, British Columbia has 14 percent of its high school students taking online courses. By comparison, only 1.8 million out of 50 million students in the U.S., or more than 3 percent, use supplemental online learning, while only 250,000 use it full-time, Patrick said.

Lawmakers Praise Naifeh Upon Retirement Announcement

As Jimmy Naifeh prepares to hang up his title as one of the longest sitting legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say he leaves behind a legacy of determined leadership.

Naifeh, who presided over the House of Representatives as speaker for 18 years, the longest in the state’s history, announced he would not run for re-election his year.

“Governor McWherter always told me when it was time to go home, I’d know it. After talking with my family and friends, I believe the time has come for me to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders,” he said, admitting he “certainly played hardball, just once or twice,” during his time in office.

“Whatever he told you, you could take it to the bank,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters Thursday, shortly after the 72-year-old Naifeh declared on the House floor it was time for him to pass the torch to fellow Democrats.

“He has really been a fixture that stood for what he believed in, even though lots of times I disagreed with him,” the Blountville Republican continued. “He’ll be missed in this institution. I mean that.”

Naifeh’s announcement drew the attention of not only his House colleagues, but senators, who recessed their chamber to watch his announcement, along with Comptroller Justin Wilson, who watched on bended knee behind Naifeh’s chair in the back of the chamber.

“He was an incredibly strong and powerful speaker, and he knew what he wanted to do and always tried to move very definitively in that way,” Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Thursday, speaking after a press conference on reducing obesity at the Tennessee Hospital Association headquarters in Nashville. “He was going to do what he said, whether you liked it or not.”

Naifeh’s political biography stretches 38 years to his election in 1974. The Covington Democrat was elected Speaker of the House in 1991. He served uninterrupted under Governors Ned McWherter, Don Sundquist and Phil Bredesen.

“Naifeh used the speakership to say what he thought ought to be done,” said Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, the Legislature’s elder statesman, who began serving in the Senate four years before Naifeh was elected to the House. “He was such a definite individual, that I think that impressed itself on the House primarily, but actually on the entire Legislature.”

In the early 2000s, Naifeh was a vocal advocate for instituting an income tax — a debate that sparked protests on Capitol Hill and what House Speaker Beth Harwell described as “clearly a turning point” leading to the rise of the Republican Party taking over the General Assembly and Naifeh’s loss of the gavel.

“I think yes, it was very helpful to us in obtaining our majority status,” said Harwell, who had allowed Naifeh to preside over the chamber shortly after making his announcement.

“It became a battle cry that helped us ascend,” added Ramsey, who served in the House four years under Naifeh. Ramsey said his appreciation for the hard-nosed Democrat grew considerably once be became Senate Speaker in 2007. “I appreciate leadership styles whether they’re mine or not,” said Ramsey. “His worked well.”

Rep. Debra Maggart said Naifeh’s failed effort to institute an income tax was a clear trigger giving rise to Republican takeover of the Legislature.

“I would say the Republican majority today, that we enjoy, is a direct result of the income tax fight,” said Maggart, the House Republican Caucus chairwoman from Hendersonville. “It took a while to get it here, but it did come, and I do think that certainly had a lot to do with it.”

Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, also announced his retirement from the General Assembly Thursday. He joins nine Democrats who have declared this year will be their last.

Haslam said he originally found it striking that so many lawmakers were calling it quits this year, but says maybe it isn’t so unusual.

“There’s a lot more turnover here than people think there is, and so it’s maybe not all that extraordinary in the bigger picture,” he told reporters.

Alex Harris and Steven Hale contributed to this report.

Naifeh Retiring from Legislature After 38-Year Tenure

Press Release from Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington; March 8, 2012: 

Long-time Speaker of the House will retire at the end of his current term

NASHVILLE – Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) announced today on the House floor that he will not seek re-election to his district 81 seat this fall. Naifeh has served in the House of Representatives for 38-years, 18 of which he spent as Speaker of the House.

“Governor McWherter always told me when it was time to go home, I’d know it. After talking with my family and friends, I believe the time has come for me to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders,” said Speaker Naifeh. “All told, I’ve given 40 years of my life to public service: 38 in the legislature and two as an Infantry Officer in the Army. Now I’m looking forward to a little more time for myself and a lot more time with my grandkids.”

Naifeh was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, after losing his first bid for office in 1972 by 13 votes. Since that time he has never lost an election. In addition to being the longest serving Speaker of the House in Tennessee history, Naifeh served as Floor Leader, Majority Leader and President of the National Speaker’s Conference. He has received numerous legislator of the year and service awards during his tenure, including the prestigious William M. Bulger award which is given every other year to one state legislative leader who has worked to preserve and build public trust and whose career embodies the principles of integrity, compassion, vision and courage.

“In all aspects of my life, I’ve always tried to be an effective leader. I think a lot of that stems from my army training. When I came to the House, it was no different. I got into leadership during my second term with the ultimate goal of becoming Speaker. I achieved that goal and I’m proud of what I accomplished during that time.”

Naifeh is a long-time supporter of public education and places the Jimmy Naifeh Center in Covington, a branch of Dyersburg State Community College, among his most proud accomplishments. Outside the legislature Naifeh’s work with St. Jude is well known. For the past 19 years, he has hosted an annual legislative golf tournament in Nashville to benefit ALSAC/St.Jude, where he serves on the Board of Directors.

“My Dad came here from Lebanon and couldn’t even speak English! He always told me what a privilege it was to live in this country and that we had a responsibility to give back. Whether it was my work with St. Jude or in the legislature, I’ve always tried to remember that and use what power I had to improve the lives of everyday people.”

Naifeh has 3 children (Jim, Beth and Sameera) and 6 grandchildren (Sarah, Jay, Sam, Jameson, Jack and Katherine). He plans to explore future options, while spending more time with his grandchildren.

Haslam Won’t Oppose Sidewalk Honoring Former First Lady Conte

Gov. Bill Haslam says he has “no problem” naming a sidewalk at the bottom of Capitol Hill after his predecessor’s wife despite red-lighting the move as costly last month.

“It’ll happen. It’ll happen,” Haslam laughed when asked by reporters about the proposal Tuesday. “We’ll get that paid for, with state money.”

The Republican governor’s staff raised objections to the cost of naming the perimeter track of Bicentennial Capitol Mall — down the hill from the Capitol Building — after former first lady Andrea Conte, wife of Phil Bredesen. Former Democratic Speaker Jimmy Naifeh had brought forward the proposal.

“We cannot support this legislation at this time,” read the letter the governor’s office sent to Naifeh, a Covington Democrat, about HB3727.

“We recognize that your legislation may ultimately be amended to remove its fiscal impact. If this is the case, we will gladly revisit our position on the bill,” read the letter signed by Leslie Hafner, the governor’s director of legislation.

The two signs will cost taxpayers a total of $6,000 to label the walk as “Andrea Conte Pedestrian Pathway.” Conte worked as a vocal advocate for healthy lifestyles along with speaking out for victims of violence.

Naifeh said he would find a private donor to pay to install the signs if the governor refused to allocate state funds, but Haslam said that won’t be necessary.

“Let me just say, that was one of those cases where we put a fiscal flag on anything that costs money,” Haslam told reporters after speaking to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “Anything that cost us, we just said, ‘Hold it, that wasn’t in the initial budget so that will take some consideration.’ And that’s one of those.”

“Obviously, we have no problem honoring Andrea for the things she’s done, and it’s not a significant amount of money,” he said.

Democrats Applaud Haslam Food Tax Cut — Wish It Were Bigger

The governor’s proposed reduction to the food tax is laudable, but Democratic lawmakers believe it doesn’t go far enough.

During the Democratic response to Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, said that they applaud Haslam’s proposed reduction from 5.5 percent to 5 percent over a few years, but said that they would like to see a gradual elimination of the food tax.

“This would indeed help all Tennesseans,” Finney said. “This would help everybody around the state. And I think especially if you go in and you look at low-income areas, you look at rural areas around the state, you would see that this legislation could have a really positive impact.”

The gradual elimination of the grocery tax has support from Democratic leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly.

“We’re actually glad that the governor’s doing this,” said Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory. “But we’ve already had bills filed. We’ve got several different bills filed from last year that we’re carrying forward.”

One sponsored by Turner aims to cut the sales tax from 5.5 percent to 5 percent in the first year and to 4.5 percent in the second year.

“We’re a very sales tax-dependent state, so it’s hard for us to cut sales tax, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Turner said. Sales taxes make up about 54 percent of Tennessee’s state tax revenue.

Turner also suggested that instead of making the cuts the governor has proposed to the inheritance tax and the Hall income tax on investments, which he says will only benefit the wealthy, that the Legislature take that money and apply it to steeper cuts to the grocery tax to benefit everyone.

Turner’s bill, HB1529, originally scheduled to be debated in the House Finance Subcommittee Wednesday, was deferred to be debated alongside other sales tax legislation, including Haslam’s bill. Turner said that he expects it to be taken back up within the next few weeks.

In addition to the governor’s bill and his own bill, Turner said that Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, had several amendments to attach to Turner’s bill that would make steeper cuts to the grocery tax.

Turner and Naifeh would need political support from their colleagues in the GOP — who control both chambers of the Legislature and the executive branch — for their proposals to have any chance of passage.

Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, one of the state’s most vocal opponents of taxing food purchases, in fact does not support Haslam’s grocery tax reduction, or any other tax cut that isn’t offset by an increase in revenues somewhere else.

“We’re all about removing the tax on groceries, but we also want to make sure there is still adequate funding for public services,” TFT executive director Elizabeth Wright told TNReport. “We feel that Tennessee has a budget crisis, and we can’t really afford to lose any more income coming in because people are losing jobs, services are being cut and the quality of our public services is declining even further than it has been.”

Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic leader, says that in fact because revenue estimates were lower than what the state has actually collected, the proposed grocery tax cut is essentially revenue neutral.

“We have the revenue to do this, because the revenue has increased since revenue estimates were made,” Fitzhugh said. “I think the governor recognized that, and we’re glad that he did — and I’m glad see him support our measure that we came forth with.”

Bill Howell, TFT’s Middle Tennessee director, doesn’t buy Fitzhugh’s reasoning. Cutting any of the state’s taxes without finding ways to bump tax collections up in other places will “result in a steady ratcheting down of the state’s revenues,” Howell said.

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.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Jimmy Naifeh, a 36-year veteran of the Tennessee General Assembly and House speaker for 18 of those years, is among the most vocal Democratic legislators opposing GOP efforts to limit or eliminate collective bargaining for public school teachers.

But this isn’t the first time the crafty Covington lawmaker has figured prominently in Tennessee’s tug-of-war between workers’ rights and respecting local school board autonomy.

He has, however, switched sides on the issue.

The legislation currently in the Tennessee General Assembly — the House version of which is scheduled for a vote on the chamber floor this evening — is an attempt to rein in or repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, a law that forces local school districts to bargain with unions when certain thresholds of teacher support are met. (UPDATE: The House on Monday put off voting on HB130 until Thursday.)

Under the terms of the 1978 law, still in effect today, when those conditions are met, a “professional employees’ organization” is awarded sole and formal negotiating authority to “(deal) with boards of education concerning, but not limited to, grievances, wages, hours of employment or conditions of work.”

The 1978 act was designed “to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with boards of education, and to protect the rights of the boards of education and the public in connection with employer-employee disputes affecting education,” according to Tennessee state code.

When 30 percent of teachers in a district demand a vote to be unionized — and a majority of those teachers voting in the special election choose a union to represent them — then that union is awarded the designation as the district’s “exclusive representative” for teachers. That role gives the union sole privileges to negotiate on behalf of all teachers in the district. With that state-mandated recognition comes the power to exclude from labor discussions with the school board any and all competitors and individuals who wish to negotiate alternative or competing agreements.

The Act passed when Naifeh was in his fourth year as a state representative. The Senate passed it on a 20-10 vote. The House passed it 60-38. It was signed on March 10, 1978 by Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who, according to a Tennessean article written the next day, “made a surprise visit” to a Tennessee Education Association convention in Nashville so that teachers could witness him officially make it law.

But Naifeh was by no means then the champion of mandatory collective bargaining that he is now.

In fact, Naifeh and then-state Rep. John Tanner were “viciously opposed” to giving unions the power to force collective bargaining with local school districts, said Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, who was present at the debate and voted in favor of the 1978 Act. Tanner served 22 years as a United States Congressman from Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District after 12 years in the state House of Representatives.

“They tried every rule, everything in the book to stop it,” DeBerry said of Naifeh and Tanner.

Tanner didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

In audio recordings of House floor debate over the 1978 Act, Naifeh can be heard attempting to add amendments to the bill that were derided by supporters of collective bargaining as delaying tactics or attempts to kill the union-friendly legislation.

Naifeh in 1978 was a supporter of local control, and he argued that the state was imposing its will on the districts by forcing them to recognize and exclusively negotiate with a teachers union.

“All I’m asking is that you give the people of your district the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to have professional negotiations,” Naifeh at one point pleaded with his House colleagues.

But between the fiery debates then and now, Naifeh has done a 180-degree change of course.

“I made a mistake, and I have admitted that many times,” Naifeh told TNReport earlier this legislative session. “At the time, it just didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t think it was the way to go.”

However, he added, “Once it got in place and all, I realized that we needed collective bargaining.”

And if anything, the former House speaker is even more adamant today in supporting collective bargaining for teachers than he was against the idea in 1978. He’s often among the most incensed Democratic voices as GOP-driven developments unfold seemingly beyond his or his party’s influence.

“I’ve never seen anything more political in my years in this Legislature than what has gone on in the first few months, and I am sick and tired of it,” Naifeh thundered during one House subcommittee debate earlier this year.

Naifeh said he changed his mind on public-sector organizing after talking to school board members and his local director of schools, who told him “it gives them an opportunity to be able to sit down with the teachers and discuss these things in a very civil manner.”

“It may not have been a mistake then,” Naifeh said of his 1978 vote, “but today and even a few years after that, I can see where it was playing a role.”

Former Tennessee Education Association President George Kersey Jr. told the Tennessean in 1978 that the legislation was not “specifically designed for the TEA or its affiliates,” but would instead give teachers a choice about which organization could represent them.

Nevertheless, TEA has come to dominate teacher unionization in Tennessee, representing two-thirds of the 64,229 public and secondary school teachers. The other association that represents school employees in the state, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, has only about 5,000 teachers.

Jack Johnson, the Senate sponsor of the proposal to repeal collective bargaining and replace the system with a more open and less regulated system of communication between teachers and school boards, said he believes there’s little objective evidence to warrant continued support of mandatory collective bargaining in 2011.

“I think that it is clear if you look over the history of collective bargaining that it hasn’t worked,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican who ushered his bill to passage in the Senate on an 18-14 vote earlier this month. “So, why he could be against it then and for it now, I do not understand.”

Johnson added that there’s “plenty of evidence where (collective bargaining) has created an adversarial and hostile relationship between teachers’ unions and the school boards.”

In fact, injecting a dose of political strife into how locally elected school boards conduct their affairs may have been partly by design. Responding to the suggestions that mandating collective bargaining would be a recipe for pitting teachers and school boards against one another, one lawmaker who supported collective bargaining commented during the 1978 House floor debate that “in some rural areas, tranquility and mediocrity have gone hand in hand.”

House records from that year reveal concerns about teacher input, and whether the bill would add to education problems or solve them — issues echoed in the current debate over tenure and teachers’ unions.

Then like now, teachers turned out in force at the Capitol to rally in support of state-mandated collective bargaining. They were “packing the galleries” during the House debate, according to the Tennessean.

Reid Akins, Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this story.