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Stewart Criticizes House GOP for Opposition to Federal Expansion of Pre-K in TN

Press release from the Office of Tennessee State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville; December 19, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) released the following statement following news that the Republican leadership in the House was going to oppose a federally funded expansion of Pre-K in Tennessee:

“Even in these hyper-political times, yesterday’s announcement by House Republican Leaders that they planned to give up $64.3 million in federal tax dollars freely available to expand Pre-K came as a shock and a disappointment.

“Sadly, Tennessee Republicans appear to be taking the lead from their national leaders, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who have made a profession of putting their narrow political needs before the good of the nation as a whole. Here we have a program – Pre-K – that has bi-partisan support and that has proven to be highly effective. Here in Nashville, Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute, working with the Tennessee Department of Education’s Division of Curriculum, recently conducted a “rigorous, independent evaluation” of Pre-K in Tennessee. The key finding? “[T[he Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten program produces significant improvements in the academic skills generally regarded as important for school readiness compared to the gains made by comparable children who did not participate in the program.”

“At one time, Tennessee leaders, whether Republicans under Governors Lamar Alexander and Don Sundquist or Democrats under Democratic Governors Ned Ray McWherter and Phil Bredesen, would not have thought twice about putting good policy before politics and bringing these millions of dollars in to help our neediest school children. What a disappointment that the same radical spirit that has so undermined our government in Washington is now seeping into Tennessee politics.

“Those of us elected by Tennesseans should remember that these federal funds are our citizens’ tax dollars at work. The money that we send to Washington can either be put to work in Tennessee or put to work in other states. Already this year we’ve seen the Republicans refuse billions of dollars in healthcare funding by refusing to expand Medicaid – a program that is already helping thousands of working families and seniors just over the border in Kentucky. Now they give up millions that would allow over seven thousand Tennessee kids a better start in life. Apparently, handing out our citizens’ money to other states is the New Math among Tennessee Republicans. It doesn’t add up – unless you care more about your radical base than about doing what’s right for Tennessee school children and working families.”

TNDP: State Charter Authorizer Bill ‘Rushed Through Committee’ by GOP

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; April 3, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Republicans who control Nashville rushed through committee a measure to create a state charter school authorizer — a centralized government body that strips school decisions away from local boards.

Charter schools approved by the state charger authorizer would have to be funded by local taxpayers whether there was money available or not. To address the issue of the unfunded mandate, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) introduced a measure that would have set in place financial guardrails to protect local taxpayers from a tax increase.

“This bill, without guardrails, is the mother of all unfunded mandates. It will give a state bureaucracy the power to create an unlimited number of charter schools, which will result in massive tax increases or local governments,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I offered a common-sense amendment to help protect taxpayers, but the special interests behind this bill override common-sense.”

HB 702, the state charter authorizer sponsored by Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) will create a new state bureaucracy to oversee appeals of charter schools administrators denied by local school boards. In the third substantive change to the bill since it was introduced, the new language limits the panel’s authority to school districts which are designated “priority” districts.

During the committee hearing, Leader Fitzhugh noted this would be duplicative and a waste of taxpayer funds. The Achievement School District already has the authority to authorize charters in districts who perform in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

“This is a bad bill that keeps getting worse as the sponsors wheel and deal behind the scenes to pass something — anything — regardless of whether it will improve the performance of students in our district,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville). “I am deeply disappointed that Commissioner Kevin Huffman worked behind the scenes to kill the amendment that would have protected taxpayers in Davidson County and across Tennessee.

“The fact that he refused to even meet with local school board members in Nashville shows his level of contempt for Davidson County taxpayers and elected officials,” Stewart said.

The charter authorizer bill passed out of the House Finance Ways & Means subcommittee on a voice vote and will move on to the full committee next week.

Fitzhugh: State Charter Authorizer ‘Mother of All Unfunded Mandates’

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; April 3, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Republicans pushed through a state charter authorizer after killing an amendment by Leader Fitzhugh that would have set in place financial guardrails to protect local taxpayers from a tax increase.

“This bill, without guardrails, is the mother of all unfunded mandates. It will give a state bureaucracy the power to create an unlimited number of charter schools, which will result in massive tax increases on local governments,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I offered a common-sense amendment to help protect taxpayers, but the special interests behind this bill override common-sense.”

HB702 by Rep. White (R-Memphis) will create a new state bureaucracy to oversee appeals of charter schools denied by local school boards. In the third substantive change to the bill since it was introduced, the new language limits the panel’s authority to school districts which are designated “priority” districts. During the committee hearing, Leader Fitzhugh noted this would be duplicative and a waste of taxpayer funds. The Achievement School District already has the authority to authorize charters in districts who perform in the bottom five percent of the state.

“This is a bad bill that keeps getting worse as the sponsors wheel and deal behind the scenes to pass something – anything – regardless of whether it will improve the performance of students in our district,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville). “I am deeply disappointed that Commissioner Kevin Huffman worked behind the scenes to kill the amendment that would have protected taxpayers in Davidson County and across Tennessee. The fact that he refused to even meet with local school board members in Nashville shows his level of contempt for Davidson County taxpayers and elected officials.”

The charter authorizer bill passed out of the House Finance Ways & Means subcommittee on a voice vote, and will move on to the full committee next week.

Bill to Block College IDs for Voting Draws Dem Doubts

Questions from Democrats about the true intent of legislation drafted to clarify Tennessee’s voter ID law peppered discussion in a House committee Tuesday.

The legislation would have allowed voters to use college IDs as a form of accepted identification. The bill would rewrite a section of the current code that blocks their use. In HB 229’s original language, college IDs were simply not mentioned.

Rep. Jeremy DurhamJeremy Durham

However, that changed with freshman Rep. Jeremy Durham’s amendment that “basically just eliminates the college IDs part of the bill,” Durham told the Local Government Committee. “I think it’s good public policy to make sure the right people are voting.”

The amendment drew a slew of questions from Democratic committee members as to the true intent of the bill.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, of Nashville, made the argument that state-funded institutions of higher learning are “part of the state of Tennessee” because they receive funding from the state.

“There’s plenty of people who get direct money from the state, but I don’t want them to write down on a napkin who’s qualified to vote,” Durham, R-Franklin, said.

Rep. Larry Miller, of Memphis, was one of three Democratic members to ask either Durham or House sponsor Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, if they could describe any “real-world occurrences” where students had committed fraud using college IDs to vote. Neither could provide an example.

When Rep. Mike Stewart, of Nashville, asked Durham for an example of a problem with college IDs, Durham said, “I suppose that the real problem is if we stick with just state and federal, I think that’s better than having 20, 30 different forms of ID from all these different state-funded universities.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of Memphis, questioned what effect the bill may have on a decision before the Tennessee Supreme Court regarding the use of photo library cards as acceptable ID. The bill forbids using them to vote as well.

“A court decision would not affect the current law,” Lynn said. “A judge is not a lawmaker, and a judge can’t just deem that local IDs are acceptable if the General Assembly has passed a law saying that they are not acceptable, and the governor has signed the law.”

The companion bill, SB125, passed the full Senate last week. However, it allows college IDs to be accepted as valid forms of identification but disallows library cards and out-of-state IDs.

Because the two chambers’ versions differ, it is possible that a conference committee will be appointed to try and reach an agreement, which is necessary before final passage is possible.

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

Sanderson Seeks to Curb Self-Service Beer Sales

Troubled by the age-old problem of underage drinking, Rep. Bill Sanderson is pushing a bill to clamp down on grocery stores that use self-service lanes.

The Kenton Republican has put forward a proposal to limit self-checkout lanes – “Welcome, valued customer. Please scan your first item.” – to six per attendant. Sanderson says House Bill 304 will deter youths who scan a six-pack of Coca-Cola, then sneak a six-pack of Bud into their grocery bags.

Bill Sanderson

“The notion that one person can oversee an infinite amount of self-checkouts is not even practical,” Sanderson said Tuesday before the House Local Government Committee gave the nod to his bill. “So, this legislation says that if you’re monitoring self-checkouts it should be limited to four self-checkout lanes if you are selling alcohol in that store.”

The Senate version, sponsored by Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, is pending a hearing in a Local Government subcommittee.

But retailers already limit the number of self-checkout lanes they have in operation per employee, a lobbyist for the grocers told lawmakers, and a majority of stores in the state have no more than six per attendant.

“I would say that stores are watching those, and monitoring those in a way that they don’t want an infinite number of checkout stands for one person,” Jarron Springer, with the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, said. “But I think each individual store probably has a different determination on their number.”

Sanderson’s bill comes as the nation sees a drop in drunk-driving fatalities.

Thirty-two states including Tennessee recorded a decrease in drunk-driving fatalities from 2009 to 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nationally, deaths were down 4.9 percent.

The trend holds true among minors, with alcohol-impaired driving fatalities among youths down 60.7 percent since 2000, according to federal numbers tracked by the Century Council, a distilleries group.

Committee chairman Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, questioned the practicality of the legislation. After all, store workers are already required to check the ID of anyone buying alcohol before the checkout process can be completed.

Hill said that he was concerned that the state was “using the government to mandate the number of employees” stores employ.

During committee discussion, several legislators seemed supportive of the bill on the grounds that it would address the issue of alcohol accessibility to minors.

Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, likened the decision of grocery retailers to abide by their own guidelines in this situation to allowing them to determine their own rules in other areas.

“So, if we just say that we should just allow industry to just conduct their own measurable accountability in all these situations, maybe we should do away with several other programs as well, because businesses can just institute that for themselves in home,” Holt said. “Food safety, inventory controls, responsible vending, all of these things.”

Reps. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin; Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville; and Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, requested to be recorded as voting no on the measure. 

Ban on Local ‘Living Wage’ Regs Bound for House Floor

Towns and cities would be barred from dictating the wages or benefits paid by private businesses under a bill set for a House vote next Thursday.

The move is the latest in a four-year battle to block so-called living wage bills at the local level. If passed, the bill would 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.

Sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada, House Bill 501 would 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.

On Tuesday the bill passed the House Local Government Committee 11-5 along party lines, with Republicans joining Casada while Democrats voted against.

“The most important person here is the taxpayer,” the Franklin representative said. “When a project costs more than it should, the taxpayer pays that. So this is a pro-taxpayer bill.”

Even if the legislation passes, there is no certainty that Gov. Bill Haslam will sign it.

“I’m not a fan of the living wage,” Haslam told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press in 2011. But local “governments should be able to decide for themselves if they want to do that.”

During the committee meeting, Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, questioned why local governments should be prohibited from requiring private companies to pay people “a living wage” if the company wants to do business with that government.

“You know in Davidson County, it’s harder to live. It’s more expensive,” Stewart said. “If the Davidson County legislators or council wants to say, for our contracts, we’re going to require that people be paid a living wage, why shouldn’t Davidson County people be able to control their own contracts?”

Casada replied that the problem is when a city dictates to a private business that operates statewide what that business must pay its employees.

“That’s not good public policy,” he said. “It drives up the cost of doing business, which is a burden to the taxpayers of Tennessee.”

This is not the first time this type of legislation has come before the General Assembly. Attempts by Casada and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, to prohibit local governments from establishing living wage laws date back to 2009.

The bill goes to Calendar & Rules to be scheduled for a vote on the House floor. The companion bill in the Senate, SB35, by Kelsey, has been referred to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

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

House Dems Oppose New State Charter Authorizer Proposal

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; March 5, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Representatives are speaking out against a new statewide charter authorizer moving through the House which threatens to blow a hole in local education budgets and risks weakening high standards for charter schools in our state. The new proposal, which drastically alters a plan which passed through the House Education Subcommittee on February 12, creates an unelected nine member panel appointed by the Governor and the Speakers of the House and Senate.

This new bureaucracy would have complete authority to approve charter schools in local school districts, without input from local elected officials who would be required to come up with the funds to pay for them. Supporters of the legislation have refused lawmakers’ request to put in place a ten percent cap on the portion of a local school budget that could be controlled by this new unelected charter panel.

“Republicans are rushing through a bill which will have a dramatic impact on local taxpayers in Davidson County and across the state,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “This law amounts to nothing more than an unfunded mandate which will blow a hole in local budgets, potentially forcing tax increases to pay for charter schools that weren’t good enough to pass local scrutiny.”

The Davidson County delegation met earlier today with supporters of the bill to address their concerns about this legislation, and the impact it will have on their local government. However, many left the meeting with more questions and concerns than they went in with.

“What they are saying is $70 million is not enough,” noted Metro Councilmember and State Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-50). “We asked, ‘will you at least limit this unelected board’s control to ten percent of our school budget?’ The answer was flat no. Every taxpayer in this county should be extremely alarmed.”

“Apparently, the bill’s backers want more than ten percent of our school budget – that is just incredible,” said Rep. Darren Jernigan (D-60). “Make no mistake about it; if that is the plan, we are in for another tax increase which will hurt the people I was elected to represent – that is something I cannot support.”

Davidson County lawmakers are concerned that this new legislation is part of an overall effort to defund public schools, and put special interest groups in charge of our education system in Tennessee.

“Clearly the charter associations envision a large scale takeover of the Metro School budget,” said Rep. Sherry Jones (D-59). “We don’t need a group of unelected special interest representatives making unchecked decisions that will hurt taxpayers and children in our schools.”

“This new ‘charter panel’ is designed to silence the voice of parents and taxpayers in a local school district,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-52). “Taxpayers will have no recourse to reign in this unelected body if they don’t like how their money is being spent, or if a local government has to raise taxes to accommodate this mandate.”

Davidson Co. Dems Criticize Haslam Decision to Fine MNPS

Press release from the Tennessee House Democrat Caucus; September 25, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – State Democratic leaders criticized Gov. Bill Haslam for taking $3.4 million in taxpayer money away from Metro Nashville schools over the school board’s refusal to approve Great Hearts Academies.

Members of the Davidson County legislative delegation, along with District 20 state Senate candidate Phillip North, spoke to reporters about the issue at a press conference Tuesday.

“We disagree with Gov. Haslam’s administration on taking Davidson County taxpayers’ dollars and sending them to other school districts when that money is needed right here,” said State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, chairwoman of the Davidson County delegation.

North said that local school boards should have the right to evaluate a charter school’s application on its merits, and he said that that’s what happened in the case of Great Hearts.

“The merits of the application of a charter school company should be left to the local, elected school board,” North said. “I continue to have confidence in our elected school board, teachers and school administrators.”

Others said it might be time to clarify state law on charter schools. The law currently gives charter schools the right to appeal a school board’s decision, but does not explicitly give the state sole authority to approve a charter school’s application.

“If that’s what legislators had intended, we would have set up an independent authorizer,” Rep. Mike Stewart said.

“We have Democrats on both sides of the charter school issue,” Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner said. “But we all agree that it’s wrong to penalize Metro when they’ve made a judicious decision.”

Voter ID Opponents Shift Focus to Education, Rallying Democratic Voters

Liberal critics of Tennessee’s voter identification requirements passed in 2011 by the state Legislature say they’re presently focused more on education, outreach and fanning outrage in the court of public opinion than a direct legal challenge.

Clearly, litigation-focused groups like the American Civil Liberties Union still despise the new law, which requires voters to show a form of government-issued photo ID in order to cast their ballot, says Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU.

But plans for a lawsuit are on the back burner, she says.

“No matter what, this law exists, and we have to figure out how those individuals who want to vote can get the documentation to get the free voter ID if they don’t have the money or the resources to pay for a photo ID,” she said after a town hall meeting on voter suppression hosted by the United Steelworkers at the Fithteenth Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville Thursday.

Weinberg has said the ACLU has for months been trying to decide whether to file a lawsuit. But with elections drawing ever nearer, she and the largely Democratic leaders are trying to rally voters who might run into problem, particularly in black communities, saying it’s imperative voters get the tools they need to adhere to the law before it’s too late.

“We need to remind people how critical this is,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, who sat on the panel and made a point to say the new law came at the hands of Republicans. “People are trying to take over our country that are not looking out for the best interest of our children and our grandchildren. We need to stop them, we need to stop them now.”

The bill in 2011 passed easily in both chambers largely along partisan lines. The measure passed 57-35 in the House with one Democrat voting in favor, and 18-14 in the Senate without Democrat help, although an earlier version of the bill had the aid of a Senate Democrat.

According to a poll earlier this year by Middle Tennessee State University, four out of five Tennesseans support the law, which requires voters bring a state- or federal government-issued ID with them in order to vote.

There is already one lawsuit trickling through the judicial system, the case of former four-term congressman Lincoln Davis. Davis alleges his voting rights were violated when he was incorrectly purged from the voter rolls and was denied the right to vote on Super Tuesday.

“Don’t get mad. Get even,” said George Barrett, Davis’ attorney, who sat on the panel during the town hall meeting. Barrett, who is working with the ACLU, said he’s looking for plaintiffs to help him challenge the voter ID law. In the meantime, he has a court hearing in the Davis lawsuit set for later this month.

“If we don’t get up, and we don’t register our neighbors, and we don’t go to the polls, and if we don’t persist, then we deserve what happens to us,” he said.

Lawmakers this year added a requirement that senior drivers have a photo on their driver’s license, which would make that ID usable at the polls. Lawmakers also agreed to reduce the absentee voting age to 60 from 65 and allow former state employees to use their old work badges to prove their identification.

Leaders at the Tuesday meeting say they’re focused on getting out the vote and poll watching to make sure people with valid IDs are not turned away.

“It is our job as activists to harness the momentum to make sure that we don’t stay at home on election day,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the state conference of the NAACP. “We need to make sure we don’t sit this one out.”

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.