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Haslam Launches Online, Competency-Based Learning Program

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; July 9, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today launched WGU Tennessee, an online, competency-based university aimed at expanding access to higher education for Tennesseans.

He was joined by Western Governors University President Robert W. Mendenhall to sign the memorandum of understanding that officially establishes the university in Tennessee.

“WGU Tennessee will give adult students with some college credits the opportunity to earn a degree,” Haslam said. “Today in Tennessee, only 32 percent of our citizens have a two-year degree or higher, and our goal is to raise that number to 55 percent by 2025. We’re calling it the ‘Drive to 55,’ and WGU Tennessee will play an important role in our success.”

The event was held at HealthStream, a leading provider of workforce development and education solutions for the healthcare industry based in Nashville. The governor and Mendenhall were joined by the Gates Foundation’s Director of Postsecondary Success Dan Greenstein and HealthStream CEO Robert A. Frist, Jr.

WGU Tennessee was established to meet the needs of working adults who are looking to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree to advance their careers. WGU Tennessee offers accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in business, K-12 teacher education, information technology, and health professions, including nursing. WGU Tennessee was created through a partnership between the state of Tennessee and nationally recognized Western Governors University.

Dr. Kimberly Estep will serve as WGU Tennessee’s first chancellor. Dr. Estep joins the university after serving as vice president for academic affairs and student services at Nashville State Community College. A graduate of Auburn University, Dr. Estep has more than 25 years’ experience in higher education as both a professor and an administrator. She will be based in WGU Tennessee’s main office in Nashville but will work with higher education, community, and business leaders throughout the state to increase awareness and establish partnerships.

In addition, the governor is in the process of appointing senior business, community, and higher education leaders from across the state to the WGU Tennessee Advisory Board, including:

  • John Ingram (Chair), Chairman & CEO, Ingram Industries, Nashville
  • Jerry Askew, Senior VP, Government Relations, Tennova, Knoxville
  • Shannon Brown, Senior VP/Chief Human Resources and Diversity Officer, FedEx Express, Memphis
  • David A. Golden, Senior VP/Chief Legal Officer/Corporate Secretary, Eastman Chemical Company, Kingsport
  • Thom Mason, Director, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge
  • Jim McIntyre, Superintendent, Knoxville County Schools, Knoxville
  • Ralph Schulz, President & CEO, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Nashville
  • John Steele, Senior VP, Human Resources, HCA, Nashville
  • Blair Taylor, CEO, Memphis Tomorrow, Memphis
  • Karen Ward, Senior VP/Chief Human Resources Officer, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Chattanooga

 

WGU Tennessee uses an innovative learning model called competency-based education. Rather than earning degrees based on credit hours or time spent in class, students are required to demonstrate competency in degree subject matter. They advance by writing papers, completing assignments, and passing exams that demonstrate their knowledge of required subject matter.

Learning is individualized and guided by the one-on-one support of a faculty mentor. Degree programs are rigorous and challenging but designed to allow students to schedule their studies to accommodate work and family obligations. Tuition is approximately $6,000 per year for most degree programs, regardless of how many courses a student completes.

WGU Tennessee is being established with a one-time appropriation from the state of Tennessee of $5 million and a $750,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After initial startup, WGU Tennessee will be self-sustaining on tuition with no ongoing funding from the state.

Legislation was passed this year to create WGU Tennessee. Sponsors of the bill included Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), and Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet).

Currently, there are 700 WGU students in Tennessee who will now become part of WGU Tennessee. Creation of WGU Tennessee will provide the chancellor and other faculty and staff members in Tennessee to expand student outreach and support throughout the state.

About WGU Tennessee

WGU Tennessee has been established by the state of Tennessee as an online, competency-based university to expand access to higher education throughout the state. Formed through a partnership with Western Governors University, WGU Tennessee is open to all qualified Tennessee residents. The university offers 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in business, teacher education, information technology, and health professions, including nursing.

Degrees are granted under the accreditation of Western Governors University, which is regionally accredited through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). Teachers College programs are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and Nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).*

In addition to WGU Tennessee, there are four other WGU state-based, state-endorsed universities: WGU Indiana, established in June 2010; WGU Washington, established in April 2011; WGU Texas, established in August 2011; and WGU Missouri, established in February 2013.

For more information, visit the WGU Tennessee website, http://tennessee.wgu.edu/, or call 1-855-948-8495.

*Western Governors University offers nursing programs that are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (One Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 5380, Washington DC 20036, 202-877-6791).

Taxpayers Voluntarily Forked Over $4.8 Million in Online Sales Taxes

Tennessee revenue officials say they are taking steps to ensure the public understands they’re supposed to be paying sales taxes when they shop online, although very few taxpayers do it.

Last year, the state collected $4.8 million in use taxes voluntarily paid. Economists suggest in the same period, the state was owed more than $300 million by its citizens.

After months of controversy about whether to allow Amazon.com to slide on playing tax-collector for the government in exchange for creating new jobs, Gov. Bill Haslam found a compromise. The state plans to let Amazon off the hook for sales tax collections until 2014, or until the federal government comes up with a national plan.

The governor has rejected suggestions that Amazon’s tax collections in two years will have the same effect as a tax increase on the people of Tennessee. Lawmakers have as well.

“I do not see this as a tax increase at all. They’re paying the taxes that, in my opinion, they owed anyway,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters earlier this month.

Last fiscal year the state collected just over 3,000 consumer tax returns with an average of $1,500 in money to cover their tax on online purchases.

TNReport traded emails this week with Linda Kelley, the director of taxpayer and vehicle services in the Tennessee Department of Revenue, about the rules behind online sales tax collections.

TNReport: Is it illegal for customers to skip out on paying sales taxes on online purchases when the seller, such as Amazon.com, doesn’t collect the taxes?

KELLEY: When someone buys merchandise online or through a catalog, and the seller of the merchandise does not collect sales tax, the consumer who purchased the item has a legal obligation to file and pay use tax on the merchandise. This generally occurs when a user purchases articles from an out-of-state dealer not registered for Tennessee tax. This use tax has been on the books since 1947 and is the same rate as the sales tax. (Tennessee Code Annotated Section 67-6-203). The Department of Revenue’s Sales & Use Tax Guide provides additional information on “Who is Liable for Use Tax” on Page 9.

TNReport: How much did the state lose this year in online sales tax collections?

KELLEY: It is not possible for us to answer this question because the data is simply not available.

TNReport: How many people actually do pay their online sales taxes to online retailers? And how much did they pay last budget year?

KELLEY: During fiscal year 2011, 3,041 consumer use tax returns were filed with the Department. These taxpayers voluntarily remitted a total of $4,783,583 for the period.

TNReport: When do they pay the tax?

KELLEY: Depending on the frequency of purchases, consumers must file the use tax return and pay the taxes either monthly, quarterly, semiannually, or annually. The return is due on the 20th of the month following the close of the applicable period. Consumers can e-file their consumer use tax via Revenue’s Web site at http://www.state.tn.us/revenue/onlinefiling/salesanduse/salestaxefile.htm.

TNReport: What is the penalty for individual taxpayers for not paying the tax on internet purchases?

KELLEY: There is a range of penalties imposed, depending on the specific circumstances. Taxpayers who are delinquent in paying the tax are charged a penalty of anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent plus interest, depending on the length of time they have been delinquent. If the failure to pay taxes is determined to be due to negligence, the taxpayer would face a penalty in the amount of 10 percent of the tax due along with interest. If a failure to pay taxes is determined to be due to fraud, the taxpayer would receive a 100 percent penalty along with the interest due.

Amended Amazon Pact Applauded, Panned

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam — with an Amazon executive and several state legislators standing with him — announced a new agreement between the state and the company Thursday calling for Amazon to collect sales taxes starting in 2014.

But the rumbling in what has been one of the state’s most controversial issues was not put to rest.

Other retailers, who have fought Amazon because of its advantage in not collecting sales taxes as an online business, immediately criticized the deal. They cited the time element, saying the deal still gives Amazon more than two years, including three holiday shopping seasons, of what brick-and-mortar retailers believe is special treatment.

“If Amazon can agree to start collecting the sales tax in one year in California, why should we have to wait one day longer in Tennessee?” asked Mike Cohen, spokesperson for the Alliance for Main Street Fairness in Tennessee, in a formal statement.

“How many Tennessee jobs are lost, how many Tennessee businesses will close because the state grants Amazon a huge price advantage by not having to charge sales taxes?”

The Haslam announcement, made at the Capitol, also brings a commitment from Amazon to create a total of 3,500 full-time jobs and thousands of seasonal jobs in the state in a $350 million investment by the company, which ups the number of 1,500 jobs originally announced.

The Haslam administration said there are some standard incentive dollars for job training and basic infrastructure for new sites Amazon will be building in the state as part of the new deal. But “there are no other incentive dollars involved,” Haslam said.

Haslam said the agreement applies unless a national solution, which would bring all states under the same framework on state sales tax collections, comes first. Many people believe Congress should act to make application of sales tax law the same for online and traditional retailers.

The new agreement is a dramatic shift from the original deal struck by the state with Amazon, in which former Gov. Phil Bredesen and his team evidently agreed to allow Amazon to forego collecting sales taxes in exchange for creating hundreds of jobs with distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

Haslam had agreed to honor that original deal, and state officials Thursday insisted the new agreement does not mean the state has gone back on its word.

Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy for Amazon, appeared with Haslam at the announcement, as did Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the House finance committee, who had led a legislative effort to force Amazon to collect the taxes.

“We are proud that this world-wide brand has chosen to make such a significant investment in Tennessee and that they’re committed to expanding their presence here as well,” Haslam said.

“This agreement balances several needs, the needs of the company and the needs of the state by providing certainty to Amazon and to brick-and-mortar retailers about the collection of the sales tax. And it means more jobs for Tennesseans.”

Haslam said the agreement reached with Amazon will be presented to the Legislature when it convenes in January.

That was seen as a possible nod to a state attorney general’s opinion issued in the last week that said sales made electronically do not change a retailer’s obligation to collect the tax, although the opinion acknowledged the commissioner of Revenue has wide discretion. But Haslam said the administration probably would have gone through the Legislature anyway. Haslam said the deal was 98 percent completed before the opinion was issued.

“I’ve been asked several times over the course of the last couple of months if working on an agreement like this is doing what we said we would do as a state. The answer is yes,” Haslam said. “The scope of the project has changed, with the addition of newly planned facilities here, and that conversation in the Legislature and in states across the country has had an impact.”

Misener said the announcement was “a really remarkable event.”

“It’s a big deal for us, and I’m happy that it is also is a big deal for Tennessee,” Misener said.

The Amazon executive said his company supports efforts to streamline sales tax collections nationally.

“The sales tax issue must be resolved in Congress,” Misener said. “It’s the only way the state of Tennessee will be able to retain all the sales tax revenue that can be collected for the state.

“We are committed to going to Washington with the state’s leaders, both here in Nashville and also in Washington, to obtain that sales tax legislation as soon as possible.”

Haslam and Misener complimented Revenue Commissioner Richard Roberts and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty for their work in the negotiations. Hagerty had been scheduled to speak to the Rotary Club of Dyersburg on Thursday but cancelled to be at the Nashville announcement.

Sargent commended Amazon and the Haslam administration for negotiating the deal.

“This is very consistent with what the attorney general’s opinion has been,” Sargent said.

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate finance chair who had also sought legislation forcing Amazon to collect the tax, was not at Thursday’s event but is recovering from recent hernia surgery, his office said. McNally had suggested a potential two-year grace period on Amazon as a way to resolve the tax issue.

Haslam, noting that Misener is an astrophysicist, said negotiating the deal was “almost like rocket science. It was incredibly difficult.”

Haslam said the Department of Economic and Community Development is working with Amazon on the locations of its future distribution centers. The company recently announced plans to add a plant in Wilson County and is expected to have a larger presence in Middle Tennessee. Haslam said there would be two facilities in the state in addition to what is already in the works, one of those as a “sorting” facility.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, representing the area that has stood to benefit most in terms of jobs, had been critical of efforts to force the tax collections. But McCormick made the same announcement of the new deal in Chattanooga Thursday, emphasizing the additional jobs involved.

McCormick said there was no “arm-twisting” and that Amazon voluntarily went along with the plan. The Chattanooga Times Free Press posted a video of McCormick’s announcement.

Haslam said he didn’t believe the new deal necessarily brings additional jobs to those already planned for Hamilton and Bradley counties, but McCormick said in Chattanooga that the additional jobs would be split between Hamilton, Bradley and Wilson counties, making no mention of new Amazon sites. Haslam said there have been several communities in talks with Amazon.

“This is a significant day for Tennessee,” Haslam told reporters after the announcement. “It addresses an issue about the collection of sales taxes. This isn’t a new tax. This tax was already due. This just is a question of Amazon collecting.”

Roberts characterized the negotiations with Amazon as “challenging but forthright.”

Haslam also put Amazon’s role in online sales tax collections in perspective.

“Of the online retail sales where tax is not being collected Amazon is only about 10 percent of it,” Haslam said, adding that that is why he has called for a national solution. “It’s not just about Amazon.”

William Fox, director of economics at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research, told a regional legislative conference this summer that Amazon comprises about 5 percent of e-commerce.

California recently reached a compromise with Amazon that gives the company one year before collecting sales taxes. Roberts said the California development helped the Haslam administration’s case but that conversations had progressed substantially by that point.

“Our situation is not the same as California’s,” Haslam said. “They have an existing physical presence that has been there for years. It’s really not an apples and apples situation.”

Haslam said he and Bredesen had talked about Amazon once in the last month or so.

“I just gave him an update on where we were,” Haslam said. “We talk periodically, so it wasn’t necessarily just about this.”

Haslam characterized reaction in the Legislature to the new arrangement as being a “warm reception.”

But the Alliance for Main Street Fairness said the deal will cost Tennessee almost 8,500 jobs.

“How can that possibly be anything but bad policy?” Cohen asked in the formal statement. “Our state government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. This is the same failed policy we’re getting from Washington, and it’s not something we ought to emulate in Tennessee. Every business should be treated the same.”

The group also raised the issue of Amazon being allowed not to collect the tax given the recent attorney general’s opinion.

“Lawmakers can expect to hear from their constituents, businesses they will put at a huge disadvantage and employers that do pay the sales tax every day,” Cohen said. “It’s time for government to stop meddling in the free market by giving companies like Amazon special treatment.”

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Haslam Promises Openness On Amazon

Gov. Bill Haslam insisted Friday he has not changed his position on negotiations with Amazon.com on the collection of sales taxes and said whatever agreement might be struck with the retail giant the people of Tennessee would be informed about it.

Meanwhile, former Commissioner of Revenue Charles Trost, on whose watch the original Amazon deal was made in Tennessee, declined to comment Friday on details of the state’s current arrangement with the company. Current commissioner Richard Roberts, whom Haslam said is leading the talks for his administration, declined to comment on any talks as well.

Haslam says he wants Amazon to collect sales taxes on its transactions in Tennessee in the future, and his administration is involved in talks with Amazon on how to settle the issue of whether the company should have to collect the tax.

But Haslam’s predecessor, Phil Bredesen, struck a deal last year before leaving office where Amazon would not have to collect sales taxes as the company established large distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties, bringing more than 1,000 jobs to the state. Amazon has since announced the addition of a distribution center in Lebanon

Haslam has said he planned to honor the Bredesen agreement, which was handled with little transparency and has stirred interest among some legislators concerned about the erosion of the state’s sales tax base. Legislators from the Chattanooga area, home of the first two distribution centers, have generally supported the Bredesen deal because of the jobs it creates.

Negotiations between the Haslam administration and Amazon have raised questions on exactly what the arrangement might become and whether it represents a shift in the state’s policy.

“Nothing has changed from the state’s commitment at all,” Haslam said Friday. “We are in ongoing discussions with Amazon. Everybody knows that. We’d love to see them grow more. Number two, there is quite a bit of discussion in the Legislature about exactly how that should work out.

“I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t say I’d love for them (Amazon) to collect sales tax.”

The governor has said all along he would like to get the definition of the state’s long-term relationship with Amazon nailed down. He has also said there needs to be a national solution to the issue of online retailers collecting sales taxes, and Amazon officials have said they believe a national approach is best.

But given the continuation of talks with Amazon, the future of the state’s arrangement continues to be scrutinized.

Trost, a Nashville attorney who replaced Reagan Farr as commissioner of Revenue last Sept. 10, would not comment on details of the Bredesen deal.

“I really am not in a position where I can,” Trost said. “The taxpayer confidentiality rules have put me in a position where I just don’t even want to start down the road talking about it.”

Trost said he is not even in a position to confirm that the deal was struck while he was commissioner.

“What’s in the public record out there, if you looked at the timing on it, when I was in office, you can draw your own conclusions,” Trost said.

“It’s just not a topic I feel comfortable talking about to the press or anybody else. It’s just … I’ve thought about this … I’m no longer the commissioner. There is a new administration. There is a new commissioner. The issue is still in the public domain for discussion. I think my best policy is not to add myself to the discussion.”

The Amazon arrangement was made late in Bredesen’s time in office. Bredesen informed the incoming governor, Haslam, of the deal with the explanation that if Amazon were not given the break on tax collections, the company might have put its facility in Georgia.

“I have the utmost regard for Governor Haslam, Governor Bredesen, my successor as commissioner and my predecessor as commissioner,” Trost said. “There’s a new group dealing with these issues, and I’m just not going to get into it. That’s the only position I can take.”

Roberts had a similar response.

“I can tell you that the state statutes prohibit me from discussing any taxpayer, whether it be you or Billy Bob’s Bait Shop or an unnamed major Internet retailer,” Roberts said. “Just as a matter of policy we simply can’t comment on individual taxpayers.”

Roberts said he cannot confirm that the administration is talking to Amazon.

“Our policy here requires that we maintain confidentiality. The reason is we have to give any taxpayer the confidence that what they file with us and their dealings with us will not wind up in the public domain. Until the legislature changes that — and I also believe it’s the right policy — I just simply can’t confirm or deny,” Roberts said.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, speaking to reporters Friday, picked up on the issue of discussing the talks.

“I can’t quite tell what the governor’s position on this is, but we are making a mistake by talking about our discussions with Amazon without having some kind of firm agreement with them,” Berke said.

“One of the rules of economic development over the last several years is that we don’t talk about ongoing discussion. Now, if there’s going to be an agreement, we should have an agreement with them before we start talking about it.”

Two lawmakers have filed legislation that would require Amazon to collect the sales tax. When one of the sponsors, Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, suggested a two-year grace period on collecting the tax might be an answer, Haslam said that would leave the arrangement uncertain.

Haslam said Friday he has not personally had any direct conversation with Amazon, with Roberts taking the lead.

“We’re going to honor our commitment to them, but we would love to figure out a way long-term for them to pay (collect) sales tax and to build an employee base here,” Haslam said.

The issue has become ticklish for the state since it is highly interested in increasing the number of jobs in Tennessee, but there is a concern that it creates a double standard that hurts other retailers who collect the sales tax.

An opinion from state Attorney General Robert Cooper said distribution centers, like the ones Amazon is constructing, would present enough physical presence to require the tax collection and that the legislation sponsored by McNally and Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, would be constitutionally defensible.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has expressed frustration that he cannot learn the specifics of the Amazon deal, and at one time Ramsey attempted to meet with Matt Kisber, commissioner of Economic and Community Development under Bredesen, about the arrangement. But Ramsey has said he never got his answers from Kisber.

Haslam was asked Friday if, when an arrangement with Amazon is reached, the public would be informed what it is.

“Sure,” Haslam said. “You bet. You bet.”

Haslam was also asked about the time frame for a deal.

“It’s too early to say that,” he said. “We’re in discussions with them. I’d love to have some sort of agreement with them where we all do that by the time the Legislature comes back (in January). Remember, in the context of all this, there’s quite a bit of controversy in the Legislature about how this should go forward. So it’s not solely an administration decision what happens here.

“We’d love to come to an agreement that works where the Legislature says, ‘OK, that’s the right approach for the state of Tennessee long-term,’ and Amazon says, ‘Great, we can live with that, and we will grow and expand in Tennessee.'”

A call Friday to the media office at Amazon’s corporate headquarters was not returned.

Haslam said he does not believe the attorney general’s opinion has changed the administration’s approach to the issue.

“Obviously, the Legislature is a major factor in what gets worked out with anything in the state of Tennessee. It’s not different with Amazon than any other item, and so I think Amazon is aware of that,” Haslam said.

“We’re continuing to have conversations. I’m not going back at all in what the state has told Amazon. I’d like to work out something where we took this issue off the table, and Amazon says, ‘Great, we can live with that,’ the state of Tennessee says, ‘Great, we can live with that, too,’ and we have a great relationship.”

Haslam said he did not believe the recent announcement of the distribution center in Lebanon changed the dynamics of the negotiations with Amazon, and he noted that the company has talked of even more distribution centers in the state. Haslam also pointed out that individuals who buy an item online are supposed to pay the tax regardless of the business’s status.

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