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Southern Lawmakers Get Debt Management Tips from TN’s Top Auditor

Comptroller Justin Wilson, the self-described “money cop” for the State of Tennessee, talked a lot about the nuts and bolts of managing debt in a speech to the Southern Legislative Conference Sunday in Memphis.

It was a timely subject for state and local governments grappling with gaping budget holes just as political gambits are playing out over a federal debt crisis unfolding in the backdrop.

But Wilson laid it out in plain English that taking on government debt requires some basic rules anyone should recognize.

One of the recurring lines Wilson gave his audience in a ballroom of The Peabody Hotel was about “kicking the can down the road.”

He talks like a man who has seen enough of that.

“Kicking the can,” in Wilson’s view, is having the strong desire to provide a particular government service, but putting off paying for it.

It’s a common pitfall in realms of public policy-making, he said.

“It may be political. But it may be something better,” Wilson said after his speech. But still, his message resonated for any budget official who might assume too easily that funds are a sure thing down the road. He made a special note of planning for pension funds.

Wilson is one of Tennessee’s three constitutional officers attending the conference, the others being Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Treasurer David Lillard.

If there was one rule in particular Wilson implored public officials to follow it was to try to at least know what they’re getting into when they start mounting public debt. Too often, Wilson said, officials don’t understand the arrangement they approve. It’s crucial to grasp exactly what you’re signing on for, he said.

“You have to understand the transaction,” he said.

Too many times, new people get elected, don’t understand a plan they approve and become bound by the transaction.

“If you’re going to kick the can down the road, have a justification for it,” he said.

Wilson offered four basic principles:

  • Understand the transaction.
  • Explain to citizens what is being considered.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Disclose costs and risks.

Those may not sound like profound revelations, but they are steps that officials can overlook if not careful.

Defaults do happen. Wilson said there was one recently in Tennessee in Watertown. “But we think we’ve got it worked out,” he said.

Even if officials have all the bases covered, it’s wise to be prepared for unforeseen, negative events, he said.

His bottom line: It’s common sense.

“That’s all it is,” he said. “It should be self-evident.”

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Memphis or Bust: Education Reform, Debt Management Among Issues on Agenda at Lawmakers’ Conference

One-third of Tennessee’s state’s lawmakers are planning a trip to Memphis this weekend to mingle with hundreds of legislators from other Southern states.

The Southern Legislative Conference, which is closed to the public, is chaired this year by Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, of Collierville.

“It’s good for business, it’s good exposure, it’s great,” said Norris, who said the conference will bring an estimated $3 million financial boost. “From an economic development standpoint, selfishly speaking, it will be great for West Tennessee.”

The annual event is the 65th of its kind for the Southern Office of the Council of State Governments, which represents 15 states. The first meeting, according to Norris, was held in Memphis.

State lawmakers attend courtesy of state taxpayers who cover their $200 registration fee, a $176 daily per diem to cover meal and hotel expenses and 46-cents-per mile reimbursement to drive there.

Forty-five members of the Tennessee Legislature plan on attending the conference, which runs from Saturday to Wednesday. The list includes top Republicans like Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Speaker Beth Harwell, along with other high-ranking leaders like the top Democrat in the Senate, Jim Kyle, who hails from the Memphis area, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

Michelle Rhee, a charter school advocate and former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools featured in the education reform documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, is slated to lead a conference session titled “Putting Students First.” She is also the ex-wife of Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who took the job this spring.

Comptroller Justin Wilson is leading a session on the state’s debt management policies. Gov. Bill Haslam is also expected to attend.

While the conference is closed to the general public, it is open to the media and is usually attended by lobbyists, according to Norris.

Tennessee’s delegation is almost evenly split along party lines between the 29 representatives and 16 senators who signed up with legislative staff to attend the five-day conference. Here’s a list of Tennessee lawmakers planning to attend:

Senate
Tim Barnes, D-Adams
Mike Bell, R-Riceville
Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill
Lowe Finney, D-Jackson
Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis
Thelma Harper, D-Nashville
Jack Johnson, R-Franklin
Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro
Jim Kyle, D-Memphis
Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis
Mark Norris, R-Collierville
Doug Overbey, R-Maryville
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville
Jim Summerville, R-Dickson
Reginald Tate, D-Memphis
Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville

House of Representatives
Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville
Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga
Sheila Butt, R-Columbia
Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City
Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis
Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis
Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson
Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby
Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
Mike Harrison, R-Rogersville
Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville
Sherry Jones, D-Nashville
Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga
Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads
Don Miler, R-Morristown
Larry Miller, D-Memphis
Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville
Gary Moore, D-Joelton
Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington
Antonio “2 Shay” Parkison, D-Memphis
Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro
Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis
Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton
Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville
Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna
Curry Todd, R-Collierville
Joe Towns, D-Memphis
Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory
Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville

Norris Now Chairman of Southern Legislative Conference

Press Release from the Senate Republican Caucus; Aug. 3, 2010:

(CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA), August 3, 2010 — Delegates to the 64th Annual Meeting of The Council of State Governments’ Southern Legislative Conference (SLC) today elected Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, chair of the Conference.

Senator Norris is the first Tennessee Senator to serve as SLC chair since 1988. Delegates from SLC’s 15 member states unanimously elected Norris to succeed Speaker Robert W. Harrell, Jr. of South Carolina, the previous chair of the Conference. Speaker Richard Thompson of West Virginia was chosen chair-elect. Representative Billy Broomfield of Mississippi was elected Vice Chairman.

Norris is an attorney with the law firm of Adams and Reese LLP. He has served in the Tennessee Senate since 2000 and has served as Senate Majority Leader since 2007. He currently serves as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and is a member of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee; Ethics Committee; and State and Local Government Committee.

Senator Norris will preside over all Executive Committee meetings of the SLC and guide the Conference in major policy deliberations. The 65th SLC Annual Meeting will be held in Memphis, Tennessee on July 16-20, 2011.

Founded in 1947, the Southern Legislative Conference is one of four regional legislative offices operating under The Council of State Governments. The mission of the Southern office is to foster and encourage intergovernmental cooperation among its 15 member states, the largest regional coalition with common interests and goals served by the offices of the Council. By working together within the SLC and participating on its committees, Southern state legislative leaders are able to speak in a distinctive, unified voice to address the issues that affect their states and the greater region.