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TN.gov Named ‘Best State Website’ in Nation

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; September 5, 2013:

State builds on trend of delivering award-winning digital services to citizens

NASHVILLE – The State of Tennessee’s official website, TN.gov, has been named the best state website in the country in the annual “Best of the Web” competition sponsored by the Center for Digital Government.

“With more Tennesseans going online to do business with the state, we understand that there is growing demand for mobile access to state services,” Gov. Bill Haslam said. “As we continue to look for ways to make state government more customer-focused, efficient and effective, we are grateful for this recognition that supports those efforts online.”

Recently redesigned, TN.gov was optimized for a range of screen sizes – from monitors to tablets to phones – to provide easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling. Support for retina displays, swipe gestures on rotators and collapsing menus are just a few of the ways the site has been enhanced to improve the user experience and better interact with visitors.

Since 2011, the State of Tennessee has been increasingly recognized as a leader in using technology to better serve Tennesseans and streamline operations. In addition to the state’s 2013 Best of the Web win, the Tennessee Department of Transportation was awarded a Digital Government Achievement Award for its innovative SmartWay Mobile application available on iOS and Android devices.

Less than a year ago, the state was awarded an “A-” in the biennial Digital States Survey and recognized with another Digital Government Achievement Award for the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security’s iPad kiosk app for driver license renewals.

The TN.gov redesign was completed through a unique partnership with Nashville-based NICUSA Tennessee, part of the eGovernment firm NIC’s family of companies.

UCDD Mansion Gets Dubious Honor in Beacon’s Pork Report

Last year, Wendy Askins was living the dream on taxpayer dollars. Now the former development agency official is winning prizes for it, too.

Askins used funds intended for the needy to support her own life of luxury, winning her the “Pork of the Year” title in an annual report by the Beacon Center.

The Mediterranean-style mansion that Askins purchased in rural Putnam County with money from the Upper Cumberland Development District was supposed to house poor senior citizens. But the agency’s former executive director moved in as well, outfitting the place with a sauna, chandelier and computer-controlled showers, as Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 reported.

Under the not-so-watchful eyes of elected officials charged with overseeing the agency, Askins reportedly put no fewer than five relatives on the district payroll, with a final cost to the public of $1.5 million, the report says.

The Nashville-based Beacon Center released its annual “Tennessee Pork Report” Tuesday, unveiling what the nonprofit think tank determined to be the most wasteful uses of state and local government money. The report’s authors pegged the district’s largesse as the “most egregious example of waste across the state,” prompting them to create a new title in its honor, the Pork of the Year.

Chris Thompson, mayor of Byrdstown and a member of the UCDD board, wasn’t surprised to find out that Askins’ fiasco had won.

“It’s kind of like government gone wild. If they’re going to misuse taxpayer money, they ought to be held accountable for it,” he said in a phone interview. Thompson has said he was not aware of the misspending until after certain meeting minutes showing the board OK’ing the spending were found to be bogus.

Askins and the UCDD are now reportedly under investigation by both state and federal authorities. Her lawyer told NewsChannel 5 in April there is no evidence she committed any crime, despite colleagues’ accusations of nepotism, checks that Askins wrote to herself after moving her own furniture into the mansion, and receipts showing she even paid for dog chow on the project’s account.

“There should be no way that an executive director can write a check to themselves,” said Jim Shulman, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, which held its own investigation of the Living the Dream project.

The case sparked resignations and hostility among members of the UCDD, and prompted doubts about how the state’s other development districts manage their funds.

“This isn’t an isolated incident. You have to be naïve to think that this is the only agency that this kind of thing is going on in, though maybe not as much as Living the Dream,” said Thompson.

Beacon Center executive director Justin Owen agreed, saying any of the state’s eight other development districts could be in line to win the porcine prize next year.

The Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report annually since 2004, basing its findings on government budgets, media reports, appropriations bills, state audits, and research by Beacon Center staff.

With Signing of Lawsuit Damage Limits, Haslam Caps Legislative Priority List

Gov. Bill Haslam effectively cleaned his plate of his first legislative package as governor Thursday, signing a tort reform bill that has been touted as a way to create a better climate for jobs in Tennessee.

Haslam signed the bill in a formal setting at the Capitol, making it a clean sweep on his personal legislative agenda. Haslam had previously signed three education reform bills, one at the Capitol on teacher tenure changes, one in Memphis on charter schools Wednesday and one in Murfreesboro last week on his plan to apply Hope scholarships toward classes taken in summer school.

Haslam offered no jobs package of legislation per se, stating from the start that he did not think the state could legislate new jobs — a point with which Democrats took great issue. But the closest measure to a jobs bill was Haslam’s tort reform effort, which met forceful opposition, foremost among trial lawyers who employed lawyer/actor Fred Thompson to do their high-profile lobbying on the issue.

The bill passed 21-12 in the Senate and 72-24 in the House in a Legislature with a heavy Republican majority in each chamber. The Legislature adjourned May 21, but a strong contingent of key Republican lawmakers joined the governor for the signing ceremony on Thursday.

“This was obviously one of our key pieces of legislation,” Haslam told reporters after the ceremony. “I honestly think this will help encourage a better business environment.

“I think we did it in a way that protects victims’ rights but also sets up a predictable landscape for business, and that was our goal all along.”

One interest group, the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research, had estimated 30,000 jobs a year could be created with tort reform, translating into 577 jobs a week. Throughout the legislative session, however, it became difficult to get lawmakers or other proponents to put a number on potential job creation. Haslam refused to do so on Thursday. But Haslam said that growth would be genuine.

“I’ve seen supporters of this had a number that they thought it would create. I don’t know how you quantify it. But I do think it’s real,” Haslam said.

The law, formally the “Tennessee Civil Justice Act,” places a cap of $750,000 on non-economic damages in civil cases, although it creates exceptions in cases that involve intentional misconduct, destruction of records or activity under the influence of drugs and alcohol. That cap is extended to $1 million in catastrophic cases, which the law specifies as paraplegia, quadriplegia, amputation, substantial burns or the wrongful death of a parent leaving minor children.

The law places a cap on punitive damages at two times the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.

Opponents of the bill had insisted that such decisions should be left in the hands of juries. People who had settled cases that involved severe personal suffering had been brought in to legislative hearings to help make the case against the bill. Thompson in particular had given stirring testimony about the need to leave such decisions in the hands of jurors.

Haslam made special mention Thursday of his legal counsel, Herbert Slatery, and his work on the matter.

“People on both sides of the issue were giving him a strong piece of their mind,” Haslam said of Slatery. “But he kept coming back to ‘What’s the right thing to do?'”

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said Thursday he had seen seven years as a legislator waiting for the day to come when such a bill would be signed. Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said it was more like 10.

“Ten years is the length of time we’ve toiled in this vineyard to bring true tort reform to the state of Tennessee,” Norris said. “It wasn’t until Governor Haslam came along with his vision and his focus that we were able to get it across the line.”

The law is particularly welcome in the medical profession.

“For the doctors in the state, this has been a long time coming,” said Don Alexander, CEO of the Tennessee Medical Association. “They need stability in their practices, when the largest expense is their professional liability. Now they know how to at least gauge and know exactly what to set aside to pay. They can limit their coverage a little bit more.

“This is going to make an environment in Tennnessee much more attractive to doctors to come to Tennessee.”

Alexander said that previously doctors who were trained in the state would leave the state because of a liability environment that has been “kind of toxic.”

With tort reform and education legislation completed, Haslam is likely to draw more attention now to his efforts to combat unemployment more directly.

Now that steps have been made ostensibly to create a better climate for business, the issue of job growth will get more scrutiny under the first-year governor. Haslam has made job growth in the state his top priority and has said his legislative agenda was designed for that purpose. Nevertheless, further discussion of education reforms is also expected, including issues of school calendars and the length of school days.

Mike Morrow is a correspondent for TNReport.com, an independent nonprofit news organization supported by readers like you.

WSJ: Unholy Alliance of Business, Labor Killed School Vouchers Bill

The Wall Street Journal in an editorial today lambastes Tennessee chambers of commerce and unions for helping squash a bill that would have opened up access to school vouchers for poor students in the large urban school districts.

Senate Bill 485 by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, won approval last month in the Senate but was then sent to a summer study committee by the House, meaning it can’t pass this session.

The Journal lays some of the blame at the feet of the teachers unions but saves the real zingers for the business community, calling out the chambers in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga for opposing the bill:

The Tennessee chambers aren’t nearly as opposed to public money going to private institutions when they receive the checks. A study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research discovered that over the past several years the Chattanooga Chamber has received $450,000 in state and local funds. The Nashville Chamber has received nearly $3 million in taxpayer subsidies.

We doubt a single child of officials in these chambers of commerce attends a school in the poor parts of Memphis or other places where dreams die before high school. Yet these captains of industry are willing to deny that choice to others. Business executives who really want to make the U.S. more competitive ought to stop contributing to lobbies that want to preserve the dreadful status quo.

Ramsey Rolls Out ‘Red Tape’ Website

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey said he hopes to create a “megaphone” for Tennessee small businesses by launching a website that will give them a place to air their grievances with state government.

He says the site, TNRedTape.com, which stands for “Ridiculous Employee Decisions That Affect People Every Day” will collect complaints about dealing with Tennessee government bureaucracy.

“Tell me how government red tape has affected your life. I’ll help you cut it,” Ramsey said via Twitter moments after he announced the website Monday in a press conference at Capitol Hill.

His staff will manage the website and chase down submitted complaints, such as problems applying for a business license, and try to rectify the problems.

Ramsey, who is titled the “chief red tape cutter” on the website, doesn’t know how much maintaining the website and following up on complaints will cost the state of Tennessee, he said. But “this will be best money that has ever been spent in the state of Tennessee” if they ease headaches for small businesses.

The site was applauded by representatives from the National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free-market think tank.

“The regulatory environment in our country and in our state is crushing free enterprise and job creation,” said Jim Brown, state director of the NFIB.. “A lot of folks have been talking about jobs bills. Where’s the jobs bills? And, in our minds, this is part of a jobs bill.”

TCPR: Tort Reform Means ‘More Jobs, Fewer Lawsuits’

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, March 24, 2011:

Balance, Predictability Recurring Themes of Lawsuit Abuse Reform Hearing

NASHVILLE, TN – A prevailing theme of predictability and balance seemed to repeat itself during the first public hearing on Governor Haslam’s lawsuit abuse reform package held on Wednesday by the House Judiciary Subcommittee.

While no vote was taken, a packed room that spilled into the hallways of Legislative Plaza indicated strong interest for and against reform in Tennessee’s civil justice system. A significant majority of those in attendance were sporting “More Jobs, Fewer Lawsuits” stickers in favor of reform. From lawyers to business professionals to actors, at least a dozen spoke on the topic.

“The reality is that government is unable to create jobs,” said Herbert Slatery, legal counsel to the Governor, in his opening statement. “However, we can foster an environment to attract new businesses to Tennessee. We know that decision makers for locations, expansions and investments consider factors like taxes, site suitability and risk of litigation.”

Among the highlights of Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 were:

  • Dozens of counties in Tennessee suffer from high unemployment rates from 15 to 23%.
  • Tennessee has steadily fallen down the list of “good” states in which to do business – from 10 to 22.
  • Compensatory damages are designed to make the plaintiff whole. There are no proposed caps for economic damages; there is a proposed $750,000 per injury for non-economic damages, which are competitive with neighboring states.
  • Punitive damages are to punish and deter; the legislation also proposes a cap on these damages.

Several businesses owners testified at the hearing, including service providers and a construction official whose industry is currently experiencing 22% unemployment rates. All agreed that the purpose of lawsuit abuse reform is to provide greater predictability in the civil justice system and quantification of risk, which will in turn lead to job growth throughout the state.

Former State Sen. Charlie Ross of Mississippi gave a before-and-after look of lawsuit abuse reform in his state, which he argued was the “salvation of the medical community” and led to more job and economic growth, while still preserving citizens’ access to the civil justice system.

Before lawsuit abuse reform:

  • Medical malpractice rates were increasing 25% a year.
  • Businesses were crossing state lines to relocate.
  • No large employers were considering Mississippi as a place to do business.

After lawsuit abuse reform:

  • Medical malpractice rates were 60% less than the exorbitant rates of 2004.
  • Property/casualty rates decreased.
  • Physicians started relocating to the state.
  • Toyota was among several giant employers that considered the state for manufacturing locations.

Sen. Ross concluded by urging Tennessee lawmakers to enact reform before Tennessee becomes a judicial hellhole like his state, saying that “Mississippi waited until the house was burning before calling the fire department.”

“We were very pleased with this first hearing. As we’ve said from the beginning, our goal is to educate Tennesseans about the need for and benefits of lawsuit abuse reform, and nearly everyone agreed that a balanced and fair system would be best for our state,” said Justin Owen, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee is expected to vote on the governor’s legislation next Wednesday, March 30.

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research is an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan think tank committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee. Through research and advocacy, the Center promotes policy solutions grounded in the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. For more information, visit www.tennesseepolicy.org .

TCPR: Many Benefits Would Result from Restricting ‘Lawsuit Abuse’

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, March 1, 2011:

NASHVILLE, TN – Tennesseans can expect to see job growth, more affordable health care insurance, greater access to health care (particularly in rural counties), decreases in property/casualty rates, and a more predictable civil justice system should lawmakers pass much-needed lawsuit abuse reform, a panel of legal experts recently stated at a public education forum held on the campus of Vanderbilt University.

The three-member panel of James Blumstein, a law professor at Vanderbilt University; Ted Frank, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Charlie Ross, a former State Senator in Mississippi, presented their perspectives on how Tennessee businesses and citizens would benefit from lawsuit abuse reform, or tort reform. Their experiences are based on before-and-after findings in states where reform has passed, as well as academic research discussed in a newly released white paper called Lawsuit Abuse Reform in the Volunteer State.

Panelists agreed that Tennessee’s current civil justice system is both inconsistent and unsustainable. Senator Ross, who successfully led lawsuit abuse reform efforts in Mississippi, said “Reform brought more predictability to our civil court system. Our objective was never to take away the right of someone to file a lawsuit; our objective was to create more balance, and we did that.”

Other key points included:

  • Based on reforms in other states, lawsuit abuse reform could result in 30,000 jobs a year or 577 jobs each week in Tennessee.
  • Reform could mean 67,000 more Tennesseans would have health insurance.
  • Reform means greater access to medical care, particularly in rural counties.
  • Reform could lead to legal settlements that are more in line with actual harm done.

Representatives for Focus577, a recently launched campaign to educate citizens about the need for reform in civil lawsuits, say lawsuit abuse reform is quickly becoming a hot topic for the Tennessee General Assembly. The goal of Focus577, named for the potential of 577 new jobs created each week through reform, is to educate Tennesseans of the positive legal and economic impact that lawsuit abuse reform has had in other states.

February’s forum was sponsored by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan think tank committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee. For a detailed account of the forum, see the Tennessee Report at http://tnreport.com/2011/02/talking-tort-reform.

Through research and advocacy, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research promotes policy solutions grounded in the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. For more information about lawsuit abuse reform, visit www.focus577.org or www.tennesseepolicy.org.

Study: Florida Education Progress Proves Tennessee Can Do Better

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research and the Foundation for Educational Choice, Feb. 9, 2011:

NASHVILLE, TN – Tennessee K-12 education has experienced a “lost decade”, while by comparison, a decade of revolutionary reforms has led to extraordinary K-12 achievement gains in Florida, according to a new study released today by the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice and the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. “Lessons for Tennessee from Florida’s Education Revolution” is a primer for state leaders who want to improve education results, better serve families, and close the academic achievement gap.

The study compares critical fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It found that Florida’s students, who ranked behind Tennessee in 1998, gained 20 points – the equivalent of two grade levels – to best Tennessee’s scores by nine points. Key among the study’s findings is that Florida’s Hispanic students on average are outperforming the statewide average of all Tennessee students on that test.

“Through its revolutionary, yet common-sense reforms, Florida has created a path to improvement that can work in Tennessee,” said Dr. Matthew Ladner, the study’s author, who noted that fourth-grade reading results are a reliable, commonly accepted predictor of students’ future academic trajectory. “Florida established high standards, implemented innovative testing, ended social promotion of illiterate students, rewarded effective teachers, and increased parental choice in schooling. Tennessee has done none of these, a fact that is sadly reflected in the state’s academic performance.”

In his research, Dr. Ladner found that Florida’s Hispanic students outperform or tie the statewide average of all students in 30 states, including Tennessee.

“This study and the state of Florida prove that it’s time to enact the reforms necessary to equip our children to succeed,” said Justin Owen, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free market think tank in Nashville. “Florida’s example shows that remarkable gains across demographic and economic lines are possible when policies are in place that empower parents and teachers and hold schools accountable.”

In addition to gains by the state’s Hispanic students, the academic growth of Florida’s African American students is equally impressive. Over the past decade, African American students in Florida, on average, realized a 25-point gain in reading achievement, whereas African American students in Tennessee progressed by only four points. Moreover, Florida’s low-income students gained an astounding 27 points (equivalent to nearly three grade levels) to tie with the statewide average of all Tennessee students.

“This study is more proof of what we’re seeing across the nation,” Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice, said. “When true reform occurs and parents are given the freedom to choose the education that’s best for their children, students are able to break through every barrier and truly excel. The real question is whether the adults making the decisions impacting Tennessee schools have the courage to do what’s right for the kids trapped in stagnant schools.”

About the Foundation for Educational Choice

The Foundation for Educational Choice is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, solely dedicated to advancing Milton and Rose Friedman’s vision of school choice for all children. First established as the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in 1996, the foundation continues to promote school choice as the most effective and equitable way to improve the quality of K-12 education in America. The foundation is dedicated to research, education, and outreach on the vital issues and implications related to choice and competition in K-12 education.

About the Tennessee Center for Policy Research

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research is an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan research organization that provides solutions to public policy issues in Tennessee. The Center is committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee by advancing the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government.

About Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with The Foundation for Educational Choice. He is Vice President of Research for the Goldwater Institute and coauthor of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress, and Reform.

Visit www.EdChoice.org/TNvsFL to read the full study.

TCPR Releases Updated Legislators’ Guide

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Jan. 12, 2011:

Think Tank Releases Second Edition of its Legislators’ Guide to the Issues; Policy guide offers free market recommendations on dozens of topics

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Center for Policy Research today released the second edition of its Legislators’ Guide to the Issues (pdf). The guide is a 90-page resource for state lawmakers as they confront various policy issues during the 107th General Assembly. A complimentary copy of the guide was provided to every state legislator.

“We are proud to provide a comprehensive policy guide to lawmakers for the second straight General Assembly,” said Justin Owen, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. “No other publication offers a better roadmap to a freer, more prosperous Tennessee than our Legislators’ Guide to the Issues.”

The guide also contains citations to additional resources that lawmakers, the media, and citizens alike can use to educate themselves on a range of policy issues.

The first edition of the Legislators’ Guide was essential at promoting common sense policy solutions in the state. The General Assembly advanced legislation related to nearly one-quarter of the 43 proposals in the first guide.

“Our first Legislators’ Guide served as an invaluable tool for state legislators, and we are confident that the new-and-improved guide will serve members of the 107th General Assembly well as they conduct the people’s business,” said Owen.

An electronic copy of the Legislators’ Guide to the Issues can be found online at: www.tennesseepolicy.org or downloaded here. Those wishing to purchase a hardcopy can do so by emailing info@tennesseepolicy.org or calling (615) 383-6431.

Owen to Lead TCPR

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Aug. 27, 2010:

Tennessee Center for Policy Research names new president: Former policy director Justin Owen selected to lead free market think tank

Nashville – The Tennessee Center for Policy Research (TCPR), the state’s premier free market think tank and government watchdog organization, today announced Justin Owen as its new president and executive director after a unanimous vote by the Board of Directors. Owen previously oversaw the organization’s policy initiatives as director of policy and general counsel.

“We are extremely proud of Justin’s work to advance liberty and limited government in Tennessee,” said TCPR Chairman John Cerasuolo. “He is the right person to lead this organization at a time when those principles are under attack on multiple fronts.”

Owen has served as acting executive director since the departure of Clint Brewer in June, who became the political editor of the Tennessean. In his new role, Owen will be charged with expanding TCPR’s influence as the state’s leading voice for free market policy solutions.

“I am honored to take the reins of a growing organization at this crucial time. I look forward to fighting for Tennesseans’ right to earn an honest living and provide for their families without onerous government interference,” said Owen.

Aside from managing the day-to-day operations of the organization, Owen will continue to represent TCPR on television and radio, and will maintain his regular guest columns in newspapers across the state.

Owen obtained his law degree from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis and his undergraduate degree from Middle Tennessee State University. In addition to his work at TCPR, Owen serves on the board of the Nashville Junior Chamber and is a Young Leaders Council board intern with Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee. He was also recently profiled as a “Nashville Rising Star” by the Tennessean.

TCPR is an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan organization committed to providing free market solutions to public policy issues in Tennessee. Through research, advocacy, and investigative reporting, TCPR advances ideas grounded in the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government.