Posts

House Dem Leaders Join Protest Against Haslam’s Workers’ Comp Revamp

A few dozen people, including members of the Tennessee AFL-CIO and other labor groups, gathered on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday afternoon to express their opposition Gov. Haslam’s proposed changes to workers’ compensation.

The ralliers, waving signs and chanting “Save Workers’ Comp,” were joined by Democratic leaders from the state House of Representatives who address the crowd and promised to continue to oppose the reform measure, House Bill 194, sponsored by Republican Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner had strong words for the governor and GOP supermajority on the matter, calling the legislation “just wrong,” “shameful” and “immoral.”

“This administration and this legislature have cut every tax they could cut on the wealthy and they’re paying for it on the backs of working people,” said the Old Hickory Democrat. “This workers comp bill is just one more example of that and it may be the worst of all that I have seen.”

Among a myriad of changes to current workers’ comp policy, the proposed overhaul would tighten the definitions of workplace injury, change the way benefits are calculated, and move the final say in adjudicating disputed claims from the courts to a governor-appointed panel.

Opponents argue that the net effect of the legislation would be to reduce benefits for workers who are injured on the job. Supporters contend that a revamp is needed to help Tennessee compete in attracting companies.

In a video posted on the governor’s Youtube channel last month, Haslam called the current workers’ comp system “outdated” and said the changes would help both workers and businesses by simplifying the process. “This system will help employees to receive their benefits faster…At the same time, it will give employers more certainty in what has been a complex, unpredictable and often inefficient process,” Haslam said. “This proposal builds on our ongoing efforts to make sure that we have an attractive business climate that encourages investment in Tennessee.”

During his state-of-the-state address two months ago, Haslam linked his plans for workers’ compensation changes to his legislative push to cap civil lawsuits during his first year in office.

“To provide certainty to businesses, we overhauled our tort laws,” the governor told lawmakers at the Jan. 28  joint session of the General Assembly. “To build on those efforts, this year we’re proposing legislation to reform our worker’s compensation laws. During my first year in office, I held business roundtables across the state where we heard from businesses over and over that worker’s comp is an issue in Tennessee. We spent last year working with stakeholders to find ways to improve our system with a focus on fairness to both the employee and employer, and we believe the worker’s comp bill we’re proposing does just that.”

But House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, echoing an argument often heard from lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, told ralliers that Haslam’s plan in fact creates more government red tape.

The bill, argued the Ripley lawmaker, would add “another administrative branch, basically, to government which is something that we certainly don’t need to do. We have the court system that’s working well–we’re going to put another agency on top of this that;s not well-thought-out, that’s not funded and can only have bad circumstances.”

Fitzhugh also expressed concern that the governor’s plan was being rushed through the legislature without examining all facets of the issue. “The costs [to employers] are coming from medical costs and this bill doesn’t even touch those at all, it only looks at the already-reduced benefits to an injured employee,” Fitzhugh told the crowd.

Rally participants vowed to keep trying to persuade Haslam to drop his push on the legislation, moving the event indoors to present the governor’s office with a thick stack of letters from workers in the state expressing their opposition. But it appears unlikely that the measure will face much resistance as it moves through the Republican-dominated Legislature.

The house version of the bill has survived three committee votes and is scheduled to go before the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee Wednesday. The Senate version, SB200, has been sent to the Calendar Committee for scheduling on the Senate floor.

Ramsey Touts Accomplishments Under Republican-Controlled State Government

Statement by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; May 18, 2012:

Dear Friend,

Earlier this month, the 107th General Assembly concluded its business.

My goals for this legislature were the same ones I had when first elected: give the people of Tennessee what they have asked for: more jobs, less spending and smaller government.

Now, with partners like Governor Bill Haslam and Speaker Beth Harwell, we have truly been moving the conservative ball forward. I have often said that it matters who governs. Over the past two years, we have proved why.

In our first year of unified Republican government, we put conservative principles into action by instituting landmark education reform, tax cuts and smaller government.

This year we again heeded the call of voters to make government smaller, more efficient and customer friendly. These are things I have championed throughout my career in the legislature.  But now, with a Republican Governor and Speaker of the House, we have become a transformational force for good government in Tennessee.

Representing the People

This General Assembly worked diligently and efficiently to get our work done on time – adjourning earlier than at any point in the last 14 years and using the least amount of legislative days since 1984.

This achievement not only saves considerable taxpayer dollars it restores the great virtues of our citizen legislature. To those who have only observed Tennessee politics for the last few decades it might appear the legislature got out “early” by adjourning in early May. This is a common misconception I intend to erase. We got out on time. Period.

Tennessee does not have a full-time legislature and, if I have anything to do with it, we never will. By allowing session to drag on into June or July year after year our Democrat predecessors succeeded only in creating more government and allowing the people’s representatives to get farther and farther away from their constituents. It is almost impossible to represent people with whom you are only tangentially connected or a community in which you only nominally reside.

Legislators should do the business the people ask of them in Nashville – and get back home. The cause of small, efficient and responsive government requires it.

Shrinking government and cutting taxes

This year, the state of Tennessee is budgeted to spend $31.1 billion – nearly $1 billion less than our current operating budget. These are real cuts, not the phantom cuts of Washington where removing anticipated increases in spending counts as a cut.

Tennessee budgeted conservatively this year. We worked with revenue that we actually had rather than “projected” revenue we “expected” to have. We balanced this budget much like you and your family balance your own. Unified Republican government did away with the gimmicky accounting of the past and relied on tangible revenue numbers.

Not only did we shrink government, we returned money to the taxpayers. We gave every Tennessean tax relief by again reducing the food tax – reductions previous Democrat regimes refused to make.

We also set a course for the ultimate elimination of the death tax – a tax that punishes small farmers and businessmen seeking to provide for the next generation.

Tennessee plunged a stake into the heart of this insidious tax that attacks the very essence of the American Dream. Unlike Washington, Tennessee plans for the future and encourages those in our citizenry to do likewise. I am proud that this General Assembly was the one that finally brought the death tax before the reaper.

Coupled with the elimination of the gift tax, this General Assembly cut taxes by more than $50 million this year, resulting in the release of capital and the creation of jobs.

Tennessee Republicans used to be limited in what we could do. Operating under a Democrat Governor and House Speaker, my office had to play defense against Big Government Democrats leaving across the board conservative governance as merely a dream for some future place and time. That place is here and that time is now.

Now, we have the numbers to enact our conservative principles. And with your help we will enlarge our majority so that no one stands in the way of true conservative government ever again.

Reforming State Government

One of our most transformative legislative achievements this session was the passage of Gov. Haslam’s TEAM Act. A revolutionary step in state government, the TEAM Act will help us attract, retain and promote the best applicants and employees in state government. Excellence will now be rewarded when it is achieved, just as it is in the private sector.

This year also marked the passage of our major unemployment insurance reform. Republicans heard the clamor and saw the need for legislation that results in job creation and we filled the void.

The Unemployment Accountability Act of 2012 strengthens the definition of employee misconduct to ensure that those who have been fired for cause no longer receive benefits. We instituted new work search requirements for unemployment beneficiaries, encouraging the use of existing state infrastructure to help return the unemployed to the job market.

Nothing cures both economic and social ills like a good job. Having a job doesn’t just fulfill a man or woman’s economic need but their spiritual need as well. It bestows upon them a sense of self-worth which permeates all aspects of life.

This reform will be a boon not only for job creators by protecting them from fraud and abuse – it also aids job seekers by pushing them towards the job market.

Another important piece of the Republican job creation package was our “loser pays” tort reform. Businesses don’t mind taking risks but they have to be calculated ones. “Loser pays” will free employers from the time and cash consuming drudgery of frivolous lawsuits and allow them to do what they do best: employ people.

The fight against addiction

This General Assembly has also taken on crime passing bills attacking domestic violence, criminal gangs and drugs.

Most important to me is the fight against synthetic drugs, which have become an epidemic in Northeast Tennessee. Many lives have been lost due to this scourge and I was proud to be part of the team fashioning a solution. Bills passed in this General Assembly banned chemical compounds used in illegal synthetic drugs, no matter how criminal chemists continue to modify them  Our new measure will keep the law ahead of the drug pushers.

We also began a program to drug test those receiving government assistance.  This will end the taxpayer subsidy of illegal drugs. We as a society are never going to prevent every motivated user from consuming drugs – but we certainly don’t have to pay for it.

This is why we constructed a constitutionally sound bill that will allow us to remove drug users from the welfare rolls while offering them help. This protects taxpayers and attacks addiction. It is a win-win for Tennessee.

Protecting citizenship

While we continue to implement our new Photo ID law protecting citizenship at the ballot box, we have taken further steps to protect the rights of citizens.

While I’m a conservative who believes in personal responsibly and limited government, we as a society do need to provide some sort of safety net.  However, that net must be for citizens only. That is why I aided passage this session of the Eligibility Verification Act.  It ensures that only those in the United States legally receive any taxpayer-funded benefit.

Again, this is common sense but it was left undone by our Democrat predecessors.

Tax cuts, smaller government and job creation – this is conservative government in action. It is what Tennesseans asked for and it is what Tennessee shall get as long as you allow me to serve as Lt. Governor.

I humbly appreciate the support of all Tennesseans as the legislature continues to work hard to make Tennessee the best state in the nation in which to live, work and raise a family.

Sincerely,

Ronald L. Ramsey

Lieutenant Governor

Speaker of the Senate

 

GOP Looks at Changes to Workers’ Comp, Regulatory Burdens

A handful of Tennessee Republicans are wrapping up their study of small businesses for the year, but they’re unsure how the fruits of their labor will turn into legislation in 2012.

At the direction of House GOP leaders, a task force of 10 representatives has spent the last four months meeting with business owners across the state to figure out what would make the Volunteer State’s business environment more attractive.

The House Republican Small Business and Economic Development Task Force, which met Monday for its final time this year, is recommending the caucus consider:

  • Enacting new tort reforms.
  • Modifying workers’ compensation to make it more competitive with neighboring states.
  • Focusing educational institutions on preparing students for in-demand jobs.
  • Reducing or eliminating business regulations.

The problem, according to Chairman Jimmy Matlock, is the suggestions are short on details.

“We’re, at this point, still in general terms,” said Matlock, R-Lenoir. “What we tried to do was listen to what business folks were asking from government. … We’re not really out there to throw a lot of legislation at this.

“I don’t think you’re going to see 50 new bills coming out. I think you’re going to see a few serious bills coming out of this.”

The task force was formed in July by House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick, who asked the lawmakers to identify regulations that impede job growth, study the best practices from other states and develop strategies to make the state’s business environment more attractive.

The task force will hand over its recommendations to McCormick in the next two weeks, said Matlock, although the panel may refine its recommendations as lawmakers head back to Nashville for the spring legislative session.

State leaders have made it their mission to probe Tennessee businesses about what they want out of state government after the dust settled from this year’s Legislative session.

Gov. Bill Haslam held a series of business roundtable discussions across the state this summer and is expected to build the recommendations into his legislative priorities next year. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is tackling much of the same issues in his “TN Red Tape” tours to talk to business owners about ways the government can lighten up on regulations.

And Democrats from both chambers have toured the state asking businesses what they want out of government as they draft their own ideas for job-creating bills to pitch next year.

Changes to how the state handles its unemployment system didn’t make the cut on the House GOP task force’s list of recommendations, Matlock said.

Some members, including Matlock, had echoed concerns they heard this fall from business owners that some claimants were running out their unemployment benefits instead of taking jobs. But the panel ultimately decided to stay away from recommending unemployment reforms.

Ramsey has been the most vocal about wanting changes to how the state polices people collecting unemployment benefits long-term and suggested the state build in requirements on jobless workers to prove they’re looking for work.

Haslam has said he’s heard similar rumors about people collecting unemployment benefits turning down jobs, and a U.S. Department of Labor report indicates Tennessee has overpaid those benefits to the tune of $311 million over three years.

Kelsey Tort Reform Legislation Aimed at ‘Minimizing Doctrine of Joint Liability’

Press Release from Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Oct. 26, 2011: 

(NASHVILLE, TN), October 26, 2011 — State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) today introduced three tort reform bills to help job growth.  The bills will help provide more fairness and certainty in Tennessee lawsuits. Specifically, the bills ensure that defendants pay only their fair share of judgments, that the General Assembly does not unintentionally create new lawsuits, and that the ability of trespassers to sue homeowners and business owners is limited.

The three bills comprise Senator Kelsey’s fourth installment of his 12 for ’12 initiative for the next legislative session, which is set to convene January 10, 2012.

“These bills will continue to help job growth in Tennessee by providing predictability and common sense in the law for businesses that want to locate in Tennessee,” said Sen. Kelsey.

SB 2141 provides for the direct apportionment of damages according to fault, minimizing the doctrine of joint liability. “This is a matter of fairness.  If a jury finds you 20% at fault, you should be required to pay only 20% of the damages,” said Sen. Kelsey.

SB 2140 provides that a citizen may only sue under a law passed by the General Assembly when such a right is expressly stated in the law.  The bill does not affect the right to sue on traditional common law theories of recovery.

“This bill makes it easier on judges, who no longer have to figure out whether the General Assembly did or did not intend to create a new way to sue,” said Sen. Kelsey.  “The bill gives fair notice to Tennessee businesses of when they should expect a lawsuit.”

SB 2142 clarifies premises liability, the area of law which defines a landowner’s duty to those who enter his land.

Referring to the case of Hudson v. Gaitan, decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1984, Sen. Kelsey said, “The last couple of decades have seen some changes to our premises liability jurisprudence.  This bill will allow homeowners and business owners to rest secure that they are not responsible for injuries to a trespasser.”

The bill provides exceptions for harms to children and harms to those the landowner knows are entering the property.

Sen. Kelsey views these three bills as a follow-up to last year’s successful Civil Justice Act, which he sponsored along with others in the Senate for Governor Bill Haslam.  The Civil Justice Act addressed current problems with Tennessee tort law.

“Unlike last year’s successful Civil Justice Act, these bills are more preventative in nature.  They will ensure that Tennessee remains open for business for years to come,” concluded Sen. Kelsey.

Matheny Predicts More Tort Reform at Doctors Town Hall

House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny says the Legislature will probably seek more tort reform next year, and Gov. Bill Haslam, no fan of the new federal health care law, says it’s time to start talking about how to implement the new act anyway.

Those developments show that health care issues remain very much on the table for Tennessee. While tort reform is usually thought of as a legal issue, proponents of limiting malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits have cited litigation as a driver of health care costs.

Matheny, R-Tullahoma, told a Doctors Town Hall audience at Lipscomb University in Nashville on Saturday that he hopes this year’s tort reform legislation is only “the first step of several steps in issues we hope to deal with in regard to tort reform.”

During a break in the formal discussion, Matheny elaborated on those plans and pointed to a so-called “loser pays” effort that could be the next measure in tort liability in Tennessee.

“I just know the General Assembly is very interested in additional tort reform,” Matheny said.

“‘Loser-pays’-type scenarios are ones we will look at, especially with regard to what would be perceived as malicious lawsuits.”

Matheny said potential legislation would address situations where there are possibly second or third appeals in cases.

“A case in point would be if somebody filed a third appeal and the answer was the same as the first two, whether both are in the negative or both in the positive. That person would be responsible for the legal fees,” he said.

The approach would be to confront those who are seen as abusing the system. It would follow a tort reform measure passed this year and spearheaded by Haslam that put caps on non-economic damages in civil cases at $750,000, although the law creates exceptions in cases that involve intentional misconduct, destruction of records or activity under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Those caps go to $1 million in what are categorized as “catastrophic” cases, which are defined in the law as conditions of paraplegia, quadriplegia, amputation, especially severe burns or the wrongful death of a parent leaving minor children. The new law also caps punitive damages at two times compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.

Matheny said he would like to see the caps in the law go even lower — to around $250,000 or $300,000 — but he said he did not foresee the Legislature taking that path.

“There will probably be a lot of (tort reform) legislation filed, but there will probably be one thing that rises to the top and is carried by the body,” Matheny said. “I don’t know what that will be yet, but I think there will be some additional tightening.”

Matheny said he has not spoken to Haslam about further tort reform and that Haslam probably wants to give the most recent law a chance to take effect. But there seems to be little doubt that the Legislature is prepared to consider further steps on the topic.

“It’s important to remember that sometimes progress is made in baby steps and after a three- or four-year period maybe we can look back and really see some true progress,” Matheny said.

Spine surgeon says government doesn’t help

The town hall audience Saturday at Lipscomb was an overwhelmingly conservative crowd, with 10 panelists and audience members expressing dislike of the 2010 federal health care overhaul.

Dr. Lee Heib, a spine surgeon and president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, spoke of her practice as a small business owner.

“If you have to run a small business, if you have to produce something, when has the government come in and made your job easier or more cost-effective? It’s never done that. Trust me, it doesn’t do it in medicine either,” she said.

Andrew Schlafly, general counsel for AAPS, who went to law school with President Barack Obama, said the fundamental problem with the new health care law is that it forces citizens to purchase coverage.

“That is the foundation of it, and that is basically un-American,” Schlafly said. “To force people to buy something you don’t want to buy, it’s never been done before. You can look through the Constitution. You can read it backward and forward and ask yourself, ‘What gives the federal government the authority to force us to buy something we don’t want to buy?'”

That’s the question raised by the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan, which has asked the Supreme Court to review a lower court decision upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati, ruled against the center earlier this summer, finding the law to be constitutional.

Legal challenges regarding the act also are pending in the Fourth and 11th circuits. It has not been determined if the high court will take up the issue.

The town hall meeting included state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, who spoke to the audience of about 125 people about her Tennessee Health Freedom Act (SB079), which Haslam has signed, which says government cannot force a person to purchase a product as the new federal law does, and prevents penalties against those who wish to opt out of the system.

Beavers also touted her Health Care Compact legislation (SB326), a states’ rights measure, which would allow states to join forces to control their health care funds. That bill passed in the state Senate this year but not in the House.

Ben Cunningham of Tennessee Tax Revolt told the audience the federal health care overhaul would be such a burden on the state it would force talk of a state income tax.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, spoke of Tennessee’s problems with TennCare as an example of what can go wrong with government-run health care.

Haslam: State should prepare to implement health care act

Haslam, meanwhile, said in a recent interview that time is a factor in whether to address the new federal health care legislation, commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” which has been overshadowed recently in Washington. The most significant aspects of the law do not kick in until 2014, but the law requires states to be ready in several ways when that time comes.

“I quite frankly am surprised that as the clock ticks closer to 2014 there’s not more conversation,” Haslam said.

But he noted one group is paying very close attention to the issue.

“There is a lot of conversation among governors, saying, ‘We need to be prepared to implement this if it does happen,'” Haslam said, adding that “it would be irresponsible not to.”

The 2010 election year brought a significant uproar about the new law, with talk of repealing it after a new Congress was put in place. But Haslam, who opposes the plan, said the furor about the law has seemed to subside since then.

“A year ago, in the middle of the campaign, that was all the talk,” Haslam said. “I don’t know if in Washington the whole budget and debt issue has eclipsed everything else. I don’t know if that’s the situation.”

The foremost issue in the new law is for states to set up exchanges — marketplaces involving competing insurance plans — where people would shop for what best fits their needs. States must set up their own exchanges or allow people to move into a federal exchange.

Tennessee is already working with various stakeholders and what are known as Technical Assistance Groups (TAGs) on the state’s options. The state is accepting comments and questions about the exchange process at insurance.exchange@tn.gov.

Haslam said the law’s implementation in Tennessee would likely be run through TennCare and the state Department of Finance and Administration. A finance spokeswoman referred questions on the matter to TennCare.

“We’re still watchfully waiting for guidance from CMS,” said Alyssa Lewis, communications manager for TennCare, referring to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “We’re seeing what’s going to happen when there is more certainty. It’s to see what the options are, and what the appropriate options are for Tennessee.”

TNReport.com is an independent, nonprofit news organization supported by generous donors like you!

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.

Freshman Rep. Elam Touts Accomplishments of TN’s ‘Historic Conservative Majority’

Press Release from the House GOP Caucus, June 8, 2011:

Mount Juliet Legislator Calls First Session the Most Successful in Tennessee History

(NASHVILLE, June 8, 2011) – After years of near one Party control in Tennessee politics, Republicans won control of the Governor’s mansion, Senate, and House for the first time in the history of the State. Representative Linda Elam (R—Mount Juliet) played a key role in the opening session of the 107th General Assembly and Tennesseans immediately benefitted from the conservative leadership.

“It is an honor to be a part of such a historic conservative Majority,” remarked Rep. Elam. “Tennesseans understand we pushed through a conservative, pro-growth agenda that reflects their values. They can take heart that, finally, their Representatives in Nashville are listening to them.”

The first Session was marked by conservative milestones many Tennesseans have worked hard to see come to fruition. Among those items:

  • Tort Reform: This was a key centerpiece for the Governor’s jobs agenda and the General Assembly fashioned a new law that provides certainty in the business environment. With this confidence, more companies are better able to quantify the cost of doing business and can allocate more resources to provide jobs for Tennesseans.
  • Charter Schools: The Republican Majority lifted the cap on charter schools in Tennessee, ensuring that all children across the State will have access to a high quality education. Republican legislators, like Representative Elam, understand the key to long-term job growth in Tennessee is in the training of a strong workforce.
  • Collaborative Conferencing: In a major reform unlike any seen across the country, conservative legislators pushed through a new model for education that allows all teachers to have a voice when it comes to setting education policy and removed the barriers set up by the union so our hard-working teachers can be rewarded at a higher rate.
  • Ban on Income Tax: The process was started for a constitutional amendment in Tennessee that would forever prohibit an income tax from being levied on Tennesseans. The process for an amendment is long, but this Republican Majority is united in ensuring this common sense, pro-jobs measure becomes law.
  • Government Reform: In a move to increase transparency and efficiency for taxpayers, the House eliminated a number of duplicative committees that caused confusion for many citizens trying to follow legislation through the General Assembly. With this reform, bills will travel on a streamlined path that provides Tennesseans a format to voice their concerns on legislation. Additionally, the move saved Tennesseans nearly $1 million.
  • The State Budget: Republicans passed a fiscally conservative budget that reflects the principles of Tennesseans and meets the needs of our State. Overall, the Republican Majority reduced spending by $1.2 billion and rolled back a number of areas of duplicative government programs.

While much focus was given to these high-profile pieces of legislation, there are a number of other new laws that were ushered through to make government more responsive to Tennesseans and limit the influence of government regulation. Rep. Elam helped guide a number of these bills to final passage, a noteworthy achievement for a first-year legislator. Among the legislation she co-sponsored:

  • Voter Photo ID: This bill ensures integrity at the ballot box, something Tennesseans have long asked for. Essentially, voters are asked to present a valid photo ID to obtain a ballot. Parallel legislation passed to ensure citizens who may not have an ID can obtain one for free. These laws will protect Tennessee from having to deal with ballot box abuse and voter fraud.
  • Welfare Reform: This new law will prevent abuse of the Families First benefits program. It places common sense requirements on those utilizing taxpayer-funded benefits such as a prohibition against drug use or enrollment in a drug treatment program.
  • Voting Reform: This new law authorizes the coordinator of elections to compare the statewide voter registration database with the department of safety database, relevant federal and state agencies, and county records to ensure non-United States citizens are not registered to vote in this State.
  • Veterans’ Families: This legislation extends property tax relief to the surviving spouse of a soldier whose death results from being deployed, away from any home base of training and in support of combat operations. This was one way to honor the sacrifice our soldiers make in the line of duty.
  • Wilson County: Representative Elam guided a bill designating the bridge at State Route 109 and U.S. Highway 70 in Wilson County as the “Spc. Michael Lane Stansbery, Jr.” bridge to honor one of Wilson County’s fallen soldiers.

In reflecting on the reforms passed by the House of Representatives in her first term, Rep. Elam stated, “I tailored my personal record—the votes I took, the legislation I carried—to the wishes of my constituents. I heard them loud and clear last fall when they told me they wanted a government that is limited and respects our constitutional rights.” She continued, “Over the summer, I look forward to traveling around the 57th District and listening to the people once again. I am eager to get their feedback, bring it back to the Capitol next year, and work hard to make the Volunteer State an even better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

For a complete listing of Representative Elam’s legislative record, click here.

Harwell’s End-of-Session Recap

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, Posted the Following Letter on Facebook, June 3, 2011:

The first session of the 107th General Assembly adjourned late Saturday night, May 21st, after we aggressively worked the last several days to finish our business. We have a long list of accomplishments to point to, proving that it does matter who governs.

Governor Bill Haslam, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and I were united in our belief that in order to make government sustainable, we had to transform the way we did business. We made significant progress this year reducing the size of government, paving the way for job creation, and reforming education.

In addition, we adjourned earlier than we have in the past couple of decades. Compared to last year, our early adjournment saved taxpayers nearly half a million dollars in legislative operational expenses. We have shown that we take the responsibility of governing very seriously, and we will stay true to our principles as we do so.

Our top priority was a balanced budget with no new taxes or tax increases. This year’s budget is $1.2 billion less than last year’s. This includes $82.2 million in specific recurring reductions. The budget also fully funds education, and tucks money away in the Rainy Day Fund for the first time in three years, raising it to $327.7 million.

We had many accomplishments this year, including but not limited to the following:

  • Tort reform – Republicans have also fought for years to see passage of comprehensive tort reform legislation, and this year we were successful in passing a bill that will pave the way for jobs in Tennessee. This legislation will create an environment of predictability and certainty for businesses as they look to expand.
  • Tenure Reform – Our goal is to make sure our teachers are equipped with the best tools possible to educate Tennessee students. We want an effective teacher in front of every classroom, and we want those who are excelling to be rewarded. This proposal is absolutely key to education reform.
  • Charter Schools – Charter schools have a proven track record in Tennessee, and I am delighted that we are giving this opportunity to even more students. Every student in the state of Tennessee deserves the very best we have to offer in education, and charter schools play a huge role in reaching that goal.
  • Collaborative Conferencing – The legislature also acted on a bill that repealed the Education Professional Negotiations Act and moved to a collaborative bargaining process that will open a direct line of communication between teachers, administrators and school boards.
  • Reduction of Meth Amphetamines – We are always trying to stay one step ahead of those who manufacture meth, which is destroying our communities. Utilizing this tracking system will curb the ability of criminals to obtain key ingredients for meth, while not increasing the burden to consumers who need pseudoephedrine.
  • Election Integrity – To ensure the integrity of our elections, the legislature passed a bill to require photo identification to vote. This measure will reduce voter fraud, and make every vote count.
  • SJR 127 – The constitutional amendment will restore the right of Tennesseans to repeal or enact laws governing abortions within federal limits through their elected representatives.
  • E-Verify – This bill helps to ensure that those working in Tennessee are here legally. Illegal immigration has a large financial impact on taxpayers, and this legislation will address this problem.
  • Elimination of a dozen subcommittees – The principles of a limited and more efficient government were a priority this year. To that end, I eliminated a dozen subcommittees that I felt were duplicitous, a reform that helped us to work more efficiently.
  • Elimination of redundant committees – In times of economic hardship, taxpayers demand and deserve state government to be streamlined. To that end, we eliminated 11 “oversight” committees that duplicated the work of standing committees, saving taxpayer dollars.

We started this year with a Republican governor, and strong majorities in both chambers–for the first time in the history of our state. We set forth ambitious proposals for job creation and better schools, and due to the hard work of each state representative, we have done that. This was a very successful year.

As always, I appreciate your support. It was an honor to serve as Speaker of the House, and experience that was both humbling and rewarding. Thank you for placing your trust in me, and let me know if I can ever do anything to assist you.

Sincerely,

Beth

Party Leaders Plotting 2012 Strategies

State lawmakers may have officially begun their seven-month vacation away from Capitol Hill this month, but top legislative leaders are already evaluating this year’s performance and mapping out their plan for next year’s session and the subsequent election.

Republicans spent the just-concluded session of the Tennessee General Assembly muscling through the kind of legislation that had long been blocked when they sat in the minority. Bloodied, Democrats limped away but unabashedly promised to continue beating back the tide of GOP bills next year — with the ultimate goal of undermining the majority party’s dominance at the polls in November 2012.

In other words, next year’s legislative session may shape up to look a lot like the one that just ended.

“Tennessee Republicans have talked a lot about what we would do when we took power. Now we are showing what we can do,” Lt. Gov. Ramsey said in a statement he posted on Facebook recently. “This year was just an appetizer. Next year, and in the years to come, you will see the main course.”

Ramsey was celebrating what he dubbed a “Republican Session,” filled with policy overhauls that would have constituted mere pipe dreams prior to the 2010 election.

“With Republicans now in power, I no longer have to focus on trying to mitigate the damage of backward Democrat policies, I can lead the charge for positive change,” declared Ramsey.

House Democratic ringleaders have been making the case that the both-barrels-blazing confidence exhibited by the “cowboy down the hall” will over time misfire and jam the Republican Party’s chances of maintaining their unalloyed superiority beyond next session.

In particular, the GOP’s rough treatment of core Democratic Party constituencies  — public employee unions, trial lawyers, immigrants, gay and lesbian rights activists — will come back to shoot the Tennessee Republican Party in the foot when voters speak their minds at the polls, predicts House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

The minority-party battle plan going forward is to paint Republicans — particularly those of the Senate — as politically irresponsible, too socially conservative and too oblivious to national media perceptions about Tennessee to lead the state legislature, Turner indicted.

“We had an image that everyone is barefoot and bucktoothed with cowlicks on both sides. We came a long way to diminish some of that,” Turner said of his own party’s decades-long reign in Tennessee.

The Old Hickory firefighter specifically criticized sexual orientation-related bills like the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation — which passed in the Senate but never made it out of the House — and the Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act, passed with the support of nine Democrats in the House and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam Monday, which keeps local governments from enacting anti-discrimination mandates on businesses.

“If you look at news clips from across the country, it seemed like we made the paper a whole lot more,” Turner said of the 2011 session.

Turner, whose caucus lost 14 seats in last fall’s election and who barely survived his own tough re-election race, says Tennessee is at its core a politically moderate state, at least by Southern standards. And Republicans fanning the flames of cultural discord by pushing divisive social-issue legislation will translate into Democrats winning back centrist voters’ confidence in November 2012, Turner said.

That is, unless Speaker Beth Harwell and Republican Leader Gerald McCormick successfully pull the party leftward, he said.

“If the Republicans get back to the middle of the road, they can end up ruling for a long time in this state. But I truly believe that if they take the course they’re taking now we’ll be back in power in a very short time,” Turner said.

“Fortunately for us, it appears they’re going to be extreme, and if we can articulate our points, learn from our past mistakes, (we can) hopefully get Democrats back in power in this state,” Turner continued.

McCormick told TNReport Friday he’ll take his chances siding with Republicans of any stripe before he’ll take political advice from Turner. The Chattanooga real-estate broker said he has a hunch Tennesseans as a whole are more conservative than Democrats tend to want to believe.

“He’s always stirring the pot. That’s his job as their caucus chairman,” McCormick said, adding that he feels good about where the Republican Party is at right now. “I’ll be proud to run for re-election on our accomplishments on the first part of this session. We will certainly hold our own in next year’s election.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic Party’s Leader in the House,  warned when he was first elected to his leadership post that if Democrats don’t have a seat at the table, they’ll “be on the menu.”

Things didn’t go as badly as they could have, suggested Fitzhugh. The Democrats did, after all, vote in unanimity with Republicans on a state budget that included an unemployment-benefits extension Democrats lauded as a modest but nevertheless key legislative victory.

“We were at the table, but we certainly didn’t get the same portion as everybody else,” Fitzhugh said to TNReport on the last day of the legislative session. “We stayed at the table for a while, then we were pretty much locked out,” particularly when it came to the collective bargaining debate, which became the Legislature’s capstone bill this year.

But while Fitzhugh, too, characterized some of the Republican legislation as “extreme,” he said Democrats can’t be satisfied with watching the GOP-led action from the cheap seats assuming that come November 2012, their two-year nightmare will come to a merciful end.

“We don’t have much control over what (Republicans) put out. We have to do our best to defeat legislation we don’t think is in the best interest for the state or make it better,” the Ripley Democrat said.

Tort Reform Bill Passes Senate

The Senate delivered for Gov. Bill Haslam on one of his primary legislative objectives Thursday, passing a tort reform measure that includes caps on non-economic damages in jury awards.

The vote was 21-12, with Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, the only Republican voting against it. Faulk explained that he is a conservative and that that means believing in personal responsibility and less government, so he could not support legislating the change in the judicial system.

The measure, HB2008, still needs another trip through the House because of a minor Senate amendment before it goes to the governor, but there was a celebratory spirit among the Republican leadership and the Haslam administration outside the Senate chamber after the vote.

The bill is the second major legislative victory for Haslam, following his successful initiative on tenure reform for teachers. The House passed the tort reform bill earlier this week 72-24.

The legislation has been characterized as a jobs bill, with proponents saying it will help create an environment that would be attractive to businesses looking to relocate or expand in the state. It has been difficult to pin down lawmakers on how many jobs might be created because of tort reform.

“I believe this legislation will be an important piece of the puzzle — the mosaic as it were — that will make Tennessee more attractive for new and expanded business. I do sincerely believe that,” Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the Senate majority leader who carried the bill for Haslam, said after the vote.

“How many jobs? Nobody can say. There’s no crystal ball for that. We’ve joined the majority of states in the nation that have put a number of these reforms in place. At least on the global scale we can remain competitive.”

The Senate used well over three hours of debate before the vote. Norris and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, did most of the talking for the bill, while Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, and Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, made most of the arguments against it.

Herron was especially passionate, suggesting that caps on non-economic damages on someone who has been harmed for life could be calculated to be less than what lawmakers get in their per diem serving in the Legislature.

As advocates for the bill told individual stories related to the bill, Berke called the bill “legislation by anecdote,” which Norris said was not the case. Kelsey argued that the bill could bring certainty and predictability into the system of awards in civil suits.

The bill caps non-economic damages at $750,000. It does not cap economic damages. It also caps punitive damages at $500,000 or two times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater — although those caps would not apply in cases where the defendant’s act resulted in a felony conviction, or if records in the case have been intentionally falsified or concealed, or if the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the act.

Another key element of the bill is the establishment of a cap of $1 million in cases that are considered to be “catastrophic” in nature. That figure had been the point of adjustments throughout the legislative process. One Democratic amendment offered Thursday would have raised the caps on non-economic damages to $1.25 million and catastrophic damages at $2.25 million but was defeated.

The bill spells out which conditions are to be considered catastrophic, including spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia; amputation of two hands, two feet or one of each; third-degree burns over 40 percent or more of the body as a whole or third-degree burns on 40 percent or more of the face; or the wrongful death of a parent leaving a surviving minor child or children for whom the deceased parent had custody.

Several other attempts by Democrats to alter the bill failed, including one that would have tied caps to increases in the consumer price index and one that would have added brain damage to the list of conditions spelled out in the catastrophic category.

Herbert Slatery, Haslam’s legal counsel, said the administration seeks a better environment for businesses.

“As the governor said, the long-term impact hopefully will be to create a more predictable structure in which businesses can quantify what the risk is going to be,” Slatery said after the vote. “It’s one really important factor in how they decide to expand in Tennessee or relocate in Tennessee. It’s just a very, very important factor.

“I think that kind of structure and predictability will allow them to assume what we really want them to assume, and that’s the risk of placing capital in the marketplace. If they will invest their capital and sign guarantees and things like that to expand their businesses, and take the business risk without having to worry so much about the legal side of it, at least they will know what the risk is — more now than they did. Then they will expand and relocate, we hope.”

Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey was also in the hallway outside the Senate chamber following the vote.

Slatery’s presence in the hall was noticeable for the absence of former U.S. Sen Fred Thompson, who had been a high-profile lobbyist against the measure. Thompson was in Washington on Thursday, where he joined a group advocating for a totally different type of reform — creating a popular vote tally to determine the outcome of a presidential election.

Thompson was named a national “co-champion” of the National Popular Vote campaign, saying in a formal statement, “This is an idea whose time has come.”

Democrats had lawyerly spokesmen, however, in Herron and Berke, among others, against tort reform in Tennessee.

“Those who have done the worst will pay less of a price,” Herron said after the vote. “Those who have been hurt the most will pay more of a price.”

Herron is still looking for the problem that brought on the legislation.

“When you look and see where Tennessee ranks in terms of site selection and business rankings, we’re right at the top of the list, right now, already,” Herron said.

Norris emphasized the need to compete with other states.

“Competitiveness is important. But holding the system together and improving it along the way are also important, and I think these changes will do that,” Norris said.

“And if they don’t we’ll revisit them and fix them.”

Norris was asked what he would say to a victim who had been seriously wronged.

“That if there were not caps in damages there might be no system from which they could recover at all,” he said.

As the debate went long in the Senate, stacks of pizza were delivered to the lawmakers, with a list of other items on the calendar creating a work session that ran close to six hours. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, made special mention of the length of debate on tort reform.

“It was an excellent debate,” Ramsey told the members. “That was four hours we spent on one bill, but it deserved four hours.”

Said Slatery, Haslam’s counsel, “I thought it was a very valuable exercise and was well-evaluated.

“I was proud of how the system worked.”