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Haslam Salutes State Workers Who Served in Armed Forces

Gov. Bill Haslam told a gathering Monday honoring veterans that the reason he was chosen to visit Iraq and Afghanistan this summer was because Tennessee has one of the strongest contingents of military service personnel in the country.

Haslam spoke at an event on the plaza of the Tennessee Tower in a ceremony that honored a group of state employees who are also veterans. New employees as well as some of the longest-serving employees of the state were among those recognized with certificates.

Veterans Day is Friday.

Haslam said that even though Tennessee is the 17th largest state, it has one of the highest rates of military service in the country.

He went to Iraq and Afghanistan with the governors of Nevada, Kentucky and Utah.

“We were all feeling kind of special. We were on this military jet. They were taking care of us,” Haslam said. “Finally somebody said, ‘How did you pick the four of us to go on this trip?'”

He said they were told it was because their states represented more service members per capita than other states.

“They didn’t invite us because of who we are but because of the positions that we have,” Haslam said. “I got to go somewhere I didn’t deserve because of something other people had done.”

Haslam told the crowd that they all got to enjoy Monday’s event on a warm, sunny day in Nashville “because of other less desirable places — muddy battlefields in Europe, battleships in the Pacific and hot, hot deserts in the Middle East. I could go on and on.”

Major Gen. Mike Maloan, deputy commander of the Tennessee National Guard, talked about the state’s long history of military service, dating back to 1780, before Tennessee was a state, when Col. John Sevier, who would become Gov. John Sevier, made a call to arms to fight against the British, who were defeated in the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Many-Bears Grinder, a Bronze Star Medal recipient and a veteran of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, spoke to the crowd. Haslam noted that Grinder has also lost a child in military duty.

First Lady Crissy Haslam read the records of the employees who were honored. The program’s moderator, Yvette Martinez, a press aide to Haslam, is a former Marine.

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Education

Huffman Optimistic TN’s New, Long-Form NCLB Waiver Request Will Win Approval

Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman says Tennessee is still “well-positioned” to get a waiver from the federal government on the No Child Left Behind law, although the state was caught off-guard by some criteria for the move.

Tennessee applied for a waiver in July and expected a fairly quick response. The state had also heard substantial positive feedback from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about its chances of getting the waiver.

But the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance material in September outlining what was required in the waiver process, and the state is looking at a Nov. 14 deadline to submit a revised application.

Huffman acknowledged one aspect of the guidance came “out of left field.” That item requires the state to identify 10 percent of its schools where achievement gaps are pronounced and how to address them.

The achievement gaps could be in any number of subgroups, such as how white students perform compared to non-whites, or how students from low-income families perform compared to other students.

Huffman said there is a lot of overlap in the state’s original waiver application and what is required in the follow-up, but he noted the “focus schools” in the 10 percent looking at achievement gaps presented the department with a new task in terms of requirements and specificity.

“This we did not anticipate until we opened up our guidance at the end of September,” Huffman said.

He said the state would attempt to target interventions for schools with achievement gaps, and he said competitive federal grants could provide the resources needed.

A later deadline than Nov. 14 will also be available early next year for states to apply, Huffman said.

“People have suggested only 5 or 10 states are positioned to get a waiver in the first round, primarily because most states have not gone down the path on some of the things we’ve gone down the path on,” Huffman said in a presentation this week to the Tennessee State School Board. “So I think we’re well-positioned relative to our peers to get a waiver.”

Huffman said the state’s original waiver request was seven-and-a-half pages long, but he expects the Nov. 14 application to be hundreds of pages long, including attachments.

The commissioner said one strength in the state’s application, as in the original application, is its intervention efforts on the bottom 5 percent of schools in proficiency. Those efforts include Tennessee’s steps in developing its achievement school district.

Huffman said the federal government has not said publicly when a response to the application could be expected, but he said the state would like to hear results by the end of this year. The process would involve simply meeting criteria for the waiver and would not be a matter of Tennessee competing with other states.

Many states have complained about unrealistic expectations in the No Child Left Behind law as it stands pertaining to adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

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Education

Proposed Changes to Teacher Evaluation Process OK’d

The Tennessee State Board of Education approved a streamlining adjustment Friday in the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

The shift would allow two observations of teachers to be conducted in one block of time.

Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman proposed the changes to the controversial teacher-effectiveness rating procedures (pdf), which were heavily discussed in a workshop by the board at the Tennessee School Boards Association offices in Nashville on Thursday and voted on in a meeting at Legislative Plaza on Friday.

“I think it’s important that we make these changes,” Fielding Rolston, chairman of the board, said Friday. “But I think it’s also important that we continue to assess what’s happening out there and what kind of results we are getting and work toward improving these models, as appropriate.”

The original system calls for teachers to be observed by principals, assistant principals and others trained to do the observations in four areas: planning, environment, professionalism and instruction. Tenured teachers are to be observed four times, while non-tenured teachers are observed six times.

But education officials have heard substantial negative feedback about how time-consuming the original set of evaluations have been. Huffman’s proposal approved Friday calls for school districts to have the ability to opt into a system where observations in two different areas could be combined, such as conducting the instructional and environmental observations in one block of time. This would also reduce the number of pre- and post-conference meetings involved. It does not decrease the number of observations.

“Principals have noted this would significantly reduce the amount of time required and would also give them much greater flexibility,” Commissioner Huffman said at Thursday’s workshop.

By combining two observations into one period, it could give the feeling there were fewer observations, Huffman said. He said he believed most school districts would allow the principals to adhere to the changes available.

“We’ve heard from directors and principals and teachers that the number of observations in many cases is causing folks to have real challenges around time management,” Sara Heyburn, a policy advisor for the Department of Education, said at the board meeting Friday.

“So what this would do is not change the number of required observations so much as allow several of the discreet observation activities to be conducted in one classroom observation. Specifically, that would mean that a principal could observe the instruction domain in conjunction with either the planning or environment.”

A separate change approved by the board Friday will have the Department of Education publish an anticipated range of evaluation results then monitor scores to enforce consistent application of standards. Districts where evaluation scores are deemed out of line with expectations would receive additional training and could not be approved to use alternative evaluation models.

The changes were approved on a voice vote, with no objections.

Heyburn told the board Friday that members could expect more reports and updates on what is going on in the field in the evaluation process.

The teacher evaluation system has the subject of great controversy, as legislators heard in a House Education Committee hearing this week. Teachers have expressed concern about how the process is going, and there remains considerable skepticism about a part of the plan that calls for evaluations based on data that does not apply to some specific teachers.

Under the overall system, 50 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation is based on observation data, 35 percent on student growth as determined by value-added scores and the other 15 percent from other achievement information.

The evaluations are part of the state’s First to the Top initiative, launched from Tennessee’s victory in acquiring $500 million in the federal Race to the Top competition in 2010. That initiative called for yearly teacher evaluations.

“I think it’s terribly important that we listen and see if there are changes that can be made,” Rolston said Friday. “The feedback that I get is everybody is supportive of the need for the evaluation. It’s just getting the process perfected, so it works the way we would like for it to work.”

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Education

Vandy Republicans, ‘Occupiers’ Exchange Pleasantries on the Plaza

Occupy Nashville had company come over Thursday night from Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt College Republicans brought a message with them: Occupy the White House instead of Nashville.

As advertised, a young GOP contingent of about 20 students from the university showed up during a “General Assembly” meeting of Occupy Nashville, with about 150 of the members on the front steps of Legislative Plaza on a chilly night.

The Vanderbilt crowd chanted: “We are the debt generation!”

Their message was that government must quit giving handouts.

The Occupy Nashville crowd responded to them by saying, in unison, a few words at a time: “We would like to invite you to join our discussion. We love you. We want to hear your voice.”

One man had a large tray of cookies to offer the visitors.

The convergence of the two groups wasn’t exactly a love-in, but there were several friendly conversations, and at one point the Occupy Nashville crowd invited Stephen Siao, president of the Vanderbilt College Republicans, to speak.

“We each have $48,000 in debt — $48,000 on our shoulders,” Siao told them. “The demands you guys are requesting are adding to that debt. You should be protesting the White House, not Wall Street or the Tennessee Capitol.”

When Siao told the crowd, “Tennessee is a leader in job creation,” the Occupy Nashville group dutifully repeated his words but laughter broke out over it. Tennessee’s unemployment rate is 9.8 percent.

But Siao responded, “Look at the statistics and educate yourselves. Tennessee is a leader in job creation. Businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit are the backbone of this country.”

When Siao was drowned out by other chatter in the crowd, the protesters were reminded that the main speaker had the floor, helping Siao be heard.

“So take your protest to the White House, away from here because Tennessee has done nothing to you,” Siao said.

After his remarks, Siao was asked why his group decided to visit the protesters.

“We thank them for welcoming us, but we are against everything they’re doing, because they’re doing nothing but adding to the debt on our shoulders,” Siao said. “They should be protesting the White House, not here.”

He was asked if the plan was to stay and talk more to the protesters. He replied, “We’re not sure. We don’t want to disturb their meeting, so we’ll see where to go. We’re not sure yet.”

Conversations did continue. One Vanderbilt College Republican, John Stephens, a freshman from Orlando, Fla., was seen with an Occupy Nashville button on his jacket.

“I was talking to a man and told him I really like the open forum here,” Stephens said. “I said I’m here to speak my mind, so he gave me a button.”

Sam Adkisson, a Vanderbilt freshman from Springfield, Ill., said, “I’m here because I’m sick of them putting this on our generation, trying to mortgage our generation’s future. We don’t want to see anymore handouts. We’d like to see responsible government.

“We think these protests should be directed at the White House, not at Wall Street. Government isn’t the answer in this case. We don’t need more government intervention.”

One older Occupy Nashville protester, James Martin of Nashville, was found talking to Stephens and another Vanderbilt student, Kendra Osborn, a freshman from Darien, Conn.

“Listen, y’all keep us in your prayers,” Martin said. “We’re on y’all’s side. We’re just on a different divide.”

“Can we agree that America has a problem?” Stephens asked.

“Old folks and young folks got problems,” Martin said. “But you know, problems are just opportunities. What a movement this could make if we got everybody together.”

After the conversation went on awhile, Osborn said goodbye.

“I’ve got an econ exam I have to study for,” she said.

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Education

Education Committee Hears from Supporters, Critics of New Teacher Evaluation System

Teachers are being put into numerical categories ranging from 1 to 5 in the formal grading system under the state’s new teacher evaluation program.

A 5 is the best and hard to achieve, and there’s considerable disagreement over whether a rating of 3 should be considered a “rock solid” teacher or not.

But on a scale of 1 to 5, if 5 is the highest, the level of debate over the new evaluation system has been a rock solid 5.

The House Education Committee listened to several witnesses about teacher evaluations on Wednesday, as well as opinions from educators expressed through legislators. The presence of some support for the new system overall was clear, but the meeting was also a venue for venting frustrations about the evaluations.

Some opinions seemed consistent: Teachers generally don’t mind being evaluated, but the first-year system has proved overly time-consuming to many of them, and there is especially concern about teachers being evaluated when measurable data doesn’t exist for their specific jobs.

The issue now is that what some see as a flawed evaluation process is tied to a teacher tenure system that was revamped in the last legislative session.

While lawmakers heard a lot about coping with a difficult system, there was little to suggest actual legislation might result from the hearing.

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the committee, said after the meeting that one streamlining step in the observation of teachers that Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman proposed this week is a step in the right direction.

“As someone said in here today, that took about 30 percent of the work away from them,” Montgomery said. “So that’s an example of him listening and him changing what’s out there.

“We’ve got to use this as a learning year.”

The application of numbers in evaluating teachers gained attention in the hearing.

Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, a teacher at Bolton High School, noted early in the proceedings that there has been “a lot of controversy about what a 3 is, what a 4 is, what a 5 is. We keep hearing the term ‘rock solid 3’ as a teacher, 4 is exceptional and we’ve had a 5 when we need to give you a million dollars and invite you back every year to teach our children.”

That set the stage for exchanges throughout the day that dealt with numbers 1-5 and several uses of the term “rock solid.”

Under the new evaluation system, which includes subjective observations of teachers, the teachers receive final scores that put them into one of five grades: significantly below expectations; below expectations; at expectations; above expectations; or significantly above expectations.

Under the new law on tenure, teachers can attain tenure when they have taught for five years under the same local education agency and have rated in the top two categories — above expectations or significantly above expectations — for two straight years. Teachers who have tenure now will not be affected.

But the scoring system has added up to controversy.

Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, read from various educators’ comments including one he said was from a Knox County teacher. He quoted that teacher as saying, “Being told you are a rock solid teacher with a score of 3 on a 5-point scale doesn’t make sense. That’s like saying the children in my classroom are rock solid with C’s on their report card.”

Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre was one of the most vocal advocates of the new evaluation system. McIntyre acknowledged that it’s possible for a teacher to spend a career as an effective teacher, with consistent scores of 3, who would not attain tenure, although he said they would be teachers you would want in the classroom and kept employed. McIntyre also said there may be inconsistency in the evaluation system across the state.

Montgomery said maybe everyone should get away from equating five-level scoring in the evaluations to A-F letter grades.

The evaluation system is the product of the state’s First To The Top initiative, begun in 2010. The Legislature approved the parameters that call for evaluations, but the system itself comes from administrative work this year. Naifeh wanted to make it clear that the Legislature did not vote on the final evaluation system, which was approved by the state Board of Education.

Coley had a slightly different take.

“I have no problem with the model itself,” Coley said. “I have a problem with the implementation of the model and whether or not our goals are realistic in having four observations a year and the amount of time we have to take as teachers in preparing for it.”

The administration of Gov. Bill Haslam has steadfastly said the state should ride it out on an imperfect evaluation system in this first year. Huffman this week announced a proposal to conduct two required teacher observations in succession, leaving only one pre- and post-conference meeting in the evaluation process, an effort he hopes will streamline the system. The state Board of Education must approve that move. Huffman appeared before the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

The committee also heard Wednesday from Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the teachers’ union that was the focus of changes in tenure and the collective bargaining system this year.

Summerford noted legislative efforts in January of 2010 that developed the state’s Race to the Top application. That effort resulted in $500 million for Tennessee from the federal government. The application included yearly evaluations and a call for student performance to be included in the evaluations. Summerford said the TEA agreed to those components.

“But much has happened since January 2010,” she said. “As the Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee worked to develop its recommendations for this new system, TEA and the educator members of that committee repeatedly raised concerns about some of the aspects of the plan that was being developed.”

She said the feasibility of the number of observations and how effective they could be, the use of school data for teachers without value-added assessment scores and the potential for unnecessary paperwork were among teachers’ concerns early on.

“For teachers without value-added (scores), the use of school-wide data that has not yet been clarified to us how it will be calculated is just not an appropriate measure for individual evaluations,” Summerford said.

Byron Booker, an English language learner teacher at Knox Central High School, who was recently named Teacher of the Year in Tennessee, also appeared in support of the evaluation system. Booker has been a lead teacher who is participating in the evaluations at his school. He told the committee that the system is “worth the growing pains.”

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Education Featured

Disagreement Runs Deep Over School Vouchers

The philosophical lines on school vouchers are so distinct and the passions on both sides so pronounced it probably shouldn’t be surprising that even guns in bars crept into the debate on a voucher bill Tuesday in a Tennessee legislative committee.

House Bill 388, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, would provide scholarships and school choice for low-income students in the state’s four largest counties. It was the focus of considerable discussion in the House Education Subcommittee. The issue drew familiar themes of rhetoric, but it was flustered Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who brought guns into the conversation.

Naifeh, no supporter of vouchers, told the subcommittee he had read that 65-70 percent of the people in Tennessee are opposed to vouchers.

“I know that doesn’t mean anything to those that are for vouchers, because a larger percentage of people in this state were against guns in bars also, but that didn’t seem to matter, so I guess this doesn’t seem to matter either,” Naifeh said.

Subcommittee Chairman Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, asked Naifeh to stay on topic. But Naifeh wasn’t holding back on his recent reading.

“I have also read where private schools are really hoping this passes, because enough of them are in financial trouble, and this may be somewhat of a bailout for them,” Naifeh said.

Dunn’s bill won’t go anywhere until the Legislature reconvenes in January, and Tuesday’s discussion was only for study, but he is prepared to bring the voucher bill up next year, and the debate figures to be just as passionate when the action goes live.

Dunn’s bill, called the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act, would give low-income students vouchers — or scholarships as they are called — to attend another school in their district. The opportunity would apply only in the state’s four largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton. Advocates for vouchers see it as an innovative way to help educate children who would like an alternative to their current school. Opponents see it as taking money from public schools and subsidizing private schools.

Metro Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, representing the school boards in those heavily populated counties, spoke in strong opposition to the bill. Register told lawmakers he supported the reforms recently passed by the General Assembly but he flatly opposed school vouchers.

“Vouchers have been around a long time,” Register said. “There is simply no evidence that private school vouchers work.”

Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., an at-large member of the Shelby County Board of Education, testified by speakerphone to the subcommittee, advocating vouchers. The Shelby board recently passed a resolution opposing a voucher bill, but Whalum said he will not sign the resolution.

“One reason is I am tired of watching as poor children across our state are continually denied high-quality education because of the behemoth administrative bureaucracy that does more to perpetuate the system than to educate children,” Whalum told the subcommittee. “I assure you the parents I represent would jump at the chance to allow the kids to just have a chance, just have an opportunity at a quality education.”

Whalum said studies opposing school choice vouchers are “inconclusive, at best.”

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee, wasn’t ready to commit to vouchers.

“I personally am going to be very, very reluctant to support a program like this until we get every bit of information we can possibly get, look at it, evaluate it, and see what the pros and cons are,” Montgomery said. Montgomery had expressed similar discomfort when the bill was considered by the subcommittee in the last session.

The subcommittee also heard from John Husted, secretary of state of Ohio, who was a legislative leader in enacting that state’s EdChoice voucher system. Husted appeared via teleconference.

“I have great respect for what you’re all going through,” Husted told the Tennessee lawmakers. “I was at the beginning of school choice in Ohio, and I know a lot of people question your motives, your motivations, whether you’re a proponent or an opponent.”

Dunn asked his colleagues to consider the way higher education works, where students and their families get to choose the college of their choice and how much better the nation’s colleges stack up in performance when compared to its K-12 schools. Dunn sees that as a strong argument for school choice in the lower grades.

A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll found that West Tennesseans believe their local schools are worse than the state norm, while those in Middle and East Tennessee believe their schools are better than the norm.

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Featured Liberty and Justice News

Lawmakers’ Reactions to Haslam’s Handling of Occupy Nashville Mixed

While Gov. Bill Haslam was defending the state’s actions in the arrests of Occupy Nashville protesters, the feeling was not unanimous at Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Some lawmakers said the situation should have been handled differently. And then there were the protesters.

When protester Steven Pottinger of Nashville heard that Haslam had defended the arrests on the grounds of safety and the need to address unsanitary conditions, Pottinger replied, “If he doesn’t like the sanitary issues, provide us with Port-a-Johns.”

Pottinger and protester Elizabeth Johnson of Memphis said there were portable toilets at the site when the protest began but that they’re gone now.

In terms of safety, Occupy Nashville protesters are taking matters somewhat into their own hands. At their “General Assembly” meeting Tuesday night, protesters agreed to a code of conduct and vowed that people disruptive to the movement by starting fights or committing crimes would be compelled to leave by their own security team.

Legislators didn’t seem especially caught up in the issue, but the matter did stir some broad opinions.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, sided with the protesters.

“I think the protesters have every right, as I understand the judge ruled, to handle themselves as protesters with an understanding that it’s got to be peaceful, it’s got to be respectful. But if they’re not breaking any laws, then they certainly in my opinion have a right to peaceful protest on public property,” Hardaway said. “Of all things, we’re talking about the Capitol, where we make the laws.

“If we can’t stand to have a little inconvenience, a little noise with some extra people here at the people’s house, then I don’t know what we’re doing up here.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, said he hadn’t followed the events closely, but he said he was troubled about legal aspects of the issue.

“I’d have some legal problems with the way a new policy was initiated and enforced, and I think the judicial system obviously had the same problem,” Fitzhugh said.

“So I think it would behoove us all to make sure that we do things in due time and legally if there is a situation we want to avoid in the future. Make sure the appropriate policy is there.”

Haslam said Tuesday the goal was not to remove people from Legislative Plaza but to provide a safe environment, adding that the problem was that the protesters wanted to stay indefinitely, 24 hours a day.

Not everyone disagreed with the governor.

“I do believe you have the right to protest your government. Of course you do. I do wish more attention, though, would have been paid to what was going on down here leading up to this,” said Rep. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, the House Republican Caucus chair.

“We’ve had a lot of unhappy staff, and they should be, because unfortunately and sadly some of the folks that are out there protesting have been doing things during the day in broad daylight they shouldn’t be doing and causing a lot of concern.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit claiming the arrests were violations of free speech. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger granted a temporary restraining order against arrests, and the state did not contest the order.

State troopers arrested 29 protesters at Legislative Plaza on Friday morning and 26 on Saturday, enforcing a new curfew that had been put into effect in response to complaints.

The state, citing “criminal activity and deteriorating sanitary conditions,” imposed a curfew on Oct. 27, closing Legislative Plaza from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. When protesters, who had been on the scene for several days, did not leave, they were first arrested Friday at 3 a.m. A magistrate in Nashville, however, would not jail the protesters.

Haslam expressed no regret Tuesday about his decisions, although he did say Commissioner of Safety Bill Gibbons contacted an editor to express regrets about the arrest of reporter Jonathan Meador of the Nashville Scene in the roundup. Chris Ferrell, CEO of SouthComm Inc., which publishes the Nashville Scene, said Tuesday he did not consider Gibbons’ response an apology.

“It was more of a rationalization for their actions than an apology,” Ferrell said when contacted by phone.

Ferrell had publicly asked Haslam for an apology for Meador’s arrest. Ferrell talked to Gibbons on Monday, and Gibbons sent a follow-up e-mail. Ferrell said the conversation lasted two or three minutes.

But when asked if he was satisfied with the response he received, Ferrell said, “No. Because they still haven’t apologized for what seems to me a clear violation of the First Amendment, that when the officers grabbed Jonathan he clearly identified himself as a journalist.

“They should have verified that and then let him go. The fact that they did not, I think, is of concern to journalists everywhere.”

Ferrell said he had not talked to Haslam, although he had tried to contact the governor through his communications office as recently as Monday.

Gibbons’ statement to Ferrell said, in part: “Obviously, it was not our intention to take any member of the press doing his or her job into custody for trespassing. I regret any confusion regarding Mr. Meador’s role.”

The Middle Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists also issued a formal request for an apology. A journalist from Middle Tennessee State University was also reportedly among those arrested.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, was at a higher education event Haslam attended in Cool Springs Tuesday and said he felt action was necessary.

“Look, I’ve been up there, and it stinks,” Casada said. “They’re doing acts that aren’t appropriate in public.

“They are using the restroom, if you will, without facilities, just on the grounds. It’s just an unsafe environment, and the governor had to act. And he did the right thing.”

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Education Featured Health Care Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Bredesen: Politics Behind Report on Farr, Tax Variances

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen said Tuesday he believes the people who disagreed with former Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr “got their final shot in” against Farr with a recent comptroller’s report that criticized the department on tax variances.

Bredesen said he has not read the report from Comptroller Justin Wilson but has talked briefly about it with Farr and that he has never had any questions about Farr’s integrity.

Bredesen made the comments after an appearance at the University of the South in Sewanee with former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, in which Bredesen said his style in dealing with the Legislature sometimes was to “go right around them.” He noted that former Gov. Don Sundquist did not use the “bully pulpit” of the office for the power of persuasion with the people when Sundquist proposed an income tax.

And Bredesen, a former mayor of Nashville, got his own shot in about term limits at the Metro Council in the capital city, calling the limits of two four-year terms a “disaster.”

Bredesen said his contact with Farr about the comptroller’s report lasted only about 30 seconds.

“He told me about it. I said, ‘That’s fine. You know the crew over there that was trying to do you in got their final shot in. There’s now a report. Fine,'” Bredesen said.

Bredesen said he never had any particular problems with what Farr did.

“He had a department which was very politically divided internally about the way it should operate,” Bredesen said. “This department has always had a group of people who thought, ‘Our job is tax collection, period. What we need to do is audit returns and collect taxes, and that’s the end of it.’

“But you’ve also got people that say, ‘No, no, no, tax policy and the way you do things is part of the process of the department. It’s part of economic development.’ Reagan was in that mode. I think the people that disagreed with him kind of got the final shot in there. I’ve never had any questions about his integrity or decision-making process.”

The report, dated Oct. 17 and addressed to leaders in the Legislature, noted a frequency in recent years where tax variance award letters involved references to economic development. Farr served as Revenue commissioner from 2007-2010. The report also said key department employees were sometimes left out of the decision-making process.

Gov. Bill Haslam said this week he has read the report and wants to concentrate on setting clearly defined procedures in the department.

Bredesen, a Democrat, and Douglas, a Republican, participated in a discussion formally called “American Politics: The View from the Center.” Both are seen as moderates in a time of polarized partisan politics. But that did not prevent Bredesen from being vocal in his views on matters of how to govern.

Bredesen said the direct power of the governor to do something is “demonstrably less” than the CEO of “a good-sized company,” saying the governor is limited in terms of what the Legislature will do and who can be hired and fired.

“What is unparalleled is you have the bully pulpit,” he said. “If you decide as governor to talk about K-12 education for six months of the year, that’s what will get talked about in the state. The chambers of commerce will talk about it. The newspapers will write about it. TV will do stories. You can make that happen. So I’ve always seen the power of the governor as the power to persuade.

“And the way to get things done in the Legislature is to go right around them.”

He noted his former legislative liaison, Anna Windrow, was in the audience and “probably crying” at the comment. His reference to going around the Legislature was to make his point about taking an issue directly to the people.

Bredesen told the audience he went into the governor’s office after Sundquist had attempted to get an income tax approved. Sundquist, a Republican, failed and was largely ostracized by his own party.

“You sort of watch it and say, you know, instead of making a case to the people of the state as to why something needed to change in the tax structure, he didn’t do any of that. He just tried to do it by twisting arms in the Legislature,” Bredesen said.

“What happens is you get your arm twisted, and then you go back home and find out people have got pitchforks about the subject you’re talking about.”

Bredesen won in 2002 on a platform that did not include a proposal for an income tax. He said the state didn’t need one, to the chagrin of some in his party. Bredesen won a second term handily and never proposed an income tax in his eight years in the office.

Bredesen said he had no problems with term limits in the executive branch of government because of the power of incumbency, but he said the term limits enacted by referendum for Nashville’s Metro Council have been disastrous.

“I just think it’s been awful for the city,” he said after the event, pointing to a couple of veteran lawmakers with institutional knowledge as examples of those whose experience can benefit the council.

“I’m not quite sure what problem you’re solving with term limits, and what I think it did is first of all you dramatically enhance the power of the mayor. There’s nobody left on the council with the kind of, you know, the history. There’s no Charlie Fentress on the council. There’s no Willis McAllister on the council.

“You get a bunch of people who are in there and really feel they have to move and shake and make things happen in their early sort of terms. I don’t think it’s worked well for the city.”

Bredesen and Douglas met with students at the university earlier in the day, and Bredesen said the young people asked about how the governors made difficult decisions.

“They wanted to know, ‘How is it done? Tell me about some challenge you had’ — in my case TennCare or something — really a nice set of questions for somebody who is a senior ready to go out in life, not saying, ‘Let me debate,'” Bredesen said.

He said it was different from encounters with people who want to express a view about a specific issue.

“These were young people who weren’t so much concerned about that as they were just, ‘OK, I want to be effective in the years ahead. I’ve got a couple of former governors in front of me. How did you do this?'”

They also wanted to talk about jobs, he said.

“If you’re a senior in college in this economy today, you’re scared,” Bredesen said. “You’re scared about what the workplace holds right now. This is the time in which they want to get out, they want to get a job, they want to build a life, and it’s a pretty scary world out there right now.”

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NewsTracker Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

In Wake of Comptroller’s Report on Farr, Haslam says Consistency Needed in Tax-Variance Decisions

Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday the best reaction to a comptroller’s report widely seen as critical of former Department of Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr is to establish clearly defined procedures for tax variances granted by the commissioner.

“I just got a copy and read it over the weekend,” Haslam said of the report (pdf).

“For us, I think the important thing is to say: What are we going to do going forward? I think the clear message to us was: We want to have well-documented, clearly organized procedures for how you handle any variances.”

Haslam said he and current Revenue Commissioner Richard Roberts have talked about the issue and that Roberts agrees with him on the proper approach.

Haslam said he does not know if he will advocate any legislation to address procedures for tax variances, however. He said all of his department chiefs are reporting to him with any proposals for legislation they may have for next year and that he will address the Department of Revenue later this week.

A key element of the issue, however, has been the private nature of Revenue decisions, which affect individual taxpayers.

Comptroller Justin Wilson’s report, dated Oct. 17, is accompanied by a letter to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge and Rep. Charles Sargent of Franklin, saying the report is in response to their request. All four of the legislators are Republicans. McNally and Sargent are chairmen of their chambers’ respective finance committees.

Wilson is a Republican. Farr served in the administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

The comptroller’s report looked at tax variances from 2000-2011 and involved a review of 59 variances — 40 requested by the taxpayer, 19 by the commissioner. The report said approvals of taxpayer-requested variances increased during the tenure of Loren Chumley, who served in 2002-2007, and Farr, who served in 2007-2010. It noted a frequency in recent years where variance award letters involved references to economic development.

“Specifically, taxpayers would use job creation and economic impact as part of their argument for why they should be awarded a variance,” the report said, adding that requests used tax treatment as a “negotiation tool.”

The report said key department employees were sometimes excluded from the decision-making process. The report recommends that the Legislature consider legislation requiring additional approvals to variances, that the department should proceed with a new tracking system for variances and that the department develop a process for reviewing awarded variances.

Haslam acknowledged Monday the difficulty of dealing with privacy issues of agreements with taxpayers balanced with transparency in government.

“That is one of the difficulties, because obviously it deals with private taxpayers’ information,” Haslam said. “But I think the important thing for us to do is make certain, again, that there is a process that is clear and predictable and we’re letting people know everything we can — absent private taxpayers’ information.

“We really are trying to do that.”

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Featured Health Care Tax and Budget

TennCare Cuts Expected, Haslam Wants Feds To Release Funds

On a day when he met with his health and wellness task force, Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday lamented the predicament the federal government has put Tennessee in on $82 million in TennCare funds.

First, the feds said they goofed and owed the state the money due to an accounting error. Now, they say they owe the money but that it might take an act of Congress to release the funds, creating a delay.

Haslam isn’t happy.

“We were really disappointed,” Haslam said. “They had told us. They said, ‘We owe you that money.’ There was no question about that.

“The question was how they were going to refund it to us, and now they said, ‘Well, we do owe it to you, but we can’t pay it back to you without some specific legislation,’ which doesn’t seem right to me.”

The Haslam administration originally had planned for an 8.5 percent reduction for certain providers in TennCare in the state budget. But while a 4.25 percent reduction was put in place beginning this July 1, the rest was postponed to Jan. 1, 2012, since the state expected the funds to come from Washington. Paired with better-than-expected revenues at the time, the state was able to dodge a financial bullet when it amended the original budget plan this year.

But now, with the delay, the other 4.25 percent in cuts will apparently be applied. Haslam referred twice to the amount Monday as about “4 and a half percent,” but an aide pointed out it is the 4.25 percent.

“It’s just wrong that they say, ‘We owe that to you, but we can’t pay you ‘till we pass new legislation,'” Haslam said.

Further, Haslam isn’t confident the state will get its money.

“I’m really not. I wish I was,” he said. “What they had told us last spring was, ‘Definitely we owe it to you. We’ll figure out a way to get that money to you.’ And then the message came back last week, ‘Well, actually, we don’t think we can get it to you without specific legislation.’

“And I think in today’s Washington, specific legislation to send money away out of the federal government to us, even though it’s owed to us, I think will be difficult.”

TennCare officials announced last week they believed it is “highly improbable” the legislation could be introduced and passed in Congress by Jan. 1. So the cuts, which would affect nursing homes, managed care administrative rates, transportation providers, lab and X-ray providers, dentists and home health providers, are expected.

Haslam was asked if the state had any recourse.

“I don’t know that. That’s a really good question. We don’t know that we do,” he said.

The funds are caught in a mix-up involving two federal programs, Medicaid and Medicare. Over 35 years, about 300,000 people applying for disability payments were involved. Federal officials had mistakenly considered the applicants under Medicaid when they should have been covered by Medicare. States have to pay for a share of Medicaid coverage while Medicare is covered by the federal government. TennCare is Tennessee’s version of Medicaid.

But while the state grapples with the federal government, a group tasked with coming up with a plan to improve Tennesseans’ health had its first meeting Monday.

Haslam welcomed his health and wellness task force to Conservation Hall at the Tennessee Residence and formally issued a release announcing the 16 members, who are health care leaders from across the state.

The governor made the case that health is related to education and economic development, and the state has a lousy record on health and wellness in national rankings.

“We have to face facts,” Haslam said. “In Tennessee, we rank 42nd in terms of health and well-being. Some of those are preventable, addressable issues.

“We’ve brought together, I think, some of the finest people from across the state who work on this every day, from different aspects, to see if we can address this.”

Haslam said he wanted a clear strategy that has “measurable outcomes” from the group. He noted that about one-third of the state budget goes to health care costs.

“When we bring back up this budget next year you’ll see again how much involvement we have in health care,” he said.

The task force is chaired by Dr. John Lacey III, chief medical officer for the University of Tennessee. Haslam said he would like to see an outline of a plan from the group in the first half of 2012.

Haslam did say the state has made some recent progress but that the state is still in the 40s when ranked nationally. In a slideshow presentation, Ben Leedle Jr., CEO of Healthways, headquartered in Franklin, said the state had climbed from the ranking of 42nd in 2009 that Haslam mentioned to 40th in 2010.

“To your point, we’re making progress,” Leedle said. “But I want to point out something really important in this data.

“The mid-year 2011 well-being data shows Tennessee has slipped from 40th to 45th. Anybody see what’s probably driving that? Look at the ‘healthy behavior’ line. Dead last in the U.S.”