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Speaking Their Language

Byron Booker of Knox Central High School was named Tennessee Teacher of the Year Thursday night in Nashville, and word of it might have spread to various corners of the world.

Booker teaches about 40 students in English as a Second Language classes at the Knoxville school, a passion that can be traced to his parents’ participation in an international exchange program since before he was born.

The award, given by the Tennessee Department of Education, was presented at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville.

In the last three years, Booker has established a collaborative model with other teachers at Knox Central, where he goes into core academic classes with some of his English language learners. While a core academic teacher teaches content, Booker provides language support to his students. Usually, his English language learners will comprise about one-third of the class with the other two-thirds being regular students.

“It goes back to my childhood,” Booker said. “From the time I was a child, we had students and adults staying in our home from different countries. That was their way of bringing their world into our East Tennessee home. So I developed just a natural affinity for working with international students, and it kind of grew from that process.”

Booker acknowledged his parents, who attended the banquet, but he began his acceptance speech Thursday by crediting his high school freshman English teacher, Sherrel Feathers at University High School in Johnson City.

“An average student, I was simply one of numerous students who passed through her classroom,” Booker said. “It was the time that I spent in her classroom, the personal interest she took in a kid named Booker, which impacted my life so profoundly.

“She invested her time, and in doing so, inspired me to maximize my potential. Mrs. Feathers established dual pillars of excellence, which I have tried to translate into my career — high academic expectations and personal accountability.”

He noted that Feathers is still teaching today.

Booker will now be an entry in the national Teacher of the Year competition. The state Teacher of the Year is determined by gradually paring candidates from each school and school district in the state. Candidates are drawn from grade categories pre-K-4, 5-8 and 9-12.

Finalists are drawn from each grand division of Tennessee — East, Middle and West. Student achievement scores and value-added scores are part of the process. Various factors, including teachers’ own educational attainment, come into play. Education professionals look for the teachers’ dedication to students, and the finalists are interviewed.

Booker was chosen from three overall regional winners announced Thursday, the others being Jennifer Mangusson of Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Cumberland County, the Middle Tennessee winner, and Ann Turner Johnson of Munford High School in Tipton County, the West winner.

Other regional finalists on hand to pick up awards Thursday were Robin Epps of Lincoln Heights Middle School in Hamblen County; Alison Payne of Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro; Carol Stafford of Altruria Elementary School in Shelby County and Brittan Sutherland of Martin Elementary School in Weakley County.

Special finalists in mathematics and science were honored. They were Michael Brown of Montgomery Central High School and Phyllis Hillis of Oak Ridge High School in mathematics and Gail Schulte of Smyrna Middle School in science.

Booker stands out for another reason. He likes the new teacher evaluation process in the state, which has been controversial and represents a significant change that many teachers do not like. Booker is not only being evaluated, he is a lead teacher who is evaluating other teachers.

“So I have a little different perspective on it,” Booker said. “I like it. I like the idea that teachers are held accountable. I like the idea that we are evaluated every year. I like the fact that we have a rubric over different domains within the classroom, from planning to classroom environment to instruction to professionalism and just the whole breadth of this new evaluation model.

“I embrace it.”

Booker’s English learners come from 16 different countries.

“They’re learning English in many cases as a second or third or fourth language, depending on how many languages they speak before they arrive in the United States,” he said.

“I’m not sure they fully comprehend exactly what this award is. They were more interested in if I would be back in time for tailgating before the high school football game tomorrow night — and if they have a test tomorrow.”

He said there was no test scheduled.

“But we will have tailgating as kind of a cultural event for them,” he said.

The students enter public schools as immigrants or political or religious refugees and come from a variety of backgrounds, he said.

Booker’s teaching has become a way of life for him and his wife, Karisa.

“I try to educate the whole child,” he said. “Something my wife and I do almost as a ministry outside of school is to work with these families, trying to get them job-ready, trying to invite them to cultural holiday celebrations at our house. That’s as much a part of educating the child as what we do inside the classroom.”

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Featured Liberty and Justice Transparency and Elections

Trial Judges Seek Lobbyist

Tennessee judges are ready to fight back against legislative efforts to revamp the Court of the Judiciary, evidenced this week when members of the Trial Judges’ Association voted to hire a lobbyist to represent them in the debate.

The trial judges voted to increase their dues with a one-time assessment of $200 each in order to help get their message out to legislators. The vote came during a meeting of the trial judges at the Tennessee Judicial Conference in Franklin.

The Court of the Judiciary — comprised of 16 members, including 10 judges, 3 attorneys and 3 laypeople — acts on complaints against judges such as charges of judicial misconduct and can impose punishment on those judges.

The Tennessee General Assembly has launched a review of the Court in an attempt to make changes, such as making disciplinary decisions public and focusing on rules for judges to recuse themselves from cases.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, heads an ad hoc panel looking at the Court of the Judiciary, highlighted by two days of hearings last month. The legislative committee wants to rename the Court to reflect its true nature and, significantly, change the makeup of the Court.

Judges are working on their own version of legislation, some of which reflects the same concerns of the legislative panel. But those who spoke at the trial judges’ meeting on Wednesday were passionate about what is happening on Capitol Hill.

Circuit Court Judge Randy Kennedy of Nashville said judges are being unfairly targeted.

“I never dreamed — maybe I’m naive — I never dreamed that in carrying out our duties and responsibilities impartially and fairly that we would become a target of a misinformed, malevolent, agenda-driven bunch of folks. But we are,” Kennedy said in the meeting.

“We are right in the crosshairs.”

There was debate about raising funds to hire someone to lobby for the judges. At first, the talk was of voluntarily contributing to funds for the purpose, but ultimately the group voted to make the one-time assessment on their dues. Advocates for the move made the case that the judges need a voice at the Capitol given what they’re up against with legislative efforts.

“The legislature is not the enemy,” Kennedy said. “The problem is we have been unable in the last few years to convince them we really do have the same direction. The road to serve the public should be a joint effort. Somehow, we need some help beyond our limited abilities as judges to help legislators understand we are not trying to do their job, and we don’t need them to do ours.”

Chancellor Daryl Fansler of Knox County presided over the meeting and made the case for some representation with the Legislature.

“We were elected to do a job. That’s to try lawsuits, dispose of lawsuits for the public out there that elected us and pays us,” Fansler said. “We don’t have time to educate people on the Hill. We don’t have time to lay out all these cases.

“We’ve got a crisis on our hands right now.”

The discussion focused mostly on the need for judges to talk to their respective legislators about activity in the Legislature that affects them. One concern is that judges are being targeted for reasons that judges say should simply be addressed by appealing the decisions.

There was acknowledgment of the perception and concern of the judiciary getting involved in politics, but the point was made that judges have been thrust into politics whether they like it or not.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, chairman of a committee monitoring the legislation, laid out an alternative proposal being put together for the Legislature’s consideration. Much of it focuses on the makeup of the Court. Bivins said there is agreement that the Court of the Judiciary needs a new name.

“It’s not really a court, and it is confusing,” he said. Bivins said it should be called “something along the lines of the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.”

The composition of the board, however, is getting substantial attention. Bivins expressed concerns that the Legislature is considering dramatically cutting the number of judges on a slimmed-down panel. Bivins said it is important to have more judges than laypeople, which he said would reflect the makeup of boards in other professions.

The judges would keep the current number of 16 members and would keep the number of judges at 10. However, instead of three appellate judges, the judges propose one be taken out and that a juvenile court judge be added, since juvenile courts have no direct representation currently.

Of the six non-judge positions, under one scenario, they would have each of the two speakers in the Legislature have three appointments, each with at least one of the three members being an attorney. Bivins noted, however, that the governor has said he would like to have some appointments, so the recommendation would probably end up with two each for the speaker of the House, speaker of the Senate and the governor, with one member each required to be an attorney.

Under the current statute, the Tennessee Bar Association has the authority to appoint three attorneys to the Court, one from each grand division of the state. The governor, speaker of the House and speaker of the Senate each appoint one layperson.

The plan also addresses the appointing authority. Currently, the Supreme Court appoints all the judges on the Court.

“The Supreme Court and others have all agreed that that probably is not the way to go forward,” Bivins said.

He said their proposal is to have various conferences of judges appoint the judges on the Court.

Beavers has said the Supreme Court should not have that authority.

Danny Van Horn, president of the Tennessee Bar Association, said he sees no need for dramatic changes.

“I think everybody wants to make sure we have a fair, open, transparent system of government in terms of how we review complaints against the judiciary,” Van Horn said. “I can’t speak for the Judicial Conference, but from the TBA’s perspective we recognize there can be improvements made to the process. But the process, as a whole, we think, works.

“So wholesale changes I don’t think are warranted, but some tweaks to help make it more transparent and understandable are probably appropriate.”

Van Horn said the TBA would be lobbying on the issue but separately from the judges.

“As lawyers, we value the work the judges do, but we stand for fair and efficient administration of justice,” he said.

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Featured Liberty and Justice Transparency and Elections

House Should Play Role in Kelsey’s Judicial Confirmation Reform Proposal: Harwell

Speaker of the House Beth Harwell said Wednesday she would insist that the House have a say in approval of judges under a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Brian Kelsey, while Gov. Bill Haslam expressed openness to Kelsey’s plan.

Kelsey’s proposal would have state appellate judges appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the Senate, similar to the way judges are appointed at the federal level.

“My only negative thing I can say at this point is the House is not going to go for not having approval,” Harwell said while attending a judicial conference in Franklin.

“Under his proposal, only the Senate has to give approval. I would want to have the House included in that.”

Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, said she had not fully reviewed the plan yet but planned to do so. “I think there are some positive things there,” she said.

Kelsey’s plan, filed as SJR475, one of 12 initiatives the Republican from Germantown says he has for the next legislative session, would revamp Tennessee’s controversial form of judicial selection.

His proposal would replace the “Tennessee Plan,” which uses a Judicial Nominating Commission to give names to the governor, who then appoints judges from the list. Judges are then subject to yes-no retention elections.

Gov. Haslam indicated he’s inclined to support the general thrust of Kelsey’s idea, and thinks it should be seriously discussed.

“I’ve actually said in the past if it was my preference, that’s how I would set it up,” Haslam, a Republican, said in downtown Nashville at a district attorneys conference. “I’ve been real clear about a couple of things. First of all, I’m not in favor of elections, and I do think it would be wise to clear it up in the constitution and make it real straightforward to everybody.

“I think there’s a lot of ideas out there being circulated right now. That’s one of those that I think might work.”

Danny Van Horn, president of the Tennessee Bar Association, soundly rejected Kelsey’s idea, which he calls a “faux federal model.”

“In the federal government, you have appointment for life, and you have Senate confirmation,” Van Horn said. “The difference therein lies that once those judges are appointed for life, they’re no longer accountable to elected politicians and the whims of society.

“That’s why we say it’s a ‘faux’ federal model, because in the federal model they get appointed then they have the freedom to render judicial decisions without the fear of not being retained or appointed based on the decisions they made. That’s why what Senator Kelsey has proposed has, at least in our opinion, all the downside of the federal system and none of the upside.”

Kelsey’s plan would have judges serve staggered eight-year terms, with the possibility of re-appointment.

There is disagreement on whether the current Tennessee Plan is constitutional. Kelsey says it is not, yet the Supreme Court has ruled that retention elections are constitutional, and subsequent efforts to have the plan ruled unconstitutional have failed.

There is widely held opinion among prominent politicians, lawyers and judges that the process should not involve outright elections, in spite of the wording of the Tennessee Constitution, which states, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” The Constitution declares that judges on the “inferior courts…shall be elected by the qualified voters of the district or circuit to which they are to be assigned.” There have been proposals to alter the Tennessee Constitution to expressly allow for the current process.

The constitutional amendment would be subject to the majority approval of the current Legislature, then need a two-thirds majority approval in the next Legislature before going to the voters in a referendum in 2014.

Kelsey said his plan would tackle two current concerns.

“Here, using the federal system, we would have better quality judges, who are appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, plus we would have the constitutional question resolved,” Kelsey said.

“There are a lot of options that are being floated out there, and that’s why I thought it was important to get this one in writing, so that people can read it and start to talk about it.”

But Van Horn still sees problems with the proposal.

“The problem with the faux federal model is it allows a great degree of politics to creep into who our judges are and whether they’re retained or not,” Van Horn said.

He pointed to “giant swings” on the National Labor Relations Board between Democrats and Republicans.

“I think what business wants, what we’ve heard from business in Tennessee, and what all Tennesseans ought to want, are stable, fair and impartial courts,” Van Horn said. “And if over the next 10-15 years we have judges that are largely Republican in the state, and let’s say the state were to swing back to Democrats, we also would not favor then a giant swing in the judiciary back to having Democrats on the bench.

“The fact of the matter is we don’t think that in the end Democrats and Republicans really view cases that differently in terms of judges sitting on the bench. They’re looking at the facts in front of them. They’re looking at the litigants in front of them, and they’re trying to apply the law. What we don’t want is a system where politics definitely creeps into the selection, evaluation and retention of judges.”

Kelsey’s plan would affect only state Supreme Court and appellate judges. Trial court judges would still have contested elections

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this story.

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Haslam Still Mum on GOP Presidential Favorite

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday he sees how presidential candidate Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan would be attractive to voters looking for simplicity, but Haslam is not identifying his favorite Republican candidate in the race yet.

Cain has proposed a tax plan that would include a tax of 9 percent on income, 9 percent on business and 9 percent on sales. Cain has surged in recent polls and was on the defensive about his plan in the most recent Republican presidential debate on Tuesday.

Haslam remained noncommittal on the race after an appearance Wednesday at a district attorneys conference in Nashville.

“I probably will at some point in time, but I’m not close to announcing an endorsement today,” Haslam said.

He acknowledged that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has signed on as chairman for the Rick Perry campaign in Tennessee, has talked to Haslam about a possible endorsement of the Texas governor.

“We’ve had a few conversations,” Haslam said, smiling.

Haslam readily explained one reason Cain’s candidacy has gained attention.

“I think the simplicity of it is what’s attractive to people,” Haslam said. “There’s some different opinions about whether the math works. I don’t know enough to say on that. I do think Americans would like a much more simple tax code than we have right now.”

For Tennesseans, a national sales tax of 9 percent would come along with the state’s 7 percent sales tax, with the additional effect of the local option sales tax of up to 2.75 percent. Many Tennesseans are now paying 9.75 percent on many purchases.

“Obviously, that’s an issue,” Haslam said. “I think most Tennesseans would want to do the math on it and see ultimately: What does this cost me or save me? But again, I think most people are attracted to the simplicity of it. Whether that, for individuals, would cost them any more or less would be the big question.”

Tax talk has many facets in Tennessee. The state does not have a personal income tax, although it does have a tax, known as the Hall tax, on interest and dividends.

“We have a lot of discussion now in Tennessee about what’s taxable,” Haslam said. “Obviously, in a high sales tax state like Tennessee, you’re getting to where you’re really discouraging retail purchases really heavily when you go to 16 or 16-and-a-half percent sales tax.”

Tennessee’s presidential primary for 2012 is Tuesday, March 6.

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Liberty and Justice

Gov. Haslam, Rep. Todd Link Up: Todd Says He’s Sorry

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam saw Rep. Curry Todd at a charity golf tournament Monday and said Todd, who was arrested last week for drunken driving with a loaded weapon in his car, told him he made a mistake.

“He said, ‘I realize I made a bad mistake, and I’m sorry,'” Haslam said.

Todd, a Republican from Collierville, participated in a golf event Monday held by Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and Rep. Gary Odom. Harwell, a Republican, and Odom, a Democrat, both represent Nashville.

“I went out there to have breakfast, and Curry was part of the group playing golf,” Haslam said. “I asked him how he was doing. It was purely more of a personal conversation. We didn’t talk about the Legislature.

“I was obviously, like everybody else really, sorry to see that happen. It was a big mistake from Representative Todd that could have had dangerous consequences. I think he is aware of that as well.”

The governor addressed several issues with reporters after he spoke to the Governor’s Housing Summit in Franklin, including Todd’s arrest, the Occupy Wall Street protests, school vouchers and the matter of Tennesseans over 60 not having to have photos on their driver’s licenses.

Todd’s arrest, which has rekindled the debate over gun carry laws in the state since Todd was the sponsor of the bill to allow guns in bars, has begun to raise speculation about the course of the agenda under the Republican-controlled Legislature next year.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick had put Todd in the chairman’s role of a task force on firearms. But Todd reportedly told McCormick after the arrest he would vacate that position, and McCormick had been considering lowering the profile of the gun task force to focus more on the economy. McCormick reportedly has decided to keep the task force going, but with a diminished priority.

Todd announced Monday afternoon that he’s stepping down as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee “until this matter is resolved.”

“The Committee’s work is an important aspect of the General Assembly and I do not want my actions to distract from that,” read a short statement from Todd.

Haslam was asked about any potential impact on the legislative agenda next year, but he offered only clues to his own agenda, which seemed to be devoid of gun issues.

“If you look at what we proposed last year, and I think the bills we propose this year, there will be things focused again on jobs, education and things that are budget-related,” Haslam said. “I think you’ll continue to see our focus be there. That’s what it was last year.”

Haslam’s reference to “last year” was to the legislative session held in the first part of 2011. The Legislature will reconvene in January 2012.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey last week said he wanted to revisit the matter of why Tennesseans over 60 are allowed to have driver’s licenses without their photographs on them — one of the snags in the state’s new photo ID law for voting. Ramsey said he was looking for the justification of the 60-and-over exemption, and Haslam was asked if he would advocate addressing it as well.

“I guess I would want to hear the pros and cons of that,” Haslam said. “I assume the reason of that was just to make it easier, or maybe for some personal reasons for folks over 60. I don’t understand the reason why there was an exception there to begin with.

“I’m sure there is a good reason. I just don’t happen to know how that came to be.”

People have camped out in New York in an “Occupy Wall Street” protest, which has been copied in other cities, including Nashville, where protesters have gathered recently at Legislative Plaza. Haslam said he sees disgruntlement among the people.

“I think what you really have is a lot of dissatisfaction about the current condition of the country,” Haslam said. “You see that in how people feel about: How confident are you about the direction of the country? That’s come out in a lot of ways.

“Right now, their message is fairly — how should I describe it? — disorganized. There are a lot of different thoughts there. I think, at the root, people are saying, ‘We really don’t like the way things are going.’ My point back would be: Let’s talk about what we would do differently. Let’s talk about specific things that have caused us to be here and what we would do differently.”

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has said he plans to pursue a school voucher initiative for low-income students in Hamilton, Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties, which hold the state’s four largest cities. The Senate approved a similar measure in April, but the House Education Subcommittee sent the bill for further study.

Haslam said his administration is trying to decide how to approach the voucher issue and that there is no decision yet. He said the benefit is giving parents choice on where their children go to school but that there is a need to balance that against whether such an approach is helpful or harmful to existing public schools.

Haslam addressed the nation’s economic woes in his speech to a luncheon on housing held at the Marriott at Cool Springs.

“I don’t know how we could have a more challenging environment,” he told the crowd. “I would love to tell you I think that is going to get a lot better sometime soon. But I really don’t think that.

“As confident as I am long-term about the future of Tennessee, I think we are, like everyone else, caught in the grips of working our way out of some serious economic issues.”

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Business and Economy NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Ramsey Raises Spectre of State Income Tax in Absence of Congressional Action on Amazon Issues

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said last week that if a so-called “national solution” isn’t found for collecting sales taxes from online retailers it threatens to push Tennessee toward an income tax, which he strongly opposes.

Amazon has avoided collecting sales taxes in Tennessee until a recent agreement was announced calling for collections beginning in 2014. Ramsey said online businesses would prefer a standardized system for collecting state sales taxes.

“Let me assure you, if it keeps going in that direction, the trend that we’ve been on the last several years, it really is heading toward a state income tax,” Ramsey said.

“That’s what you come down to, suddenly the sales tax base erodes, and I am adamantly — adamantly — opposed to that.”

Ramsey made the comments in Clarksville at the first of his “Red Tape Road Trips” to discuss regulations in Tennessee. He fielded questions on all topics from a group of about 35 people, and one was about Amazon.

Ramsey also emphasized that the collection of the tax by the online retail giant, which is scheduled to begin in 2014, is not a new tax.

“There is something wrong when the mom-and-pop bookstore — an example, Moody Bible Bookstore, a little bookstore in downtown Kingsport — you go in there and buy a Bible or other religious book, and they support the Little League, they support the United Way, you have to charge a sales tax,” he said. “You can walk over here to your computer and click a button and you don’t have to pay sales tax. Something is inherently wrong with that.

“This is not a new tax. There ought to be a level playing field for everything.”

Gov. Bill Haslam made the same point about whether the Amazon agreement represents a new tax when he formally announced the deal last week.

The Amazon arrangement has been presented as a fairness issue on tax collections, but Ramsey may be the first state official to publicly say the sales tax predicament could result in an income tax if not addressed.

Tennessee does not have a personal income tax, although it does have the Hall income tax on interest and dividends. Haslam has said there is absolutely no chance the state will adopt an income tax. An income tax appeared to be killed after a major protest at the Capitol in 2001. Few members of the Legislature openly advocate an income tax.

Nevertheless, interest groups such as Tennesseans for Fair Taxation continue to promote an income tax.

An effort is underway in the Tennessee General Assembly to prohibit an income tax in the state Constitution. Ramsey is one of several co-sponsors of the resolution (SJR0221).

The state’s current sales tax rate is 7 percent, with a local option of up to 2.75 percent. Thus, an increase of even one-quarter of a percentage point would put counties currently at the maximum rate at a double-digit rate, which would be politically difficult to approve.

Tennessee is on board with a proposed Streamlined Sales Tax initiative that would bring states together on the issue. While state officials routinely call for Congress to step in and settle the issue for the states, many believe Congress will not act because it might be perceived as a tax increase, and the federal government would not see the revenue.

State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, chairman of the Senate finance committee, recently said the matter should be settled in the courts because he believes Congress will not act on the matter.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Dems Not Satisfied With Ramsey’s TNRedtape.com Ethics Letter

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has provided a letter from the Tennessee Ethics Commission as a response to claims that his “Red Tape” initiative involves a violation of the law, but Democrats say the letter does not address the issue.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester this week told WJHL-TV, an Upper East Tennessee television station, that it is illegal for Ramsey to use his publicly funded office to promote a website funded by his political action committee, RAAMPAC.

Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville who is speaker of the Tennessee Senate, has a website called TNRedtape.com., which is funded by RAAMPAC. The site is designed to address issues regarding government regulations. The lieutenant governor has launched a series of “Red Tape Road Trips” that focus on government regulations. His first meeting was in Clarksville on Thursday.

Ramsey was asked after that meeting if there was any reason to be concerned that what he is doing is illegal.

“Absolutely none,” he said.

Ramsey’s meetings are aimed at hearing people’s concerns about regulations that may be impeding business. Forrester said in his television interview that Ramsey is unlawfully mixing policy and politics.

“To use the official office to promote a PAC-paid website is clearly against the law in Tennessee,” Forrester told WJHL-TV. “Furthermore, we’re very curious as to whether Lt. Gov. Ramsey is collecting his per diem.”

Ramsey produced a letter Thursday from Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, dated that day, saying Rawlins is not aware that any statute enforced by the Tennessee Ethics Commission was violated when Ramsey’s PAC created the site.

But the state Democratic Party says that’s not the problem.

“What Governor Ramsey asked is not the correct question,” said Brandon Puttbrese, communications director for the Tennessee Democratic Party. “He got the answer he was looking for. The serious question here is if using his official office to promote his PAC website is a violation of the Little Hatch Act.”

The Little Hatch Act refers to a law regarding the involvement of government employees for political purposes. The law prohibits public officers and employees from participating in any political activity while on duty (pdf). Tennessee’s Little Hatch Act mirrors the federal Hatch Act.

Rawlins, when contacted by TNReport Friday afternoon, said Ramsey’s question was not submitted in writing.

The ethics commission executive director said the question from Ramsey arose because the lieutenant governor apparently “wanted to make sure there was no ethics violation by RAAMPAC paying for the website.”

“I viewed the website and did not see any ethics violation, and that’s why I wrote the letter,” Rawlins said. “But there wasn’t any written request for a letter from me.”

Rawlins said his office does not handle alleged Little Hatch Act violations. Rawlins said he wasn’t sure who would look into Little Hatch Act allegations. He said he was not asked by Ramsey if it was appropriate or a potential violation of law to have his publicly funded staff doing work on the website.

“That was not a question I was asked, and I would not have answered that one because we do not have authority over that,” Rawlins said.

Puttbrese, the Democratic spokesman, said there should be some clarity on Ramsey’s activity, and he pointed to the broader issue of Ramsey’s use of his public office.

“If he’s using his official office to promote his PAC website, that’s a problem, because he’s using taxpayer dollars to promote a website that grows his fundraising database,” Puttbrese said.

“I think this is a muddy issue here, and Governor Ramsey specifically has flirted with this line before, when his office sent out communications so he could endorse Rick Perry’s failed presidential run, and also in the spring he rolled out the TNRedtape using the official office of the lieutenant governor. He also had a taxpayer-funded website, ltgov.tn.gov, which is no more than a repackaging of all of his political communications.”

The issue may present a murky area between the line of governing and conducting political activity.

“I understand that a politician is going to do politicking,” Puttbrese said. “But he (Ramsey) dances in the gray area. And it could be that he’s thumbing his nose at the rules here.”

Ramsey’s website TNRedtape.com states that the site is paid for by RAAMPAC.

Ramsey was unavailable for comment Friday. He told the audience in Clarksville on Thursday that he was going to South Dakota pheasant hunting the next day.

The Oct. 13 letter from Rawlins to Ramsey reads:

Dear Gov. Ramsey:

You have asked if RAAMPAC paying for the creation of the TNREDTAPE.com website violated any ethic statute enforced by the Tennessee Ethics Commission (Commission). Based upon my review of the ethic statutes and the website, I am not aware of any statute, enforced by the Commission, which was violated by RAAMPAC paying for the creation of the website.

Please note that it does appear that you would need to disclose the activity on your Statement of Interests pursuant to TCA 8-5-502(5).

If you have any additional questions, please let me know.

Sincerely,
Drew Rawlins
Executive Director
Cc: Lance Frizzell

Puttbrese said Friday the request was off-target.

“It’s not a question of whether a politician can set up a PAC and set up a PAC website. That’s not what we’re questioning,” Puttbrese said. “So for him to get a letter from Drew Rawlins saying, yes, it’s legal for PACs to set up websites, we’re not questioning that.

“Whether it’s appropriate for him to be promoting his political fundraising website through his official office is the question.”

Ramsey said Thursday that Forrester’s objections were a typical example of the Democratic Party “grasping at straws.”

“Not only has their power dwindled away, but it continues to dwindle away,” Ramsey said. “They can’t talk about the issue because they lose. They can’t talk about what’s important to Tennesseans so they come up with their fake issues, like this that’s, number one, wrong, and number two, something that most people wouldn’t care about anyway.

“It’s just a blatant attempt by Chip Forrester to take an attack at me.”

Ramsey said it was because he had been able to lead Republicans into the majority in the Senate.

Ramsey’s communications director, Adam Kleinheider, issued a statement Friday.

“It is the height of irony that the Democratic Party — the party of Tennessee Waltz and Solyndra – throws baseless accusations at Republicans working to give Tennesseans the streamlined and efficient government they deserve,” Kleinheider said.

“Tennessee Democrats should be ashamed that one of its leaders is attacking a good government initiative as though it were somehow wrong. It is sad that the once proud party of Andrew Jackson has been reduced to this behavior.”

Ramsey has made the Red Tape website the focus of his attention on reducing or streamlining regulations in the state. He says R-E-D-T-A-P-E stands for “Reducing Employee Decisions That Affect People Everyday.”

Among the complaints Ramsey heard Thursday were about how involved the appeals process is on unemployment benefits, taxes on personal property used in a small business and the process for selection of consultants on construction projects for the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Mark Todd Engler contributed to this story.

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Ramsey Favors Adding Picture on Drivers’ Licenses for Seniors

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday in Clarksville he may pursue legislation to require citizens over age 60 to have a photograph on their driver’s license — a big wrinkle in the debate over the state’s new voter ID law.

Ramsey, on the first leg of his “Red Tape Road Trips” tour designed to hear concerns about government regulations, said he doesn’t understand any justification for allowing those citizens to go without a photo on their driver’s license. He wants to study the history of how that came to be.

While his meeting at a Clarksville real estate office Thursday addressed regulations, some unrelated questions arose, and one was about the state’s new law that requires voters to have a photo ID when they show up to vote.

The law goes into effect Jan. 1 and would first come into play in the state’s presidential primary March 6.

The question came from a man who recently moved to Tennessee from Iowa who was unaware the state had a new voter ID law. In telling the new Tennessean about the law, Ramsey said he didn’t know until recently about the exemption for people 60 and over allowing them not to have a photo on their driver’s license.

There are 126,000 seniors in Tennessee who are over age 60 without photos on their driver’s licenses.

“I don’t see a policy reason for not doing that (having photos on licenses),” Ramsey said after the meeting. “I think that would solve the problem with voter ID. So, yes, we are looking back on that, at least to see what the policy was that did it and if there is reason not to do it.

“Maybe there is some logical reason why if you’re over age 60 you don’t have to have your picture on your driver’s license, but for the life of me I can’t figure it out.”

Ramsey said he assumes it would take legislation to change the policy.

“We’re looking into the history behind that and why it happened and why there’s over 100,000 citizens that don’t have it,” he said.

“When we began doing the research, I think there was an amendment to the bill that exempted them. So there would have to be an amendment to the statute to put them back in, too. I don’t know many senior citizens that would object to that, not the ones I know.”

Ramsey said he was surprised to learn about the exemption. It was unclear exactly when Ramsey was saying the exemption came to his attention, whether it was before or after the Legislature passed the photo ID bill.

“I don’t think that anybody really realized — I know I didn’t — that over age 60 you do not have to have your picture on a driver’s license. Now why shouldn’t you? Give me a policy reason why you shouldn’t. I can’t think of one,” he said.

Ramsey also told the audience of about 35 people that photo IDs can be obtained free under the new law, but he added “that’s another whole problem, standing in line at DMV.”

When he answered the question from the former Iowan, Ramsey said, “One thing I discovered through this whole process — we didn’t know this and have done some research on it lately — if you’re a senior citizen, you’re not required to have a picture on your photo ID. I didn’t even know that. So what was the policy, the reason we did that? We’ve kind of traced it back.

“Those of us who are lifelong Tennesseans remember when you didn’t used to have a photo on your driver’s license. I think in 1988, we figured out, when the law went into effect, when you first got the plastic card you carry in your back pocket that’s got your picture on it. For some reason, some amendment got attached to the bill that exempted senior citizens. What’s the policy reason for that? So that needs to be changed, too.”

Ramsey said he received “several compliments” from people in the audience after the meeting about the new photo ID law.

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Nashville Dems Talk TN Tourism on Metro ‘Jobs Tour’

Tourism got the spotlight in the latest leg of the Tennessee Democrats’ jobs tour Tuesday — from talk of large-scale investments in marketing the state in general down to a specific proposal for an African-American music museum in Nashville.

Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, the Democratic caucus chair, was the only legislator to hit all four spots of the day’s schedule in Nashville. Democrats heard about the attributes of funding for marketing from Gaylord CEO Colin Reed and heard the prospects of a music museum at a roundtable on minority business later in the day.

But at every turn, education also came into the discussion, especially at a morning meeting with the Madison-Rivergate Area Chamber of Commerce.

When the day was over, six Democratic legislators had participated in at least one stop of the tour, and Turner repeatedly said the spirit of the mission was to be bipartisan, noting that Gov. Bill Haslam is having his own meetings with businesses throughout the state.

Other Democrats involved Tuesday were Sen. Douglas Henry, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. Mike Stewart, Rep. Sherry Jones and Rep. Janis Sontany, all of Nashville.

Reed, head of a state commission on tourism appointed by Haslam, told Turner in a one-on-one meeting at the Gaylord headquarters in Nashville that the state budgets about $6 million in the Department of Tourism to market the state, compared to Gaylord spending about $20 million marketing its own businesses.

“You’ve got Elvis Presley Enterprises doing its own thing. You’ve got Dollywood doing its own thing,” Reed said. “We’ve got the CVBs (convention and visitors bureaus) that take the rooms taxes and do their own thing.

“But the state of Tennessee has very limited resources to market the state.”

Reed told Turner that Tennessee employs about 140,000 people directly related to tourism.

“It is a very big industry for us,” Reed said. “But our percentage share of U.S. tourism bumps along between 1.8 percent to 2 percent of the total tourists that originate in America and come from overseas.”

Reed said Nashville needs more “air lift.”

“The big challenge Tennessee has is the vast majority of those tourists come from the border states because they drive here,” he said, adding that Nashville currently has no airline hubs, whereas Denver, for example, has three.

“What we’ve got to figure out is: How do we make it easy for people outside of the border states to come visit this fabulous state?” Reed said. “If we can do that, we can generate so many more jobs here.”

Reed said Gaylord is spending $800 million in the Denver area and is getting some “wonderful incentives” from the state of Colorado to build there.

Reed said the nation is about to see “an explosion of international travel coming into America” because of the federal Travel Promotion Act, which he said involves about $100 million to market the United States to international tourists.

“How does Tennessee come together, take some of its dollars, co-market Tennessee to the Brazilians, the Europeans, the Chinese that want to come to America?” Reed asked. “These are things we’ve got to figure out.”

Reed told Turner the commission he heads will be going to the leadership in the state House and Senate sometime in the next six months with recommendations about opportunities in tourism. He said Tennessee generates about $14 billion in tourism, generating $1.2 billion in tax receipts. Reed said for every dollar spent on tourism there is an $18-$20 return.

At a discussion on minority business at Swett’s restaurant in Nashville, community leader Francis Guess, who held two cabinet-level positions in the Lamar Alexander administration, was designated to talk about the 2012 legislative agenda.

One of the items he addressed was developing a national museum in Nashville on African-American music. The museum would be at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Jefferson Street on state property. He called for a dedicated tax source in Nashville to go toward the building.

The project would be a variation on the African-American heritage museum that has been discussed previously. Guess said after the meeting he did not want to speak for the project and referred questions to Perri Owens of Nashville, but she couldn’t be reached Tuesday night.

At the Chamber meeting in Madison, several representatives of the business community complained about the status of schools and voiced concern about the quality of the workforce coming from the state’s education system. There was a lot of support for concentrating on smaller neighborhood schools rather than comprehensive schools.

One stop on the day’s tour was at the Sunset Grill in Nashville, but it essentially became a de facto press conference with no business leaders in attendance.

Turner said some of the things Democrats have learned on their tour and want to act on will not require legislation. The Democrats have already made some legislative proposals from their jobs tour, including a call for $15 million for equipment and expansion of the state’s 27 technology centers.

“We’re going to talk to the governor about this some more and try to come up with some legislation that Democrats and Republicans can agree on,” Turner said. “We’ll probably agree to fight about education again this (next) year. We’ll probably fight over guns in bars and things like that. But hopefully, on jobs, we’ll try to work together to come up with something.”

Haslam has also praised the effectiveness of Tennessee’s technology centers, which have a job placement success rate of about 85 percent. Haslam, however, has generally shied away from legislation pertaining to jobs, saying businesses, not government, create jobs.

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Amazon Compromise Mirrors McNally’s ‘Grace Period’ Idea

Sen. Randy McNally, chairman of the Senate finance committee, says retailers still upset with Amazon’s tax agreement with the state aren’t likely to get a better deal than the one negotiated by the Haslam administration.

McNally, R-Oak Ridge, one of the key figures in trying to have the company start collecting sales tax from Tennesseans, said further action in opposition to the deal is up to those other retailers, but he said, “Certainly, if I was asked to give them advice, I would tell them that this is far and away the best deal they could get.”

Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday that the state has a new deal with Amazon, in which the online retailer will begin collecting sales taxes in 2014, while Amazon commits to increasing its job total in the state to 3,500 positions on an investment of up to $350 million.

McNally said he hopes this will settle the matter of Amazon’s tax status and suggests that the overall online sales tax issue should go through the courts to be resolved nationally, because he believes Congress is unlikely to act to bring uniformity to the collection of state sales taxes.

Recent reports say Amazon has its sights on locations in Rutherford and Wilson counties, as it seeks to grow its presence in Middle Tennessee, the latest development in a story that began last fall when former Gov. Phil Bredesen gave Amazon the ability to avoid collecting taxes in exchange for building distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties. Haslam’s administration and Amazon negotiated the new arrangement.

The retail group Alliance for Main Street Fairness immediately objected to the Haslam agreement, saying 2014 is too long to wait, noting in particular that the deal gives Amazon three holiday shopping seasons before it has to collect. The brick-and-mortar retailers continued their campaign over the weekend with newspaper advertising objecting to the deal, saying California got an agreement for Amazon to collect beginning in 2012 and that the same should apply in Tennessee.

Haslam said he will submit the new deal in the form of legislation, to be considered when the General Assembly convenes in January. McNally and Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the House finance committee, had initiated legislation this year and twice submitted requests for opinions from state Attorney General Robert Cooper on the matter. Cooper’s most recent opinion said no retailer can escape responsibility to collect the tax, although he said the commissioner of Revenue has wide discretion.

Haslam saw McNally at the funeral in Madisonville Oct. 2 for Lance Cpl. Frankie Watson, a Marine killed in Afghanistan. The governor told McNally that day he wanted to talk to him a couple of days later about Amazon. McNally was scheduled for surgery in Oak Ridge that Tuesday, so Haslam filled him in then on the plan. The surgery was why McNally did not attend the press conference at the Capitol on Thursday.

Haslam told McNally of the two-year forgiveness period on the tax collections and that after that the playing field would be level. McNally had suggested a two-year “grace period” as a possible solution to the matter in July. McNally said Friday he was taking no credit for the final agreement and that Haslam had not suggested that McNally’s idea was the catalyst for the deal. Neither did McNally ask if his idea had been the foundation of the arrangement.

“It just seemed to be in the best interest of the state,” McNally said.

One of the key elements of Amazon’s strategy appears to be centered on geographical factors.

The Nashville Business Journal posted a story online Friday morning saying Amazon will choose a site in Murfreesboro off Joe B. Jackson Boulevard for a facility involving 1,100 jobs and a capital investment of $87.5 million. Another facility, the Business Journal reported, would be in Lebanon, near Interstate 840, that would create up to 450 full-time jobs, a $51.5 million investment.

“I know they’re looking at sites that are close to Interstates,” Sargent said Saturday. “The same with Lebanon. They can get on Interstate 40, they can get on Interstate 840 and go all the way across to I-65 and I-24.

“Transportation is a big thing to them.”

Access to multiple Interstate highways, waterways and other modes of transportation, especially the presence of FedEx in Memphis, make Tennessee an attractive location for many different companies, state officials say.

In a recent interview with TNReport, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty said logistics, one of the six major clusters of businesses the administration has identified in the state, is the premier cluster, even ahead of auto manufacturing and health care.

“You’ll see a theme running through all the clusters,” Hagerty said. “You’d be surprised. Even with health care, if you look at all the medical device operations around Memphis, they’re there because FedEx is there.

“An orthopedic firm can have their products on a plane and in a surgical field tomorrow. So they can inventory all these expensive things there, make them to order if they need to, and have it in the operating room the next day.”

Neither McNally, Sargent nor Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, Senate speaker pro tempore, said they were aware Friday of sites being chosen by Amazon. Sargent said he got the chance for the first time Thursday to sit down and talk to Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy for Amazon, after a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday announcing the deal.

“They’re very excited about it,” Sargent said.

The Business Journal reported the Rutherford Industrial Development Board approved a 20-year tax break for Amazon. The Tennessean in Nashville reported the same tax break for the potential site in La Vergne or Murfreesboro, as well as a 15-year tax break for Amazon for a second, smaller facility in Rutherford County.

The Tennessean also reported incentives in Wilson County that include a $3.8-million tax break offered by the county and a break of $439,000 to $550,000 in property tax breaks by the city of Lebanon, with Amazon agreeing to make an annual payment of $28,900. State officials have said there are no state incentives in their deal with Amazon beyond standard incentives for job training and infrastructure.

Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, emphasized Friday that the deal was not done and that reports he was hearing of were premature.

“The last thing you want to hear is reports out of Rutherford County that Rutherford County got the deal and two weeks later learn that we didn’t get the deal,” Carr said.

Carr confirmed, however, that Rutherford County is very much in the running for sites to be chosen.

McNally, who had issued a formal statement on Friday expressing his support of the Haslam deal, seemed pleased with the outcome but voiced continued concern about the bigger picture.

“I think, hopefully, this would settle the issue with Amazon,” McNally said. “Now, long-term there is an enormous issue about out-of-state retailers that don’t have a presence in Tennessee that aren’t collecting the sales tax and how the states can address that.

“It’s been my theory that they ought to try to go back through the courts again. That probably would be the best option, because I doubt Congress would touch this with a 10-foot pole.”

The issue has been litigated most notably with a 1992 case involving Quill Corp., a mail-order company that made catalog sales. The North Dakota Supreme Court ruled there was sufficient presence, or nexus, of Quill in North Dakota that required Quill to collect the sales tax there. But the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state court, saying the case did not represent sufficient nexus as it related to the commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution.

For years, states have turned an eye to Congress to settle the matter legislatively, but many observers, including McNally, see Congress as unlikely to get involved in an issue that would increase tax collections for the states. Haslam called again Thursday for a national solution.