Liberty and Justice

Lawmakers Consider Jailing Mothers of Babies Born Drug-Addicted

Tennessee reportedly has a growing problem with babies born addicted to drugs. The General Assembly is looking at encouraging mothers to receive treatment by way of threatening them with incarceration.

As of Oct. 26, 703 babies with “neonatal abstinence syndrome,” or babies born addicted to drugs, had been delivered in Tennessee in 2013 — a projected 33 percent increase over previous years. The state could see 800 drug-addicted babies born by the end of 2013 if the trend continues, Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner said.

“This is a preventable condition that can be largely eliminated; preventing addiction, thoughtful treatment and preventing unintended pregnancy are the most productive conversations we can have right now,” Dreyzehner said in a press release from Oct. 7.*

Dreyzehner said around 41 percent of the mothers were using prescription drugs prescribed to them by a physician and 33 percent used drugs from illegal sources.

Expecting mothers who use illegal drugs may become the subject to criminal penalties as part of a renewed push to address the issue in the Tennessee General Assembly next year.

The judiciary committee is considering Senate Bill 1391 sponsored by Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, which threatens women with prosecution if they “illegally (take) a narcotic drug while pregnant and the child is born addicted, is harmed, or dies because of the drug.”

The bill passed unanimously in the state House but stalled in the Senate and was sent to the judiciary committee for study.

The intent of the bill, said Shelby County Attorney General Amy Weirich, is to wield a “velvet hammer of justice” against pregnant women addicted to illegal drugs. She used the phrase describe the state’s drug court system.

“The focus of this legislation is to protect babies being born addicted to drugs. We are not talking about going after women who show up at their OB/GYN with a positive drug screen,” Weirich said.

She also emphasized the proposed law would only apply to illegal drugs, not prescription pain medications. The legislation could be expanded in the future to include alcohol abuse and prescription drug abuse, she said.

However, others, like Cathy Waterbury, the executive director of Covington-based Confidential Care for Women, a Christian-oriented pregnancy support center, are concerned that threatening women with criminal penalties could encourage drug-addicted women to seek abortions.

“If a woman has the option to kill her unborn child and continue her drug use, what is she going to choose?” Waterbury told the judiciary committee. “She is going to choose killing that unborn child.”

A woman who might not otherwise consider terminating her pregnancy may find herself doing so if threatened with the prospect of criminal charges if she gives birth to a drug dependent baby, Waterbury said. Members of the committee echoed her concerns in their questioning of Weirich, asking if the threat of prosecution would be enough to encourage an increase in abortions.

Weirich maintained that the intent of the legislation she advocates is not to put women in jail but to get them into drug rehabilitation programs through the state’s drug courts, which focus on recovery rather than punishment — although punishment is still threatened for those who don’t successfully abstain from drugs. Advocates of the system argue that drug courts reduce incarceration and recidivism rates.

Shelby County was using the drug court approach to rehabilitate mothers to prevent future drug-addicted babies, but a February attorney general’s opinion said state law doesn’t allow for women to face either criminal or civil liability in such cases. The AG issued his opinion after state Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, asked for clarification on whether state law can hold the mother or other individuals accountable for babies born with narcotic drug addiction or with birth defects.

This legislation isn’t the General Assembly’s first run trying to reduce drug abuse among pregnant women.

Last session the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Safe Harbor Act of 2013, which took effect in May. The law now requires doctors who determine an expecting mother is endangering her fetus through abuse of prescription drugs to “encourage counseling, drug abuse or drug dependence treatment and other assistance to the patient.”

The Safe Harbor Act also keeps the Department of Children’s Services from attempting to terminate the mother’s parental rights as long as she seeks treatment and complies with a substance abuse program throughout the remainder of her pregnancy. The Act also prioritizes public funding of funding of treatment centers that serve pharmaceutical-abusing pregnant woman.

The Senate’s sponsor, Harriman Republican Ken Yager, said the law “gives women who are addicted a chance to keep their baby by undergoing treatment … and hopefully, discourages women from seeking other alternatives such as terminating the pregnancy.”

Yager told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that 60 percent of mothers on TennCare who gave birth to babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome had been prescribed the medication by a doctor.

“That statistic really does validate this bill,” Yager said. “It gives women a chance to save that baby and their family.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Tennessee Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner delivered remarks before the Senate Education Committee Tuesday. Dreyzehner’s comments in this story came from press release dated Oct. 7 and can be found here.

Education Featured NewsTracker

Teachers Warming to In-Class Observations

Tennessee teachers view the state’s new evaluation procedure more favorably now than when implemented, a recent survey from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College suggests.

The study found teachers are more receptive to classroom evaluations when they see them as a tool for improving teaching, not as just a way to judge performance.

“Teachers who viewed the evaluation process as focused on teaching improvement tended to engage with the system to a far greater extent than teachers who saw the process as one aimed only at judging their performance,” said Nate Schwartz, director of the Tennessee Department of Education’s Office of Research and Policy.

The new evaluation system was implemented in 2010 after Tennessee was awarded more than $501 million from the federal government to reform its public education system. Among the reforms adopted as part of the grant were: adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments for students; building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

The main reform that concerned teachers was a change to teacher tenure laws that ties student performance to classroom evaluations. Since the change to tenure laws, the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development has contracted with the TDOE’s Office of Research and Policy to study teacher opinion on the reforms.

And those opinions look to be changing, according to state education officials.

“Through multiple survey measures (First to the Top being one of them), we have seen that teachers in Tennessee feel that the evaluation system has been implemented with fidelity,” said Kelli Gauthier, communications director of the Tennessee Department of Education.

That faith has translated to a better perception of the state’s teacher evaluation system from both teachers and observers. The most recent study, which asked 26,000 teachers about the First to the Top reforms, suggests both teachers and observers like the teacher evaluation system better in 2013 than in previous years, but half of the teachers surveyed are still unconvinced of the evaluation’s overall value.

But when teachers do find value in the process, they respond more favorably to the current observation system. The value is found in feedback and instructions for improving teaching methods, rather than observers judging their classroom performance, according to the study.

Dan Lawson, the superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, said most teachers welcome a chance to improve and hope teacher observations are part and parcel of improving learning, rather than quantifying teacher performance.

“Teaching is a complex process integrating relationship building, content knowledge, the craft of instructional delivery and the art of interacting with children. As much as some love the idea of quantifying everything, I fear that such a practice tends to diminish the complexity of my profession,” said Lawson, who has long been critical of Tennessee’s education reform initiatives.

Lawson said the evaluation process was developed as a way to improve teaching quality, but that observations are not “sufficient to identify a quality teacher.” He is also concerned the reforms encourage teaching to the test.

“Teachers may be led to better ‘scores’ on the rubric, but those scores may be negated by a single (student) test score. This challenge leads many to ask a pertinent, but in my mind misplaced question: ‘How do I get my kids to earn higher TCAP scores?’,” he said.

Regardless of how administrators and teachers feel about the evaluation process, Tennessee students have seen growth on state assessments.

“While we attribute that growth to a variety of things, we absolutely believe that Race to the Top initiatives, such as our teacher evaluation system and the extensive professional development we have given to teachers through the grant, played a part,” Gauthier said.

Tennessee has seen three years of growth on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, Gauthier said. She cited more than 20,000 more students are performing at grade-level in math now than in 2010 and “nearly 52,000 additional students are at or above grade level in all science subjects, as compared to 2010.”

Add improving teacher attitudes toward the evaluation to growing TCAP scores and Tennessee’s education system is moving in the right direction, she said.

“Tennessee has been recognized nationally as a leader in improving public education, and in many ways, Race to the Top created the environment for us to accomplish this work, with broad support from a variety of stakeholders,” Gauthier said. “I believe that our results speak for themselves.”

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

No-Bid Contracts Worrisome to Some State Lawmakers

State lawmakers from both parties are expressing concern that taxpayer interests aren’t adequately safeguarded when public contracts are inked with private firms without first submitting jobs to competitive bidding.

Lebanon Republican state Rep. Mark Pody, who was backed up by Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, said this week during a Joint Fiscal Review Committee hearing that the state ought open up more of its contracts to market competition.

“I don’t think (noncompetitive bidding) is in the taxpayer’s best interest. They needed to go through the competitive system and have it competitively bid,” Pody said.

At a minimum, any single-source contract ought to raise a “red flag” and should be earnestly probed by the Fiscal Review Committee, the Lebanon lawmaker added.

Gilmore agreed. “We may be saving money but we need to know why,” she said.

Committee Chairman Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who chairs the state Senate’s majority-party caucus, joined the call for more information on noncompetitive contracts.

Pody brought the issue to the forefront Monday afternoon during the joint committee’s monthly meeting, when it was considering a contract extension with Xerox to provide services for the International Fuel Tax Agreement. IFTA is described on the state’s website for trucking commerce as “a tax collection agreement by and among the 48 contiguous States and Canadian provinces bordering the United States to simplify the reporting and collecting motor fuel use taxes used by motor carriers operating in more than one jurisdiction.”

Phillip Mize, the state Department of Revenue’s chief financial officer, explained that Xerox offers one of six commercial products that help commercial fleets and states track fuel taxes owed to other jurisdictions.

Mize defended the contract by saying Xerox is the “most mature product” and controls 45 percent of the market. He also said the state negotiated a 5 percent discount, totaling $420,000, over the previous contract.

After the meeting, Pody said the contract may well provide a savings for the state, but without it being competitively bid, there is no way to know for certain. He said it is worrying there are five other providers available on the market, but the contract was not offered the same bid process as other state-awarded contracts.

“I think that anything that is competitively bid, even if it ends up here, would be a lot more transparent,” Pody said before voting against moving the contract out of committee. The contract with Xerox passed 15-1, with Pody casting the sole dissenting vote.

The committee approved another proprietary contract Monday, but it was explained that no other company provides the service.

NewsTracker Tax and Budget Uncategorized

Loose Financial Controls in State Ag Department Facilitated Fraud, Audit Finds

A lack of financial oversight allowed one soil conservation district employee to embezzle almost $50,000 and another district to post a shortfall of $50,000, according to an audit of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Lax money monitoring also allowed questionable grants to be awarded to the Tennessee State Fair Association and delayed inspections of food manufacturers, a recently released ag agency audit by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury reported. The audit also suggested updating the Weights and Measures laboratory to help Tennessee businesses.

The department audit highlighted the comptroller’s April 2013 investigative audit of the Chester County Soil Conservation District, which found a former secretary “misappropriated” at least $47,460 between 2007-2011.

The findings resulted in the arrest and conviction of Stacey Clark, of Henderson, Tenn. She pleaded guilty to three charges related to the theft. Clark was charged with writing more than 100 checks to herself or to “cash.” She also created false bank statements and forged a district official’s name to conceal her embezzlement.

A grand jury indicted her in February on charges of theft of property over $10,000, forgery and tampering with evidence. Clark received five years probation for her guilty plea and was ordered to pay back $50,960 in restitution.

An audit of the Morgan County SCD found the board of directors did not provide proper financial oversight, which allowed for the district to post a cash shortage of at least $53,412.78.

The comptroller suggested all SCD boards need to meet regularly and review financial statements and promptly investigate discrepancies to avoid issues like this in the future.

The Department of Agriculture has hope reminding all soil conservation districts of current policies will help prevent fraud and financial mismanagement. To accomplish that, the department is writing a soil conservation district supervisor’s handbook, said Tom Womack, director of Public Affairs for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

“We believe there is adequate existing authority to greatly reduce the chances of misuse of funds with stepped up oversight by the State Soil Conservation Committee and local districts,” he said.

Soil conservation districts are funded by the state through the Department of Agriculture to prevent soil erosion.

“State funding of landowner conservation projects is critical for maintaining the progress that we’re making in reducing non-point source pollution from agricultural lands,” Womack said.

Grants issued prematurely

The audit found problems with two fiscal year 2011 reimbursement grants and a conflict-of-interest issue related to those grants. The grants were paid prematurely and without sufficient documentation justify the issuance of the grants to the Tennessee State Fair Association. There was also evidence of the questionable use of two other grants, one from FY 2012 and another in FY 2013. The cost of the problem grants total $260,000.

The department “will be working with the state committee to provide specific guidance on documenting grant payments and better educating local board members of their duties and responsibilities” to correct these issues, Womack said.

Food manufacturers not inspected within self-imposed time frames

Problems were also detected in the timeliness of inspections at retail food stores and food manufacturers.

Womack said the department is dedicated to the safety of Tennesseans and food safety and the audit refers to self-imposed goals, not government-mandated time frames.

“We are constantly striving to improve our own record in providing timely inspections and services,” Womack said. “We are confident that we are properly managing resources in order to place the highest priority on the areas of greatest risk and concern to public safety in all our regulatory programs.”

In its sample of inspections, the comptroller found 18 percent of food manufacturer inspections, while only 3 percent of retail food inspections, were not conducted within the required time frame.

Weights and Measures lab out of date

The comptroller also suggested the department should update the laboratory equipment in the Weights and Measures section of the Division of Regulatory Services.

The lab has been funded with $4.98 million by the General Assembly. The appropriation includes construction, administrative costs and new equipment. A new lab is slated to be built next year, with a target opening date of 2015, at Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville.

This division is tasked with testing the accuracy of weighing and measuring devices in the state, such as fuel pumps, scales, and liquid propane meters.

“This will enable us to meet requirements set by state law that we maintain weights and measures standards traceable to national standards,” Womack said.

Currently equipment is 40 years old and “is outdated, substandard, and in need of significant improvement,” the comptroller said. Because of the substandard equipment Tennessee businesses that use scales calibrated by Weights and Measures are unable to do business in Alabama or Mississippi.

Business and Economy Featured NewsTracker Uncategorized

Haslam Confident TN’s Bond Rating to Remain High

The federal shutdown and debt ceiling compromise should not affect Tennessee’s bond rating and credit worthiness, Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday.

Haslam traveled to New York Wednesday to meet with representatives from the three major bond rating agencies – Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Inc.

The governor had expressed concern earlier this week that the ratings agencies would ask about the impact of the partial federal shutdown in Tennessee and the effects of federal funding cuts on state government. Almost half of Tennessee’s annual $32.8 billion budget comes from the federal government.

But Haslam said in a teleconference with reporters Friday morning that the rating agency managers didn’t in fact seem too concerned about that after he, along with Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Secretary of the Treasury David Lillard and State Comptroller Justin Wilson, made the case for the state’s financial stability.

“I was very proud of what we had to present and every Tennessean should be proud of what we’ve built,” Haslam said on the phone call. The state has the financial controls in place and built a climate that encourages economic growth, he said.

The agencies did express concern over vulnerable consumer confidence in the economy and the “certainty of the uncertainty” from Congress’s debt ceiling compromise, which the governor noted really only delayed political fighting over federal finances in Washington until next year.

Overall, Haslam said a good case was made for Tennessee keeping its high credit rating.

Similar to a personal credit rating, banks use bond ratings to determine how much risk is involved with loaning money to a government. The higher the score, the lower the interest rate on money loaned. An “A” rating indicates above-average creditworthiness with the highest score being “AAA.”

Currently, Tennessee enjoys a the highest rating possible from Moody’s – a “AAA” rating. The state’s high bond rating means lower interest rates when borrowing money in the taxpayers’ name.

Bond ratings are opinions of the investment quality of a state and are based upon the analysis of four primary factors relating to municipal finance: economy, debt, finances and administration/management strategies.

According to Fitch, Tennessee has the lowest debt ratio of any state in the nation.

NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Back to Work for Furloughed State Employees

More than 500 state workers have returned to work after President Obama and the U.S. Congress reached an agreement to end the partial federal shutdown.

Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor, said all furloughed workers are back on the job, but the state is still waiting for word about back pay.

“We are waiting for guidance from the (U.S. Department of Labor) whether these employees will get back pay,” Hentschel said.

The Department of Labor gets 79 percent of its funding from the federal government and the partial federal shutdown delayed federal monies from funding the department.

In all the department sent home 369 employees Monday in addition to the 27 Labor Market Information employees who were furloughed Oct. 9.

Workers in the Department of Human Services and Department of the Military reported to work Friday. DHS idled 112 from Disability Determination Services. DOM furloughed 103.

The state was forced to furlough some federally funded state workers during the shutdown as its surpluses ran dry.

Other departments, like the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, received grant funds and reimbursements in time to continue business as usual.

The TBI, which receives millions in federal grants, was able to meet the U.S. Office of Justice Program’s Oct. 4 deadline so the state’s law enforcement agency remained fully funded.

The federal government partially shutdown Oct. 1 after the U.S. Congress and the president failed to agree on an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 or a continuing resolution in the interim.

The impasse resulted in about 800,000 federal employees being furloughed and about 1.3 million were asked to work without pay. It also resulted in a short vacation for several hundred state workers in Tennessee, who were completely or partly funded by the federal government.

Congress passed a continuing resolution on the night of Oct. 16 to reopen the federal government. The resolution will fund the federal government through the middle of January.

Environment and Natural Resources Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget Uncategorized

Audit Finds Purchasing-Oversight Problems in State Wildlife Agency

Some of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s management practices open the department up to risks of fraud and spending abuses, a recent audit released by the state comptroller’s office said.

The most egregious example of a lack of oversight is with state payment cards, which allow TWRA employees to buy goods and services for the agency. According to the audit, between July 1, 2009 and Jan. 24, 2013, TWRA employees made more than 57,000 purchases, totaling nearly $13.3 million.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency management did not maintain proper controls over State Payment Cards, increasing the risk that state resources will be used improperly due to fraud, waste, and abuse,” the audit found.

Employees were allowed to make purchases that should not have been permitted, and also to avoid purchasing limits because, according to the audit, supervisors failed to double check and approve receipts in some situations.

While TWRA policy requires employees to maintain logs of purchases that are then approved by supervisors, state auditors found that record-keeping was not always maintained and approved properly across the board, leaving an opportunity for fraudulent purchases.

Also the audit found cards are not always deactivated promptly after a cardholder leaves the employ of TWRA. “Management did not always promptly terminate cardholders’ payment cards, resulting in one purchase (totaling $55) made on a terminated employee’s payment card,” wrote the probe’s authors.

Agency overseers recognize a need to revise its policies to encourage better compliance and say steps are being taken to address the issues raised in the report, said Jeff McMillan, chairman of the Tennessee Wildlife Management Commission, which meets Thursday and Friday at Meadowview Conference Center in Kingsport.

“This is why we need to do an audit every year,” said McMillan, a dentist from Bristol. “We have audits to find where things need correcting and we’ve done that.”

McMillan maintained, though, that the agency overall is doing the job it was set up to do, which is manage wildlife. “We’ve got elk, geese, sandhill cranes. It’s like the good ole days,” he told TNReport this week, adding the agency manages the wildlife of Tennessee on a balanced budget.

However, one of TWRA’s most vocal critics in the Tennessee General Assembly, Strawberry Plains Republican Sen. Frank Niceley, said the audit is proof positive the agency’s leadership needs an overhaul.

“What people need to realize is, the TWRA is set up as a free-standing agency,” Niceley said in an phone interview with TNReport Tuesday. “It is the only agency that is set up that way. It was done as an experiment in the ‘70s and it has failed.”

Nicely noted that some of the issues found by the Comptroller have been found in the past and not corrected.

“Management has not been managing. They are having a big party on the sportsman’s dime,” Niceley said. He said he has no problem with the mission of the TWRA, he just wants to see it more efficiently run.

“It needs new management,” Niceley said. “It needs a commissioner (who should) answer to a standing committee.”

McMillan defended his volunteer post, saying the commission is removed from politics. “You get a non-political opinion on what needs to be done with wildlife,” he said.

In addition to failing to rigorously monitor purchases with state money made by employees, the audit found problems in how TWRA manages state-owned equipment, crop leases and computer security.

The audit found the agency doesn’t always carefully track equipment and suggested an annual inventory of the approximately $35.5 million worth of TWRA-owned guns, vehicles, boats and tractors. Auditors found not all state property was sufficiently documented and lost items were not always reported correctly or in a timely manner.

“Due to the sensitive nature of these items and the decentralized nature of the agency’s operations, it is critical that TWRA maintains proper internal controls over equipment,” the audit said.

The audit, which can be read in full here, also reported:

  • TWRA did not oversee crop leases properly, which increases the chances of lost revenue for the agency
  • It did not enforce its conflict-of-interest policies; and
  • It did not always protect its Remote Easy Access Licensing (REAL) computer system, which could open the agency to hackers.
NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Carr Lags Behind Alexander in Fundraising

The clip at which Rutherford County state Rep. Joe Carr is raising money to try and unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in the Tennessee GOP primary next year doesn’t appear to be fast and furious.

Carr told conservative radio host Ralph Bristol his campaign didn’t do nearly as well as incumbent Alexander, who reported raising nearly $1 million in the same three-month period.

“I don’t have an exact figure, but it was a little less than $100,000, I believe,” said Carr, who shifted his campaign from the 4th District House nomination to the U.S. Senate in August.

In fact, Carr’s report this week to the Federal Election Commission indicates he only raised $52,000 in the third quarter. He also posted $285,000 cash on hand, which is an increase from the second quarter.

The Carr campaign justified the low numbers by saying he was more focused on endorsements than fundraising.

“Winning the support of Tennessee grassroots conservatives was our focus these past months – and we hit it out of the park, earning the endorsement of both the Beat Lamar organization and the Coalition for a Constitutional Senate, an informal coalition of 63 Tea Party and Liberty groups. Now were are going to build on that grassroots foundation and turn our focus to fundraising – I’m confident we will have a stellar 4th quarter,” Hillary Pate, Carr’s communications director said Wednesday afternoon.

Alexander reported raising $838,000 in the last three months making his year-to-date fundraising $3.9 million. The incumbent has $2.8 million on hand.

Campaign Fundraising from the House

Jim Tracy is winning the fund-raising race more than a year before he faces incumbent Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the 2014 primary for the GOP nomination for the 4th District in the U.S. House.

Tracy said the numbers prove he has the momentum in the race and enjoys broad support throughout the district that stretches from Rutherford County from Middle to East Tennessee.

“We have great support from inside the district,” Tracy said.

Tracy has taken donations from more than 1,200 individual donors with most coming from inside the contested district. DesJarlais, on the other hand, has taken cash from more out-of-state donors.

In the third quarter Tracy raised $181,721.79. During the three-month period, which ended Sept. 30, DesJarlais, raised $113,249. A state senator from Shelbyville, Tracy has collected $921,649.79 in this election cycle, compared to DesJarlais, who has $273,729.25.

Overall Tracy boasts a four-to-one lead in campaign funds with more than $750,000 on hand. DesJarlais is only holding on to about $170,000.

The only other incumbent with a seemingly viable opponent, Jimmy Duncan, R-Knoxville, raised $67,000 in the third quarter. He has raised $133,205.65 this election cycle and has $1.55 million on in the bank.

His primary challenger, Jason Zachary, reported raising $17,607.43 in the third quarter. He has raised $52,331.36 since announcing his candidacy in September. He has $20,364 in his campaign war chest.

Her are FEC tallies from Tennessee’s other U.S. House incumbents:

  • Phil Roe, R-1st District, raised $144,225 in the third quarter, $253,454 year-to-date and has $446,399.39 on hand
  • Chuck Fleischmann, R-3rd District, raised $95,880, $410,032 year-to-date with $250,222.41 on hand
  • Jim Cooper, D-5th District, raised $56,625, $344,051 year-to-date and has $910,762.31 in the bank
  • Diane Black, R-6th District, raised $127,621.61, year-to-date $552,362.45 and has $699,231.14 in the bank
  • Marsha Blackburn, R-7th District, raised $368,874.74 in the last quarter, $882,022.45 this year and holds $1.67 million in the bank
  • Stephen Fincher, R-8th District, raised $184,441.80 in the third quarter, $825,227.45 for the year and has $2.1 million in his campaign war chest
  • Steve Cohen, R-9th District, raised $59,125 for the quarter, $151,045 for the year and has $837,433.47 on hand.
Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget Uncategorized

State, Counties to Fund GSMNP Operations for Five Days

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is reopening Wednesday morning through the weekend despite the federal government’s partial shutdown.

Noting that “for the Smokies and the people around it, the month of October is the most important time of the year,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced late Tuesday afternoon that “America’s most visited national park” will stay open at least through midnight Sunday, Oct. 20.

Last week the federal government agreed to let national parks reopen if individual states agreed to pay for their daily operation. Parks in Utah, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Arizona had reopened as of Tuesday.

After the federal offer, Tennessee and the National Park Service needed to hammer out details – like how much of the park will be opened, who is responsible for what in the park – before the state agreed to pay the $60,000 a day the feds say it cost to run it, Haslam told reporters earlier Tuesday.

Haslam said the State of Tennessee will pay 80 percent in the form of a $240,400 tourism grant to Sevier County with Sevier and Blount counties funding the remaining $60,100 to fully fund operation of the park for five days. In all, $300,500 was sent to NPS to open the park for five days.

If congress can resolve its impasse before Sunday, NPS will refund any money to the state.

“According to the agreement, if the shutdown ends before the money is spent, NPS will refund to the state the unspent balance of the state-donated funds,” said Dave Smith, spokesman for the governor’s office. *

State Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, is pleased the park will reopen to tourists. The park has been closed to visitors since Oct. 1, which has “had a terrible impact on the park and surrounding communities,” Overbey said.

Overbey said many East Tennessee communities, as well as the state government revenues, have been impacted by the closure of the park with the state losing $300,000 a day in revenue.

“This is (typically) the second highest month for sales tax receipts in the state next to July,” he said, adding the state’s investment in the park will garner high returns in sales tax receipts.

Overbey said he has heard many anecdotes from families who decided against a trip to East Tennessee because the park is closed. “People come to go to the park,” he said. “We have other things to do – lakes, golf courses, attractions – but people want to come to go to the park, especially to see the fall colors and drive through the mountains.”

The federal shutdown has closed national parks across the state, but the Smoky Mountains presents a unique situation because it’s the most visited park in the country, state Sen. Frank Niceley said.

Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, is also suggesting now is a good time to start talking about Tennessee taking over operation of the park full time. “We need to tell the federal government, ‘If you can’t run it, then we will take it back’,” he said.

The park was created in 1934 and paid for by both federal, state and private funds. Niceley said the people of Tennessee ought to rescind their donation.

“The federal government is out of control with all its borrowing and spending. We need to take it back and run it ourselves,” Niceley said.

An NPS report found that the 9.6 million visitors to GSMNP during 2012 had an economic impact of $818 million in communities surrounding the park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

* Update to original article.

Tax and Budget Uncategorized

State National Guard Workers Furloughed

Tennessee’s Department of the Military this week sent home 103 National Guard employees, who are funded by the U.S. government because the state is uncertain whether it will be reimbursed for their services once the federal shutdown ends.

Workers, based in Nashville, Smyrna, Memphis and Knoxville, were placed on leave.

“We simply cannot assume the risk that the federal government will reimburse the state for these employees’ wages,” said Max Haston, Tennessee National Guard adjutant general.

Every department in the Tennessee state government has employees who are funded either fully or partially by the federal government, which has put some jobs on shaky ground as the shutdown continues.

Some posts are funded by grants at the beginning of the fiscal year, like the 27 Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development workers who were furloughed from the Labor Market Information and Statistics unit at the beginning of the shutdown Oct. 1.

The workers are funded through federal contracts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has been delayed because of the shutdown, said Jeff Hentschel, communications director for the state labor department.

“The state is going to continue to operate programs and services over which we have control. However, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has direct impact on the federal funding and support of the department’s Labor Market Information Research and Statistics section,” Hentschel said.

The furlough means all statistical data related to Tennessee’s economy and recovery will be delayed indefinitely. LMI gathers information, like unemployment rates, job growth, industry growth, wage rates and more to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hentschel said Tennessee isn’t the only state affected. North Carolina, Nebraska, Illinois, Washington, and Arizona have furloughed LMI staff.

While statisticians are at home with no pay, other department officials are worried.

Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, for example, is 90 percent federally funded, DHS Communications Director Christopher Garrett said.

“We have conducted a preliminary analysis of the potential impact for DHS overall. Federal funds will expire within 10 weeks from the shutdown’s start in most cases, with some variations,” he said.

As of Friday, the cessation of nonessential federal functions was 11 days old.

“We do anticipate an impact to that program very soon. We are analyzing this day by day, and we have informed our DDS employees of that. We will keep them informed as details emerge in this challenging time,” Garrett said.

Within DHS, the Department of Disability Determination Services is 100 percent federally funded to the tune of more than $62.9 million annually and it has very little money to continue paying its 463 employees.

Other departments, like the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, received grant funds and reimbursements in time to continue business as usual.

The TBI, which receives millions in federal grants, was able to meet the U.S. Office of Justice Program’s Oct. 4 deadline so the state’s law enforcement agency is fully funded.

“We do not foresee any state employees being furloughed or working without pay because of the shutdown,” said Kristin Helm, TBI public information officer.

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has few employees that are entirely funded by the feds, but many partially funded jobs, Communications Director Kelly Brockman said.

The only fully federally funded TDEC jobs are with the Bureau of the Environment in Oak Ridge, but she doesn’t expect them to be furloughed in the future, she said.

“There are employees that are partially funded, but they have not been affected at this time,” she said, adding they could be if the shutdown continues for an extended period.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has said since the shutdown began state government and employees will begin to see problems as the problems in Washington drag on.

“I’ve said before the longer it goes, the bigger the potential impact would be,” he said.