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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Ethics Panel Looking to Ban ‘Bias or Prejudice’ Among TN Lawyer Ranks

It sounds uncontroversial: The board of Tennessee attorneys that oversees ethics for that profession want to broaden the rules that govern lawyers’ behavior.

But the head of a prominent conservative group says that the proposed rule change is written so broadly that it could mean fines or suspension for attorneys who are activists in their community — or even if they take on the wrong client.

“It could curtail free speech, it could curtail religious speech,” said David Fowler, an attorney and head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. “It’s political correctness run amok.”

The proposed rule — submitted by the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court — broadens the ethics rules Tennessee lawyers would be subject to.

The new rule would make it professional misconduct for lawyers to “engage in conduct, in a professional capacity, manifesting bias or prejudice based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.” If the Board found an attorney guilty of such conduct, he or she could face censure, fines or even suspension.

The way Fowler reads the proposal, attorneys who advocate defending marriage as solely between a man and a woman, for example, or who take a side on issues such as the simmering debate on Vanderbilt University’s “all comers” policy open themselves up to punishment from the 12-member Board of Professional Responsibility.

Fowler, a former state Senator is well known at the capitol for his fundamentalist Christian activism. He’s waded into controversial issues such as the so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay‘ bill, which would force schools to tell parents if their children have talked to a teacher or counselor about gay sexual activity.

Lela Hollabaugh, an attorney with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings and the board’s chair, told TNReport that it’s not the board’s role to prohibit attorney’s political activity.

The rule, would, though “prohibit, while in their professional capacity as a lawyer, from manifesting bias or prejudice,” Hollabaugh said.

There are already some rules on the books that prohibit professional misconduct of attorneys, but Hollabaugh explained that, in addition to broadening those rules, it would also include work the attorneys so “in their professional capacity,” not just while representing clients.

“Our concern was that lawyers do things that reflect poorly upon the profession as a whole with conduct that might be deemed to be racist, sexist, ect,” she said. “Given the current language of the rule, we couldn’t necessarily take any disciplinary action… because it was conduct that occurred when the lawyer was not representing a client.”

The reason for the proposed rule change stems from a lawyer’s television commercial that ran on stations in East Tennessee, Hollabaugh said.

“The board received letters and phone calls from different people in East Tennessee who had seen a lawyer’s advertisements and thought they were very derogatory to a certain race of people,” she said. “The board became concerned that, in reality, there was no action that we could take.”

Hollabaugh declined to provide more information about those television commercials.

An interesting twist in the proposed rule: Lawyers could be punished for discriminating against those who are poor — but allows those same lawyers to not take a client’s case if they can’t pay the lawyer’s fee.

“We didn’t want somebody to say ‘you’re discriminating against me based upon socioeconomic status,’ meaning ‘I’m poor and I can’t pay you, therefore you’re discriminating against me,’” Hollabaugh said.

Comments on the proposed rule change must be received by April 1.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter (@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501

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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Public to Get First Look at Proposed Judicial Redistricting Maps

More than a dozen proposals for Tennessee’s first judicial redistricting in nearly 30 years submitted by individual attorneys, district attorneys, public defenders and judges will be unveiled Friday.

“The response we have gotten to our public call for judicial district maps is extremely encouraging,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement to TNReport. “I would especially like to commend the Public Defenders Association as well as the Tennessee Bar Association for coming to the table and sharing their ideas.”

Judicial redistricting, which would change the way judges, district attorneys and public defenders are allocated throughout the state, has a bearing on the workload of judges and court workers and the efficiency of the state justice system.

The state’s judicial districts have not been redrawn since 1984. A key reason why redistricting is needed, legislators say, is that in the past three decades, Tennessee’s population has jumped from 4.5 million to 6.4 million.

Sumner County, for example, makes up the 18th Judicial District. It has a population of 163,686, according to 2011 census numbers, and has one circuit court judge assigned to it. But over in Blount County, where there are 40,000 fewer people, there are two circuit court judges.

Tennessee’s 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are circuit courts and chancery courts. Some districts also host criminal courts and probate courts.

Ramsey’s office provided TNReport one example of a map they received of how districts could be redrawn. That example can be seen here.

A request for comment from the Administrative Office of the Courts was not immediately returned. An official with the AOC had previously told TNReport the office had no opinion on whether judicial districts should be redrawn.

Ramsey last month launched a website seeking public input into the creation of the new judicial maps. He also sent a memo about this to interested parties.

“While I have heard from several individual judges and district attorneys, their respective conferences have been MIA in the consensus-building process,” Ramsey said. “I find it curious that the judiciary insists that districts from school board to Congress be strictly drawn to the hallowed ‘one man, one vote’ principle yet balks at the mere suggestion that the principle be applied to itself. We came into this process with open minds and a desire to work with interested parties.”

Indeed, not everyone is happy with the potential changes coming.

From Knoxville’s Metro Pulse:

The biggest problem, (Chancellor Daryl Fansler, the president of the Tennessee Trial Judges Association) says, is that Ramsey’s memo requires any new redistricting plan to make each of the 12 counties with populations over 100,000 people their own districts. Since the memo restricts increasing the number of districts above 31, that leaves 83 counties to be divided among 19 (or fewer) districts, with just 54 judges to serve them. There could be districts with seven or eight counties apiece, stretching hundreds of miles. Judges, lawyers, plaintiffs, and defendants might now have to travel two or three hours to get to court — and court appearances might take a much longer time to get on the schedule.

Ramsey said he believes that the General Assembly will make a map that is fair to Tennessee’s citizens.

“We continue to endeavor to create a map that takes into account both regional integrity and population growth to ensure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders,” he said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Drinking the Hemlock Kool-Aid

It’s a snapshot moment that today seems reminiscent of the iconic Chicago Tribune “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.

The December 2008 photo shows then-Gov. Phil Bredesen grinning, standing with then-Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and the CEO of the new company that would take Clarksville – and Tennessee – into a new era of green energy economic development: Hemlock Semiconductor.

Bredesen is holding high the local paper, the Leaf-Chronicle, featuring the sort of blaring headline normally reserved for announcing commencement of war hostilities, reporting natural disasters or heralding a home-team championship sporting victory.

WE DID IT!” the headline screams.

Just a few years later, though, taxpayers could be forgiven the nagging suspicion that perhaps we may not have done it after all. Earlier this year Clarksville-based Hemlock announced it will lay off nearly 300 workers, and now there is a real possibility that the company designed to produce key components for solar panels will never open.

Workers are no doubt feeling anxiety. Taxpayers ought to be sweating, too:

  • Hemlock has pocketed $90 million free and clear in Tennessee taxpayer money for the construction of its plant;
  • The company still has a chance to write off up to $280 million in taxes, and;
  • Hemlock still has another potential $150 million in state monies waiting in the wings that Tennessee took out bonds to pay for.

It’s unlikely taxpayers will get back a dime of the state money that has already flowed to the beleaguered solar energy company. And it’s unknown how much the company will write off at taxpayer cost or if Tennessee officials will hand over the $150 million.

That’s in part because the deal written under Bredesen apparently did not include any “clawback” provisions requiring Hemlock to return any of the public monies it was awarded should the company for whatever reason fail to live up to its promises.

“If a company is receiving an incentive from the state, there has to be some measure to compensate the state and give back the taxpayer money,” said Middle Tennessee State University Professor Murat Arik, who co-authored a definitive 2011 study on the economic impact of Tennessee’s green investments.

No effort from GOP to get taxpayers’ cash back

And there seems to be little desire from current Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, to see if taxpayer money can be saved at this point. “We’re not giving up” on Hemlock, Haslam said earlier this month. “I actually think there’s a decent chance, I really do, that at some point in time they’re going to come back into production there. They’ve told us that.”

Haslam and company officials have blamed a market downturn and Chinese competition for the company’s failings.

One of the reasons Haslam said he believes that Hemlock has a fighting chance is that the company put plenty of its own money into the project – upwards of $1 billion. Hemlock is owned by Dow Corning Corp. and two minority Japanese partners.

But taxpayers have put plenty of money into the project, too – and not just state tax dollars.

Millions more in local and federal tax dollars were earmarked to Hemlock. It received a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with Montgomery County worth $77.8 million. The county also committed to $20.6 million in other incentives, and the Tennessee Valley Authority said it would provide Hemlock a $60.5 million grant.

An analysis from Tennessee’s free-market think tank, the Beacon Center, shows nearly $300 million in direct taxpayer-subsidized incentives either given to or offered to Hemlock.

A spokeswoman from Hemlock did not respond to phone calls or an email request for an interview by TNReport.

Top Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, have long called for clawback provisions, and the Department of Economic and Community Development put plans in place in the fall to attach such language to each of the grants for economic development and job training that it doles out.

“The clawbacks we use are written into our grant contracts with companies,” ECD spokesman Clint Brewer told TNReport. “We are able to do this at the department level without any additional legislation.”

Indeed, Ramsey told TNReport he has confidence in ECD chief Bill Hagerty’s fixes when it comes to clawback measures.

“It is very disappointing that effective safeguards for taxpayers were not included in Bredesen-era deals like Hemlock,” Ramsey said in a statement. “Fortunately, Governor Haslam and Commissioner Hagerty have vastly improved the management of tax dollars by including effective clawback measures and safeguards in projects under their watch. I am confident that taxpayer dollars will be protected going forward.”

Clawbacks could have helped — is legislation needed?

This isn’t the first time “clawbacks” may have helped. Wacker Chemie AG, for example, announced last year that its plant, which produces a key raw material for solar cells, will not open as promised. Officials now say the plant will open mid-2015, about 18 months later than the prior schedule. The operation has received millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies.

But even if Haslam and Hagerty commit to clawbacks, because those clawbacks are inserted into contracts at the departmental level, could a future governor waltz into the governor’s mansion and start doling out the sweetheart deals once again?

“That’s a very good question,” Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, told TNReport. “It’s something we need to talk about and take a look at.”

Sexton suggested that an analysis of incentives going back several administrations could serve to show if clawback legislation was needed.

“Let’s see how big an issue it is,” he said.

Sexton has legislation before the House this year that will provide a more down-home incentive, instead of waving the red cape of big bucks before untested industries.

His plan is to reduce the excise tax on businesses already in the state. Under Sexton’s plan, small business would be the chief beneficiary, with 17,000 businesses in the state paying no excise tax at all if his bill becomes law.

That would, he said, allow small businesses in Tennessee to use their money to grow.

Sexton says he’s not opposed to incentives, but “we give a lot of incentives to new businesses coming into Tennessee. Why can’t we give a little bit of help to small businesses who have been here so many years helping the Tennessee economy grow?”

The big problem: corporate welfare

But beyond incentives and beyond clawbacks, the Beacon Center’s Trey Moore said the problem is simply corporate welfare.

“One of our biggest complaints with the corporate welfare game is not simply ponying up on the front end to land a deal, but that then companies have even more bargaining power to hold local communities hostage,” he said. “We support clawback provisions insofar as they aim to mitigate the risk for taxpayers. But ‘clawbacks’ merely treat the symptoms, not the underlying disease.

“And too often the damage is already done. How much money was the federal government able to claw back from Solyndra?”

MTSU’s Arik says it will be extremely difficult to end state subsidies to attract business. In some cases, those subsidies work. He pointed to the Nissan energy efficiency plant in Smyrna, built, in part, with subsidies.

In a perfect world, he said, there should be no taxpayer-funded subsidies. But states across the country are hungry to attract jobs and are willing to use taxpayer cash as a lure for many industries — and if they aren’t, a neighboring state is.

“Many states are playing this game,” Arik said. “It may not be politically viable not to do it. It’s hard to escape.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501

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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Ramsey Soliciting Ideas for New Judicial District Maps

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is expected today to announce he’s seeking input from the legal community and the general public on what reworked state judicial district maps should look like.

Tennessee’s judicial districts have not been redrawn since 1984. And with districts set to elect their district attorneys general, public defenders and state trial court judges this August, some powerful figures in the General Assembly are saying that this legislative session represents the best chance to improve the efficiency of the districts through redistricting.

“The last time our judicial districts were updated Waylon Jennings and Michael Jackson were at the top of the charts,” Ramsey told TNReport in a statement. “Tennessee is a far different place that it was in 1984. Formerly rural counties have become thoroughly suburban, and our suburban counties now confront problems similar to urban areas. We desperately need to take a fresh look at this judicial map to ensure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders.”

At a forum sponsored by the Associated Press last week, Ramsey said Tennessee’s judicial districts are “completely out of whack.”

Ramsey added that he isn’t particularly looking forward to the undertaking. He indicated the process of legislative redistricting last year was a bigger headache than he’d anticipated.

“Really, there’s no political upside to this,” the East Tennessee Republican said. “It is something that I just think is good government and efficiency and making sure that the judiciary operates as efficiently as we do.”

Ramsey also said that, in addition to the public at large, he is requesting input from those that would be directly affected, such as the Trial Judges Association, the District Attorneys General Conference and the Tennessee Bar Association.

Officials with the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts have said they have no opinion on redistricting, but Ramsey has said that the process will likely be controversial.

The debate over judicial redistricting is not a new one. Unlike legislative redistricting, it is not mandated by the Tennessee Constitution. And since the mid-1990s — about 10 years after the last redistricting — state officials have been debating how best to go about it — or whether to do it at all.

In 2007, the Comptroller’s Office awarded a $126,522 contract to the Justice Management Institute and George Mason University to conduct a study of potential judicial redistricting in Tennessee (pdf).

The five-page report after the study came to this conclusion: There was no need for redistricting, but more study was needed.

From the report: “Only a few people provided any thoughts about potential benefits, namely the creation of more time available to justice professionals to process cases, lower caseloads and reduced travel time.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.

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NewsTracker

Ramsey Agrees Campfield’s Latest ‘Gay’ Bill Intrudes into Family Matters

Asked about a GOP state senator’s bill to require public school employees to inform a student’s parents if alerted the child is possibly engaging in homosexual activity, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey sided with those who say it’s a government intrusion into family matters.

“There are some things that should be left inside the family and some things don’t need to be in public,” Ramsey said.

He added that the issue is nowhere near a priority to him. “It’s not even on my radar screen right now,” said Ramsey.

Under legislation sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, a school counselor, nurse or principal would have to inform parents if their children’s “circumstances present immediate and urgent safety issues involving human sexuality.” Campfield told reporters this week that he considers the “act of homosexuality” to be dangerous to a child’s health and safety.

The measure is part of a similar proposal, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that Campfield passed in the Senate last year, but which failed in the House. The proposal would ban the teaching of gay issues to elementary and middle school students.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501

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NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Ramsey Wants to Keep Rolling on Hall Income Tax Cuts

Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to further reduce the Hall income tax for seniors was a victory for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has been pushing for Hall tax reductions for years — and he wants to keep the cuts coming.

The Hall income tax is a state tax on income from investments. The governor’s proposal would cut the Hall income tax by raising the exemption level for people over 65 from $26,000 to $33,000 for individuals and from $37,000 to $59,000 for joint filers.

Ramsey said he was pleased that Finance and Administration Commissioner Mark Emkes, when making his presentation about reducing the Hall income tax, used the language that the lieutenant governor had been using for years.

The Hall tax, Ramsey said, was hurtful to senior because Tennessee encourages people to save a nest egg for retirement — and choose the Volunteer State as a place to retire.

As it stands now, “When you start drawing that money out, suddenly we start taxing it,” Ramsey said. “So I’m glad that the governor is seeing that because I do think we need to be a great place to retire.”

And Ramsey wants to keep rolling on the reductions.

“I think we can… over a few years get to the point that (the tax) is insignificant, at least, for those over the age of 65,” Ramsey said. “The governor’s bill is a step in the right direction.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.

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NewsTracker

Haslam’s GOP Budget Taps Into Some Top Democratic Priorities

Not all the Dems are thrilled, of course, but many in the minority praised Gov. Bill Haslam’s $32.7 billion spending plan, pointing to more cash for university construction projects, a 1.5 percent raise for state employees, and, in particular, more money for elementary and high school education.

“I thought he gave a great speech, I really did,” said Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, who serves as the House assistant Democratic leader. “Heretofore, the Republicans weren’t really supporting K through 12.”

The man in charge of shepherding the budget proposal through the General Assembly is Finance & Administration Commissioner Mark Emkes. After a point-by-point proposal of the budget plan before the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Tuesday, he told TNReport that the budget plan was put together with bipartisanship in mind.

“As we go through the budget process we focus on what is good for the citizens of Tennessee, what is good for our customers. And our customers are the citizens of the state of Tennessee, so let’s do what’s good for them,” Emkes said. “We don’t need to think about what’s good for Republicans or what’s good for Democrats. We always have that in mind.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Judicial Redistricting on Legislature’s Docket

Tennessee just got through redistricting.

But another round might be on the way. Judicial redistricting, which would change the way judges, district attorneys and public defenders are allocated throughout the state, has a bearing on the workload of judges and court workers and the efficiency of the state justice system.

The state’s judicial districts have not been redrawn since 1984. And some powerful voices in the General Assembly are saying it’s high time because while judicial maps have not changed in 30 years, the state’s population certainly has. In the past three decades, Tennessee’s population has jumped from 4.5 million to 6.4 million today.

“Rural counties have become suburban counties, and suburban counties now wrestle with issues similar to urban counties,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said in a statement. “Put simply, our state is a dramatically different place than it was when the last redistricting occurred. This naturally results in inefficiency and misallocation of resources.”

Sumner County, for example, makes up the 18th Judicial District. It has a population of 163,686, according to 2011 census numbers, and has one circuit court judge assigned to it. But over in Blount County, where there are 40,000 fewer people, there are two circuit court judges.

“There are certainly some oddities,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the new chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which would likely tackle the issue of judicial redistricting.

Kelsey pointed to Coffee County, which makes up a single judicial district, as compared to rapidly growing Williamson County, which is part of a single four-county judicial district.

Judicial redistricting is “an issue worthy of consideration,” Kelsey said.

Michele Wojciechowski, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the office had no opinion on whether judicial districts should be redrawn.

Tennessee’s 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts. Some districts also host Criminal Courts and Probate Courts.

See all the Judicial Districts here and the state’s population by county here.

Judges of these courts are elected to eight-year terms. And that’s part of the urgency, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, chair of the House Civil Justice Committee, told TNReport. It would be best to redraw districts before elections, he said.

“It makes sense to do it now, so that the resources can get to where they’re needed,” he said, also citing the state’s population shifts. “In ‘84, the last time this was done, I think we had two counties that had populations over 100,000,” Lundberg said. “Now there are 12 or 14.”

The debate over judicial redistricting is not a new one. Unlike legislative redistricting, it is not mandated by the constitution. And since the mid-1990s — about 10 years after the last redistricting — state officials have been debating how best to go about it — or whether to do it at all.

In 2007, the Comptroller’s Office awarded a $126,522 contract to the Justice Management Institute and George Mason University, to conduct a study of potential judicial redistricting in Tennessee.

The five-page report after the study came to this conclusion: There was no need for redistricting, but more study was needed.

From the report: “Only a few people provided any thoughts about potential benefits, namely the creation of more time available to justice professionals to process cases, lower caseloads, and reduced travel time.”

Those years may have been long enough to change some minds — at least inside Legislative Plaza.

“I think taking a fresh look at the judicial map could go a long way toward making sure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders,” Ramsey said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Artists of Persuasion

The caricature of a lobbyist is a cigar-smoking fat cat, with a $100 bill as a pocket square. Monocle and spats, optional.

But in Tennessee’s Legislative Plaza that clichéd image is threadbare. Today’s lobbyists are, by and large, professionals and experts in their field. The days of lobbyists wining and dining elected officials have largely been replaced by lobbyists making their case through hard facts and Powerpoint presentations.

And there is one other thing lobbyists need on Capitol Hill.

“The secret for success in my business, first and foremost, is your credibility,” lobbyist David McMahan told TNReport. Lawmakers “have to trust you. They have to trust that your information is accurate.”

Indeed, credibility was a common thread in all the lobbyists we spoke to for our report on the most influential lobbyists at Legislative Plaza for 2013. That may be more important in Tennessee than just about anyplace else.

In the national capitol, or in states such as California or New Jersey, lawmakers enjoy large staffs and research assistants. In Tennessee, lobbyists are, many times, the research assistants who help craft legislation.

How did we compile our list? It was unscientific, to be sure. We had off-the-record conversations with many key people at Legislative Plaza, including staff, elected officials and other lobbyists, to compile the list. We also took a look at lobbyists who spent the election season supporting new lawmakers and helping incumbents keep their seats.

You may note that many of these names are the familiar, top lobbying names that could be found working the halls when Democrats held power at the Capitol. Some firms made strong GOP hires to stay in the game; others changed their spots along with the times.

Largely, though, many Democrats in Tennessee in decades past were often conservative, pro-business Democrats. At Legislative Plaza, the letter behind the name of the lawmakers may have changed, but many policy initiatives have not. If some Democratic lobbyists had to change their tune, it was from Mozart to Beethoven rather than from Mozart to Lady GaGa.

Our list of the most influential lobbyists at Legislative Plaza for 2013, in no particular order:

David McMahan and Beth Winstead McMahan, Winstead, Hafner & Alexander

McMahan is a longtime Republican and started lobbying back in the days when rounding up Republicans for a card game at Legislative Plaza often meant a game of solitaire.

Winstead is a Democrat, but both she and McMahan have long supported pro-business Republicans. One other item that helps open GOP doors: They recently hired Anna Richardson, a former top Senate Republican aide.

McMahan conceded that his firm is a “beneficiary of the Republican takeover of Tennessee” but also attributes his firm’s success to being as accessible as possible to both client and lawmaker.

Clients from 2012 included: T-Mobile, the Tennessee Charter School Association, cash advance companies, Vanderbilt University and 3M.

Brian, Mike and Steve BivensBivens and Associates

The Bivens family are long-time Democrats who made the switch fairly seamlessly to the new GOP reality.

“You have to shoot straight with people, being honest with people,” Brian Bivens told TNReport. “The second your credibility is gone, your career is over.”

The Bivens brothers — Brian and Mike — navigate the legislative shoals with the help of their father, Steve. He served in the House 14 years, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, with stints as speaker pro-tempore and vice chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee.

Their flexibility in dealing with the Republican leadership comes through in their discussion of Speaker Beth Harwell’s proposed 10-bill cap on lawmakers, which has many lobbyists scrambling to find legislators to sponsor their clients’ bills.

“It doesn’t bother us a bit,” Bivens said. “It will streamline the process. We’ll work with whatever they decide.”

Clients from 2012 included: Sprint/Nextel, the Tennessee Dental Hygienists Association, the city of Cleveland, Southeast Financial Credit Union and Health Services Management Group.

Nathan Poss and Bo JohnsonJohnsonPoss

Poss and Johnson are also longtime Democratic lobbyists who successfully made the switch to supporting pro-business Republicans and have built good relationships with leadership in the House and the Senate.

An example: Poss was an aide to former Senator Bob Rochelle, who became a poster child for the vilified proposed income tax in Tennessee. But Poss coasts with ease into the offices of Republicans who fought tooth-and-nail against an income tax. He’s known as an expert in the state’s purchasing practices — the wording of which makes Finnegans Wake seem like a light read.

Johnson is a knowledgeable, easy-to-get-along-with lobbyist who also can talk the GOP talk. He brings an added benefit to the table, though. He comes from a newspaper family and has a knowledge of journalism and is comfortable talking with reporters.

Clients from 2012 included: Alcoa, Motorola, Nissan, Corrections Corporation of America and the Tennessee Press Association.

Gif ThorntonAdams and Reese, LLP

Thornton has been a Republican heavy-hitter not only at Legislative Plaza, but also representing clients before various regulatory agencies in Tennessee.

He has many clients, but as a representative of the Tennessee Bar Association, he has the ear of key Republican leaders when it comes to the judiciary.

He also has had no shortage of adventures throughout his life. He’s run the Boston Marathon and worked as a special assistant to the ambassador at the American Embassy in Paris.

Clients from 2012 included: the Tennessee Bar Association, Delta Dental, Liberty Mutual, the Tennessee Defense Lawyers Association and the American Heart Association.

Jim BrownNational Federation of Independent Business

Brown is on the list for what he did — and what he did not do.

He was a leader on unemployment law reforms that moved through the legislature last year, and — wisely, some say — he stayed far from the guns in parking lots debate. That leaves him strolling into Legislative Plaza this year with no shrapnel from the issue.

Brown says his being on the list has little to do with him personally, but rather more to do with the NFIB’s members.

“Candidly, it’s the influence of 8,500 members,” Brown told TNReport.

As a rule of thumb, Brown said, if half his members lean one way on an issue and the other half lean another, he stays neutral — which is what happened during the guns in parking lots debate.

Another help to Brown: “We’ve had good friends of business on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

David Locke — Blue Cross/Blue Shield

Locke was the top lobbyist to former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, someone whose political reputation was also damaged by the income tax debate of the early 2000s.

But Locke is on the list because he is now the top lobbyist for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a 800-pound gorilla in Tennessee. And, more than many, Locke knows how Legislative Plaza works. For example, some say he spoke fluent “Wilder.” Former long-serving Lt. Gov. John Wilder was known at times to make his wants known cryptically or through stories while invoking “the cosmos.”

That experience may serve him well at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. A debate over Medicaid expansion is looming: Gov. Bill Haslam has said he will decide sometime next year whether Tennessee will expand its Medicaid program, but if he chooses to, he faces possible opposition from House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Both say they lean toward not expanding the insurance program.

And this comes as the Obama administration announced that states will have to expand their Medicaid programs all the way or not at all under the federal health law aimed at extending government-subsidized insurance coverage to millions of Americans.

Locke, and the mega-insurance company he represents, will certainly have a seat at the table.

Nathan Green — RobinsonGreen LLC

He’s a lobbyist who’s been fighting one of the top issues at the legislature: to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores as a lobbyist for the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association.

If wine in grocery stores passes this year, it will be because of Green, some say.

Although Republicans see him as one of their own, he’s married into the prominent — and Democratic — Davidson County Robinson family, giving him insight and access to both sides of the aisle.

Clients from 2012 included: the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association, BellSouth/AT&T, the city of Bartlett, the Tennessee Hospitality Association and Novartis Pharmaceuticals.

Notables: Lobbyists to watch in 2013

These lobbyists are ones to keep your eyes on. They didn’t make our “most influential” list for a couple reasons. Some are new to the game without a lot of clients but have such bonafides that it would be difficult to argue they won’t have access to House and Senate leadership. Others are dark-horse lobbyists who you may not know but who have successfully worked behind the scenes for some time.

Matt KingKing Public Strategies

It’d be a tough argument to say Matt King doesn’t have access to the corridors of power at Legislative Plaza. He’s got one of the best resumés in the joint: former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and former executive director of the state Republican Party. He’s worked closely with Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and he’s served as the Tennessee State Director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Perhaps most important, he was a player in the GOP war room that envisioned — and executed — the Republican takeover of state politics. Some key members of the House and Senate are in their seats because of King’s work.

Robert GowanSouthern Strategy Group

Robert Gowan is a legislative ninja. Figuratively, maybe. But just maybe.

He’s former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s top lobbyist, and he’s built expertise in health care, budgets, regulation and economic development.  But his true calling may be education. He’s been working behind the scenes on education in recent years as a key advisor to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Brent EasleyStudentsFirst

Brent Easley is the former House policy and research advisor to the House Republican Caucus. Just this year he was hired as the state director for StudentsFirst, the education reform organization backed by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public Schools.

The group boasts 35,000 members in Tennessee, but its real power — and Easley’s — may be in cash. The group made more than $200,000 in political contributions this past year.

Pat Miller

How’s this for background: Bredesen’s senior advisor and lobbyist for the last four years of the administration, when Republicans controlled the Legislature, who recently completed two years working in the Haslam administration. An architect of Race to the Top legislation and the Complete College Act. Former chairman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. Go back a few years, and you’ll see Miller’s fingerprints on the passage of the Tennessee Plan that governs how judges are selected. Last, but not least, he served as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. John Wilder.

Miller’s the real deal and as politically savvy as they come. We at TNReport wouldn’t want to cross him. We’d drink with him, though, any day of the week.

Steve Buttery

A former House member, Steve Buttery is close to House Speaker Beth Harwell and House Clerk Joe McCord. He’s a pragmatic East Tennessee Republican, with strong connections to both the Haslam administration and constitutional officers.

Jeff Van Dyke — AT&T

Jeff Van Dyke is the lead lobbyist for this powerhouse communications giant. He’s from North Carolina but rapidly became influential in policy and politics in Tennessee given the money and muscle of his company and the highly skilled lobbyist corps he directs. Note: He was named one of North Carolina’s most influential lobbyists. We’re waiting to see if that happens in Tennessee. And it just may.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.

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Harwell’s Bid to Limit Bills Filled with Exemptions

A proposal from House Speaker Beth Harwell to limit to 10 the number of bills each lawmaker can sponsor during the legislative session comes with plenty of loopholes — and those loopholes are starting to stir debate.

One of the biggest loopholes deals with Gov. Bill Haslam. He is potentially exempted from the 10-bill-limit and can ask for as many bills as he likes.

“It increases the power of the executive branch,” said Bob Rochelle, who’s currently a Democratic nominee for the state Registry of Election Finance.

Rochelle, who served in the Tennessee Senate from 1982 to 2002, was known as a particularly skilled parliamentary tactician. “It reduces the power of the legislators,” he said.

Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron also raised concerns about ceding too much power to the executive branch. “I’m not saying this governor will take advantage of that,” said the Murfreesboro Republican. “But what about the next governor? Or the next?”

Other proposed exemptions in the 10-bill cap include:

+ Bills dealing with cities and counties

+ Sunset bills

+ Memorializing or congratulatory resolutions that are not referred to a standing committee

+ Resolutions confirming appointments or authorizing charitable events

+ Resolutions that are procedural in nature that are not referred to a standing committee

Harwell’s office defended granting the governor and his staff special latitude under the measure.

“Much of the legislation presented by the administration has more to do with the nuts and bolts of running state government, and is necessary to the process,” Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen told TNReport in a statement. “Further, we certainly want to allow members the latitude to use their ten bills for their districts’ priorities, so we feel the exemption to Administration is needed.”

Both Rochelle and Ketron said they understand the desire to  curtail the number of bills. Indeed, in the past both have tried  — unsuccessfully — to put a limit on the number of bills filed each legislative session.

And both Rochelle, Ketron and many more say that reducing the number of bills means less red tape, less staff time used — at the end of the day less costly to taxpayers.

“I know she has good intentions,” said Rochelle said of Harwell.

Ketron said he gets where Harwell’s coming from. When Ketron was crafting his bill-reduction proposal years ago, it was the price-tag to the taxpayer he was chiefly thinking about.

“I was looking at it from an economic standpoint,” he said. “How can we cut down the cost?”

In Tennessee, with each bill a financial statement is crafted showing how much will this legislation cost the taxpayer. Sometime the bill is in the millions of dollars; sometimes it is zero. But each time a state expert has to calculate the cost — and that adds up to big bucks, considering many of these bills never pass committee and see the light of day.

“Every single bill has a fiscal note,” said Owen. “It does mean savings, no doubt about it.”

House Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin, agreed. Filing so many bills is “a frivolous waste of money,” he said.

He also said the move will will lead to better legislation, since lawmakers will have fewer bills to shepherd and over which to gain an expertise.

“We have members who file 90, 100 bills,” Casada said. “It’s impossible to carry that number of bills and do a good job.”

But concerns simmer below the surface.

Since the potential changes were announced last week, lobbyists have been scrambling to find sponsors for the bills their clients may want. If the number of bills do become capped, some special interests may not be able to get legislation favorable to them through the General Assembly.

“The immediate impact was that the bigger, more successful lobbyists starting calling,” prominent legislators who are known to get bills passed, “saying ‘save me one spot, two spots, three spots.’” Ketron said.

“I have heard they are scrambling to the go-to legislators,” Jim Brown, lobbyist for the Tennessee branch of the National Federation of Independent Business, said of his fellow lobbyists. “They are working much harder and much earlier to prepare for the session.”
Ketron also raised the spectre of something more worrisome that might come from a bill limit: ethics issues — something that the Tennessee legislature is no stranger to.

Ketron suggested that, with a bill limit, lawmakers who are skilled at getting legislation through the General Assembly may become the subject of campaign-contribution bidding wars from big-monied special interests who want to make sure their bills get through the legislature.

Even worse, Ketron said, non-profit organizations who can’t pony up campaign cash — and who may need the most help from the legislature — may be left out in the cold.

“Are they going to be blocked out?” Ketron asked. “I’m not saying it will happen, but it’s something that needs to be brought up and debated.”

It’s not surprising there is controversy over limiting bills — and the controversy is not limited to Tennessee.

Legislatures across the US have struggled with the overwhelming number of bills and tried to find ways to deal with it, according to a study by the National Council of State Legislators.

Colorado legislators, for example, have a limit of 5 bills per year — although they can go to a special committee to plea for additional legislation.

In the Florida House of Representatives, members are limited to 6 bills during the legislative session, but a two-thirds vote from the House can waive the limit.

And members of the Montana Legislature can request an unlimited number of bills before December 5.  After that date, a member may file up to 7 bills or resolutions — but unused requests by one member may be granted to another member.

And it’s not that bill filing limits are unheard of in Tennessee, either. Members of the Tennessee state Senate, for example, can file as many bills as they like before the legislative session — but are limited to 9 once the session begins, according to 2012 rules.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter (@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.