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Featured Tax and Budget

Harwell: Widespread Hunger in TN House for Another Slice Off State’s Fat Grocery Tax

Lowering the sales tax on food, overhauling workers’ compensation, the possible expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee and school vouchers will likely be top topics for debate, state House Speaker Beth Harwell said Thursday when discussing the GOP’s 2013 legislative agenda.

“I’ll think we’ll make another move to lower the sales tax on food in the state,” the Nashville Republican said, pointing to Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to lower the tax bite to 5 percent — equal to about $9.60 less in taxes for a household in a year, based on average spending of $3,838 a year for groceries. State lawmakers cut the rate from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent this year.

“Workers’ comp is something the governor is probably going to have on his agenda,” Harwell said. “And we’ll see a lot of other legislation coming from individual members, I’m sure.”

Regardless of the issues, it’s all but certain that the GOP will have its way, with both the Senate and the House enjoying supermajorites — the ability to pass legislation without a single Democratic vote — and Republican Bill Haslam in the governor’s office.

“Our Republican caucus is as united as I’ve ever seen it,” Harwell said.

That’s not to say that Tennesseans won’t see some fireworks from Democrats. Issues such as school vouchers and charter schools will largely affect the state’s large urban areas that have strong Democratic control, and certainly Democrats will make a way to have their voice heard.

Harwell did not take a position on either vouchers or an expansion of Medicaid.

“The whole issue of vouchers is one that the legislature will spend a considerable amount of time debating and discussing,” Harwell said.

On Medicaid: “My first-blush reaction is that I’m not in favor of expansion. However, when you look at the numbers there is some justification financially as to why we might want to expand it.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert and at 615-669-9501.

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NewsTracker

Higher Graduation Rates High on Casada’s Priorty List

Tuesday’s statehouse general election results assure that GOP-driven education reform will remain a primary topic of policy discussion in the 2013 Legislature, said a key House Republican leader.

“We’ve got to address education,” said Rep. Glen Casada, who currently chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee and is a likely successor to the role of GOP caucus chair for Debra Young Maggart of Henderson, who in August was ousted in the Republican primary.

“We’re near the bottom, and we have been near the bottom for years. Now the mantle of leadership is on the Republicans we have to get us out of that negative trend,” said Casada.

Casada, a conservative Republican from Franklin, told TNReport he wants to see a 90 percent graduation rate from Tennessee high schools.

Although it’s been climbing over the past decade, Tennessee’s graduation rate stands at 77.4 percent.

Education is bound to be a front-and-center issue at the legislature in the session that begins in January.

Indeed, how best to educate students has been a constant subject of debate for years now, culminating recently in a feud between Metro Nashville Public Schools officials and state leaders.

One issue almost sure to arise in 2013: The possible creation of a statewide agency to authorize charter schools, taking away that power from local school boards.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert and at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

@SecTreHargett Beefs Up Elections Site, Twitter Presence

Call him the Secretary of Tweet.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett is hitting the ‘go’ button on a revamped website where voters can see live, up-to-the-minute election results from across the state.

The site, which can be found at elections.tn.gov, will show election results not only by each political contest but by county and precinct, too. Featured races will include the presidential and Congressional elections as well as state Senate and state House.

“One of the things you’ll see this evening for the first time … is the percentages of votes instead of just raw vote numbers,” Hargett told TNReport.

The site comes with some eye candy for political watchers — a map of Tennessee that will show each county flipping red or blue, depending on how the race for President goes.

In addition, Hargett’s team is using the social media site Twitter to tweet out results from races from across the Volunteer State.

“We have several different Twitter handles that people will be able to follow all night long,” Hargett said.

Tonight voters can follow @tnpotus for Tennessee presidential results, @tnsenategen for state Senate results, @tnhousegen for state House results and @tnussenate and @tnushouse for Tennessee’s Congressional races. And you can follow — and tweet at — Hargett at @SecTreHargett.

“It’s a lot of data that comes at people very quickly, but if you’re a political junkie in Tennessee it’s a dream come true to be able to get those kinds of results that quickly,” Hargett said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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NewsTracker

Tax Break for Solar Firms Unconstitutional: AG

The state Attorney General released on opinion today saying that a controversial tax break for the solar industry appears to be unconstitutional.

The tax break cuts property tax bills for green energy companies. Attorney General Robert Cooper said this violates a provision of the state constitution that says the legislature cannot set different rules for different taxpayers.

The tax break was pushed through the legislature in the last days of former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.

From the Attorney General’s opinion:

As with pollution control equipment, there is no basis to presume that all machinery and equipment used to produce electricity in a certified green energy production facility is of negligible value.

The Tennessean has been on the forefront of this story since the news of the tax break surfaced around the end of the 2010 session.

From The Tennessean:

The decision will likely rekindle efforts to repeal the property tax break. Bredesen, a Democrat, pushed breaks for green energy as part of his 2010 tax bill, arguing that the state’s nascent green energy sector needed to be bolstered.

But questions about the tax breaks began just weeks after they were passed when Bredesen and two top aides, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr, formed a solar energy company.

Comptroller Justin Wilson, a Republican, this year urged the GOP-dominated legislature to repeal the property tax break. Wilson said the break runs against a 1986 attorney general opinion that said the Tennessee constitution requires property tax rules to be the same for everyone.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter @trentseibert or 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Plumbers’ Union Lets Campaign Cash Flow, Racks Up $400K Debt

One of the most politically active labor unions in Tennessee is doubling down on the election this year, doling out more campaign cash than it did in 2010 or 2008, even as other unions have cut back on their political giving.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters Education Committee — the Tennessee union’s political arm — has given out $278,300 in campaign contributions so far in 2012, records show. That already has surpassed the $270,100 the union gave during the 2010 election season and the $245,440 it provided to politicians in 2008.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters union has even taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans — largely from Farmers & Merchants Bank — apparently to underwrite the union’s political payouts.

Records show the union’s political action committee has an outstanding loan balance of $398,971. Records show the committee taking out loans steadily for years. The last bank loan was for $70,000 received Oct. 12.

It’s unclear what this nearly $400,000 debt will mean for the union’s members.

And the election isn’t over yet. The campaign finance reports for the crucial last days have yet to be filed, so it’s all but certain that the Plumbers & Pipefitters will have far exceeded $300,000 in political giving by Election Day.

Spending more money on candidates this year was not deliberate, said former Secretary of State Riley Darnell, who serves as the union’s political adviser. There are simply more campaigns this year that the union has an interest in.

“We have a lot of candidates in support of working people,” Darnell said. “The need was greater.”

As far as the bank debt, Darnell said he couldn’t comment and that decisions such as taking out loans are made by internal union officials.

Plumbers & Pipefitters has long been one of the biggest political unions on Tennessee’s Capitol hill, frequently cutting five-figure checks to the state Democratic Party and giving large contributions to union-friendly candidates such as former state Sen. Jim Lewis, a Democrat running for a state Senate seat in District 16, which encompasses Marion, Warren and Coffee counties, and Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan, a former Democratic House majority leader.

The plumbers are priming the political pump as other labor unions in Tennessee have curtailed their campaign donations.

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The Tennessee, later known as Mid-South, Carpenters Regional Council political action committee, for example, doled out $68,700 in campaign contributions in 2010. In 2012 that number has dropped to $28,960.

Tennessee’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers political action committee spread around $102,500 in campaign cash in 2010. This year, its campaign contributions are $80,700.

And the Tennessee Laborers PAC handed out $73,000 politicians in 2010. In 2012 that has shrunk to $45,500.

You can see the details of the Plumbers & Pipefitters campaign records, as well as all Tennessee campaign finance reports, by clicking here and using the state’s online search database.

The vast majority of union giving is aimed at Democrats and Democratic causes, though some union money is starting to trickle to Republicans. The carpenters union, for example, gave $500 to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s political action committee as well as $2,500 to the Tennessee Republican Caucus. The Laborers gave donations to Gov. BIll Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell’s PAC and state Sen. Jim Tracy from Shelbyville.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters’ giving has heavily favored Democrats.

The union’s escalation in campaign spending comes at a time when public employee unions in Tennessee are facing an increasingly hostile legislature. With Republicans controlling the governor’s mansion and both houses, unions have few seats at the bargaining table.

During the the 2011 legislative session, the Legislature passed efforts to curb union influence in state government and schools. Democratic state lawmakers reacted angrily, but they didn’t have the votes to thwart the measures.

Tennessee isn’t the only place where a union is placing big bets for Election Day.

In Michigan, not only are unions are working toward setting collective bargaining privileges in stone via a provision in the state Constitution, they are also trying to unseat a pair of conservative Justices on the state Supreme Court.

And nationally, the Service Employees International Union has emerged as the top outside spender on Democratic campaigns this year, surpassing even President Barack Obama’s main super PAC.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Education Featured

Huffman: TN Report Card a Tool for Improvement, Parental Involvement

The Tennessee Department of Education has released a searchable 2012 schools report card, which offers detailed breakdowns of successful and failing schools across the state.

“I actually think this report card gives a better lens into the school’s absolute performance in growth,” state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said at the unveiling of the website Wednesday. For example, “If I were a parent in a low-performing school but with high growth I would feel like, ‘This is good, this is a good sign that the school is starting to make some progress.’”

Here’s the problem, though: For parents with students in failing schools, such as Brick Church Middle School in Davidson County, which has received ‘F’ grades from the state three years running for academic achievement in science, math and language, or in Memphis high schools which have double-digit dropout rates, there is little to be done except look at the numbers and hope for the best.

That’s because in many cases parents cannot select another school for their child. They are stuck with the hand they are dealt.

“Some districts have good choice opportunities. Other districts don’t,” Huffman said. “I think parents should be engaging themselves at the school level and engaging themselves at the district level to ask for and demand the kinds of choices and options that show that their kids have the ability to attend high-performing schools.”

Huffman’s comments come at a time when the debate over school choice has consumed Metro Nashville Public Schools officials. The Legislature next year will likely consider the creation of a statewide agency to authorize charter schools, taking away that power from local school boards.

Huffman said that he was pleased that the scorecard showed statewide upticks in both math and science.

“Most schools across the state had impressive gains,” Huffman said. “We feel good about our progress last year, but we also feel like there is a long way to go before we feel close to satisfied with how things are going.”

The scorecard also details categories such as disciplinary actions and dropout rates. For example, it shows the number of suspensions increased at Davidson County schools to 11,023 students in 2012 from 10,404 students in 2011.

So, how do failing schools get fixed? According to the state, one of the ways is providing more money to the schools.

“Well, we don’t punish low-performing schools,” Huffman said. Indeed, the lowest-scoring five percent of schools have a range of options from having the state take them over to being infused with additional cash to pay for more instructional help.

To search the state’s report card, click here.

To see the full Department of Education news release, click here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com via Twitter @trentseibert or 615-669-9501.

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Education Featured

Bypassing Locals on Charters Looking More Likely: Harwell

If the Tennessee legislature approves a statewide authorizer for charter schools, House Speaker Beth Harwell said that charter students’ test scores — and the per-student money to educate those children — would flow away from local school districts into the state system.

“Those children’s test scores would come out from the local school system and be counted in the state system — not the local,” Harwell told TNReport in an interview at her office Thursday. “In addition, the money would (follow the students) as well.”

As it stands now, charter school students’ scores are counted with the government-run district schools. And although public money follows the student even if he attends a charter school, it is common for the government-run public school to take a slice of that money for administrative overhead.

A statewide authorizer for charter schools may change that scenario, based on Harwell’s comments.

Momentum appears to be building for the legislature to create such an authorizer, which would serve as a place where the non-profit charters could go to get approval to start teaching.

Triggering this momentum was the Metro Nashville schools’ decision last month to ignore state orders to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district. The board of the Metro Nashville Public Schools contends that the first of five proposed schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

Officials for Great Hearts have told TNReport that, despite the denials, they are in Nashville for the long haul and are still hoping they can open five schools in the metro area.

Harwell indicated that there may be a scenario in which local school boards retain control over authorizing charter schools.

“We want to work with our local school boards,” Harwell said. “We are willing to do that and want to do that, but not at the detriment of our children.”

Trent Seibert can be reached trent@TNReport.com, at Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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NewsTracker

Forrester: DesJarlais Should Step Down

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester on Monday called on embattled US Rep. Scott DesJarlais to resign, saying the Republican Congressman “ran his medical practice like a Craigslist cathouse.”

Forrester’s comments came in the wake of news reports this weekend from the Chattanooga Times Free Press that a second woman has come forward to say that DesJarlais, a physician, had a sexual relationship with her while she was under his medical care.

From the Times Free Press:

The second woman described DesJarlais as “the nicest guy” and said he cooked dinner for her at their first get-together in 2000.

But she also said they smoked marijuana during their relationship and remembered DesJarlais prescribing her pain medication on dates at his home.

Also speaking at the conference was Ronald Wilson, a Brentwood neurologist, who the Tennessee Democratic Party asked to attend.

“Anything that is less than providing good health care to our patients is regrettable,” Wilson said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Health Care NewsTracker

Obamacare Adversary Calls for More Patient, Doctor Control

A prominent national free-market critic of the federal Affordable Care Act laid out his vision for “curing” America’s “health care crisis” during a private event in Nashville Wednesday hosted by the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

The event was closed to the media, but Goodman spoke with TNReport for a few minutes before the event.

“The biggest problem with the health care market, unlike other markets, is that we have completely suppressed normal market forces,” said John C. Goodman, who leads the National Center for Policy Analysis, a group that promotes private-sector alternatives to government programs and regulations. “As a consequence no one ever sees a real price for anything … and we have a bureaucratic, dysfunctional system.”

The way out, Goodman says, is to liberate the consumer and give patients more control over their own health care spending.

Goodman says changes to the healthcare landscape are possible and points to a recent innovation at Walmart as an example. Earlier this month Walmart announced a program that offers workers heart, spine, and transplant surgeries with no expenses for the worker — as long as the surgery is performed at one of six hospital systems across the U.S.

“That’s an example of an employer doing something pretty radical to step outside the normal, third-party payer system,” he said.

He also said that government requiring individuals to buy insurance opens the door for special interests to take advantage.

“Once you start specifying what the individual has to buy, then all the special interests come in, as they did in Massachusetts. Then you’ll get the acupuncturists, the in vitro fertilization folks and the naturopaths,” Goodman said. “Every special interest will want to be part of the insurance plan, and then it will be very expensive.”

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

Categories
NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

State Election Officials Toss Burchett Complaint

State campaign finance officials unanimously said today they would take no action against Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett after an inquiry into a slew of irregularities on his campaign disclosure forms.

The Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance made its decision after hearing from Burchett attorney Stephen Zralek, who put the blame squarely on Burchett’s ex-wife, who, he said, controlled the campaign accounts.

Trent Seibert can be reached at Trent@TNReport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.