Ketron Uneasy Granting Gov’t Voucher Money for Religious Schools

State Sen. Bill Ketron says his concerns about school voucher money going to Muslim-affiliated schools in Tennessee were reported out of context. Ketron, his chamber’s GOP Caucus chairman, says he’s less than comfortable giving state money to any religious school, regardless of faith, but says he is still generally supports vouchers.


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Signing On to Obamacare Challenge Pointless for TN: AG Cooper

Joining with the 26 other states disputing the 2010 federal health care reform law simply isn’t a productive application of his office’s time or energies, Tennessee’s top government lawyer told a state legislative panel this week.

“It did not seem to be a wise use of scarce state resources when we have all these other cases that we’re working on to invest money in,” Attorney General Robert Cooper said before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 28. “Whatever happens, we will be equally bound by that whichever way the Supreme Court goes.”

Because some 140 briefs opposing provisions of Obamacare have already been filed with the Supreme Court, Cooper said there’s little reason for him or his attorneys to volunteer a legal opinion at this point. The high court is expected to hear arguments later this month about the constitutionality of the controversial “individual mandate” portion of the law.

Republicans in the Legislature tried unsuccessfully to convince Cooper to join other states in challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act after President Obama signed it into law March 23, 2010.

Cooper’s unwillingness to take on the Obama administration subsequently prompted on-again-off-again discussions amongst GOP lawmakers and conservative activists about making the state attorney general an elected official so as to ensure the office is more accountable to public opinion, which Republicans are confident in Tennessee runs decidedly in opposition to Obamacare.

Cooper shrugged off a suggestion by Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, that “there is strength in numbers” when fighting the feds. “I really don’t think another brief would make a difference to the Supreme Court,” said Cooper, who worked as legal counsel to former Gov. Phil Bredesen prior to being appointed attorney general in 2006.

None on the Senate Judiciary Committee quizzed Cooper as to whether he believes the federal health care law is or is not constitutional. However, when asked by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, if his decision to sit out the heavyweight legal bout on the individual mandate was rooted in “monetary” concerns, Cooper said “yes.”

“It just did not seem to be a good use of our limited state resources,” said the attorney general.

Bell said  he believes there are few issues of more significant long-term financial concern to Tennessee than the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“If there is one piece of federal legislation or issue being discussed at the federal level that’s going to cost Tennessee more than anything, it is this Act,” said Bell, who serves also as the Senate Government Operations Committee chairman. “Hundreds of millions of dollars it is going to cost the taxpayers of this state.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell has appointed a legislative committee to focus on how the state will deal with the portion of the health care law dealing with  health insurance exchanges, which supporters say will act like “virtual marketplaces” to help consumers compare health-plan pricing. The federally imposed deadline for states to set up their exchanges is the end of the year.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said he’s willing to call the Senate into a special session in December if the Supreme Court upholds the individual mandate portion of the health care law, or if President Obama wins re-election in November.

Gov. Bill Haslam avoided taking a formal legal stance on the issue his first year in office. However, last month his administration joined the Republican Public Policy Committee in filing a brief challenging the Act.

“The Obama administration’s approach is an unaffordable health care mandate that is a significant overstep of the federal government’s authority,” said Haslam. “I’m committed to controlling health care costs and finding meaningful ways to improve the health of Tennesseans by encouraging healthy choices, personal responsibility and accountability. Forcing mandates on states and individuals is the wrong approach, and if Obamacare is implemented, healthcare costs will rise significantly, putting a serious strain on state budgets across this country.”

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ECD Secrecy Bill Reconsidered

A Haslam administration-backed bill that would prevent government from disclosing the names of company owners or key corporate officials seeking state taxpayer-funded business incentives has stalled in the Tennessee Legislature.

Senate Bill 2207 is meant to allow the state to mine and scrutinize the financial details of businesses applying for tax-subsidized grants. It also contains confidentiality provisions meant to assure companies their proprietary information won’t end up making headlines.

But both Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell told reporters this week they favor rewriting the measure with the intent of addressing transparency concerns many lawmakers and open-government advocates have voiced.

“Private companies just do not want all that information divulged, and that’s understandable,” said Harwell, R-Nashville. “On the other hand, citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are being used and spent, and I think we’re going to come up with what will be pleasing to both of those.”

The issue of primary contention is whether to reveal company ownership. The measure, pitched by Gov. Bill Haslam, now calls for businesses to submit information like budgets, cash flow reports and a list of owners to the Department of Economic and Community Development. The department says such information would help vet companies wanting state dollars for investing in Tennessee.

The state doesn’t ask for those details now because they would be made public, putting the Volunteer State at a competitive disadvantage with states that obtain such information and keep it closed to the public, administration officials say.

“I think there are some folks like that who are like, ‘We’ll, we’re trying to decide are we going to invest in Tennessee or Indiana or Florida or Texas or wherever,’ and they might be a smaller, privately owned company,” Haslam said in defending the bill Wednesday. “As long as they don’t intersect in anybody in the public sphere, I’m not certain why we need to know that.”

Ramsey and other critics say they’re OK that most financial details be private, but that ownership should be made public eventually.

“Should these people, any business or company, get a grant, get FastTrack money or whatever it might be, the information is divulged at that time. That’s the intent,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday.

The measure is up in the Senate Thursday. Since the state currently doesn’t collect that information, the state is “no worse off” if the bill doesn’t pass, he added.

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Guns-in-Parking-Lots Compromise Could Win Haslam Support

Gov. Bill Haslam hinted this week he wouldn’t necessarily shoot down legislation that would  allow Tennessee gun owners to keep a firearm stored in their vehicle while they are at work — even over the objection of their employer.

Still, the proposal idling in the General Assembly seems “overly broad” to the governor. But during a meeting with the Capitol press corps Wednesday, Haslam suggested that if the House and Senate can pass a compromise, he’ll likely sign on.

Sen. Mike Faulk and Rep. Eddie Bass are sponsoring the legislation, which gained some traction last year but not enough to win over GOP leaders in the House.

Proponents are confident it would pass if Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, were to allow the bill to come to the chamber floor for a vote.

Harwell has said she’s sensitive to employers’ private property rights, and for that reason the legislation gives her pause.

“We certainly want a piece of legislation that is business-friendly. We are not in the business of doing anything to harm the businesses that we currently have in place in Tennessee,” said Harwell, who added she’s unsure exactly what will be included or deleted from the working proposal.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, strongly supports the parking-lot bill, saying he understands businesses want to maintain their private property rights, “but there are some almost public parking lots that people should be allowed to do that (travel with a firearm) if you’re a gun carry permit holder and if you keep it in your car.”

In its current draft, the bill prevents employers from preventing employees from keeping a firearm locked in their own vehicle while parked on company property during work hours.

“It is the intent of this section to reinforce and protect the right of each citizen to lawfully transport and store firearms within his or her private motor vehicle for lawful purposes in any place where the vehicle is otherwise permitted to be,” according to the bill. Bass says he’ll move the House version after it wins approval from the Senate.

“We’re neutral and will stay that way,” said Jim Brown, Tennessee director of the National Federation of Independent Business, one of the few business groups hugging the sidelines. “We have members who are on both sides of that issue between 1st and 2nd Amendment rights.”

The governor is concerned with the “scope of location” in the Faulk-Bass legislation, according to his spokesman, but Haslam says if a deal is doable he won’t block it.

“The current bill that’s out there is overly broad, and we’d like to see it addressed some more, which I think is in the process,” the governor said.

Backing the bill is the Tennessee Firearms Association, which has been breathing down the House Republican leadership’s collective neck for the last few months for refusing to extend the state’s gun rights laws ahead of the 2012 elections.

The TFA has been pressuring lawmakers, namely Harwell and her caucus’ “shadow operatives,” to take up pro-gun bills instead of “pandering to businesses” by ignoring the legislation.

Haslam said he’s used to hearing such fighting words.

“Five times a day I’ll have somebody say, if I don’t do this, ‘we’re going to unleash all the power of fill-in-the-blank on you,’” Haslam told reporters Wednesday.

He added, though, “I think most veteran lawmakers try to figure out how  to weigh all that in and don’t get overly swayed by that.”

Bass said the bill should face an up-or-down vote despite any worries it would distract the Legislature from focusing on issues like the budget and the economy.

“I think if it’s one bill, and if the people don’t like it, they’ll vote it down. That’s how the system works. We all have opinions,” he told TNReport.

A Democrat, Bass wouldn’t reveal his plans when asked Wednesday whether he’ll switch party affiliation and run in the August GOP primary.

Bass has won over John Harris, executive director of TFA, who describes Bass as a “consistent supporter of individual rights, particularly for firearms owners.”

For that matter, Harris told TNReport his organization isn’t prone to obsessing over party affiliation when assessing a lawmaker’s reliability as a right-to-keep-and-bear-arms defender. Rural Tennessee Democrats are oftentimes better friends to firearm-carry enthusiasts than urban Republicans, said Harris.

“Independent of whatever partisan label you put on him, Eddie Bass is about as strong a 2nd Amendment supporter as there is in the House,” Harris told TNReport last month when Republicans were thinking about drawing Savannah Republican Vance Dennis and Bass into the same district.

High-ranking House Democrat Mike Turner says he hasn’t recently polled his caucus on the guns in parking lots issue, but is keenly aware business interests are no fans of the idea.

“Traditionally Democrats have not supported the bill, but we’re going to actually talk about that when it comes up,” said Turner. “(Republicans) traditionally want us to bail them out in those types of situations, but we’ll see what happens with that.”

Another bill on the docket this year would ban employers from forcing employees or job applicants to disclose whether they use, own, possess or transport a firearm unless those duties are required for the job.

The Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees expect to hear from proponents of the gun rights bills Feb. 21. The committees will then hear from opponents March 6. Faulk said he hopes the committees will vote on the measures that day.

The Department of Safety has issued 339,000 handgun carry permits to Tennesseans since it took over responsibility for that function in October of 1996, according to the agency’s website. Prior to that handgun carry permits were issued by local sheriff’s offices.

Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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Occupiers, Pack Up Those Tents, House Says

House lawmakers OK’d a measure Thursday that would oust tent-living Occupy Nashville protesters from the Capitol Hill grounds.

The bill would prohibit people from pitching tents on state government property where camping is not expressly permitted. For example, the bill could be broadly interpreted to forbid, say, camping outside rest stops along I-40 to lobby for better vending machines, as well as any overnight demonstrations to bring attention to the state flower at this state-run iris garden. Most assuredly, there would be no 24-hour vigils at the cosmetology board for tougher standards for state-licensed manicurists.

The Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 still has a little ways to go before it lands on the governor’s desk. Gov. Bill Haslam said this week he expects to sign the measure although he plans to exercise little enforcement until his staff irons out policies for using state government space and queries the state’s top lawyer about the next legal move.

“We’ll have to talk with the Attorney General and others to decide once you pass the law exactly what does that give the state the authority to do,” Haslam said.

The bill – HB2638 – bans anyone from camping, including “laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping,” on government-owned property not designated for camping, punishable with a fine up to $2,500 and up to 364 days jail time.

The measure easily passed the House, 70-26, with seven Democrats breaking ranks to join the GOP.

The legislation clearly would change the nature of the Occupy Nashville protests that target corporate influence on government.

Republicans have seen the protest as an eyesore. Dozens of tents line the perimeter of the plaza just outside many of their office windows. Haslam ended up on the losing side of a federal injunction last year when a federal judge said the state didn’t have the authority to arrest protesters camping outside the seat of state government.

Democrats argue banning tents on properties like War Memorial Plaza — which the movement claimed as its home — equates to an infringement on free speech rights.

Republicans argue the issue is about protecting taxpayer property.

“When do you have to have a tent to protest?” bill sponsor Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, asked rhetorically on the House floor as Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, argued against the bill.

Towns’ answer: “When it’s cold.”

One Republican suggested lawmakers opposing the camping ban exempt legislative offices in their own districts so protesters would have a place to pitch tents.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who has hinted an interested in running for Nashville mayor someday, said there are too many rules about when and where to protest, including city rules forbidding Occupy Nashville from camping on Metro property.

“The act of protest itself is kind of rubbing up against the system as-is,” Turner, D-Old Hickory, told reporters. “So if you have to protest, but the government laid out the rules of how you’re supposed to protest, your protest probably wouldn’t be very effective.”

The Senate is set to pick up the bill next Thursday.

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VIDEO: Taxpayers vs. Transparency? Give-and-Take with the Guv

A Gov. Bill Haslam-backed legislative proposal to offer secrecy to businesses applying for millions of dollars in state grants is up for a vote in the Senate Thursday.

Last week in Nashville during the Tennessee Press Association’s Winter Convention, Elenora Edwards, managing editor of TPA’s statewide trade publication, took the governor to task somewhat on that and other transparency-curbing administration initiatives.

Check out their exchange:

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‘A Thousand Little Cuts’ To Budget Under Haslam; A Bredesen-style Spending Plan Under McWherter

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam won’t say exactly what he’d cut from the state budget if elected governor but sought to assure a group of Middle Tennessee mayors he’d find lots of places to reduce spending.

The Republican candidate said he’d do a top-to-bottom examination of the budget, evaluate the number and use of state employees, evaluate whether the government needs all its assets, look at the state’s health insurance program and study the way the state makes purchases.

“It’s a thousand little cuts,” he said.

Haslam, the perceived front-runner to replace termed-out Gov. Phil Bredesen, has so far refused to say specifically what programs he would reduce in state government.

“We’ll do the same thing that you’ve been doing. It’s just on a bigger scale,” he said.

His Democratic opponent, Mike McWherter, is also short on details but told the same group he would largely follow Bredesen’s lineup of budget cuts slated for next year.

“If you stay pretty close to that plan, then we’re in pretty good financial shape, comparatively speaking, to other states,” McWherter said.

Next year’s $30 billion budget includes $189 million in cuts to programs funded with federal dollars and one-time stimulus money that will run out next year.

In addition to those reductions, Bredesen’s administration is asking state agency directors to help shave at least another $45 million from the state budget.

The next governor is free to reverse those cuts or issues deeper ones. However, he’ll also need the legislature’s support before the reductions can stick.

“Now, I am not going to stand up here today and tell you that I’m absolutely going to follow every recommendation in that budget,” McWherter said. “There always have to be tweaks and changes depending on unanticipated events.”

As the two candidates talked budget reductions, the group of 40 city and county mayors from 10 Middle Tennessee counties quizzed candidates on their dedication to supporting a regional mass transit system.

Both candidates said they thought the issue was important, but neither said mass transit systems such as light-rail would be immediately feasible under their administration.