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Feds Pitching Expanded Pre-K in TN

Arne Duncan wants more children to have access to taxpayer-financed early education programs.

During a stopover at Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center for Children on a three-state Southern swing, the U.S. secretary of education talked up pre-kindergarten as a key component of later student development. He said on the federal Department of Education blog that he was trekking through Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to get a first-hand look at government-funded early-childhood-learning programs in action, and “discuss progress, promise and results.”

As in the past, Duncan praised reforms pushed by Tennessee Gov.  Bill Haslam, who — on education at least — is among President Obama’s favorite Republican governors.

Duncan said he’d like to see Tennessee continue working to burnish its new national reputation for innovative thinking on education policy by working closely with the federal government on fresh policy initiatives — like the state did when it went all-in with the president’s Race to the Top program.

In particular, the nation’s education czar said he’s hopeful Tennessee will choose to compete for a portion of the $250 million in federal preschool-development grants the feds are holding out as an incentive to encourage states to sign more kids up for early education programs.

The application deadline is Oct. 14.

Should Tennessee submit a winning grant application, “it could mean as much as $70 million over the next four years,” said Duncan. And that could go a long way toward shortening the waiting lists kids face to get into good pre-K programs, Duncan told a town-hall-style gathering Tuesday.

“Too many children start kindergarten a year to 18 months behind,” he said.

The grants Duncan is pitching would help prepare states to participate in President Barack Obama’s proposed “Preschool for All” program, “a federal-state partnership that would promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families,” according to a U.S. Department of Education news release issued last month.

While Duncan urged those in attendance at the Chattanooga event to spread the word about the value of pre-K, he also noted that academic success for young people is never guaranteed without sustained involvement from moms and dads.

“Whether it’s early childhood centers, whether it’s elementary schools, whether it’s middle schools, whether it’s high schools, there are no successful educational schools or programs that don’t have a very serious parental engagement component,” Duncan said.

Because of the importance of parents in education, the preschool grant initiative will only invest in programs that are “very serious, very strategic, very intentional” about improving parental participation in their children’s schooling, Duncan added.

Former Democratic state senator Andy Berke, who is now mayor of Chattanooga, also spoke about the importance of starting the education process with younger children. Berke touted Chattanooga’s investment in “Baby University,” a program intended to teach new parents how to be better parents, as well as the city’s request for a “Head Start” expansion grant.

But there’s a contingent of Tennessee politicians, particularly in the Republican-dominated state General Assembly, who remain unconvinced of the merits of early education — and they can point to independent research that tends to back them them up.

“The evidence shows that pre-K does not deliver as promised, and I’d be very hesitant to take money from the federal government to start a program,” Knoxville state Rep. Bill Dunn told TNReport Wednesday.

For starters, Dunn, a member of the House Education Committee, worries that there’s never any guarantee federal dollars won’t start drying up down the road, after the state is already committed to a program and it develops constituencies that’ve come to expect its services. It’s a similar concern GOP lawmakers in Tennessee voice  with respect to Washington, D.C.’s promises that it’ll be paying most of the tab for Medicaid expansion.

But beyond that, Dunn said there are clear indications pre-K isn’t the best place for the state to be targeting taxpayer resources so as to give Tennesseans the best “return on our investment.”

The state would be much better off spending money on improving the education environment and learning opportunities for older kids, like in kindergarten and first grade, said Dunn. The results are better, and with less cost, he said.

To back his claims that pre-K is proving less than effective, Dunn points to the preliminary results released about a year ago from an ongoing, long-term Vanderbilt study on how pre-K impacts student performance in later years.

Results from the Vanderbilt study released in August 2013 showed that “achievement measures observed at the end of the pre‐k year had greatly diminished by the end of the kindergarten year and the differences between participants and nonparticipants were no longer statistically significant.” Strikingly, the report also noted “a marginally significant difference” on reading comprehension “with nonparticipants showing higher scores at the end of the kindergarten year than (pre-K) participants.”

The report also noted “a significant difference that favored the nonparticipant group” on one of the study’s measures for “combined achievement in literacy, language, and math.”

In an interview with The Tennessean last year, Mark Lipsey, director of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute, which is conducting the pre-K investigation for the U.S. Department of Education, said that while “the whole story is not told yet,” there are indications from the ongoing study involving 3,000 children that “early achievement results have diminished considerably after the pre-K year, so that there is not a significant difference really between the kids who went to pre-K and the kids who didn’t.”

A multi-year study commissioned by the Tennessee Comptroller that was concluded in 2011 examined “whether there is evidence to suggest that Pre-K participation is associated with a positive effect on student performance in Grades K-5 relative to students who did not participate in pre-K.”

According to the pre-K effectiveness report summary submitted to the state comptroller, “no overall differences were found between Pre-K and non-Pre-K students in First Grade.”

The authors of that report wrote that children “who experience economic disadvantage tend to perform better than their non-Pre-K counterparts,” but also added that “this same pattern is not consistently observed for students who do not experience economic disadvantage, and the initial advantage attenuates and is largely diminished by the Second Grade.”

“Among students who do not experience economic disadvantage, the initial advantage of Pre-K is less evident, and the models suggest that they may experience slower academic growth over time,” according to the study.

Dunn said Tennessee education policymakers need to be taking note that studies appear to indicate that by some measures prekindergarten children aren’t just breaking essentially even with the non-preschool kids, “they actually scored worse.”

Gov. Haslam has indicated that he intends to keep funding the state’s preschool program at the same levels, and will consider any possible changes after the long-term study is complete, Dave Smith, Haslam’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. Those results are expected sometime in 2015.

Volkswagen Announces New SUV Line for Chattanooga

Volkswagen has announced that Tennessee will be home to its new SUV production line, representing a $600 million investment in the Volunteer State that’s expected to generate 2,000 more jobs at the company’s Chattanooga plant.

The automaker’s decision, which includes plans to establish a new strategic marketing and research facility in Tennessee, comes on the heels of an announcement by the United Auto Workers union that it would be opening an office for a voluntary chapter at the Southeast Tennessee VW plant.

“The impact of this announcement goes far beyond the 2,000 new jobs because of the large multiplier effect of the automotive industry,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, in a press release, “and adding an additional manufacturing line and the National Research & Development and Planning Center sends a clear signal that Tennessee can compete with anyone in the global marketplace.”

The press release from the Governor’s office also notes that the state is providing a $165.8 million grant for site development, infrastructure, equipment acquisition and construction costs, as well as a $12 million grant for new employee training.

Volkswagen Group of America has agreed to waive certain tax credits related to its expansion as part of the incentive package.

And some other leaders in Tennessee auto manufacturing supplies — such as Kim Ketchum, Magneti Marelli’s corporate director of business development  or James Adams with eSpin Technologies, Inc. — echoed the Governor’s point that VW’s decision to increase production could create more demand for vehicle parts and positively impact other areas of auto manufacturing across the state.

Others have expressed hope that the expansion will lead to more emphasis on STEM education in the Chattanooga region.

Volkswagen has also named global works council chairman Bernd Osterloh to the board of directors for it’s American auto group.

Political leaders and industry groups lauded the German automotive group’s decision to expand.

U.S. Senator Bob Corker, formerly Chattanooga’s mayor, reminisced about the day, “six years ago,” that he received a call from the Volkswagen board that Chattanooga was where they had decided to locate.

“Today’s announcement is a similar high point,” Corker said in a press release, “as VW’s significantly expanded presence means that thousands of more families will benefit from the good paying jobs being created at the plant.”

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron praised former state senate colleague and current Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, as well as other city leaders and VW employees, for bringing the expansion and jobs to the state.

“We commend the management and workers at Volkswagen as well as Mayor Berke and other city and county leaders who persevered and brought these jobs despite Republican threats, attacks, and interference with the rights of this company and its workers,” Herron said.

The UAW’s secretary-treasurer, Gary Casteel, issued a statement Monday to congratulate Volkswagen, its employees and Tennesseans on the automaker’s expansion, and thank Haslam for extending the necessary incentives to make the expansion work.

“State officials assured the public and Volkswagen employees that the decision on incentives for Chattanooga would not be related to whether workers exercise their right to join a union, and they kept their promise,” Casteel said in the statement, as reported by WTVC in Chattanooga.

In the statement, Casteel also alleged that the autoworkers union’s decision to expand to the Scenic City played a part in the decision of the automaker. “The fact that the new line is being announced four days after the rollout of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga reinforces the consensus that the UAW has reached with the company,” Casteel said.

The decision garnered national and international coverage from outlets such as the Associated Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Detroit Free Press, CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg, and Automotive News.

Corker Praises VW Decision to Build SUV in TN, Create 2K Jobs

Press release from the Office of U.S. Senator Bob Corker; July 14, 2014:

WOLFSBURG, Germany – U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger were in Wolfsburg, Germany, today as Volkswagen CEO Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn announced that the company will build its midsize SUV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a more than $600 million investment in the region, which will add 2,000 jobs at the plant.

“I deeply appreciate Volkswagen’s significant long-term commitment to the hometown and state that I love,” said Corker. “I am grateful for Governor Haslam’s steady leadership, for our mayors, our great community leaders and the workers at the Chattanooga plant, whose commitment to excellence helped pave the way for today’s announcement. Finally, I am thankful to be able to help see this through to today’s conclusion.”

“One of the most meaningful days in my public service career occurred six years ago when I received the call from the Volkswagen board room that they had chosen Chattanooga,” added Corker. “Today’s announcement is a similar high point, as VW’s significantly expanded presence means that thousands of more families will benefit from the good paying jobs being created at the plant.”

Volkswagen will add an additional manufacturing line and create the National Research & Development and Planning Center of Volkswagen Group of America. Volkswagen’s total global investment for the expansion will be $900 million, with $600 million invested in Tennessee and 2,000 new jobs being created in Hamilton County.

The expanded plant in the Enterprise South Industrial Park will manufacture a new automotive line, a midsize SUV for the American market. Production of the new SUV will begin in the fourth quarter of 2016 with the first vehicle expected to roll off the new assembly line by the end of 2016. The expansion will also create the National Research & Development and Planning Center of the Volkswagen Group of America.

As mayor of Chattanooga from 2001-2005, Corker worked with officials and community leaders to develop the 1,200 acre Enterprise South Industrial Park, which is now home to Volkswagen’s North American manufacturing headquarters. Much of the negotiation that led to Volkswagen choosing Chattanooga occurred around the dining room table of Corker’s Chattanooga home.

Berke: Gov’t Funding Poor-performing TN For-profit School ‘Defies Common Sense’

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; August 31, 2012: 

NASHVILLE — State Sen. Andy Berke is demanding answers on the dismal performance of a for-profit Tennessee school that draws students from all over the state.

“This is a case of government letting down our students and our taxpayers,” Sen. Berke said. “It defies common sense.”

The Tennessee Virtual Academy is owned and operated by K12 Inc., an out-of-state corporation, and its test scores are among the lowest in the state. School districts receive state funding based on enrollment. When a student transfers to the virtual academy, state funding for that student leaves the local district and goes to K12.

A letter was sent to legislative leaders Wednesday demanding accountability.

Sen. Berke has repeatedly voiced concerns over the past two years over a for-profit company siphoning taxpayer dollars to fund their venture in Tennessee public schools.

The most recent state accountability measures show how K12, Inc. is failing students:

  • The Tennessee Virtual Academy scored the lowest possible TVAAS score, which shows whether a student increased or decreased academic growth.
  • Only 11 percent of schools in Tennessee scored in that category, putting them “significantly below expectations,” according to the Department of Education.
  • A value-added index of -25.27, which ranks “near the bottom of the bottom.”
  • Only 16.4 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math on state TCAP tests.

“I believe every child deserves an excellent education,” Berke said in the letter. “The poor scores on academic achievement show K12 does not fulfill our expectations. Our accountability as lawmakers is to students, parents, and taxpayers in Tennessee, and we must make sure dollars go to work in the classroom.”

Haslam Signs Bill to Create Training Program for ‘Displaced Workers’

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; May 29, 2012:

NASHVILLE — State Senator Andy Berke and State Representative Craig Fitzhugh participated in the signing of their Tennessee Works Act of 2012 with Governor Bill Haslam at War Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday.

“When we work together at the Capitol, we can help put Tennessee back to work,” Berke said. “Business owners across Tennessee have told us about the need for more job training opportunities, and this act moves people from the unemployment rolls to the work rolls.”

The Tennessee Works Act of 2012, modeled after successful programs in Georgia and New Jersey, is expected to save Tennesseans $900,000 in unemployment insurance payments. The bill, which creates an eight-week training program for displaced workers, will initially operate as a pilot program administered by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and funded with federal grants.

Some of the workers trained under the program will be hired into full-time positions, moving them off unemployment and getting them back in the workplace.

“The great thing about this program is that it actually requires people to work toward a new skill in order to receive their benefits,” Fitzhugh said. “That’s what unemployment is meant to be: a hand up, not a handout. This program will get Tennesseans back to work.”

Haslam’s First Veto to Strike Down Challenge to Vanderbilt’s Discrimination Policy

A bill that would have required all public universities — and Vanderbilt University because of the level of government money it accepts —  to allow student campus organizations to control their own membership qualifications has prompted Gov. Bill Haslam to announce he’ll use his first veto.

The legislation came as a response to Vanderbilt’s administration adopting a policy requiring that student groups accept “all comers” into their membership and leadership, regardless whether they share the same philosophical views as the organization. The policy has driven more than a dozen clubs off campus for refusing to abide by the policy for fear that people would join religious groups without sharing their beliefs.

“I don’t agree with Vanderbilt’s ‘all-comers’ policy. It is counter-intuitive to make campus organizations open their membership and leadership positions to anyone and everyone, even when potential members philosophically disagree with the core values and beliefs of the organization,” said Haslam in a statement the day after the Legislature adjourned for the year.

The governor said he was on board with House Bill 3576 when it applied only to public schools supported by taxpayer funds. But he said lawmakers went too far when they decided to extend the restrictions to Vanderbilt, a private university that accepts millions of dollars to provide medical care to low-income and uninsured patients through its health facilities.

“Although I disagree with Vanderbilt’s policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution. Therefore, I will veto HB 3576/SB 3597 in its current form,” he said.

The governor’s veto holds marginal veto power in Tennessee. The General Assembly need only a majority vote to override his veto, but that’s assuming lawmakers want to reassemble on Capitol Hill to override him, which is unlikely.

Late in the legislative session, lawmakers added a provision that would include Vanderbilt University in addition to public schools in allowing student clubs to dictate membership. It says:

“No state higher education institution that grants recognition to any student organization shall discriminate against or deny recognition to a student organization, or deny to a student organization access to programs, funding, or facilities otherwise available to another student organization, on the basis of… the religious content of the organization’s speech including but not limited to, worship.”

The legislation also added that “a religious student organization may determine that the organization’s religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group and comporting themselves in conformity with it qualify to serve as members or leaders.”

“Our intent is to make sure that religious organizations, student religious organizations are not held to a rule they do not hold other student organizations to. In other words, they have told the student religious organizations that you have to accept everyone whether or not they hold your beliefs or not ” said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. “Not only do you have to accept them, but you have to put them in leadership position if they want to be in leadership position.”

Both retiring Sens. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, and Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, pulled the small government card on Beavers shortly before the bill passed the Senate 19-12-2 Monday. The House later passed the bill 61-22-1.

“I don’t know that I think big government coming in and running private institutions is what people in my district want. I know this much, it’s not conservative and it’s not getting government out of people’s lives,” said Herron.

The governor also said he is refusing to endorse a bill that would limit the number of foreign nationals a charter school can hire to teach. Instead, he will let the bill become law without his signature and is asking the attorney general to weigh in on the legislation’s constitutionality.

Judicial-Selection Measures Pass on First Run Through TN Senate

Two proposed constitutional rewrites changing how Tennessee selects Supreme Court and appellate judges have been approved in the state Senate.

Both measures have a long way to go before becoming law, but the competing proposals hint at divisions within the Republican Party, the Legislature and the public at large as to how the state should choose its most powerful judges.

The upper chamber on Monday voted 23-8 to revamp the current system by enacting a new system that gives the Legislature authority to approve or reject judges the governor appoints, much like the federal system where the president appoints and the Senate confirms.

Under the plan sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, judges winning approval from the General Assembly would later face voters in up-or-down, non-competitive yes-no retention elections.

“What we have is a resolution that preserves the best part of our current system, builds upon what our founding fathers drafted and adds new pieces that improve upon what our founding fathers drafted,” said sponsor Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.

The federal system is flawed, said retiring Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who voted against Kelsey’s measure.

Berke, vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said lawmakers by habit and nature tend to politicize whatever they touch. To purposely put them squarely in the middle of the state’s judicial-selection process would be to invite “mischief,” he said.

“We are officially detracting from the governor’s power in the appointment of judges and adding power to the Legislature,” he said on the Senate floor Monday night. “The one thing that we will do if the General Assembly is given this power is play politics.”

Last week, the Senate voted 21-9 on SJR183 to grant express authority for the Legislature to determine how the state empanels judges, which now involves the governor picking them from a list provided to him by a selection commission. Those judges later facing retention elections to renew their eight-year terms. The governor and the two Republican speakers prefer this system, known as the “Tennessee Plan.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, has said he believes that over time the current system is most likely to generate justices who are conservative in outlook.

Earlier this month, a proposal to require judges face popular elections died in committee.

Passage in the Senate is one of many in a long list of milestones needed to formally ratify a proposed amendment to the state’s guiding document. Both measures still need approval by House lawmakers this spring before the Legislature call it quits for the year and begins campaign season.

A supermajority of lawmakers — two-thirds — will have to OK the proposal again before the 2014 election in order to put the change to the voters, who get the final say.

The call for rewriting the Tennessee Constitution comes after years of debate over whether the state is currently following the spirit and intent of the document’s drafters, who wanted judges to face elections.

The Constitution states, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” It also states, “The judges of the Circuit and Chancery Courts, and of other inferior Courts, shall be elected by the qualified voters of the district or circuit to which they are to be assigned.”

Mark Engler contributed to this report.

TFT Sees Tipping Point in Battle Over Income Tax Amendment

Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, the folks known for advocating an income tax despite long odds, face a bigger fight as lawmakers move toward a constitutional ban on a tax on personal income.

About 40 TFT members from across the state gathered at the Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville on Saturday for their annual meeting to discuss their agenda and ways to better communicate their message of “tax justice.”

While the group is known primarily for the income tax stance, that proposal tends to overshadow other elements of their efforts, which involve lowering taxes elsewhere and looking for allies in the business community where they see unfairness on taxes in the private sector.

Erica Thomas of Memphis, who was in a carpool that left for Nashville at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, said the income tax ban is the most immediate challenge TFT faces.

“Stopping it in its tracks I think is going to be the biggest thing we have to focus our energies on,” Thomas said. “What you’re doing is cutting off your nose in spite of your face, cutting off any other possible revenue sources that we could have that invest in the state.

“It has already been shown that a sales tax is not going to get us out of this problem. Tennessee is surrounded by so many other states that have lowered taxes on basic necessities, so people are going across state lines. I just don’t understand the disconnect there by legislators.”

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, is sponsoring a resolution (SJR221) that would explicitly prohibit the General Assembly from enacting or permitting an income tax. It passed the Senate on May 18, 26-4, and has been placed on the House calendar for Jan. 10, 2012.

The resolution is co-sponsored in the Senate by, among 19 Republicans, two Democrats: Andy Berke of Chattanooga and Eric Stewart of Belvidere.

Berke, the Senate Democratic Caucus vice chairman, told TNReport last spring that “Tennessee has a strong tradition of being against the income tax — it’s one of the reasons why we are a business-friendly state.” He added, “Most Tennesseans understand that (not having an income tax) is important to our way of life and our quality of life.”

Regarding the issue of whether the income tax is already unconstitutional, it’s time to “get that settled,” said Berke, “so we won’t really have to have that debate anymore.”

For the constitutional amendment to be approved, it would next have to pass the House by a majority vote in 2012, then pass the next Legislature by two-thirds votes in each chamber, then go before the people in a referendum in 2014. Supporters of the referendum say it is the best way to close the door on an income tax in the state for good.

In addition to advocating for an income tax, Tennesseans for Fair Taxation emphasizes its goal of cutting the sales tax on food and reducing the sales tax in general, which the group sees as regressive, even “immoral.”

Samantha Wallace of Knoxville, an organizer for TFT in East Tennessee, says the group’s mission is about justice. The organization wants to see an adequate revenue stream to support government services it says are vital.

“The main purpose is to generate enough revenue to support our state, and we want to do that in as just a way as possible,” Wallace said. “What I mean by ‘justice’ is right now the way we generate revenue in the state is immoral.

“We tax things like clothing and food. These are predominantly focused on the sales tax. It doesn’t raise enough revenue for the state. It’s immoral because we’re forcing people who can’t afford it to pay additional taxes on their food. We have a regressive tax. We need to fix that.”

Elizabeth Wright, executive director of TFT, says the primary goal is to “modernize” the state’s tax structure. She said the sales tax hits low- and middle-income families hardest because it is regressive in nature.

“We want to make sure that our economy thrives, that Tennessee thrives,” Wright said.

To that end, in a roundtable discussion in one of the breakout groups for the day-long meeting, members of the group discussed ways to partner with the business community.

Nell Levin said it is important for the group to bring the business community on board as allies in TFT’s efforts.

“I really believe we’re never going to win unless we get them on board and there’s a lot of things about the business taxation that is really unfair,” Levin said. “We have one of the highest franchise taxes in the Southeast. This is something we could go to business people and talk to them about.”

It was clear that TFT members like some of the tax legislation the General Assembly passed this year, like an adjustment that increases the exemption on the Hall income tax, which derives revenue from interest and dividends on investments. The Legislature raised the exemption on the Hall tax on those 65 and older to $26,000 for single taxpayers and $37,000 for joint filers. Those are increases from $16,200 for single filers and $27,000 for joint filers.

“They actually made the Hall income tax more progressive,” Tony Garr said. “There does appear to be a willingness on the part of some Republican legislators to reduce the tax on food. Those are two things I think we need to keep in mind.”

Thomas was asked if she had 30 seconds with Gov. Bill Haslam what she would say to him. She responded it would be more about what she would ask him.

“If not an income tax, tell me how with the sales tax going up are we going to generate revenues we need across the state?” she replied. “I need you point blank to tell me: What is your plan for us getting there? So maybe we can collaborate on that, but I haven’t heard what your plan is.”

Haslam has repeatedly said there is no chance of an income tax being implemented in Tennessee.

Anne Barnett of Knoxville said she first got involved with TFT as a student at the University of Tennessee. Her concerns were raised by rising tuition, budget cuts and the school letting professors go.

“The tax structure in Tennessee is regressive,” Barnett said. “We’re always going to be fighting for more funding for public services.”

She was asked, being from Knoxville, if she had ever met Haslam, the former Knoxville mayor. She hesitated before answering.

“Not personally, but my husband used to deliver pizza to him,” she said. “And he would never leave a tip.”

Haslam Promises Openness On Amazon

Gov. Bill Haslam insisted Friday he has not changed his position on negotiations with Amazon.com on the collection of sales taxes and said whatever agreement might be struck with the retail giant the people of Tennessee would be informed about it.

Meanwhile, former Commissioner of Revenue Charles Trost, on whose watch the original Amazon deal was made in Tennessee, declined to comment Friday on details of the state’s current arrangement with the company. Current commissioner Richard Roberts, whom Haslam said is leading the talks for his administration, declined to comment on any talks as well.

Haslam says he wants Amazon to collect sales taxes on its transactions in Tennessee in the future, and his administration is involved in talks with Amazon on how to settle the issue of whether the company should have to collect the tax.

But Haslam’s predecessor, Phil Bredesen, struck a deal last year before leaving office where Amazon would not have to collect sales taxes as the company established large distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties, bringing more than 1,000 jobs to the state. Amazon has since announced the addition of a distribution center in Lebanon

Haslam has said he planned to honor the Bredesen agreement, which was handled with little transparency and has stirred interest among some legislators concerned about the erosion of the state’s sales tax base. Legislators from the Chattanooga area, home of the first two distribution centers, have generally supported the Bredesen deal because of the jobs it creates.

Negotiations between the Haslam administration and Amazon have raised questions on exactly what the arrangement might become and whether it represents a shift in the state’s policy.

“Nothing has changed from the state’s commitment at all,” Haslam said Friday. “We are in ongoing discussions with Amazon. Everybody knows that. We’d love to see them grow more. Number two, there is quite a bit of discussion in the Legislature about exactly how that should work out.

“I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t say I’d love for them (Amazon) to collect sales tax.”

The governor has said all along he would like to get the definition of the state’s long-term relationship with Amazon nailed down. He has also said there needs to be a national solution to the issue of online retailers collecting sales taxes, and Amazon officials have said they believe a national approach is best.

But given the continuation of talks with Amazon, the future of the state’s arrangement continues to be scrutinized.

Trost, a Nashville attorney who replaced Reagan Farr as commissioner of Revenue last Sept. 10, would not comment on details of the Bredesen deal.

“I really am not in a position where I can,” Trost said. “The taxpayer confidentiality rules have put me in a position where I just don’t even want to start down the road talking about it.”

Trost said he is not even in a position to confirm that the deal was struck while he was commissioner.

“What’s in the public record out there, if you looked at the timing on it, when I was in office, you can draw your own conclusions,” Trost said.

“It’s just not a topic I feel comfortable talking about to the press or anybody else. It’s just … I’ve thought about this … I’m no longer the commissioner. There is a new administration. There is a new commissioner. The issue is still in the public domain for discussion. I think my best policy is not to add myself to the discussion.”

The Amazon arrangement was made late in Bredesen’s time in office. Bredesen informed the incoming governor, Haslam, of the deal with the explanation that if Amazon were not given the break on tax collections, the company might have put its facility in Georgia.

“I have the utmost regard for Governor Haslam, Governor Bredesen, my successor as commissioner and my predecessor as commissioner,” Trost said. “There’s a new group dealing with these issues, and I’m just not going to get into it. That’s the only position I can take.”

Roberts had a similar response.

“I can tell you that the state statutes prohibit me from discussing any taxpayer, whether it be you or Billy Bob’s Bait Shop or an unnamed major Internet retailer,” Roberts said. “Just as a matter of policy we simply can’t comment on individual taxpayers.”

Roberts said he cannot confirm that the administration is talking to Amazon.

“Our policy here requires that we maintain confidentiality. The reason is we have to give any taxpayer the confidence that what they file with us and their dealings with us will not wind up in the public domain. Until the legislature changes that — and I also believe it’s the right policy — I just simply can’t confirm or deny,” Roberts said.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, speaking to reporters Friday, picked up on the issue of discussing the talks.

“I can’t quite tell what the governor’s position on this is, but we are making a mistake by talking about our discussions with Amazon without having some kind of firm agreement with them,” Berke said.

“One of the rules of economic development over the last several years is that we don’t talk about ongoing discussion. Now, if there’s going to be an agreement, we should have an agreement with them before we start talking about it.”

Two lawmakers have filed legislation that would require Amazon to collect the sales tax. When one of the sponsors, Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, suggested a two-year grace period on collecting the tax might be an answer, Haslam said that would leave the arrangement uncertain.

Haslam said Friday he has not personally had any direct conversation with Amazon, with Roberts taking the lead.

“We’re going to honor our commitment to them, but we would love to figure out a way long-term for them to pay (collect) sales tax and to build an employee base here,” Haslam said.

The issue has become ticklish for the state since it is highly interested in increasing the number of jobs in Tennessee, but there is a concern that it creates a double standard that hurts other retailers who collect the sales tax.

An opinion from state Attorney General Robert Cooper said distribution centers, like the ones Amazon is constructing, would present enough physical presence to require the tax collection and that the legislation sponsored by McNally and Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, would be constitutionally defensible.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has expressed frustration that he cannot learn the specifics of the Amazon deal, and at one time Ramsey attempted to meet with Matt Kisber, commissioner of Economic and Community Development under Bredesen, about the arrangement. But Ramsey has said he never got his answers from Kisber.

Haslam was asked Friday if, when an arrangement with Amazon is reached, the public would be informed what it is.

“Sure,” Haslam said. “You bet. You bet.”

Haslam was also asked about the time frame for a deal.

“It’s too early to say that,” he said. “We’re in discussions with them. I’d love to have some sort of agreement with them where we all do that by the time the Legislature comes back (in January). Remember, in the context of all this, there’s quite a bit of controversy in the Legislature about how this should go forward. So it’s not solely an administration decision what happens here.

“We’d love to come to an agreement that works where the Legislature says, ‘OK, that’s the right approach for the state of Tennessee long-term,’ and Amazon says, ‘Great, we can live with that, and we will grow and expand in Tennessee.'”

A call Friday to the media office at Amazon’s corporate headquarters was not returned.

Haslam said he does not believe the attorney general’s opinion has changed the administration’s approach to the issue.

“Obviously, the Legislature is a major factor in what gets worked out with anything in the state of Tennessee. It’s not different with Amazon than any other item, and so I think Amazon is aware of that,” Haslam said.

“We’re continuing to have conversations. I’m not going back at all in what the state has told Amazon. I’d like to work out something where we took this issue off the table, and Amazon says, ‘Great, we can live with that,’ the state of Tennessee says, ‘Great, we can live with that, too,’ and we have a great relationship.”

Haslam said he did not believe the recent announcement of the distribution center in Lebanon changed the dynamics of the negotiations with Amazon, and he noted that the company has talked of even more distribution centers in the state. Haslam also pointed out that individuals who buy an item online are supposed to pay the tax regardless of the business’s status.

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Senate Dems Considered Walkout to Protest Budget Vote

Senate Republicans appeared to be barreling toward a vote to approve a $30.8 billion budget Thursday night — until Senate Democrats caucused.

The result: no budget vote in the Senate on Thursday.

Democrats simply weren’t in the mood to be rushed on the matter, as could be heard in the hallway outside the third-floor conference room at Legislative Plaza where they were meeting.

At one point, Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, said the Republicans couldn’t pass the budget without the Democrats present on the Senate floor.

“They can’t convene the session without us,” Haynes was heard telling his colleagues. “They can’t get a quorum.”

There was audible disagreement between Haynes and Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, on such a suggestion. But Haynes was forceful.

“We’ve got to be unanimous,” Haynes said. “You’ve got to use the ammunition you’ve got. If you don’t do that, then you give up.”

Again Henry disagreed.

The Finance Ways and Means Committee passed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal with Democratic support Thursday afternoon. The Republican plan appeared to be to move back to business on the Senate floor, where the Senate could hand the House an approved budget bill overnight. Both Democrats and Republicans announced they would caucus before heading to the Senate floor.

But while the notion of refusing Republicans a quorum was quashed in the Democratic caucus, there was broad agreement among the Democrats that they did not want to act so swiftly after the committee vote.

There was talk that the right approach was simply to tell the Republican leadership that the Democrats wanted more time to digest the budget proposal. Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, the Democratic caucus chairman, had that conversation with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, according to a Democratic aide.

The biggest hangup appears to be the Democrats’ desire for an extension of unemployment benefits, an item that accounts for about $3.1 million for state and local government, a small figure considering the size of the bill. From most accounts, Haslam is agreeable to the extension if the Legislature wants to cover it.

But the item is not in the Senate plan, and Senate Republicans do not appear to be willing to go along with the extension. Approximately 28,000 Tennesseans would be eligible for the extensions of 20 weeks of benefits if it were approved.

The purpose of the caucus meeting was to have Bill Bradley, budget director from the Department of Finance and Administration, brief members who are not on the finance committee about Haslam’s amended budget proposal. Mark Cate, special assistant to Haslam, was in the meeting to represent the governor.

Bradley gave the caucus members much of the same outline he had given committee members earlier in the day. The finance committee proceedings were marked by numerous stops and starts on the budget, while the committee considered other items on the calendar along the way.

After Bradley and Cate left the caucus conference room, a question could be heard in the Democrats’ discussion: “Why are we rushing?”

“This is a $30 billion bill,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, making the point that the bill didn’t need such a quick vote.

At one point, Berke cautioned his colleagues that a member of the media was outside the door. That didn’t stop the discussion.

There were comings and goings. Bradley returned at one point for further conversation with the members. Haynes left the room momentarily for a cell-phone conversation. Finney left the room at one point and upon return mentioned to the reporter that the proceedings had him hungry for jelly beans, showing two handfuls. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, sat and chatted with the reporter. The door to the conference room was open during the whole meeting.

The chain of events underscored what has become a common circumstance in the Legislature and its overwhelmingly Republican majority after last fall’s elections. Republicans hold a 20-13 majority in the Senate and a 64-34-1 majority in the House.

Democrats’ frustration with their distinct minority status has been noticeable in many ways, including Haynes’ passion about using whatever ammunition the Democrats can claim.

The long day of discussion had all the appearances that the Senate was headed toward a budget vote Thursday night. As Democrats finally made their way to the Senate floor, where Republicans were already gathered, Ramsey made the announcement that there would be no budget vote Thursday.