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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

AG Issues Opinion on Kyle Senate Seat Vacancy

Tennessee’s top lawyer has waded into the issue of how to pick nominees for November’s general election to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Kyle.

Unless the executive committee members are selected at large, the candidates for Senate are to be “nominated by the members of the party’s county executive committee who represent the precincts composing Senate District 30,” according to Attorney General Bob Cooper’s opinion. The Shelby County Democratic Party’s website says that county executive committee members are “elected from each state House District in Shelby County.”

The executive committee for the county’s Republican Party has members elected both at-large and by district, according to the Shelby County GOP.

The AG released the opinion Thursday morning in response to a request from Kyle, who won a Shelby County Chancery Court judgeship on August 7, and is leaving the General Assembly after 31 years in the Senate. Kyle has said he’ll resign by the end of August.

Kyle was joined in making the inquiry to Cooper’s office by Memphis Democratic Reps. Antonio Parkinson and G.A. Hardaway, who, along with Kyle’s wife, Sara, and former state Sen. Beverly Marrero, have shown interest in filling Kyle’s chair.

On the Republican side, former U.S. Senate candidate and Memphis millionaire radio station owner Dr. George Flinn has indicated he’s considering a run. Barring a significant upset, though, the seat is expected to stay in Democratic hands.

According to the attorney general’s opinion, any House member currently running for reelection who has won their primary, but also wishes to run for the Senate vacancy, must withdraw from the House race before the party’s executive committee meets to make their selection. However, Cooper also wrote that if the candidate withdraws from that race, the party won’t be allowed to nominate another candidate.

The opinion was sought amidst some confusion about whether or not the caucus process the county party officials wanted to use would meet statutory requirements.

While he had not yet read the opinion Thursday afternoon, the spokesman for the Tennessee Department of State, Blake Fontenay, said the Division of Elections would “defer” to the the decision of the state’s attorney, and “would act consistently with their ruling.”

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Kyle Seeks AG Opinion on Filling His Senate Vacancy

The Shelby County Democratic Party is preparing to select a nominee to fill the vacancy Memphis Sen. Jim Kyle’s departure from the state Legislature will create. But the outgoing upper-chamber minority leader has concerns about how that process will unfold.

On Friday, Kyle, who is retiring after 31 years in the Senate, requested that the state attorney general issue an opinion that sorts out the legal issues surrounding how to select a nominee to run as his replacement to the General Assembly.

Kyle’s request comes on the heels of Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, a former state senator, telling local party officials that there was confusion about the local caucus process they’ve indicated they will employ to select the nominee. Herron has concerns about the timing of the caucus, who can vote at the caucus, whether the decision would be made by a majority or plurality of votes and whether it would be a public roll-call vote or by secret ballot, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Kyle won a Shelby County judgeship on Aug. 7. and will resign from the Legislature after he’s sworn-in on Aug. 29. However, state law doesn’t provide for a government-run open primary when the timing of a vacancy in the Senate occurs so close to voters going to the polls in November. Instead, officials from the county parties are authorized to choose nominees for the general election ballot.

Democrats such as Sara Kyle, Sen. Kyle’s wife, and former state Sen. Beverly Marrero, who Kyle defeated in the 2012 primary, have expressed interest in the seat. Additionally, current Shelby County Tennessee House members Antonio “2-Shay” Parkinson and G.A. Hardaway, may also be looking to move to the General Assembly’s upper chamber.

Following the GOP-led redistricting in 2011, Marrero and Kyle found themselves opponents in the 2012 Democratic primary. After her primary loss, Marrero told TNReport that she felt “betrayed” by Kyle’s request to Republicans that he be drawn into a race against her instead of State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Press Releases

Cosmetology Training to See Revamp Under Parkinson Bill

Press release from the office of Tennessee State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis; May 2, 2013:

Fast Facts:

  • House Bill 39 will allow for the creation of free standing natural hair care schools, schools of manicuring, and schools of aesthetics.
  • The bill allows for students to opt for apprenticeships prior to licensing
  • This bill will create needed Tennessee businesses and jobs

Nashville, TN, May 2, 2013 – Rep. Antonio Parkinson is changing the cosmetology training industry in Tennessee with the passage of House Bill 39. Currently awaiting the Governor’s signature, HB39 instructs the TN cosmetology board to create rules for the creation of stand-alone natural hair care, manicuring, and aesthetics schools. Currently, students can become licensed in these disciplines, but they would have to go through a complete cosmetology program for completion. With the signing of this law, students may choose a particular area of cosmetology that they would like to practice and focus on.

In addition, the new law allows cosmetology students the option to complete their required hours of classroom time through an apprenticeship program under a licensed cosmetologist. This would require students to go to school for half of the program in the classroom and the other half in the salon while working under a licensed cosmetologist.

“With the passage of this legislation, more businesses will be created, more people will enter the workforce faster and with the necessary experience to succeed,” says Rep. Parkinson. “Tennessee will move closer to competing with states that are leaders in the cosmetology industry.”

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Guv Inks Tighter Voter ID Provisions

Library cards and other types of county-or-city-issued photo ID cards are no longer enough to cast a ballot in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a General Assembly measure outlawing their use at polling places.

The bill, sponsored by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, was an initially more extensive overhaul of the state’s existing voter ID law.

Most notably, it aimed to add college ID cards — both for students and staff — to the list of acceptable forms of identification.

That effort drew skepticism from some other Senate Republicans, but Ketron’s argument that the changes would make the law more “consistent” eventually won out in the upper chamber. The Senate passed the legislation 21-8. Four Republicans voted “no.” They were Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, Mike Bell of Riceville, Stacey Campfield of Knoxville and Jim Summerville of Dickson.

However, Ketron’s reasoning fell on deaf GOP ears in the House.

Sponsor Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, readily accepted an amendment from House Local Government Committee Chair Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, that stripped the college ID provision. The language nixing library cards stayed.

Hill told members of the House during floor debate on the measure back in March that his committee removed college IDs because they felt the cards were “too easy to duplicate, they’re too easy to access, too easy to acquire.”

“Some of them do not even have expiration dates on on them, and that poses a danger and a hazard to the voting process,” Hill said.

While discussion in the Senate focuses almost entirely on the college ID issue, some lawmakers in the House were equally vocal in their concern regarding the move to ban the use of library cards on election day.

Chief among them were Democrats from Memphis who said the legislation as a move to overrule a state Supreme Court decision allowing library cards to be used in that city.

Johnnie Turner didn’t mince words, calling the proposed changes “a form of voter suppression,” and chiding House Republicans for meddling in local affairs.

“Locals have voted for, it has been approved by the courts,” Turner said. “Speaker after speaker after speaker will say, ‘We don’t want the federal government telling us what to do.’ And yet, on the state level, we’re doing the same thing.”

Antonio Parkinson, also a Memphis Democrat, said he felt he had been “hoodwinked” and “bamboozled” by Republicans. He accused GOP lawmakers of focusing attention on the more contentious issue of college IDs to draw scrutiny away from their real objective to nullify the decision of the state’s courts.

Going heavy on the sports metaphors, Parkinson said “the end run play was ran and you scored a touchdown, scored the final dunk and now you’re on the House floor with this bill.”

“The point of the matter was simply this,” Parkinson continued. “To run interference of a decision that was to be made by the Tennessee Supreme Court in regards to library cards that were being proposed to be used by the city of Memphis.”

The House passed the bill, largely along party lines, by a vote of 65-30 and the Senate subsequently concurred with the House version, dropping the college ID language with little discussion on the floor.

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Bill to Block College IDs for Voting Draws Dem Doubts

Questions from Democrats about the true intent of legislation drafted to clarify Tennessee’s voter ID law peppered discussion in a House committee Tuesday.

The legislation would have allowed voters to use college IDs as a form of accepted identification. The bill would rewrite a section of the current code that blocks their use. In HB 229’s original language, college IDs were simply not mentioned.

Rep. Jeremy DurhamJeremy Durham

However, that changed with freshman Rep. Jeremy Durham’s amendment that “basically just eliminates the college IDs part of the bill,” Durham told the Local Government Committee. “I think it’s good public policy to make sure the right people are voting.”

The amendment drew a slew of questions from Democratic committee members as to the true intent of the bill.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, of Nashville, made the argument that state-funded institutions of higher learning are “part of the state of Tennessee” because they receive funding from the state.

“There’s plenty of people who get direct money from the state, but I don’t want them to write down on a napkin who’s qualified to vote,” Durham, R-Franklin, said.

Rep. Larry Miller, of Memphis, was one of three Democratic members to ask either Durham or House sponsor Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, if they could describe any “real-world occurrences” where students had committed fraud using college IDs to vote. Neither could provide an example.

When Rep. Mike Stewart, of Nashville, asked Durham for an example of a problem with college IDs, Durham said, “I suppose that the real problem is if we stick with just state and federal, I think that’s better than having 20, 30 different forms of ID from all these different state-funded universities.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of Memphis, questioned what effect the bill may have on a decision before the Tennessee Supreme Court regarding the use of photo library cards as acceptable ID. The bill forbids using them to vote as well.

“A court decision would not affect the current law,” Lynn said. “A judge is not a lawmaker, and a judge can’t just deem that local IDs are acceptable if the General Assembly has passed a law saying that they are not acceptable, and the governor has signed the law.”

The companion bill, SB125, passed the full Senate last week. However, it allows college IDs to be accepted as valid forms of identification but disallows library cards and out-of-state IDs.

Because the two chambers’ versions differ, it is possible that a conference committee will be appointed to try and reach an agreement, which is necessary before final passage is possible.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

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Business and Economy Featured NewsTracker

House Limits Local Authority on Wage-Setting Mandates

Despite a rather testy exchange between the two parties’ caucus chairs about the “Tennessee Wage Protection Act” on the House floor Thursday, the bill passed 66-27-1 and heads for the Senate committee process beginning next week.

The chamber’s approval moves House Bill 501 one stop closer to ending a four-year battle to prohibit cities and counties from setting wages, family leave and insurance benefits that private businesses must offer employees as a condition of obtaining local-government contracts or operating in the jurisdiction.

“These are issues best left up to the state and federal governments, not local government,” Republican Caucus Chair Glen Casada said.

If the bill becomes law, it would nullify regulations passed in Nashville and Shelby County requiring businesses contracting with those governments to offer a certain level of wages and benefits to employees.

“Once again we have a piece of legislation that will tie the hands of the local government. You are preventing them from being able to negotiate good contracts,” said Democratic Rep. Larry Miller, whose amendment to exempt his home of Memphis and Shelby County was tabled.

The issue of prevailing wages brought Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner to the floor. He grilled Casada on whether he knew what a prevailing wage was, and a touchy back and forth ensued.

According to the bill, when awarding contracts local governments cannot “require a prevailing wage be paid in excess of the wages established by the prevailing wage commission for state highway construction projects in accordance with title (state law) or the Tennessee occupational wages prepared annually by the department of labor and workforce development, employment security division, labor market information for state building projects.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of Memphis, questioned the differences in the costs of living in Shelby County and Crockett County, population 14,500, and suggested the local officials there know what’s best for their workers.

Casada fired back: “If a local government, and I’m not going to use any names, mandates 30 bucks an hour for a construction job, that drives up the cost of that construction, and it causes that entity go further in debt. In turn, that causes taxes to go up on the taxpayers of that community. This bill is an attempt to stop that.”

Parkinson complained of the hypocrisy he perceives in the Republican-run Legislature dictating mandates on local governments when often GOP lawmakers criticize federal intervention in state affairs.

“When the federal government puts things on us that take away personal freedom or economic freedom, that’s wrong,” Casada replied. “When local government does the same invasion on local folks, it’s up to us to protect the citizens of the state.”

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick got in the last word before the vote. Decisions made by local governments reach beyond their jurisdictional boundaries, he said.

“Big cities affect the whole state. They don’t just affect their city limits,” the fifth-term Republican from Hixson said. “They are economic generators for the surrounding counties. That alone is reason enough not to let them set up some little people’s republic in some city in the state of Tennessee.”

The vote went mostly along partisan lines. Republicans siding with Democrats against the bill included Mark Pody of Lebanon and David Alexander of Winchester. Joining them was Kent Williams, an independent. Charles Curtiss of Sparta was the only Democrat to vote in favor of HB501.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667. 

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Featured Transparency and Elections

1-2-3, Go! Redistricting Maps Advance

Tweaks to the lines on redrawn Democratic districts in the state House came down to something like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

House lawmakers approved the new maps 67-25-3 Thursday. Speaker Beth Harwell said she had politely encouraged Democrats to throw some votes her party’s way for the sake of bipartisanship appearances.

“I said to (Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner), ‘If we are making these concessions for some of your members, I would appreciate votes from your caucus,’” she said.

That left the #1 and #2 Democrats to figure out who would make Harwell feel appreciated.

“I’d like to think it was a little punitive, maybe, because the discussions were pretty hot and heavy,” Turner, of Old Hickory, said. … “I thought it was worth that to save a couple of our members.”

Turner threw down rock to Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s paper in their session to make sure the speaker got at least one leadership vote from their side. Turner was one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican-drawn maps, while Fitzhugh toed the party line.

“Everybody we had that was paired, we tried to do so something about that,” said Turner, who had been one of the most vocal critics of GOP maps. “In areas where it didn’t impact their members, they decided to give us a couple of those back.”

In the final hours before the map was approved by the chamber, Republicans agreed to make these concessions to preserve incumbent advantage:

  • Separate Democrats Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart, who had been drawn into the same south Nashville district.
  • Return Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, to the district he represents now. He had been lumped into the same district as Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
  • Adjust the lines in the district represented by Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville.

Democrats pitched a handful of other amendments to the maps on the House floor, mainly attempts to make more Shelby County districts represent a greater percentage of minorities. All those attempts failed.

The maps fell “way short on minority representation,” according to Turner, although he said he wanted to talk to the Tennessee Democratic Party, the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and other “interested parties” before deciding whether to challenge the lawsuit in court.

Harwell said the Democratic votes symbolize that the map has bipartisan support.

“Bottom line is, surely it sends a clear message that a majority of the members in this General Assembly is pleased with it, and I think the people of this state will be well represented by this map,” she said. “No one can doubt that we have drawn these lines fairly, that there’s proper representation from each district.”

In the new map, sitting House members who would have to run against other legislators (unless they relocated) are situated in:

  • District 28 in Hamilton County: Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga
  • District 31 in Sequatchie, Bledsoe, Rhea and part of Roane counties: Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
  • District 86 in Shelby County: Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis
  • District 98 in Shelby County: Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The Senate is expected to vote on its maps and OK the House drawings Friday. If approved by both chambers, the maps will go to the governor for his approval.

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Education NewsTracker

Rediscovering the Importance of Childhood Reading

State government has grabbed firmly onto warnings that children whose reading skills are lagging by the third grade face an uphill educational climb from then on.

In a news release Wednesday about a Department of Education website on reading, First Lady Crissy Haslam said, “Research has shown that if children do not read on grade level by third grade, they never catch up with their peers.”

The first lady and the DOE launched ReadTennessee.org, a site the department says is designed to help teachers, parents and community members regarding new standards and higher expectations.

The point about the third grade has become a recurring theme on many fronts.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law this year regarding “social promotion,” saying students who do not perform at expected reading levels in the third grade will not be sent to the fourth grade.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville

“We cheat our children and ourselves when we allow students to move through our schools without actually learning the material,” Burks said in a release in May about the bill.

The Senate Republican Caucus said about 45,000 students in the state had been considered to be socially promoted.

“The main problem with social promotion is that the student falls further and further behind if they cannot master the third-grade-appropriate testing,” Gresham said in a release.

“Mastery of the basics, which are tested in the third grade, is critical to a child’s future success in school. Everything else builds on that foundation.”

The measure was highlighted in a recent speech by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (see video), but while Ramsey and Gov. Bill Haslam were campaigning in 2010 on a jobs agenda, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp was the strongest voice on the campaign trail about third-grade reading levels. His emphasis on the issue in the Republican primary was noticeable as far back as 2009.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, is another passionate advocate of improving early elementary school reading skills. Parkinson said he’s learned that it is possible to project as early as the third grade whether a child may be incarcerated later in life.

“Think about that. Third grade. We know the likelihood of you going to prison based on how you come out of the third grade,” Parkinson said.

The new website the Department of Education announced Wednesday is geared with information boosting student achievement. It includes an online toolkit for teachers to connect them with various resources related to the issue.

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Press Releases

Parkinson Sworn In, First Bill Targets Synthetic Drugs

Press Release from Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson; March 31, 2011:

Passes first piece of legislation; will curb drug abuse

(Nashville) — Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson officially joined the Tennessee House of Representatives Thursday morning and afterward passed his first piece of legislation.

Parkinson (D-Memphis) filled the 98th House District seat vacated by the late Rep. Ulysses Jones, Jr. Parkinson won the Democratic primary several months ago but has now assumed the position on a permanent basis after winning the March 8 general election certification.

“I am honored to serve the people of District 98, Memphis, and the state of Tennessee,” Parkinson said. “I’m also glad to share this day with my mother. She and I have been homeless together. But, we have overcome the hard times. And, I stand here today as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.”

Parkinson received the oath of office in the House Chamber located on the second floor of the state Capitol in Nashville.

Parkinson passed a bill creating a Class A misdemeanor offense for the production, manufacture, distribution or possession of additional synthetic cannabinoids.

“This is an important bill that will stop our young people from going down the wrong road of drug abuse,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson has been appointed by the House Speaker to serve on the Children and Family Affairs and State and Local Government committees.