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Beacon Center Launches Website for Taxpayers to Track Education Tax Dollars

Press release from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; February 19, 2015: 

NASHVILLE – Today, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released a website that gives taxpayers across the state an opportunity to see how their tax dollars are spent on education. MySchoolSpending.org is a customizable tool that allows Tennesseans to look into how their specific school district spends money. By typing in their ZIP Code, or choosing a local school district with a drop down menu, taxpayers can determine whether their investment is being spent wisely.

Some of the statistics taxpayers can see for each school district include total spending per child, percentage of money spent in the classroom, and the growth in administrative costs. For instance, taxpayers spend $9.3 billion each year on education statewide. Of that amount, just 53 percent makes it into the classroom.

Beacon CEO Justin Owen noted, “This is a great tool for parents and taxpayers alike to see how their tax dollars are actually spent when it comes to education. Overall, we have found that many school districts are spending excessive amounts of money on administrative costs instead of on each child’s actual education. We believe that by exposing how school districts spend money, people will be more open to parental choice options that could result in a more efficient use of taxpayer money along with better results for our children.”

You can visit MySchoolSpending.org and see how your district spends taxpayer money by clicking here.

Legislature Gearing Up for Tax Reform Debate

Tennessee Republicans are flush with even more power in the General Assembly after the 2014 general election, and members of the expanded supermajorities in both dens of the statehouse are sure that one thing’s for certain: there’s no time like the present to talk about tax cuts.

There’s some disagreement, though, about which ones to go after first.

The two biggest targets are the Hall tax on investment earnings and Tennessee’s highest-in-the-country sales tax.

While many of the Volunteer State’s conservative Republicans favor doing away with the Hall tax, some of the party’s legislative leadership have instead made populist arguments in favor chipping away at the state’s sales tax. Over the past several years since losing majority-party status, that’s been a priority as well for Democrats, who charge the tax hits Tennessee’s poor the hardest. And as pitiful as their numbers are in the Legislature, Democrats could play a role in helping shape the discussion, particularly in the House.

While some Republicans have in the past balked at discussing cuts to the state’s general sales tax — or the tax on food — due to fears that its reduction would be a potential step toward enacting a state income tax, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said he hopes a recently passed constitutional ban on taxing Tennesseans’ income would change the discussion.

“Every time since I’ve been here we’ve tried to have a discussion about the state’s revenue and expenses, people say ‘Oh, it’s Trojan Horse for the income tax,'” the Collierville Republican told reporters last week. However, the overwhelming passage of Amendment 3 on Nov. 4, a change in the Tennessee Constitution that expressly prohibits the enactment of income taxes at the state or local level, “should silence those critics,” said Norris.

In the wake of two-thirds of Tennessee voters approving the amendment, Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, filed legislation earlier this month aimed at, over the next three years, entirely phasing out the Hall Income tax — a six percent tax on income received from investments over $1250 a year for individuals making more than $33,000 a year.

In response, Norris and state Rep.Gerald McCormick — the majority leaders in both legislative chambers, who routinely carry legislation for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam — filed a proposal to reduce the state sales tax from 7 percent to 6.75 percent.

Getting rid of the Hall Tax would cut about $260 million from the annual budget. Likewise, McCormick told the Times Free Press, the proposed sales tax cut would reduce annual state revenue by about the same.

Norris referred to his proposal as one of “the bookends” of the greater tax reform discussion.

“The bill was filed, so I filed a bill. Do you want to cut $260 million in revenue for these people, or $260 million revenue for all people? It sort of frames the issue,” Norris said last week.

But while two of the state’s top fiscal conservative groups generally support reducing the tax burden of all Tennesseans’, they’re standing firm on their particular support for specifically doing away with the the Hall tax first — and they say that ought to be lawmakers’ first priority.

Tennessee’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity is “committed to assisting in the repeal of the Hall Income Tax,” said the group’s spokeswoman, Tori Venable. “Repealing this regressive tax will help our state as a whole, not just those who will benefit from the tax cut. The assurance of the Hall Income Tax repeal will help our state recruit more businesses, increasing job growth and economic output,” she wrote in an email to TNReport.

Lindsay Boyd, policy director for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a 10-year-old Nashville-based free-market think tank, told TNReport via email that, first and foremost, the Hall Tax has to go. It “deters Tennessee families from settling in our state and small business entrepreneurs from investing in our economy,” Boyd said. She added that chipping away at the sales tax is a good idea, but it’s not going to show immediate results and definitely shouldn’t detract from the Hall tax discussion.

“A minuscule cut to the sales tax, as proposed by Rep. McCormick and Sen. Norris, may be a discussion we should resume once we free Tennesseans from the worry of having their hard earned dollars punitively and heftily taxed by the Hall tax on investment income- remembering that 40 percent of those who pay the Hall income tax earn less than $50,000 per year,” Boyd said.

Last session’s House GOP Caucus chairman, Franklin Rep. Glen Casada, told TNReport he favors prioritizing Hall tax elimination. Eliminating it as quickly as possible is an “excellent idea,” he said, because it would attract senior citizens to the state.

“It’s a wise, prudent financial move,” said Casada,who added that it’s unfair to ding people who’ve “played by the rules” and have saved money for retirement — and are not relying on government assistance.

Casada said he favors reducing taxes in general — but wants to begin with getting rid of the Hall tax, “and then start cutting sales tax on food.”

For an alternative perspective — or another tax-cutting idea to add to the mix — look no further than the House majority leader.

McCormick told TNReport this week that he thinks franchise and excise taxes should be looked at too. “I just think we need to look at all of them at the same time, and then decide if we can afford to cut taxes who we want to cut them for,” he said.

McCormick added that he was concerned cutting the Hall tax would “disproportionately” benefit higher income Tennesseans. The Legislature should “look at something that might also help those that are on the bottom rungs of the income levels.”

Haslam has suggested any legislators interested in cutting their constituents taxes should also be looking for cuts to make in state expenses. “I believe in cutting taxes. We’ve cut taxes since we’ve been here. We also believe in balancing the budget. And I think it’s important when you’re talking making any changes to revenue in the state, what are the commensurate changes you’re going to make in the expense structure as well?” Haslam said earlier this month.

Witnesses Announced for Mid-Sept Criminal Justice Reform Hearing

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; August 26, 2014:

(NASHVILLE, TN) August 26, 2014 – Senator Brian Kelsey today released the names of the witnesses scheduled to testify regarding proposed criminal justice reforms in Tennessee. The hearing will occur before the Senate Judiciary Committee September 15 – 16.

“These experts will help us learn from other states how to best protect the public while saving taxpayer dollars. Our committee is privileged to partner with such talented witnesses in the effort to improve the criminal justice system in Tennessee,” explained Senator Kelsey.

The witnesses will provide testimony on the following three subjects: 1) Criminal Justice Reform: How we got where we are in Tennessee, 2) Criminal Justice Reform: What other states have done, and 3) Criminal Justice Reform: Suggested changes for Tennessee.

The scheduled witnesses for the hearings are as follows:

  • Sheriff Robert Arnold, Rutherford County
  • Beth Ashe, Executive Director, Tennessee Corrections Institute
  • Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper
  • District Attorney General D. Michael Dunavant, 25th Judicial District, Fayette, Hardeman, Lauderdale, McNairy, and Tipton Counties
  • Paige Edwards, Tennessee Public Defender’s Conference
  • Rebecca Silber and Nancy Fishman, VERA Institute of Justice
  • Tommy Francis, Tennessee State Employees Association
  • Mayor Terry Frank, Anderson County, Tennessee
  • Commissioner Bill Gibbons, Tennessee Department of Safety
  • Mark Gwyn, Director, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • Marc Levin, Director, Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation
  • Mayor Mark Luttrell, Shelby County, Tennessee
  • John G. Malcolm, Director, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies
  • Richard Montgomery, Chairman, Tennessee Board of Parole
  • Justin Owen, President/CEO, Beacon Center of Tennessee
  • Chief David Rausch, Knoxville Police Department
  • David Raybin, Esq., criminal defense attorney
  • Justyna Scalpone, Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender
  • Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield, Tennessee Department of Correction
  • Chris Slobogin, Professor, Vanderbilt College of Law; member, Tennessee Consultation on Criminal Justice
  • District Attorney General Barry Staubus, 2nd Judicial District, Sullivan County, Tennessee
  • Thomas E. Tique, Chief Deputy Attorney, Tennessee General Assembly Office of Legal Services
  • Commissioner E. Douglas Varney, Tennessee Department of Mental Health
  • Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director, ACLU of Tennessee
  • Charlie White, Director, Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents
  • Judge John Everett Williams, Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown. He is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Justice Bivins Calls for ‘Yes on 2’ at TN Farm Bureau Federation Conference

Press release from the Vote Yes on 2 Campaign; August 22, 2014:

Nashville, Tenn. – Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeff Bivins, speaking at the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation Annual Presidents Conference on August 14, urged those in attendance to Vote YES on 2 when they go to polls this fall. The Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation is also urging the passage of Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 keeps the best parts of our current system by continuing to trust the Governor to appoint the most qualified persons as appellate judges, while adding a new layer of accountability by having our elected representatives in the legislature confirm or reject the Governor’s appointees. Most importantly, Amendment 2 protects the right of Tennesseans to vote to keep or fire the judges at the end of their respective terms.

Justice Bivins said Amendment 2 brings important new clarity and accountability to the process of selecting Tennessee’s Supreme Court and appellate court judges. But he warned that failure to pass Amendment 2 could open the door to costly statewide judicial races, full of negative advertising largely funded by out of state special interests.

“You got a taste in these past weeks with the negative advertisements and the mailers.” Justice Bivins said. “But you saw only the tip of the iceberg of what can happen.”

“Our Farm Bureau policy supports an independent and qualified judiciary,” said Lacy Upchurch, President of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. “Our grassroots members have directed us to work to ensure partisan politics and campaign fundraising do not influence the selection and retention of judges. We support the Yes on 2 efforts and believe passage will provide a judicial system of which we can all be proud.”

Amendment 2 enjoys strong support from a diverse and bipartisan group of top leaders from across the state, including Governor Bill Haslam, former Governor Phil Bredesen, former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, former Governor Winfield Dunn, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, Speaker Beth Harwell, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, large majorities in the State House and Senate, and many more.

Amendment 2 has also been endorsed by other leading organizations including the Tennessee Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, Fraternal Order of Police, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Election Day is November 4, 2014, and early voting on the constitutional amendments begins October 15, 2014. For more information, visit VoteYes2.org.

2013 Lump of Coal Award Goes to Law Enforcement Agencies Guilty of ‘Policing for Profit’

Press release from The Beacon Center of Tennessee; December 17, 2013

NASHVILLE – The Beacon Center of Tennessee today announced that Tennesseans have overwhelmingly chosen the 23rd Judicial District, and Cheatham, Dickson, and Humphreys Counties as the recipients of the 2013 Lump of Coal Award.

The Beacon Center awards this dubious distinction annually to the person or group in Tennessee who, more than any other during the past year, acted as a Grinch to Tennesseans by bah-humbugging the principles of liberty and limited government.

The judicial district and three counties have become infamous for their use of a controversial tactic known as “policing for profit.” Abusing the state’s civil forfeiture laws, the agencies have begun seizing cash, vehicles, and other personal items in traffic stops, forcing the property owner to prove that the cash or property was not related to criminal activity. Innocent victims often spend months attempting to recoup seized property, sometimes to no avail.

An in-depth documentary by Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 revealed troubling facts about the practice, such as substantially more traffic stops on westbound Interstate lanes—where cash proceeds from drug sales frequently flow—while drugs traveling in the eastbound lanes were reportedly allowed to pass unfettered. Officers were also caught on camera admitting that they had little evidence that property was associated with a crime before seizing it anyway.

After the Beacon Center narrowed the list of offenders down to four finalists, the recipient of the Lump of Coal Award was chosen directly by Tennesseans in an online poll. The four law enforcement agencies received the most votes for the not-so-coveted prize, beating out Metro Nashville Public Schools, the Department of Labor & Workforce Development, and Hemlock Semiconductor with 40 percent of the vote.

“Tennesseans have sent a clear message that ‘policing for profit’ will not be tolerated,” said Beacon CEO Justin Owen. “This practice turns the Constitution on its head, and it’s time for lawmakers to heed the outcry of law-abiding citizens who want their property rights protected from this abuse, while still preserving the authority of law enforcement to target criminals.”

State legislators have indicated that they will study this issue and offer possible reforms to the state’s civil forfeiture laws when they reconvene next month. Earlier this year, the Beacon Center published a policy brief on the practice, which can be found at http://www.beacontn.org/2013/03/the-perils-of-policing-for-profit/.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee’s mission is to change lives through public policy by advancing the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government.

Legislature Could Dash Cops’ Practice of Taking Cash

Tennesseans, and anybody else traveling in the state, would get protection from improper seizure of their property under a proposal in the General Assembly with backers across the political spectrum, the Huffington Post reports:

According to the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice, every state in the country has some version of a civil asset forfeiture law. Under (Rep. Barrett Rich’s HB 1078), Tennessee would be the first to abolish it. …

Much of the call for reform over the years has come from alliances between conservatives, who are appalled by forfeiture laws’ disregard for property rights, and progressives, who are alarmed by the laws’ tendency to encourage racial profiling on the highways and their disproportionate effect on the poor. Simply carrying a lot of cash, for example, is often seen by police as an indication of illegal drug activity, and the poor and undocumented immigrants are more likely to carry cash.

The bill would make it harder for law enforcement to make a traffic stop, then seize cash or other private property without ever charging the owner with a crime. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in a House Criminal Justice subcommittee.

The money pads the coffers of law enforcement, with the burden of proof on the individual if they’re interested in getting their money back.

“Guilty until proven innocent,” is how the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee describes the situation. “Under current Tennessee law, no standard of probable cause is required to seize and hold private property – a hunch is all it takes.”

The bill would require the issuance of a forfeiture warrant prior to seizure and a conviction before the property can be forfeited.

The legislation follows a series of investigations by NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams into what amounts to “highway shakedowns,” according to one expert interviewed by Williams. Using public records, Williams discovered that cops focused their efforts on the westbound side of Interstate 40 outside Nashville – where they were more likely to collect cash – rather than the eastbound side as drugs travel into the city.

‘Copeland Cap’ May Get Makeover

An easily circumvented Tennessee constitutional provision aimed at compelling state government to live within its means is drawing renewed attention from lawmakers who say it hasn’t had its intended effect.

The so-called “Copeland Cap,” a spending limit Tennessee voters approved for addition to the state constitution in 1978, requires the Legislature to restrict year-to-year government-expenditure growth to no more than growth in the state’s economy.

However, according to figures compiled by veteran low-tax activist Ben Cunningham, the cap has been disregarded more than a dozen times since its sponsor, former state Rep. David Copeland R-Ooltewah, guided it to passage. Currently, the General Assembly can bust the cap by a simple majority vote.

“David Copeland got concerned and worried about the fact that we might spend more than we had, which is a bad thing to do — and we’ve done that, too,” said Nashville Democrat Douglas Henry. He is sponsoring the measure meant to start a discussion about adding more heft to the government-budgeting lid so it will “do what it was designed to do.”

Under Senate Bill 1235, approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee on Wednesday, a task force would take up the matter and report back possible solutions to the General Assembly next year.

“This is the first step in a long process,” Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson, who would serve on the panel, told lawmakers during the committee hearing. The bill calls on the task force to make recommendations by Feb. 1.

Amending the state constitution takes years, including passage in two successive Legislatures — the second by a two-thirds majority — after which the people of Tennessee must approve it on a ballot that includes a gubernatorial election.

Committee chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he believes adding a two-thirds House and Senate floor-vote requirement to override the cap would be a good place to start. That’s also an idea pushed by the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee, which identified the “runaway spending” permitted under the Copeland Cap as an issue for lawmakers in its policy guide.

“(A supermajority requirement) would allow lawmakers to curb spending, while still preserving their ability to raise needed funds in times of emergency or disaster,” the Center says in its guide. (See page 13.)

The Beacon Center also supports tying the cap to population growth plus inflation, rather than personal income growth.

Senate Bill 1235 moves next to the Finance, Ways and Means Committee. The House version of the legislation, HB1154, by Sumner County Republican Courtney Rogers, has already moved through the committee system and is awaiting scheduling for a lower-chamber floor vote.

New Beacon Center Brief Analyzes Practice of ‘Policing for Profit’

Press release from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; March 18, 2013:

NASHVILLE – The Beacon Center of Tennessee today published a new policy brief on the disturbing practice of “policing for profit.” The brief, titled The Perils of Policing for Profit, analyzes civil asset forfeiture laws, which have recently come under fire throughout the state.

Across Tennessee, law enforcement agencies are seizing money, cars, and other property based on the mere suspicion that the property is related to criminal activity. In some cases, tens of thousands of dollars worth of property or cash is seized, yet the property owner is never charged with a crime.

The brief reviews the perverse incentives created by this practice, which has led to the confiscation of more than $1.6 billion worth of property nationally. However, due to the lack of transparency related to Tennessee’s forfeiture laws, the amount seized within the state’s borders remains unknown.

“Policing for profit is an alarming practice that ensnares innocent victims, turning the American concept of justice on its head through a presumption of guilt,” said Trey Moore, Beacon Center’s director of policy and co-author of the brief. “Lawmakers should eliminate the perverse incentives for law enforcement to seize property absent proof that a crime has actually occurred.”

The brief calls for the outright ban of the practice by strengthening the legal standards used to permit law enforcement to seize property. Short of eliminating the practice altogether, the brief offers several intermediary solutions. They include placing civil forfeiture revenues in a neutral fund that cannot be used by law enforcement; transferring the burden of proof from the property owner to the government; reporting of seized property to promote more transparency; prohibiting ex parte hearings; allowing property owners to recover their losses and costs if the property is returned; and the termination of equitable sharing arrangements between local law enforcement officials and the federal government.

Several state lawmakers have filed bills related to this issue. Those measures are slated to be heard in legislative committees over the coming days.

The policy brief can be downloaded at: http://www.beacontn.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Perils-of-Policing-for-Profit.pdf

Beacon Center Releases 3rd Edition of ‘Guide’ for TN Lawmakers

Press release from The Beacon Center of Tennessee; January 9, 2012:

NASHVILLE – The Beacon Center of Tennessee, the state’s premier free market policy organization, today released the third edition of its Legislators’ Guide to the Issues. The guide serves as a resource for state lawmakers and covers ten different policy categories. A complimentary copy of the guide will be provided to every state legislator.

“As Washington nears irreversible incompetence, our state leaders must step up to the challenge of fixing our nation’s woes,” said Justin Owen, Beacon’s president & CEO. “No other publication offers a better roadmap to a freer, more prosperous Tennessee in a concise format than our Legislators’ Guide to the Issues.”

The guide provides one-page solutions in areas such as fiscal responsibility, taxation, education, healthcare, and economic liberty, among others. It also contains citations to additional resources that lawmakers, the media, and citizens alike can use to educate themselves on policy issues.

The first two editions of the Legislators’ Guide were essential at promoting common sense policy solutions in the state. The 107th General Assembly advanced legislation related to one-third of the 45 proposals in the second Legislators’ Guide.

“This guide has served as an invaluable tool for state legislators, and we are confident that the newly updated publication will serve members of the 108th General Assembly well as they conduct the people’s business,” said Beacon’s Director of Policy Trey Moore.

An electronic copy of the Legislators’ Guide to the Issues can be found online at: http://www.beacontn.org/wp-content/uploads/108th-Legislators-Guide-to-the-Issues.pdf.

Those wishing to purchase a hardcopy can do so by emailing info@beacontn.org or calling (615) 383-6431.

Beacon Center Tennessee Policy Snapshot for November

Press release from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; November 1, 2012: 

A cure for what ails us

Over the next few months, Tennessee officials will have to make vital choices about the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Decisions confronting policymakers include whether to expand Medicaid and to set up a state health insurance exchange. A new Beacon Center report, “A Cure for What Ails Us,” calls on state lawmakers to reject an unaffordable and immoral expansion of Medicaid and reveals the serious consequences a state insurance exchange would spell for taxpayers. You can read the report here.

Nat’l healthcare expert headlines Beacon event

Dr. John Goodman, president and CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis, headlined a Beacon Center event on healthcare reform at the Downtown Sheraton Hotel in Nashville last week. Widely recognized as the “Father of Health Savings Accounts,” Goodman’s health policy blog is a must read for free marketers interested in healthcare policy. He is the author of Patient Power and, most recently, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis. TNreport.com caught up with Dr. Goodman prior to the event. A story and exclusive video can be found here.

A shortage of musicians…in Music City?

A new Tennessee Watchdog story addresses city officials’ worry that Nashville, commonly known as “The Music Capital of the World,” has a sudden shortage of creative talent. Officials with Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency are overseeing a new government project called the Ryman Lofts, an apartment complex scheduled to open in 2013 to house aspiring artists. For the full story on this taxpayer-funded luxury, click here.

TVA’s pension shortfall = higher electric bills

In a recent interview with TNReport.com, Beacon CEO Justin Owen explains how electricity consumers will be on the hook for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s massive pension shortfall, which currently totals $4.5 billion. “The (TVA) story is symptomatic of a larger problem,” Owen said. “What it amounts to is political promises. Now we’re seeing that many of those promises… are empty promises.” This shortfall could cost 98 percent of Tennessee households about $450 in higher electricity bills. For the full story and video interview click here.