Featured Transparency and Elections

Forrester Touts Dems’ TN Victories

He concedes the Democratic party in Tennessee is in a superminority at the state legislature, but state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester says he put in place a plan to march the legislature back to Democratic control.

Even so, Forrester, the longtime leader of the state Democratic Party, says that won’t happen overnight.

“We’re very, very excited about the four victories we had in the House,” Forrester said. “To defend all of our incumbents, which we did … we’re very excited about those victories.”

Indeed, Forrester counts Democratic Reps. Charles CurtissMark WindleDavid ShepardSherry Jones and Craig Fitzhugh and others among key wins.

“These are the people that represent our future,” Forrester said. “Even though we’re in the minority, we’ve moved the ball down field.”

[youtube height=”200″ width=”300″]eadFFckjrTM[/youtube]

He also pointed to the victory of Metro Councilman Darren Jernigan, the Democrat running against GOP incumbent Jim Gotto in the Davidson County House District 60 race.

“We took Jim Gotto, a right-wing Tea Party nut job, out of office,” Forrester said.

Both the Senate and House Republicans hold supermajorities, which means Republicans can pass any law without a single Democratic voice.

Forrester will be stepping down from his post in January.

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


Featured News Tax and Budget

Curtiss, Burks Absent Most UCDD Board Meetings

Two Tennessee state lawmakers partly responsible for helping oversee the scandal-gripped Upper Cumberland Development District can count on one hand the number of board meetings they’ve collectively attended in the last two years.

Attendance records for meetings of UCDD’s Board of Directors and its Executive Committee dating back to 2010 show that Rep. Charles Curtiss attended one meeting in that time and Sen. Charlotte Burks made two appearances.

“We can’t always break loose” from prior engagements to attend UCDD meetings, Curtiss, D-Sparta, said in his Capitol Hill office during a recent interview with TNReport.

“They have a lot of meetings while I’m here. I’m still earning a living, so when they decide to have a meeting at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock in the day or 1 o’clock in the afternoon, a lot of times I’m on the job, and I can’t just walk off the job,” he said.

Curtiss and Burks have served on the board since they were elected to the General Assembly in the 1990s. They say they see themselves more as liaisons between the Legislature and UCDD than full-fledged board members, who are responsible for ensuring that the development agency faithfully executes its mission of helping the poor and improving the region’s economic outlook.

The Upper Cumberland Development District encompasses 14 counties in eastern Middle Tennessee consisting of 5,000 square miles and containing a population of 338,000 people. UCDD’s website submits that the agency is “always on the lookout for new, creative ways to serve our area.”

UCDD’s executive director, Wendy Askins, and her deputy, Larry Webb, were recently placed on administrative leave after a WTVF NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed Askins had moved in to the agency’s million-dollar “Living the Dream” assisted living facility for needy seniors.

NewsChannel 5’s UCDD series raised questions not just about the “Living the Dream” facility, but management of the agency in general. UCDD doled out thousands of dollars for campaign events, booze, personal gifts and other potentially suspicious reimbursements under Askins’ leadership, WTVF reported.

After the WTVF “Living the Dream” story first broke last month, UCDD board members who previously voted for or vocally defended taxpayer-spending on the plush estate — or signed off on other curious agency spending — claimed they were duped into acquiescence by Askins and a UCDD auditor, whom board members now allege was incompetent.

Curtiss has missed every meeting since 2010 except this year’s Jan. 19 meeting, where board members voted to revise the official minutes from a previous meeting which occurred on Feb. 16, 2010 regarding discussions they’d had about the “Living the Dream” project. Curtiss was one of 16 members who voted “yes” on the revisions, which involved retroactively approving $300,000 for “Living the Dream,” even though he wasn’t at the 2010 meeting in question.

A number of Tennessee lawmakers are now calling for a thoroughgoing probe of UCDD by state auditors. The situation is raising concerns among lawmakers that this board, and possibly others like it, risk being poor stewards of government money and deserve focused legislative investigation as well. Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office would not confirm or deny if an investigation is in fact formally underway.

At least one lawmaker who favors a critical examination of UCDD’s dealings and direction of late says he believes membership on any taxpayer-funded agency or organization’s board carries with it a solemn duty to keep vigilant for potential misuse of public funds.

“There is a problem, and I want to find out what the root of it is and fix it,” said Rep. Mark Pody. The Lebanon Republican said the UCDD scandal has left “a bad taste in my mouth.”

Curtiss and Burks count themselves among those who want to see the state Comptroller start regularly auditing the agency. They’re also calling for a legislative study of the UCDD board’s activities and a look into similar public agencies that oversee millions of taxpayer dollars.

Pody said he isn’t necessarily looking to lay blame for UCDD’s woes on Curtiss and Burks’ absences. “I’m not going to comment good or bad on either one,” he said.

“But I will say that if it’s a situation where they can’t be on the board, we probably need to find other people that can,” Pody told TNReport. He said it may be necessary to “reconstitute” UCDD’s board and appoint members who “can and are willing to ask the hard questions.”

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver is presently pushing a bill that would boot members from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission if they miss more than four meetings in a year, an idea she says should be replicated throughout all state boards and commissions.

Asked if that should apply to UCDD, Weaver said, “Very much so.”

“If you’re going to serve on these boards, you basically are saying to the people (that) you know a lot of what’s going on,” said the Lancaster Republican, whose legislative district includes part of the Upper Cumberland Development District.

Weaver continued, “To just not go because you don’t feel like it, or something else (came up) you think is a priority, other than death or sickness, then maybe you should re-evaluate your service, and say, ‘You know, I’d probably ought not do this, because I’m not serving the commission justice, and I’m certainly not serving the people that I serve justice’.”

In the last two years, Burks has attended only the UCDD’s annual meetings held in June. At the 2010 meeting, gubernatorial candidates Zach Wamp, a Republican, and Mike McWherter, a Democrat, shared their visions for Tennessee to the group. In 2011, the meeting Burks attended involved a visit from the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s assistant commissioner talking about the Haslam administration’s job-growth priorities.

“I think it’s not the make-up of the board — it’s just when the board doesn’t know something that’s going on, how can they confront it if it wasn’t brought before them or they had no knowledge of the things that were going on?” said Burks, whose late husband, Sen. Tommy Burks, was also a UCDD board member.

The full UCDD board is made up of 62 people, mostly county executives and city mayors from the 14-county region. The executive committee is made up of half of that and, according to its bylaws, must include a member from both chambers of the General Assembly.

“A lot of people on the board rarely ever come to a meeting. They’re members, and they have a vote, but other than that, they don’t really come very much,” said UCDD’s interim executive director, Earl Carwile.

Alex Harris contributed to this report.

Press Releases

TNGOP Slams Dems Voting Against Income Tax Ban

Press Release from the Republican Party of Tennessee, Jan. 19, 2012:

Once Again, Tennessee Democrats Stand Up For A State Income Tax

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding language to ban a state income tax. SJR 221, sponsored by Representative Glen Casada, passed the Republican-controlled House by a vote of 73-17-3.

The amendment will now have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate in the next session. The amendment will then be placed on the ballot, coinciding with a gubernatorial election, to allow Tennessee voters to approve.  “I applaud our Republican leadership for moving us one step closer to solidifying the unconstitutionality of a state income tax. However, several Tennessee Democrats once again showed their liberal mindset by reinforcing their belief that government should not be restricted from  dipping into your paycheck,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

“While Tennesseans work hard to get through this economic recession, Tennessee Democrats are content with duplicating President Obama’s philosophy of raising taxes to meet reckless government spending, instead of reducing government to meet current revenue,” said Devaney.

Democrats Who Voted Against Banning a State Income Tax: Karen Camper, Barbara Cooper, Charles Curtiss, Lois Deberry, G.A. Hardaway, Bill Harmon, Mike Kernell, Larry Miller, Gary Moore, Jimmy Naifeh, Joe Pitts, Jeanne Richardson, Johnny Shaw, Mike Stewart, Harry Tindell, Joe Towns, and Johnnie Turner.

Press Releases

Clean Energy Major Issue on Day 4 of Democrats’ Job Tour

Press Release from the Senate Democratic Caucus; Sept. 22, 2011:

Officials visit McMinnville nursery, Chattanooga State and area businesses

CHATTANOOGA – House and Senate Democrats discussed agricultural and clean energy sectors as they continued their statewide jobs tour Thursday with stops in McMinnville and Chattanooga.

Officials began the morning at the TSU Nursery Research Facility in McMinnville, where they had breakfast with nurserymen who outlined the need for updated loan requirements and better communication with state agencies.

“We are blessed to have these nurseries in our region, thanks to our unique climate and growing conditions,” said State Representative Charles Curtiss. “We need to do everything in our power to ensure that these family businesses stay viable for future generations.”

Tour members then toured the research facility before traveling to East Tennessee, where Chattanooga tour members heard from Chattanooga State Community College officials about educational partnerships with area clean energy companies like Wacker. School officials also echoed the need for Tennessee high schools to raise awareness regarding technical career paths that lead to high-paying clean energy and engineering jobs.

Tour members then visited Chattanooga’s Office of Sustainability, where program director David Crockett highlighted the millions of taxpayer dollars that could be saved across the state through new, sustainable infrastructure projects.

“Tennessee’s clean energy efforts are more than just good for the environment – they’re good for governments and they’re good for business,” State Senator Andy Berke said. “The clean energy sector must be a major part of job growth strategy in the state.”

Members made their final stop of the day at SIAG Aerisyn, a German-based manufacturer of towers for wind turbines. Executives spoke of the effectiveness of job training grants, but were concerned about the scarcity of skilled welders given the high level of competition in the area.

“As large manufacturers outsourced more and more manufacturing jobs through the years, our skilled workforce disappeared,” said State Rep. JoAnne Favors. “Now that those jobs are coming back, we must work to avoid a potential shortfall in the workers to fill them.”

The jobs tour continues in East Tennessee on Friday with a full day in Knoxville. For more information, call (615) 812-2157.

News Tax and Budget

Casada’s Local Employment Policy Measure Falters in Committee

Not all Republican measures will be a slam dunk this year, apparently.

The former favorite for the Tennessee House speakership watched on as a subcommittee loaded with fellow GOP House lawmakers rejected his attempt to blanket the state with uniform regulations on discrimination, “living wage” and family-leave policies.

Casada blamed the HB598’s setback on “special interests,” but he stopped short of pointing fingers at any one group or another.

“I’m concerned special interest might have gotten the attention of some folks, and they didn’t listen to the majority of voters in the district. That’s purely opinion on my part,” said last legislative session’s House Republican caucus chairman.

Casada is proposing to ban local governments from imposing any anti-discrimination practice or employment policies mandating health insurance, a minimum wage or family-leave requirements more restrictive on businesses than state or federal law.

The bill fell, 7-6. Republican Rep. Steve McManus, the Commerce Committee chairman from Cordova, and GOP Rep. Dennis Roach of Rutledge voted against the measure, along with Independent Rep. Kent Williams, Elizabethton, and four Democrats. Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, voted in favor of the legislation with five Republicans.

Gay and lesbian advocates say the bill would have erased any locally enforced discrimination policy or other local rules protecting them based on their sexual preference.

“I think the bill was aimed at our community, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community,” said Chris Sanders, a spokesman for the Tennessee Equality Project who added that the bill meddles in local government’s ability to govern.

Both sides of the issue say the fight is far from over.

“This bill is actually about limiting the growth of big government at a local level,” said former state senator David Fowler, now president of Family Action Council of Tennessee. “Just because you can’t win at the state or the federal level doesn’t mean you should run to the local governments and create 348 different sets of laws businesses have to figure out to comply with.”

The issue caught momentum this year when Metro Nashville officials began discussing adding special protections for the GLBT community in its ordinances, an issue FACT believes is bad for both business and taxpayers.

Casada, who has two other versions of the bill sitting in committee, said he plans to talk to the subcommittee’s no-voters to find out what they took issue with and what, if anything, he can change in the bill to win their approval, he said.