Education NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Womick Redoubles Haslam Criticisms

Rick Womick isn’t backing down from provocative comments he made in a letter sent to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration a week ago.

The Rockvale Republican state representative told the Associated Press this week he’s sticking by his letter. In fact, he’s upped the rhetorical heat a bit, calling the reelection-seeking governor a “traitor to the party.”

“You had the head of our party targeting individual members because we don’t agree with him 100 percent of the time, that’s treason,” the former Air Force fighter pilot told the AP.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press first reported that, according to campaign finance reports, Advance Tennessee PAC, with connections to supporters of Haslam and Republican Speaker of the Tennessee House, Beth Harwell, was launched in July and spent $137,725 in five primary races against incumbent legislators who’ve opposed the administration.

Successfully fending off attacks from moderate challengers in the GOP primary were state Reps. Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville, Mike Sparks of Smyrna, and  Micah Van Huss of Jonesborough.  Kingsport Rep. Tony Shipley, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee chairman, and Stacey Campfield, the notoriously controversial state senator from Knoxville, were both unseated.

Haslam laughed-off Womick’s warlike words. And he defended efforts to purge hostile Republicans from the General Assembly.

“I don’t know why my supporters should be precluded from doing what everybody else is doing, in terms of being engaged and trying to make certain good people are elected,” Haslam told reporters. He added that there are plenty of groups, such as teachers unions, who want to “engage in primaries,” and he doesn’t see his supporters actions as being any different.

Womick was one of 15 state legislators to sign a letter in late June that called for the resignation of Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s embattled education commissioner, on the grounds that he allegedly manipulated the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results when the department delayed their release by four days.

After the release of that letter, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper issued an opinion — requested by state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet — that affirmed Huffman’s delay of the release of TCAP scores as acceptable under state and federal law.

Womick’s most recent letter to the administration accused the AG and Huffman of collusion on the opinion, and referred to it as “an orchestrated cover-up” and “Clintonesque.” Womick’s letter added that while many other legislators were unhappy with Haslam, to prevent further retaliation, he would not name them.

He also told the AP that in the future he expects a stronger legislative stance against Haslam, who is “making a lot of enemies very quickly.”

But Haslam said he plans to continue business as usual.

“For any governor, the job is to propose an idea and then to get at least 50 members of the House and 17 members of the Senate to vote in favor of it,” Haslam said. “I don’t think that’s changed.”

Business and Economy NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Big-Box Coalition Wants Amazon To Pay Tax

The Chattanooga Times Free-Press is spotlighting print ads by a national retailers group trying to force and other online retailers to pay sales taxes. The ads can be seen in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, the paper reported Thursday.

The piece offers a nice wrap of the legal context, what’s going on in other states, and where the Haslam administration stands. (The home team is looking the other way on the tax issue, and it’s possible Amazon will secure a “letter ruling” formally exempting its planned East Tennessee distribution centers from collecting taxes, though Revenue officials are mum.) Read the whole story here.

It’s worth noting that the group running the newspaper ads, the Alliance for Main Street Fairness, is backed heavily by Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, and the like.

The irony was not lost on House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who told the Chattanooga paper that Wal-Mart has “wiped out a number of Main Streets in Tennessee.”

While Tennessee welcomes Amazon, Illinois has taken a hard line, enacting a law requiring Amazon to collect sales taxes. California could follow suit. In Texas, lawmakers are seeking to address the tax question: at least two bills would force Amazon to collect sales taxes, and another would carve out an exception for Amazon. That state’s chief tax collector has said the retailer must pay up.

NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Public Account + Personal E-mail = Public Record?

If a public employee sends a personal e-mail via his public account, is that message a public record?

That’s the question Hamilton County officials are grappling with, after a county employee was found to be operating a side business using his public e-mail account.

The county attorney appears to be battening down the hatches after that embarrassment and has refused the Chattanooga Times Free Press‘s subsequent request for e-mail records, the newspaper reported over the weekend.

Advocates of transparent government tend to favor disclosure when it comes to e-mail records. The head of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, for example, believes “that the law dealing with e-mails sent to and from public computers shows the Legislature clearly intended for them to be public records,” the paper says.

But officials don’t seem to be in agreement, questioning whether all e-mails including those sent to him are public. They’re suggesting the General Assembly clarify the law.


Painters’ Union Opens Stimulus-Funded Nuclear Training Lab

Workers can train for jobs in the nuclear power industry at a $107,000 federal stimulus-funded computer lab housed at a union hall in Chattanooga, which workers began using last month, the Times Free Press reports.

“Local Union 226 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades on Wednesday debuted its Nantel Computer Training Lab, which provides access to tests needed to work in a nuclear power facility. The tests are part of a nationwide Internet-based system — the National Academy for Nuclear Training e-Learning system — that provides free courses in areas such as plant access and radiation protection.

“The lab is open to anyone, regardless of occupation or union affiliation, trying to find work in a nuclear power facility, Susie Friel, director of the lab, said.”

In other stimulus news, a recent claim by President Obama that the federal stimulus has been delivered speedily and under-budget is only half-true, according to the news website ProPublica together with PolitiFact, a site that rates the truthfulness of politicians’ statements.

Obama made this claim during an interview on the most recent 60 Minutes: “One of the interesting things about the Recovery Act was most of the projects came in under budget, faster than expected, because there’s just not a lot of work there.”

ProPublica and PolitiFact researched the statement and found it to be a stretch. A big problem is that there’s just no data available to test the statement in an empirical way.

But ProPublica did its own number-crunching, analyzing the stimulus money that flowed through the Federal Highway Administration. It found that 45 percent of the projects have been completed, and of those, 51 percent were completed earlier than the estimated date.

“Several hundred projects had no estimated date.

“In the case of the Federal Highway Administration, Obama could rightly claim that ‘most’ projects have come in faster than expected (though barely, at 51 percent). But this is just one agency.

“As with the claim about projects coming in under budget, Obama would have been on firm ground had he said ‘many’ projects have come in faster than expected. Many have. But many have not. And if the claim is based on meeting a deadline to outlay funds, the overall target of 70 percent was reached — barely — by the end of September. That’s only faster than expected if you expected the government to fail.”

Read more here or here.

Press Releases

Chattanooga Times Endorses McWherter; Free Press Lauds Two Self-described Conservatives

Press Release From the McWherter Campaign, Sept. 30, 2010:

Chattanooga Times Free Press’ Dueling Editorial Boards Both Express Enthusiasm for McWherter

CHATTANOOGA – Mike McWherter, Democratic candidate for Governor, received a key endorsement yesterday from Chattanooga’s leading newspaper. Citing his business experience and transparent approach to governance, the Chattanooga Times editorial board issued a strong statement of support for the Jackson businessman, while its counterpart, the Chattanooga Free Press editorial board, expressed enthusiasm for McWherter and his opponent.

One of main reasons cited by the Times for backing McWherter focused on Bill Haslam’s unwillingness to disclose his Pilot Oil holdings. Throughout the course of the campaign Bill Haslam has made misleading statements about the ownership structure of the family oil company and has repeatedly denied requests to divulge information about potential conflicts of interest that could influence his decisions as governor. The Times stated:

He [McWherter] rightly calls for Haslam to make a full disclosure of his income and to quit blatantly misrepresenting Pilot Oil as a purely family business. McWherter charges that the company’s equity partner, a Luxembourg corporation, does business with Iran and has influence on the business. …McWherter has made a full disclosure of his income. He also pledges to put his assets in a blind trust if elected. Haslam has refused to disclose his assets, and will not commit to a blind trust. That, McWherter correctly points out, leaves him with potential conflicts of interests in his dealings as governor with the corporate world.

In addition, The Chattanooga Times honed in on Mike’s business acumen and his concrete proposal to foster the growth of small business by providing job growth tax breaks. The editorial board wrote:

He personally financed and built up his own business, a beverage distributorship in Jackson, Tenn.; it wasn’t handed to him. Thus he’s got bona fide hands-on understanding of what makes small businesses tick, the necessary fuel for ginning up the state’s most reliable job generator.

The Free Press, which is the second of the Chattanooga Times Free Press’s dueling editorial boards, issued an endorsement, mainly outlining and expressing their enthusiasm for McWherter’s policies and stated:

Mr. McWherter says he expects to have a smaller state budget if he is elected governor, and emphasizes creating small businesses and more jobs, with better educational opportunities for Tennesseans. Mr. McWherter’s tax and job plan involves offering a $2,500 state tax credit for each new job created by a small business with 125 or fewer employees. He foresees no tax increase, and opposes a general Tennessee income tax.

Both editorial boards, each representing the left and the right, from one of Tennessee’s most respected newspapers expressed support for McWherter in their gubernatorial endorsements. Neither board praised any of Haslam’s initiatives and in fact cite his continued refusal to come clean with Tennessee voters as a deal breaker with the following declaration:

That[non-disclosure] should not be tolerated. McWherter is on the right side of this vital issue. Haslam is not. Does Haslam have something to hide?