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House Dems Vow to Fight GOP on Teacher Bills; Wonder What Happened to Haslam’s ‘Jobs Package’

Press Release from the Democratic Caucus of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Feb. 17, 2011:

First initiatives of the Republican Legislature and administration would cut teacher pay and benefits

(Nashville) – The House Democratic Caucus openly will oppose and work to defeat an attack on Tennessee teachers, said Chairman Mike Turner Thursday.

“This is about children, their public education, the classroom, teachers and their families,” said Turner (D-Old Hickory). “They’ve made the first attempt to the strip rights from working people.

“Teachers are doing more and more in and out of the classroom. We need to honor and support our teachers by allowing them the ability to have input in their careers, their students and their schools.”

Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday that current tenure law would be stripped and not available until five years of probationary work was reached by our teachers. The current probationary time is three years, after which a teacher can’t be fired without probable cause. Even after tenure is obtained a teacher is still subject to disciplinary action or dismissal for incompetence, inefficiency, insubordination, neglect of duty or unprofessional conduct.

Another anti-teacher bill, which takes away the rights of teachers to negotiate a contract covering their salary, benefits, working conditions, school safety, class size, planning time, time to teach, length of the school day, scheduling and other priorities, passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

“We will have a problem with recruiting our students into the education field if this passes,” said Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley). “This ‘Education Reform’ is being used as a keyword for tearing down the walls that protect our teachers.”

Teachers signed off on “Race to the Top” legislation last year imposing stricter standards on themselves. That agreement has been broken, in that, more standards are being suggested, while Race to the Top guidelines have yet to be implemented, Fitzhugh said.

“Where is the ‘jobs package’ we heard about from the Republican leadership and administration?” Turner said.

“We plan to develop a package to bring more jobs to Tennessee in the coming weeks and that will include preserving quality jobs and rights for our teachers and all working families across the state. The people were promised jobs not an attack on working people and those that seek to enter the teaching profession.”

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Featured Liberty and Justice News Transparency and Elections

Tea Party Wants People’s Choice for Top State Litigator

Now that Republicans are firmly in charge of both legislative chambers, members of the Senate majority are hopeful they can take the first official step toward making Tennessee’s most elite lawyer an elected government post.

And that’s good news to state tea party groups.

More than a dozen leaders from various organizations and elements of the populist conservative protest movement across Tennessee met up on Capitol Hill Wednesday to begin lobbying for a short list of priorities, among which is amending the Tennessee Constitution to provide for direct election of the state attorney general.

Tennessee is the only place in the country where the attorney general is appointed by the state’s supreme court.

A handful of Republican lawmakers pushed the issue last year after state Attorney General Robert Cooper declined to cooperate with requests to join a federal law suit challenging the U.S. government’s constitutional authority to require that all citizens obtain health care. The measure passed 19-14 in the Senate last year but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, who carried the bill last session, plans to file an identical version this year.

Beavers has yet to find a member of the House to carry her bill: Last year’s sponsor, Riceville Republican Mike Bell, has graduated to the Senate. But once that matter is addressed, Beavers anticipates GOP dominance will ensure the bill enjoys rather smooth sailing to the governor’s desk.

Because the measure requires changing the state constitution, the same bill, if passed this session, would need to be approved again — but on a two-thirds majority vote — by lawmakers in the 108th General Assembly in 2013 or 2014. The amendment could then be put before Tennessee voters in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

The five-member Supreme Court appointed Attorney General Cooper in 2006. He is serving an eight-year term.

“I think it’s been a popular issue in this last election with the attorney general saying he would not represent the voters of Tennessee in terms of the Health Freedom Act,” said Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. “He’s kind of twice removed from the voters.”

Craig Fitzhugh, leader of the badly outnumbered House Democratic Caucus, doesn’t see the current arrangement for selecting the state AG as in any way broken. And therefore it isn’t in need of fixing, he said.

“Hopefully we’re not just talking about this because of one particular decision or non decision by our current attorney general,” said Rep. Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “You don’t want to throw everything away because of one particular decision that an individual makes whether he or she is an attorney general or a legislator or a judge or a governor for that matter.”

The attorney general’s office isn’t too keen on the idea either. Cooper’s spokeswoman, Sharon Curtis-Flair, suggested that an unintended consequence of injecting electoral political considerations directly into the office might be that legislators and the governor’s staff would be reluctant to make requests or share potentially sensitive information with an AG who has a competing political agenda, thus devaluing his or her advice and possibly leading to costly litigation for the state.

Cooper’s office has also floated the argument that the election of an attorney general will merely result in the state getting the best campaign cash collector, and not necessarily the best lawyer for the job.

Those objections aren’t terribly convincing to tea partiers. They perceive that the existing system indeed is flawed — that the attorney general in Tennessee is accountable to nobody in particular, and there’s nothing in place to realistically guard against him operating simply on his own ideological biases with little regard for the wishes of a democratic majority of the people.

“Across the country, Americans have felt that we’ve created a monster and set it loose without being responsive to us. We’re trying to reign it back in, and this is just one little facet of where we feel in Tennessee that an office has run away from the will of the people,” said attorney and Fayette County Tea Party member Hal Rounds.

Another alternative, say tea party leaders, would be for the Legislature to reassign the attorney general’s litigation duties to the solicitor general, who would be elected and would have the authority to enter into law suits, like fighting federal health care reforms, while the attorney general focuses on other activities such as issuing objective legal opinions to lawmakers and the governor.

“We seek either an amendment to the State Constitution that will make the Attorney General installed by a popular vote; or, in the alternative, by reassigning the duty of litigating on behalf of the State to the newly separated office of Solicitor General, which office will be an elected position,” read the Tennessee Tea Party‘s 2011 priority list.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who ran for governor in 2010 with the backing of many Tennessee tea partiers, is an important ally favoring direct elections for attorney general. Ramsey said he’s also intrigued by the group’s solicitor general revamp idea, but stopped short of endorsing it, saying he needed more time to study the issue.

Electing the attorney general is one of the top issues on the tea party agendas all across Tennessee — along with pushing the state to take aggressive steps to wean itself off federal subsidies, resist unfunded or what many consider unconstitutional federal mandates, better enforce and abide by constitutional law in general, and more thoroughly educate public school students about American history, government and the ideals of the nation’s founders.

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GOP Lawmakers Resolve to Run Things Their Way

Republicans this holiday season are skipping conciliatory make-nice gestures toward Democrats and dispensing with the obligatory, hollow-ringing promises of bipartisanship in the New Year.

With heavy majorities in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly, GOP legislators are resolving that 2011 will be a year in which they go their own way. And as far as Democrats are concerned, Republicans say they’re free to come along for the ride, sit back and passively watch the bill traffic go by, or, if they prefer, lay down in the road and get run over.

For the first time since the post Civil War era, Republicans will manage both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, giving them the chance to drive public policy in directions of their choosing.

But Speaker-to-be Beth Harwell hasn’t indicated she is all that interested in entertaining a lot of new initiatives that go beyond the nuts-and-bolts of building a balanced state budget, probing for government spending cuts and, if necessary, legislatively enabling Gov.-elect Bill Haslam’s economic recovery and job-creation agenda.

“My New Year’s resolution for the Legislature is to limit the number of resolutions,” said the Nashville Republican, who is set to become the first female House speaker in the state, and as such, one of the most powerful women in Tennessee political history.

In the last two years, lawmakers have introduced nearly 3,500 resolutions, many of them congratulating a retirement, memorializing a death or recognizing a school for a noteworthy achievement. Others resolutions have made additions to Tennessee’s growing list of state songs and marked days on the calendar for special events, like “NASCAR Day.”

Harwell said she’s not really been a fan of the nonbinding posturing and time-consuming fanfare in the past. “As I’ve said before, a resolution from the General Assembly should mean a great deal, and we want to make sure those Tennesseans are honored for something very significant for the state,” she said.

Other Republicans resolve to take full advantage of their turn behind the wheel in state government — and unsolicited Democratic attempts at backseat driving will be paid little heed.

“We don’t have to cater to the left anymore. This is our chance to do things and show people there is a true difference in the two parties,” said Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, who vows next year to “just show what we’re made of.”

One of the issues on which Republicans hope to flex their superior political might next year is illegal immigration. GOP legislators spent much of the last year publicly admiring Arizona’s controversial immigration law, and expect to propose a Tennessee version next year. Although how it’ll fit with the bare bones, no-frills legislative agenda Harwell suggests she prefers in the House is an open question.

Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, the point man on several pieces of legislation targeting illegal immigrants, said he plans to “work collectively” with members of the House and Senate, as well as the executive branch, to pass what he regards as meaningful legislation that all in the party can take pride in supporting.

His GOP counterpart in the House, Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, promises next year to make sure her caucus members “have what they need to have a successful legislative session.”

After watching voters in November throw out a handful of established lawmakers with the letter “D” affixed to their names, remaining Democrats have their work cut out for themselves trying to stay politically relevant.

They head into next year’s lawmaking session with 14 fewer members than at this time last year. Democrats hold only 34 seats in the 99-member legislative body.

“My caucus is sort of in a new position. It’s sort of a shot in the dark to see what that resolution might be,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the newly selected leader of the House Democratic Caucus.

So Fitzhugh’s resolution is to find a stronger, more strategic method of promoting his party’s message, such as detailing what the caucus has accomplished, “especially from a financial standpoint,” said the Ripley Democrat.

Fitzhugh also vows “to have a good open session with a lot of debate and always keeping the people first in what we do.”

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to resolve to write better bill titles so opponents have a harder time voting against them, joked Chattanooga Sen. Andy Berke, a high-ranking member of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

But Berke’s real New Year’s resolution is to follow the legacy of outgoing Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen who will leave office Jan. 15 when he is termed out of office, he said.

Specifically, Berke resolves “to continue much of the progress we made under Gov. Bredesen under a restrictive budgetary climate.”

Lawmakers will officially kick off the next legislative session — and their New Year’s resolutions — on Jan. 11.

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Candidates Emerge For Top House Democrat

Contenders for the Democratic Leader in the House of Representatives are beginning to make their candidacies known.

Among the candidates for House minority leader are Rep. John DeBerry, Jr., of Memphis, who chairs the Children and Family Affairs Committee; Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley, who chairs the House Finance Ways and Means Committee, and acts as the party’s budget guru; and two-term Democratic Leader Gary Odom, of Nashville.

According to Odom’s office, the caucus will vote in its new leadership team on Dec. 15, although the place and time is yet to be determined.

It’s been about a month since Republicans embarrassed Democrats by gaining 14 seats in the House and stomping out their hopes for retaining some level of influence in the chamber. Republican leaders vow to control the House without Democratic Party support since it now holds a nearly two-to-one majority, 64-34-1.

Fitzhugh sent letters to members of his caucus last week announcing his plans to run for minority leader. Here’s what it said:

Tennessee lost some excellent public servants in the November election. The talents of Eddie, Jim, Les, Dennis, Henry, Stratton, Kent, Ty, George, Mark, Butch and Judy will be missed by our Caucus and our state. It is imperative that we regroup, learn from the election, and move forward with a vision for the future. After much thought and consideration and discussion with many of you, I have decided to place my name in consideration for the position of Democratic Leader.

I believe you know me so I won’t attempt to campaign in this letter except commit to each of you that I will do my best to bring us together, clearly and strongly articulate our positions and work tirelessly to support and promote our Democratic principles. We have unprecedented challenges ahead and I will do everything I can to help us meet them. We must regain our voice and our majority.

I look forward to talking with you before the selection and ask that you give me a call… if you need me.

Our Caucus is a special group of people and I wish you the very best. I am proud to know each of you and consider you my friend. I wish you the very best throughout the holiday season.

Sincerely,

Craig Fitzhugh

State Representative