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TN House Dems Have Fingers Crossed for Longshot Haslam Vetoes

Tennessee House Democrats held a post-session press conference Tuesday voice their disappointment with much of what the GOP supermajority-controlled Legislature passed this year.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley was joined by House Caucus Chair Mike Turner of Old Hickory and Memphis Rep. Antonio Parkinson to speak to reporters about what issues they wish the General Assembly would have acted on and new laws they think the state could do without.

Turner charged that the session was a boon for the wealthy Tennesseans and corporations but “if you were in the middle class, it was a terrible session for you.”

Chief amongst the concerns Turner mentioned was the Haslam administration’s overhaul of workers’ compensation that he called “a tax on sick workers.”

“That did not really address the problem that keeps the cost rising—the medical costs—and just took more money out of workers’ pockets,” said Turner.

Leader Fitzhugh, meanwhile, said his biggest disappointment was the governor’s decision not to accept nearly $1.2 billion in federal Medicare expansion money. But Fitzhugh didn’t fault Haslam completely, saying some of the blame rests with his own party for not doing enough to rally their base on the issue.

“I think our problem, as Democrats, this time is we didn’t get the message out to the people who could have been affected, Fitzhugh said. “I think there are people out there that don’t really that they were this close to having the ability to have health insurance when before they couldn’t afford it… and I’m just sorry we didn’t get the word out to more of them so they could have risen up a little bit and tried to convince the governor.”

While the Democratic lawmakers weren’t shy about questioning many of the session’s Republican-backed initiatives, they were hesitant, when asked by reporters, to choose which new laws they thought were the worst, saying they didn’t want to jinx the possibility, however slim, that Haslam might choose to veto some of them.

“There are a lot of things he could veto and we’ll sustain him on probably all of them if he vetoed them,” Turner told reporters. “I don’t want to influence his veto one way or another until after the fact. Come back with that question after—what’s he got, 10 days or something like that?”

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Press Releases

TNHDC: GOP Killed School Safety Bill Over ‘Petty Politics’

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; April 22, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In an unusual and highly political move, House Republicans led by Chairman Glen Casada (R-Franklin) voted last Thursday to kill HB494 by Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley); this despite the bill having already passed the State Government, Education, and Finance Ways & Means Committees with a majority of support. The legislation would have helped local law enforcement increase security around school by working with the Tennessee peace officer standards and training commission.

“Republican leadership has put petty politics above the safety of our students,” said Leader Fitzhugh. “This was a good bill that had bi-partisan support throughout the legislative session. Had I known they would take it out on our students and teachers, I would have voted for their budget.”

Under the proposed legislation by Leader Fitzhugh, local schools could have requested that the POST commission initiate a security assessment of each school. Once completed, local governments and LEAs would have had the option to adopt security recommendations. This legislation was introduced in light of Governor Haslam’s declaration that Tennessee couldn’t afford to put a safety resource officer in every school. This bill was a common sense way to increase school safety, without dramatically increasing state or local expenditures.

The House Republicans voted to send this bill back to the Civil Justice Committee, which effectively killed the bill this year, after Leader Fitzhugh and 13 other Democrats voted against the budget. The intent of Republicans to kill the bill became even more clear when three House committees opened up Friday morning to hear bills, but Civil Justice was not one of them. The Senate version passed 32-0 on April 11.

“Republicans leaders warned us about voting against the budget, but I never thought that in the wake of the horrors at Sandy Hook that they’d risk the safety and security of our children and grandchildren just to prove a point,” said Leader Fitzhugh.

Video of the Calendar & Rules Committee hearing on HB494 can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKySr0HBDUA

Representatives voting to kill the bill: Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), Rep. Jimmy Eldridge (R-Jackson), Rep. Curtis Halford (R-Dyer), Rep. Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville), Rep. Timothy Hill (R-Blountville), Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), Rep. Steve McManus (R-Cordova), Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), Rep. Eric Watson (R-Cleveland), Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville), Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville).

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Press Releases

TNGOP: Legislature Passes Budget Cutting Taxes, Increasing Education Funds

Press release from the Tennessee Republican Party; April 18, 2013:

Republican Lawmakers Pass Balanced Budget, Democrats Try to Backdoor ObamaCare on Tennesseans

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Late in the day on Wednesday, Republicans in the General Assembly passed a $32.7 billion dollar balanced budget that cut taxes for all Tennesseans, increased funding for education, and placed $100 million into the state’s rainy day fund.

Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party Chris Devaney stated, “Senate and House Republicans should be commended for passing a balanced budget that cuts taxes and meets the needs of Tennesseans. Moreover, I am thankful for their leadership in fending off several Democrat attempts to load up this budget with wasteful spending and bad policy.”

The Senate version passed 32-0. But in the House, Democrats attempted to push bad politics and more government spending on the budget with multiple amendments, including a backdoor attempt to bring ObamaCare to Tennessee.

Amendment number three, sponsored by Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D—Ripley), sought to add over $3 billion to the budget in an attempt to implement the widely unpopular Medicaid expansion called for under ObamaCare. 26 House Democrat signed onto the amendment (see attached photo). The amendment failed 70-28 with all House Republicans opposing the egregious spending.

Ultimately, the balanced spending plan passed the House 83-14.

“Democrats want to try every conceivable way to hurt the doctor-patient relationship, cause health care premiums to skyrocket, and impose a one-size fits all approach on all of us,” said Devaney. “Tennesseans have continually rejected ObamaCare and yet Democrats are still trying to force feed us this bad policy by copying Washington Democrats’ wasteful spending addiction.”

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Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

State Employee Retirement Reboot Headed to Haslam

An overhaul of the state’s pension fund that changes the contribution system for future employees to one more closely resembling private-sector retirement plans has passed the Tennessee General Assembly.

The bill, HB948/SB1005, sponsored by Rep. Steve McManus,R-Cordova, and Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, intends to change the state employee retirement plan to a hybrid system to safeguard against possible future insolvency, as faced by many other states around the country.

The legislation, which goes into effect July 1, 2014, would require new state employees going forward to contribute a portion of their income to their pension fund. The employees can also decide whether to choose their own investments, or allow the state to continue managing the pension investments.

It applies to government employees hired after the law takes effect; current state employees and retirees would remain under the old plan.

“The fundamental goal of a hybrid plan is to require employers and employees to share in the investment risks and costs equitably,” McManus said on the House floor, after explaining the new contribution and benefit rates under the measure.

McManus added that another purpose of the bill was to allow Tennessee to continue to provide competitive benefits for “career public employees,” while protecting the state from “unfunded liabilities.”

The proposed change to the state’s pension fund received some pushback from Democrats on the House floor.

Although this legislation might be good for some states around the nation, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said that he did not think that it was necessary to make these changes to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System.

“This is a $35 billion TCRS that we collectively, and through the years, have worked hard to maintain,” said the Ripley Democrat. “It is in good shape. And, if we had to do something to split it and start over with new-hires having only a partial defined contribution plan and a partial defined benefit plan, that would be fine. But ladies and gentlemen, at this stage in the game, we don’t need to do that.”

However, according to McManus, the desire to overhaul the pension program comes from several factors considered by the Treasurer’s office.

These factors include things such as the volatility of the financial markets, new federal requirements for pension fund reporting and the strain placed on these programs by the increased life-expectancy of Americans.

The changes to the pension fund are also opposed, for reasons similar to those voiced by Fitzhugh, by representatives from state employee advocacy groups, such at the Tennessee Education Association.

“It puts an employee’s retirement security in jeopardy,” said Jerry Winters, a former lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association who now works on government employee retirement issues. “Again, the only good thing here is that the current participants are protected, but going forward, I think young people are going to have to really look at where they’re going to be 20 and 30 years from now.”

The bill passed the House 71-16., and passed the Senate 32-0.

It’s now headed to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

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Press Releases

General Assembly Dems Urge Restoration of DCS Funding

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; April 10, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House and Senate Democrats on Wednesday urged Gov. Haslam to restore funding to the Department of Childrens Services for core functions in managing its caseload.

“We have confidence in Commissioner Henry, but he needs the funding and staff to keep DCS moving in the right direction,” state Sen. Lowe Finney said. “Restoring that funding is the right thing to do when the department has had so many problems.”

Gov. Haslam’s budget proposal slashes funding to core services within DCS by more than $1.6 million. The department has come under intense scrutiny after officials admitted it mishandled the investigation of child deaths, and a computer system failed to track children in its care.

“We know that children are dying because of the mismanagement of cases at DCS,” state Rep. Sherry Jones said. “You can’t put a price on those lives, and restoring this funding will prevent needless deaths.

The cuts come at a time when state revenues are exceeding projections. On Friday, state officials reported that $33.1 million in excess tax revenues were collected in March.

“It would be unfair to take away resources while Commissioner Jim Henry works to turn DCS around,” state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh said. “We know our state has the money to restore these cuts. This is a bipartisan issue, and children’s lives are at stake.”

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Press Releases

TNDP: State Charter Authorizer Bill ‘Rushed Through Committee’ by GOP

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; April 3, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Republicans who control Nashville rushed through committee a measure to create a state charter school authorizer — a centralized government body that strips school decisions away from local boards.

Charter schools approved by the state charger authorizer would have to be funded by local taxpayers whether there was money available or not. To address the issue of the unfunded mandate, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) introduced a measure that would have set in place financial guardrails to protect local taxpayers from a tax increase.

“This bill, without guardrails, is the mother of all unfunded mandates. It will give a state bureaucracy the power to create an unlimited number of charter schools, which will result in massive tax increases or local governments,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I offered a common-sense amendment to help protect taxpayers, but the special interests behind this bill override common-sense.”

HB 702, the state charter authorizer sponsored by Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) will create a new state bureaucracy to oversee appeals of charter schools administrators denied by local school boards. In the third substantive change to the bill since it was introduced, the new language limits the panel’s authority to school districts which are designated “priority” districts.

During the committee hearing, Leader Fitzhugh noted this would be duplicative and a waste of taxpayer funds. The Achievement School District already has the authority to authorize charters in districts who perform in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

“This is a bad bill that keeps getting worse as the sponsors wheel and deal behind the scenes to pass something — anything — regardless of whether it will improve the performance of students in our district,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville). “I am deeply disappointed that Commissioner Kevin Huffman worked behind the scenes to kill the amendment that would have protected taxpayers in Davidson County and across Tennessee.

“The fact that he refused to even meet with local school board members in Nashville shows his level of contempt for Davidson County taxpayers and elected officials,” Stewart said.

The charter authorizer bill passed out of the House Finance Ways & Means subcommittee on a voice vote and will move on to the full committee next week.

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Press Releases

Fitzhugh: State Charter Authorizer ‘Mother of All Unfunded Mandates’

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; April 3, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Republicans pushed through a state charter authorizer after killing an amendment by Leader Fitzhugh that would have set in place financial guardrails to protect local taxpayers from a tax increase.

“This bill, without guardrails, is the mother of all unfunded mandates. It will give a state bureaucracy the power to create an unlimited number of charter schools, which will result in massive tax increases on local governments,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I offered a common-sense amendment to help protect taxpayers, but the special interests behind this bill override common-sense.”

HB702 by Rep. White (R-Memphis) will create a new state bureaucracy to oversee appeals of charter schools denied by local school boards. In the third substantive change to the bill since it was introduced, the new language limits the panel’s authority to school districts which are designated “priority” districts. During the committee hearing, Leader Fitzhugh noted this would be duplicative and a waste of taxpayer funds. The Achievement School District already has the authority to authorize charters in districts who perform in the bottom five percent of the state.

“This is a bad bill that keeps getting worse as the sponsors wheel and deal behind the scenes to pass something – anything – regardless of whether it will improve the performance of students in our district,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville). “I am deeply disappointed that Commissioner Kevin Huffman worked behind the scenes to kill the amendment that would have protected taxpayers in Davidson County and across Tennessee. The fact that he refused to even meet with local school board members in Nashville shows his level of contempt for Davidson County taxpayers and elected officials.”

The charter authorizer bill passed out of the House Finance Ways & Means subcommittee on a voice vote, and will move on to the full committee next week.

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Press Releases

TN GOP: Democrats Hit ‘New Low’ With Recent Losses

Press release from the Tennessee Republican Party; April 1, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For 150 years, the Tennessee Democratic Party controlled every level of political office in Tennessee. Over the last few years, though, Tennesseans have continually rejected their liberal views driving the Democrats into superminority status across the state.

Last week, a new low was hit by the Democrats as the Party suffered setbacks on key policy and political fronts.

  • Representative Gloria Johnson’s (D—Knoxville) personal privilege bill, House Bill 1301, failed for lack of a second. Johnson, an educator by trade, had been pushing a mandate on local governments to grant leaves of absence—a change to the law that she would personally benefit from.
  • House Bill 898, once amended, would remake the Democratic Party and remove accountability from voters. It was forced to be taken off notice by Republicans who would have no part in such a move.
  • Perhaps most galling to the Democrats’ big government agenda, Governor Bill Haslam said “no to Tennessee Medicaid Expansion”. The move spurned the wishes of Tennessee Democrats who were hoping to see the Governor take part in a broken system.

Democrats were particularly pointed in their comments following the Governor’s announcement. For example:

  • “This is a time when the people of Tennessee need clear, precise and bold leadership, and Governor Haslam offered none of that today.”—Rep. Mike Turner (D—Old Hickory)
  • “Instead we’ve seen more of the hand-wringing and delayed action that we’ve become accustomed to. Lives will be lost while we wait for a real decision.”—House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D—Ripley)
  • “Tennessee should choose science instead of selfishness, people instead of politics, life instead of death.”—TNDP Chairman, Roy Herron

Democratic carping surprised many observers, particularly from the three individuals above, who all played important roles in the 2005 TennCare cuts that booted 170,000 Tennesseans from the health care rolls. Apparently, the arguments used now for political purposes to slam the Governor did not carry much weight then.

Fitzhugh championed the cuts in the Legislature: He was the first cosponsor of the 2005 appropriations bill that removed the funding for TennCare and provided an important vote as a top-ranking Democrat. Herron followed suit in the Senate, unmoved by his own “pro-life” beliefs. Turner was so moved by his belief in leadership, in 2005, he voted present.

Presented with all this information, Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party Chris Devaney, stated, “Democrats have sunk to new lows in their attempts to maintain some form of relevancy. Just when you think they’ve hit rock bottom, a new depth of despair is achieved.”

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Press Releases

House Dems Oppose Haslam on Workers Comp Changes

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; March 26, 2013:

House democrats join with workers to oppose radical changes to workers’ compensation insurance

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Democrats joined with workers from across the state at a rally to oppose the Governor’s proposed changes to the workers’ compensation system in Tennessee.

“Working people in this state are getting rolled over like a freight train by the wealthy special interests who want to use the Republican super-majority to pick the pockets of workers in our state,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “This so-called ‘reform’ of the workers’ compensation system does nothing to address the medical costs that are driving up rates, and does everything to balance the books on the backs of injured workers.”

The Governors’ workers’ compensation changes would reduce payments to injured workers and place the appeals process out of the hands of the local judiciary and give it to a new state bureaucracy. The end-result of the proposals will be to make it easier for employers to fire injured workers, resulting in bankruptcy for people who were injured on the job by no fault of their own.

“I voted for workers comp reform a few years back because I thought it was needed for workers and businesses in this state,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “But like so many things this year, we are rushing through this bill, we aren’t seriously addressing the actual problems in the workers’ compensation system, and we are creating a new level of bureaucracy in this state. For all those reasons, I will oppose this legislation and I hope my colleagues will too.”

Hundreds of concerned citizens and workers from across the state have called and written to the Governor asking him to reconsider these proposed changes to the workers comp system in Tennessee. Workers advocates are deeply concerned with provisions in the bill that would cut benefits to all injured workers, create a new bureaucracy controlled by the Governor, and will jeopardize workplace safety in the future.

“This is perhaps the worst piece of legislation that I have seen since I’ve been up here in terms of what it does to hurt working families in Tennessee,” said Chairman Turner. “I hope the Governor will listen to the voices of Tennesseans who came out today to oppose this so-called ‘reform’ package, and works to find a way to address the real problems in the state’s workers’ compensation system that does not endanger the livelihood of injured workers.”

HB194 by Leader McCormick (R-Chattanooga) is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee on Wednesday, March 27th.

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Youth Head-Injury Bill Clears Legislature

Legislation that would establish guidelines for addressing concussion injuries among young Tennessee organized-sports participants has cleared the General Assembly and is headed to the governor’s desk. 

Senate Bill 882 was substituted for HB867 in House Thursday. The measure passed in both chambers by overwhelming majorities – 90-3 in the House, 30-0 last month in the Senate.

“What this does is protect youth who are injured in sports with concussions,” Rep. Cameron Sexton, sponsor of the House bill, told the lower chamber Thursday. “Unfortunately, right now, there’s a lot of people in the United States and in Tennessee who do not know what a concussion looks like.”

The Crossville Republican said the bill would require any youth athletic program to establish concussion policies that include what information is given to all parties, as well as how to evaluate athletes suspected of suffering from such injuries.

The bill covers public or private elementary, middle and high schools, as well as “any city, county, business or non-profit organization that organizes a community-based youth athletic activity for which an activity fee is charged.”

“TSSAA [Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association] has had this policy in effect for the last three years,” Sexton said. “We’re just mirroring their policy for all youth sports in the state of Tennessee.”

In addition, all coaches, whether employed or volunteer, as well as school athletic directors and directors of community-based youth athletic programs would be required to complete an annual safety program on recognizing concussions and head injuries.

Sexton said the Tennessee Department of Health will develop the Internet-based course that will be free for users. It will include a “concussion signs and symptoms checklist” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If Gov. Bill Haslam signs the legislation into law, Tennessee would join 42 other states and the District of Columbia in having such provisions on the books, which received praise only from the Democrats’ side of the aisle.

Democratic House Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Shipley joined Rep. Dennis Powell of Nashville and Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis in commending the sponsor for bringing the bill.

Fitzhugh praised “a good bipartisan effort,” while Powell, who noted that he “suffered several concussions” while playing high school and college football, said he wished the law had been in place then.

Hardaway added that from his experience in coaching four youth sports, “there are instances where ignorance is a dangerous thing, especially in an authority figure that’s exercising the control over our children.”

However, others cautioned that legislating such policies is not necessarily a good thing.

Republican Rep. Mark Pody told the sponsor that while it’s a good bill, “I always have to ponder why we’re continuing to tell the locals what they have to do.”

The Lebanon representative, along with fellow Republicans Rep. David Alexander of Winchester and Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden, voted against the bill.

“I think there’s good merit for the bill,” Holt told TNReport.com after the session. “But I think the bill did dabble into a little bit too much of a mandating sense. We can’t mandate everything about every potential liability that’s out there.

“I think that parents are smart enough. I think coaches and trainers are smart enough, and well positioned in addressing these issues without us having to file a piece of legislation that mandates it.”

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