Press Releases

Senate Dems Weekly Update, Week of April 24-29

Press Release from the Senate Democratic Caucus, April 29

Storm Damage Relief

This week’s storms and tornadoes have left 34 people dead in Tennessee, over 100 homes damaged or destroyed, and thousands more without power, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA). Reports of injuries and damages are still coming in, and residents who need assistance are encouraged to contact TEMA by dialing 2-1-1. This line is also available for those would like to volunteer goods, service, or money to aid the relief effort. TEMA strongly suggests that everyone use extreme caution in flooded areas, especially when driving.

Regressive Education Measures

Senate Bill 113, the bill that would abolish the ability of teachers to bargain collectively with school boards, was once again delayed on the Senate floor because of a new amendment that makes significant changes to the bill. As amended, SB113 would require all local school boards to create a personnel policy manual in which teachers, community members and others can submit input for changes. However, it does not guarantee changes will be included. As amended, the bill still repeals the Education Professional Negotiations Act that guarantees teachers collective bargaining rights.

Preserving Military Medals

Senate Bill 572, a bill sponsored by Senator Andy Berke that would preserve unclaimed military medals, passed 7-0 through a Senate committee Tuesday. This bill would require the state treasurer to hold any abandoned military medal until the owner or the proper beneficiaries could be identified for the return of the medal.

“Veterans’ medals are timeless treasures that should never be sold or auctioned,” Berke said. “This bill would ensure that they are given the respect they deserve and are returned to their rightful owners.”

The Senate State and Local Government Committee passed the bill, which will now go to the Senate floor. The House version of the bill awaits a hearing in the Calendar and Rules Committee.

Democratic Response to ECD Shakeup

On Thursday, Chairman Lowe Finney and Democratic House Leader Craig Fitzhugh responded to Governor Bill Haslam’s announcement concerning the restructuring of the Department of Economic and Community Development that will shift focus away from attracting jobs from outside of Tennessee in favor of growing jobs with in-state companies. They highlighted the fact that Governor Phil Bredesen’s efforts brought over 200,000 jobs and $34 billion in economic development to Tennessee, and that to shift the focus of the department now sends the wrong message. The full Commercial Appeal op-ed can be found online here.


Haslam Sees More Money For Haywood Co. Megasite, Just Not Yet

In a classic chicken-and-egg debate, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are at odds over funding for the Haywood County megasite, a large tract of land slated for industrial development meant to attract a large employer to rural, economically depressed West Tennessee.

Democrats are asking where the funding is for the project. Republicans are asking where the project is for the funds.

Democrats brought up the issue in a press conference on Monday that emphasized the importance of job creation, asking why Gov. Bill Haslam didn’t include money for the West Tennessee megasite in his budget proposal.

Haslam expressed his dismay this week that Democrats have taken such an approach.

“I’m kind of disappointed in the partisan nature of the way they handled that,” Haslam said. “We actually sat down and had that discussion with them.

“They understand there is already a lot of money set aside. I’ve said more will follow once we have a plan for how the money that’s already there is used. We’ve had all those conversations in private, and they walked away saying, ‘OK, we understand it, and we agree.'”

The state has put aside $34.7 million as a start for the infrastructure that will be required at the site. But in order to get the site ready for a business, much more money is expected to be needed. One estimate for the total is $65 million.

Democrats included the megasite issue as part of their public show of frustration about how the legislative session has gone, noting a perceived lack of attention to unemployment thus far.

Haslam took exception to the Democrats’ presentation.

“I was disappointed in their tone,” Haslam said. “It was more of a partisan statement than anything else.

“I think the point is this: In Tennessee, we’re out proactively working to bring jobs to Tennessee, and we’re going to continue to do that. We’ll do that by setting the right environment and being aggressive about going out and recruiting businesses.”

Democrats derided the administration’s deployment last week of a roving fleet of three refurbished, stimulus-fueled vehicles known as “career coaches” to match-make Tennessee’s jobless with jobs. Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, referred to the coaches as “RVs.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the Democratic leader in the House, said in a formal statement, “They’re telling rural West Tennessee how to apply for jobs, yet the governor didn’t include the West Tennessee megasite in his budget. It doesn’t make sense.”

The megasites have become mega-factors in economic development for the state. Barely any political discussion about the impact of government-enticed jobs in Tennessee is held without mention of the state landing major businesses at two other megasites in recent years.

One is the much celebrated Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. The other is the Hemlock Semiconductor site in Clarksville. Each was a $1 billion investment by the company, and each was hailed as a major coup for the state in economic development. The idea behind the sites is to have necessary infrastructure in place on the front end, making a site ready for a business looking to locate. The megasites alone do not accomplish the goal. The state offers substantial incentives to attract the businesses.

The enticements can include tax breaks, job training and infrastructure worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Incentives can even extend to job credits for nearby suppliers of the major companies or, in the case of Hemlock, tax credits for customers of the company. The efforts can involve creativity, such as establishing a job training link between Hemlock and Austin Peay State University in Clarksville.

The megasites are viewed as powerful long-term job engines that will sustain smaller businesses involved or peripherally connected with production at the major plant. The success of the two other megasites — one in East Tennessee, the other in Middle Tennessee — has made the lack of a tenant at the Haywood County site stand out all the more.

Haslam officials say they are expecting to bring principal figures together in the next two weeks to address the West Tennessee site.

The Haywood County site is in a rural area, making infrastructure needs especially significant. The site sits just north of Interstate 40 near Exit 42.

While most state officials see the megasite as a golden opportunity, not everyone has been on board with the concept. Residents of the area expressed concerns early in the process about being overwhelmed by the state development.

At the Capitol, sorting through the politics of the issue is not easy. But it is no coincidence and not very surprising that Democrats most interested in the issue — and some who happen to be in leadership positions in their caucus — are from West Tennessee.

Area Democrats have run for office on the job-development potential at the megasite. Haslam did too. In fact, one of the noteworthy events of Haslam’s run for governor last year was the use of Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith, a Democrat, in a Haslam television ad, saying Haslam used his influence to help protect funds for the megasite.

“I don’t care if he is a Whig or a Mugwump,” Smith said in the campaign spot. He was supporting Haslam.

Haslam and other Republicans would clearly like the site to succeed. Should a major company locate there, it could be a major success story in their stated goal of creating jobs in the state. Haslam has warned, however, that Tennesseans should not expect many “home runs” like the recent megasite successes. He has said the state may need more “singles and doubles.”

The state bought the land for the West Tennessee site for $40 million. The entire site is 3,800 acres, and the core area for activity is 1,780 acres.

“You can’t get anyone in there until you’ve got your infrastructure in place,” House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh of Covington said this week. “We figured there would be some $30 million-$35 million in the budget for the megasite this year.”

When Haslam presented his budget in the State of the State address on March 14, there was no funding for the megasite.

Naifeh was going to speak to the Brownsville-Haywood County Chamber of Commerce before the governor’s speech and asked for a meeting with Haslam, thinking there was going to be money in the budget for the site. He talked with Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey. He learned the State Building Commission hasn’t even had the issue before it to approve use of the $35 million.

“They use different reasons as to why they haven’t,” Naifeh said.

The Building Commission has the power of approval over release of the funds. The commission has seven members — the governor, speaker of the Senate, speaker of the House, commissioner of Finance and Administration, the secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer. Democrats note that the West Tennessee megasite was not on the agenda of the Building Commission released Monday.

“The position the administration has now is that until that gets approved by the Building Commission, why do we need to put some more money in there? Well, the commissioner of F&A is the one that sets the agenda on the Building Commission,” Naifeh said.

Naifeh noted that West Tennessee members of the Legislature supported efforts to establish the megasites in East and Middle Tennessee.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said when there is a request put forth for the funds the commission will review it and act, saying he anticipates any money needed will be released “expeditiously.”

Bill Hagerty, Haslam’s commissioner of economic and community development, said Tuesday a lot has to be done before anyone starts building a plant. He prefaced his observation with what has become the standard line among Republicans on the Hill.

“Jobs aren’t created through legislation on Capitol Hill. Jobs are created out here in the economy. That’s where we’re focusing our effort,” Hagerty said. “Second, on the megasite itself, we’ve got $34.7 million in right now for that project. They’re working through engineering studies right now. They can’t start digging until they complete the engineering work.”

House Minority Leader Fitzhugh, who like Naifeh is from near the megasite, pointed to a time element in the issue.

“The longer we wait, the longer it’s going to take for the money to get in the pipeline and have the infrastructure done,” Fitzhugh said, adding that the $65-million estimate is less than some had anticipated.

“Another $30 million-$35 million, we could have this thing ready to go in 12 to 18 months, and we could start employing people.”

Republicans have stuck to their line about government’s role. Haslam has said repeatedly that jobs cannot be legislated. Ramsey has said that government does not create jobs.

“It’s amazing that we watch Barack Obama spend over a trillion dollars of our grandkids’ money to create jobs. Yet not one job was created,” Ron Ramsey said this week. “Again, the government does not create jobs. Businesses create jobs.

“I’m a small businessman myself. I’ve said many times that what I want out of government is absolutely nothing. Just leave me alone.”

But Democrats who want to see the Haywood megasite succeed see hypocrisy in Republican statements that jobs cannot be created through legislation.

“In this case, it takes some infrastructure money, and that comes directly from the state,” Fitzhugh said. “Now that’s pretty close to legislating jobs.”

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Lawmakers React to Haslam Cabinet Raises

Democrats say they’re surprised that Gov. Bill Haslam would opt to pay his top agency bosses 11 percent more than his predecessor did.

“I think at a time of high unemployment, this really sends the wrong signal to increase the pay of the state’s top administrators and these commissioners,” said state Sen. Lowe Finney, a high ranking Democrat from Jackson.

According to a report by The Associated Press, Haslam’s state commissioners’ minimum salary is $15,000 higher than that those from Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.

Haslam raised the minimum salary to $150,000 from $135,000 for agency heads, according to The AP. The maximum is now $200,000, up from a previous $180,000 high.

Republican leaders across the board say they support Haslam’s decision to pay high-level commissioners more money if it means better returns in the long run.

“We’re honored and pleased to have these commissioners and they need to be paid accordingly,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell who said the high quality leaders will ultimately find ways to make government more efficient. She added that there’s “no good time” to give a raise, but said she backs the governor’s move.

“I think in the state of Tennessee we need to have fewer employees who make more money each,” said Rep. Gerald McCormick, the House Republican Leader. “You’ve got to be competitive in pay in order to attract good people.”

In the next few months, lawmakers will be considering cuts to the state budget after about $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars run out. Haslam has offered to reduce the number of state employees from 5,100 to 4,800 but give remaining employees a 1.6 percent raise after a four-year pay freeze.

The raises are part of a larger strategy to reform state government, said a Haslam spokesman.

“State pay will never rival the pay in private sector, but if we’re going to attract great people we’re going to have to at least make it comparable,” spokesman David Smith told TNReport in an emailed statement.

“He has hired a great team to make state government more efficient and effective, and these commissioners should end up saving the state more money than the increase in their salary. They’ll do it by managing smartly, which is typically done by providing better service with fewer people,” he continued.

The following chart is courtesy of Gov. Bill Haslam’s communications office.

Business and Economy Education Environment and Natural Resources Featured Health Care Liberty and Justice News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Where Do Fiscal Notes Come From?

What’s the best way to find out whether the latest great idea your senator or representative has come up with is going to end up leaving you, the taxpayer, holding the financial bag?

Nothing, of course, is ever for certain when it comes to calculating the hidden costs or projected saving of programs and newfangled ways of conducting state business.

But by reading a proposal’s “Fiscal Note” — the estimated price tag attached to each of the thousands of bills filed in the Legislature every session — citizens can at least get a sense of the numbers lawmakers are themselves working with as they deliberate what they think ought to be on state government’s to-do list.

For example, a proposal to require businesses check the immigration status of new employees would cost the state $292,100 a year while a law that would require drivers to keep dogs out of the front passenger seat would bring in $1,100, according to the fiscal notes developed by a team of legislative staffers.

But while many lawmakers regard fiscal notes as reliable estimates of government costs, they are anything but error-proof, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, even sometimes colored by politics. The staff who develop the estimates rely on a series of judgment calls and information from a variety of sources, including state agencies which have been known to exaggerate the effects of bills they may dislike, some lawmakers say.

“If (departments) don’t want to do something, they give us an inflated fiscal note,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who sits on the Fiscal Review Committee overseeing the office that develops the price tags. “Conversely, I suspect, if it’s something they wanted to do, they would deflate the fiscal note.”

“The fiscal notes are only as good as the information that’s given to the fiscal committee,” said House Democratic Caucus Leader Craig Fitzhugh who echoed that some departments tend to tweak their estimates depending on their view of a bill.

The question of the cost estimates’ accuracy came up last week during a debate over whether to require background checks of the people appointed to state boards by the House speaker and lieutenant governor. The Fiscal Review Committee staff said the cost of SB256 was “not significant,” which means it was estimated to cost less than $50. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation staff could just add the duties to their normal workload of performing background checks, the fiscal note said.

“I was just curious how this doesn’t cost anything,” said Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis. “If they can absorb the cost into their day-to-day activities, we wouldn’t need a law for them to do this. The speaker can just call down there and say, ‘I’d like for you to check this out.’”

Even Sen. Mike Bell, a spokesman for the bill, said he can only rely on the estimate he’s given.

“I would say over my first five years, I’ve seen several fiscal notes, and I’ve wondered exactly how they’ve reached that point,” Bell, R-Riceville, said.

The man who oversees the churning out of the 3,000 fiscal notes per session said his staff tries to get as close to the truth as possible. Jim White’s signature goes on each of the documents, certifying the information is accurate to the best of his knowledge.

As staff executive director to the Fiscal Review Committee of eight years, White oversees a team of nine aides, including lawyers, economists and long-time government types who know their way around various state agencies. Each staffer specializes in a certain area of government and spends days or weeks calculating the total financial impact of a bill, even when the legislation never sees the light of day.

“We’re like the umpires in baseball. We call balls and strikes without fear or favor,” White said. “We need to stay distant from the political fray so that we don’t let all the political things that are going on affect what we do.”

But it’s impossible to be completely removed, and political spectators from both sides of the aisle, lobbyists and special interest groups take issue with the projections and often call White pressuring him to change the final numbers, he said. If he’s convinced his numbers were wrong, he does, White said.

“I don’t want to portray a picture that we’re simply stenographers. We’re not,” said White who said part of his office’s job is to double check the departments’ estimates to verify their accuracy.

“We recognize that everyone who has an interest in a fiscal note has an agenda,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that at all. And of course, that’s (how) the process works under our form of government. That’s the way it should work. But we have to filter that, if you will. We have to look at what we’re being told.”

White is elected each year by the lawmakers on the committee, which this session is chaired by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron with Democrat Charles Curtis as vice chairman.

Pinpointing costs can be hard when proposals would break new ground for which the consequences are difficult to predict.

Case in point: Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and open enrollment to all students instead of just students who perform poorly on state tests or come from schools the state deems as failing.

White and his office say the bill would cost state government nothing, but local governments would lose $4.3 million in the 2013-14 school year. That cost would increase each year as education dollars follow students from traditional schools to charters and would ultimately cost local governments $24 million annually by 2023, according to the fiscal note. But those numbers were difficult to estimate, White admitted, because the state has never expanded the education system’s structure in this way.

Sometimes his office misses the mark.

In 2009, it estimated the state would earn about $41,600 a year from ticketing people for texting on their cellphones while driving, assuming law enforcement would issue about 10 tickets a day.

Ultimately, just 49 tickets were issued the first year the bill kicked in, bringing in $2,100.

“We’re not all-knowing by any means, and we do make mistakes. But when we make mistakes, we fix them,” White said. A recent Comptroller’s audit of the committee found nothing out of the ordinary, indicating that the staff’s estimates were “reasonable.”

The process of writing fiscal notes is one of the best examples of the well-worn political cliche that the legislative process is like making sausage.

Once a bill is filed, White assigns it to a staff member who then peppers state agencies and local governments with questions: How much will this cost and for how long? Why will it cost this much? How many people would it affect?

The staffer evaluates the information and compares it to similar legislation and fiscal notes from past years. What financial impact did those bills have? Did our old price tag line up with what the state actually dished out?

Then comes independent research. You name it, from federal government databases and the census to local government reports and research from outside groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the office taps into numerous sources to figure out the final price tag.

The draft goes through three stages of editing before White gives it his stamp of approval.

While not perfect, the process still wins the confidence of top lawmakers.

Overall, legislators consider fiscal notes the most accurate estimate of how much lawmakers’ proposals will cost, said Sen. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who sits on the Fiscal Review committee.

“It’s very reliable, and that’s what you want,” he said.

Education News

Haslam’s Charter School Bill Hits Speed Bump

Charter schools reform just got complicated.

After relatively easy passage in a key Senate committee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students continued to get snarled up in the House Education subcommittee Wednesday.

House Democrats fought for nearly two hours to block, amend and delay the charter school bill, saying it represented everything from an “unfunded mandate” on local school districts to an avenue for charters schools to “cherry-pick” students.

“We’re concerned about the charter schools and the way this bill is written in that they can go and cherry-pick the students that they want to bring into these charter schools and or the teachers that they would like to get in the charter schools,” said Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, former speaker and a leading Democrat challenging the bill. “We don’t want that to happen to the detriment of our public schools as they are right now.”

The Education Subcommittee ultimately delayed a vote on the bill for the second time this month, giving Democrats additional time to review the measure. But House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he’s confident the bill will pass as is next week.

“We’re going to work with them, and try to get them satisfied on some questions they’ve got, and then next week we’ll vote it out of there,” the Sevierville Republican told TNReport.

The governor’s bill, HB1989, is key on his list of legislative priorities. It would lift the 90-school cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students. It would allow the state’s yet-to-be-formed “Achievement School District” to OK certain charter school applications.

Numerically outmatched Democrats on the committee took issue with several facets of the governor’s bill, including eliminating the cap, determining how charter schools choose their students and the cost of expanding charter schools.

According to the bill’s price tag, local school districts would lose out on as much as $4 million in the 2012-13 school year as the charter school expansion takes hold and education dollars follow students to their new schools. That amount could climb to $24 million in the decade after that.

“We already have school choice for those who have the money to buy a house in another school district,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who favors the bill. “So there’s already a cost that’s occurring similar to these numbers because we have a type of school choice.”

The debate ensued after Haslam’s administration explained details of an amended version of the charter school bill that tinkers with language detailing how some schools are formed.

The initial version of Haslam’s charter school legislation led some lawmakers and interest groups to believe it would allow the Achievement School District to authorize any applying charter school in the state, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Charter School Association. That system would have created an avenue for proposed schools facing opposition from their local school district to go over the school board’s head and apply directly to the state to open a charter school.

But that was not their intent, according to administration officials.

The new language tinkers with the role the state’s Achievement School District which came out of last year’s education reforms that qualified the state to win a $500 million Race to the Top education grant. Under Haslam’s bill, the Achievement district could only OK charter school applications for under-performing schools that are slated for a state takeover, a task now resting solely on the shoulders of local school districts.

The changes also include requiring the state Board of Education to explain why it denies any appeals of rejected charter school applications.

The alterations were made to ease concerns from Democrats and other education interest groups, according to the governor’s administration. Republicans seemed uninterested in amending the bill further.

“For us to make this so political that we can’t make the changes that we need to make to make this bill better, it bothers me,” said Rep. Lois DeBerry, a high-ranking House Democrat.

The charter school proposal won the Senate Education Committee’s approval along partisan lines earlier Wednesday with Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis voting in favor with Republicans.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, lawmakers advanced another education bill. Legislation curbing teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain labor negotiations squeaked by the House Budget Subcommittee Wednesday — in fact needing GOP Speaker Beth Harwell to cast a tie-breaking vote — and now moves to the full committee.

A competing version of the bill would completely eliminate labor unions’ leverage to negotiate labor contracts but awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

Education NewsTracker

Guv’s Charter School Bill Met With Initial Skepticism

Legislation that would blow the cap off the number of charter schools and pave the way for a handful of the governor’s education reforms to alternative education was aired at a hearing for the first time Wednesday.

The plan, HB1989, drew resistance from members on both sides of the aisle in the House Education Subcommittee, foreshadowing possible resistance as the bill moves through committees.

“The whole point of this legislation is just to create more flexibility and make this an option in more places,” Will Cromer, director of policy and research for Gov. Bill Haslam, told members of the subcommittee Wednesday.

Charter school reform is one of three prongs to what Haslam administration officials have referred to as the governor’s “small legislative package,” which also makes it more difficult for teachers to earn and keep tenure and installs caps on non-damage jury awards through tort reform. All of those issues, Haslam says, will help spur job growth.

Most members of the committee appeared sympathetic to Haslam’s three-aspect plan to open charter school enrollment to all students, allow charters to pitch new schools to a state-run school district instead of local school boards, and lift the 90-school limit on the number of charters statewide.

But Rep. Joe Pitts, a Democrat from Clarksville, worried that the measure would give the state’s achievement school district a back-door method of turning the state’s failing schools into charter schools, which he opposes. Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, questioned the wisdom of taking public dollars away from traditional public schools to fund schools operated by private organizations, a concern often raised by teacher-union members critical of charter schools.

Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh suggested that the expansion would remove too much local control.

The committee plans to take up the bill, along with up to a dozen others pertaining to charter schools, again for debate and a vote next week. The Senate has not yet taken up the legislation.

Education News

Haslam’s Tenure Bill on Track for Passage

Even though it has been painted as one of the least objectionable proposals in a raft of education overhaul bills in the Tennessee Legislature his year, Gov. Bill Haslam’s tenure reform initiative has yet to win actual support from Democrats or the teachers’ union.

House Republicans advanced the governor’s tenure reform proposal out of a key committee this week after ignoring leading Democrats’ attempts to slow down discussion and implementation of the bill that would make it more difficult for teachers to earn and keep tenure.

“I think most of my caucus is supportive of the concept of changing tenure around,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic caucus leader in the House of Representatives.

“My only concern, and our only concern, is that (teacher) evaluation system hasn’t been approved yet,” said Fitzhugh.

Without any provisions to slow down implementation of Haslam’s new tenure rules, he said most of the caucus will probably vote against the measure on the House floor next week. The same measure passed in the Senate 21-12, with Nashville Sen. Douglas Henry casting the lone Democratic vote with Republicans.

Democrats this session have mostly voted in lockstep with the Tennessee Education Association on bills the union opposes. Both Democrats and Republicans allege that TEA’s obvious preference for Democrats when dispensing union campaign contributions is playing a significant role in the battles over GOP-driven education reform.

Democrats say Republican-backed bills targeting teachers’ unions are “political payback.” Republicans say Democrats are “bought and paid for” by union money.

But on tenure at least, TEA has all but surrendered the fight. “I’m not under any illusion that this is going to be stopped. I mean, the votes are there to pass it and I understand that,” said TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters.

The backdrop to the tenure debate involves the Legislature’s decision last year to change a laundry list of laws overhauling education and creating more accountability for teachers as part of a contest for what turned out to be $500 million in federal Race to the Top grant money for Tennessee.

One of the measures called for rewriting the state’s teacher evaluation criteria and mandating that half of every teachers’ evaluation be directly related to student test scores — an issue on which the Tennessee Education Association required a bit of convincing from Gov. Phil Bredesen before they signed off on it.

The TEA ultimately did agree to the reforms, although union officials worried about creating fair evaluation systems for teachers who instruct in subjects like special education, music and history that they say are difficult to test.

Select schools are still testing out the new teacher evaluations, and the state Board of Education has yet to OK details of the new system, which are supposed to be implemented by July 1 — the same time Haslam’s new tenure rules would kick in.

“This is so important that we need to go ahead and scrap the old system and start with the new, and so if nothing else, this bill needs to go through now in order to scrap the system that has not worked and has failed our children,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, the Knoxville Republican carrying the bill.

The rub, according to Winters, is teachers and officials haven’t vetted the new process or worked out the kinks.

“I think we’d want to see what that evaluation system would look like in place. It’s got to have credibility,” he said.

But the TEA can see the writing on the wall, Winters said.

“No, I do not think this is an attack on teachers. I think the details are something that need to be talked about. I do think some of the other bills, such as the repeal of collective bargaining, are an overt attack on the teachers of this state.”

Press Releases

Dems Ask, ‘Where’s the Freedom’ in Health Freedom Act?

Press Release from the House Democratic Caucus, March 8, 2011:

Initiatives to help seniors, chronically ill, children defeated by GOP Democratic amendments to improve Republican health care bill denied Monday

(Nashville) – Democrats attempted unsuccessfully Monday to oppose pre-existing condition requirements on insurance for children, to oppose monetary limits on lifetime coverage for the chronically ill, to support better prescription-drug coverage for seniors and to support insurance for college students until their 26th birthdays.

These initiatives were defeated by the Republican majority, who opposed the changes to the GOP-sponsored “Tennessee Healthcare Freedom Act.”

“This bill, which speaks to Tennessee’s policies regarding national healthcare, could have been a vehicle to lay out some sound principles for our children, seniors, college students and chronically ill,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory). “Unfortunately, the sponsors of this bill ignored the needs and rights of these folks.

“It’s really a shame. Where is the ‘freedom’ in being subjected to unfair insurance practices that affect our most vulnerable?

Votes were taken on four amendments proposed by House Democrats that would have declared the pubic policy of Tennessee as the following:

narrowing the “donut hole” in Medicare prescription drug coverage for seniors extending the coverage of adult children up to the age of 26 eliminating lifetime limits on the dollar value of health insurance abolishing pre-existing-condition requirements of children.

“I think the amendments showed some positive public policy for this state, and I hate that they were not put on this bill,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley).

Featured News

Likelihood of TN Quorum Strike Small, But Not Impossible

The kind of walkout staged by Democratic state lawmakers to deprive the Wisconsin Legislature of a budget quorum is technically a possibility here. However, minority party leaders in both chambers say it’s not part of any plans they currently have.

“It is a legitimate parliamentary procedure, but it is one that is not very productive,” said Jim Kyle, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

Senate Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state Capitol last week, sending their 14 members across state lines, out of the reach of local law enforcement sent by the Senate speaker to escort them back to the Capitol.

The move was part of a plan to delay a vote on legislation that would strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights and increase the amounts employees must contribute to their pension and health care costs by 8 percent. A similar situation is unfolding in Indiana.

Republicans here in Tennessee are pushing legislation as well to strip down the influence unionized public employees, namely teachers, wield in the state.

But Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, downplayed the likelihood of a walkout. “I can’t imagine us being in a situation to do something like that,” he said.

A walkout is “completely off the table” right now, Fitzhugh continued, adding that he doesn’t think it’s likely in the future, either, and his caucus would rather try to work out any disagreements with Republicans face-to-face.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney said members of his party are talking about staying engaged in the legislative process and working “to fix some of these issues,” not running away from them.

Gov. Bill Haslam so far has steered clear of offering his opinion on eliminating teachers’ ability to collectively bargain. But he said today he doubts the Volunteer State will see the same type of drama going on in Wisconsin regardless of what union-related issues the Legislature takes up.

“I think we’ll have a very different discussion in Tennessee.” he said. “Our pension plan is very different from theirs. Our budget situation is very different from theirs. I don’t think you’ll see anything like that here.”

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a first for Tennessee.

In 1866, opponents of the 14th Amendment refused to show up for the ratification vote.

“To overcome this difficulty, amendment supporters had two Tennessee legislators forcibly seized and held in an anteroom as the vote proceeded. In vain did the speaker attempt to proclaim the two men absent (they refused to answer the roll); the vote in favor of the amendment went ahead anyway,” wrote one historian.

Longtime Capitol watchers say there were rumors of a walkout during contentious political battles over a proposed state income tax in 2000.

Because Republicans so thoroughly defeated Democrats across the state in last year’s election — voters sent only 13 senators and 34 representatives with a D after their name to Capitol Hill — GOP lawmakers have enough muscle to approve just about any legislation they want.

That leaves only three real parliamentary options for the minority party, said Russell Humphrey, the chief Senate clerk.

“One is the option provided to be heard, voice their concerns in a reasonable manner whether it be in committee or on the floor,” Humphrey said. “Two is to try to effectuate delay, which they can do through a couple different rules.

“And the third is to absent themselves, to leave. Aside from those three opportunities, that’s the only opportunity the minority group has to effectuate any kind of change on legislation.”

According to the Tennessee Constitution, both chambers need a minimum of two-thirds of the legislative body present to conduct business.

In the House, where Republicans number 64, the threshold is 66 members.

In the Senate, where there are 20 GOP members, the threshold is 22.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said a Democratic walkout would be “a disaster.”

“Let me assure you the Republicans were in a minority for 140 years, that never happened. Let’s hope that (with) the Democrats in the minority — and just because they’re being outvoted on an issue — that they don’t decide to shirk their responsibility to the voters and the citizens of the state of Tennessee and leave the state,” he said.

Both the lieutenant governor and the House speaker have the power to send out the sergeant at arms or state troopers to arrest lawmakers and drag them back to the Capitol building.

In Wisconsin’s case, lawmakers crossed over state lines, out of reach of state law enforcement. The Speaker sent two state troopers to the Democratic leader’s home to convey the “seriousness” of the situation, according to local reports, but they have yet to come back to the Capitol.

As the battle brews in Wisconsin, Fitzhugh said he is adamant Democrats can make change without a high-profile legislative boycott.

“I don’t think we’d ever do anything like that,” he said.

Press Releases

Democrats Demand More Job-Creation Focus by GOP Lawmakers, Governor

Press Release from the Tennessee House and Senate Democratic Caucus, Feb. 24, 2011:

First initiatives of the new majority in legislature fail to bring forward promised job creation

(Nashville) – Democrats in the state House and Senate asked Thursday for answers from the new majority and administration on their promises for a comprehensive job creation plan.

“In the last year, we heard repeatedly that Tennesseans wanted their senators, representatives and governor to work on a plan to create jobs,” said Sen. Lowe Finney (D-Jackson). “Some of our districts have unemployment rates of as much as 20 percent.

“Today marks the 40th day of the new administration and we’re simply asking: where is this jobs plan?”

Tennesseans have lost more than 1,900 jobs in Union City, where the Goodyear plant shut down, said Finney. Seventeen more jobs are gone in Knoxville, where a family lumber company is going out of business after 87 years. More than 40 jobs are leaving Lawrenceburg as a metals plant closes. The list goes on and on.

“We have the opportunity to regain the kind of bipartisan support we had in our First to the Top legislation; that we had in creating the West Tennessee megasite; that we had in providing startup funding for Tennessee businesses,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley).

“Together, we can work to attract businesses and create jobs in Tennessee. But we are waiting on the majority to lead.”

Now, instead of working together to put Tennesseans back to work, the majority party is attacking working families. Instead of creating jobs, they are creating new ways to make it harder to vote. Instead of helping Tennesseans find employment, they’re telling them, “You’re on your own.” Fitzhugh said.