Education Featured

Haslam OKs Adding Municipal School Districts

The governor this week signed a bill pushed by suburban Memphis lawmakers that will allow outlying, often wealthier communities in Shelby county to create their own municipal school districts rather than remain in a county-wide consolidated district that also includes struggling inner-city schools.

The legislation was sponsored by Curry Todd in the House and and Majority Leader Mark Norris in the Senate, both of whom are Republicans from the Memphis suburb of Collierville. It passed 70-24 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.

Before the law was passed, Tennessee maintained a ban on the creation of new municipal school systems in towns that didn’t already operate one. This rule, the bill’s sponsors argued, was too rigid and outdated to accommodate classroom innovation and school choice.

“This is a bill that all Tennesseans will be proud of,” Todd said during debate on the House floor. “It gives parents a choice about educating their children and where they want their children to be educated.”

Only three Democrats in the Tennessee General Assembly voted in favor of the bill. They were Sen. Reginald Tate, who serves as chairman of the Shelby County state legislative delegation, along with Reps. Antonio Parkinson, also from Memphis, and John Tidwell of New Johnsonville. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, abstained from voting in the House.

Only one Republican in each chamber voted against the legislation: Bill Dunn of Knoxville in the House and Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga in the Senate.

Dunn predicted that the change in law will result in children from outside a local school’s taxing jurisdiction attending a particular school inside of it. That situation will likely in time create resentment among parents who reside inside the district, said Dunn, and that may well lead to their demanding that the parents of children outside the district pay their own way to attend– or, alternatively, that those children be prevented from attending.

“If this does go into effect, we are going to see some problems down the road,” Dunn said just prior to the House floor vote on the measure April 15.

While the new law technically applies to the whole state, it largely grew out of a contentious decision by the Memphis school board and residents to dissolve their school district in favor of being absorbed by the county.

Many residents in outlying communities balked at the idea of having to help support Memphis’s poor-performing public schools and worried that stretching funds to include them would lower the quality of schools already in the district. The bill allowing towns to create their own, separate school systems was seen as a way to address those concerns.

But that prospect doesn’t sit well with some lawmakers, especially the largely Democratic delegation from the city of Memphis.

One such outspoken critic was state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, who spoke to TNReport shortly after the bill passed the upper chamber earlier this month.

The law, Kyle said, would “lead to a balkanization in all our counties where economic areas that are superior to other economic areas will want to have their schools systems all to themselves. Now I’ll be looking at a county with seven school systems and I don’t see how you have any unity that way.”

Kyle, the Senate minority leader, brushed of the call from supporters to increase flexibility and choice. “That is just some effort to justify the reality — the reality being people in the suburbs not wanting to be with people in the city,” he said.

Now that the governor has signed the bill into law, municipalities can start the process of creating their own school systems which includes holding local referendums and meeting certain readiness requirements from the State Board of Education.

Featured NewsTracker

Slight Reshuffling Among House Republican Leadership

House Speaker Beth Harwell on Monday won unanimous backing to be the GOP’s nominee for Speaker for a second term. But the party tossed Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny from his post in a Republican caucus meeting, replacing him with Rep. Curtis Johnson.

“As far as our caucus is concerned, one of my big roles is to bring our caucus together,” said Johnson, of Clarksville. “We’re going to have differences, we’re going to have constructive criticism … but I think we need to all work together to move our caucus forward.”

Matheny, R-Tullahoma, a Tea Party favorite, was at times critical of other House Republican leaders, and had for a time considered challenging Harwell for speaker.

GOP lawmakers also chose Glen Casada of Franklin to serve as the caucus chairman, a position he held previously before running against Harwell for the speaker’s post in 2010. Casada will take over for Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, who was defeated in the August primary by Courtney Rogers.

“In the 107th General Assembly, we did a lot to change how the Capitol operates internally and created a better environment for job creation throughout the state. Now, it’s time to take the next step,” Casada said in a statement. “Over the next two years, I look forward to leading a solutions-based Caucus that answers the needs of our citizens, creates more opportunity for economic growth, and enhances the educational landscape for our children.”

The caucus also dumped Rep. Curry Todd, of Collierville, from his seat on the powerful Fiscal Review Committee.

Todd, sponsor of Tennessee’s guns-in-bars law, resigned as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee last year after he was jailed and charged with drunken driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence. He pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Nov. 30.

A list of those winning GOP leadership offices can be found by clicking here.

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

Featured News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Retiring, Defeated Lawmakers on Taxpayer-Funded Getaway

Updated Aug. 7, 2012: Sen. Roy Herron called and said he had planned to attend the conference but decided against it due to a family emergency.

Six Tennessee legislators leaving the General Assembly this year are expected in Chicago this week on what could amount to a taxpayer-funded junket.

Four retiring legislators and two state reps who lost their bids for re-election in last week’s primary have given the state notice they plan to get reimbursed for attending the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in the Windy City that began Monday, a trip that could cost as much as than $2,500 in registration, airfare, hotel stay, per diem and cab rides.

They are Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

One of the General Assembly’s highest-ranking Republicans says he trusts that the departing lawmakers have good reasons behind their decisions to make the trip.

“I know it will be beneficial to the others who attend to get the benefit of their wisdom and their years of service,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “I think discretion is the better part of valor with these things, and obviously they’ve exercised their discretion and think it’s fine to go. I’m not passing judgment on it.”

Legislators are permitted to let taxpayers foot the bill for out-of-state legislative trips, complete with a per diem, travel and lodging expenses. Even outgoing lawmakers are entitled, said Connie Ridley, director of Tennessee’s office of Legislative Affairs.

“Members of the General Assembly serve as a legislator until the general election in November,” Ridley said in an email. “They are no longer eligible for compensation of any form the evening before the November general election.”

Richardson says she may have lost her primary election, but she still has legislative responsibilities to handle at the conference.

“I signed up because I am one of the representatives, there’s just a couple of us, who represent Tennessee on the Health Committee,” she said. “These are working committees where we share what we’ve done, and find out what other states have done and make policy recommendations for states. So, because I represent Tennessee on the health committee, I still need to come to the meeting.”

Attempts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.

A handful of retiring lawmakers are also on the trip, including Naifeh and Faulk, according to their offices. Herron and Harmon’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Legislators can collect a $173 per diem each of the four days of the conference, for $692 total. Registration to the NCSL event ranges from $549 to $690, depending on when lawmakers registered for the conference online. Guests were encouraged to reserve rooms in downtown Chicago with rates ranging from $199 to $227 a night if locked in prior to Aug. 1. Lawmakers can also be reimbursed for airfare, which runs about $300 roundtrip, and cab rides, which average between $25 to $42 from the airport to the convention site.

If lawmakers decide against splitting hotels and cab fare, the cost to taxpayers could approach almost $2,500 for the four-day, three-night trip.

But no money has left the taxpayers’ pocket yet, Ridley said. Lawmakers will have to submit receipts to have their travel expenses paid for once they return, although the conference’s registration will be billed directly to the state.

While the practice is legal and learning how other state legislatures are tackling difficult policy issues is valuable, sending outgoing lawmakers on an out-of-town trip is still “questionable,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a government accountability advocacy group.

“I have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of those going who will not be coming back, whether by the election or their own choice,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to do something in public life, they could make good public use of that.”

Here are the other 22 lawmakers slated to attend, according to the office of Legislative Administration:

House of Representatives

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory


Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville

Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis

Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis

Sen. Steve Sutherland, R-Morristown

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

Liberty and Justice News Transparency and Elections

Challenger to State Rep. Joshua Evans has DUI Record

A Capitol Hill lobbyist looking to unseat a rank-and-file House Republican has an arrest on suspicion of drunken driving in his history — a fact that a couple GOP incumbents want to highlight even while a fellow member of their caucus faces trial for DUI himself.

The two legislators are careful to say the run-in with the law shouldn’t disqualify Lee Harrell from being seriously considered in the race against Rep. Joshua Evans for the Robertson County House seat, but firmly add that it’s a fact voters should know.

“I think it’s probably important for voters to have that information and be able to use that in their consideration,” said Evans, a Republican from Greenbrier and small business owner.

Evans is beating back a challenge from Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, in the 66th District encompassing Robertson County. The August primary election race is one of 21 this year where House Republican incumbents are trying to fend off challengers.

Harrell was arrested Sept. 4, 2010, on drunken driving charges and refusing to submit to a blood alcohol test.

“It was certainly a mistake, but I learned from it. I’ve moved on. I’m a better person because of it,” Harrell told TNReport.

According to the arrest warrant, Harrell was driving 80 miles an hour in a 55 mile-per-hour zone on I-40 in Nashville on a Saturday night and was seen “meandering back and forth in his lane of travel, partly crossing into other lanes.” The report said he had watery, bloodshot eyes, smelled of alcohol and “lacked smooth pursuit” while performing field sobriety tests before refusing a blood-alcohol test.

His DUI charge was reduced to reckless driving. He pleaded guilty to the charge in January 2011, along with violating the implied consent law.

TNReport obtained documents about Harrell’s arrest from Rep. Vance Dennis, a Republican lawyer from Savannah who describes himself as a “good friend” of Evans, and provided the information for “personal” reasons.

“I was just trying to be helpful to the people of his district of Robertson County. To make sure everybody knows everything there is to know about Rep. Evans’ opponent,” he said.

But Dennis wouldn’t go so far as to criticize the plight of Rep. Curry Todd, a Collierville Republican who was arrested in October for DUI, illegal possession of a firearm and refusing a blood-alcohol test. His case has been bound over to a grand jury.

“I’m not going to cast aspersions on anyone for their prior actions, but I think people of the state have a right to know what’s out there and what’s in an individual’s history who’s running,” Dennis said.

Harrell says the leaked details of his DUI arrest prove his opponent isn’t certain of his re-election.

“You see this in politics all the time, and I think it’s just an indication that my opponent is not that confident in his voting record or in his relationships he has in the district, so he wants to point to this first rather than pointing to relevant information or relevant facts,” said Harrell.

Evans says Harrell’s mishap with the law only “recently came to his attention” and says he had nothing to do with making sure those details landed in TNReport’s hands. But he quickly added that he considers himself a proponent of stiffening DUI laws, including those that allow drivers to skip out on blood-alcohol tests.

“An issue like this is really up to the voters,” Evans said when asked whether Todd’s arrest, too, should be highlighted. He said he doesn’t plan on making Harrell’s DUI a part of his campaign.

Lawmakers added several DUI laws to the books this year, including one that would have forced drivers suspected of driving under the influence, like Harrell or Todd, to submit to a blood-alcohol test if compelled by a court order or a search warrant. That law is now in effect. Todd, who was on the floor during much of bill’s debate, left the chamber for the day minutes before lawmakers in the chamber voted.

Another clarifies that people entitled to use a drug that impairs a operating heavy machinery cannot use that as a defense against a DUI charge. That law kicks in July 1.

Featured Liberty and Justice News NewsTracker

Todd Bails on Bill Allowing Gov’t to Coerce Blood Tests in DUI Arrests

Rep. Curry Todd ducked out of the House of Representatives in just enough time Thursday to miss voting on a bill giving judges the power to force people to submit to blood-alcohol tests who are pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving.

Todd, formerly a Memphis cop and lobbyist for the Fraternal Order of Police, refused a breath test himself after he was arrested last fall on suspicion of DUI. He has since pleaded innocent and the case has been bound over to a grand jury.

The Collierville Republican was walking around the chamber Thursday morning during debate about HB2752, a measure that would allow a judge to issue a warrant or court order giving police the legal power to extract a blood or breath sample against an individual’s will.

During the bill’s floor debate, Todd told the House clerk he was feeling sick and got permission to go home, according to Kara Owen, Speaker Beth Harwell’s spokeswoman. Todd publicly announced this week that he was diagnosed several years ago with a slow-growing, incurable form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

House Bill 2752 narrowly passed, 52-33, with bipartisan support. It received two votes more than it needed for passage.

Todd was arrested Oct. 11 in Nashville. He was charged with illegal possession of a gun police allegedly found tucked between the driver’s seat and the center console, and was charged with refusing to take a Breathalyzer test in addition to DUI.

Under state law, drivers enter an “implied consent” agreement to submit to Breathalyzer or blood-alcohol tests. First-timers refusing to take the test gives up the right to drive anywhere but to and from work for a year, even if they are ultimately found not guilty of the drinking and driving charge.

Last budget year, 2,241 drivers were convicted for rejecting the tests, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.  In that same time frame, the state recorded 22,119 DUI convictions, although it does not specify how many of those convictions overlap. Those statistics include convictions both of Tennesseans across state lines and out-of-towners convicted in the Volunteer State.

Todd wasn’t the only lawmaker present who decided not to vote on the measure. Eleven other lawmakers were in attendance during the vote and refused to weigh in for or against the bill, including six Republicans and five Democrats. Among them were the chamber’s top party leaders, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.

“It concerns a lot of people when the government holds people down and takes bodily fluids out. I think you saw that in the close vote today,” McCormick said. “It’s just something where we have to find where the line is and draw it.”

The measure awaits a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

Health Care News NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Rep. Curry Todd Says He Has Cancer

A state lawmaker who has repeatedly attracted national attention announced to a legislative committee Tuesday he has an incurable form of cancer.

Rep. Curry Todd, a Collierville Republican, revealed his condition during a House Commerce Committee meeting Tuesday while arguing for HB1087, a proposal requiring insurance companies to pay for oral chemotherapy treatments.

“This is not about me. This is about helping those other cancer patients out there, and that’s what I’m about,” he told reporters in a press conference, saying he has known about his disease for four years and added it is incurable. He said he does not yet require treatment for his cancer, specifically called macroglobulinemia.

Todd said he announced his condition, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, in an effort to help people would would benefit from the bill if it were to become law. The measure is getting pushback from the insurance industry, which sees the measure as a government mandate. The measure will get picked up again in the committee Tuesday, April 10.

The representative found himself in the national spotlight repeatedly over the last few years, most recently for his DUI arrest in Nashville last October, which also included charges of possession of a gun while intoxicated and refusing a Breathalyzer test. Todd was the sponsor of legislation years before to allow gun carry permit holders to bring their guns with them into bars so long as they abstained from drinking.

Todd also drew attention to himself in 2010 when he likened pregnant women in the country illegally to “rats.”

The representative declined to comment on how his condition would affect his pending DUI charge in court, saying the question was “inappropriate.” He said he planned to seek reelection.


Liberty and Justice News

Todd’s No-Blow Shows He’s Wise to Ways of Beating DUI

It remains to be seen whether prosecutors will be able to prove Rep. Curry Todd was impaired when he was arrested in Nashville this month on suspicion of drunk driving and unlawfully possessing a firearm.

But if the police affidavit filed after the arrest is accurate, the Shelby County Republican lawmaker violated a state law that requires motorists to submit to a blood-alcohol content test when asked to by law enforcement officials.

Todd, formerly a Memphis cop and lobbyist for the state Fraternal Order of Police, is charged with violating Tennessee’s “implied consent” law when he refused the officer’s request that he blow into a breathalyzer. But from the standpoint of avoiding self incrimination, aside from admitting he consumed “two drinks,” Todd handled his drunk-driving arrest skillfully — especially for somebody who may suspect he’s over the legal limit but doesn’t want to hand a prosecutor all the evidence needed for an easy conviction.

“If you’re driving, I wouldn’t admit to anything,” said Rob McKinney, the incoming president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a Nashville DUI attorney who blogged about Todd’s arrest. “You have the right of the Fifth Amendment. It’s better to not say anything than to lie to a police officer.”

While every case is different, defense attorneys generally advise against agreeing to field sobriety and blood alcohol content tests as long as the driver is willing to give up his or her license for a year in exchange for giving prosecutors a tougher job seeking a DUI conviction.

McKinney, who questions the accuracy of sobriety tests, said anything from having bad knees, being overweight and being tested on crooked and poorly lit ground could throw off how drivers perform on the field sobriety tests while technical problems with machinery can impact the results on chemical tests.

“I think there’s too much discretion left to police officers to ask somebody to submit to a blood or breath test,” he said.

Drivers who violate the “implied consent” law by refusing sobriety tests risk suspension of their driver’s license for a year — even if the driver is ultimately acquitted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol charges, according to state law.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 20 percent of drivers suspected of drunk driving refuse to take a breathalyzer or blood alcohol content test.

Tennessee’s 1969 law has grown stronger over the years, including this spring when Todd and the General Assembly voted almost unanimously to force suspected drunk drivers to take the tests if the driver has a DUI on record or a child was in the vehicle at the time of the stop.

Todd has refused to comment about the details of his Oct. 11 arrest or his decision to step down as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee aside from e-mailed statements to the media saying he has been advised by his lawyer not to give further comments.

According to a police affidavit, an officer read Todd the implied consent law. Todd then “stated that he understood and subsequently refused to perform a breath alcohol test,” according to the affidavit.

In the last budget year, Tennessee recorded 2,241 convictions of drivers who rejected the tests and 22,119 DUI convictions. Those numbers include convictions of Tennesseans across state lines and out-of-towners convicted in the Volunteer State.

The total number of “implied consent” convictions is down over the last four years after hitting a high of 2,750 convictions in the 2006-07 fiscal year. The total number of DUI convictions has also dropped by 6,000, or 21 percent, in the last four years.

“We don’t think it’s right that the best evidence in a DUI situation can be suppressed by the defendant automatically,” said Guy Jones, deputy executive director of the District Attorneys General Conference.

“If you committed any other crime and we wanted to get a fingerprint or a hair sample or something, DNA, we could get that. Whereas in a DUI situation, if a person can avoid not being tested for several hours, then we lost what was the best evidence,” he said.

Chris Dye, a DUI enforcement training instructor for the Tennessee Highway Patrol, said he’s had more people refuse to take sobriety tests than agree in the last few years.

“A lot of these professional drunks, these ones with multiple DUIs, they’re used to refusing,” he continued, adding he’s looking forward to tougher implied consent laws. “It’s been dismissed more than it’s been enforced, and it really hasn’t served the purpose it’s been intended for.”

There’s a push within Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration to fix issues like that as a team of commissioners plan to “completely” rewrite the state’s DUI laws.

“Driving is a privilege, not a right, and I think every driver needs to understand that,” said Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security and former district attorney in Memphis. “If you don’t obey the law, you can lose that privilege.”

The working group of commissioners from the departments of Safety and Homeland Security, Correction, Military, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Highway Patrol expected to send Gov. Bill Haslam a rough draft of their recommendations last week, Gibbons said.

“If you read it, it’s a patchwork law at this point, and it’s very complicated. A lot of exceptions to general rules and so on. We just need to go through, rewrite it, simplify it, streamline it,” he told TNReport.

“They’re very complicated, they’ve been amended here and there over many years. So what we’re looking at is really a rewrite of our DUI laws to simplify them, make them understandable not only to DUI officers but to the public as well,” he said.

Gibbons said it’s still up in the air as to whether the recommendations will include an overhaul of the implied consent law.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the curve on that,” he said.

House Speaker Beth Harwell said Todd’s decision to refuse a breathalyzer test didn’t factor into her talks with him about standing down from his leadership post.

“I had not given that thought. I was most concerned with what is best for the General Assembly as a whole,” she said. “I had not looked into any of the particulars of his charges.”


Harwell: Resignation Temporary, Expects Todd Will Seek Re-Election

Rep. Curry Todd’s resignation from a key legislative committee post is only “temporary,” House Speaker Beth Harwell says.

She says she expects Todd, who was arrested last week for driving drunk with a loaded handgun, will still seek another term.

“I think Rep. Todd has every anticipation of running for re-election, and voters of his district will make that decision,” Harwell told TNReport Monday evening. “We will just have to wait and see what happens thereafter.”

Todd said in an e-mailed statement Monday he would resign from his post as chairman of the House of Representatives’ State and Local Government Committee “until this matter is resolved.”

“He indicated he does not want to distract from the work that must be done, and I appreciate his willingness to step aside so that we may focus on legislative business,” Harwell said late Monday in a media statement.

Harwell was out of state when news broke last week that Todd had been arrested in Nashville on DUI charges and possession of a gun while under the influence. A loaded Smith & Wesson 38 Special was found holstered and stuffed between the driver’s seat and the center console, according to police affidavits. Police said he admitted to consuming “two drinks” before failing field sobriety tests. He also refused a breathalyzer test.

Harwell’s comments Monday were her first public statements on Todd’s arrest.

“He should step down from the chairmanship for a temporary period so he can work through some issues in his own personal life,” Harwell told WSMV Monday.

In 2009 and 2010, Todd was the spokesman for the controversial “guns in bars” law that allows permitted handgun carriers to bring their weapons with them into drinking establishments. Although his arrest has triggered discussion about the integrity of the law, Harwell says she doesn’t think Todd’s actions jeopardize the law’s future.

Harwell said she hasn’t thought much about likening Todd’s arrest to that of former Rep. Rob Briley, who was charged with DUI and evading arrest after he led police on a 100 mile-per-hour chase in 2007. He, too, gave up his chairmanship but ultimately decided against running for re-election.

“I think Rep. Briley has made tremendous strides in turning himself around and doing what is best for himself and for his family and for the state, and I commend that, and I suspect that Rep. Todd will do the same thing,” Harwell said.

Liberty and Justice

Gov. Haslam, Rep. Todd Link Up: Todd Says He’s Sorry

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam saw Rep. Curry Todd at a charity golf tournament Monday and said Todd, who was arrested last week for drunken driving with a loaded weapon in his car, told him he made a mistake.

“He said, ‘I realize I made a bad mistake, and I’m sorry,'” Haslam said.

Todd, a Republican from Collierville, participated in a golf event Monday held by Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and Rep. Gary Odom. Harwell, a Republican, and Odom, a Democrat, both represent Nashville.

“I went out there to have breakfast, and Curry was part of the group playing golf,” Haslam said. “I asked him how he was doing. It was purely more of a personal conversation. We didn’t talk about the Legislature.

“I was obviously, like everybody else really, sorry to see that happen. It was a big mistake from Representative Todd that could have had dangerous consequences. I think he is aware of that as well.”

The governor addressed several issues with reporters after he spoke to the Governor’s Housing Summit in Franklin, including Todd’s arrest, the Occupy Wall Street protests, school vouchers and the matter of Tennesseans over 60 not having to have photos on their driver’s licenses.

Todd’s arrest, which has rekindled the debate over gun carry laws in the state since Todd was the sponsor of the bill to allow guns in bars, has begun to raise speculation about the course of the agenda under the Republican-controlled Legislature next year.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick had put Todd in the chairman’s role of a task force on firearms. But Todd reportedly told McCormick after the arrest he would vacate that position, and McCormick had been considering lowering the profile of the gun task force to focus more on the economy. McCormick reportedly has decided to keep the task force going, but with a diminished priority.

Todd announced Monday afternoon that he’s stepping down as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee “until this matter is resolved.”

“The Committee’s work is an important aspect of the General Assembly and I do not want my actions to distract from that,” read a short statement from Todd.

Haslam was asked about any potential impact on the legislative agenda next year, but he offered only clues to his own agenda, which seemed to be devoid of gun issues.

“If you look at what we proposed last year, and I think the bills we propose this year, there will be things focused again on jobs, education and things that are budget-related,” Haslam said. “I think you’ll continue to see our focus be there. That’s what it was last year.”

Haslam’s reference to “last year” was to the legislative session held in the first part of 2011. The Legislature will reconvene in January 2012.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey last week said he wanted to revisit the matter of why Tennesseans over 60 are allowed to have driver’s licenses without their photographs on them — one of the snags in the state’s new photo ID law for voting. Ramsey said he was looking for the justification of the 60-and-over exemption, and Haslam was asked if he would advocate addressing it as well.

“I guess I would want to hear the pros and cons of that,” Haslam said. “I assume the reason of that was just to make it easier, or maybe for some personal reasons for folks over 60. I don’t understand the reason why there was an exception there to begin with.

“I’m sure there is a good reason. I just don’t happen to know how that came to be.”

People have camped out in New York in an “Occupy Wall Street” protest, which has been copied in other cities, including Nashville, where protesters have gathered recently at Legislative Plaza. Haslam said he sees disgruntlement among the people.

“I think what you really have is a lot of dissatisfaction about the current condition of the country,” Haslam said. “You see that in how people feel about: How confident are you about the direction of the country? That’s come out in a lot of ways.

“Right now, their message is fairly — how should I describe it? — disorganized. There are a lot of different thoughts there. I think, at the root, people are saying, ‘We really don’t like the way things are going.’ My point back would be: Let’s talk about what we would do differently. Let’s talk about specific things that have caused us to be here and what we would do differently.”

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has said he plans to pursue a school voucher initiative for low-income students in Hamilton, Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties, which hold the state’s four largest cities. The Senate approved a similar measure in April, but the House Education Subcommittee sent the bill for further study.

Haslam said his administration is trying to decide how to approach the voucher issue and that there is no decision yet. He said the benefit is giving parents choice on where their children go to school but that there is a need to balance that against whether such an approach is helpful or harmful to existing public schools.

Haslam addressed the nation’s economic woes in his speech to a luncheon on housing held at the Marriott at Cool Springs.

“I don’t know how we could have a more challenging environment,” he told the crowd. “I would love to tell you I think that is going to get a lot better sometime soon. But I really don’t think that.

“As confident as I am long-term about the future of Tennessee, I think we are, like everyone else, caught in the grips of working our way out of some serious economic issues.”

Press Releases

Todd Stepping Down as Chairman ‘Until This Matter Is Resolved’

Statement from Rep. Curry Todd; Oct. 17, 2011: 

(October 17, 2011, NASHVILLE) – Representative Curry Todd (R—Collierville) released the following statement after meeting with House Speaker Beth Harwell (R—Nashville):

“Today, I told Speaker Harwell that I would step aside as Chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee until this matter is resolved and she has accepted it. The Committee’s work is an important aspect of the General Assembly and I do not want my actions to distract from that.”