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Senate Dems Considered Walkout to Protest Budget Vote

Senate Republicans appeared to be barreling toward a vote to approve a $30.8 billion budget Thursday night — until Senate Democrats caucused.

The result: no budget vote in the Senate on Thursday.

Democrats simply weren’t in the mood to be rushed on the matter, as could be heard in the hallway outside the third-floor conference room at Legislative Plaza where they were meeting.

At one point, Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, said the Republicans couldn’t pass the budget without the Democrats present on the Senate floor.

“They can’t convene the session without us,” Haynes was heard telling his colleagues. “They can’t get a quorum.”

There was audible disagreement between Haynes and Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, on such a suggestion. But Haynes was forceful.

“We’ve got to be unanimous,” Haynes said. “You’ve got to use the ammunition you’ve got. If you don’t do that, then you give up.”

Again Henry disagreed.

The Finance Ways and Means Committee passed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal with Democratic support Thursday afternoon. The Republican plan appeared to be to move back to business on the Senate floor, where the Senate could hand the House an approved budget bill overnight. Both Democrats and Republicans announced they would caucus before heading to the Senate floor.

But while the notion of refusing Republicans a quorum was quashed in the Democratic caucus, there was broad agreement among the Democrats that they did not want to act so swiftly after the committee vote.

There was talk that the right approach was simply to tell the Republican leadership that the Democrats wanted more time to digest the budget proposal. Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, the Democratic caucus chairman, had that conversation with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, according to a Democratic aide.

The biggest hangup appears to be the Democrats’ desire for an extension of unemployment benefits, an item that accounts for about $3.1 million for state and local government, a small figure considering the size of the bill. From most accounts, Haslam is agreeable to the extension if the Legislature wants to cover it.

But the item is not in the Senate plan, and Senate Republicans do not appear to be willing to go along with the extension. Approximately 28,000 Tennesseans would be eligible for the extensions of 20 weeks of benefits if it were approved.

The purpose of the caucus meeting was to have Bill Bradley, budget director from the Department of Finance and Administration, brief members who are not on the finance committee about Haslam’s amended budget proposal. Mark Cate, special assistant to Haslam, was in the meeting to represent the governor.

Bradley gave the caucus members much of the same outline he had given committee members earlier in the day. The finance committee proceedings were marked by numerous stops and starts on the budget, while the committee considered other items on the calendar along the way.

After Bradley and Cate left the caucus conference room, a question could be heard in the Democrats’ discussion: “Why are we rushing?”

“This is a $30 billion bill,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, making the point that the bill didn’t need such a quick vote.

At one point, Berke cautioned his colleagues that a member of the media was outside the door. That didn’t stop the discussion.

There were comings and goings. Bradley returned at one point for further conversation with the members. Haynes left the room momentarily for a cell-phone conversation. Finney left the room at one point and upon return mentioned to the reporter that the proceedings had him hungry for jelly beans, showing two handfuls. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, sat and chatted with the reporter. The door to the conference room was open during the whole meeting.

The chain of events underscored what has become a common circumstance in the Legislature and its overwhelmingly Republican majority after last fall’s elections. Republicans hold a 20-13 majority in the Senate and a 64-34-1 majority in the House.

Democrats’ frustration with their distinct minority status has been noticeable in many ways, including Haynes’ passion about using whatever ammunition the Democrats can claim.

The long day of discussion had all the appearances that the Senate was headed toward a budget vote Thursday night. As Democrats finally made their way to the Senate floor, where Republicans were already gathered, Ramsey made the announcement that there would be no budget vote Thursday.

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Press Releases

Democrats, Haslam Push Tax-Relief Extension for Flood Victims

Press Release from the Senate Democratic Caucus, Feb. 15, 2011:

Bill would extend previous sales tax break to April 30

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats were joined by Governor Bill Haslam on Tuesday in recommending that tax relief for May 2010 flood victims be extended through the end of April.

“Many of our hardest-hit constituents were still rebuilding and repairing their houses by the time the original tax break ended,” said Senator Douglas Henry (D-Nashville), the lead sponsor of the extension. “This extension gives them the chance to turn their houses into their homes again.”

Senate Bill 6 would exempt flood victims registered with FEMA from sales tax on home appliances, building materials and large furniture items, up to a cap of $2,500. That tax cap would cover roughly $27,000 of purchases. Those who have already taken advantage of the tax relief would still be eligible, as long as they have not hit the cap.

The May 2010 floods ravaged Middle and West Tennessee, killing 26 people and causing more than $2 billion in damage in the Nashville area alone. Cleanup efforts are still ongoing in some communities.

“Less than a year ago, much of our state was underwater,” said Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney (D-Jackson), the bill’s cosponsor. “We haven’t forgotten that our neighbors are still recovering and still need our help.”

The bill passed unanimously through the Tax Subcommittee of the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee on Tuesday with the governor’s recommendation. Two similar bills also passed, but bill sponsors said they would likely support Senate Bill 6, pending action in the House. The House version of the bill is in a subcommittee.

Senator Douglas Henry represents portions of Davidson County. Senator Lowe Finney represents Madison, Carroll and Gibson Counties.

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Press Releases

TNDP Criticizes Haslam Admin. Financial Disclosure Policy

Press Release from the Democratic Party of Tennessee, January 17th, 2011:

Gov. Haslam Starts His Tenure On Wrong Foot By Dismissing Income Disclosure Rules

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision to eliminate the requirement for him and his top aides to disclose their total yearly incomes gives the impression that the new administration would rather govern behind closed doors.

“Tennesseans deserve a state government that is responsive to their needs and transparent in its operation,” Forrester said. “Coming out of the gate with this kind of executive order is disconcerting. “Our government should be more transparent and open, not less. The governor and his staff should be above reproach when conducting state business. Removing the disclosure requirement does nothing to assure citizens government is working on their behalf. If anything, that makes people more skeptical of their government.”

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen required his top administration officials to disclose their total yearly earnings when he came into office in January 2003. Haslam received much criticism during his gubernatorial campaign for failing to disclose his income from family owned Pilot, a national truck stop chain with annual revenues estimated at $20 billion.

Haslam signed an executive order removing the disclosure requirement soon after taking the oath of office on Saturday. His order requires top administration officials to reveal sources of income only, not amounts.

Several of Haslam’s Cabinet members have extensive business dealings in the private sector.

“The General Assembly is also proposing several pieces of legislation that would hamper our ability to know how decisions are being made,” Forrester said.

Forrester pointed out that the General Assembly is mulling legislation that would remove public notices from newspapers, close emergency 911 records and dispatches to the public, close email communications among state and government officials to the public, and make people pay for access to any public record.

“We should not roll back laws and regulations that make our government more accessible to us,” Forrester said. “Too many sacrifices have been made by too many good people to allow this to happen.

“Our elected officials have a responsibility to represent the people who allowed them to serve. Restricting the public’s access to government is not the will of the people. Gov. Haslam and some other members of the state Legislature should remember that going forward,” he added.

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Press Releases

TNDP Chairman Says Dems Look Forward To New Year

A statement from Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester; Dec. 17, 2010:

The holiday season is a time for us to reflect on the past year and look forward to the new year. This past year has been memorable to say the least. For example, Tennesseans witnessed torrential flooding in the spring and a huge outpouring of compassion from one another as we recovered from the devastation. We Tennesseans are courageous, resilient and, above all, compassionate.

We also saw a great deal of change in our political leadership. Last month we elected a new governor, four new congressmen and a whole host of new state legislators, signaling a dramatic change in the state’s political landscape. Some have observed this election as a signal that Tennessee Democrats have lost their way and are doomed to political insignificance for the next decade or more. Those who believe that are wrong and have a poor understanding of history.

Tennessee is a wonderful state in which to live and raise a family. We have much to offer our residents, including diverse political views. As time passes and situations change, we elect leaders who most reflect our viewpoints and the society in which we live. This past election was simply a reflection of an evolving electorate. And that electorate will continue to evolve. Our elected officials would do well to remember this fact.

Tennessee Democrats are as courageous, resilient and compassionate as the rest of the state’s citizens. We have stood strong for our principles, our neighbors and our communities. We will continue doing that. We have worked overtime to ensure our communities attract good-paying jobs, bolster their schools and provide the services needed to enhance quality of life.

Democrats in the state Legislature and Gov. Phil Bredesen have done an admirable job in a challenging economic environment. Through their fiscal discipline, they made sure our state remained on sound financial footing, with a debt load ranking the lowest of any state in the nation. Republicans in the General Assembly should work with their Democratic colleagues to move Tennessee forward by ensuring our children receive top-notch educations, our citizens have good jobs and our communities get the help and support they need to be desirable and safe places to live.

I wish Gov.-elect Bill Haslam well and hope he can instill in the Republican leadership in the General Assembly that we have to work together to ensure Tennessee is a state conducive to job growth, educational opportunities and diversity. Too many Republican lawmakers have displayed an astounding amount of hypocrisy in the last couple of years. This nation and this state are facing some big challenges, and it behooves all of us to stop this political posturing and work together to meet those challenges.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Democrats need to do a better job reminding Tennesseans we have been good stewards of the state and of the people’s interests. We will work with our Republican colleagues to ensure this state and our communities move forward and have the tools needed to ensure success. And we will work relentlessly to elect Democratic leaders who reflect the courage, resilience and compassion of Tennessee’s citizens. That’s why we look forward to the new year and the challenges ahead.

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NewsTracker

Candidates Emerge For Top House Democrat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Craig Fitzhugh

State Representative