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Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Slatery Joins Challenge to Obama Immigration Executive Order

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, appointed to the position in September, took a step this week that is sure to win him popularity points with the Republican supermajority-controlled General Assembly.

Slatery announced Monday that the Volunteer State would be joining with 24 other states to sue President Obama over his recent executive order on immigration. “However frustrating and painstakingly long the federal legislative process may be, making law is the prerogative of Congress, not the executive branch,” Slatery said in a press release. He added that while Congress could “resolve” all of the issues raised by the executive directive by “timely enacting legislation,” the state shouldn’t “sit on the sidelines of this case.”

While the executive action was about immigration, Slatery said the lawsuit is “more about the rule of law and the limitations that prevent the executive branch from taking over a role constitutionally reserved for Congress.”

The executive order conflicts with existing federal law and replaces “presecutorial discretion” with a policy of “unilateral nonenforcement,” he said.

“Asking a court to review this issue is the prudent choice, especially when state resources will be taxed under the directives to provide benefits like unemployment compensation and health care,” Slatery’ statement said.

The executive order would affect about 4 million undocumented immigrants by halting the deportation of undocumented parents of citizens or permanent residents who have been here more than five years, as well as allowing immigrants over the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. as children to qualify for deportation deferrals. Additionally, the action beefs up border security, allows for more visas for foreign investors and STEM degree holders and changes federal immigrant detention procedures.

In November, following the president’s announcement, state Rep. Andy Holt and state Sen. Mae Beavers filed a joint resolution to call on Gov. Bill Haslam to sue the president over his immigration action. However, at the time Slatery was hesitant to commit to joining other states in seeking legal action against the president, but said he would consider it.

Tennessee Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey praised the decision to challenge “the president’s unconstitutional action on immigration” made by Slatery, who was Haslam’s chief legal counsel prior to his appointment by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“Barack Obama tossed aside not just  public opinion but key tenets of our constitutional democracy when he bypassed Congress to grant illegal immigrants defacto amnesty,” Ramsey said, and added he was “proud” Tennessee was joining the lawsuit.

Likewise, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick agreed Slatery was correct in his decision to join the lawsuit on “the constitutional question of whether the president should have acted without congressional authority.”

When Obama visited Music City earlier this month to promote the new policy, he explained that he picked the Tennessee capital in part because the city has “one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country.”

Speaking at the Casa Azafrán community center in Nashville, the president said the action he took was “a middle-ground approach” that “will make our immigration system smarter and fairer.” According to Obama, his action “isn’t amnesty or legalization or even a path to citizenship,” and only applies to a specific group of undocumented immigrants.

“What we are saying is that until Congress fixes this problem legislatively — and you have deep ties to this country and you are willing to get right by the law, and do what you have to do, then you shouldn’t have to worry about being deported or separated from your kids,” Obama said. He invited Congress to be involved in the process, as long as they “pass a bill that addresses the various components of immigration reform in a common-sense way.”

The GOP members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation have released statements sharply critical of both the president’s visit to Nashville earlier this month and his executive action, while the state’s federal Democratic representatives were more supportive.

One criticism many Republicans had for Slatery’s predecessor, Robert Cooper — legal counsel to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen prior to his appointment in 2006, was that he had declined to join a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government over the legality of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, one reason members of the GOP wanted to see the three Democratically-appointed state Supreme Court justices unseated this August was to hold them accountable for Cooper’s decision not to join the Obamacare lawsuit.

However, while McCormick acknowledged to TNReport that Slatery likely had more conservative inclinations than his predecessor, he took his decision to join the lawsuit as “more of a constitutional question” than a sign of a difference in politics.

While the ACA actually passed Congress, McCormick said the president’s directive was different in that it “was just an executive action taken right after election day without the consent of the the people or the elected representatives of the people.”

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Press Releases

Hauling Larger Hay Loads OK’d on State Roads

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture; July, 11, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced an executive order in response to drought conditions and extreme heat impacting Tennessee farmers that allows haulers of hay to carry larger loads as long as they observe other safety requirements.

The order allows for an increase in gross vehicle weight to 95,000 pounds, not exceeding 20,000 pounds per axle load, for semi-truck/trailers. The order also increases the height of trailer loads to 13 feet, 6 inches and the width to a maximum of 14 feet during daylight hours. The increase in width allows haulers to transport standard six- to seven-foot round hay bales side by side, increasing the capacity being hauled per truck without a permit.

The order is valid for 60 days and expires on September 8, 2012. A copy of Executive Order No. 14 is attached.

“What started out as a very promising year has quickly turned devastating for many farmers, who are facing a short supply of hay due to the drought,” Haslam said. “This order will help ensure that hay can be shipped safely and without delay across the state as needed.”

Tennessee is a major producer of hay, which is used to support the state’s $1.3 billion livestock industry. In 2011, Tennessee farmers produced an estimated 3.9 million tons of hay valued at more than $332 million. Hay cutting began earlier than normal this year due to the warm spring, but many farmers have reported reduced hay yields in areas where rainfall has been inadequate.

“With hay stocks low and spring cuttings below normal, many farmers are heading into the fall with less than half the hay they’ll need for the winter,” state Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson said. “The governor’s order will help farmers move hay to where it’s needed at a time when they are already feeding hay because of dried up pastures.”

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture has joined with the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation in making the 2012 Tennessee Hay Directory available to help farmers source locally produced hay. A link to the directory and to the University of Tennessee Extension’s Drought and Extreme Heat website for farmers can be found on TDA’s website: www.tn.gov/agriculture.

A link to USDA’s latest Crop Progress and Condition Report for Tennessee can also be found on TDA’s website at www.tn.gov/agriculture. The report is made available each Monday after 3 p.m. central time April through November.

 

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Press Releases

TN Drug Court Oversight Shifted to State Mental Health Dept.

Press Release from Gov. Bill Haslam; June 13, 2013:

Transfers Programs to Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse Services

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced an executive order to change the management and oversight of state drug court programs as part of his administration’s ongoing effort to increase government efficiency and effectiveness.

Executive Order No. 12 transfers the drug court programs from the Department of Finance and Administration (F&A) to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS) effective July 1, 2012.

TDMHSAS oversees the licensing and funding for indigent Tennesseans needing substance abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery support services.  The transfer of the drug courts to TDMHSAS will lessen duplication of effort and align with the department’s role as the substance abuse authority in the state.

“Management and oversight of Tennessee’s drug court programs are consistent with the focus of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and we believe it makes more sense for the department to manage these programs,” Haslam said.

Drug courts were established as an alternative to jails and prisons and are designed to foster recovery. For many arrested on drug-related offenses, prison is not the answer, and research has shown treatment costs are lower than costs associated with incarceration.

Drug courts refer clients to substance abuse community agencies that provide intervention and treatment services, which are funded, contracted and licensed by TDMHSAS. The department and the Office of Criminal Justice Services in F&A have had discussions about transitioning the programs and are prepared for a smooth transition.

“We are facing a major prescription drug problem in our state,” TDMHSAS Commissioner Doug Varney said. “We need to focus all of our resources in the most efficient, effective and collaborative way to maximize our impact on this issue and drug abuse overall.”

Drug court activities are also closely aligned with other programs currently overseen by TDMHSAS. For additional information about Tennessee’s drug court programs or other mental health and substance abuse programs please contact TDMHSAS’ Office of Communications at (615) 253-4812 or visit www.tn.gov/mental.

 

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Featured News Transparency and Elections

TN No Longer an Openness Leader on Financial Disclosures

Advocates for open government in Tennessee are expressing concern about whether Gov. Bill Haslam’s executive order relaxing income disclosure rules portends similar steps away from transparency, but there seems to be little out-and-out outrage over the governor’s move.

“The only thing that bothers me about the executive order is the tone that it sets and the signal that it might send,” said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “He’s not rolling back a law.”

Dick Williams, state chairman of Common Cause in Tennessee, had a similar reaction.

“I hope it’s not an indication of how we’re going to go from here, and I’d like to think it’s not,” Williams said. “But it’s just sad that his very first executive order, just a day or so after being sworn in, he takes a significant step backward.”

One fascinating aspect of the reaction, advocates for openness in government have said, is that the more demanding executive order that Phil Bredesen, Haslam’s predecessor, set as governor went largely unnoticed — until Haslam’s order loosened the requirements.

After being sworn in as the state’s 49th governor Jan. 15, Haslam’s first executive order was to declare that members of the executive branch must follow state law on disclosure, which brings the administration in line with the Legislature. The order means key administration officials including Cabinet members will have to divulge the sources of outside income but not the specific amounts they make. The step rolls back a Bredesen order, which called for disclosure of the amounts.

“Bredesen, to his credit, set a tone of openness by issuing that executive order in the first place,” Gibson said. “So I can’t slam him (Haslam) for doing it, because he’s basically doing what the law is for the Legislature.

“The thing that Bredesen did was far more disclosure than what Congress is required to do. Congress has to report the value of their investments in categories, from $50,000 to half a million dollars, and half a million dollars to a million, and a million to 5 million. So even members of Congress don’t have to report what their actual income is.”

Williams noted that the Haslam step presents a glaring change.

“It sticks out like a sore thumb at being a difference from what had been the precedent,” Williams said. “He (Haslam) is correct that the law doesn’t require it, but it’s kind of one of those things, once you’ve set the precedent, it’s definitely a step backward to not continue it.”

Haslam’s order caught the attention of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, based in Washington, and its policy director, John Wonderlich, called the decision a “stunning disrespect for the role disclosure plays in democracy.”

“Governor Haslam’s executive order flouts the public trust embodied in that disclosure system, and places his personal and political concerns over the public interest and integrity of the very system he was elected to lead,” Wonderlich wrote.

A recurring refrain, however, is a call for a middle-of-the-road approach that would require ranges of income be reported, rather than none.

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit research group, falls into that category.

“I guess my solution is a compromise, which is what we have in California and which I believe is recommended, which is ranges,” said Stern. “Over a thousand dollars. Over $10,000, over $100,000, over $1 million, and at that point who cares? You should have an idea.”

“We want to know what the conflict is and approximately if it’s a big conflict or a little conflict, but we don’t need to know the exact amount of the conflict,” added Stern, whose organization describes itself as promoting “innovative political and media solutions to help individuals participate more effectively in their communities and governments.”

Issue of Income Prominent in Gov’s Race

Common Cause’s Williams said the potential for conflict should be closely watched for department heads such as those in Economic and Community Development and Revenue, not because he has concerns specific to Haslam’s choices for those jobs but because of the nature of the positions.

Haslam named Bill Hagerty, founder and managing director of Hagerty Peterson & Co., a merchant bank and private equity firm, to the post of Economic and Community Development commissioner. Haslam picked Richard Roberts, director of Miller Industries, which makes towing and recovery vehicles, to head the Department of Revenue.

The issue of Haslam’s personal income rose prominently in the 2010 governor’s race, with opponents among Democrats and Republicans insisting that Haslam’s income from his family’s Pilot Corp. presented a conflict of interest. Ironically, one of Haslam’s harshest critics was his current commissioner of Safety, Bill Gibbons.

Gibbons ran against Haslam for the Republican nomination. He dropped out early but not before he proposed a plan for openness in government.

Gibbons, previously the Shelby County district attorney general, hit Haslam hard on the issue during the campaign and said every time the state widens a highway with a lot of commercial traffic Pilot has an interest with its truck stops. He said voters couldn’t know if it was a big conflict or a small conflict because Haslam would not reveal his income from Pilot. Haslam did divulge his income from investments outside Pilot Corp.

Haslam has also announced a blind trust for his holdings, but the trust will not include Pilot holdings or a real estate investment he has outside the state.

Among candidate Gibbons’ detailed plans for openness was a strengthening of disclosure laws by moving beyond the requirement of candidates and officeholders to disclose only the sources of income and require reporting of the amount of income from each source.

An effort to reach Gibbons this week for comment on Haslam’s executive order was unsuccessful.

Haslam consistently refused during the campaign to divulge the amount of his income from Pilot, as first requested by a consortium of the state’s largest newspapers. He reasoned that Tennesseans knew that his family owned Pilot and therefore knew all they needed to know. He has now extended that same principle to other members of his administration, and Haslam used the same consistent line of explanation when he addressed the executive order in a recent press conference as governor.

Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey reiterated the explanation Haslam has given going back to the campaign.

“To the best of my knowledge the executive order was a follow-up to what he said all over this state to the people of Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think the executive order was one period, one comma, different from what he had said for months.”

Haslam Order In Line With Other States’ Rules

Ramsey said to his knowledge there was no survey of what is done in other states to influence the decision.

There is little to suggest Haslam’s order is out of line with other states, although that doesn’t translate into a sparkling record on public disclosure.

The Center for Public Integrity, a journalistic research organization in Washington that promotes improving government openness and accountability, issued a report in 2009 in which Tennessee was among 20 states given a grade of “F” for its disclosure laws. Tennessee was given 57.5 points out of a possible 100, ranking 34th among the 50 states. Only Louisiana, Washington and Hawaii received a grade of “A.”

The report was an update to a report by the Center for Public Integrity issued in 2007. Tennessee received an “F” in that report as well.

Like all the surveys reviewed by TNReport, though, the center’s study focused on laws, not executive orders by governors.

Charts compiled by the Center for Ethics in Government for the National Conference of State Legislatures show a broad range of requirements on disclosure, with several states requiring reporting based on ranges of income.

The Center for Ethics in Government does not summarize its findings like the Center for Public Integrity, but Peggy Kerns, director of the ethics center, said, “I would think that most states do not require disclosure of the actual amount of income, just the source.”

Stern, the Los Angeles researcher, said he believes the work done by the Center for Public Integrity is a good measuring stick and that there has been “not much change at all” since the report was released.

The written report in 2007 did address more closely how state requirements affect governors than the more recent report.

“Requiring them to disclose their private financial ties could reveal possible conflicts of interest,” the 2007 report said. Only Washington received a grade of “A” in that report.

The 2007 study made specific mention that Bredesen, who was wealthy before his election, did not take a paycheck as governor, which put him in the company of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Then-Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey drew a salary of $1 a year, the report noted. Haslam, like Bredesen, is not accepting a paycheck from the state.

The 2009 report noted that two southern states — Louisiana and Mississippi — made the biggest improvements since the earlier study, and it pointed to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pushing through an ethics reform package that bolstered requirements for all lawmakers to report their financial interests. That action, the report said, led Louisiana to the top spot in its rankings, with 94.5 points out of 100 in the center’s 43-question survey.

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Featured News Transparency and Elections

Haslam Sticks to Disclosure Stance

Saying he’s been consistent about his thoughts on financial disclosure issues for more than a year, Gov. Bill Haslam defended his recent decision to eliminate previously established requirements that top government officials reveal their private income, including stockholdings and business investments.

And a sizable majority of Tennesseans are apparently “comfortable with (his) position” on the matter, otherwise they wouldn’t have voted for him, the freshly sworn in 49th governor of Tennessee told reporters in his first official press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.

“I’m not certain what (divulging investment income) adds to the process,” Haslam said. “Again, I said that all here during the campaign: I think it’s really important where. But how much? I’m just not certain what difference that makes.”

The new guidelines for powerful executive-branch employees are now on par with financial disclosure requirements in place for members of Tennessee’s part-time citizen legislature.

Haslam deflected any suggestion that eliminating former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s standard for revealing levels of, and returns on, financial investments in any way undermines the new administration’s stated  “commitment to transparency and openness in state government.”

Haslam asserted that his policy of requiring officials to reveal generally what they own — if not exactly how much they own — is consistent with “the highest ethical standard” of potential conflict-of-interest disclosure.

“I don’t think that next step of telling exactly what the amount is makes a difference,” said Haslam.

A recent administration press release announcing the new disclosure guidelines stated that “(t)he rule should be, the more you can be in the open, the better.” Another transparency-related executive order issued over the weekend declared it “the unwavering policy of the Executive Branch to facilitate the right of Tennesseans to know and have access to information with which they may hold state government accountable.”

Gov. Haslam’s Executive Order No. 1 requires that he and the 29 other ranking administration officials, as well as their deputies and assistant commissioners, disclose only where their money comes from, not how much. The order nixed Bredesen’s policy on disclosing not only the source of income, but the level.

The new governor also told Capitol Hill reporters Wednesday that he’s seeking to create an administrative culture that is not in any way perceived as arrogant, but rather is efficient, knowledgeable, frugal and respectful.

Haslam spent a lot of time during the campaign season fighting off critics for refusing to disclose his holdings in Pilot Oil Corp., a multi-billion dollar truck stop chain owned by the Haslam family.

On Wednesday House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said he’s somewhat disturbed that the governor would weaken transparency rules instead of strengthen them.

“I think he would set a good trend for his administration if he’d go back and rethink his position on that,” said Turner. “I actually think right now that what we do (disclose) is pretty low-ball, to be honest with you. I think we should probably disclose more, myself.”

However, Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell told TNReport she isn’t bothered by the new governor’s disclosure policy.

“Disclosing the sources is the most important part of ensuring there are no conflicts of interest,” Harwell said though her spokeswoman. “I have every confidence that the administration is committed to maintaining the integrity of these offices and positions.”

Here’s a sampling of the press conference Q&A between Haslam and reporters Wednesday:

Reporter: There’s been quite a bit said about this executive order regarding the income disclosures. Why did you decide to change the standards for you and your administration?

Haslam: It’s consistent with what I said all through the campaign of the position I’ve taken there is no difference… It’s important that everybody understand where your sources of income and where your investments are. I didn’t think the amount mattered. I was real clear about that during the campaign. Obviously a whole lot of discussion. In the end I think the people of Tennessee were comfortable with my position.

Reporter: But it’s not the highest ethical standard – clearly there’s a higher ethical standard that you’re not achieving.

Haslam: I disagree. I mean, I think it is the highest ethical standard. We’re telling everybody exactly what we own. I’m not, you know, I don’t think that next step of telling exactly what the amount is makes a difference. Everybody needs to know what you own and your sources of income. That’s very important, so I actually think it is the highest ethical standard.

Reporter: Why not say how much?

Haslam: Well I’m not certain what it, what it adds to the process.  Again, I said that all during the campaign. I think it’s really important where. But how much? I’m just not certain what difference that makes.

Reporter: What if you had someone who said they had a very small amount of income verses someone who had a large amount of income. Wouldn’t that shed some light on their potential conflicts of interests?

Haslam: Well, again, if they report that they have that – it’s a company that they regulate, for instance – then that’s out there right now. People can assume they might own 100,000 shares of it or 1,000 shares. The conflict, the potential conflict in the situation still exists. I don’t think it matters. And you, you all if you’re doing your job know, Ok – here’s commissioner so-and-so, he has – he or she has this investment that that’s out there pretty clear.

Reporter: For at least the past 32 years governors have released that sort of information – tax returns and such. Were they wrong to do that?

Haslam: Well, I mean, everybody gets to make their own decision.  Again, this is no different than what I’ve been saying for over the, for actually the last 16 months.  And everybody in the state of Tennessee… every one of you wrote an article about it and covered it. I don’t think there was anything new, and we’re gonna work to be consistent, and again I think the people of Tennesse felt very, very comfortable with that when the vote came.

Reporter: During the campaign you constantly compared yourself to what other candidates had given, but in this case you are releasing less than what other governors have given.

Haslam: That’s not – that’s not true.  And we’re doing the exact same thing – same thing that’s required in the General Assembly, the exact same thing that historically most governors, a lot of governors, have done in other places. And again, I go back to this: I was real clear, there was no secret about any of this and how I felt about that when I ran, and ultimately, again, I think the people of Tennessee felt very comfortable with it.

Reporter: Did you indicate that you would rescind Mr. Bredesen’s first order during your campaign?

Haslam: I don’t know if that ever came up, but I was real clear. I mean, I don’t think there was any lack of clarity about what I said I was going to release or not release during the campaign, so there was zero percent confusion about that.

Reporter: Were you worried about the perception of that? You talk about the one chance to start fresh, and this is the first thing you do.

Haslam: Sure. And we could have waited and said and done that three weeks from now, but, you know, it’s something that, again, I was very clear about during the campaign. Why not go ahead and do it. I’m not worried about the perception because I think the reality is this: if there’s a chance, if there’s an interest and if there’s a conflict, everybody is going to know what that is. Everybody understands that investment. I honestly don’t think this is, I do think this is the highest ethical standard, and it’s no different than what I’ve been saying all along.

Reporter: In the press release you put out, it didn’t mention the fact that you were making major changes in terms of people no longer having to disclose their federal income tax return. Was the press release in any way misleading?

Haslam: Well, I don’t think – I’ll let you all be the judge, I honestly don’t think that . Again, we were being very clear about a decision we had made, and again, it was consistent with what we’d said. I mean, if this is something I’d never talked about during the campaign, it would be one thing, but literally, I think the issue, you know, we started talking about it a year before election day.

Reporter: Does this help you get some cabinet members, who otherwise might be uncomfortable disclosing all their assets?

Haslam: No, I don’t think we had one person who said I’ll only come if this – I can honestly say that didn’t happen.  Again, it’s just being consistent with what I’ve said for over a year.

Reid Akins contributed to this report.