Education Featured NewsTracker

Quality of State’s Workforce Questioned

One of the messages that came out of Gov. Bill Haslam’s education summit last week was a complaint from employers that’s not entirely new: It’s hard to find good help these days.

Amid discussion about the state’s education system, a few attendees said issues preventing a labor-ready workforce ran a little deeper than what the reforms of the past few years have been getting at. In a nutshell, there’s a significant element of Volunteer State’s workforce, especially at the entry levels, that can’t do basic high school math, don’t communicate or take directions very well, have trouble passing drug tests and oftentimes exhibit a general aversion to hard work.

Greg Martz, a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce board member and plant manager at DuPont, said the problems facing employers are fairly straightforward. The younger generation, in particular, lacks “interpersonal skills,” which he in part blames on their overuse of texting and other modern phone technology. And they also tend to have trouble solving real-world problems, which he theorized might have something to do with an overemphasis in public-school classrooms on rote memorization rather than critical thinking.

Ken Gough of Accurate Machine Products in Johnson City agreed.

“Math skills are very weak, analytical skills are very weak, the ability to solve problems, very weak. Drug testing? It’s a real problem with the entire workforce,” said Gough, a voice for Tennessee’s small business community at the governor’s “Progress of the Past Present an Future” conference. “Just the understanding that they have to show up every day for work, on time and ready to go to work, those are things that quite literally have to be taught.”

He added that while some of these problems are “not primarily a school problem,” schools could help provide solutions.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, said he’s heard it all before. A year ago, Gardenhire told the crowd of conference attendees, he made inquiries among representatives of Japanese-owned companies doing business in the Southeast as to what could be done to encourage the hiring of more Tennesseans.

While he had expected to hear issues with infrastructure and taxes, Gardenhire said it came to a “unanimous three things” that weren’t those at all.

“Number 1 was your workforce can’t do ninth grade math. Second, your workforce can’t pass drug tests. And third, your workforce won’t work. They don’t have a work ethic,” Gardenhire said he was told.

Gardenhire said all those are components of what he’s telling kids around Chattanooga when he goes on local motivational-speaking tours. He said he informs students that what they need to do to achieve success in life is “learn math, stay off drugs and show up on time for work.”

The invitation-only education forum was called by Haslam and the Republican speakers of the General Assembly, and featured several presentations on the reforms enacted over the past several years and discussion of the state’s education system by all of the major stakeholders in education, including lawmakers, teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders.

Haslam said that the plan was not to come out with some statement from the group at the summit, but that this was just the “beginning of a discussion” about what issues face Tennessee, how we got to where we are and what some “potential paths” are for the future of the state’s education system.

During one of the summit’s discussion periods, Randy Boyd, chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, emphasized the need to focus on “talking about K to J, not K to 12,” in order to “be at the point where high school graduation equals college readiness.”

“Our alignment needs to be aligned with the workforce needs, not necessarily with anything else,” Boyd said.

Featured NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Artists of Persuasion

The caricature of a lobbyist is a cigar-smoking fat cat, with a $100 bill as a pocket square. Monocle and spats, optional.

But in Tennessee’s Legislative Plaza that clichéd image is threadbare. Today’s lobbyists are, by and large, professionals and experts in their field. The days of lobbyists wining and dining elected officials have largely been replaced by lobbyists making their case through hard facts and Powerpoint presentations.

And there is one other thing lobbyists need on Capitol Hill.

“The secret for success in my business, first and foremost, is your credibility,” lobbyist David McMahan told TNReport. Lawmakers “have to trust you. They have to trust that your information is accurate.”

Indeed, credibility was a common thread in all the lobbyists we spoke to for our report on the most influential lobbyists at Legislative Plaza for 2013. That may be more important in Tennessee than just about anyplace else.

In the national capitol, or in states such as California or New Jersey, lawmakers enjoy large staffs and research assistants. In Tennessee, lobbyists are, many times, the research assistants who help craft legislation.

How did we compile our list? It was unscientific, to be sure. We had off-the-record conversations with many key people at Legislative Plaza, including staff, elected officials and other lobbyists, to compile the list. We also took a look at lobbyists who spent the election season supporting new lawmakers and helping incumbents keep their seats.

You may note that many of these names are the familiar, top lobbying names that could be found working the halls when Democrats held power at the Capitol. Some firms made strong GOP hires to stay in the game; others changed their spots along with the times.

Largely, though, many Democrats in Tennessee in decades past were often conservative, pro-business Democrats. At Legislative Plaza, the letter behind the name of the lawmakers may have changed, but many policy initiatives have not. If some Democratic lobbyists had to change their tune, it was from Mozart to Beethoven rather than from Mozart to Lady GaGa.

Our list of the most influential lobbyists at Legislative Plaza for 2013, in no particular order:

David McMahan and Beth Winstead McMahan, Winstead, Hafner & Alexander

McMahan is a longtime Republican and started lobbying back in the days when rounding up Republicans for a card game at Legislative Plaza often meant a game of solitaire.

Winstead is a Democrat, but both she and McMahan have long supported pro-business Republicans. One other item that helps open GOP doors: They recently hired Anna Richardson, a former top Senate Republican aide.

McMahan conceded that his firm is a “beneficiary of the Republican takeover of Tennessee” but also attributes his firm’s success to being as accessible as possible to both client and lawmaker.

Clients from 2012 included: T-Mobile, the Tennessee Charter School Association, cash advance companies, Vanderbilt University and 3M.

Brian, Mike and Steve BivensBivens and Associates

The Bivens family are long-time Democrats who made the switch fairly seamlessly to the new GOP reality.

“You have to shoot straight with people, being honest with people,” Brian Bivens told TNReport. “The second your credibility is gone, your career is over.”

The Bivens brothers — Brian and Mike — navigate the legislative shoals with the help of their father, Steve. He served in the House 14 years, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, with stints as speaker pro-tempore and vice chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee.

Their flexibility in dealing with the Republican leadership comes through in their discussion of Speaker Beth Harwell’s proposed 10-bill cap on lawmakers, which has many lobbyists scrambling to find legislators to sponsor their clients’ bills.

“It doesn’t bother us a bit,” Bivens said. “It will streamline the process. We’ll work with whatever they decide.”

Clients from 2012 included: Sprint/Nextel, the Tennessee Dental Hygienists Association, the city of Cleveland, Southeast Financial Credit Union and Health Services Management Group.

Nathan Poss and Bo JohnsonJohnsonPoss

Poss and Johnson are also longtime Democratic lobbyists who successfully made the switch to supporting pro-business Republicans and have built good relationships with leadership in the House and the Senate.

An example: Poss was an aide to former Senator Bob Rochelle, who became a poster child for the vilified proposed income tax in Tennessee. But Poss coasts with ease into the offices of Republicans who fought tooth-and-nail against an income tax. He’s known as an expert in the state’s purchasing practices — the wording of which makes Finnegans Wake seem like a light read.

Johnson is a knowledgeable, easy-to-get-along-with lobbyist who also can talk the GOP talk. He brings an added benefit to the table, though. He comes from a newspaper family and has a knowledge of journalism and is comfortable talking with reporters.

Clients from 2012 included: Alcoa, Motorola, Nissan, Corrections Corporation of America and the Tennessee Press Association.

Gif ThorntonAdams and Reese, LLP

Thornton has been a Republican heavy-hitter not only at Legislative Plaza, but also representing clients before various regulatory agencies in Tennessee.

He has many clients, but as a representative of the Tennessee Bar Association, he has the ear of key Republican leaders when it comes to the judiciary.

He also has had no shortage of adventures throughout his life. He’s run the Boston Marathon and worked as a special assistant to the ambassador at the American Embassy in Paris.

Clients from 2012 included: the Tennessee Bar Association, Delta Dental, Liberty Mutual, the Tennessee Defense Lawyers Association and the American Heart Association.

Jim BrownNational Federation of Independent Business

Brown is on the list for what he did — and what he did not do.

He was a leader on unemployment law reforms that moved through the legislature last year, and — wisely, some say — he stayed far from the guns in parking lots debate. That leaves him strolling into Legislative Plaza this year with no shrapnel from the issue.

Brown says his being on the list has little to do with him personally, but rather more to do with the NFIB’s members.

“Candidly, it’s the influence of 8,500 members,” Brown told TNReport.

As a rule of thumb, Brown said, if half his members lean one way on an issue and the other half lean another, he stays neutral — which is what happened during the guns in parking lots debate.

Another help to Brown: “We’ve had good friends of business on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

David Locke — Blue Cross/Blue Shield

Locke was the top lobbyist to former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, someone whose political reputation was also damaged by the income tax debate of the early 2000s.

But Locke is on the list because he is now the top lobbyist for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a 800-pound gorilla in Tennessee. And, more than many, Locke knows how Legislative Plaza works. For example, some say he spoke fluent “Wilder.” Former long-serving Lt. Gov. John Wilder was known at times to make his wants known cryptically or through stories while invoking “the cosmos.”

That experience may serve him well at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. A debate over Medicaid expansion is looming: Gov. Bill Haslam has said he will decide sometime next year whether Tennessee will expand its Medicaid program, but if he chooses to, he faces possible opposition from House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Both say they lean toward not expanding the insurance program.

And this comes as the Obama administration announced that states will have to expand their Medicaid programs all the way or not at all under the federal health law aimed at extending government-subsidized insurance coverage to millions of Americans.

Locke, and the mega-insurance company he represents, will certainly have a seat at the table.

Nathan Green — RobinsonGreen LLC

He’s a lobbyist who’s been fighting one of the top issues at the legislature: to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores as a lobbyist for the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association.

If wine in grocery stores passes this year, it will be because of Green, some say.

Although Republicans see him as one of their own, he’s married into the prominent — and Democratic — Davidson County Robinson family, giving him insight and access to both sides of the aisle.

Clients from 2012 included: the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association, BellSouth/AT&T, the city of Bartlett, the Tennessee Hospitality Association and Novartis Pharmaceuticals.

Notables: Lobbyists to watch in 2013

These lobbyists are ones to keep your eyes on. They didn’t make our “most influential” list for a couple reasons. Some are new to the game without a lot of clients but have such bonafides that it would be difficult to argue they won’t have access to House and Senate leadership. Others are dark-horse lobbyists who you may not know but who have successfully worked behind the scenes for some time.

Matt KingKing Public Strategies

It’d be a tough argument to say Matt King doesn’t have access to the corridors of power at Legislative Plaza. He’s got one of the best resumés in the joint: former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and former executive director of the state Republican Party. He’s worked closely with Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and he’s served as the Tennessee State Director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Perhaps most important, he was a player in the GOP war room that envisioned — and executed — the Republican takeover of state politics. Some key members of the House and Senate are in their seats because of King’s work.

Robert GowanSouthern Strategy Group

Robert Gowan is a legislative ninja. Figuratively, maybe. But just maybe.

He’s former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s top lobbyist, and he’s built expertise in health care, budgets, regulation and economic development.  But his true calling may be education. He’s been working behind the scenes on education in recent years as a key advisor to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Brent EasleyStudentsFirst

Brent Easley is the former House policy and research advisor to the House Republican Caucus. Just this year he was hired as the state director for StudentsFirst, the education reform organization backed by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public Schools.

The group boasts 35,000 members in Tennessee, but its real power — and Easley’s — may be in cash. The group made more than $200,000 in political contributions this past year.

Pat Miller

How’s this for background: Bredesen’s senior advisor and lobbyist for the last four years of the administration, when Republicans controlled the Legislature, who recently completed two years working in the Haslam administration. An architect of Race to the Top legislation and the Complete College Act. Former chairman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. Go back a few years, and you’ll see Miller’s fingerprints on the passage of the Tennessee Plan that governs how judges are selected. Last, but not least, he served as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. John Wilder.

Miller’s the real deal and as politically savvy as they come. We at TNReport wouldn’t want to cross him. We’d drink with him, though, any day of the week.

Steve Buttery

A former House member, Steve Buttery is close to House Speaker Beth Harwell and House Clerk Joe McCord. He’s a pragmatic East Tennessee Republican, with strong connections to both the Haslam administration and constitutional officers.

Jeff Van Dyke — AT&T

Jeff Van Dyke is the lead lobbyist for this powerhouse communications giant. He’s from North Carolina but rapidly became influential in policy and politics in Tennessee given the money and muscle of his company and the highly skilled lobbyist corps he directs. Note: He was named one of North Carolina’s most influential lobbyists. We’re waiting to see if that happens in Tennessee. And it just may.

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

Press Releases

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

Press Releases

Independent Businesses Group Throws Support Behind Maggart

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012:

NFIB/Tennessee supports pro-small business candidate for reelection

NASHVILLE, Tenn., July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, has endorsed incumbent Debra Maggart (Hendersonville) in the race for the 45th House District.

The endorsement was made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. The primary is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28.  The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 6.

“Debra Maggart is a very strong supporter of free enterprise and has done an outstanding job protecting small businesses in House District 45,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “Representative Maggart has voted to decrease harmful taxes on small business, like the death tax, and to reduce the burdens of government on hard-working entrepreneurs.”

Maggart said, “I greatly appreciate NFIB’s support for my campaign. I will continue to fight for less government and less red tape so our small-business job creators can get back to doing what they do best, which is grow Tennessee’s economy. Tennessee is a great place to do business, but we have more to do to make it even better.”

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to the Maggart campaign. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of the Maggart campaign. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

NFIB is the nation’s leading small business association, with offices in Washington, D.C. and all 50 state capitals. Founded in 1943 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, NFIB gives small- and independent-business owners a voice in shaping the public policy issues that affect their business. NFIB’s powerful network of grassroots activists sends its views directly to state and federal lawmakers through our unique member-only ballot, thus playing a critical role in supporting America’s free enterprise system. NFIB’s mission is to promote and protect the right of our members to own, operate and grow their businesses. More information about NFIB is available online at

Featured NewsTracker

Ramsey Rolls Out ‘Red Tape’ Website

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey said he hopes to create a “megaphone” for Tennessee small businesses by launching a website that will give them a place to air their grievances with state government.

He says the site,, which stands for “Ridiculous Employee Decisions That Affect People Every Day” will collect complaints about dealing with Tennessee government bureaucracy.

“Tell me how government red tape has affected your life. I’ll help you cut it,” Ramsey said via Twitter moments after he announced the website Monday in a press conference at Capitol Hill.

His staff will manage the website and chase down submitted complaints, such as problems applying for a business license, and try to rectify the problems.

Ramsey, who is titled the “chief red tape cutter” on the website, doesn’t know how much maintaining the website and following up on complaints will cost the state of Tennessee, he said. But “this will be best money that has ever been spent in the state of Tennessee” if they ease headaches for small businesses.

The site was applauded by representatives from the National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free-market think tank.

“The regulatory environment in our country and in our state is crushing free enterprise and job creation,” said Jim Brown, state director of the NFIB.. “A lot of folks have been talking about jobs bills. Where’s the jobs bills? And, in our minds, this is part of a jobs bill.”

Press Releases

Ramsey Launches Website Highlighting Government ‘Red Tape’

Press Release from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, March 28, 2011:

(Nashville) – Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) today introduced, a new website dedicated to shining a light on unnecessary government regulation.’s mission is to be a space on the web where regular Tennesseans can have a voice and seek relief from oppressive government red tape. The site offers the opportunity to small business owners to tell their story of overbearing government regulation and how it has affected their lives.

“The best thing that government can do to promote economic growth is stay out of the way of people who create jobs,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. “This website is designed to help highlight and expose the barriers government puts in the way of entrepreneurs trying to put people to work.”

Lt. Gov. Ramsey was joined at the unveiling by the National Federation of Independent Business’ state director, Jim Brown, Justin Owen, President of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research and Josh Helton, Small Business Advocate for the Office of the Comptroller.

The most flagrant examples of government red tape will be highlighted on the blog and the site will also aggregate stories of government red tape in the news.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey is a leading voice for economic growth in Tennessee state government. Ramsey believes government must do all it can to stay out of way of entrepreneurs who wish to create jobs.