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Press Releases

TACIR Releases Eminent Domain Report

Press release from the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR); March 13, 2013:

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) released its report Eminent Domain in Tennessee, a study of two bills referred to TACIR by the General Assembly last year: Senate Bill 1566 (Ketron) [House Bill 1576 (Carr)] and House Bill 2877 (Gotto) [Senate Bill 2745 (Johnson)]. The government cannot take your land without paying for it, but they can force you to sell; this action is called condemnation. The power to condemn is referred to as eminent domain.

In 2006, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted Public Chapter 863, which made significant changes to the state’s eminent domain law, including clarifying the definition of public use. These reforms, partly made in response to the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, greatly improved protections for property owners in Tennessee. But concerns remain about the time and expense of determining property value; the authority of housing development agencies, which are arms of the local government, to condemn property; and the ability of former property owners to repurchase condemned property that is not used by the government and later sold.

Senate Bill 1566 would have allowed a property owner to require the local government to submit to binding arbitration in order to determine the price of property to be taken by condemnation. If it had passed, local governments would not have been able to object to the use of binding arbitration. Like litigation, arbitration is a process for dispute resolution whereby a neutral third party renders a decision after a hearing at which both parties have an opportunity to be heard. With binding arbitration, the parties are legally obligated to comply with the arbitrator’s decision. While binding arbitration generally reduces the time required to resolve a dispute, it has many of the disadvantages of litigation. Binding arbitration is less time consuming than litigation, mainly because the decision cannot be appealed simply because the parties do not like the result, but it is potentially as expensive because the parties still hire lawyers, appraisers, and other experts when arbitrating disputes.

One concern raised by local governments about Senate Bill 1566 involved the issue of being forced into a dispute resolution process that can be appealed in only very limited circumstances. The only other state with a similar provision is Oregon, which allows a condemnee to force a condemner into binding arbitration only when the value placed on the property by the parties is $20,000 or less. The fact that there is only one state that authorizes a property owner to force a condemner into binding arbitration, and only then in cases that involve small claims, suggests that this is not a desirable method for resolving eminent domain disputes. In its report, the Commission points out that since Tennessee already offers a number of alternatives to litigation for resolving valuation disputes, property owners should not have the power to force local governments into binding arbitration.

One alternative to settling disputes that is already widely used in Tennessee is mediation, which is essentially a form of assisted negotiation. Less time consuming and less costly than other methods of resolving disputes, mediation is an informal process through which a neutral third party, the mediator, helps the parties reach agreement. The report says that mediation should always be considered before arbitration. Mediation is generally much quicker and much less costly than either litigation or arbitration. Moreover, the determination of value is left to the parties. If successful, mediation would make the overall process less costly and time consuming and would allow the parties to decide the price for themselves.

The other bill referred to TACIR for study, House Bill 2877, would have eliminated the power of housing agencies to condemn property, and would instead require local elected bodies to institute condemnation proceedings on behalf of them. In practice, local governments already have oversight of housing authorities’ use of eminent domain through approval of the redevelopment plans under which the authorities operate. Under Tennessee’s redevelopment law, however, a governing body may delegate authority to approve redevelopment plans to another agency, including a housing authority, which then could both approve a redevelopment plan and use it as a basis for condemnation. The Commission found no local government that has delegated this authority.

Still, removing language that allows the delegation of authority to approve a redevelopment plan to housing authorities would ensure that such agencies could not approve the plan themselves, thus using it as a basis for condemnation, without the oversight of the local governing body. It would not preclude housing authorities from condemning property to carry out plans that are approved by the local governing body. It would simply ensure that housing authorities could not be given the authority to approve the redevelopment plans that would give them the authority to condemn property. It would guarantee that the local governing body continues to have oversight of these projects.

TACIR also studied a related bill not referred to the Commission for study, Senate Bill 548 (McNally), House Bill 952 (Dunn). This bill would have given a right of first refusal to property owners whose property was condemned by a local government or a state agency. Currently, a right of first refusal exists only in the case of condemnations by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). A right of first refusal gives the condemnee the right to repurchase condemned property if the condemner decides to sell it. The provisions of Senate Bill 548 would have required the property to be offered to the former property owner or his heirs or assigns, if sold within ten years, at the price paid by the condemner.

Many stakeholders interviewed for the report supported the idea of giving property owners a right of first refusal in all condemnation cases. Nine other states already provide a similar right. However, local government officials, in particular, expressed concern about the burden of finding the former owner, and especially his heirs or assigns some ten years later, and about having to accept the original price paid rather than fair market value. Accordingly, the Commission recommended adoption of the TDOT model, including limiting the right of first refusal to ten years from the date of condemnation, limiting it to the former property owner only, and setting the price based on appraisals of fair market value.

Finally, several interviewees said that condemnation doesn’t happen very often, so efforts should be made to better inform property owners about their rights, including the right to receive just compensation for their condemned property. This could be accomplished by requiring condemners to include a statement of rights along with the condemnation notice before initiating condemnation proceedings. One option found in other states is an ombudsman, similar to the Office of Open Records Counsel within the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, to assist individuals with their condemnation questions.

The full report is available on TACIR’s web site at www.tn.gov/tacir/pubs_by_date.html. For more information, contact Leah Eldridge at 615-253-4241 or Leah.Eldridge@tn.gov.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Forrester Touts Dems’ TN Victories

He concedes the Democratic party in Tennessee is in a superminority at the state legislature, but state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester says he put in place a plan to march the legislature back to Democratic control.

Even so, Forrester, the longtime leader of the state Democratic Party, says that won’t happen overnight.

“We’re very, very excited about the four victories we had in the House,” Forrester said. “To defend all of our incumbents, which we did … we’re very excited about those victories.”

Indeed, Forrester counts Democratic Reps. Charles CurtissMark WindleDavid ShepardSherry Jones and Craig Fitzhugh and others among key wins.

“These are the people that represent our future,” Forrester said. “Even though we’re in the minority, we’ve moved the ball down field.”

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He also pointed to the victory of Metro Councilman Darren Jernigan, the Democrat running against GOP incumbent Jim Gotto in the Davidson County House District 60 race.

“We took Jim Gotto, a right-wing Tea Party nut job, out of office,” Forrester said.

Both the Senate and House Republicans hold supermajorities, which means Republicans can pass any law without a single Democratic voice.

Forrester will be stepping down from his post in January.

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

 

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Press Releases

Forrester: Gotto’s Support for School Vouchers ‘Punishes Our Children’

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; October 4, 2012:  

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Rep. Jim Gotto’s support for private school vouchers could break the backbone of the middle class: Tennessee’s public schools.

“Jim Gotto’s support of private school vouchers amounts to a tax break for wealthy Tennesseans and it’s paid for by diverting millions away from the schools our working and middle class families rely on,” said Chip Forrester, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “Instead of handing out vouchers of false hope that fail to even cover the cost of tuition at many private academies, we should renew our commitment to student achievement by strengthening the schools we have, keeping class sizes small and empowering great teachers.”

Currently school districts in Tennessee get a set amount of funding for each student enrolled. In general terms, a new voucher program could provide parents with a coupon worth around $7,000 to spend on tuition at a private school — though the private schools could still reject their child’s application. One of Gov. Bill Haslam’s top education deputies says the trouble is many private schools in Tennessee cost double or triple the value of the voucher, leaving poor and working families a choice only on paper.

“Gotto’s support for private school vouchers looks like virtual schools 2.0, another multi-million dollar waste of our tax dollars that punishes our children and rewards special interests,” Forrester said. “If we want our children prepared to compete for the jobs of the future, we cannot afford to waste one more dollar on unaccountable schemes that defraud taxpayers and shortchange our children’s future.”

In June of this year Gotto accepted a $1500 contribution from Students First, an education reform group that pushes for school voucher programs in a number of states.

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Press Releases

TNDP: Questionable if TN GOP will Protect Senior Citizen Health Care Benefits

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; August 30, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan aren’t the only Republican politicians with a plan to end Medicare as we know it.

Earlier this year, Tennessee Republicans, including state Rep. Jim Gotto, co-sponsored the Health Care Compact bill (HB0369/SB0326), an extreme measure that endangers the health benefits of 800,000 Tennessee seniors enrolled in Medicare and shifts management of their health care plans to TennCare.

Tennessee seniors now want to know if Republican Senate candidate Steve Dickerson and House candidates Charles Williamson, Ben Claybaker and Robert Duvall will support controversial entitlement reforms such as turning Medicare into a privatized voucher program or the state Republican plan to have TennCare take over Medicare.

“Voters assume Dickerson, Williamson, Claybaker and Duvall will fall in line with party bosses, like Rep. Gotto, who want to end Medicare as we know it and hand the management of their health care plan over to TennCare,” said Brandon Puttbrese of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “If these candidates are supporting the Romney-Ryan ticket, which is pushing for vouchers and empty promises that will swamp Tennessee seniors with increased health care costs, voters have to expect that they won’t stray far from their party’s anti-senior policies.”

Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has endorsed his running mate’s plan to privatize Medicare through vouchers. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found the Ryan plan would cut benefits and raise health care costs for seniors by $6,400 each year.

“Tennessee seniors won’t support an extreme plan that puts their current health care coverage at risk — whether it’s Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan or Republicans in Tennessee, there are consequences for endorsing plans that endangers Medicare’s guaranteed benefit or turns the program into a privatized voucher scheme,” said Puttbrese. “It’s time for Davidson County’s G.O.P. candidates — Steve Dickerson, Charles Williamson, Ben Claybaker and Robert Duvall — to be clear with voters and explain whether they support these extreme entitlement reforms that pose a threat to seniors by putting their guaranteed coverage at risk.

 

TENNESSEE REPUBLICAN COMPACT BILL COULD END MEDICARE’S GUARANTEED BENEFIT & FORCE MEDICARE RECIPIENTS INTO TENNCARE

Republican Health Care Compact Bill Would Force 800,000 Tennessee Seniors and 200,000 Disabled Tennesseans into TennCare or a Similar State Program. Under the Republican Health Care Compact Bill (HB0369/SB0326), beginning in FY13-14, the State of Tennessee would take over the federal Medicare program and force enrollees into TennCare or a similar state program. Not only would this be an unprecedented expansion of state government, this bill would increase the state budget by $11,505,596,700.[Capitol.TN.gov, accessed 8/15/12]

Compact’s Block Grant Funding Gap Endangers Medicare’s Guaranteed Benefit at Current Levels and Would Pass Costs onto Seniors. In a release, AARP Utah — another state that has enacted the Health Care Compact law — summarized two of the major problems of the compact, problems that Tennessee would surely face. The AARP stated, “First, the block grant would not keep pace with medical inflation, meaning a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to the state, as medical inflation is much higher than ‘cost-of-living’ inflation… Third, the gap between the block grant funds and the actual cost of medical care for the hundreds of thousands of people who are served by Medicaid and Medicare would be shouldered by the low-income, disabled, and senior populations who are beneficiaries.” [AARP.org, 5/2012]

Indiana Republicans Excluded Medicare From Their Health Care Compact Law to Avoid Cuts to Seniors’ Benefits. Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has a very complex position on Indiana’s “Health Care Compact.” Recognizing the that funding for the Health Care Compact is not designed to keep pace with medical inflation, as pointed out by AARP Utah, Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature amended their “Health Care Compact” bill to exclude Medicare from their compact. [NWI Politics, 2/23/12]

PAUL RYAN’S BUDGET ENDS MEDICARE AS WE KNOW IT AND SHIFTS COSTS ON TO SENIORS

The Ryan Plan Would End Medicare As We Know It And Raise Seniors Health Costs By Thousands Of Dollars Per Year. “The budget resolution developed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) would make significant changes to Medicare. It would replace Medicare’s current guarantee of coverage with a premium-support voucher, raise the age of eligibility from 65 to 67, and reopen the ‘doughnut hole’ in Medicare’s coverage of prescription drugs. Together, these changes would shift substantial costs to Medicare beneficiaries and (with the simultaneous repeal of health reform) leave many 65- and 66-year olds without any health coverage at all.” [Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “Medicare in the Ryan Budget,” 3/28/12]

The Ryan Plan Raises The Eligibility Age For Medicare From 65 To 67, And Puts In Place Caps On Spending That Could Shift Costs To Seniors As Health Care Costs Rise. “Under Ryan’s blueprint, the Medicare eligibility age would rise over time beginning in 2023 from 65 to 67. In the future, seniors would be given government assistance to purchase private health-insurance plans or could continue to take part in the current fee-for-service model. Spending would be capped, meaning risks and costs could shift to seniors as health-care costs rise.” [Washington Post, 3/29/12]

The Affordable Care Act Preserves Medicare for the Future. Health reform found $716 billion in savings that didn’t cut Medicare benefits by a dime. These savings are extending the life of Medicare through 2024 by cutting unnecessary subsidies to insurance companies and rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. [FactCheck.org, 8/24/12]

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Education Featured News NewsTracker

‘Gateway Sexual Activity’ Bill a Tease — Won’t Change Much, TN Edu. Official Says

The thrust of sex education classes taught in Tennessee schools will stay the same under a controversial bill awaiting the governor’s signature, according to the Department of Education.

The so-called “gateway sexual activity” bill seeks to punish teachers and third-party groups that promote “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior” and rewrite state code to emphasizes abstinence education — both issues that caught the national spotlight this year.

“It really will not do much to change the current curriculum, the ways schools operate currently,” said Kelli Gauthier, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

Lawmakers easily passed the bill after much debate in the Legislature about whether abstinence education works, whether definitions of “gateway sexual activity” are too vague and whether teachers can get in trouble for not discouraging hand-holding, hugging or kissing.

The legislation points to the state’s current definition of “sexual contact” as “intentional touching of any other person’s intimate parts, or the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of … any other person’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.”

“Intimate parts” is defined as “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being” in state law.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s unsure what action he’ll take on the bill. From his study of HB3621 so far, “I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice,” he told reporters last week after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new science building at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

But bill sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto says the law’s current definition of abstinence isn’t clear enough.

Abstinence is “being interpreted as anything goes as long as your action will not result in a pregnancy. That’s exactly the way it’s being taught today,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville.

According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of Tennessee teen pregnancies is down 19 percent to 9,254 pregnancies in 2010. But the pregnancy rate is still among the top 10 in the nation.

In the House, the bill passed 68-23 with some bipartisan support. The bill won near unanimous approval in the Senate with only one holdout, Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

“We want to teach our children to be abstinent, but in the event that they don’t listen to us, we need to protect our children and see to it that they don’t fall victims to unwanted or unneeded pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases,” she said on the Senate floor shortly before the bill passed.

Democratic leaders in the House were split on the issue, with Caucus Leader Mike Turner saying the bill was merely an example of Republicans being “obsessed with sex this year” and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh saying bill is flawed only because it does little to address teenage pregnancy.

Rep. John Deberry, D-Memphis, instead, says the state finds itself in a quandary between supporting personal freedoms and trying to legislate behavior to stop unwanted pregnancies.

“We have a whole state department that takes care of somebody else’s mess,” he said, adding that one school in his district was home to 70 girls who had become pregnant.

“We can’t tell people what they shouldn’t do. Well, when we don’t tell them what they shouldn’t do, then we end up paying for what they do. At some point in time, we have to say, change the behavior,” Deberry said before voting for the bill.

Critics cite another rub: The bill would give parents the power to file complaints against any instructor or organization that promotes or demonstrates any sort of sexual activity.

Only instructors teaching sex ed and promoting “gateway sexual activity” would be subject to discipline. If the individual is employed by an outside group to teach the material, the teacher or its organization can be fined up to $500. Science teachers, instructors verbally answering students’ questions about sexual activity in good faith and teachers of other courses would not be subject to discipline.

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Featured

Lawmakers OK Legislation Allowing Ayes, Nays Via Video at School Board Meetings

Local school board members can attend meetings digitally, so long as there is a physical quorum, under a plan that has passed both chambers of the Legislature.

The House on Thursday passed HB2883, which allows local school districts to adopt a policy, outlined in the bill, allowing members to attend meetings and vote via video conferencing technology. The bill states that such a policy would only allow members to participate digitally if they are out of the county for work, a family emergency or military service.

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, passed two weeks ago by a vote of 26-6.

On the House floor Thursday, the bill provoked a lengthy debate between legislators, with several saying it started the state down a “slippery slope” when it comes to allowing elected officials to shirk their duties.

House sponsor and Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the bill’s intent is not to give officials a way to avoid their obligations, but rather to fulfill them.

“It’s sort of gotten to the negative sense that what we’re trying to do is give excuses to those that have been elected to school boards not to show up,” he said. “It is just the opposite. It is a situation where, for instance, some member of a school board has a sick mother in Chattanooga and is faced with being at her side rather than at the meeting of the school board. It gives them the opportunity to do their duty.”

Still, some legislators said the bill would allow officials to avoid controversial issues and difficult votes.

“There’s probably nothing more contentious on the local level than a school board meeting because we’re talking about issues that affect our children,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Germantown. “So, if an issue comes up, this could be construed or used in a way where a member doesn’t want to show and face his [constituents] and use this as an excuse.”

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, also raised a concern about the potentially slippery slope and asked Fitzhugh if he would favor allowing such a policy in the future for state legislators.

“I would not,” Fitzhugh responded. “But, you know, I think at one point, this video thing will be so refined that we may be able to have a session whereby we are in our home counties. I’m not advocating that. I won’t live that long. But, I think possibly, someday we might.”

While legislators are required to vote in person, it is not uncommon to see a member leave the chamber and ask his neighbor on the floor to vote for him. Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, rose to support the bill and suggested that members were contradicting themselves by engaging in such activity, while insisting that other elected officials should not be allowed to participate in meetings electronically.

“I think what we have to remember is, to some extent, we do this every day,” he said, admitting that he was guilty of the same. “When we’re not under the rule, we ask our voting partners to vote us while we step out and go get a Coke or whatever we do. In many cases we do the very same thing that we’re now saying we don’t want to allow [anybody] else to do.”

The bill eventually passed, 58-35, with Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, present but not voting.

After the measure passed, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, who opposed the bill, told TNReport he didn’t think Shaw’s criticism was accurate.

“Even if we get up and walk outside, I wear a hearing device, and so I’m always hearing what’s going on,” he said. “Sometimes a constituent will actually come and ask for us to step out and speak to them, and we’ll do that. That’s a whole lot different than me sitting at home, to where constituents can’t get to me.”

An amendment to the bill exempted Davidson County, in which Gotto serves. But still, he said, despite understanding Fitzhugh’s intentions, he was disappointed to see the bill pass.

“Everything the local governments do is under authority that’s given to them by the state,” said Gotto, who has also served as a member of Nashville’s Metro Council. “This is one of those cases where as a state legislator, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to give that kind of power to the locals to be able to do that, because quite frankly, I think their constituents need to have full and total access to them.”

The bill, which Fitzhugh said the state’s school board association requested and supports, leaves much of the details of such a policy up to local school districts, outlining only the circumstances in which a member would be allowed to participate digitally. An additional amendment added a requirement for the board’s chairperson to visually identify any members participating by way of video technology. The Senate now has to OK the amendment before the measure can head to the governor for approval.

At a media avail Thursday afternoon, Gov. Bill Haslam said he didn’t know about the bill, but that good government was about “the relational piece of being there in person to do it.”

“I participate in board meetings, sometimes, over video and you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of understanding the context of what’s happening.”

 

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News

Republicans Scheduled to Vote on House Speaker Nominee

Sweeping Republican gains in the Tennessee House of Representatives resulted from GOP candidates campaigning on conservative principles. And voters deserve someone overseeing the chamber who believes conservative priorities are now the people’s priorities, Rep. Glen Casada said Wednesday afternoon.

Under his direction, the House could be expected to approve or advance only that legislation rooted in core conservative values: reducing government size and spending, keeping state regulators out of the business community’s hair and stopping any new tax increases.

That kind of leadership isn’t for a moderate, Casada told TNReport on the eve of his party’s selection of a nominee for House speaker.

“Some people think that agreement is a greater good than getting your principles passed,” said Casada. “And I feel like getting my principles passed…is of greater value than getting agreement.”

Key party constituencies, like gun-rights advocates and Tea Party activists, have argued, too, that Rep. Beth Harwell, who is running against Casada, would be more likely to settle for compromise on issues of importance to them. Some conservative activists have also called for the caucus House speaker vote to be public, although the chamber’s party members have resisted that suggestion thus far.

But despite her moderate image, Harwell, a a two-decade House incumbent who led the TNGOP for four years, has herself advertised that she has no problem cutting Democrats out of the lawmaking mix for the next two years.

“Certainly in times past, we’ve had this mentality of a Democrat-Republican coalition, understandably so,” she told TNReport last week. “That day is over.”

Casada and Harwell say they would marginalize Democrats on legislative committees to reflect the heavy Republican majority in the chamber. And both pledge to support whomever the caucus nominates for the post — which in Harwell’s case seemingly constitutes an assurance that she won’t seek to leapfrog the party’s more conservative elements and reach out to Democrats for support on the House floor in January.

The new speaker will replace Rep. Kent Williams, a former Republican turned Independent who was elected into the leadership post with the help of Democrats in 2009. Both Casada and Harwell say that kind of backdoor surprise is not in the cards in 2011.

Thirty-three votes are required to win the caucus’ approval. The nominee is expected win election before the whole chamber in January with the entire party’s backing.

The GOP won a 64-34-1 majority at the general election earlier this month, essentially giving the party control of two-thirds of the chamber.

The nomination process was originally scheduled for the second week of December, but was moved up in an attempt to bond the party together sooner behind one central leader, Casada said.

Caucus members seem to know who they want to vote for, “so they might as well get it out of the way,” he said.

“Many, many in the caucus basically felt they had already made their mind up,” Casada said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner says Republicans have their work cut out for them.

The party will soon realize they can’t keep all the groups that helped them into office happy, he said.

“I think you’ll see a lot of those groups complaining about a lot of things as we go forward, and it just tickles me to death,” Turner said Wednesday.

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

GOP Advance in State House Races

As results from across the state come in, the GOP appears to be poised for a 63-35-1 majority in the state House, Post Politics says.

One of those GOP seats will be held by Metro Councilman Jim Gotto, of Hermitage, who defeated fellow Councilman Sam Coleman, of Antioch. Gotto won in the 60th District, which opened up after Ben West announced his retirement.

Another goes to Republican Linda Elam, who won the 57th District seat vacated by Rep. Susan Lynn. GOP candidate Sheila Butt will serve in the lower house as well, after ousting incumbent Democratic Rep. Ty Cobb in the 64th District.

See Post Politics’ look at the state Senate makeup here. More race tallies here.