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Dems Push Back, But Per Diem Downsize Passes House

Even if a reduction in expense payments to lawmakers sails through the Senate like it did in the House Monday night, lawmakers will still make more than the average worker in Tennessee.

Five Democrats joined all but three Republicans in voting, 72-15-3, to eliminate the $107 payment for lodging received by lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol. House sponsor Rick Womick said HB80 is the right thing to do.

“Right now, we receive $107 a day for hotel plus $66 a day for food,” the Rutherford County Republican said. “It’s hard to look at my constituents in the eye when they ask me, ‘Why are we paying you $107 a day for a hotel that you don’t use?’”

In place of the per diem, lawmakers would receive mileage reimbursement, at 46 cents a mile, for each legislative day in Nashville or any day, except Friday, that the lawmaker participates in any other activity in Nashville. The bill would limit the payment to one round trip per day.

Legislators would still receive $66 a day for meals and incidentals.

According to Womick, both per diem amounts are taxed by the federal government under a law that requires anyone who lives within 50 miles of where he conducts business to pay taxes on all per diems he receives.

“We’re taking taxpayers’ money, and 38 to 48 percent of it is shipped straight to Washington, D.C.,” Womick said. “I’d rather keep that money right here in Tennessee and let Tennessee and this state government use that money, and in return, be reimbursed for my mileage.”

Lawmakers receive an annual salary of $20,203, plus $12,000 a year for an office at home – whether they set it up or not. These two figures alone are almost $8,000 more than the $24,197 per-capita income of Tennesseans in 2011.

Add to that the per diems, health insurance and 401(k) retirement benefits, and the total take-home gets close to $60,000, according to the City Paper.

Although only three Democrats spoke out against the bill, two of them would not be impacted if the legislation passes the Senate. Senate Bill 107 is supposed to be heard Tuesday in the State and Local Government Committee, but is not listed on its calendar.

Democratic House Caucus Chair Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, questioned the equity of the legislation.

“It’s always hard when you’re figuring per diem. The only way to really do it is do it kinda across the board,” the 12-year veteran of the House said. “I think what you’re doing makes the system totally inequitable, and I’m going to vote against it for that reason.”

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, said he values himself and the people he represents more than the per diem amount legislators receive.

“I live 200 miles out, but if I didn’t live but 10 miles from here, for the time that I spend away from my family, having to be here and not being able to work for myself, I think it’s a little off-kilter for us to take that sixty whatever dollars that is from those persons who could give it to their families,” Shaw said.

While she lives in Memphis, Rep. Johnnie Turner agreed with Shaw that a price cannot be put on the time lawmakers spend away from their families. She also said that those who live in the immediate area have it harder because they are “always confronted” by people in their district who want to talk issues.

The three-term Democrat expressed fear that if this reduction is approved, “we’re going to come up with another law to reduce the per diem or mileage for those who live beyond 50 miles.”

According to an article by the City Paper, senators took home more than $14,600 on average in per diem in 2012, while state representatives averaged more than $13,800 each.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, HB80 would save the state $253,616, based on figures from in 2012, when 33 legislators lived within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol.

If the bill becomes law, the change will not impact sitting legislators, just those elected in 2014 forward.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Retiring, Defeated Lawmakers on Taxpayer-Funded Getaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House of Representatives

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory

Senate

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville

Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis

Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis

Sen. Steve Sutherland, R-Morristown

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

Drug Testing Bills Still Floating Around Statehouse

Lawmakers who want to drug-test their peers are slowly flushing those plans down the toilet as they struggle to fight high costs for their plans.

Meanwhile, a lawmaker who wants citizens on the state benefits rolls to provide a urine sample before collecting government handouts says he’ll be ready to pitch his bill soon.

“We have limited tax dollars and we want the dollars that we do have to go to people so they can do everything they can to get off the benefits,” said Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.

Campfield expects to push SB2580 next week mandating drug tests for those collecting welfare benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, legislation he said he spend most of the summer refining.

He says he is waiting on revisions to the price tag, which he expects will translate to state government savings over time as benefits recipients test positive for drugs. The fiscal note should be available this week, he said, and he expects to bring the measure up in committee in late February or early March.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is an advocate of requiring recipients of government dollars, such as those collecting unemployment benefits and worker’s compensation, to submit to drug tests. Ramsey has also said he supports drug testing public servants and even key personnel that contract with the state.

Several Democratic lawmakers are taking Ramsey up on his word and have proposed bills requiring lawmakers and their staffs to submit to drug tests, including Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar.

But Shaw said he’ll likely delay or take his bill, HB2411, out of committee when it is up for debate Tuesday because it has a $30,000 price tag every two years.

“I’m a little bit fed up with legislators passing laws they don’t live up to themselves,” said Shaw. “I can’t deny that some people do abuse social services but I’m willing to be tested first and foremost.”

Rep. G. A. Hardaway, who also wants lawmakers to take drug tests, took HB2432 and HB2433 off notice in the House Judiciary Subcommittee earlier this month to do more research on private sector drug testing. As is, his plan would cost $11,500 to drug tests legislators every two years. To lower the costs, Hardaway said legislators should pay for their own drug tests.

Hardaway says he expects to repitch his plans to the committee as early as this week.

“I don’t care how well we test, people still probably think we’re on drugs with the bills we’re churning out,” said Hardaway, D-Memphis.

TNGOP Slams Dems Voting Against Income Tax Ban

Press Release from the Republican Party of Tennessee, Jan. 19, 2012:

Once Again, Tennessee Democrats Stand Up For A State Income Tax

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding language to ban a state income tax. SJR 221, sponsored by Representative Glen Casada, passed the Republican-controlled House by a vote of 73-17-3.

The amendment will now have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate in the next session. The amendment will then be placed on the ballot, coinciding with a gubernatorial election, to allow Tennessee voters to approve.  “I applaud our Republican leadership for moving us one step closer to solidifying the unconstitutionality of a state income tax. However, several Tennessee Democrats once again showed their liberal mindset by reinforcing their belief that government should not be restricted from  dipping into your paycheck,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

“While Tennesseans work hard to get through this economic recession, Tennessee Democrats are content with duplicating President Obama’s philosophy of raising taxes to meet reckless government spending, instead of reducing government to meet current revenue,” said Devaney.

Democrats Who Voted Against Banning a State Income Tax: Karen Camper, Barbara Cooper, Charles Curtiss, Lois Deberry, G.A. Hardaway, Bill Harmon, Mike Kernell, Larry Miller, Gary Moore, Jimmy Naifeh, Joe Pitts, Jeanne Richardson, Johnny Shaw, Mike Stewart, Harry Tindell, Joe Towns, and Johnnie Turner.

Democrats Spend Day 2 of Jobs Tour in West TN

Press Release from Senate Democratic Caucus; Sept. 21, 2011:

Owners discuss potential for growth in tough economy

DRESDEN – House and Senate Democrats continued their statewide jobs tour Tuesday with stops at small businesses in Jackson, Martin and Dresden, to hear owners speak on state contracts and challenges in an extended recession.

“Our small businesses form the backbone of Tennessee’s economy, and we need to listen to those entrepreneurs and owners if we want our communities to thrive,” said State Senator Beverly Marrero.

Members visited Jackson businesses Tuesday morning to discuss downtown revitalization efforts and development hurdles in real estate laws. The tour continued in the afternoon to Martin and Dresden, where officials visited companies employing anywhere from two to 60 people.

“The loss of major employers in rural areas has had a major impact on small businesses who relied on those companies’ employees for customers,” said State Representative Johnny Shaw. “One factory closing has an ripple effect on an entire community.”

The jobs tour continues Wednesday with stops in Columbia and Smyrna. For more information, call (615) 812-2157.

DeBerry’s Leadership Formula: Maturity, Principle, Compromise

Next year promises to be a year of firsts.

For the first time since the post-Civil War era, Republicans will wield a trifecta of power in Tennessee state government — the governor’s office and two legislative chambers.

The first female speaker is expected to be sworn into the House of Representatives.

And if Memphis Rep. John DeBerry Jr., is selected on Dec. 15 as House Democratic Party leader, he will be the first African-American to win that post in the state’s history. He is competing against Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley, and two-time Democratic Caucus Leader Gary Odom, of Nashville, for the high-visibility assignment.

One of the minority leader’s essential day-to-day functions is to plot and execute resistance against the majority party’s more objectionable policy offensives — but not at the price of appearing oblivious to the democratic will of the citizenry. The floor leader is the lead spokesman and most public face of the caucus. He or she also plays a significant role in campaign fundraising, ensuring that members get re-elected and offering hope that the party is always positioning itself to win back majority power at the earliest opportunity.

DeBerry wouldn’t be the first racial minority to hold a high-level legislative leadership slot. Rep. Lois DeBerry (no relation to John DeBerry Jr.), also from Shelby County, is the long-time speaker pro tempore, the official backup to the House speaker.

If fact, he said he “never thinks about it from that standpoint.” Growing up in a family of civil rights activists, DeBerry Jr., 59, witnessed firsthand black Americans making pioneering strides toward integrating themselves into the political and cultural mainstream of society, he said.

DeBerry has spent the last two years chairing the Black Caucus, a position he will hold through the end of the year.

His background and past experiences aside, DeBerry indicated that if he’s selected to lead his party on the House floor, he would not make addressing issues important to the African-American community more important than addressing issues affecting the Democratic Party or the people of Tennessee as a whole. DeBerry said he wouldn’t be “a zealot for a particular mission, for a particular demographic.”

If selected as minority leader, he said he would find ways to fix problems — like when he discovered there was no policy outlining that it was wrong for a legislative staffer to depict President Barack Obama as a solid black picture offset only by a white pair of eyes.

Instead of calling press conferences and egging on national media efforts to paint Tennessee in as unflattering a light as possible, DeBerry organized “sensitivity training” for legislative staffers and helped establish policies designed to make clear what kinds of words or actions are inappropriately offensive in the state Capitol, he told TNReport.

The seven-term legislator has never run for a top party slot before and last exercised leadership as the Children and Family Affairs committee chairman.

Irrespective of the history-making milestone of electing an African American to lead the Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives, that possibility alone won’t sway many people’s decisions, said Rep. Mike Turner, House Democratic caucus chairman.

“If John DeBerry gets elected, it won’t be because he is African-American. It would be because he is a capable person who can carry the Democratic message,” said Turner, who added that he has encouraged members to vote for the best candidates for leadership posts, regardless of where they are from in the state.

Rep. Joanne Favors, a fellow member of the Black Caucus, said she’s not caught up in the historic nature of votes for legislative leadership.

“That won’t be the key issue for me,” said Favors, of Chattanooga, stressing that she wants someone who has strong negotiation skills, understands the legislative process and can work effectively across the aisle.

Agreed, said Johnny Shaw, also a member of the House Black Caucus.

“I think his chances are as good as anyone else’s,” said Shaw, who represents Bolivar. He added that he thought DeBerry would likely draw some support from the House’s 14-member legislative Black Caucus. “But to say who it would be, I couldn’t make that call.”

The minority leader post guarantees a role at the negotiating table with Republicans on key issues — assuming they invite Democrats in.

DeBerry’s party lost 22 races in the November midterm elections, handing Republicans a 64-34-1 majority in the House.

Republicans have taken the opportunity to declare that they do not need Democratic help on legislation or on the budget and insist that they’ll run government on their own.

DeBerry says that’s where he comes in.

The future looks grim for Democrats next year as they are outnumbered by Republicans by nearly 2 to 1. So the key, he said, is trying to work with them, not against them.

“We can declare a war and stand on the floor and make speeches on every little insignificant issue,” he said. “Or we can take another direction. We can build bridges. We can work with the governor. We can work with Republican leadership.”

DeBerry faces formidable opponents. Fitzhugh chaired the powerful Finance, Ways and Means committee last session. Odom is the reigning House Democratic leader.

With 34 members in the House Democratic Party caucus, DeBerry would need 18 votes to win the election.

The election is set for Dec. 15 in Nashville. The member with the fewest votes will be knocked out, then the caucus will choose between the remaining two candidates, according to Turner.