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Liberty and Justice News Transparency and Elections

Legislature Says Criminals Must Pay Full Restitution for Voting-Rights Restoration

A proposed law to require that felons pay all their fines and court costs before getting their voting rights restored is headed to the governor’s desk.

The measure breezed through the Senate Wednesday, a stark contrast to the gale-force debate that howled up in the House last week.

The bill, SB 440/HB 09690, was sponsored by Rep. Joe McCord and Sen. Doug Overbey, both Maryville Republicans.

In the House, McCord and the bill were accused of aiming to disenfranchise voters who traditionally lean Democrat, and for placing a higher political premium on revenue collections than civil rights and “equal justice.”

“I agree that we should have restitution, but what I don’t agree with is when your income or lack thereof causes inequity in our system, and that’s exactly what this does,” said Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis. “This is not equal justice. We are talking about people who have paid their debt (through incarceration), and now we are going to make a decision based on their ability to vote on how much money they have.”

Added Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, “Basically we’re saying if you’ve got the money, and you can pay, you can have your rights restored, but if you don’t have the money…you cannot.”

Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat, wondered if the bill was part of “an overall Republican Party effort to disenfranchise people,” citing similar bills being offered in Washington and other states.

Supporters of the measure countered that critics seemed more concerned with getting ex-cons in ballot booths than with ensuring that criminals are made to repay their victims and reimburse taxpayers for the full costs of their misdeeds.

The issues in the bill have “nothing to do with whether you’re rich or poor,” said McCord. He likened it to a bill passed a few years ago that requires a person to be caught up on child support.

“It’s (about) a convicted felon and failure to pay court costs,” he said.

State and Local Government Committee chairman Curry Todd was among those who expressed agitation with the arguments put forward by opponents of the bill.

“Why don’t we let the cops give out a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card to everybody who makes under a certain income?” asked the Collierville Republican. “Do we not have any sympathy for the victims out there? We’re one of the top states in the nation in violent crimes. Why should (felons’ rights) be restored? I’m tired of everybody being so damn sympathetic to the criminals.”

House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol later added that as a result of felons not paying fines and court costs, “The victims and the taxpayers are paying those court costs, so the victims are being victimized twice.”

After nearly 50 minutes of debate that included members of both sides of the aisle being ruled “out of order,” House Speaker Kent Williams asked the members to wrap up the debate.

“I don’t what more can be said about this,” he said.

It passed on a vote of 69-23.

The bill had passed the House May 17 on a vote of 72-18, but McCord had to bring it up for another vote last week because the original bill as passed incorrectly gave the Board of Probation and Parole the ability to declare a person indigent rather than the courts.

The Senate unanimously agreed to the amendment on Wednesday.

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News Tax and Budget

Lawmakers Not Yet Ready to Give Bonuses the Boot

Tennessee Republicans in both the House and the Senate have been saying they’re trying to purge this year’s budgetary process of the urge to fork out fresh pork, new fish hatcheries and one-time state-employee bonuses.

They’re now indicating an apparent interest in compromise on the latter.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said Tuesday a “major discussion” in state budget negotiations is underway involving state employees getting a little extra at the GOP bargain-basement bonus bin, beyond a certain amount of job security and a steady paycheck.

Some lawmakers have taken to weighing the investment value of a performance enticement of some sort — such as beefed-up health insurance, according to Norris, instead of an across-the-board gratuity as was originally proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in his state-of-the state speech.

“No, we can’t afford to give a raise now, but maybe an incentive-based raise in the future. It’s just an option. It’s not very well vetted,” the Collierville Republican said Tuesday. “We’re also looking at insurance benefits which may be tax free. They can have more significant impact than a $300 or $400 bonus.”

House Democrats released a budget plan Tuesday that includes $500 bonuses to state employees, teachers and university professors — a proposal that would cost the state $72.2 million. Government workers’ would see the bump to their bank accounts in the fall, likely a little before election time.

Opposition to Bredesen’s February proposal to give state workers a 3 percent bonus costing taxpayers $163 million seemed softer in the House than Senate when the governor first floated the idea.

“Is 3 percent too much? Is 2 percent too much? I don’t know. In my opinion there needs to be something, but how much?” Franklin Republican and House GOP caucus chairman Glen Casada said shortly after the governor made his budget pitch.

But a month ago, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he perceived a solid “consensus on both sides of the isle and both houses that now is not the year to be giving a bonus to state employees at the time you’re laying those state employees off.” Associated Press reports that Ramsey still thinks a bonus is “illogical” right now.

As many as 1,000 employees could be laid off under current budget proposals, but that number could change in the next few days.

“Paying bonuses right now is just a disconnect for most folks in Tennessee,” Norris said last week. His Senate caucus enjoys a 19-14 majority and has publicly hewn to the tough-economic-times-call-for-belt-tightening-not-bonuses viewpoint.

House Finance, Ways and Means Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said members who helped draft their budget first thought of working in some alternatives to a pay bonus, but came to believe it would create a larger-than-acceptable workload to implement it.

Republican leaders, who hope to settle on a budget next week, have yet to decide how they want to handle any employee incentives or bonuses, Norris said.

“The main issue right now is what does the economic trend show? What can we afford and what can we not afford and our first priority right now is looking at the state employees,” he said.

The governor, along with Democrats, also wants to spend money on a number of smaller projects that have elicited unaccommodating reactions from Republican legislators. Topping that list is a $16.1 million expenditure for a fish hatchery in House Speaker Kent Williams’ home district.

Norris said lawmakers are still hashing out other aspects of the budget, such as how deep the state should dip into its rainy day fund, how much extra money to put aside for flood recovery and — in a late Tuesday night Senate Finance committee meeting — how to handle a sales tax exemption for flood victims.

One issue, Norris maintains, is pretty clear in the Senate.

“Fish pale in comparison to state employees, let’s put it that way,” he said.

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Featured News Tax and Budget

Carter County Fish Hatchery a Flop Among Republicans

House Speaker Kent Williams says a $16.9 million trout hatchery in his home district would help boost the local economy, but lawmakers who live nearby think the idea sounds a little fishy.

Calling it “fish pork,” several legislators in Upper East Tennessee districts say there is no space in the state budget to fund special projects during tight economic times. Building a fish hatchery in Carter County is simply a pet project for the independent Speaker of the House of Representatives that he’ll then use to bait voters come election time, Williams’ rivals in the chamber charge.

It’s a move they say will leave cash-strapped Tennessee taxpayers on the hook to pay the tab.

“We have lots of fish farms in East Tennessee. They’re called rivers and lakes and streams,” said Rep. Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican who neighbors Williams’ district. “We don’t need to spend $16 million on, truly, a version of fish ‘pork.'”

For his part, Williams says a facility in Carter County would become a stimulator for the economy of Upper East Tennessee, an attractant to boatloads of tourists, not unlike a similar facility in Texas that the speaker says lands 80,000 visitors a year.

“Why shouldn’t Carter County and upper East Tennessee just get just a little chunk?” said Williams, who added that other areas have benefited from economic developments when the state attracted companies like Volkswagon or Hemlock Semiconductor.

“It’s not like we’re asking for $500 million. It’s a little chunk. And I don’t know why I’m getting so much resistance on it,” he said.

In addition to the schools of fishermen who’ll be reeled in not just by the hatchery but also the nearby rivers and streams to wet their lines, the planned aquatic learning center will help educate swarms of visiting students from regional school systems. All those visitors would in turn chum the economic waters with tourist dollars at restaurants, shops and lodging, claims Williams.

But Lundberg thinks Williams is telling fish stories — that in fact the hatchery wouldn’t make that big an economic splash. The primary beneficiaries of all the new trout swimming in nearby waters will primarily be local recreationalists, he said. And while the prospect of catching a few more lunkers for creel and skillet on a weekend outing no doubt sounds nice, he said it’ll hardly heat up the local economy.

Republicans also point out that Williams’ “little chunk” looks more like a pretty good sized hunk when considering some of the much cheaper projects GOP lawmakers have also announced they’ll be tossing back instead of keeping onboard next year’s budget, including $5 million for a National Civil Rights museum and $4 million for construction work at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis.

State officials don’t know what kind of economic impact to expect, either.

“There’s no way to know. We’d probably project 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a year,” said Bart Carter, TWRA fisheries manager for the northeast region. Another agency official, TWRA Assistant Director Nat Johnson, said tourist numbers could be as high as 60,000 visitors based on attendance numbers at a similar facility in Athens, Texas.

Athens is less than 100 miles from the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington metroplex, which has a population — around 6.5 million — greater than the entire state of Tennessee.

The Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association said their region now has the fastest growing economy in the state. According to 2008 data, the last year available, the state showed the largest economic growth statewide with $640.64 million in travel-related spending in the eight-county area. Carter County, with population of 59,000 people, collected $31.2 million in travel-related expenditures.

The whole idea of spending money on the fish-hatchery project at this point in time makes Justin Owen’s head swim.

“This is a prime example of government gone wild,” said the policy director for the Tennessee Center for Public Research. He added that the Tennessee Constitution “doesn’t say anything in there about hatching fish.”

“What the Speaker calls a capitol project is really code name for pork-barrel spending,” said Owen, who this week launched a Facebook event page urging lawmakers to “Say No To Fish Roe.”

“He’s flat out saying by virtue of him being Speaker he can redirect money to his district,” Owen said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen added the fish hatching capitol project to his budget earlier this month. The plan, which is close to the Independent speaker’s heart, was tacked onto a long list of amendments to the Democratic governor’s $28 billion spending plan.

The state now owns and operates 10 fish hatcheries across the state, including two others in nearby Buffalo Springs and Erwin. If the state OK’s building the facility in Carter County, hatchery operations would be run by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and supported through licensing fees and federal funding, according to the governor’s budget office.

The hatchery, which would create some 22 jobs, needs another $16.1 million in funding this year to get off the ground. About $800,000 for planning and architecture work was paid for by the state last year, according to the administration.

If passed, the remaining funding would depend entirely on whether Tennessee receives some one-time federal dollars expected to top off at $341 million.

Democrats so far are including the project in their budget proposals, but House Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, wouldn’t say how far the party would go to support the Speaker’s project.

House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower — who, like Lundberg, hails from Williams’ neck of the woods — would not go so far as to say the idea is dead in the water. But he reiterated the GOP line that this year “is not really the time for earmarks of any type.”

“What we need to do is pass a budget that includes no new taxes, and make sure we keep expenses under tight control,” said the Bristol Republican.

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News Tax and Budget

HGOP Wants to Restore Career Ladder, Ag Grants

Republicans in the state House of Representatives want to make sure programs like the Career Ladder and and money for farm and ranch subsidies are funded with permanent, recurring dollars in next year’s state budget, according to House Majority Leader Jason Mumpower.

After a caucus meeting Wednesday, the Bristol Republican said members want to take those two issues introduced by the Senate GOP Tuesday off the chopping block.

“With that, I think we’re very, very, very close to where they are,” he said of the Senate proposal.

Senate Republican, led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, revealed their budget plan Tuesday. The pitch included paying for programs like Career Ladder, the $34.5 million merit pay program for teachers, with temporary dollars instead of permanent funds — opening up the possibility of eliminating the program when the money runs out.

The plan also included cutting out $6.3 million worth of agriculture grants.  The funds, which support long-term subsidies in local livestock and farming operations, would drop from $16.3 million to $10 million.

However, members of the House GOP believe both those funds should be restored, Mumpower said.

“The House Republican caucus, I think, is overwhelmingly for a budget that makes some further responsible cuts and doesn’t go too far into the rainy-day fund,” he added. “It’s irresponsible to clean out the rainy-day fund. The situation this time next year is going to be as bad as it is today, if not worse.”

Legislative leadership indicated Thursday that both chambers will conduct Finance, Ways and Means committees next week to hammer out the budget. The House will meet in full session Monday and Thursday, but the Senate will only meet in committee.

Mumpower said he expects the legislature to have a final budget hashed out by the end of the month.

“But hey, ask me again in 15 minutes,” he said.

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Featured News Transparency and Elections

Mumpower Moving On

Republican Leader Jason Mumpower, a key figure in delivering the GOP its historic majority status in the state House, surprised much of the Capitol on Thursday by announcing he will not seek reelection this fall.

For Mumpower, from Bristol, it was a stunning turn, since he was within one vote only a year ago of becoming speaker of the House, edged out in a striking maneuver when Republican Kent Williams of Elizabethton made a deal with 49 Democrats to make Williams speaker instead.

That vote jolted the other House Republicans and denied Mumpower the speaker’s gavel many had assumed he would be taking. The Republicans had gained a 50-49 advantage in the House in the 2008 elections, creating the party’s first majority in both the House and Senate since Reconstruction.

Mumpower said Thursday after the House adjourned for the day that last year’s vote on a speaker had nothing to do with his decision now to leave after serving 14 years.

“That’s old news,” he said. “It is what it is. That has nothing to do with it. My decision has everything to do with what is right for me and right for my family.”

He said his focus now will be on legislative work and the upcoming election season.

“The time was right,” Mumpower said. “It’s always best to leave the party early.

“This hasn’t been an easy decision. This has been one I’ve come to know is the right decision. What I’m going to do at this point is finish this session, leading this caucus in an aggressive way to make sure that we accomplish a balanced budget with no new taxes. Then I’m going to leave this session and get out in the field and make sure we continue to grow and expand our Republican majority in the House.”

Mumpower mentioned “new challenges” in his future but he gave little hint as to what they might be. He did acknowledge a personal desire he and his wife have to have children.

“I’m 36 years old,” he said. “One thing I haven’t done yet is start a family.

“I think if I had chosen to run I would have been re-elected to my House seat and re-elected as House Republican leader and I think I stood a very good chance of being elected speaker. Ultimately, I made a different decision.”

He said he felt he was making the right decision.

“It’s a decision a member of the House has to make every two years, and if you look back at past election cycles, I’ve always had a tradition of filing my petition for re-election on or about (NASCAR) race weekend in Bristol, and that happened to be this past weekend.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this past weekend talking with my family and really came to the conclusion this past weekend that this was the right time for me.”

Mumpower said he would be active in working for Republican candidates.

“I’m going to work in many political campaigns across the state, helping Republicans get elected,” he said.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, Republican caucus chairman, said he did not believe Mumpower’s departure was related to any disappointment about the speakership.

“Jason was a true leader. He’s a true friend, first and foremost,” Casada said. “He is a true Christian. He lived what he believed. He did an excellent job as majority leader, and he’s probably the fundamental reason why we are in the majority.”

Casada said he thought there were a lot of factors in Mumpower’s decision and that he thought Mumpower himself probably didn’t know what he wants to do away from the Legislature.

“I think he has served 14 years and he’s looking to do other things,” Casada said. “He’s been going back and forth 600 miles a week for 14 years. It’s just time to do something else.”

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, the Democratic caucus chairman, said he had heard rumors “a while ago” about a possible departure by Mumpower.

“I heard rumors. I hadn’t heard anything lately. I had kind of forgotten about it. Then I heard early this morning about it,” Turner said.

Turner and House Democratic leaders had locked horns earlier this week over controversial remarks Turner had made about reaction to the Obama health-care reform plan in Washington.

“Jason is a good man,” Turner said Thursday. “He’s a very intelligent man. He’s been a friend of mine for some time. We don’t always agree on a lot of things, but it doesn’t make him a bad person. I’m sure he’s going on to better things.”

Mumpower did not speculate on who might win his district seat.

“Fourteen years ago, the people of the 3rd Legislative District decided to take a chance on a skinny, 23-year-old kid, and I respected the judgment that they exercised then, and I’m going to respect the judgment they exercise now in choosing whomever they want to represent them,” Mumpower said.

“I will be working to ensure it is a Republican, because I think only a Republican will best reflect the values of the district I represent.”

When a reporter asked Mumpower for more specifics on what he will do next, Mumpower reiterated his intention to work for candidates.

“I’m not leaving the fight. After that, we’ll see. Maybe you need a camera man,” he said. “I’m going to see what’s out there. Whatever the case may be.”

Mumpower had been in the Legislature only a few years and was not very well known outside his district when state Republican Party members began to notice the strong approval ratings Mumpower had there.

He soon became recognized as a rising star in the House, and his ascension to the leader’s post followed. He looked primed to reach the top position in the chamber when the 106th General Assembly convened. Then came the dramatic vote that made Williams speaker.

As Mumpower waited patiently Thursday while members of the media gathered around his desk on the House floor for comments, moments after the day’s session had adjourned, a man stepped forward, said, “Jason,” reached out and shared a firm handshake with him, then walked out of the chamber. The man was Kent Williams.

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Business and Economy Health Care Liberty and Justice News

Health Care War in TN Going Nuclear

Tennessee Republicans demanded Tuesday that House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner apologize for implying that opposition to federal health care legislation may be driven by racist disdain for President Obama.

They could be waiting a while, however, because later in the afternoon Turner said he has “nothing to apologize for.” And House Democratic Leader Gary Odom issued a press release afterward accusing Republicans of “hypocrisy” and “intentionally (taking Turner’s comments)…out of context for the purpose of political grandstanding.”

The spat arose from Turner’s comments during a press conference at the state Capitol Monday, when, standing with Odom, Turner rebuked Republicans for pushing bills advocating “state sovereignty and all that.”

“They’ve done that on a lot of issues,” Turner told reporters. “All of the sudden, we have a black man elected president, and everybody wants to start acting like something’s wrong with our country. I think we need to go back and take a good, hard look at this. I didn’t agree with a lot of the things George Bush did, but I didn’t want to secede from the Union.”

Republicans took umbrage with Turner’s assessments of opposition to Obama and his health care agenda. Three House Republicans — Reps. Jason Mumpower, Glen Casada and Mike Bell — declared to reporters during a press conference they called at noon Tuesday that the Old Hickory Democrat’s comments were inaccurate and inappropriate, and called on other Democrats to denounce him.

“When someone disagrees with the president, all that Chairman Turner and Tennessee Democrats know to do is name-call — in this case, to call people racist,” said Mumpower, R-Bristol. “Democrats don’t have any substance to their discussions or their arguments, all they like to do is name-call and point fingers.”

Bell, R-Riceville, is the chief House sponsor of the “Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” which passed last month in the Senate 26-1. Bell said state residents “from Mountain City to Memphis” have contacted his office to tell him they oppose the federal health care legislation.

“They oppose (it) not because our president is an African American,” said Bell. They oppose it “because they are angry at an oppressive federal government that is overreaching its bounds.”

“We’re a free a country — at least I hope we still are a free country,” Bell added. “And people want to be free to choose to participate in a federal program, or to keep their private insurance. That is what the anger is about.”

Casada found Turner’s implication “offensive,” too, and said he’s getting calls and emails from Tennesseans angry that an elected public servant “would raise and wag his finger and call you racist and call me racist just because you don’t agree with his big government policies.”

“Chairman Turner needs to apologize,” said Casada. “This type of demeaning people to try to put them down has got to stop.”

TNGOP Chairman Chris Devaney on Tuesday also joined the chorus, sending a letter to state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester to “immediately ask Rep. Turner to apologize for his personal attacks on the vast number of Tennesseans who do not agree with his Democratic Party’s agenda for our country.”

Responding to Republican calls for him to express remorse, Turner told TNReport he has no plans to retract his comments. Regarding those angered by his sentiments, Turner said “maybe they got a guilty conscience.”

“Anybody who would honestly say that some people are not against (Obama) because he is an African American, I think they’re living on a different planet,” said Turner.

In a press release that outlined a six-point list of what he called “examples of Republican political activities in our state (that) should never be forgotten,” Odom declared, “I find it remarkable that House Republicans would condemn the use of racial overtones in political debate, when you consider recent Republican activities in our state and our country.”

The list went on to point out instances of alleged racism within Tennessee’s Republican party, including a former GOP Party Chairman “sending out Christmas music entitled “Barack the Magic Negro'” and a Republican Senate staffer sending out a “photo composite that pictured all of the U.S. presidents but depicted President Obama in a black background with only two white eyes.”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report. She can be reached at andreazelinski@tnreport.com. Mark Todd Engler can be reached at markengler@tnreport.com.