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Education NewsTracker

Bredesen on Watered-Down Achievement Standards

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen said Tennessee’s lax testing standards had misled students into believing they had mastered subjects, speaking about how he tried to address the problem in a CNN series on America’s schools.

For example, the state at one point reported that 83 percent or 84 percent of students were proficient in 8th-grade math, when in reality only 22 percent were, Bredesen said in the report that aired Sunday.

“You may feel good for a minute if you think that, but you’re not doing these kids any favor by lying to them like that,” Bredesen said. The former Democratic governor said he believed a lot of states had watered down achievement standards in response to the rigorous reporting requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush almost a decade ago.

The CNN report spotlights Bredesen initiatives to beef up the state’s math and science curriculum and toughen graduation requirements. The series follows three students from around the country preparing for a national robotics competition, including a teen from Seymour, Tenn. The students are among the few who are excelling in math and science, while overall the country is not turning out enough workers prepared to enter those high-skilled fields, the report says.

Check out the CNN series, “Don’t Fail Me: Education in America,” at the links below.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Categories
Business and Economy Featured News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Amazon Debate Centers on Details of State Incentives

A clash over Internet sales tax collections regarding Amazon.com Tuesday became yet another arena of questions over what sort of deal former Gov. Phil Bredesen struck with the online sales giant.

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, has proposed legislation that would force businesses such as Amazon, which is dramatically increasing its presence in the state, to collect sales taxes on consumer purchases in Tennessee. Amazon opposes such legislation, questioning the constitutionality of such a law.

But discussion over McNally’s proposal led lawmakers to ask yet again what exactly was done in the Bredesen deal that landed Amazon distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

Action was deferred on the legislation, as was the companion bill in the House, until next week, but there appears to be no waning of curiosity among lawmakers about the Amazon agreement — including whether the deal is even in writing.

“There are a number of questions that I have — the committee has — certainly the issue of transparency, the issue of fairness, the potential of economic impact from jobs, versus fairness to existing businesses that are here and collecting sales tax on behalf of the state,” McNally, chairman of the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee, told reporters.

McNally said his intention is to clarify state law on sales tax requirements on businesses that have a presence in the state — an element of the issue that has become open to debate.

One side of the issue argues that letting big distribution companies like Amazon slide on sales tax collections is unfair to the bricks-and-mortar retail businesses that are increasingly failing to compete with the Internet presence of Amazon and businesses like it.

Advocates for Amazon say the sales are being conducted in the home state of Washington, that the presence in Tennessee is only for distribution of the product and that there is no real retail presence of Amazon in the state.

Amazon has reportedly said if the legislation is passed in Tennessee it will take its books and go elsewhere, where the business climate is friendlier. Further, Amazon has reportedly increased the stakes, saying it has also prepared to build distribution centers in Knoxville and Nashville.

The emergence of Amazon in Tennessee has become a significant issue because its presence would bring more than 1,000 jobs to its East Tennessee centers and potentially as many more in new locations in Nashville or Knoxville.

Tennessee has actively recruited businesses that have the potential to create jobs. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he wants to honor commitments to large companies that were made by the previous administration.

But legislators continue to be frustrated by the lack of knowledge of precisely what those commitments were.

Even if the governor and lawmakers back the previous deal, Amazon’s flirtation with new distribution centers ups the ante on whether to force the company to collect sales taxes on its transactions.

Haslam has said that ultimately the Internet sales tax issue would require a multi-state solution because no single state could remedy the problem on its own.

The discussion in the Finance committee Tuesday appeared to show Republicans and Democrats of like mind. Both parties understand the importance of sales tax collections in state revenue.

“It’s an issue that of course involves jobs, but it’s an issue that involves fiscal policy in the state,” McNally said. “This is not a tax issue, it’s really a tax collection issue.”

Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, said during the meeting, “It almost seems like somebody’s playing games with us, because you know our tax base is based on our sales tax, and that’s pretty important to us.

“It doesn’t seem fair.”

Braden Cox, director of state public policy for Amazon, told legislators the sites planned for Tennessee are “fulfillment centers” for the orders that go through Amazon.

“Fulfillment centers. This has become a new term of art,” said Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the Senate majority leader.

“I’m trying to look at this from your point of view,” Norris said. “But I’m having the same difficulty Senator Haynes has.”

When Haynes referred to Amazon sites as “stores,” a lobbyist for Amazon corrected him by saying they are “warehouses,” not stores, and noted that a consumer can buy boots from L.L.Bean without paying sales taxes.

Much of the discussion centered on the commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution, from Article 1, Section 8, that authorizes Congress to regulate commerce between several states. The issue also involves the due process clause from the 14th Amendment.

The due process clause says no state shall deprive any person of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the due process clause prohibits a state from taxing a company unless there is “minimal connection” between the company and the state.

A key case study involved Quill Corp., a mail order company incorporated in Delaware, that made catalog sales. The North Dakota Supreme Court ruled that there was sufficient presence, known as “nexus,” of Quill in the state and that Quill had to collect the state’s sales tax. But the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state court, saying the case did not represent sufficient nexus as it related to the commerce clause.

Norris said there is risk in affording one company like Amazon a tax break that is, in turn, disadvantageous to other businesses in the state and could interfere with their interstate commerce.

But in the end, some of the biggest questions among lawmakers remained on deals in the Bredesen administration.

McNally asked Cox directly what the agreement was and if it was in writing. Cox referred to statutory economic incentives available to any company and that there had been “commitments made” regarding sales tax collections. He said they were made in a “business context.” He said he couldn’t speak to the legal nature specific to the state.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has been out front seeking answers to exactly what deals were made under the previous administration, at one point calling for a meeting with Matt Kisber, who was commissioner of Economic and Community Development under Bredesen.

McNally picked up that ball on Tuesday.

“I think it’s important for the people of Tennessee to know what the deal was, what we ended up giving away in order to get the jobs in the centers,” McNally told reporters.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, echoed concern about tax breaks.

“I think we’ve got to be very cautious on giving all of these tax breaks to companies because ultimately the taxpayers in Tennessee end up paying for it,” Beavers said Tuesday.

“I’m not sure how many jobs we’re talking about, and that would have an impact on some things I think. We just keep giving company after company tax breaks. How long can we afford to do that?”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this story.

Categories
Business and Economy News NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Bloated Brochure Project at Tourist Development

Bredesen appointee Susan Whitaker is in the hot seat this week, as her Department of Tourist Development comes under criticism for a PR project whose costs grew to four times the original estimate. WSMV Channel 4 dug into invoices at the department and found a bloated project to create promotional brochures.

The ad agency White Thompson, which won the state bid for the brochures, indicated it would cost about $15,000 to develop six brochures, plus about $4,000 for the logo.

But when the I-Team began inspecting the invoices, it found that just a year later, the estimate to finish the brochures had doubled.

The estimate for the brochure a year later jumped to about $40,000 to finish the same brochure.

In the end, it cost $64,000. Add on the printing, and the final total was more than $100,000 in tax dollars to put the brochure in tourist destinations across the state.

We’re guessing the scathing news report was not quite the PR the department, a player in solar farms, had in mind. The TV station found that the department had spent $15,000 on videos praising Whitaker and former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Whitaker refused to answer questions on camera and “acted as though the I-Team wasn’t there when the I-Team showed up,” the television station reports. Guess this PR fiasco is something not even good bloodlines and working for Dolly herself prepared her for.

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Business and Economy Featured News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Ramsey Seeks Details Of Taxpayer-Funded Economic Incentives

Officials in the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam have tried not to point fingers or publicly second-guess actions by former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s team involving major business relocations.

But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey appears willing to ask tough questions about the deals sealed by Bredesen’s job recruitment officials, saying lawmakers have been left clueless about details on state deals that came late in Bredesen’s time in office.

Ramsey is wondering not only what is in those deals but asking exactly who made them and suggesting that more people — like himself — need to be part of the approval process since the Legislature has to OK the state money involved.

Ramsey has seized upon statistics provided by the current Department of Economic and Community Development that show only a small fraction of new jobs in the state in recent years has come through relocations.

Such relocation deals were hallmarks of Bredesen’s administration, where high-profile agreements like the arrivals of Volkswagen, Hemlock Semiconductor and Wacker Chemie were hailed with headlines that Tennessee was the place to be for major businesses looking for new homes.

But Ramsey is raising questions about deals that came later, involving Electrolux in Memphis and Amazon.com in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

Haslam has said the state is still pursuing relocations by big companies but that the focus is shifting to expanding businesses already here because that’s where real job growth is.

But if Haslam is reluctant to publicly question the deals made by his predecessor, Ramsey appears to be a willing volunteer. Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said he is “elated” that the Haslam administration is taking a different course on job growth.

Ramsey contacted Matt Kisber, Bredesen’s commissioner of Economic and Community Development, and scheduled a meeting to discuss deals involving the kitchen appliance maker Electrolux and distribution centers by Internet sales giant Amazon.

Kisber canceled, and Ramsey speculated that Kisber shied away from potentially becoming part of a “media event,” since Ramsey had told reporters about the scheduled meeting. Ramsey still held hope this week that he and Kisber could talk.

The issue raises matters of transparency in government. Business relocation negotiations notoriously involve tight lips. The issue has even crept into the local level. One bill considered by the Legislature this year would give a local government authority to designate negotiations as proprietary information.

When the Haslam administration presented its jobs plan last week, the presentation included two pie charts, taken from statistics in the last three quarters of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, showing that the vast majority of new jobs in Tennessee were created by existing businesses, not relocations.

One chart, accounting for all jobs in the state — those achieved with or without state help — shows only 1.2 percent came from relocations to Tennessee. Another chart showed jobs announced by ECD — jobs where the state had a hand in creating them — and 27 percent of those came through re-locations.

The Department of Economic and Community Development said 85.6 percent of all jobs in the state came from expansion of existing businesses, 13.2 percent from newly created businesses, leaving only the 1.2 percent in re-locations.

Haslam said his interest is in results.

“You look and see: Where are the new jobs coming from? And 98 percent are coming from existing businesses in Tennessee,” Haslam said last week.

“We’re not going to quit recruiting outside our borders, but we are going to make certain we put the right focus on energy and dollars where the results are. So it’s not a question of saying we’re going to quit welcoming people in. Just the opposite. But we are going to focus on where the results are.”

Ramsey climbed aboard his war horse last week, telling reporters, “I think we’re going to look very closely at things that happened in the last month of the Bredesen administration, as they handed out $92 million, more like $100 million, to Electrolux. Apparently that’s in writing. We’ll have to honor it. But that’s pretty easy for a governor who knows he is leaving office in a month to do.

“The whole Amazon tax issue, that they’re not paying sales tax, I just don’t think that’s something that should ever have been agreed to. Apparently, it’s agreed to. We’ll honor it. I think all those types of programs in the future are going to be looked at very closely before we do it again.”

Ramsey said he wanted to make sure businesses are held accountable for their side of the deals.

“I am absolutely elated that our Department of Economic and Community Development now will be concentrating on trying to help existing employers here in the state of Tennessee, most of them homegrown businesses,” Ramsey said.

“They grow businesses at three, five, 10 employees at a time. That is where you grow jobs. They’re going to be concentrating on that. I’m excited about that.”

Haslam has been relatively quiet on the Electrolux and Amazon deals. The governor has said the state should honor a previous commitment to Electrolux, and he has said on Amazon, where the issue has been that Amazon is not collecting sales taxes, that the matter needs to be resolved nationally and can’t be handled by only one state.

But Ramsey has expressed concern that the Electrolux and Amazon agreements appear to be “cloaked in secrecy.”

“I just want to try to figure out exactly what we have promised some of these companies because, keep in mind, the Legislature is the ones that have to vote on these appropriations,” Ramsey said.

“I think it is legitimate for us to find out what was promised, and when, and we’re still having a very, very, very tough time getting to the bottom of this.”

The House on Monday approved $106 million in bonds on a 91-2 vote, with most of the financing devoted to Electrolux.

Ramsey said Sen. Randy McNally, chairman of the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee, and members of the House have also been asking questions about the Electrolux and Amazon agreements. Ramsey said he did not know which state officials approved the deals.

“Not me. That’s all I know,” he said.

Efforts this week by TNReport to reach Kisber were unsuccessful.

“I do think there needs to be a larger group of people that agree to this type of policy,” Ramsey said. “It needs to be a combination of the executive branch and the legislative branch.”

Ramsey said he didn’t remember that anything was kept secret about the Volkswagen deal, where the car maker made a $1 billion investment in a plant in Hamilton County, or the Hemlock Semiconductor deal, which involved a $1 billion investment in Montgomery County, or the Wacker Chemie deal in Bradley County, which also carried a $1 billion investment.

“Yet it seems to be that the deals that were made in the waning moments of the last administration are cloaked in secrecy,” Ramsey said.

He hasn’t even learned much from the Haslam team. Ramsey said he asked Haslam and new ECD Commissioner Bill Hagerty if they had actually talked to the Bredesen people about the matter.

“The answer is no, apparently,” Ramsey said.

Kisber and former Department of Revenue commissioner Reagan Farr together launched Silicon Ranch Corp., a green energy company, when they left state government. Bredesen is listed as chairman of Silicon Ranch and is featured atop Kisber and Farr on the leadership page of the business’s Web site.

Ramsey said there should at least be agreements in writing on Electrolux and Amazon.

“I have not seen anything in writing on either one of those deals,” Ramsey said. “That’s all I’m asking for, some kind of full disclosure, and if it’s something that needs to be kept confidential for business recruitment reasons then I’m more than happy to keep it confidential. Yet at the same time I want to make sure we as a Legislature — at least some members of the Legislature — know the details of some of these meetings.

“The one thing that I’d have to say is it makes you wonder if anything was in writing, if nothing has been presented in writing.”

Legislation sponsored by Memphis lawmakers and considered this week would authorize a local government, with the agreement of the local government’s attorney, to designate records as proprietary information, further preventing details of deals from becoming public.

The legislation, HB1774, would allow a local legislative body to determine that information should not be released because of its “sensitive nature” and that it should be considered confidential for five years. Only after that period would it become public record and open for inspection.

The City of Memphis has posted on its website the Electrolux deal, including a section on confidentiality. That agreement, in Section 12.5, which appears on Page 25 of the document, says:

“Each Public Authority understands the importance to itself and the Company of keeping details concerning the transactions contemplated hereby strictly confidential.

“Accordingly, each Public Authority acknowledges that, subject to all applicable laws which require disclosure of public records, all confidential, proprietary and trade secret information of the Company which has been delivered or otherwise made available to the Public Authorities, including the terms of this Agreement, is subject to the Confidentiality Agreements and may not othewise be disclosed to any third-party except in accordance with such respective agreement or as mandated by applicable law.

“Subject to applicable law, each Public Authority hereby agrees to redact any information in this Agreement which the Company deems, in its sole and absolute discretion, proprietary. The State hereby agrees that it will not publish any of the Letter Rulings issued in connection with this Agreement.”

The document further says that no press releases or other public disclosure about the transaction can be issued by any public authority without approval of the company.

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News

Larger than Life

Former President Bill Clinton probably summed up the way most people felt about Gov. Ned Ray McWherter in a memorial service Saturday at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville.

“Whenever I talked to him, he made me feel good,” Clinton said. “I was kind of excitable. He would calm me down. If I was low, he would lift me up.”

There were moments of laughter and moments of tears in the service, but above all there was an unmistakable swell of love for McWherter, who died on Monday at age 80.

The service Saturday drew a power-packed line-up of state dignitaries, but the message was on the compassion in the man who looked after people who lacked power or wealth or fame. A separate service is scheduled for Sunday in Dresden, McWherter’s hometown.

McWherter served Tennessee as governor 1987-95, and there were frequent references Saturday to his skillful days as speaker of the House for 14 years before becoming governor.

Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, who sat side-by-side during the service, each spoke of McWherter’s connection to ordinary people and his care for those who, like himself, came from humble beginnings in a rural part of the state. Descriptions of life in Weakley County were frequent throughout the ceremony.

The gathering of political dignitaries — past and present, Democratic and Republican — included Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, former U.S. Sens. Howard Baker, Jim Sasser and Harlan Mathews and former governors Phil Bredesen, Don Sundquist and Winfield Dunn.

McWherter was a Democrat, but on Saturday there was little mention of political parties.

Mike McWherter, his son, who was the Democratic nominee in the race last year against Haslam, gave a eulogy and began by picking up a gavel from a small table in front of the podium and banging it. He recalled how his father used to let him do that when he was speaker.

Gore picked up on the small-town theme quickly, noting that references to McWherter being born in tiny Palmersville instead should be described as “greater Palmersville.”

“That little community was something that shaped Ned profoundly,” Gore said. “He told stories about it all through his political campaigns. He said, ‘I played with a little white pig until I was 18. It was the only toy I had.’

“The Memphis Commercial Appeal said if that story wasn’t exactly true at least it was genuine.”

Gore made a point to mention the presence of legislators in the auditorium, including Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, who looked up to McWherter.

“There is a large family of people, especially in the Legislature — Speaker Naifeh and so many others — who really felt like family to Ned McWherter, and to all of you we are here in support of those ties and to honor what he meant to you and what you meant to him,” Gore said.

Clinton described how McWherter nudged Clinton and Gore to get together for the presidential ticket that won in 1992. Gore had just decided not to run for the White House.

Clinton recalled that McWherter said, “If Albert had run, he would have beat you. But you’re my neighbor, and I like you, and I will be for you.”

Clinton said McWherter told him, “I’m telling you, you would be a good team. He’s smarter than you are. He knows more about everything than you do, and your line of B.S. is better than his.”

Clinton also joked about his first impression of McWherter, who was as hefty physically as politically.

“I saw that body, and I thought, my God, the Grand Ole Opry’s got its very own Buddha,” Clinton said.

But Clinton quickly learned about McWherter’s political persuasiveness.

“The first time I met Ned Ray McWherter, after 30 seconds of that aw-shucks routine, I wanted to reach in my back pocket and make sure my billfold was still there. After a minute, I was ready to give him my billfold,” Clinton said.

Clinton called McWherter a “fabulous politician” and noted that McWherter had helped him carry Tennessee in presidential elections in 1992 and 1996 and supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she won the state’s primary. Clinton said that in his family McWherter could do no wrong.

The service included music from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Former McWherter aide Billy Stair spoke movingly about McWherter’s work and drew heavily from the unveiling of a statue of McWherter in Dresden last October. The program Saturday included remarks from former McWherter chief of staff David Gregory.

At times, especially before the service, the auditorium had much the feel of a family reunion.

“He saw politics as a profession with a purpose,” Gore said. “He wasn’t in it for some ideology or philosophy. He was in it to help the people who were in the kind of circumstances he was in when he was growing up.”

Clinton described McWherter out of friendship, not just as a political colleague.

“Above all, he was a friend,” Clinton said. “Above all, to the people of Tennessee he was a friend. We’re here laughing and wanting to cry because we know he was special. He was great because he didn’t think the Democrats were right all the time, and he knew Republicans couldn’t be wrong all the time.”

Clinton closed on a note of the season.

“I think God knew what he was doing when he called him home in the springtime,” Clinton said. “In the springtime, we’re all reminded of how beautiful our earth is and how great it smells and how one more time we’ve been invited to make a new beginning.

“I hope the young people of Tennessee will wind up making enough new beginnings, so we’ll have more Ned Ray McWherters. He graced us in a way few people have, not just because of all he did, but because he was our friend.”

Categories
Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Lawmakers React to Haslam Cabinet Raises

Democrats say they’re surprised that Gov. Bill Haslam would opt to pay his top agency bosses 11 percent more than his predecessor did.

“I think at a time of high unemployment, this really sends the wrong signal to increase the pay of the state’s top administrators and these commissioners,” said state Sen. Lowe Finney, a high ranking Democrat from Jackson.

According to a report by The Associated Press, Haslam’s state commissioners’ minimum salary is $15,000 higher than that those from Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.

Haslam raised the minimum salary to $150,000 from $135,000 for agency heads, according to The AP. The maximum is now $200,000, up from a previous $180,000 high.

Republican leaders across the board say they support Haslam’s decision to pay high-level commissioners more money if it means better returns in the long run.

“We’re honored and pleased to have these commissioners and they need to be paid accordingly,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell who said the high quality leaders will ultimately find ways to make government more efficient. She added that there’s “no good time” to give a raise, but said she backs the governor’s move.

“I think in the state of Tennessee we need to have fewer employees who make more money each,” said Rep. Gerald McCormick, the House Republican Leader. “You’ve got to be competitive in pay in order to attract good people.”

In the next few months, lawmakers will be considering cuts to the state budget after about $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars run out. Haslam has offered to reduce the number of state employees from 5,100 to 4,800 but give remaining employees a 1.6 percent raise after a four-year pay freeze.

The raises are part of a larger strategy to reform state government, said a Haslam spokesman.

“State pay will never rival the pay in private sector, but if we’re going to attract great people we’re going to have to at least make it comparable,” spokesman David Smith told TNReport in an emailed statement.

“He has hired a great team to make state government more efficient and effective, and these commissioners should end up saving the state more money than the increase in their salary. They’ll do it by managing smartly, which is typically done by providing better service with fewer people,” he continued.

The following chart is courtesy of Gov. Bill Haslam’s communications office.

Categories
Business and Economy Education News

Haslam Talks Education, Economy, Budget at Small Biz Meet-Up

Gov. Bill Haslam offered some of the first glimpses Tuesday of what is happening in his budget process, while reiterating his two-pronged agenda of a jobs plan and education reform to a group of small business leaders in downtown Nashville.

Haslam got full-throated support of his plans from the hierarchy of Republican leadership in the Legislature, as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the majority leader, all spoke to the group and backed Haslam’s proposals.

Haslam said Transportation Commissioner John Schroer has found $5 million in overhead that can be put into “building roads and fixing bridges, the sort of things the money is supposed to go to.”

He said Greg Gonzales, commissioner of Financial Institutions and a holdover from the administration of Gov. Phil Bredesen, has found ways to do without some assistant commissioners and refund money in banks’ fees.

Haslam hammered home his mission of looking at administrative costs, regulations and direct services and keeping as much focus as possible on the services.

“As much as possible, I don’t want to touch the part that’s direct service, whether it’s building roads or helping families that have issues around mental health or children’s services,” Haslam said. “We’re slowly making some headway.”

Haslam is expected to present a budget proposal March 14.

Haslam was back home after a three-day conference in Washington of the National Governors Association, and he used the gathering of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Home Builders Association of Tennessee to reinforce his intentions of keeping regulations from bogging down business. He also highlighted efforts at reforming education and making job recruitment his priority as governor.

Haslam even offered some insight on the job recruitment, noting that some employers can be a bit greedy.

“We are already out talking to several good prospects,” Haslam said.

“We have a lot of interest in Tennessee. I was amazed at the deal pipeline. I’m also amazed at what people want, quite frankly.”

Haslam told reporters he “easily could” weigh in on the issue of taking away collective bargaining from the teachers union in the state, an issue he has heretofore not voiced a position on, leaving it to legislative sponsors Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, to lead.

Haslam said there could be a “few more twists and turns” on the collective bargaining legislation, and it “depends on how that plays out” as to how much he would get involved.

Haslam’s emphasis on education reform has thus far focused primarily on his desire to change the teacher tenure process, extending the probationary period involved from three years to five years.

Ramsey noted that in his 18 years in the Legislature there have been two “sacred cows” in K-12 education that you just couldn’t talk about.

“They are tenure and collective bargaining. Guess what we’re talking about this year. Tenure and collective bargaining,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey recalled how he met with Haslam a few days after the election in November and talked about education reform.

“He started talking about how we need some kind of tenure reform in the state of Tennessee. I wanted to walk across the room and hug him,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said his objection to the current system on collective bargaining is that teachers who are not represented by the Tennessee Educators Association are left out of the process and that the current system creates an adversarial relationship from the start.

Haslam, making a point about streamlining government, said he learned in Washington that about 80 federal agencies and commissions are involved in food safety. While Tennessee does not have that many agencies overlapping, he said he believes many state agencies and commissions do overlap. He described how he asked the reason for a fee in the state and was told it was to cover an additional cost to the government.

“Well, that’s not right,” Haslam said flatly. “We want to have government be there to serve you, to do our proper regulatory role, but we’re not here to have a fee that justifies our existence as we grow and put that burden back on you.”

Haslam said as he looked around the room he noted a difference in the business people and some Cabinet members in Washington.

“Not many of those Cabinet secretaries had ever really had capital at risk in a business,” Haslam said. “If you’ve never had capital at risk, you don’t understand the burden of regulations.”

During the Washington conference, President Barack Obama told governors he did not think it did anyone any good when public employees are denigrated, a reference to the clash in some states over benefits for state workers. Given Tennessee’s current scrap between the Legislature and the TEA, which is more subdued than the friction in other states, Haslam was asked after the event if he felt state employees were being denigrated by moves on tenure and collective bargaining.

“I’ve made that point about teachers. This is not at all about pointing fingers at teachers. If it is, it is the wrong discussion, and it shouldn’t be about denigrating state employees,” Haslam said.

“Believe me, I have incredible appreciation for state employees. It does have to be, though, about looking at what the overall equitable answer is for taxpayers, for employees, and for providing services. You have to look at all those.”

Jim Brown, state director for the NFIB in Tennessee, expressed his approval of what Haslam and the legislative leaders who addressed the group are trying to accomplish, noting that a tort reform bill Haslam is pushing is important.

Brown also said he has been impressed so far in what he has seen in Haslam’s administrative leaders and said they are trying to reduce the amount of red tape businesses face.

“What we’re seeing from them is they are looking at existing rules and regulations that have frustrated small businesses and home builders,” Brown said.

“The process should not take long. It’s costly. It discourages investment. It discourages growth and discourages adding jobs. He’s saying let’s look at everything in a full top-to-bottom review. That’s not a sexy press release, but it’s important.”

Categories
Featured News

Bredesen Sails On

Many will remember Gov. Phil Bredesen for many things: Keeping public education funding levels afloat, resisting the siren song of a general sales tax increase, landing a boatload of new businesses for the state, giving tens of thousands of TennCare recipients the heave-ho, navigating the state through the turbulent waters of an epic flood and anchoring his pronouncements with enough nautical metaphors to shame Popeye the Sailor Man.

But Bredesen, who is passing control of the helm to a successor with a similar background in business and politics, will be leaving behind what he believes is a legacy more fairly assessed at some point over the horizon than at these particular coordinates of space and time.

“If I leave office and people in Tennessee are that much more impatient for progress or demanding of state government and what it does, then I will consider it to be a successful job,” he told TNReport in the waning days of his tenure.

The highlights of the sit-down interview include Bredesen’s views not just on his legacy, but on issues facing the state and his party going forward, tensions in the relationship between the states and the federal government, the pitfalls, frustrations and hypocrisies of politics in general, and discussion about his book on health care reform.

TNReport: Compare your time spent in business with your time in office. Which has been more fulfilling for you?

Gov. Phil Bredesen: I enjoyed both. I enjoy being in the business world, and if it turned out I had stayed there I would have been more than happy. I have to say I’ve never done anything remotely as fulfilling as being governor for the past eight years. It’s a tough job in many ways – there’s so many people who peck at you and and so many people have other agendas and all those kinds of things. But when you get things done, they’re real things that are going to make a difference for people. I have found the job of governor to be the most interesting and the most challenging and certainly the most rewarding of any I’ve ever had.

TNR: And the most frustrating?

Bredesen: It can be frustrating at times. Primarily, I guess I would say that sometimes people’s agendas are more diverse in politics than they are in business. Business is supposed to be successful, to make money and deliver good products and those kinds of things. The agendas in politics are a lot wider, sometimes you just get people whose agendas I think are not what the founders of the country imagined our agendas would be, and I find that frustrating.

TNR: The individual mandate of the health care reform goes back to Massachusetts and GOP Gov. Mitt Romney. You wrote about that in your book and talked about how Republicans were champions of that mandate early on, yet last session you had Republicans railing against it on the floor and Democrats defending it. I know you envision yourself as a centrist – is that frustrating to you, the flipping of positions. How do you view that debate?

Bredesen: This playing out in every issue. I mean the Democratic-Republican axis — there has to be a Democrat opinion, a Republican opinion. (But that’s) not what this democracy is supposed to be about. It’s debilitating to it. I guess what I’d like to say is if we’re going to force everything into this axis of there being a Democratic point of view and a Republican point of view, and that’s where all the argument takes place, we’re never going to solve any of the big problems. I think that when Republicans get together in a room and talk together, nothing very interesting comes out of that. And frankly, when Democrats get in a room together and talk, nothing very interesting comes out of that. I think the really interesting things happen when you force people to try to find a common ground and get out of that ‘D’ verses ‘R’ stuff and talk about how you really solve the problems and what are the values you are bringing to the solution of those problems. That’s just a place where I’m sort of differing from where the Congress is or Washington is right now. Actually, we need to get to a more sensible way of solving these problems.

TNR: You’ve written this book (Fresh Medicine: How to Fix Reform and Build a Sustainable Health Care System) and you obviously have a history with health care – but where are you trying to go with it? You‘ve said you don’t see yourself running for election again, but where do you go from here after having started and engaged in this conversation about health care?

Bredesen: I wrote the book because I had some strong feelings that what we were doing was not adequate. I don’t like to criticize without offering an alternative. This book was not the obligatory “I’m running for office and these are the values my grandmother taught me.” It was, “I’ve been in this field for a long time, here’s a different voice of what this country might do.” I’ve had a bunch of invitations to speak to different groups about this, and I’ll take advantage of those and we’ll see where those lead.

TNR: Could you give a summary of your views on the concepts of federalism or state’s rights.

Bredesen: The issue in my mind, and I said this much in the book, is that I think one of the strengths of this country is its federalism, distinct divisions of powers and spheres of activity between states and the government — just as I think the separation of powers in the national government is healthy and produces a tension that is good for the country. Surely the states are more than administrative arms for the federal government. But it sure deserves some careful consideration out of this ideological yelling at each other about where this begins and ends. Now what we’re going to do is compel behavior by taxing the absence of it. That seems to be a whole new notion of what the powers of the federal government involved are and it certainly makes me uncomfortable. The problem is that this argument has been colored in my lifetime. “States’ rights” for most of that time meant segregation – that’s what it was about. And now it’s brought up by the tea party along with lots of other crazy issues. The point I was trying to make is to say, look, this issue of where does the federal government’s power begin and end — I don’t think you have to go back to what the founders of the Constitution thought. The world has evolved a lot since then. It deserves real discussion and examination and not being a fringe issue for either segregationists or tea party members. I don’t care for it.

TNR: In terms of your last eight years, you were very popular among people, oddly in a year when Democrats weren’t very popular. What would you attribute your own success to in that regard, with Tennessee Democrats and mistakes they’ve made?

Bredesen: I have this very strong feeling that elections are a lot of fun, and they’re contact sports, and we all go out and work for our party and so on. I really do think people want to see that when (elections) are over, that stuff gets push down a long way, (and politicians) get down to business to trying to get things done. I feel very, very strongly the notion that the day I got sworn in as governor, I was governor of all the people of Tennessee, and not the liberals and moderates and not the central (part of the state), leaving out the east, or something like that. For a time, you’re the governor of all the people of the state. I just learned when I got here at the Capitol, this place is a pressure cooker. There’s a one mile circle where all this stuff takes place that bears no relationship to the rest of the state. There’s this whole dynamic that takes place in this area here, and it’s between the press and the lobbyists and Legislature and the administration and all that stuff. There was some of that in the book saying look – what I need to do is get out of this thing and just keep my eyes focused on what people are thinking in Waffle Houses and Wal-Marts out there. If you can explain what you want to do, and you get some head nods from those people who I just described out here who are citizens of the state, you’ve got a plan and that’s a good place to be, whether or not the press likes it, whether or not the Legislature likes it.

TNR: You have said that you take pains to avoid conflicts or appearances of conflicts of interest. As of late, there’s been the issue with (Bredesen administration officials) Matt Kisber and Reagan Farr and Silicon Ranch Corp. Do you think that there’s nothing at all to see there – or is it something that’s been totally conjured up by the press? Or do you think that, from an objective standpoint, someone could rationally say that’s a little strange that those three individuals are going into business with one another?

Bredesen: I’m disappointed in how that was handled by the press, and I don’t have any other comments about it.

TNR: What about how the press has handled it are you disappointed with?

Bredesen: (Unintelligible — no comment.)

TNR: When you look back on your tenure, what are you going to be telling your grandkids about?

Bredesen: I’ve always seen this job primarily as wanting to change the expectations of people about their state, and their state government, and what can be achieved. In a way, the nicest thing for me about the Race to the Top is not the half a billion dollars. I believe that’s going to be very helpful and I don’t discount it at all. But there’s an awful lot of people in the state of Tennessee who looked up and said we don’t have to be 48th or 46th in this stuff. Here’s an objective example where we’re at the very, very top of the pack. Our pre-K program has some of those same aspects. If I leave office and people in Tennessee are just that much more impatient for progress, or that much more demanding of state government and what it does, then I will consider it to be a successful term.

TNR: How do you gauge that?

Bredesen: The future will have to gauge that. I feel it’s true now, whether it’s a flash in the pan or something that sustained, or is yet to be seen. I certainly think in things like economic development and things like education of all levels, people’s heads are in a different place today in terms of what’s possible in the state. When I was mayor of Nashville it was a different place in 1999 than it was in ‘91 in part because people had such higher expectations. In ‘91 the idea of a pro sports team was way out in the far wings of absurdity, in ‘99 we had two of them. People were mad at me…that I don’t have a third one. I just think that’s a great thing to have happened. When a young person is growing up, one of the things you want them to have is just this sense that anything is possible, and the real world can incorporate different success. I feel the same about the communities we live in here. I hope that as time goes on, their expectations of the Legislature and the governor continue to grow. Their expectations of what we can achieve in education and business development and anything else continue to grow. It’s like increasing standards in the schools — that’s the first thing they do to get better performance. I think the public’s expectations of government are higher. In the end, government will respond to that and do better.

This interview has been edited for continuity and clarity.

Categories
NewsTracker

The Times They Are Officially a-Changin’

It’s official now — at least according to the official source on the Internet: Phil Bredesen is no longer the governor of Tennessee.

As of Friday evening, his profile as the state’s sitting chief executive has been scrubbed from the state’s website.

Categories
Press Releases

11 TN Airports Split $3.2 Million in Aeronautics Grants

State of Tennessee Press Release; Dec. 30, 2010:

NASHVILLE—Governor Phil Bredesen announced today that federal aeronautics grants totaling $3,202,614 have been approved for eleven Tennessee airports.

Airports receiving grants include (click on each link for details):

Cleveland Municipal Airport (.pdf)

Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport (.pdf)

Greeneville-Greene County Airport (.pdf)

Mark Anton Municipal Airport (.pdf)

McGhee-Tyson Airport (.pdf)

Millington Regional Jetport (.pdf)

Nashville International Airport (.pdf)

Savannah-Hardin County Airport (.pdf)

Sumner County Regional Airport (.pdf)

Tullahoma Regional Airport (.pdf)

Whitehurst Field (.pdf)

For more on each of these grants visit the TDOT newsroom or click on the links above.

The grants are made available through the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division.

“This division administers federal and state funding to assist in the location, design, construction and maintenance of Tennessee’s diverse public aviation system,” reported TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely. “We are pleased to continue to support Tennessee’s general aviation and commercial airports.”

Except for routine expenditures, grant applications are reviewed by the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission (TAC), which is a five member board charged with policy planning and with regulating changes in the state Airport System Plan. The board carefully reviews all applications for grants to ensure that the proper state and local matching funds are in place and that the grants will be used for needed improvements.

The TDOT Aeronautics Division has the responsibility of inspecting and licensing the state’s 126 heliports and 75 public/general aviation airports. The Division also provides aircraft and related services for state government and staffing for the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission.