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Featured Transparency and Elections

Republicans Pledge to Resist Abuse-of-Power Temptations

The Tennessee Waltz bribery sting.

Cronyism at the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Deep-seated ethics problems at the state legislature.

These fits and starts of scandal marked the last years of Democratic control of the governor’s mansion and state legislature.

Now Republicans have a stranglehold on state government, complete with supermajorities in the House and Senate — the GOP doesn’t need a single Democratic vote to pass legislation.

Will this new supermajority keep their members from falling into a similar sewer of scandal and ignominy?

They say they can.

“You gotta stay focused on what you got to do, and you need to have good people elected,” said Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “You’ve got to stay focused on what you’re here for. You’re here as a public servant.”

Not being distracted from the issues, such as smaller government and keeping taxes low, is also key, said Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin.

“Number one, stay in tune with what the voter wants,” he said.

That may be easier said than done. Two House members resigned their committee chairmanships recently after brushes with the law.

Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, stepped down as chairman of the House Conservation and Environment Committee after his arrest in March on a domestic assault charge. He maintains his innocence, and the Greene County Criminal Court Grand Jury is scheduled to consider the case within weeks.

Rep. Curry Todd, sponsor of Tennessee’s guns-in-bars law, resigned as chairman of the powerful House State and Local Government Committee last year after he was jailed and charged with drunken driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence. The Collierville Republican pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Nov. 30.

Beth HarwellHarwell

“I think we need to adhere to the highest ethical behavior that we can at the body,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes and that it’s not composed of human beings — it is. But it will be my job as speaker to make sure that we have the most ethical standards that we can.”

“There is caution that should occur in all states where there is a supermajority,” warns Peggy Kerns, the director of the Center for Ethics in Government for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There need to be strong values in play of fairness and consistency, treating everyone the same and also, fair representation for the public.”

Having a supermajority doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more or less corruption, “but it doesn’t help,” says Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University.

He says, though, that the public must be vigilant to make sure that the supermajority doesn’t use its power to dismantle ethics safeguards — such as open records laws and civil service rules — that are already in place.

“That’s the key,” Oppenheimer said. “ When a party has a large majority what do they do about the safeguards against corruption that are already in place?”

It’s not just Tennessee that may face ethics problems that come with supermajorities.

From Salon.com:

Democrats in California gained their first supermajorities since 1883 in both the Assembly and Senate. Republicans captured total control of the North Carolina Capitol for the first time in more than a century. The GOP… won two-thirds majorities in the Missouri Legislature for the first time since the Civil War.

Republicans also gained or expanded supermajorities in places such as Indiana, Oklahoma and — if one independent caucuses with the GOP —Georgia. Democrats gained a supermajority in Illinois and built upon their dominance in places such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

This is a growing trend at the state level, unlike in Washington, D.C., where control is split between Republicans and Democrats: In the wake of Election Day, one party will hold the governor’s office and majorities in both legislative chambers in at least 37 states, the largest number in 60 years.

Of course, Tennessee doesn’t have a monopoly on ethics problems that stewed during one-party rule.

Republicans were able to make gains in the North Carolina legislature after continuous waves of ethics problems under Democratic rule. North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black, for example, resigned in 2007 and pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge.

And there appears to be almost constant corruption in Illinois, for example, with the recent jailing of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, as an exhibit.

And problems with one-party control may be seen at the national level, too.

From Slate, in 2004, when the GOP controlled both Congress and the White House:

The speed with which Republicans have forgotten their “core values,” as David Brooks put it after the vote on the (House Majority Leader Tom) DeLay rule, has been shocking. Earlier this year, a Boston Globe article made a few comparisons between the 1993-94 Congress that Newt Gingrich ousted and the one now ending. The Republican Congress added 3,407 pork barrel projects to appropriation bills in conference committee, compared to 47 for 1994, the last year Democrats held both houses. The Republican Congress allowed only 28 percent of the bills on the floor to be amended, “barely more than half of what Democrats allowed in their last session in power in 1993-94.” The number of nonappropriations bills “open to revision has dropped to 15 percent.”

And, of course, DeLay was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally plotting to funnel corporate contributions to Texas legislative candidates.

“I think we have to be humble,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney. “I think all of us in any kind of leadership position need to be humble and know that we’re here … as servants of the people. They have to remember that.”

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

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Education Featured NewsTracker

Governor: Veto Often Makes Little Sense; Best to Work with Lawmakers for Fitting Compromises

Although Gov. Bill Haslam sees it as part of his job to rein in exceedingly controversial or notably weird bills the Legislature may be pushing, Haslam said Tuesday he’s actually rather hesitant to veto legislation that doesn’t seem imminently harmful to the state.

The governor pointed out that regardless of his views on any particular piece of legislation, if the Legislature is of a mind to make something law, it is going to happen with or without his approval.

“Some of those laws pass with 80 percent vote,” said Haslam. “In the end, a governor’s veto can be overridden with just one vote positive.”

Gov. Haslam fielded reporters’ questions Tuesday outside the spring 2012 College Completion Academy conference, where he was moderating a forum on how to increase student graduation and retention rates in the state. The event took place at the Cool Springs Marriott.

Here are some excerpts of the press conference:

Q: Are you working to try to head off the “Guns in Trunks” bill, or get it modified?

Haslam: Like I said all along, we don’t like the current form, so yeah, I think it’s safe to say that we’d like to see something different come out of that. I think it’s a fairly heated discussion in a lot of fronts right now.

Q: The big problem is the whole — is it just the hunting license piece, that that opened it up to a lot more people?

Haslam: I think the schools – I think the folks here would tell you that schools are a concern. I think there’s some other pieces – like I said, I just all along felt like it was a little too broad, and would like to see it narrowed some, and I think several people feel that way.

Q: You’ve mentioned frustration at some of the coverage of state government instead of the Legislature specifically. You’ve had to work as a sort of moderating force, to some extent, during the session. Is that somewhere you hope to be as governor, and cover the drawbacks of some of the more extreme elements of your own party?

Haslam: I think maybe what any governor focuses on, if you look at governors around the country, we’re charged with running state government on a day-to-day basis and all of the services you’re provided. So we’re always going to tend to focus more on service delivery and those key things about – I’ve said before, that’s what I see state government being, ‘How do we provide the very best service?’ So, I don’t think my situation is any different than other governors. I have some Democratic governor friends who say, ‘Oh, yeah, people in my party are trying to pass this and that, and I’m trying to bring them back to focus on these things.’ I don’t think my situation’s all that unusual.

Q: The stuff that may not make a whole lot of change in the law, why wouldn’t you veto these sort of laws that don’t do anything?

Haslam: It’s a fair question, but some of those laws pass with 80 percent vote. In the end, a governor’s veto can be overridden with just one vote positive. So I think the lesson is to try to engage in the process as much as you can. And then there’s certain things that are things that you might say, ‘That’s not exactly what I would do, but I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful to the state.’ Other things you say, ‘I think that is harmful to the state,’ and you jump in.

Q: Governor, you engaged in a bit of media criticism in there, which is similar to things we’ve heard before about you think we should pay more attention to the weightier issues. One might argue that the media only covers what happens, and to some extent the Legislature provides the fodder. Is it really a criticism of the Legislature in this regard, that they’re doing lackey things, and the media covers it?

Haslam: No, I would come back and say then, look at the amount of coverage on certain issues which may or may not ever get passed … and then weigh them against their impact on the state. Whether that be an education initiative, or changing the tax structure, or some crime prevention, those are things that really, really impact Tennesseans every day. And some of the ones that grab headlines, I think they’re fun for discussion, but a month from now and a year from now they’re really not going to impact Tennessee that much.

Q: But you don’t blame the lawmakers for bringing those in the first place, knowing full well that they’re shiny objects that will draw attention?

Haslam: (Laughing) You’re pointing fingers awfully a lot. I will blame them when the media says, ‘Yeah, we can do a better job of being substantive about issue coverage.’

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Press Releases

ACLU: Anti-Immigrant Bill Will Hurt TN Economy

Statement from American Civil Liberties Union; Jan. 24, 2012: 

As we move into the third week of the legislative session, we are already reviewing a number of bills that undermine fair treatment and due process for immigrants. First up this week: the Arizona-style copycat bill that encourages racial and ethnic profiling will be heard in the House General Subcommittee of Finance, Ways and Means on Wednesday afternoon.

HB 1380/SB780 requires all law enforcement to question the immigration status of any person they stop, regardless of whether the person is actually charged with breaking a law. The bill implies that police will be trained to ask people for their “papers” based on an undefined “reasonable suspicion” that they are in this country unlawfully. The criteria for assessing such a suspicion will inevitably be accent, attire, hair, jewelry or skin color.

Tell your lawmakers that this intolerant bill is completely out of step with our values of fairness and equality.

Economically, this bill will really hurt Tennessee. In addition to the loss of revenue from depressed tourism and economic development, as seen in Arizona, the bill’s fiscal note increases state and local expenditures by nearly $5 million in the first year alone.

Let your representatives know that they should stop wasting money to create a police state based on unconstitutional racial profiling.

Alabama, Tennessee’s neighbor to the south, passed a similarly egregious anti-immigrant bill last year that has faced legal challenges from the ACLU and our allies, as well as the Department of Justice. Additional states that have enacted Arizona-copycat laws such as Utah, Indiana, Georgia and South Carolina, have likewise faced legal challenges and had numerous provisions found unconstitutional. Not only do these laws preempt federal law by misappropriating immigration enforcement as a state power, they offend our values of fair treatment and due process.

Please contact your representative to let him/her know that HB1380/SB780 is bad for Tennessee and that s/he should oppose the legislation.

Thank you for using your voice in support of justice for all.

Hedy Weinberg

Executive Director, ACLU of Tennessee

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Press Releases

Nashville Small Businessman to Challenge Pruitt

Press Release from Steven Turner, Jan 24, 2012:

Nashville, January 24, 2012: Community leader and small businessman Steven Turner has announced his intention to run for the Democratic nomination for State House District 58. Turner, a native Nashvillian and long-time resident of the 58th district, is seeking to build on his 2010 campaign in which he came within 170 votes of the 25 year incumbent Rep. Mary Pruitt.

“Now more than ever, Nashville and the 58th District needs a strong voice in the legislature to speak out on behalf of underserved families against those who work to silence their voices and ignore the rights of our city and its residents” said Turner. “I remain committed to serving my community by running for the opportunity to stand up for our seniors, our teachers, our students, and all of the other Tennesseans who have been under attack in the past legislative session.”

The Democratic Primary will be held August 2, 2012, with early voting starting July 13th and ending July 28th.

Steven Turner, 28, lives in East Nashville with his wife, Jakil, a 3rd grade school teacher with MNPS, and son Thomas James (TJ). Turner graduated with a degree in Network Communications from DeVry University in Atlanta and returned to Nashville to be a part of his family’s telecommunications firm, Universal Electric. He was recently appointed by Mayor Karl Dean on July 5, 2011 to serve a five year term on the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission. In addition, he has been recognized with an NAACP Top 45 under 45 award for his work in voter advocacy through his non-profit organization Voting Is Priceless.

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Press Releases

TSEA: Haslam’s TEAM Act a Return to ‘Patronage and Political Cronyism’

Press Release from Tennessee State Employees Association; Jan. 23, 2012:

TSEA Has Serious Concerns with Civil Service Bill

The Tennessee State Employees Association has reviewed and analyzed the Haslam administration’s proposed TEAM Act of 2012 and has serious concerns with the bill in its current form.

As written, this bill would dismantle the civil service system, destroying the protections that system provides to the people of Tennessee. TSEA Executive Director Robert O’Connell commented, “Dismantling the civil service system would thrust this state back into a time of Patronage and Political Cronyism when state government jobs were distributed by politicians as rewards for campaign support and other loyal ‘service’.”

Today the qualifications of every applicant for a state job are evaluated, measured, and ranked based on their scores. Conversely, the administration’s “TEAM” bill eliminates this system of objective scoring and allows managers to hire anyone they choose who possesses the minimum qualifications for the job. This new system might be a little faster, but the people of this state deserve employees who are more than “minimally qualified”.

Under the present civil service system, most employees can only be fired for poor performance or bad conduct. Those designated as “executive service”, however, can be fired for any reason, or for no reason, really. The new bill greatly increases the number of employees who can and will be designated executive service, subjecting them to arbitrary termination, once again opening the door to political cronyism.

Under the new bill, employees who are not part of the expanded “executive service” are referred to as “preferred service”. While preferred service employees do retain the right to file a grievance, they will lose the right to any face-to-face hearing until the final step of the grievance process. Under the present system, that final hearing would be held before the Civil Service Commission. The new bill eliminates the Commission and replaces it with a Board of Appeals which will serve the same functions as the Commission it replaces. In the present system, Commission members can only be removed by the governor for cause, after an opportunity for a public hearing. The members of the new Board will all be appointed by the present governor, who can remove any member whenever he pleases. The current process establishes the required independence and impartiality of the Commission, but that independence and impartiality is eliminated in the new “TEAM” bill.

When economic or other conditions make it necessary to lay-off some employees, the present system helps to ensure (through a process called “bumping” and “retreating”) that the most senior employees retain their jobs, invaluable experience is not lost, and our taxpayers’ investment is not wasted. The “TEAM” bill eliminates this seniority factor, draining our state of valuable institutional knowledge.

Governor Haslam’s administration has agreed to a series of meetings with TSEA leadership to allow us to express our specific concerns with the bill on behalf of state employees. His administration has assured us that they are committed to hearing our concerns and seeing what can be incorporated in the bill. This willingness to talk and reason together is becoming a hallmark of TSEA’s relationship with the Governor. We can only hope that it will lead to a bill which will protect the interests of the people of Tennessee and not drag us back into the political patronage and cronyism of a half-century ago.

Until the negotiation process is complete, and TSEA is assured state employees remain protected, we are firmly opposed to the bill.

TSEA is a nonprofit association existing to provide a strong unified voice with which it advocates the work-related interests of members. The attainment of association objectives will ensure a better life for our members and will attract and retain an effective, efficient state workforce to provide services for all Tennesseans. TSEA was established in 1974. For further information, visit the Web site at www.tseaonline.org.

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Press Releases

TFA: Action on Gun Rights Could Be Worse Under Harwell, Haslam Than Naifeh

Alert from Tennessee Firearms Association; Jan. 11, 2012:

Tennessee’s General Assembly is back in session

January 2012 brings the Tennessee Legislature officially back in session. This is the second half of the two year 107th General Assembly. It is also an election year where all House members are up for re-election and one-half of the Senate members are up for election.

The House remains under the leadership of Speaker Beth Harwell and some of her lieutenants. The Senate remains under the control of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Harwell has a clear and consistent voting history that lacks support for 2nd Amendment issues. On the other hand, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has a fairly consistent voting record in support of 2nd Amendment issues.

Its common knowledge that the House now has 64 Republicans of the 99 total House members. Only 50 are required to pass any law. Republicans, as a group, have a 14 vote margin to allow for those Republicans who will not vote to support 2nd Amendment issues. That is significant because the Speaker, Beth Harwell, would historically fit within that 14 vote minority. Nevertheless, it was anticipated by many that with Republicans taking control and all the grandstanding about how good Republicans are on the 2nd Amendment that noteable progress on firearms and 2nd Amendment issues would have occurred in 2011. It did not and that can be largely placed as as the consequence of the preferences of Beth Harwell and perhaps even Debra Maggart.

The complete lack of material progess on 2nd Amendment issues did not miss the attention of the news media, the NRA, TFA, or others. Apparently, there was enough questions raised and complaints made that the House Republican leadership felt it was important to respond to publicly.

On July 13, 2011, Rep. Gerald McCormick released a letter to House Republican caucus members in which he announced the creation of the “Republican Caucus Firearms Issues Task Force” (for the House of Representatives). That letter provided (with some emphasis added)

Fellow Caucus Members:
I hope that this letter finds you well. I am very proud of the great things we accomplished together during this past legislative session, and confident that we will continue that positive momentum when we return in January. In order to accomplish that goal, it is vital that we devote time during recess to study important issues that impact all those that live across our great state.
With that in mind, I am writing this letter to advise you that I am appointing a Republican Caucus Firearms Issues Task Force. The rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment are sacred to many citizens, and we must ensure we craft responsible legislation to protect those rights. This task force will be responsible for studying current state laws to identify if any changes may need to be made. In addition, it will meet with outside groups to gain a better understanding of these issues. The task force will report back to members of the Republican Caucus with results of their study.
The Republican Caucus Firearms Issues Task Force will consist of the following members:
Rep. Curry Todd, Chairman
Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny
Rep. Joshua Evans
Rep. Andy Holt
Rep. Barrett Rich
Rep. Glen Casada
Rep. John Forgety
Please feel free to contact members of this task force if you have any additional questions about this important issue.

On July 14, 2011, TFA sent an email to all members of the Republican caucus task force as well as to House leaders and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. No material acknowledgement much less response was made. So, looking at the events from Rep. McCormick’s July 2011 letter to the present, what has happened? Nothing of material notice on this declaration that there was a vital need to review current laws to identify changes that “need” to be made and to meet with outside groups to better under these issues. Was that mere political “huggy – kissy” addressed to 2nd Amendment supporters or was it said with genuine determination to address these issues? As of August 2011, nothing had happened or been announced. As of mid-September, another TFALAC report noted that nothing had happened but that “word had it” that a meeting would take place in late October – although there was no written announcement to confirm it from the Task Force.

In mid-October, the chair of the Task Force, Rep. Curry Todd was arrested in Nashville on DUI charges. Statements reported in the Times Free Press on October 13, and attributed to Rep. Gerald McCormick suggest that the House Republican Caucus would focus its attention in 2012 on issues other than Second Amendment topics and that it will not “push” the 2nd Amendment issues in 2012. McCormick’s statement, viewed in light of what the House Republican Caucus did in the 2011 legislative cycle, could be construed to mean that the House Republican leadership saw no importance in legislatively addressing the 2nd Amendment, the existing unconstitutional laws, or addressing the other concerns of Tennessee’s firearms owners. According to the news report,

The future of the task force itself is in limbo with House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who created the panel, saying he will make a decision about it by next week.

McCormick said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, voluntarily resigned his task force chairmanship during a conversation with him earlier today. McCormick emphasized Todd still remains chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee.

“I just said thank you, I think that would be the best thing,” McCormick said of Todd’s offer.

Meanwhile, the next meeting of the firearms task force, which McCormick created, has been postponed. McCormick said the task force could be disbanded.

“I was really hoping the economy would be roaring back by now, and it’s not,” McCormick said of his reasoning. “I think people want us to focus more on economic development and jobs and leave some of the other issues to the side for the time being.

“This is a timely opportunity to do that with the gun task force,” McCormick said. “I don’t think we need to push those issues right now.”

http://timesfreepress.com/news/2011/oct/13/tennessee-legislator-curry-todd-resigns-gun-task-f/?print

Then, on Monday, October 17, paper reported that House Speaker Pro Tempore, Judd Matheny, who was vice-chairing the task force had expressed a desire to continue with the task force notwithstanding what McCormick has said. The Times Free Press reported:

Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he decided the group, which is looking at expansion of Tennessee’s handgun-carry permit laws, would go on after House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, who is the panel’s vice chair, voiced interest in taking over as chairman.

“I just decided to keep it going,” said McCormick, who weighed over the weekend whether to disband the panel in order to focus more on job-related issues. “I still say it’s not going to be a top legislative priority by any means.”

The former chairman, Rep. Curry Todd, R-Memphis, resigned from the post after his arrest.

McCormick said Todd’s situation also shouldn’t interfere with legislative discussions about expanding places that permit holders can carry their weapons.

http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2011/oct/17/mccormick-house-gop-firearms-task-force-continue/?news

Following those events, the caucus did meet on the Monday following Thanksgiving. No notice was given to TFA (despite repeated emails to all task force members) that the meeting was to be had and it turned out that only a handful of people were altered at the last minute of its meeting. No report has been issued or released to the public. No subsequent meetings have been publicly held or announced.

Its now January 2012. At this time, news reports consistently quote Harwell, Haslam and others on the 2012 legislative agenda. There is no mention of the Task Force, any report from the Task Force, or any 2nd Amendment issues that are included in any of this agenda. To the contrary, reports are just the opposite that House Leadership, noteably Harwell and Maggart, are communicating to members that the House leadership not only does not want to pursue 2nd Amendment issues but that it wants to minimize or prevent any such bills from being offered or advanced.

Reviewing comments by Harwell, its clear her support for 2nd Amendment issues is no greater than if not less than the support that we saw from Jimmy Naifeh (D.) in the last few years of his service as Speaker. Certainly, that is the message that Speaker Harwell has sent. In a comment to the Tennessean on these issues, she claimed – some might conclude falsely – that the caucus is 100% committed to gun rights. Certainly, that assertion has to be constrasted against her prior votes since she generally votes against 2nd Amendment legislation and there are some “left of center” Republicans who go right along with her on those issues.

Harwell’s statements to the news media clearly reflect that that, at least for her, the issues pertaining to gun rights are just another topic to be taken up in rotation – if at all:

Harwell, whose candidacy for speaker was opposed by many gun rights groups, is viewed with particular skepticism. She said critics should remember the banner years enjoyed by gun rights groups in 2009 and 2010, when Republicans pushed through more permissive gun laws.

“They know that our Republican caucus is 100 percent committed to gun rights,” she said.

http://www.tennessean.com/article/20110529/NEWS/305290011/TN-GOP-gains-legislative-wins-critics-

Harwell does not defend her own voting record but references passage of bills that she voted against.

In comments that Harwell made to the Nashville City Paper, she goes further and makes clear that she, as Speaker, had no intent of spending any time at all on firearms issues in 2011 and similar if not worse is now foreseen for 2012.

Even Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, an unabashed gun advocate, has admitted to reporters that he discouraged new gun bills to avoid media coverage that might make it appear that the legislature was distracted. The new House speaker, Nashville’s Beth Harwell, dismissed outright any need for new gun laws.

“We addressed a good number of gun bills last session,” Harwell told reporters shortly after Republicans nominated her late last year to preside over the House. “I feel that clearly we received a mandate from the public that we need to be focused on jobs and education and the economy this session.”

http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/city-news/gun-lobby-displeased-after-state-republicans-tried-focus-economy-during-session (emphasis added)

If these hints are accurate, and they certainly seem to be, what should firearms owners and 2nd Amendment supporters expect from the General Assembly in 2012 —— nothing, nothing at all. Since 1995, legislative progress on firearms issues could prove ultimately to be worse with a Republican governor and Beth Harwell as speaker of the House (and those in the caucus who support her) than in any year in which the House was controlled by Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Democratic leadership. One needs only a barely functional memory to recall the shenigans that occurred under Speaker Naifeh and his battalion of shadow operatives who were apparently instructed to stall or kill as much 2nd Amendment (particularly NRA requested) legislation as possible. Despite that, many Democrats including Eddie Bass, John Mark Windle, Ben West, Doug Jackson and others stood up for 2nd Amendment rights.

Even with Harwell in control by what is rumored to be a 1 or 2 vote margin in the caucus, there are certainly House Republican members who are willing to support 2nd Amendment issues and all concede that if the bills get to floor for a full vote that almost any 2nd Amendment legislation will pass – including perhaps even what is commonly referred to as Constitutional Carry. One must wonder to what extent the pro-2nd Amendment legislators are being suppressed by “suggestions” of future consequences coming from the Speaker’s office.

It is important to make clear, however, that we are not suggesting that the Legislature needs to totally focus on 2nd Amendment issues. Looking at 2011, one must examine not whether a few specific bills were passed but the overall tone of the legislative session which involved passage of 510 public acts, 32 private acts, and way over 1000 resolutions.

Would paying some meaningful attention to constitutional rights and 2nd Amendment issues really have the effect of totalling derailing everything else that the Republican leadership and Governor want to accomplish? That is a silly question and a foolish assertion. There is plenty of time to pay attention to other issues, as shown by 2011’s actions, yet still allocate a small but reasonable amount of time to address some 2nd Amendment issues. This suggests that its not an issue of time. Its not an issue of expenses. But that raises the question of why then play this game with voters across the state? One might consider that its nothing more than partisan politics in an election cycle where “leadership” desires to avoid news reports of 2nd Amendment issues and preclude Democratic opponents (or even primary challengers) from referencing 2nd Amendment topics. It does not appear that such leadership has given any material consideration to the backlash that can and should arise against them and those that support them from Tennessee’s firearms owners. Why? Well, as one House leader has stated, its because Tennessee’s gun owners really do not have a choice but to support Republicans because Republicans are the “best friends” that gun owners (and presumably conservatives in general) have. Looking at 2011 and what can be expected in 2012, that assertion raises the question of “Really?”

Pay close attention in 2012. Tennessee conservatives, firearms owners, 2nd Amendment supporters are now faced with vetting out the disingenuous and making sure that their actions are recalled when its time to raise money, campaign and vote. In particular, Harwell and a few others in leadership may be hard to defeat in an election but those in the caucus who voted to put them in power and who support them in power may be much easier targets….

Categories
Business and Economy Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Amazon Announces Tennessee ‘Fulfillment Center’ 3.0

Upping the stakes and adding drama to the Amazon.com tax-collection dilemma in Tennessee, the company announced plans Thursday for a 500,000-square-foot distribution center in Lebanon.

The company said the facility will create hundreds of full-time jobs and that it plans to open the site this fall.

There was no immediate announcement on whether Amazon would have the same arrangement with the state on sales tax collections with the addition of the Lebanon site as the company currently enjoys with sites in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

Amazon does not have to collect taxes on sales in the state, which has been an ongoing issue in the Legislature. Some prominent GOP lawmakers favor requiring the company to collect the tax. Several states face a similar quandary in dealing with the online sales giant.

The trade-off, begun with the administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen, has been the number of jobs Amazon brings to the state at a time Tennessee is desperate for employment.

Gov. Bill Haslam has publicly backed the arrangements of the previous administration with Amazon, and he has said he believes Congress ultimately will have to settle the tax issue for states. Haslam told reporters Thursday his administration is interested in “jobs, period” and that Amazon had been working on the Lebanon site “for some time.” Amazon released a formal announcement about the site Thursday afternoon.

When asked Thursday afternoon for comment about Amazon, Yvette Martinez, a spokeswoman for the governor, replied by e-mail, “Hundreds of jobs for Middle Tennessee is great news.”

Rep. Linda Elam, R-Mt. Juliet, said the deal was a “wonderful” coup for Lebanon, but she said she did not know specifics about the sales tax arrangement.

“I would imagine it’s all under the same framework they agreed to previously,” Elam said. “I wasn’t involved in those talks.

“There are two ways to look at that. Are they all covered under the same deal, or do they have to be treated as they would have absent that agreement with the prior governor? On the other hand, you look at it and say because of that agreement with the prior governor they’re bringing thousands of jobs to three locations in Tennessee.”

Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the House Finance Ways and Means Committee, the House sponsor of the legislation calling for Amazon to collect from customers, said Thursday he had been unaware that the announcement about Lebanon was coming.

“I’m glad to see companies want to locate here in Tennessee,” Sargent said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for people in Tennessee, anywhere in the state.”

When asked if he still planned to pursue efforts to force the company to collect the sales tax, Sargent reiterated his previous position.

“I’m going to get with the governor, Speaker (Beth) Harwell, Leader (Gerald) McCormick and see how they want to proceed on the bill, if they want to proceed, and where we’re going to head on that,” Sargent said.

“I don’t know what the incentive was to bring them to Wilson County, nor do I know what contract was signed on getting them there.”

Sargent said he knew Amazon was looking at one or two more locations in Tennessee, which has been broadly discussed for several weeks, but that he had not spoken with the governor or with legislators representing the Lebanon area on the issue.

State Attorney General Robert Cooper has issued an opinion that distribution centers like those in Amazon’s plans create nexus, meaning they represent enough physical presence in the state to warrant legislation forcing a company to collect the tax. Cooper’s opinion said the legislation by Sargent and Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, would be constitutionally defensible.

McNally, reached Thursday night, said it’s hard to comment on the specifics of the deal on the Lebanon site when Tennesseans still don’t know exactly what the original agreement was.

“Unfortunately, I nor the people of Tennessee know what the ‘deal’ is,” McNally said. “I guess it would depend on how it was written.

“It could be written that it just applies to the facilities in Bradley and Hamilton county, or it could be written generally that they would not consider the distribution center nexus, and that brings up some issues.”

McNally voiced concern about the erosion of the sales tax base and the issue of secrecy on the original deal.

“I think everybody’s glad to see the jobs come to Tennessee, but I think we need to certainly answer the questions about what the deal is and the fairness of the deal,” McNally said. “And are we treating one business one way and treating businesses that are in a similar situation differently?”

Paul Misener, vice president for Amazon Global Public Policy, who appeared before Tennessee legislators this year, referred to Haslam and legislators in an official press release from Amazon on Thursday.

“We’re grateful to Governor Haslam, Senator Beavers, Representative Elam, Mayor Craighhead, Mayor Hutto and other officials who have demonstrated their commitment to Amazon jobs and investment,” Misener said.

Those other officials are Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead and Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto.

An attempt to reach Beavers on the announcement Thursday was unsuccessful, but during the legislative session this year, Beavers expressed concern about the tax policy on Amazon.

“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 in May. “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?”

Craighead, the Lebanon mayor, expressed his gratitude to state officials for their role in landing the Amazon site and gave special credit to the Joint Economic Community Development Board of Wilson County and its executive director, G.C. Hixson, for work on the plan.

“They don’t get a lot of the credit, but they do 95 percent of the work,” Craighead said of the board.

Craighead said he was unaware of any of the terms discussed on sales tax collections.

Categories
Press Releases

ACLU: Fight Racal, Ethnic Profiling Bills

Press Release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; May 16, 2011:

Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself

This week the Tennessee Legislature will be voting on two bills that encourage racial and ethnic profiling: our very own Arizona-style copycat bill and the anti-Muslim bill. Both bills make Tennessee into a place where individuals and organizations are targeted for harassment by the government based on ethnicity, culture, and appearance.

Urge your legislators to stand up for fair treatment by voting against both the Arizona-copycat racial profiling bill and the anti-Muslim bill.

Stop Tennessee from Becoming Arizona

HB 1380/SB 0780 requires all law enforcement to question the immigration status of any person they stop, regardless of whether the person is actually charged with breaking a law. The bill implies that police will be trained to ask people for their “papers” based on an undefined “reasonable suspicion” that they are in this country unlawfully. The criteria for assessing such a suspicion will inevitably be accent, attire, hair, jewelry or skin color.

The Attorney General recently issued an opinion stating that certain aspects of this bill are unconstitutional. Furthermore, economically, this bill will really hurt Tennessee. In addition to the loss of revenue from depressed tourism and economic development, as seen in Arizona, the bill’s fiscal note increases state and local expenditures by nearly $5 million in the first year alone.

Let your representatives know that they should stop wasting money to create a police state based on unconstitutional racial profiling.

Oppose Harassment of Tennessee’s Muslim Community

HB1353/SB1028 is a loosely-worded bill that accomplishes little of its stated intent of fighting terrorism and instead leaves Muslims feeling targeted and harassed for practicing their religion. Even with amendments that remove specific references to Islam, the bill’s original wording casts a pall over any claim that it is not intended to target a specific group of Tennesseans.

The amended bill still raises serious First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment concerns with its vague definitions and its lack of due process for designated organizations. Furthermore, the federal government already has ample authority to identify and designate terrorist groups, freeze their assets, and prohibit individuals from providing support to those groups.

Let your legislators know that you oppose the unnecessary profiling of religious minorities.

Categories
Business and Economy Education News

Haslam ‘Obviously Pleased’ Tenure Reform Bill Starting to Move

Gov. Bill Haslam was walking at a fairly rapid pace as he made his way Wednesday from the Capitol to an event at the War Memorial Auditorium, so it wasn’t surprising he used the word “rapid” in response to a question about his teacher tenure bill.

A quick question was thrown at Haslam about his response to the Senate Education Committee voting Wednesday to approve his bill to change the teacher tenure process.

“I was obviously pleased to see it pass and come out of there,” Haslam said. “We think it’s an important step, and I look forward to its … you know, rapid, uh … to continue to move through the system.”

Things are moving rapidly for Haslam these days — the committee vote just the latest example that the Legislature appears prepared to give the new governor’s proposals approval and priority.

House Speaker Beth Harwell this week said Haslam’s agenda will probably move ahead of the contentious legislative battle over ending collective bargaining for teachers, with the added intrigue that has surfaced that Haslam may step into that issue.

The tenure bill would change the probationary period for tenure from its current three years to a five-year plan, and teachers would have to maintain high standards once tenure is achieved. They would continue to be watched and could fall back into a probationary period.

Haslam was asked about the vote again Wednesday at the downtown Sheraton, where he attended a Farm Bureau event, then met with reporters. And again, a time element became part of the discussion. One of the most recent issues has been whether the evaluation process for teachers will be ready in time to begin moving forward on reforms.

“I actually have had that conversation about evaluation and how far we are in the process, literally this week with everybody from other governors to President Obama’s education secretary to Bill Gates,” said Haslam, who attended the National Governors Association meeting in Washington last weekend.

“The consensus is this: The perfect is the enemy of good when it comes to evaluation systems. We are involved in a process, but that’s a process that the teachers are involved with in coming up with a system that will work. We can work forever to get the perfect one, or we can go ahead and move forward with what everybody agrees we need to start, rewarding excellence in teaching.”

Advocates for the tenure reform have stuck to the “rewarding excellence” line on teacher tenure changes. Democrats have started to hit back at Haslam, holding a press conference Wednesday saying teachers are being attacked.

One of the points Democrats have tried to make in the last week is that there needs to be the same spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans as demonstrated last year in the special session to make changes in education in the state. The Democrats held a press conference last week bemoaning the lack of jobs bills coming from the Republican governor or from Republicans in the Legislature.

Whether the tenure issue is being rushed or whether the process is being ramrodded is open to debate.

“Any time you have a new system, you continuously evaluate it,” Haslam said. “I come back to this: We can wait forever ’til everybody says it’s perfect, or we can go ahead with what everybody knows now. We should reward excellence in teaching.”

Haslam continues to get the support of former Sen. Bill Frist’s group, SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, which has been involved in many of the legislative reforms in the Legislature.

“Tennessee has historically done a poor job of making tenure decisions meaningful,” David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for the Frist group, said Wednesday. “The bill passed in the Senate Education Committee today ensures that teachers are rewarded for being effective in the classroom.

“Every student in Tennessee deserves a great teacher, and tenure reform will be a critical part of improving teacher effectiveness.”

Teachers have fought hard against the Republican education agenda, although their most vehement protests have been over the collective bargaining issue.

The teachers have also won the support of other unions, such as area auto workers, who have presented a picture of solidarity on Capitol Hill. And the debate comes against the backdrop of battles in several states about benefits for teachers and other state workers.

For now, Haslam and his Republican supporters in the Legislature appear to have the upper hand. The vote in the Senate Education Committee fell along party lines. Republicans Rusty Crowe, Dolores Gresham, Brian Kelsey, Jim Summerville, Jim Tracy and Jamie Woodson voted to advance the measure. Democrats Andy Berke, Charlotte Burks and Reginald Tate voted against it.

It’s awaiting hearing in the general subcommittee of the House Education Committee.

A recent poll by Middle Tennessee State University showed 54 percent of state residents say tenure makes it difficult to get rid of bad teachers, while 29 percent said tenure protects good teachers.