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Education Featured

Legislature May Reach School Choice Accord in 2013

One of the GOP’s strongest advocates of school choice in Tennessee believes the political environment may be ripe for passing voucher or “opportunity scholarships” legislation next year.

Germantown Sen. Brian Kelsey said he’s hopeful that the governor-appointed task force report released late last month will provide the foundation for a policy that can gain support in both chambers of the Republican-run Tennessee General Assembly.

In the past, legislation giving parents access to taxpayer-funded scholarships for sending their children to private schools has passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Kelsey said he expects Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration officials to play a central role in education policy discussions related to school-choice vouchers in the coming months, and that that could have the effect of comforting Republicans who’ve been hesitant to jump on board with the experiment.

“House members were not familiar with this concept back in 2011 when we first presented it to them,” said Kelsey. “House members are much more comfortable with the idea of giving low-income children more options.”

Kelsey sees more scholarship money being available for kids, and also pointed to a growing consensus that any voucher law should apply to all 95 counties, not just the four counties with the highest number of low-income students, which was a plank of the 2011 bill.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said the state Senate again will work aggressively to pass a law on school vouchers.

“It’s blatantly unfair that we doom children to failure simply because of the zip code they’re born in, and their parents, if they choose, ought to have a choice,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. “I’m in favor of it, and I think you will see the Senate take the lead in that.”

He also criticized public school officials who have been opposing vouchers.

“It’s not going to hurt public education. It’s really not. It’s just that they don’t want competition,” he said. “They throw up every red flag, every red herring they possibly can as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t want competition.’”

Voucher programs in the state have faced heavy opposition from the Tennessee Education Association and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, who served on the governor’s nine-member opportunity scholarship task force, said he has “no idea” what shape legislation may ultimately take. He said, though, that he thinks any child accessing tax dollars to go to private school ought to face the same testing that public school children undergo to gauge their achievement progress.

“I feel very strongly about that,” Nixon said.

Nixon said he could see himself supporting a voucher program in Tennessee if it is limited to lower-income children and is used as “another arrow in the quiver for students in low-performing schools to have an opportunity to improve their education and outcomes.”

He said he does not favor opening vouchers up for all students in the government’s school system.

“I am a public school educator. I believe in public schools,” he said.

Opportunity scholarships are apparently popular with Tennessee voters. Nearly 60 percent of them support school vouchers, according to a survey released jointly over the summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, both supporters of school choice.

Trent Seibert and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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NewsTracker

Ramsey Indicates Possible Committee-Assignment Shakeups

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters last week that he expects Senate leadership to stay the same, but indicated there might be some committee-level shakeups.

In his role as Senate speaker, Ramsey has final say on which senators get placed on which committees.

“I’m not starting afresh, but just because you’re on a committee right now doesn’t mean you’re going to stay on that committee,” the Blountville Republican said.

When it comes to committee chairs he said: “Possibly there may be some changes there, too. I just have to figure out how it works out and make sure, again, that we have the most qualified people in the right spots.”

For example, when asked by reporters if he would retain Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, he declined to answer.

“I’ve not gotten that far down the road on who’s where,” Ramsey said. “There may be some changes different places.”

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

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Featured

Senate Aide Fired, Caught Doing Political Work on State Time

An aide to Sen. Ophelia Ford was fired Tuesday in the wake of a TNReport story that showed him apparently conducting political work while collecting his state paycheck.

“As of today, Derek Hummel’s employment with the Tennessee General Assembly has been terminated,” Office of Legislative Administration official Tammy Rather told TNReport via email.

Hummel had been executive secretary for Ford, D-Memphis, since April, drawing a $30,468 annual salary. He’s also been working for the Phillip North campaign, a Democrat locked in a tight race against Republican Steve Dickerson for a Davidson County state Senate seat.

Over the past three months, Hummel had apparently been conducting political activities during state business hours on his state-issued computer, according to phone records, Facebook postings and documents reviewed by TNReport.

Hummel had identified himself as field director for the Phillip North for State Senate campaign. Hummel was paid $625 in September by the North campaign, according to campaign finance filings released last week.

Attempts to reach Ford have been unsuccessful. A call and an email to the Phillip North campaign have now gone unreturned for more than 48 hours.

Hummel abruptly hung up on TNReport on Monday.

TNReport will update this story if we hear back from any of those we have contacted.

According to a state law called the “Little Hatch Act,” state employees are prohibited from “engaging in political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any period when the person should be conducting business of the state.” The law mirrors the federal Hatch Act.

Examples that suggest Hummel may have been conducting political activities while collecting a state paycheck include:

+ Under a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post, Hummel on July 25 at 10:07 a.m. urged readers to sign a political petition. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

+ Under an ‘Americans Against the Tea Party’ Facebook post, Hummel on July 26 discussed a Tennessee Democratic Party petition at 11:15 a.m., 11:19 a.m. and 12:51 p.m. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day, again 8 to 4:30. On one of those posts he made during business hours Hummel mentioned how an intern for the Democratic Party had drafted the petition dictated by him “because, by state law, we can’t meddle in politics during business hours.”

+ During a phone call taken by Hummel on a non-state cell phone — a recording was provided to TNReport from someone who said they made the call on Sept. 24 during work hours — he talked about working throughout the week on ‘get out the vote’ efforts in his role as field director for the North campaign. State records show he was paid by the state for working that day.

+ On a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post that links to North’s views on a Nashville school issue, Hummel commented on Sept. 18 at 3:48 p.m. State records show Hummel was paid by the state for working that day.

+ On a ‘North for Senate’ Facebook post on Sept. 21 at 4:21 p.m., Hummel’s cell phone number was posted with a message asking volunteers to call. State records show that Hummel was paid for working that day.

+ On Hummel’s desk and on web browser tabs on his state desktop computer, TNReport last week observed campaign documents connected to the North campaign and campaigning in general. (TNReport did not open any desk drawers or search the computer other than to look at the tabs that were open on the computer screen.)

It is not uncommon for staffers in the Tennessee General Assembly to participate in political work, but it is common practice for those staffers to provide notice to the Senate’s chief of staff or to Legislative Administration officials saying they are taking hours off, days off, or a leave of absence for that political work.

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NewsTracker

Ramsey: Signs Pointing Toward GOP Supermajority in Senate

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDTYwGvWGVE[/youtube]


Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey
says that come Election Day, Republicans will enjoy a supermajority in the Tennessee Senate — meaning that the GOP will not need any Democratic support to pass legislation.

“I do think we’re going to have the supermajority,” Ramsey told TNReport. “There are six seats we’re playing in, and none of us as incumbent Republicans have serious opposition. This is the first time I’ve ever run without an opponent.”

Republicans need to win two more seats to snag the supermajority, or 22 of the 33 seats.

And if money talks, Ramsey may be right. GOP candidates for state Senate have a massive financial lead going into the final days of their campaigns, according to campaign finance reports released by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

The reports released this week show Republican Senate candidates with a more than 2-to-1 lead in terms of cash on hand. And when you add up the total amount of money raised in contested races, Republicans have outraised Democrats $1.8 million to $861,000 since Jan. 1, records show.

You can search all of the filings by clicking here.

Perhaps more telling is the amount of money spent in the past two months, which is what the most recent campaign finance reports show.

Of the six key races that Ramsey spoke of, Republicans have spent $384,041 and Democrats have spent $253,451, according to those filings.

That’s money that goes for newspaper and radio ads, campaign workers, mailings, food and gas to fill up the gas tank.

In only one of those races did the Democrat outspend his opponent. That was the race in Senate District 24, a West Tennessee district that spans from Obion County to Benton County.

In that race, Democrat Brad Thompson spent $111,372 over the past two months. His Republican opponent John Stevens spent $62,932 over that same period.

Most of the six races, though, more closely resemble the contest in Senate District 20, a district that surrounds downtown Nashville like a letter “C” spanning from Belle Meade to Goodlettsville. Republican Steve Dickerson plowed $54,941 into the race over the past two months. His opponent, Democrat Phillip North, spent $28,028 over that same period.

“I do think there will be significant gains,” Ramsey said. “Somewhere between two (Senate seats) to five or six.”

This is not the first time that Ramsey has been talking about a possible supermajority. Check out what he told the Nashville Scene and Nooga.com.

Other Senate seats identified as being in play include:

Categories
NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Locals Study New Taxes, Fees

Gibson County leaders want to raise the wheel tax 35 percent in a plan the mayor says will boost business relocation and the economy.

WBBJ TV Channel 7 reports that the mayor is touting the plan to increase the wheel tax from $35 to $47.50 as a way to attract jobs. The county commission is set to vote on the measure Monday.

They’re not the only local governments eyeing taxes and fees. River enthusiasts in Cheatham County, you’re the next target.

County commissioners are considering the formation of a Visitors and Recreation Bureau, which, the Ashland City Times reports, “would regulate and tax recreational businesses such as the canoe rentals in south Cheatham County. The money generated would be used to help promote tourism in the county.”

The story says that the Chamber of Commerce would pay for the bureau staff and that “there is no funding required by the commission.”

Meanwhile, a sewer district near Crossville is considering shaking up its fees, according to the Crossville Chronicle.

The Tansi Sewer Utility District is considering a fee structure of $60 monthly for service and a charge for new connections of $5,950, which could be paid over 10 years.

While locals are talking about what fees and taxes to levy next, the tax talk at the Capitol has leaned in the other direction. State senators on Wednesday approved a measure that seeks to ban any future implementation of an income tax. The proposal moves to the House, and at the earliest could be approved by voters in 2014.