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Shipley, Hill Praise MSHA On Winning National Health Care Award

Press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus; August 24, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The National Quality Forum (NQF) recently announced that Mountain States Health Alliance (MHSA) has been named the recipient of its 2012 National Quality Healthcare Award. The award will be presented at the NQF Annual Meeting in Washington, DC in spring 2013.

As part of its mission to improve the quality of healthcare in America, NQF presents the Quality Healthcare Award annually to an exemplary health care organization that has achieved a number of quality focused goals and achievements. Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA), a Johnson City, TN-based health care system serving a largely rural community, is the 19th recipient of the annual award and the first health care organization in Tennessee to receive the award.

“At MSHA, our shared vision is to passionately pursue healing of the mind, body and spirit as we create a world class health care system,” said Dennis Vonderfecht, president and CEO of MSHA. “We are committed to this vision because our region deserves nothing less than world class, and we are delighted to receive this recognition from the National Quality Forum because it is an affirmation that we are headed in the right direction. The credit for this recognition goes to the thousands of physicians, nurses, team members, board members, and other volunteers who are traveling together on this healthcare journey with MSHA as we all work to fulfill our mission of bringing loving care to health care.”

Representative Tony Shipley (R—Kingsport) stated, “MSHA does a tremendous job delivering quality health care to our region. They received this award because of their remarkable track record in patient-centered care. They’re the first organization in Tennessee to win this award and deservedly so. I congratulate MSHA on their achievement.”

“With Tennessee being a hub for health care, it is an outstanding achievement for MSHA to be recognized above its peers,” remarked Representative Matthew Hill (R—Jonesborough). “They are incredible partners for our community and our region because of their commitment to excellence. I appreciate all they have done and wish them more success.”

MSHA has created and utilizes a set of ten Patient-Centered Care Guiding Principles illustrating the importance of safe, customized care provided in a transparent manner and openly communicated with the patient, family, and caregivers throughout the course of treatment. Direct engagement with patients and families continues following discharge through hosted support groups and patient events, calls from care providers to patients post-discharge, and the recruitment of former patients and family members to serve on patient advisory committees throughout the system.

MSHA has taken a comprehensive approach to measurement—an increasingly important factor in promoting increased quality and safety within a health care system. Performance measures used by MHSA are aligned with the National Quality Strategy. Metrics are reported to internal staff through their quality dashboard on a monthly and annual basis, compared against projected year-to-date targets, and tracked regularly by senior leadership and board members. MSHA staff exhibit a strong commitment to transparency—a Patient Safety Report on the staff intranet page monitors errors, and safety and performance information is regularly made available on a public website. To date, MSHA’s commitment to measurement has led to measureable reductions of waste within the system, providing better value for patients and lowering costs overall.

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

House GOP Goes After Drunks Driving with Kids in Vehicle

Press release from the House Republican Caucus; April 19, 2012:

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The House this week agreed to tough new restrictions against irresponsible conduct behind the wheel that may save the lives of children.

Generally, under present law, upon conviction of a first DUI offense, an offender is fined between $350 and $1,500. This individual is also prohibited from driving a vehicle in Tennessee for one year, given a sentence that can range from 48 hours to 11 months and 29 days of probation, and be ordered to remove litter during daylight hours from public roadways.

However, if at the time of the commission of the DUI, the person was accompanied by a child under 18 years of age, then the person must be punished by a mandatory minimum incarceration of 30 days and a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000.

House Bill 2751, by Representative Tony Shipley (R—Blountville), will increase those provisions of the law. Under his bill, a minimum incarceration of 30 days must be served consecutively with any sentence for convictions of DUI, vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, or aggravated vehicular homicide.

“As an emergency responder in my professional life, I see too many careless individuals willing to risk the life of others. That must be stopped. This bill increases penalty for that type of violation,” stated Shipley after passage of the legislation. “This bill is a personal priority of mine and I believe it will help save the lives of our most vulnerable citizens—our children.”

Representative Julia Hurley (R—Lenoir City) who supported the legislation and is anxious to see it become law added, “This bill needs to become law because even one additional life that is risked because of the carelessness of a drunk driver. This was a strong action by the General Assembly.”

To view a full summary of the legislation, please click here.

Nursing Board Revamp Referred Back to Committee

Attempts to gut the nursing board and stitch it back together fell apart in the House Thursday after lawmakers from both sides of the aisle asserted the proposal went too far.

The Board of Nursing will dissolve June 30 without some sort of nod from the Legislature to continue setting standards for the profession. But the board has become notorious for butting heads with the General Assembly.

“In the last two years we’ve been round and round from the abuses of our nurses by that board, period,” said bill sponsor Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who wants to revamp the panel and says some of those issues “have been worked out” in his bill.

“There’s absolutely no retaliatory premise in this,” he continued.

Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, were the focus of a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe for pressuring the Board of Nursing last year to rescind disciplinary action against three area nurses the board had punished for allegedly over-prescribing medication. Ultimately, though, the Davidson County District attorney who requested the TBI investigation ultimately concluded the legislators broke no laws.

The board also went toe-to-toe with Hendersonville Republican Debra Maggart in 2009 and 2010. The fight was over the Legislature wanting to expand authority for administering drugs to nursing-home patients, a rule the board for a time refused to enforce, saying it wasn’t safe for the public. Critics of the board said its members were just trying to protect what they regard as their own turf — that the dispute was more about shielding the economic interests of registered nurses than patient safety.

But House lawmakers in the medical profession said they’re worried SB2313’s requirement that members be chosen geographically from the state’s nine congressional districts is too narrow.

“I think that this bill may have some retaliatory intent, and that does concern me,” said Rep. Joanne Favors, the nursing board’s chief defender and herself an experienced nurse.

Selecting members based on where they live, namely outside urban areas, will mean “problems in the future with selecting people who would be the most representative of what we need in this state,” said the Chattanooga Democrat, contending major nursing schools and hospitals reside in the state’s big cities.

Shipley argues the current board is too “Nashville Basin-centric,” and wants to ensure nurses from rural corners of the state are equally represented on the panel. Members of other professional boards with geographic selection rules usually break up the appointments by the three grand divisions.

The governor currently appoints members to the board with help from recommendations by the profession’s interest groups, such as the Tennessee Nurses Association, which also takes issue with the “geographic distribution being that tightly controlled.”

“If we get hamstrung into doing just the congressional districts, we’ll find qualified people, but… it’s incredibly difficult to find people who have the ability to spend time away from their workplace,” said Sharon Adkins, executive director of the nurses association. She said the association is OK with other terms of the bill, such as shortening the amount of time members can sit on the board.

Pharmacist and state Rep. David Shephard, D-Dickson, and Republican Rep. Joey Hensley, a doctor from Hohenwald, also expressed reservations.

Shephard contends the conflict of interest requirements banning members who have a direct or indirect financial interest in health care services would be too stringent given that nurses naturally benefit from the medical industry. Hensley added he disliked the switch that could weight the board more heavily with advanced practice nurses, a classification of registered nurse.

In a narrow 47-44 vote, lawmakers agreed to send the bill back to the Government Operations Committee, with 14 Republicans siding with the Democrats. The measure cleared the Senate earlier this month on a 20-9 vote, so the ball is entirely in the House’s court.

Lawmakers Not Soon Likely to Open TBI Files

State legislators have expressed support for open Tennessee Bureau of Investigation files in theory, but seem less inclined to drum up an effort toward that end in the near future.

While investigative agencies in some other states allow such files to be opened, TBI case files are exempt from Tennessee’s Public Records Act. TNReport interviewed several lawmakers on the matter Tuesday as part of our effort to raise awareness for Sunshine Week.

The most recent source of focus on the issue is the case of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner. The fallout from revelations about the former judge’s drug and alcohol addiction, and his efforts to satisfy those vices while on the bench, led to his disbarment. One of the state’s most infamous cases – that of the rape, torture and murder of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23 – is likely to be retried. More retrials could follow.

Throughout the saga, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorial board has repeatedly called for increased transparency, including the opening of TBI files in the Baumgartner case and in general.

The Knox County Commission is considering a resolution — sponsored by its chairman, Mike Hammond — that would ask the Legislature or the governor to take steps to open TBI’s full Baumgartner investigation file to public review. On Feb. 27 Hammond postponed a vote on the resolution for 30 days to see if the judge handling the file would order it be made public.

Special Judge Jon Blackwood said last week that he had “no authority whatsoever” to release what is believed to be over 1,000 pages of the TBI’s Baumgartner case file. Blackwood did release 155 pages of the file in December, but said Friday that if the rest of the file is to be released, the “ball is in the state legislature’s court.”

But legislators aren’t particularly eager to touch the issue, either.

“The push has been there, but you have a judge that has ruled, ‘No, we’re not going to release it,’ and so far, the way our government is set up, when a judge declares something it’s a little hard to overrule that,” said Knoxville Republican Rep. Bill Dunn.

In the case of the Baumgartner file, Dunn said he does favor bringing the entire file to light, eventually.

“Sometimes you get into legal questions, which is beyond my expertise,” he said. “But as a citizen and someone who’s going to be paying all those extra taxes for what happened because of what Judge Baumgartner did, it seems it needs to be released, at least as much as can be released, and then over time we need to see 100 percent of it.”

Aside from the Christian/Newsom case, it’s unclear how many challenges and retrials will result from the legal tree poisoned by Baumgartner’s misdeeds, the News-Sentinel reported last month.

(According to prosecutors) Baumgartner presided over 54 trials during the three years a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe showed he was committing crimes related to prescription drug abuse. In that same time period, he handled thousands of pleas, sentencings and probation violation hearings.

Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he’s “absolutely” in favor of open TBI files and has indeed called for the release of one with his name on it.

Last June, the TBI launched an investigation to determine if Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their region of the state. No evidence of wrongdoing was found, and no charges were filed.

In January, Shipley told TNReport that he planned to push for a House committee to subpoena the case file. He has not followed through on that pledge.

Now, he said, his duties in the legislature come first, but at some point he will return to the issue of the file, which he said contains the identity of someone who committed a felony by filing a false report.

Of the Baumgartner case, Shipley said he favors openness as a means for holding all public officials to an equal level of accountability.

“Admittedly, I am not as familiar with [the Baumgartner case] as I am this other one. I think if the legislature asks for something, they need to be forthcoming,” he said. “We have detected missteps by the judiciary, we have detected and discovered missteps by the district attorneys and so on and so forth. And they need to be just as accountable to the people as we are.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, formerly the mayor of Knoxville before assuming Tennessee’s highest elected office, told reporters Monday that he didn’t know enough about the details of the Baumgartner case to have an “educated opinion,” and that his feelings on increased transparency with regards to TBI files are balanced by the interests of law enforcement.

“My sense is, whenever there’s information that would be helpful to the public, if there’s not a real reason not to, that should be open,” he said. “But I also realize there’s issues and times with law enforcement when there are really good reasons to keep that information until the whole legal process is worked through.”

Shipley Wants TBI to Release Records in Probe of Lawmakers

State Rep. Tony Shipley said he plans to push for a House committee to subpoena the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s files in the recently concluded inquiry into legislative actions by Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford.

Shipley and Ford were subjects of a TBI probe into whether they had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their East Tennessee area. This week Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson announced that he had found no evidence of any crime and would not pursue charges against the two lawmakers.

Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he would use the House Government Operations Committee, on which he serves as secretary, to seek the files. He would need the support of a majority of the members, and Shipley said he would try to enlist one of them to introduce the matter.

But lawyers for the committee cast doubt on the likelihood of getting the records. Legislative subpoenas are rare, they said, and with TBI pushback the matter could end up in court before any documents were released.

TBI files are among the most secretive documents in Tennessee.

They are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, a fact which has drawn renewed attention of late, especially with regards to the TBI’s investigation of Richard Baumgartner, a disgraced and disbarred Knox County Criminal Court judge who was abusing drugs and engaging in other illegal activity while presiding over cases.

In the wake of TBI revelations that Knox County court employees and other judges, as well as prosecutors in the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, may have witnessed Judge Baumgartner engaging in ethically suspect or illegal behavior and did nothing about it, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorialized in favor of the public gaining access to TBI files once an investigation is wrapped up.

“Lawmakers should show courage…and side with the public and its right to know about closed police investigations by eliminating TBI’s exemption from the Public Records Act,” the News Sentinel editors wrote last month.

However,  state law already gives committees from either chamber of the General Assembly the power to subpoena all government records. According to state law, “investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shall be open to inspection by elected members of the general assembly if such inspection is directed by a duly adopted resolution of either house or of a standing or joint committee of either house.”

Once a committee obtained the files, Shipley said it would be his intention to make them open to the public.

“There’s nothing I do here that’s not completely aboveboard or open to the public,” Shipley said. “If I bring it to committee, at that point, I don’t have to call for anything. (It’s) wide open.”

Ford, R-Jonesborough, said he doesn’t care who sees the file, either.

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, why should you care if everything’s made public,” he said. “I couldn’t care less. But it better be the truth, I can tell you that.”

Shipley has turned his ire on Johnson, who said the lawmakers used “particularly heavy-handed” political pressure.

“I’m a huge supporter of the TBI. I’m a huge supporter of district attorneys. I’m a complete law and order kind of guy,” Shipley said. “But even in those organizations you can have jerks that get in there and mess with the constitution because they think they can. And they can’t.”

The TBI launched the investigation last June to determine if the two legislators and employees of the state’s Health Department had committed any crimes, including official misconduct and false reporting, and whether the lawmakers had improperly pressured the Nursing Board to reconsider its decision to discipline three nurse practitioners.

The nurses had been accused of over-prescribing medication at the Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City, which has since been closed. Shipley and Ford through legislation attempted to shake up the nursing board and its oversight, and raised the specter of doing away with the board altogether. Ford had family ties to an employee and patient at the center.

The board eventually reversed its action against the nurses, though a TBI investigation into their actions remains open.

On Monday, Johnson announced that the state would not prosecute the two legislators. In a statement, he called the case one of “political hardball, but not political corruption.”

Shipley characterized the district attorney’s actions and criticism as a breach of the separation of powers, and the handling of the nurses’ case an “abortion of justice.”

“It is completely inappropriate for them to have stuck their hands into the legislative box,” Shipley said. “The DA made a statement: No criminality found. He should have stopped right there.

“His next comment was totally inappropriate: ‘Heavy-handed politics.’ Well, what was heavy-handed was the TBI’s DA-directed investigation that was blown from Mountain City to Memphis. That was heavy-handed.”

Shipley said he may initiate a legislative probe into where the allegations came from and whether charges could be filed against the individuals responsible for them.

He said the charges of official misconduct should have been seen as baseless from the beginning, because the three criteria for such a charge were impossible in his case. He said there couldn’t have been money or sex exchanged for a vote, because no vote was taken, and that no one’s employment could have been threatened, because he doesn’t have the power to fire anyone on the Nursing Board.

Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced he wants a review of Tennessee’s 22 state boards and commissions. In a statement outlining his 2012 legislative agenda released this week, Haslam expressed his desire to “eliminate duplicative functions and provide more accountability and oversight of these agencies.”

Shipley, Ford Overstepped Legislative Role, Not Law: Nashville DA

Davidson County’s district attorney general on Monday defended probing two state lawmakers for political wrongdoing, even after an investigation by Tennessee’s most powerful law enforcement agency revealed nothing deemed worthy of criminal prosecution.

Victor S. “Torry” Johnson III told reporters Monday that Reps. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, and Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, were “particularly heavy handed” in convincing the state nursing board to reverse disciplinary action against three nurses, but they broke no laws.

“Where it gets complicated is it’s a free country,” District Attorney General Johnson told reporters in his Nashville office.

“They are legislators, and they can certainly make inquiries, but it seems to me there’s a fine line about where you make inquiries and where maybe you are overstepping what ought to be your proper role as a legislator and really try to force a conclusion and override what really is the process that is in place to protect the public.”

He continued, “When you start introducing legislation, or interfere with legislation that might lead to the reauthorization of the board, or when you file legislation to provide that the legislature somehow would oversee these things, that just seems to me you’re using legislation as sort of a club.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry on June 22 into the two lawmakers and employees within the state Health Department to determine if they had committed any crimes, including misconduct and false reporting, in pressuring the Nursing Board to revisit their decision to discipline the nurse practitioners.

The three had been accused of over-prescribing medications contributing to the death of patients at the now-defunct Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City.

Shipley and Ford have each acknowledged filing or supporting legislation to alter the board makeup or its oversight, or moving to shut the board down in an effort to convince the body to reconsider its actions. Both lawmakers have consistently maintained they did nothing wrong.

Ultimately, disciplinary actions against the nurses were reversed, although the TBI has yet to close its investigation into the actions of the three nurses.

Now that the district attorney has concluded there are no criminal charges to file, Shipley says he wants a legislative probe into where the original complaints came from and whether the state could pursue charges against the individuals who issued “fabricated” allegations.

“It had to be exaggerated in order to get the district attorney to act, and it’s just unfortunate that these people have wasted thousands of dollars of the taxpayer’s money by having this investigation,” Shipley told TNReport.

“So we’re going to inquire as to the cost and time spent by TBI and the DAs office and all that. I think as a minimum, the person who orchestrated this ought to reimburse the state for the expenses we incurred,” he added. “In a pre-election year when we’re trying to raise money, raising the concerns about the ethics of legislators, it’s not a healthy thing for us, and I intend for it to not be a healthy thing for the person that did it, if I can figure out who did it.”

Johnson said he has no intention to go after anyone who filed complaints against the two legislators.

“Nothing that I’m saying says it (was) a false complaint,” said Johnson. “In the end, I did not feel that the activities of the legislators — while I’ve obviously been critical of them  — I didn’t think they amounted to a crime. But that doesn’t mean that the initial complaints were false.”

TBI ‘Pretty Close’ To Wrapping Up Probe Into Shipley, Ford

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is almost finished with its investigation  into two state representatives accused of misconduct in a case involving three disciplined nurses, according to a spokeswoman for the law enforcement agency.

Once the investigation is completed, it will be turned over to District Attorney Torry Johnson, who earlier this year requested the TBI look into the dealings of Reps. Tony Shipley and Dale Ford and the Department of Health.

“We’re pretty close to finishing up and giving the entire case file to him to review,” TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm told TNReport this week. She said the investigation is open.

Johnson asked the TBI to investigate whether the two East Tennessee lawmakers used political influence to improperly pressure the board into reinstating the licenses of three nurse practitioners.

The nurse practitioners had been accused of over-prescribing medications contributing to the death of patients at the now-defunct Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City. The investigation into the three nurses is still open, and District Attorney Tony Clark is still reviewing the case, according to the TBI. The nurses have not been charged.

Shipley and Ford, both Republicans, had each acknowledged filing legislation to alter the board makeup or its oversight or move to shut the board down. Ford told the Associated Press that his wife was a clinic patient and his sister worked at the center.

“I perceive this whole effort to be a means to intimidate a legislator, to prevent him from doing his constitutional duty. And guess what, it’s not going to work,” Shipley told TNReport Tuesday at the Capitol.

“Everything that I have proposed, I’m going to continue to do, and those who are shooting at me will have to answer for that at some point,” he said.

Shipley chairs a committee that has significant influence over the state Board of Nursing. That Government Operations subcommittee on education, health and general welfare met Wednesday.

The panel voted to keep the board active for another two years but change rules pertaining to who can serve on the board and how it operates.

Shipley led the charge as he and other lawmakers quizzed board representatives on how it deals with complaints against nurses suspected of wrongdoing, but not charged, much less convicted by a court — like the three nurses whose cases triggered TBI’s investigation.

Lawmakers also asked how far the board goes to make sure it implements laws with the Legislature’s intent at heart, an issue that landed the board in hot water with lawmakers last session.

“I want you to understand that we’re not here to beat you up. That’s not what we’re trying to do at all. We’re trying to understand the process because when we come out of this, we want it to be better,” Shipley said to nurses at the subcommittee meeting.

The Tennessee Nurses Association, which represents 83,000 registered nurses, agreed with the proposed changes to be written into legislation extending the life of the board. The plan came in part from a recent sit-down with Shipley.

“We are very comfortable with this amendment,” Executive Director Sharon Adkins said, who added she is also happy with the work of the Board of Nursing. “We are very pleased with our discussion with Rep. Shipley and the resulting amendment that came forward.”

Expected provisions include:

  • One board member to come from each of the nine congressional districts.
  • At least one member to be a licensed practical nurse.
  • At least one member to be a consumer.
  • At least one member must be at least 60 years old.
  • At least one member must belong to an ethnic minority.
  • No more than three members may come from from academic settings.
  •  In appointing members, the governor shall consider people from various medical backgrounds.
  • Seven members must be physically present for any decision to suspend a nurse.
  • No member may serve more than eight consecutive years.
  • Members will be appointed by the governor from a list of candidates recommended by respective organizations such as the Tennessee Nurses Association.

The legislation, and decision to renew the Board of Nurses, now moves to the full Government Operations committees in the House and Senate, which are expected to take up the issue in the spring 2012 legislative session.

Beavers Considers ‘Starting From Scratch’ on Court of Judiciary

In one of her strongest statements to date, Sen. Mae Beavers raised the specter Tuesday of doing away with the board that polices judges.

The Court of the Judiciary has been the subject of intense legislative attention this fall as Beavers has sought to revamp the make-up and operations of the body. Critics of the Court have said the system is one of judges protecting judges, and that reform is needed.

“I’m very much considering starting from scratch because there’s so much resistance from the Court of the Judiciary, the Supreme Court, to make even minor changes,” Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said after a meeting of a House and Senate joint subcommittee.

Beavers has been a vocal critic of the COJ and as Senate Judiciary chairwoman led an examination of the court’s practices in September. She walked away saying the Court should be more transparent, require judges to disclose conflicts of interest, make disciplinary actions against judges public and add more laypeople to the panel.

Democrats generally agree that steps need to be taken by the judiciary to show the public and the Legislature they’re taking complaints about judges seriously, said the House minority party’s caucus chairman, Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory.

“Ninety-five percent of the judges out there are great public servants, but they’ve got a few bad apples that for some reason the judiciary seem to be protecting,” Turner told TNReport. “I think (if) they don’t do something the next couple months to demonstrate they want to get rid of real bad judges, then I think (the Court of the Judiciary is) gone.”

Presiding Judge Chris Craft, who heads up the Court of the Judiciary, says judges support renaming the committee, adjusting who appoints members to the court and other changes.

“We’re trying to make the Legislature happy and allay their concerns while at the same time making sure that the right people get appointed to the court,” said Craft. “We have 16 judges and attorneys and laypeople who really care about having a good judiciary, and we don’t want it to become political. We don’t want it to be some base on which you have other agendas.”

Legislators are also considering plans that would essentially eliminate the need for the Judicial Nominating Commission, which recommends judges for the governor to appoint.

Some lawmakers contend the state’s current process for selecting judges, dubbed the “Tennessee Plan,” violates the state Constitution by not requiring a vote of the people. Several lawmakers want voters to directly elect judges or switch to a plan that mirrors the federal selection process, in which the president nominates and the Senate confirms.

In a sign of displeasure, the subcommittee issued a “neutral” recommendation on whether the the Court of the Judiciary should be funded next year. The subcommittee decided not to weigh in on the Judicial Nominating Commission and a separate panel called the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, forwarding those issues back to the full Government Operations Committee by default. The full committee will now decide.

The decisions send a clear message, said one lawmaker.

“That’s as close as being shot in the head by the Legislature as you can be shot in the head by the Legislature. So they’re not out of the hot seat yet,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport.

Southerland Holding Out Hope for NE TN Megasite

State Sen. Steve Southerland sounds enthusiastic about the possibility of Upper East Tennessee landing a TVA megasite like the ones taxpayers provided for Volkswagen and Hemlock Semiconductor.

But the Morristown Republican’s enthusiasm may be more a matter of a legislator cheerleading than an indication of any substantive action. Other officials, including some community leaders in the region itself, say they see no hint of a megasite headed to the area, for a variety of reasons.

State Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty said recently he had heard the subject come up in regard to Upper East Tennessee, but he downplayed the potential.

“In terms of a new large-scale megasite like West Tennessee, I think there is a lot of optimism we might be able to do that in other parts of the state, but there is nothing along that magnitude on the drawing board right now,” Hagerty said.

Alan Palmieri, mayor of Jefferson County, said he has heard the subject raised for his region — but only “for years and years and years.” Mayor Bill Brittain of Hamblen County, which includes Morristown, said this week he has not heard the matter come up.

But in talking to a reporter at a recent event in Morristown, Southerland made it sound like efforts are underway for landing a megasite.

“We’ve got sites in the area that could be a megasite,” Southerland said. “It has a good possibility, because our counties are working together. We know it has to be a joint, regional project.

“We approved three megasites. We’ve got one in West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and then one in Chattanooga. But we have not received one for Upper East Tennessee. It’s our turn. We spent the money down there. If the people are willing to work together up here and we have somebody wanting to come this way we’re going to go for it.”

Megasites have been noteworthy for several reasons recently. Tennesseans have begun to see the fruits of preparing large tracts of land and infrastructure, with Volkswagen opening its manufacturing plant in Chattanooga and Hemlock making an impact in Montgomery County, including ties with Austin Peay State University.

A third megasite, in Haywood County in West Tennessee, has begun to get more attention from government officials, but it remains vacant.

Gov. Bill Haslam has taken some of the glimmer off the headline-grabbing practice of attracting large businesses to the state, pointing out that most of the job growth comes from existing businesses, not high-profile relocations.

Nevertheless, Haslam has repeatedly said that doesn’t mean the state has abandoned the big relocation approach. At an economic development meeting in Morristown, Haslam said the administration is still ready “to move heaven and earth” to get such investments.

Southerland picked up on that line.

“Just like he said, we’d move heaven and earth to get another Volkswagen here,” Southerland said. “When you look at Hamblen County, we’re like a hub for other counties bringing in automotive jobs.”

Taxpayer bill can reach hundreds of millions of dollars

State and local taxpayers typically can end up contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the development of a megasite.

In the case of the Enterprise South industrial site that attracted Volkswagen to Hamilton County, the government’s bill, including tax breaks, was estimated in one report at $500 million. Volkswagen made an investment of $1 billion, roughly the amount Hemlock put into the megasite in Montgomery County.

Arrangements for the sites can involve help from federal, state and local governments. After that, the value of the investment is widely open to debate. Economic development officials routinely have said the kinds of businesses attracted by the megasites are giant winners for the locations. But increasingly, questions exist as to the return on the investment in attracting jobs, as states have become highly competitive.

Haslam has expressed surprise at what some companies want in return for creating jobs in Tennessee, although he has said his administration remains interested in attracting the types of investments made by Volkswagen and Hemlock.

“In this state, the funding for the megasites has been a combination of local government money and state government money, with some participation from TVA funding the certification process,” said Clint Brewer, spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development.

In Montgomery and Hamilton counties local governments handled the purchase of the land. For the Haywood County megasite, where local governments lack such resources, the state has purchased most of the land. Theoretically, private entities could have to assemble the property at a megasite.

“The local communities pay for the site’s due diligence and improvement, such as environmental reviews, infrastructure improvements, etc.,” said Mike Bradley, of the TVA news bureau in Knoxville, by e-mail Thursday. “This sometimes is done even after the site has been certified as a megasite. The effort is usually championed by a local economic developer.”

The Tennessee General Assembly this year passed legislation (SB1239) to allow the East Tennessee Regional Agribusiness Marketing Authority, or ETRAMA, to issue bonds.

The idea of economic development in the region is to enhance development along the I-81 corridor.

Two issues face the region on infrastructure for business development: hooking up a sewer system to accommodate large capacity and getting connectors in place for major rail lines in the region. Plans for the sewer line would involve trunk lines that would feed wastewater into a plant in Lowland, which is in Hamblen County.

The vacant megasite in Haywood County has 1,720 acres. Another vacant TVA megasite in Hopkinsville, Ky., has 2,100 acres. Those kinds of numbers may work against mountainous Upper East Tennessee.

“I was told years ago because of our geography it’s hard to collect 500 flat acres,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport. “Maybe we don’t get a megasite. Maybe we get a mega-area.

“The same amount of money is being spent in Chattanooga, West Tennessee and the Nashville basin area. Maybe that same amount of money could come here, because we are distinctly different.”

Palmieri, the Jefferson County mayor, makes a similar observation.

“You look at the land, and you say, ‘Where are you going to locate this?’ Terrain would be part of the process because whatever you do, you’ve got to make it economically feasible. If you’re going to have to go in and take down mountains and blast and everything else, it’s going to add to the cost, which everybody wants to avoid.”

In another way, however, geography is a plus for the region. State and local government officials point to the fact the region is within driving distance of a large portion of the nation’s population.

Like Disney World theme park, talk of megasite ‘just conversation’

Palmieri has heard talk of a megasite but sees little in the way of real progress.

“I know various mayors have talked about it for many years. Various chambers (of commerce) have talked about it. Nothing has really developed outside the fact it’s just conversation,” he said.

“Where would you go? Who’s going to bring in something that massive today? It’s probably been put on the back burner, but it’s been going on for I guess probably the last 10-12 years.”

Southerland sees other factors.

“We know with the earthquake in Japan and the value of the U.S. dollar that Japan will be looking more at investing in the United States in automotive plants. And we’re hoping to get one of whatever comes this way,” Southerland said. “You’ve got to be prepared because when they come they’re going to be looking for somebody that’s already ready to go.”

Palmieri said that for years there was talk that the people from Disney World were going to put a theme park in Cocke County.

“I heard that for 20 years,” he said. “That was a hot one there for awhile. It was going to be just a regular theme park, like a Disneyland or Dollywood. That was before Dolly owned Dollywood.”

But if the region were to get a large plant, Palmieri says the automotive or airline industries would make good sense. He said the area’s workforce, which has experience in production lines, would be good for a manufacturing base.

When asked why the airline industry would be a good fit, Palmieri said, “Everything they have is predominantly in a high-tax area. What they’re having to pay the workforce there is probably three or four times what they could have to pay a workforce here in Jefferson County or East Tennessee.

“Transportation-wise, with the Interstate and everything else, easy access in and out, I can see where they could save a lot of money, and it’d be much more profitable for their company.”

Aircraft maker Boeing has recently been involved in a dispute with the National Labor Relations Board over a plant it plans to build in South Carolina. Palmieri said Tennessee should get a look.

“If Boeing ever took a serious look, they could come in, acquire property and build buildings and have a workforce ready to go, and they would save money almost right off the bat,” he said. “South Carolina is more expensive. They have payroll taxes and everything else. I don’t understand that.

“I have family there. It’s a beautiful state. I can’t stand Steve Spurrier (the South Carolina football coach). But why would you go to South Carolina when Interstate access, transportation needs, centralization, taxes, everything is so much better right here in East Tennessee? I don’t understand that.”