NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Fitzhugh Reluctant to Talk Specifics on TBI Investigation of Nursing Board Legislation

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh is hesitant to say anything about the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s probe of lawmakers who said they used legislation to encourage the state Board of Nursing to reexamine a decision.

“I think the reason for legislation is…to better the lives of citizens in Tennessee. If the particular reason a bill is filed does not come under that broad category, it probably shouldn’t have been filed in the first place,” said the Ripley Democrat.

Fitzhugh said he otherwise did not want to comment on the investigation except to say that the decision to sunset a board is a serious one.

TBI is investigating the dealings of legislators and Department of Health personnel related to efforts to convince the Tennessee Nursing Board to revisit disciplinary actions against three nurses accused of over-prescribing medication which reportedly led to the death of two patients at the now defunct Appalachian Medical Center.

Reps. Tony Shipley and Dale Ford told local media they introduced legislation to encourage the board to listen to their requests. Both say they’ve done nothing wrong.

NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Harwell: Using Legislation as Influence is ‘Wrong’

Speaker Beth Harwell said she has never used legislation to pressure a department or committee to do what she wants, and that anyone who has would be in the wrong.

The Nashville Republican was responding to questions Wednesday about what she knew about Reps. Tony Shipley and Dale Ford’s involvement in getting the state Nursing Board to reverse its decision to discipline three nurses accused of substandard care contributing to the death of two patients.

“We certainly don’t want in any way (to) appear abusive, and I don’t think that was anyone’s intent, and if it was, they were wrong,” said Harwell.

“I don’t know the particulars of it. I made a point not to know the particulars of it. If they have done something that is wrong or is inappropriate or unethical, they should receive punishment for it, but I don’t know that they have.”

Harwell refused to offer specific comment about the allegations because the issue is under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, although she said she’s not been contacted by the agency.

TBI launched an investigation June 22 into members of the General Assembly 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 nurses. The complaint sparking the investigation came from District Attorney General Torry Johnson.

“TBI is currently ascertaining the facts surrounding the Board of Nursing reinstating the licenses of three nurse practitioners after two state representatives expressed an interest in the nurses getting their licenses back,” TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said in an emailed statement.

The department has been investigating the nurses involved, Bobby Reynolds II, David Stout Jr. and Tina Killebrew. The case began as an over-prescribing case in Johnson City and evolved into a death investigation, according to Helm. She said that case file is now being reviewed by District Attorney General Tony Clark’s office.

Shipley and Ford this year supported legislation to block the Nursing Board’s renewal, create a committee to oversee the board and reduce the number of members on the board in what they say were attempts to get the body to reconsider actions taken against the three nurses, who were accused of over-prescribing medication relating to the deaths of three patients at the now defunct Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City.

According to the Kingsport Times-News:

In May, Shipley said that as an officer of the Government Operations Committee, he “took the position of blocking the extension of the board,” until they agreed to listen to their argument. He said a yearlong battle ensued before the board finally agreed to take another look at the evidence. During the last three or four months of that period of time, Shipley said he had someone from the Department of Health in his office – from the legislative coordinator “all the way up to a deputy commissioner” – engaged in “sometimes heated discussion” toward that end.

In April, Shipley advocated a House amendment to reduce the number of nursing board members and require having seven board members present before issuing a summary suspension.

Ford elaborated to the newspaper, saying he too has nothing to hide:

“It all stemmed from one thing: I wrote a bill to put in an oversight panel and when they issue a major fine or major penalty of any kind to close your doors, we would look at both sides of the evidence. (The nursing board) said if I would pull that bill they would reconsider the summary suspension on Bob Reynolds, and the state of Tennessee had 38 summary suspensions,” said Ford.

“They reconsidered that and I withdrew my bill. They can come after me all they want. They are welcome to investigate any aspect of my life,” he said. As of Tuesday morning, Ford said he had not heard from the TBI.

Both legislators spoke at length with WCYB News Channel 5 in the Tri-Cities area. Extended video interviews with Shipley can be viewed here, and Ford’s interview is here.

Press Releases

‘Caylee Anthony Act’ in Works

Press Release from Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, July 11, 2011:

Legislation Will Make it a Felony to Not Report Missing Child

( NASHVILLE, TN), July 12, 2011 – Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) said today he will be the Senate sponsor of the Caylee Anthony legislation filed yesterday in the House of Representatives by Rep. Tony Shipley (R-Kingsport). The bill, which comes on the heels of the Casey Anthony verdict last week, aims to strengthen state law to make it a felony for a parent, legal guardian, or caretaker to not notify law enforcement of the disappearance of a child within 24 hours.

“I am very pleased to be sponsoring this proposal with Rep. Shipley,” said Senator Ketron. “The Casey Anthony trial has shined a bright light on the gap in many state’s laws, including Tennessee’s, regarding the reporting of a missing child. It should be unacceptable under our state law to not report a child’s disappearance as it hampers efforts to return them to safety, or in the most severe circumstance where death occurs, it greatly impacts law enforcement’s investigation.”

Ms. Anthony failed to report her daughter missing to local authorities for a month and Florida law does not provide any penalties for this inaction. Tennessee law also has no penalty associated with a failure to report a missing child. The Shipley/Ketron bill makes it a class E felony to not report a missing child.

Ketron was formerly President of the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation associated with the National Exchange Club. He helped establish 122 child abuse prevention centers, including those located in Jackson, Memphis, Murfreesboro and Nashville, Tennessee. He was attending a national symposium of that group last week when the verdict was delivered. He said he immediately received dozens of email messages from constituents asking for legislative action to be taken.

Ketron also said he has spoken with Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Kate O’Day regarding the need for the legislation.

The full text of Senate Bill 2123 can be accessed here.


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Where Do Fiscal Notes Come From?

What’s the best way to find out whether the latest great idea your senator or representative has come up with is going to end up leaving you, the taxpayer, holding the financial bag?

Nothing, of course, is ever for certain when it comes to calculating the hidden costs or projected saving of programs and newfangled ways of conducting state business.

But by reading a proposal’s “Fiscal Note” — the estimated price tag attached to each of the thousands of bills filed in the Legislature every session — citizens can at least get a sense of the numbers lawmakers are themselves working with as they deliberate what they think ought to be on state government’s to-do list.

For example, a proposal to require businesses check the immigration status of new employees would cost the state $292,100 a year while a law that would require drivers to keep dogs out of the front passenger seat would bring in $1,100, according to the fiscal notes developed by a team of legislative staffers.

But while many lawmakers regard fiscal notes as reliable estimates of government costs, they are anything but error-proof, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, even sometimes colored by politics. The staff who develop the estimates rely on a series of judgment calls and information from a variety of sources, including state agencies which have been known to exaggerate the effects of bills they may dislike, some lawmakers say.

“If (departments) don’t want to do something, they give us an inflated fiscal note,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who sits on the Fiscal Review Committee overseeing the office that develops the price tags. “Conversely, I suspect, if it’s something they wanted to do, they would deflate the fiscal note.”

“The fiscal notes are only as good as the information that’s given to the fiscal committee,” said House Democratic Caucus Leader Craig Fitzhugh who echoed that some departments tend to tweak their estimates depending on their view of a bill.

The question of the cost estimates’ accuracy came up last week during a debate over whether to require background checks of the people appointed to state boards by the House speaker and lieutenant governor. The Fiscal Review Committee staff said the cost of SB256 was “not significant,” which means it was estimated to cost less than $50. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation staff could just add the duties to their normal workload of performing background checks, the fiscal note said.

“I was just curious how this doesn’t cost anything,” said Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis. “If they can absorb the cost into their day-to-day activities, we wouldn’t need a law for them to do this. The speaker can just call down there and say, ‘I’d like for you to check this out.’”

Even Sen. Mike Bell, a spokesman for the bill, said he can only rely on the estimate he’s given.

“I would say over my first five years, I’ve seen several fiscal notes, and I’ve wondered exactly how they’ve reached that point,” Bell, R-Riceville, said.

The man who oversees the churning out of the 3,000 fiscal notes per session said his staff tries to get as close to the truth as possible. Jim White’s signature goes on each of the documents, certifying the information is accurate to the best of his knowledge.

As staff executive director to the Fiscal Review Committee of eight years, White oversees a team of nine aides, including lawyers, economists and long-time government types who know their way around various state agencies. Each staffer specializes in a certain area of government and spends days or weeks calculating the total financial impact of a bill, even when the legislation never sees the light of day.

“We’re like the umpires in baseball. We call balls and strikes without fear or favor,” White said. “We need to stay distant from the political fray so that we don’t let all the political things that are going on affect what we do.”

But it’s impossible to be completely removed, and political spectators from both sides of the aisle, lobbyists and special interest groups take issue with the projections and often call White pressuring him to change the final numbers, he said. If he’s convinced his numbers were wrong, he does, White said.

“I don’t want to portray a picture that we’re simply stenographers. We’re not,” said White who said part of his office’s job is to double check the departments’ estimates to verify their accuracy.

“We recognize that everyone who has an interest in a fiscal note has an agenda,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that at all. And of course, that’s (how) the process works under our form of government. That’s the way it should work. But we have to filter that, if you will. We have to look at what we’re being told.”

White is elected each year by the lawmakers on the committee, which this session is chaired by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron with Democrat Charles Curtis as vice chairman.

Pinpointing costs can be hard when proposals would break new ground for which the consequences are difficult to predict.

Case in point: Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and open enrollment to all students instead of just students who perform poorly on state tests or come from schools the state deems as failing.

White and his office say the bill would cost state government nothing, but local governments would lose $4.3 million in the 2013-14 school year. That cost would increase each year as education dollars follow students from traditional schools to charters and would ultimately cost local governments $24 million annually by 2023, according to the fiscal note. But those numbers were difficult to estimate, White admitted, because the state has never expanded the education system’s structure in this way.

Sometimes his office misses the mark.

In 2009, it estimated the state would earn about $41,600 a year from ticketing people for texting on their cellphones while driving, assuming law enforcement would issue about 10 tickets a day.

Ultimately, just 49 tickets were issued the first year the bill kicked in, bringing in $2,100.

“We’re not all-knowing by any means, and we do make mistakes. But when we make mistakes, we fix them,” White said. A recent Comptroller’s audit of the committee found nothing out of the ordinary, indicating that the staff’s estimates were “reasonable.”

The process of writing fiscal notes is one of the best examples of the well-worn political cliche that the legislative process is like making sausage.

Once a bill is filed, White assigns it to a staff member who then peppers state agencies and local governments with questions: How much will this cost and for how long? Why will it cost this much? How many people would it affect?

The staffer evaluates the information and compares it to similar legislation and fiscal notes from past years. What financial impact did those bills have? Did our old price tag line up with what the state actually dished out?

Then comes independent research. You name it, from federal government databases and the census to local government reports and research from outside groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the office taps into numerous sources to figure out the final price tag.

The draft goes through three stages of editing before White gives it his stamp of approval.

While not perfect, the process still wins the confidence of top lawmakers.

Overall, legislators consider fiscal notes the most accurate estimate of how much lawmakers’ proposals will cost, said Sen. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who sits on the Fiscal Review committee.

“It’s very reliable, and that’s what you want,” he said.

Press Releases

Haslam Promises to Make TN the Top Southeastern Jobs Location

Press Release from Bill Haslam for Governor, Sept. 10, 2010:


Knoxville Mayor Says Decisions Must Be Based on How Jobs Are Generated

KINGSPORT – Knoxville Mayor and Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam toured this morning the site of State Route 126 in Kingsport with State Rep. Tony Shipley and Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, taking the opportunity to emphasize that if elected his first priority would be making Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for jobs.

The high quality of Tennessee’s roadways is a recruitment tool often used when discussing business relocation, and it will be important for the next governor – despite being mired in difficult economic times – to keep Tennessee roads and bridges appropriately maintained.

Tennessee roads are often recognized for their high quality. Earlier this year, a survey of truck owners and operators by Overdrive Magazine, named for the fourth year in a row the 455-mile stretch of Interstate 40 through Tennessee the best road in the entire U.S. The Reason Foundation, a public policy research firm, has consistently put Tennessee’s entire roadway and bridge system in the Top 20 among all states.

In his extensive experience in job recruitment in the private and public sectors, the quality of Tennessee’s roads are often a contributing factor to businesses coming to Tennessee, Haslam said.

“It’s very important that the next governor understand the importance of infrastructure and the challenges facing the state,” said Haslam, during a press availability at the historic Yancey’s Tavern in Kingsport with Shipley, Ramsey, State Reps. Jason Mumpower and John Lundberg. “What I’ll do, if I’m elected governor, is prioritize infrastructure projects based on their safety needs and what the project can do to develop jobs.”

“Every decision is driven by how we can make Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for jobs,” he said.

Later, Haslam added that the first task of the next governor is to determine whether the state is being as effective as possible with taxpayer dollars. “If elected, I’m committed to conducting a top-to-bottom review of state government to determine the areas where Tennessee can be more efficient and bring taxpayers a greater return on investment,” Haslam said. “We’ll need to examine each road and bridge project on how necessary it is for public safety and how it will help job growth in that area,” Haslam said.

“We’re not going to raise taxes. We won’t have an income tax – I’m 100 percent against one – and we’re not going to raise the sales tax because it’s already the highest cumulative sales tax in the nation,” Haslam said. “Our only alternatives are to be more cost-effective and efficient in the services the state delivers and to grow our way out by recruiting businesses here and make Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for jobs.”

Mayor Haslam is the two-term Republican Mayor of Knoxville, reelected in 2007 with 87 percent of the vote. A hardworking, conservative public servant, Haslam led Knoxville to become one of the top ten metropolitan areas for business and expansion, while reducing the city’s debt, tripling the rainy day fund, reducing the number of city employees to the lowest amount in 15 years and bringing property taxes to the lowest rate in 50 years. An executive leader with a proven record of success, he helped grow his family’s small business from 800 employees into one of Tennessee’s largest companies with 14,000 employees..