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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Ramsey Soliciting Ideas for New Judicial District Maps

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is expected today to announce he’s seeking input from the legal community and the general public on what reworked state judicial district maps should look like.

Tennessee’s judicial districts have not been redrawn since 1984. And with districts set to elect their district attorneys general, public defenders and state trial court judges this August, some powerful figures in the General Assembly are saying that this legislative session represents the best chance to improve the efficiency of the districts through redistricting.

“The last time our judicial districts were updated Waylon Jennings and Michael Jackson were at the top of the charts,” Ramsey told TNReport in a statement. “Tennessee is a far different place that it was in 1984. Formerly rural counties have become thoroughly suburban, and our suburban counties now confront problems similar to urban areas. We desperately need to take a fresh look at this judicial map to ensure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders.”

At a forum sponsored by the Associated Press last week, Ramsey said Tennessee’s judicial districts are “completely out of whack.”

Ramsey added that he isn’t particularly looking forward to the undertaking. He indicated the process of legislative redistricting last year was a bigger headache than he’d anticipated.

“Really, there’s no political upside to this,” the East Tennessee Republican said. “It is something that I just think is good government and efficiency and making sure that the judiciary operates as efficiently as we do.”

Ramsey also said that, in addition to the public at large, he is requesting input from those that would be directly affected, such as the Trial Judges Association, the District Attorneys General Conference and the Tennessee Bar Association.

Officials with the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts have said they have no opinion on redistricting, but Ramsey has said that the process will likely be controversial.

The debate over judicial redistricting is not a new one. Unlike legislative redistricting, it is not mandated by the Tennessee Constitution. And since the mid-1990s — about 10 years after the last redistricting — state officials have been debating how best to go about it — or whether to do it at all.

In 2007, the Comptroller’s Office awarded a $126,522 contract to the Justice Management Institute and George Mason University to conduct a study of potential judicial redistricting in Tennessee (pdf).

The five-page report after the study came to this conclusion: There was no need for redistricting, but more study was needed.

From the report: “Only a few people provided any thoughts about potential benefits, namely the creation of more time available to justice professionals to process cases, lower caseloads and reduced travel time.”

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

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Featured Tax and Budget

Lights, Camera, Spend: Tennesseans Boost Hollywood With Film Incentives

Did you enjoy ABC’s “Nashville” series? Good, because you’ll be paying for it to the tune of $8.5 million.

Millions of public dollars — in tax credits and, as of this year, via grants — have flowed into the state’s film incentive program to aid productions such as Larry the Cable Guy’s Christmas special, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and promos for “Monday Night Football.”

In all, Tennessee is on track to fork over $22 million worth of handouts for Hollywood productions that are made in the state, a TNReport review of state records from 2008 to 2012 shows.

“This is one of the most insidious forms of corporate welfare out there,” Trey Moore, with the free-market think tank Beacon Center, said. “It’s hard to argue that this is a good deal for taxpayers.”

To put the amount in context: $22 million could pay for an additional 455 Nashville firefighters or five additional teachers in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties this year.

Tennessee film subsidies

Supporters of the state’s film incentive program say it boosts economic development, spurs job creation and is good marketing for Tennessee. The program is overseen by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Officials point to “Nashville,” ABC’s prime-time soap opera in which a 40-something country star must share the stage with a sassy young starlet.

“The program that’s had the most accolades is the recent film series ‘Nashville,’” Economic and Community Development commissioner Bill Hagerty said during a recent budget hearing.

Bill HagertyBill Hagerty

“The pilot was outstanding,” he said in November. “It still ranks number three in the ratings today, and we’re very optimistic that ‘Nashville’ is putting an important brand on the state and one that’s very positive for us.”

Over the past year, film incentives weren’t just teed up for the show “Nashville,” but to productions such as the faith-based drama “Unconditional,” and “Water for Elephants,” the circus-train romance/animal cruelty flick starring Reese Witherspoon.

Supporters of the incentives say that the program’s front-end money translates into economic benefits for the state, with “Nashville” alone bringing in $49.5 million in economic development. But for most of the program’s short history, the formulas for arriving at such numbers have been kept secret, and it’s still not clear exactly how the $49.5 million is estimated.

See all of the projects that have received public incentives from Tennessee here.

State officials say the program will be more transparent going forward. As of July 1, the state began administering all incentives as grants rather than tax credits — called “spurious” by one study.

There appear to be some benefits to this change, including greater transparency. Under former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who launched the incentive program, many of the presumed economic benefits were closed to the public. Benefits to film companies were in the form of tax credits, and a great deal of tax information in Tennessee is not public under state law.

But now, under Gov. Bill Haslam: “It is a more transparent process,” ECD spokesman Clint Brewer told TNReport. “The collapsing of the tax credit had several benefits, and that’s one of them. By and large everything we do in this department is an open record.”

It’s now easier for smaller and independent film productions to tap into the cash, too.

“The result is that we took a complicated, burdensome process that involved tax credits and a lot of paperwork and streamlined it significantly,” Brewer said.

But critics of the program doubt the benefits from the movies move the economic needle in Tennessee.

“This is just another example of corporate welfare,” said Moore, of the Beacon Center. “It’s rampant across the country when it comes to the film and movie industry, and, unfortunately, it’s hard to identify what’s really coming in the door.”

All these film incentives have Hollywood licking its chops: The Los Angeles-based Screen Actors Guild makes a web page available to all its members showing the film tax and grant benefits available in states across the U.S.

What of all those other states that have taxpayer-supported film incentive programs? Won’t jobs leave Tennessee and head there? Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri all have robust film incentive programs. And Louisiana is the granddaddy of film incentives in the U.S. — second only to California and New York — garnering the nickname “Hollywood South.”

“If giving away money is a good way to create jobs when you’re not getting anything in return, I would have a hard time believing that,” Moore said. “It’s a notoriously fickle industry. There’s no guarantee that even once we give them this money that this is going to stick around.”

It’s not just the fiscal conservatives who question grants to film companies.
The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities conducted a national study on film subsidies and found that “in the harsh light of reality, film subsidies offer little bang for the buck.”

The study found:

+ Subsidies reward companies for production that they might have done anyway. Some makers of movie and TV shows have close, long-standing relationships with particular states. Had those states not introduced or expanded film subsidies, most such producers would have continued to work in the state anyway. But there is no practical way for a state to limit subsidies only to productions that otherwise would not have happened.

+ The best jobs go to non-residents. The workforce at most sites outside of Los Angeles and New York City lacks the specialized skills producers need to shoot a film. Consequently, producers import scarce, highly paid talent from other states. Jobs for in-state residents tend to be spotty, part-time, and relatively low-paying work — hairdressing, security, carpentry, sanitation, moving, storage, and catering — that is unlikely to build the foundations of strong economic development in the long term.

+ Subsidies don’t pay for themselves. The revenue generated by economic activity induced by film subsidies falls far short of the subsidies’ direct costs to the state. To balance its budget, the state must therefore cut spending or raise revenues elsewhere, dampening the subsidies’ positive economic impact.

And while Tennessee officials boast that film subsidies can lead to good public relations for the state, some states’ programs have backfired in the PR department.

Louisiana recently received a black eye when consultants determined the program wasn’t getting the results officials said it was.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Louisiana, for instance, estimates that for every dollar it paid out in tax incentives for film projects over the last three years, it got back tax revenue of 24 cents. Still, the state’s analysis shows that film jobs in the state rose from about 900 in 2001 to about 5,000 now, so although the Big Easy’s state loses money on every job, it presumably hopes to make it up in volume.

Iowa’s film program was rocked by a scandal when prosecutors charged the state’s former film chief with various felonies, including official misconduct over his handling of state film tax credits.

Michigan was hit with some ironic bad press after reporters found that the state had coughed up more than $831,000 in tax dollars for “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Michael Moore’s movie that, in part, is critical of companies that accept corporate welfare.

Tennessee film subsidies by year

Under Haslam, the state has accelerated spending on film incentives, with more dollars thrown at moviemakers in 2012 than in 2009, 2010 and 2011 combined.

“As part of Governor Haslam’s Jobs4TN economic development plan, the entertainment industry was identified as one of the key industries in which the state has a clear competitive advantage,” Hagerty said in a statement last year after legislation was passed giving the film incentive program a $2 million boost.

At the same time, the brass behind the show “Nashville” is not so subtly indicating that if they don’t get additional incentives, they’ll pack up their Dobros and go home.

“The show’s backers are saying additional incentives — the extension of a heightened state reimbursement and other possibilities — will likely be needed to justify the cost of continued filming in Music City,” the Nashville Business Journal reported. “The fact that the show, which has seen ratings drop since its premiere before regaining some ground (in November), has been picked up means there will be a full season for backers to tout and public officials to weigh.”

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

Categories
Featured Health Care

Haslam Rejects State-Run Exchange

Siding with Tea Party activists and GOP lawmakers, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that Tennessee would not run its own insurance exchange under the federal health care law.

But Haslam said he wasn’t bowing to political pressure.

“Believe me, the politics haven’t changed,” the Republican governor said after a speech at a Rotary Club of Nashville luncheon at the Wildhorse Saloon on Second Avenue. “I knew what the politics were of this decision seven or eight months ago. I can assure you: while we listen to everybody, in the end we made what we think is the right decision.”

Haslam said that as late as Friday he would have considered moving forward with a state-run exchange if federal officials “could soothe some of our fears.”

If Haslam had said yes to a state-run exchange, he would have been the only southern Republican governor so far to have done so.

But politics, Haslam said, “had zero to do with our decision.”

Until Haslam’s decision, a debate had been raging in Tennessee over whether state officials should support the federal health insurance exchanges outlined in President Obama’s healthcare overhaul or disavow state-level cooperation and let federal officials run the exchange.

The Tea Party held a rally last week urging Haslam to ‘Just Say No’ to Tennessee taking ownership of an exchange. Few if any GOP legislators have expressed any willingness to support a state-run exchange.

“As caucus chairman I helped get six new guys elected to the Senate, and the first bullet point on all their mail pieces was that they could not vote for or support Obamacare,” Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, told TNReport last week. “So you can’t expect them to come back in January and vote for it.”

Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said he had little choice but to fight against a state-run exchange if he was interested in staying on the right side of popular opinion in his district.

“The overwhelming majority of my constituents is opposed to it,” said Yager.

The exchanges are supposed to be up and running by Jan. 1, 2014.

Haslam did say it’s possible that Tennessee might be able to take over its exchange at some point in the future.

“To work together with [the federal government] in this way we have to be convinced that they are literally ready to do it,” Haslam said. “In the last two or three weeks since the original deadline they gave us, they’ve issued us … 800-plus pages of rules — and those are just drafts. So just think about what that means: That was after the original deadline, they’ve given us 800 pages of something that was passed two years ago.

“I’m not being political. I honestly think they don’t have this planned out.”

Republicans legislative leaders applauded Haslam’s decision.

“It would be dereliction of our duty as public servants to take on as a partner a federal government that is clearly out of its depth,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, posted on Facebook. “I’m proud to stand with Governor Haslam as we continue to find ways to minimize the impact of this insidious federal law on the citizens of Tennessee.”

And House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said in a statement: “As I have stated many times before, I am vehemently opposed to Obamacare and the mandates that come along with it. The decisions regarding health care are best left to each Tennessean and their doctor—not a massive bureaucracy that is sure to send this country further into debt.”

Democrats chided Haslam for foregoing the state-run exchange.

“I’m disappointed to see the Governor pandering to the far right of his party rather than doing what is best for the people of Tennessee,” House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said in a statement. “I would hate to know that I had a 70 percent approval rating statewide and couldn’t get my own party to support my initiatives.”

See the letter Gov. Bill Haslam wrote to Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius by clicking here.

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

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Press Releases

TNReport’s Open Government Talk Draws Impressive, Well-Informed Crowd

Press Release from TNReport.com New Service, Nov. 29, 2012:

The “Totally Transparent Pizza Party” hosted by TNReport and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government on Wednesday evening drew a mix of 64 attendees from across the political spectrum.

“It was exciting to see such a diverse and enthusiastic audience turn out for this important discussion,” TNReport.com editor Mark Engler said.

TCOG executive director Kent Flanagan and Elisha Hodge, open-records counsel for the State of Tennessee, joined TNReport’s Trent Seibert for ranging talk on open-government issues in the Volunteer State.

“Public accountability starts with free and open access to information,” said Engler. “Our primary function and goal at TNReport is arming citizens with the tools for getting at the truth of what government is doing, and how tax dollars are being spent. I am tremendously grateful to Kent Flanagan and Elisha Hodge for joining with us to further that mission. I look forward to doing more events like it in the not-so-distant future.”

The event was hosted by Mafiaoza’s Pizzeria & Neighborhood Pub, 2400 12th Ave. S. in Nashville.

Seibert also spoke at the event and supplied a list of online tools for citizen journalists. The links to those tools are below.

The FOIA letter generator

This handy site will allow you to produce a quick letter asking a state, local or federal government entity for the public records you want. It also shows you examples of records that are public at the state and federal level and provides direct links to your state’s open records law.

Tennessee campaign finance search

This state-run site gives you the most complete information about campaign contributions for state-level candidates. In addition to searching, you can also download the information into a spreadsheet for deeper analysis.

Follow the Money

This site allows you to see how money flows through your state. The campaign contributions for elected officials such as state representatives, state senators and governors are showcased here. There is also an analysis of those contributions and much, much more.

Open Secrets

Here is where you will find how money flows through Congress and the White House. There is so much more here, too: This site is a clearinghouse for data and analysis on multiple aspects of money in politics — the independent interest groups flooding politics with outside spending, federal lobbying, Washington’s “revolving door,” federal earmarks and the personal finances of members of Congress, the president and other officials.

Legistorm

Based in Washington, LegiStorm has valuable information on Congress, such as a database of congressional staff salaries and a comprehensive database of all privately financed trips taken by members of Congress, as well as gifts to members of Congress from foreign governments.

Political Party Time

This site collects and categorizes invitations to political fundraising events for members of Congress and the president. You can find out where the fundraisers are and (in some cases) who is expected to attend, often before they happen. You can also view the array of invitations that are e-mailed and faxed by the dozen to lobbyists, political action committee representatives and others around Washington, D.C., and the country. These fundraisers vary from small receptions to lavish getaways — and none are cheap.

Housing and Urban Development Audits

See how well — or not so well — HUD is using tax dollars in your state. Keep up with audits that put a spotlight on waste, fraud and corruption.

Tennessee state auditor

The state auditor takes a hard look at state and local agencies and finds information that is often overlooked by the media. Investigative audits often show waste and fraud. Financial audits can give you detailed information about an agency, school system or city — and can show you how much debt public entities hold and what tax hikes may be on the way.

Stimulus information and stimulus audits

Recovery.gov shows you where stimulus money is being spent and how many jobs have been created. The “accountability” section of the site links to audits of stimulus spending, as well as to lists of organizations that have received stimulus dollars but have not reported how they’ve spent the money.

LM-2, Labor organization reports

The Department of Labor’s website allows users to look up specific labor organizations and their annual financial reports.

Government Attic

Government Attic provides electronic copies of thousands of interesting government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. They include: fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities, fun stuff and government bloopers.

FBI reports

The FBI’s FOIA page provides the form to find out if a deceased individual or a closed case has an associated FBI file. The site also provides hundreds of links to the FBI files of historical figures and events.

Any questions about public records? Contact Trent, Elisha or Kent:

Trent Seibert, phone: 615-669-9501 or email trent@tnreport.com

Elisha Hodge, phone: 615-401-7891 or email open.records@cot.tn.gov

Kent Flanagan, phone: 615-202-2685 or email tncog@comcast.net

Categories
Featured Tax and Budget

Ramsey: ‘Day of Reckoning’ Coming

The idea that any American state would seriously consider secession is “silly,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters in Nashville Tuesday afternoon.

Clearly, however, for many people in the country, political frustration runs deep, he said. “You watch what is going on in Washington, D.C…it’s past a ‘train wreck’.”

“But secession is not a legitimate way” of addressing disagreements among the states and federal government, said Ramsey. “That didn’t work out too good the first time, and I don’t think it would work out too good the second time.”

The plain-spoken East Tennessee Republican said he does foresee a time when politicians in Washington may come looking to taxpayers in conservative-run states like Tennessee and Texas to bail out heavily indebted state governments run by Democrats.

“There’s going to come a day, I suppose, when Barack Obama or somebody’s going to say, ‘Tennessee, you’re going to need to help us bail out Illinois, you need to help us bail out California.’ And that’s the day that there’s going to be some kind of reckoning,” said Ramsey. “There’s going to be a day when I think governors say, ‘That’s it. We’re not doing that anymore.’”

“I think there’s going to be a day of reckoning for this country, I do believe that,” he added.

Ramsey’s comments about secession and America’s political divisions came in response to questions about an online petition submitted to the White House this month calling for Tennessee to be allowed to withdraw from the United States of America.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner this week criticized that petition and warned state elected officials against signing it. “As state representatives we owe it to the men and women who died fighting to protect and preserve our union to speak out against this destructive movement,” the Old Hickory Democrat said in a statement. “If any representatives join or have joined the call for secession, I intend to seek their removal from office.”

Ramsey reacted with amusement at the prospect of a Tennessee statehouse Democrat initiating impeachment proceedings against a Republican. “Well, let me think — how many votes does it take to impeach somebody? And how many Democrats are there in the House? OK, good luck on that one,” said Ramsey.

Democrats in the Tennessee Legislature have been reduced to “superminority” status in both chambers. They are entering the 2013-14 session of the General Assembly at their lowest point of political influence since the Reconstruction years following the Civil War.

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

Categories
Featured NewsTracker

Slight Reshuffling Among House Republican Leadership

House Speaker Beth Harwell on Monday won unanimous backing to be the GOP’s nominee for Speaker for a second term. But the party tossed Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny from his post in a Republican caucus meeting, replacing him with Rep. Curtis Johnson.

“As far as our caucus is concerned, one of my big roles is to bring our caucus together,” said Johnson, of Clarksville. “We’re going to have differences, we’re going to have constructive criticism … but I think we need to all work together to move our caucus forward.”

Matheny, R-Tullahoma, a Tea Party favorite, was at times critical of other House Republican leaders, and had for a time considered challenging Harwell for speaker.

GOP lawmakers also chose Glen Casada of Franklin to serve as the caucus chairman, a position he held previously before running against Harwell for the speaker’s post in 2010. Casada will take over for Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, who was defeated in the August primary by Courtney Rogers.

“In the 107th General Assembly, we did a lot to change how the Capitol operates internally and created a better environment for job creation throughout the state. Now, it’s time to take the next step,” Casada said in a statement. “Over the next two years, I look forward to leading a solutions-based Caucus that answers the needs of our citizens, creates more opportunity for economic growth, and enhances the educational landscape for our children.”

The caucus also dumped Rep. Curry Todd, of Collierville, from his seat on the powerful Fiscal Review Committee.

Todd, sponsor of Tennessee’s guns-in-bars law, resigned as chairman of the 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. He pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Nov. 30.

A list of those winning GOP leadership offices can be found by clicking here.

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

Categories
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.

Categories
NewsTracker

Devaney: TNGOP a ‘Shining Light’ to Nation

A top Republican strategist says his party won big in Tennessee because voters are “gravitating to the message” Volunteer State GOP politicians communicate.

Now, Republicans in Tennessee couldn’t really ask to be in a better position to execute the policy measures they say will propel the state along a path of economic prosperity, fiscal responsibility and social conservatism.

“Tennessee, I think, is a shining light and an example across the country for what we can do,” Chris Devaney, chairman of Tennessee’s Republican Party, told TNReport.com.

In fact, Devaney said he sees no reason his party’s historic supermajorities in the House and Senate won’t continue to grow in 2014.

“It’s about job-creation and education … tax reform, legal reform, all of that, and people just keep gravitating to that message,” said Devaney, who added: “The Democrats, really, in this state have no message.”

Democrats certainly disagree with Devaney on the message issue, but Republican Party dominance at the polls speaks for itself. Bob Corker handily won re-election to the U.S. Senate, the GOP continues to hold seven of nine Congressional seats and in the statehouse have secured walkout proof majorities in both chambers.

Devaney said he did encounter one unpleasant surprise on Election Night. Mitt Romney may have won Tennessee by 20 percentage points, but nationally his Republican message didn’t resonate like it did here.

“I thought Romney would win and that we might pick up a couple of more seats in the House,” he said.

It’s likely that Devaney will be around for at least another two years. He is running for a third term as Tennessee Republican Party chairman. The party’s executive committee will make its decision at a Dec. 1 meeting, and party officials say they are not aware of any challenges to Devaney’s re-election.

That means that those who want to run under the Republican banner will continue to face a strict litmus test.

“We’ve got to make sure… that we have people who are sticking by the core principles,” Devaney said. “One thing I ask people when they walk in here is, ‘Are you for a state income tax?’”

If they are, Deveaney said, they won’t get a dime of state GOP campaign money.

“Second amendment, same thing, pro-life, same thing,” he said.

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

Categories
Featured Transparency and Elections

State: New Voter ID Law Proving a Success

Tennessee’s 2011 law requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot had little apparent statistical effect on citizen access to the polls in the general election, records from the Secretary of State’s Office show.

Of the 2.45 million votes cast during the election, 674 provisional ballots related to the new photo ID law were filled out. Of that total, 178 voters returned with proper photo identification and had their ballots counted, according to records.

The new law states that voters who come to the polls without a photo ID may still vote using a provisional ballot. Voters can then return to the polls within two days with a valid ID, such as a driver’s license, and their vote will be counted.

“It’s not even 1 percent of the vote,” Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay said.

The share of voters who did not have their provisional ballot counted because they lacked photo ID comes to roughly .02 percent of all votes cast.

The Nov. 6 election was the broadest test to date of the voter ID law, and lawmakers who supported it say it is proving a success.

“From the moment this law was introduced opponents have been screaming that the sky was falling in ways that would shame Chicken Little,” Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement. “The numbers have shown otherwise. Photo ID provides voter protection, and now we have proof.”

View county breakdown in a larger map

Shelby County had the most voters casting provisional ballots due to the voter ID law, with 134 cast. Records show 15 of those voters returned with the required identification. Davidson County came in second with 41 voters casting provisional ballots.

“When I see these numbers and then open the paper and see obvious examples of voter fraud in Philadelphia and Cleveland, I rest comfortably knowing that Tennessee has done the right thing in protecting the franchise,” Ramsey said. “What these numbers reveal is that the only thing Tennessee’s voter ID law suppresses is voter fraud.”

When the Republican-controlled Tennessee Legislature passed the photo ID bill, opponents argued the measure was not designed to protect voter integrity, but rather was a deliberate move to discourage groups that tend to vote Democratic, such as the elderly and minority voters.

They say the real takeaway from the recent election is not that the vast majority appear unaffected by the voter ID law, but that potentially hundreds of otherwise eligible voters may have been turned away.

“Those numbers, they may seem low to you, but they’re not,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a voter advocacy group.“That’s a good chunk of people who don’t have a voter ID.”

Mancini has opposed Tennessee’s voter ID laws. This week, for example, she said that the Davidson County Election Commission “utterly failed,” citing hundreds of voters experiencing problems at the polls on Election Day, including not being able to access provisional ballots.

“If one voter is kept from casting their vote because of this law then it’s one vote too many,” she said. “The other thing is that we’ll never really know many people showed up at their polling place, saw the sign about having a photo ID and just left.”

The Secretary of State’s Office maintains there were few problems at the polls, and that there’s another side to those arguments.

According to Fontenay, “Even one person impersonating a voter is one too many in our eyes. Their argument is that they have no way of knowing how many people might not have had an ID and might have stayed home. Our argument is that we have no way of knowing how many people might have, in the past, cast fraudulent ballots.”

While those are open questions, what seems clear is that public opinion is on the side of photo ID.

A poll conducted before Election Day by the Middle Tennessee State University Survey Group showed that 81 percent of Tennesseans approve of the law requiring people to show a photo ID before voting.

Tennessee is not alone in the debate over requiring an ID to vote.

Ten states in addition to Tennessee require a photo ID to vote. Twenty states, such as Massachusetts, California, Nevada and West Virginia, do not require some kind of identification to vote.

In all, 30 states have laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And that number could rise, according to the NCSL, because a total of 33 states have passed voter ID laws.

Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are among them, but those measures are tied up in court battles or, in the case of Mississippi, require both legislative approval and federal sign-off via the Voting Rights Act.

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

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Tennesseans Liberalizing on Liquor

Local citizens across the Volunteer State overwhelmingly voted to flip their towns from dry to wet this past election, with more than two dozen communities saying ‘yes’ to liquor stores or the sale of liquor in restaurants.

Of 32 local referendums held last week to allow either package stores or liquor by the drink — or both — 25 passed.


View Tennessee Liquor Public Votes 2012 in a larger map

In some counties, the ‘yes’ votes were overwhelming. In Robertson County, for example, four cities approved alcohol sales: Coopertown, Cross Plains, Greenbrier and Orlinda. And in Hawkins County, Church Hill, Mt. Carmel and Rogersville approved liquor by the drink.

From Pigeon Forge to McKenzie, liquor sales won over the voters.

See the complete list by clicking here.

The support sets the table for a push in the 2013 legislative session to allow grocery stores to sell wine, according to the former assistant director and general counsel of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission who now serves as a lobbyist for state grocery stores.

“We’re going to make a much stronger effort this year to pass it in the House and the Senate,” said Dan Haskell. “Both the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor are openly in favor of this. This is going to be a different kind of year.”

“I think we’re going to win,” Haskell said. “The vast majority of Tennesseans want us to win.”Thirty-three states allow grocery stores to sell wine, but big-gun lobbying by Tennessee’s liquor wholesalers and retailers have for years blocked legislation to legalize wine sales in grocery stores.

As far as Tennessee’s cities that have approved liquor-by-the-drink measures, Haskell says there will be little change in those cities — only that folks going to local restaurants will now be able to raise a glass.

Those getting liquor licenses “are mostly restaurants that are there already and decided to upgrade their activity because it means more money for the merchant, more taxes are paid to the city and the citizens don’t have to drive as far when they go out for dinner,” he said.

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