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Featured Transparency and Elections

Forrester Touts Dems’ TN Victories

He concedes the Democratic party in Tennessee is in a superminority at the state legislature, but state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester says he put in place a plan to march the legislature back to Democratic control.

Even so, Forrester, the longtime leader of the state Democratic Party, says that won’t happen overnight.

“We’re very, very excited about the four victories we had in the House,” Forrester said. “To defend all of our incumbents, which we did … we’re very excited about those victories.”

Indeed, Forrester counts Democratic Reps. Charles CurtissMark WindleDavid ShepardSherry Jones and Craig Fitzhugh and others among key wins.

“These are the people that represent our future,” Forrester said. “Even though we’re in the minority, we’ve moved the ball down field.”

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He also pointed to the victory of Metro Councilman Darren Jernigan, the Democrat running against GOP incumbent Jim Gotto in the Davidson County House District 60 race.

“We took Jim Gotto, a right-wing Tea Party nut job, out of office,” Forrester said.

Both the Senate and House Republicans hold supermajorities, which means Republicans can pass any law without a single Democratic voice.

Forrester will be stepping down from his post in January.

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

 

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Featured Tax and Budget

Harwell: Widespread Hunger in TN House for Another Slice Off State’s Fat Grocery Tax

Lowering the sales tax on food, overhauling workers’ compensation, the possible expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee and school vouchers will likely be top topics for debate, state House Speaker Beth Harwell said Thursday when discussing the GOP’s 2013 legislative agenda.

“I’ll think we’ll make another move to lower the sales tax on food in the state,” the Nashville Republican said, pointing to Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to lower the tax bite to 5 percent — equal to about $9.60 less in taxes for a household in a year, based on average spending of $3,838 a year for groceries. State lawmakers cut the rate from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent this year.

“Workers’ comp is something the governor is probably going to have on his agenda,” Harwell said. “And we’ll see a lot of other legislation coming from individual members, I’m sure.”

Regardless of the issues, it’s all but certain that the GOP will have its way, with both the Senate and the House enjoying supermajorites — the ability to pass legislation without a single Democratic vote — and Republican Bill Haslam in the governor’s office.

“Our Republican caucus is as united as I’ve ever seen it,” Harwell said.

That’s not to say that Tennesseans won’t see some fireworks from Democrats. Issues such as school vouchers and charter schools will largely affect the state’s large urban areas that have strong Democratic control, and certainly Democrats will make a way to have their voice heard.

Harwell did not take a position on either vouchers or an expansion of Medicaid.

“The whole issue of vouchers is one that the legislature will spend a considerable amount of time debating and discussing,” Harwell said.

On Medicaid: “My first-blush reaction is that I’m not in favor of expansion. However, when you look at the numbers there is some justification financially as to why we might want to expand it.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert and at 615-669-9501.

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NewsTracker

Higher Graduation Rates High on Casada’s Priorty List

Tuesday’s statehouse general election results assure that GOP-driven education reform will remain a primary topic of policy discussion in the 2013 Legislature, said a key House Republican leader.

“We’ve got to address education,” said Rep. Glen Casada, who currently chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee and is a likely successor to the role of GOP caucus chair for Debra Young Maggart of Henderson, who in August was ousted in the Republican primary.

“We’re near the bottom, and we have been near the bottom for years. Now the mantle of leadership is on the Republicans we have to get us out of that negative trend,” said Casada.

Casada, a conservative Republican from Franklin, told TNReport he wants to see a 90 percent graduation rate from Tennessee high schools.

Although it’s been climbing over the past decade, Tennessee’s graduation rate stands at 77.4 percent.

Education is bound to be a front-and-center issue at the legislature in the session that begins in January.

Indeed, how best to educate students has been a constant subject of debate for years now, culminating recently in a feud between Metro Nashville Public Schools officials and state leaders.

One issue almost sure to arise in 2013: The possible creation of a statewide agency to authorize charter schools, taking away that power from local school boards.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert and at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

@SecTreHargett Beefs Up Elections Site, Twitter Presence

Call him the Secretary of Tweet.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett is hitting the ‘go’ button on a revamped website where voters can see live, up-to-the-minute election results from across the state.

The site, which can be found at elections.tn.gov, will show election results not only by each political contest but by county and precinct, too. Featured races will include the presidential and Congressional elections as well as state Senate and state House.

“One of the things you’ll see this evening for the first time … is the percentages of votes instead of just raw vote numbers,” Hargett told TNReport.

The site comes with some eye candy for political watchers — a map of Tennessee that will show each county flipping red or blue, depending on how the race for President goes.

In addition, Hargett’s team is using the social media site Twitter to tweet out results from races from across the Volunteer State.

“We have several different Twitter handles that people will be able to follow all night long,” Hargett said.

Tonight voters can follow @tnpotus for Tennessee presidential results, @tnsenategen for state Senate results, @tnhousegen for state House results and @tnussenate and @tnushouse for Tennessee’s Congressional races. And you can follow — and tweet at — Hargett at @SecTreHargett.

“It’s a lot of data that comes at people very quickly, but if you’re a political junkie in Tennessee it’s a dream come true to be able to get those kinds of results that quickly,” Hargett said.

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

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NewsTracker

Tax Break for Solar Firms Unconstitutional: AG

The state Attorney General released on opinion today saying that a controversial tax break for the solar industry appears to be unconstitutional.

The tax break cuts property tax bills for green energy companies. Attorney General Robert Cooper said this violates a provision of the state constitution that says the legislature cannot set different rules for different taxpayers.

The tax break was pushed through the legislature in the last days of former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.

From the Attorney General’s opinion:

As with pollution control equipment, there is no basis to presume that all machinery and equipment used to produce electricity in a certified green energy production facility is of negligible value.

The Tennessean has been on the forefront of this story since the news of the tax break surfaced around the end of the 2010 session.

From The Tennessean:

The decision will likely rekindle efforts to repeal the property tax break. Bredesen, a Democrat, pushed breaks for green energy as part of his 2010 tax bill, arguing that the state’s nascent green energy sector needed to be bolstered.

But questions about the tax breaks began just weeks after they were passed when Bredesen and two top aides, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr, formed a solar energy company.

Comptroller Justin Wilson, a Republican, this year urged the GOP-dominated legislature to repeal the property tax break. Wilson said the break runs against a 1986 attorney general opinion that said the Tennessee constitution requires property tax rules to be the same for everyone.

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

Categories
Featured Transparency and Elections

Plumbers’ Union Lets Campaign Cash Flow, Racks Up $400K Debt

One of the most politically active labor unions in Tennessee is doubling down on the election this year, doling out more campaign cash than it did in 2010 or 2008, even as other unions have cut back on their political giving.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters Education Committee — the Tennessee union’s political arm — has given out $278,300 in campaign contributions so far in 2012, records show. That already has surpassed the $270,100 the union gave during the 2010 election season and the $245,440 it provided to politicians in 2008.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters union has even taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans — largely from Farmers & Merchants Bank — apparently to underwrite the union’s political payouts.

Records show the union’s political action committee has an outstanding loan balance of $398,971. Records show the committee taking out loans steadily for years. The last bank loan was for $70,000 received Oct. 12.

It’s unclear what this nearly $400,000 debt will mean for the union’s members.

And the election isn’t over yet. The campaign finance reports for the crucial last days have yet to be filed, so it’s all but certain that the Plumbers & Pipefitters will have far exceeded $300,000 in political giving by Election Day.

Spending more money on candidates this year was not deliberate, said former Secretary of State Riley Darnell, who serves as the union’s political adviser. There are simply more campaigns this year that the union has an interest in.

“We have a lot of candidates in support of working people,” Darnell said. “The need was greater.”

As far as the bank debt, Darnell said he couldn’t comment and that decisions such as taking out loans are made by internal union officials.

Plumbers & Pipefitters has long been one of the biggest political unions on Tennessee’s Capitol hill, frequently cutting five-figure checks to the state Democratic Party and giving large contributions to union-friendly candidates such as former state Sen. Jim Lewis, a Democrat running for a state Senate seat in District 16, which encompasses Marion, Warren and Coffee counties, and Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan, a former Democratic House majority leader.

The plumbers are priming the political pump as other labor unions in Tennessee have curtailed their campaign donations.

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The Tennessee, later known as Mid-South, Carpenters Regional Council political action committee, for example, doled out $68,700 in campaign contributions in 2010. In 2012 that number has dropped to $28,960.

Tennessee’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers political action committee spread around $102,500 in campaign cash in 2010. This year, its campaign contributions are $80,700.

And the Tennessee Laborers PAC handed out $73,000 politicians in 2010. In 2012 that has shrunk to $45,500.

You can see the details of the Plumbers & Pipefitters campaign records, as well as all Tennessee campaign finance reports, by clicking here and using the state’s online search database.

The vast majority of union giving is aimed at Democrats and Democratic causes, though some union money is starting to trickle to Republicans. The carpenters union, for example, gave $500 to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s political action committee as well as $2,500 to the Tennessee Republican Caucus. The Laborers gave donations to Gov. BIll Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell’s PAC and state Sen. Jim Tracy from Shelbyville.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters’ giving has heavily favored Democrats.

The union’s escalation in campaign spending comes at a time when public employee unions in Tennessee are facing an increasingly hostile legislature. With Republicans controlling the governor’s mansion and both houses, unions have few seats at the bargaining table.

During the the 2011 legislative session, the Legislature passed efforts to curb union influence in state government and schools. Democratic state lawmakers reacted angrily, but they didn’t have the votes to thwart the measures.

Tennessee isn’t the only place where a union is placing big bets for Election Day.

In Michigan, not only are unions are working toward setting collective bargaining privileges in stone via a provision in the state Constitution, they are also trying to unseat a pair of conservative Justices on the state Supreme Court.

And nationally, the Service Employees International Union has emerged as the top outside spender on Democratic campaigns this year, surpassing even President Barack Obama’s main super PAC.

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

Categories
Education Featured

Great Hearts Gearing Up for Legislative Fight

Great Hearts Academies, whose application for a charter school was denied by the Metro Nashville Public Schools board, is in Nashville for the long haul, a spokesman told TNReport this week.

And lobbyists for the Arizona-based nonprofit will by no means be playing hookey from the Tennessee Legislature during the 2013 legislative session.

“The Nashville board’s disregard of the truth and repeated defiance of state law illustrates why an impartial Tennessee charter school authority is needed,” Great Hearts attorney Ross Booher said. “Since the governor and legislature gave all children the freedom to attend public charter schools, the board apparently now fears that many more parents and children will choose public schools that the board does not completely control.”

Booher: “If Tennessee puts in place an impartial state charter authority, Great Hearts would re-apply to that authority.”

The idea of creating a statewide authority that would give the OK to charter schools likely to become the next hot-button education reform issue at the Capitol.

Great Hearts is still hoping to ultimately open five schools in the Metro Nashville area, Booher said.

Booher also weighed in on the Metro school board’s decision to boot the Great Hearts charter application.

“The board has a major conflict of interest. It is desperately trying to stem the tide of public charter schools that it sees as its direct competition when it should be embracing innovation and partnerships that provide children with additional school options,” Booher said. “Allowing parents to freely choose the public school that is best for their individual child is the ultimate in local control.”

The company, headquartered in Phoenix, was mired in controversy during its long-running battle with the Nashville school board as it tried to open a West Nashville charter school.

Critics said that the Great Hearts school would lack diversity and would not provide adequate transportation for students.

“Any suggestion of that is just completely baseless,” Booher said. “It’s not borne out by the facts at all. When you look at the plan that Great Hearts had for Nashville … it exceeded what Metro does for its own students at schools of choice.

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

Categories
Featured

Improper Release of Health Info Highlighted in Federal Report

The private health information of more than 13,000 Tennessee Medicare recipients was released to the public by a state contractor — the most wide-ranging breach nationally uncovered by federal investigators.

A just-released report, from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, found 14 breaches of protected health information between 2009 and 2011 by the federal agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid. The largest breach of records took place in Tennessee.

Those are exactly the kind of records that, if in the wrong hands, can lead to medical identity theft, a scam that hurts both those on Medicare and the taxpayer. Scams run the gamut from the simple, when thieves use someone’s medical information to get prescription drugs, to the complex, when sham doctors’ offices use the information to bill the government for quick cash.

“The information obtained can be used to file false claims under Medicare or TennCare,” Yarnell Beatty, the Tennessee Medical Association’s director of legal and government affairs told TNReport. TennCare is the state’s version of Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor. “Even one breach is cause for concern.”

The report stated that medical identity theft “can lead to erroneous entries in beneficiaries’ medical histories and even to the wrong medical treatment” and “may also lead to significant financial losses for the Medicare Trust Funds and taxpayers.”

Beatty also noted that given the millions — and perhaps billions — of Medicare transactions each year, some breaches are to be expected.

If the breaches are a concern, so was how federal officials’ reacted in wake of those breaches, according to the report. Medicare recipients at risk of having their medical information stolen were notified, but it appears those notifications left much to be desired.

From the report:

The notifications for these breaches often were missing required information. Notably, the notification letters for six of the breaches did not explain how the contractors were investigating the breach, mitigating losses, or protecting against further breaches. … Moreover, notification letters for half the breaches, including the largest breach [in Tennessee], were missing either the date the breach occurred or the date it was discovered.

Many times, the information inadvertently released included beneficiaries’ names, Medicare identification numbers, dates of birth, diagnoses and services received.

The Tennessee breach affected 13,412 beneficiaries. A printing error by a Medicare contractor caused the notices to be sent to incorrect addresses, according to the report.

Most of the breaches, including the one in Tennessee, were accidental, according to the report, but one of the 14 breaches was found to be criminal in nature.

“You can’t totally eliminate human error, although you strive to,” Angie Madden, the director of eHealth Service at the Tennessee Medical Association, said.

But Madden pointed out a silver lining. She said that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — the federal agency that oversees both those entities and was the subject of the report — “have done a fairly good job of education the public and beneficiaries” when it comes to fraud.

Click here to find out more about Medicare fraud.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 25 to make clear that the printing error leading to the data breach was made by a Medicare contractor.

Trent Seibert can be reached at Trent@TNReport.com or on Twitter at @trentseibert.

Categories
NewsTracker

New TN Vet Appreciation Effort Allows Voting ‘in Honor’ of Military Service

In time for Election Day, the Tennessee Secretary of State has unveiled a program that allows voters to honor current and former members of the military as they cast their ballot.

It’s called the Tennessee Honor Vote program. Those who pledge to vote in the upcoming election can name a member of the military on the Secretary of State’s website alongside their own name and declare that they will be voting in honor of that service member.

“We developed it, set up a website where people can go and log and name the soldier,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. “They can put their years of service, what branch they served in, even put a message in, in honor or in memory of that soldier.”

Many have left messages. These can be viewed on the site, allowing Tennesseans to get a glimpse of the sacrifices that veterans have made — and see the pain and patience of those left at home.

For example, the website shows that Pamela Ann Bently, a voter from Greeneville, is honoring Capt. Jackson Dale Blankenship.

She writes:

Jackson was deployed to Afghanistan during the deadliest year of the war 2010,where he was a combat platoon leader. He received an impact Army Achievement medal for his efforts during Operation Hell’s needle in the Surkagen Valley in September 2010. Jackson has received 2 Commendation medals for service, one for Afghanistan and one for Germany. He is currently training, preparing to take Company command. He has also held rank as a battalion staff primary. Jackson risked his life to save 3 wounded soldiers. He dragged them from a tank after an IED bomb went off under them.

Army serviceman Ryan Christopher Smith is being honored by Angela Beverly, of Pleasant View. She tells how difficult being deployed can be on a family.

Has served three tours in the Middle East. Sacrificed family time. 1st tour occurred two weeks after the birth of his 1st child, Emma. He moved to Tennessee from Ohio. His second tour occurred when his daughter had just turned three. His wife, a doctor doing her residency at Vanderbilt, cared for Emma on her own. The closest family was 7 hours away. He was able to return right before Christmas. The last tour is scheduled within the next three weeks. He now has a 7 month old son as well.

And it’s not just veterans from the conflicts in the Middle East. The site shows many honoring veterans from every branch of the service and many who served in peacetime, the Cold War, as well as World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Barbara Johnston Skelton, of Church Hill, wrote that she was casting her ballot in honor of Navy Captain Charles E. Johnston, M.D.:

Served 3 tours in Vietnam as medical officer for a marine unit. He told us that everyone in the unit had 2 Purple Heart citations. They all refused the third because they would be sent home if they took a third. He said they went over as a unit and they were coming home as a unit.

Hargett said he was surprised that the site has become so popular so quickly.

As of Wednesday morning, 2,400 Tennesseans had pledged to cast a vote in honor of a veteran or current member of the armed forces, according to the Tennessee Honor Vote website.

Categories
Featured

’Tis the Season: Campaign Time on Taxpayer Dime

A Tennessee Senate staffer appears to have been doing political work while collecting a full-time state paycheck, an apparent violation of state law, public records and documents reviewed by TNReport show.

Derek Hummel has been executive secretary for Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, since April of this year, drawing a $30,468 annual salary. Over the past three months, he has also been conducting political activities during state business hours on his state-issued computer, according to phone records and Facebook postings.

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

When TNReport visited Ford’s office at the Capitol last week to interview Hummel, no one was present, but Hummel’s desk was strewn with what appeared to be campaign material, and political documents were visible on his taxpayer-funded desktop computer.

During an attempt to interview Hummel today, he accused TNReport of violating state law by calling him on his government-office phone.

“You’re an idiot,” Hummel told TNReport. “I’m calling Bill Fletcher,” he added, before abruptly hanging up. Fletcher is a prominent Tennessee Democratic campaign advertising specialist and political strategist.

A call and an email to the Phillip North campaign have gone unreturned. Attempts to leave a message with Sen. Ford at her Memphis office were unsuccessful because her voicemail box was full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the case of Hummel, it appears he did no such thing: The Senate “does not have any correspondence from Mr. Derek Hummel concerning leave of absences,” Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, said via email in response to a records request from TNReport.

A spokesman for the lieutenant governor’s office, to whom all Senate staff officially report, declined comment.

Charges of elected officials and their staff using taxpayer dollars to boost political activities are heard occasionally throughout Tennessee.

For example, earlier this year, a reception sponsored by East Ridge city officials for a congressional candidate drew questions about how local taxpayer money was used.

The reception, for Scottie Mayfield, a Republican running for Tennessee’s 3rd District seat, took place while employees were on the clock, and about $80 in city funds were spent on snacks for the employees, according to the Chattanooga Times Free-Press.

City Manager Tim Gobble insisted that the reception was not meant to be an endorsement and was an attempt to be “hospitable,” but other city leaders have said it was an inappropriate use of city funds, according to the paper’s report.

And last year, Democrats accused Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, of violating the Little Hatch Act, saying it was illegal for Ramsey to use his publicly funded office to promote his “Red Tape” initiative because it is funded by his political action committee, RAAMPAC.

Ramsey denied doing anything wrong, and soon after, Drew Rawlins, the executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he saw no evidence of ethical wrongdoing.

But Rawlins also said his office does not handle alleged Little Hatch Act violations. Because the Little Hatch Act is a criminal statute, that task would fall to Tennessee’s district attorneys, as it did two years ago in Bradley County.

An investigation was launched after Bradley County’s Board of Education chairman and vice chairman sent an e-mail to 800 county school employees endorsing a county mayoral candidate in the Republican Primary, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner.

No charges were filed in that case.