Seven TN educators still receiving pensions after criminal convictions

Nashville television station WSMV reports finding seven Tennessee teachers and education administrators still collecting state pensions after conviction of crimes related to their jobs.

The offenses range from falsifying records to assault to sexual battery by an authority figure.

… “This is not a loophole,” said Shelli King, the spokesperson for the Department of Treasury. “We are following the letter of the law.

(State law bans pensions for persons convicted of felonies related to service in a public office, but it doesn’t apply to those “grandfathered” into pension systems before the conviction in some situations. And it doesn’t apply to misdemeanor convictions. Two of the cited cases were misdemeanors.)

…“They need to be held accountable,” said Senator Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville.

Tracy said he is considering drafting legislation after reviewing the I-Team’s findings. Tracy, a former teacher, serves on the Senate Education Committee.

“I think teachers should be held to a high standard so the parents can have confidence in the system,” Tracy said. “If you betray this trust – if you betray the citizens’ trust – you don’t deserve those benefits.”

The I-Team reached out to all the former educators featured in this report. No one responded by deadline, but we did find Mary Ann Williams at home.

“What do you think the victims would say, the people who accused you of child abuse?” asked Autler. “Do you think they would agree that it’s OK you keep receiving pension?”

“I don’t know,” Williams said.

The former Lewis County teacher said she believes she deserves her pension because she paid into the system.

TN Economic Council on Women works to avoid termination

The Tennessee Economic Council on Women is currently scheduled to “sunset,” or terminate, on July 1, 2016, but Executive Director Phyllis Qualls-Brooks and others are working while the General Assembly is out of session to win approval of a Senate committee needed to give the panel a new lease on life, reports the News Sentinel.

Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, said she’s confident that the council will be funded.

“The council has learned that they need to be able to tell their story better,” Massey said, “and talk about their accomplishments better.”

Local elected officials, including Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, also support funding the council, which was $226,600 in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“Our state is never going to achieve its economic potential unless, and until, women are able to achieve their economic potential,” Broyles said. “When you’re holding up women, you hold up the whole state.”

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry also supports funding the group.

“I was disappointed when the Legislature failed to renew the Tennessee Economic Council on Women earlier this year. Women make up 51 percent of the population in Tennessee, but we don’t make up 51 percent of corporate boardrooms, we don’t get 51 percent of public contracts, and 51 percent of small businesses are not women-owned,” she said in an emailed statement.

…The group, created in 1998, focuses on employment policy, education, child care, property rights, health care, domestic relations and the effects of state and federal laws on women in Tennessee.

A 2013 council study reported that violence against women costs the state almost $1 billion per year in tax resources and law enforcement costs. The council also produces biennial reports on the status of Tennessee women by county that the Federal Reserve uses, Qualls-Brooks said, “to see how well banks are doing with the Community Reinvestment Act.”

On the ‘small cadre of Tennesseans’ working in presidential campaigns

Michael Collins has a story on the “small cadre of Tennesseans who are immersed in presidential politics, either as staff members, consultants or advisers to the Republicans and Democrats battling for the White House.”

It includes comments from Chip Saltsman, senior campaign adviser for Mike Huckabee; Tom Ingram, consultant to Jeb Bush; Linda Sherrell, state director for Hillary Clinton; former Congressman Zach Wamp, co-chair of Marco Rubio’s campaign in the state; and Jill Bader, who is doing TV ads for John Kasich.

Naturally, all are full of praise for their candidates. A sampler of quotes:

“This is much more than a job for me,” Saltsman said. “It’s a passion. This is somebody I truly believe in.”

..”She was out there doing things and really fighting battles, particularly for women and children and families, when it was really hard to do,” said Sherrell, who lives in Monteagle, just northeast of Chattanooga, and leads Clinton’s grassroots engagement effort in Tennessee. “She has always sort of been a hero and a role model for me.”

…”I will do anything I can to help him be successful,” (Ingram) said, arguing Bush is the best-qualified candidate for the presidency. “He has the record and the work experience and the demeanor to be a really good president.”

…”I just totally believe Marco Rubio has the best chance of winning in November 2016 of any of the Republican candidates,” Wamp said…. “I share his world view,” Wamp said. “I trust in him and believe in him.”

…”At a time when there is so much uncertainty, both at home and abroad, you need an adult at the table,” said Bader, who previously worked on political campaigns in Tennessee, Florida and Wisconsin. “That is 100 percent John Kasich.”

UT study: TN road quality at risk with low per capita funding

News release from University of Tennessee
Tennessee spends less on a per capita basis than almost any other state on its highways and roads yet enjoys roadways that are better than those in most states. But according to a new paper produced by researchers at UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, roadway quality is now at risk unless new funding is found.

Fuel tax rates are among the lowest in the nation, yet Tennessee boasts a roadway network that has better pavement, better bridges, and less congestion than most comparable state systems. Concerns are mounting that these benefits are at risk due to a funding outlook that continues to deteriorate.

The state’s gasoline tax was last raised—from sixteen to twenty cents a gallon— more than 25 years ago, in 1989.

Currently, the state’s gasoline tax of 21.4 cents a gallon (which includes a special petroleum products tax) ranks twelfth lowest in the US, and Tennessee is one of only five states that are free of highway-related debt. Gasoline and diesel tax revenues not only support state roadways but are shared with cities and counties across the state.
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State ending Jones Lang LaSalle’s exclusive contract

The state of Tennessee will not extend a controversial contract with a private real estate firm and instead will throw the deal to negotiate government office space open to bidders, reports WPLN.

The Department of General Services has posted a request for information asking commercial real estate brokers to offer their plans to manage the state’s office leases. The move comes after state officials decided not to extend their contract with Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle past February.

“Well, we’ve learned some things from the time when this contract was originally let,” said state spokesman David Roberson. “And so I think we’re better informed now than we were at that time.”

The state’s relationship with Jones Lang LaSalle began four years ago, when the firm wrote a study that suggested the state sell several of its buildings and instead lease office space from private landlords. Months later, the firm was given the exclusive right to represent state agencies when they negotiated with those landlords.

Critics said the arrangement smacked of backroom dealing. State officials have defended the deal.

…Jones Lang LaSalle is free to bid on the new contract. But it’s unlikely it would become the state’s sole agent. Tennessee officials are considering spreading the right to represent state government among several firms, each with expertise in a different region of the state.

The state may also bring more of its lease management in-house. Roberson says the Department of General Services has hired four people in the last year with experience negotiating office leases.

Doctors want to amend TN Constitution on jury trials

Fearful that Tennessee courts could eventually strike down a 2011 law capping jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, doctors plan to press legislators to protect the statute with an amendment to the state’s constitution, reports the Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee Medical Association wants lawmakers to put before voters new constitutional language clarifying that the General Assembly has authority to set caps on noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering in cases involving medical malpractice liability.

The group’s would require persuading lawmakers in the current GOP-dominated 109th General Assembly to approve the proposed amendment in 2016 and then getting their successors in the 110th General Assembly to pass it by a two-thirds majority.

If it wins approval from lawmakers, it would go before voters on the 2018 ballot to decide.

“The General Assembly needs to act now to prevent us from going backwards on the issue of a noneconomic damages cap,” Dr. John Hale, president of the Tennessee Medical Association said in a recent statement. “The cap fosters growth in Tennessee’s health care industry by cutting back on frivolous lawsuits and the costs that come with them.

“I’m confident Tennessee voters will support it if given the chance to have their voices heard,” Hale added.

… Tennessee’s constitution includes a declaration that the right to trial by jury shall be inviolate and some contend the damage caps are unconstitutional infringement on jury rights. The proposed constitutional amendment comes with a push already underway to scrap court involvement in malpractice completely.

The Alpharetta, Ga.-based nonprofit advocacy group, Patients for Fair Compensation, is calling on lawmakers to yank malpractice suits out of the courts entirely and put them under a first-of-its-kind Patients’ Compensation System.

Patients for Fair Compensation says its proposal is similar to the workers’ compensation system for helping injured workers. It would create an independent panel, appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam as well as the Republican House and Senate speakers. The panel would retain physicians to serve on panels. They would affix specific costs on physician errors in treating patients.

Proponents say the result would slash billions of dollars now spent on lawsuits and “defensive medicine” practices by physicians seeking to protect themselves in court.

The group presented its plan Tuesday before a study panel of the Senate Commerce Committee where Chairman Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, is sponsor of the bill. It was introduced earlier this year… Johnson acknowledged he is already in discussions with state Attorney General Herbert Slatery over whether the bill meets constitutional muster.

Final arguments filed in Chattanooga broadband lawsuit

Final arguments have been filed in a federal court lawsuit that challenges a Federal Communications Commission ruling that would allow Chattanooga and Wilson, N.C., to expand their broadband service despite state laws forbidding expansion, reports the Times-Free Press in a review of the situation.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery and his staff want to overturn the FCC decision and block expansion by Chattanooga’s electric power board, known as EPB, suggesting it’s a states’ rights issue.

The courtroom maneuvering comes with efforts afoot to change the Tennessee law in the Legislature and with Congress considering a bill that would overturn the FCC ruling.

Excerpts from the story:

Slatery, who has hired a Washington, D.C., law firm to fight the FCC ruling, claims in final arguments made to the court this week that the federal agency is trying to improperly interfere with the authority of state governments to regulate telecommunication providers. Tennessee’s attorney general asserts the FCC is violating the 10th amendment restrictions on what the federal government can direct states to do.

“By rewriting Tennessee and North Carolina state laws to expand municipal powers, the FCC infringes upon an inviolable aspect of state sovereignty, exceeds the agency’s statutory authority and contradicts Supreme Court precedent,” Washington, D.C., attorney Joshua Turner wrote in a 57-page argument filed on behalf of Tennessee’s attorney general. “The [FCC] order is an affront to state sovereignty, and it cannot stand.”

…Chattanooga’s EPB and the city of Wilson, N.C…. (contend) that state limits on where they could offer broadband service constituted a barrier to broadband deployment contrary to what Congress wanted and empowered the FCC to avoid.

In court filings, EPB attorney Rick Hitchcock also noted that, as a municipal utility in a home rule city, EPB is not regulated by the state in its service territory and previous attorneys general in Tennessee have affirmed the authority of EPB to offer telecom services throughout the state.

EPB President Harold DePriest said the utility isn’t looking to expand to make more money, but it is responding to requests from some rural residents who live close to EPB’s existing service region but have no access to broadband connections.

…The appellate court is reviewing final arguments made this week by proponents and opponents of municipal broadband. The court could ask for oral arguments but is expected next year to issue its ruling, which could then be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, DePriest said EPB is encouraging the Tennessee Legislature to lift its territorial limits on municipal broadband to allow those that want the service to get it. Changing the state law in the legislative session that starts in January could be quicker than waiting on a final decision from the court, DePriest said.

In the General Assembly, such legislation has picked up the support of area Republican lawmakers, including state Sens. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and state Reps. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle next year to get this passed, but the people waiting on broadband service outside of EPB’s area want and need it,” Gardenhire said.

Judge ignoring state law to penalize the poor?

A Campbell County judge insists she has no choice in forcing poor people to pay a fee for court-appointed counsel even if they never make use of that service, according to the News Sentinel.

“That fee I assess cannot be waived,” Campbell County General Sessions Court Judge Amanda Sammons told the News Sentinel. “It’s not a waivable fee.”

The law says otherwise — twice stating the fee can be waived. Nowhere in the law establishing the fee does it require the poor to pay for taxpayer-funded attorneys who never handled their cases. And a review of records shows a standard state form has been altered in such a way that the administrative fee Sammons says she must impose is not the type of fee she is, in fact, ordering citizens to pay.

In at least four cases reviewed by the News Sentinel, Sammons has refused to dismiss misdemeanor charges against citizens — even when wrongfully accused — who qualified because of poverty for court-appointed attorneys but whose families hired private attorneys instead.

Her refusal has left the defendants in legal limbo. They cannot appeal as long as Sammons refuses to close out the case, and she will not do so until they pay the fee.

Sammons said the charges would only be dismissed if the citizens paid an administrative fee assessed in cases in which taxpayer-funded attorneys represent the poor.

Former legislator, TNGOP chair Brad Martin to head Kasich campaign in TN

News release from John Kasich campaign
Kasich for America today announced the formation of its Tennessee Leadership Team. Former Chairman and CEO of Saks Incorporated, R. Brad Martin from Memphis, will serve as State Chair, with Nashville communications consultant John Crisp of Nashville serving as State Coordinator for the campaign.

In addition, the campaign announced a number of other top GOP leaders from across the state who will help lead the Kasich campaign in Tennessee.

“Governor Kasich is the complete package,” said Martin, a past chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, who also served five terms as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. “He understands how to work with the private sector, not against it, to promote job creation and create opportunities for millions of people. He has the foreign policy chops and the executive experience to make our country safer. I look forward to sharing his ideas with voters here in my home state.”
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Kelsey has a carjacking bill

News release from Sen. Brian Kelsey, via Senate Republican Caucus
NASHVILLE – State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) said today he is introducing legislation to crack down on carjackings in Tennessee. Sen. Kelsey’s announcement comes amid a recent spate of carjackings in the Memphis area. At least six carjackings have been reported in the area in the last three weeks.

Kelsey said his bill aims to keep Tennesseans safer by ensuring that carjackers serve more time behind bars.

“Tennesseans should not have to worry about being held at gunpoint while driving in our communities,” said Sen. Kelsey. “A red light is meant to keep you safe from other drivers, not put you in danger of being carjacked,” he continued. “It is a travesty that carjackers only have to serve 30% of their sentence.”
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