Supremes choose business court advisors

News release from the Administrative Office of the Courts:
Nashville, Tenn. ¬– A newly established advisory commission of eight leading attorneys from across Tennessee and an appellate court judge will provide input for processes and procedures for the state’s Business Court Pilot Project.

Members of the Commission are:
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Slatery, other Republican AGs call for protecting religious tax exemptions

News release from the attorney general’s office:
Attorney General Slatery and 14 other state Attorneys General have sent a letter to Congressional leaders urging them to take action to protect the tax-exempt status of nonprofit religious organizations following the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.

The letter was prompted by comments U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. made during oral arguments in the case. The Solicitor General indicated that the federal government might decide, based on the outcome of the case, that certain religious organizations no longer qualify as tax-exempt under the Internal Revenue Code and also that contributions to these organizations are not deductible as charitable contributions.

“Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens have the right to exercise their religion freely without government pressure to change their minds or penalties for unpopular beliefs,” the letter states. (Note: Full text HERE.)

The letter asks that Congress modify the Internal Revenue Code to prevent the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status of nonprofit religious organizations that disagree with the same-sex marriage decision.

“Congress has a long history of enacting laws that provide additional protection to religious groups,” said General Slatery. “Protecting the religious freedoms of our State’s citizens is a serious matter and we encourage members of Congress to take the necessary steps to preclude the IRS from targeting religious groups in any way.”

In addition to Tennessee, states signing on to the letter include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

State prison faces ’emergency staffing issues’

A state prison in Nashville that houses men with mental illnesses is facing a “emergency staffing issues” and has put out an “all hands on deck” call to remaining guards, reports The Tennessean.

The manpower shortage at the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility worsened after the prison implemented a 28-day schedule — a change intended to save $1.4 million statewide in wage costs.

The new staffing schedule has been implemented in prisons statewide, including others in Nashville that already had high turnover rates. Corrections officers moved from a traditional 40-hour work week with overtime to a system that requires overtime when the hours worked exceed 212 in a 28-day work period.

The new schedule didn’t cause the manpower shortages, but it did make it harder for the workers to plan for family obligations and part-time jobs.

…Robert Bell, the training specialist at Lois DeBerry, characterized the situation as an “emergency staffing” issue in a July 2 email.

The same day, Stevenson Nixon, the warden, ordered that any non-security employees who had previously worked in that capacity be ready to provide “coverage in ANY area the shift supervisor is in need of assistance.”

Some officers have had to work back-to-back shifts. Calling back former corrections officers who hold other jobs within the prison is intended to give relief to those officers.

“Effective immediately, there will no longer be requirements for any staff members to work back to back overtime in a 24 hour period,” Nixon wrote.

Another email issued the same day by the associate warden of security, Charles Simmons, directed the day shift corrections officers to work other hours.

“Due to our present staffing shortage on our Security Team, it is necessary to suspend our present Day Shift staff until further notice,” Simmons wrote “All officers assigned to Day Shift will be used daily to man vacant mandatory posts on each shift to allow us to continue operating the facility as a safe and secure prison, as well as, relieve your coworkers of excessive hours and days required to work.”

McCormick: TN needs to consider borrowing money to build roads

Speaking to the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club on Monday, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said the state should consider taking on new debt to build and maintain roads before a gas tax increase, reports the Times-Free Press.

“We have always paid as we went. Some states issue bonds for these things — I don’t know if we want to do that. I’m not advocating that, but it’s something we need to consider before we go for a big tax increase. And it would not be a penny increase, it would be a very large increase,” McCormick said.

Gov. Bill Haslam said in February he would wait until the next General Assembly session before he proposed legislation to deal with transportation funding.

And using bonds was one of the options listed in a state comptroller’s office report.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said early this year his office wasn’t making any recommendations, only suggestions.

“I think there’s an acknowledgment of the issue, and I think it’s widespread in the General Assembly,” Wilson said. “But we have yet to coalesce around a solution.”

TennCare transition: Another contractor replaced after poor performance

TennCare has replaced the vendor that ran a problem-plagued call center for state residents checking on their Medicaid eligibility, according to The Tennessean.

The state awarded a $56.5 million contract this year to Automated Health Systems Inc. to run the Tennessee Health Connection through 2018. Previously, Cognosante LLC held a three-year contract valued at $31 million to operate the call center.

State residents had complained that the call center could not answer their questions, and the association that represents Tennessee nursing homes had notified TennCare it was not processing resident applications in a timely manner.

“This transition to a new call center vendor is another example of the state continuously improving processes and customer experience and holding our contracted vendors accountable,” said Kelly Gunderson, a spokesperson for TennCare. “This transition was seamless to our applicants and members and will result in improved customer service for our callers.”

The call center contract is separate from the $35.7 million computer system that Northrop Grumman was supposed to build for TennCare to determine Medicaid eligibility according to new income guidelines.

TennCare canceled that contract and is in the process of finding another vendor. Tennessee’s government has a history of dealing with failed computer systems across state agencies.

Candidate Kasich schedules a TN visit

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Ohio Gov. John Kasich (KAY’-sik) will make a southern swing this week as he gets ready to a join the crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls.

Kasich is scheduled to do a couple of meet-and-greet stops in Hilton Head Island and Bluffton, South Carolina, on Wednesday. It will be his fifth visit in recent months to South Carolina, the first southern primary state in 2016.

He’s then scheduled Thursday to make his first venture into Tennessee, part of the March 1 “Super Tuesday” primary slate. Kasich will talk to the Williamson Chamber of Commerce in Franklin, and meet with reporters in Nashville later.

The second-term governor and former congressman has scheduled a July 21 announcement event at Ohio State University.

TN county clerk, two staffers resign rather than issue gay marriage licenses

The three officers in the Decatur County Clerk’s Office have resigned from their positions because of their opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, reports the Jackson Sun.

According to Decatur County Commissioner David Boroughs, County Clerk Gwen Pope and employees Sharon Bell and Mickey Butler have all resigned because of religious opposition to the ruling. Boroughs said he confirmed the resignations after speaking with County Mayor Mike Creasy.

“That’s a personal individual decision, but I strongly support them if their faith is that strong,” Boroughs said. “I’m proud of them that their faith is so strong and well-rounded that they feel they can do that.”

Creasy told The Jackson Sun he was not specifically told Pope’s resignation was based on religious views, but he said the resignation letter was sent to his office after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Decatur County has not received any requests for same-sex marriage licenses as of Wednesday afternoon, Creasy said.

Note: After the above story appeared, Creasy sent out an emailed news release. It’s below.
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Federal court lawsuit filed against TN Registry of Election Finance over $5,000 fine

A group of Williamson County parents has filed a federal court lawsuit challenging a $5,000 civil penalty imposed by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, reports WPLN.

The Registry voted in May to impose the penalty against the group, known as Williamson Strong, for failing to register as a political action committee and file disclosures accordingly. (Note: Previous post HERE.)

By the Registry’s logic, a PAC could be any group of people sharing their political point of view, says Williamson Strong’s lawyer, Gerard Stranch.

“That means a husband and wife, buy a bumper sticker to put on their car, they got to spend a hundred bucks and register as a PAC.”

The fine grew out of a complaint from school board member Susan Curlee. She alleges Williamson Strong campaigned for her opponents before last August’s vote.

But Williamson Strong responds it never raised money and never endorsed candidates. Members maintain they simply set up an online forum to discuss schools and encouraged parents to vote.

Williamson Strong says the fine violates its members’ First Amendment rights to a free press, free assembly and free speech.

The group also says Registry officials didn’t follow state law in taking the complaint. According to the suit, the Williamson County district attorney general’s office should have investigated the complaint first and then referred it to the Registry.

Instead, the Registry took Curlee’s complaint directly.

The suit was filed this week in the U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee. Stranch says the federal court has jurisdiction over free-speech complaints.

Williamson Strong also has filed an appeal with the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, the state organization that oversees the Registry. If that appeal fails, the group could take it up in state courts.

Haslam’s new legislative director, Warren Wells, profiled in hometown paper

The Shelbyville Times-Gazette has a write-up on Gov. Bill Haslam’s new legislative director, identifying the Bedford County native in the lead paragraph as “a Cascade High School graduate.” An excerpt:

Warren Wells, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, currently serves as deputy director for legislation but will become director for legislation on Aug. 1. Leslie Hafner, the current legislative director, will become senior advisor to the governor.
“I’m extremely excited,” said Wells.

Wells, 31, attended Cascade from kindergarten through high school, graduating in 2002. He said his family lived several different places in Bedford County during that time. Wells was homecoming king and senior class president while at Cascade.

Wells attended Motlow State Community College and Middle Tennessee State University. He studied criminal justice and originally thought of that as a career. But he eventually became interested in government.

Wells served in Al Taqaddum, Iraq, working convoy security with the Army National Guard unit from Shelbyville. He earned a Combat Action Badge and Army Commendation Medal.

After he returned, he pursued a career in government. His sights were originally set on Washington, D.C., but he ended up getting an internship working for the state legislature.

That led to work as a research analyst for the Senate Transportation Committee and for State Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville. He joined the Haslam administration as a legislative liaison to the Department of Finance and Administration.

“I personally know Warren Wells, since he worked for me for several years,” said Tracy in a statement to the Times-Gazette. “From my dealings with Warren, I can tell you he is a dedicated, hardworking public servant with exceptional leadership qualities. I think Gov. Haslam made an excellent choice when he picked Warren to be his director for legislation.”

…Wells is married to the former Jessica Stinson, who he’d known since they were in kindergarten together at Cascade. They started dating while he was home on leave during his Iraq service. The couple have a son, four-year-old Walker, and they live in Murfreesboro.

AP story on piano-playing Alexander getting ‘a little emotional’ over educational harmony

By Laurie Kellman, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — How does a musician-senator fill the time during yet another partisan Senate stalemate?

In Sen. Lamar Alexander’s case, he sits down at a borrowed piano in his Capitol Hill office and, with a grin, bangs out “The Memphis Blues.”

He’s been blending music and politics his whole life. And this coming week, the three-term Tennessee Republican hopes Democrats and the GOP harmonize as the Senate becomes Alexander’s stage.

The son of a schoolteacher and principal, this former federal education secretary and onetime university president will be shepherding a bill he’s been working on for seven years: a rewrite of the contentious No Child Left Behind law.

Alexander acknowledges “getting a little emotional” when his polarized committee — the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — approved the measure unanimously this spring. “But,” he said in an interview, “I’m going to save my emotions until we get a presidential signature.”

The carefully balanced legislation is a long way from becoming law and faces an uncertain future in the House. But it’s perhaps the most consequential shot Alexander will have at a lifelong effort to loosen the federal government’s grip on public schools.

“Legacy, to him is not, ‘I need to do something so people will remember my name,’ ” said Democrat Phil Bredesen, who, like Alexander, is a former Tennessee governor who made education a priority. “For him, it’s that, ‘I need to leave a mark that will do good things in the future.’ ”

For the 75-year-old Alexander, the bill’s success would punctuate a legislative career fueled by pragmatism and the drive for results, a sharp contrast to new GOP colleagues such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have blocked legislation and are proud of it.
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