On state Senate Democrats, now and back when

The state Senate’s five Democrats — veteran Sens. Thelma Harper and Reggie Tate along with freshmen Sens. Lee Harris, Sara Kyle and Jeff Yarbro — will try meeting again Tuesday to decide who will fill the caucus leadership positions. Harper and Tate didn’t show up at a previous meeting.

Andy Sher has a report on some of the current Democratic senatorial doings while Robert Houk has a column recall the way things used to be.

From Sher’s story:
And, amid intense speculation that at least two want the top position, Yarbro and Harris last week sidestepped reporters’ questions about whether they were seeking the leader’s post or the No. 2 slot, caucus chairman.

“In a caucus of five people, everybody’s going to be in leadership,” Yarbro said. “That’s the reality.”

Said Harris: “There are a whole lot of ways to move Tennessee forward.”

Sara Kyle, a former Tennessee Regulatory Authority chairman, is the wife of former Democratic leader Jim Kyle, who left the Senate to run for a local judgeship. She also was vague on what post — if any — she is pursuing.

There’s talk that Tate may want to be caucus leader — he challenged Jim Kyle for the post two years ago but lost. This week, he wasn’t available to discuss his ambitions.

In a five-person caucus, just three votes make a majority. Some Republicans are wondering whether the three freshmen have an agreement and are waiting for the meeting to make it official.

But nobody really knows except the Democrats involved.

One of those Democrats, though, is outright professing no interest in the minority leader post — or any post, for that matter.

“Listen,” Harper said in an interview Tuesday. “I made it very clear. I’m not running for anything. I’ve paid my dues.”

From Houk’s column:
The makeup of the state Senate in 2015 will be much different from the one that the longest-serving member of the Northeast Tennessee delegation was first elected to in 1990. State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, who represents the 3rd District, was a member of the Democratic Party then.

There were certainly partisan divides two decades ago, but nothing like the acrimony seen on Capitol Hill today. Most of the truly harsh battles then were reserved for the traditional rural vs. urban divides.

In addition to the occasional bruising debates between Democrats and Republicans, there was also cooperation between the two parties.

Former Lt. Gov. John Wilder could never have served as long as he did as speaker of the Senate without building a coalition of like-minded Democrats and Republicans. It was, as the late Wilder used to say: “The Senate being the Senate.”

Serving in the Senate is much like being a member of an exclusive club, one perk of which includes being at the center of some of the most important debates in state history. Former members are often welcomed back to the Senate floor for recognition. “We never forget our colleagues,” I recall one senator telling me a few years ago.

Slatery not joining Republican AGs in threatening lawsuit against Obama

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — New Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery isn’t joining a group of Republican colleagues from other states in issuing a statement vowing “appropriate action” on President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration.

Slatery’s predecessor, Bob Cooper, was heavily criticized by some Republicans in the Legislature for refusing to join a multi-state lawsuit against Obama’s health care law. But Slatery doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to promise litigation over another presidential move that has riled up Republicans in the state.

Slatery said in a statement that he will be giving “careful consideration to all the relevant facts” about issues of federal overreach to come to an informed decision.

The letter was signed by 19 current and incoming Republican attorneys general.

Note: Two Republican state legislators, Rep. Andy Holt and Sen. Mae Beavers, are filing a resolution that calls for a lawsuit against Obama’s immigration policy. Their news release is part of a previous post HERE.

Womick: Somebody has to step up and hold Harwell accountable

In an interview with the Daily News Journal, state Rep. Rick Womick lays out his reasons for challenging the reelection of Beth Harwell as House speaker. Some excerpts from the report, mostly in Q-and-A format:

“I really don’t want to be the House speaker, but somebody has to step up and hold our current speaker, Speaker Harwell, accountable for the things she has done in her four years in office,” Womick said.

…The speaker of the House and the leadership in the House is doing whatever the governor (Republican Bill Haslam) tells them to do. And if there’s legislation the governor doesn’t like, it gets killed. And it starts with the speaker. She allows things like flagging bills and fraudulent fiscal notes, these kinds of things that are put on legislation with the sole intent to kill the bill because the governor may not agree with them.

… Am I a tea partyer? First of all, I’m a conservative, then I’m a Republican. That’s what I call myself. That’s what I am. I identify with the tea-party folks. I identify with all conservatives, 9/12s, all the different groups. So to label me as a tea-party candidate, well, there’s no such thing as a tea party. I’m a conservative. I’m a Republican. And that’s how I’ll lead.

…(On last session’s Common Core vote): There was a large group of us in the Tennessee House, Republicans, who came together, and we actually sat down with the Democrat leadership, who also was opposed to Common Core. And we forced, unbeknown to the speaker at the time, and against her wishes, we forced a vote on the floor of the House. And that vote was 83 votes against Common Core, 83 votes that wanted to repeal Common Core and then 87 votes to stop the PARCC testing. Overwhelming, but yet our speaker did what the governor asked her to do instead of following what the House, the very people who elected her, the House members, instead of following their wishes, she did what the governor asked and tried to squash it, and ultimately did because it never got to the Senate, and it never became legislation. They were able to throw it out that way. But we did work with the Democrats. We did work with other Republicans. And when you get 83 and 87 out of 99 votes, you have a big majority, and you have worked together. We overcame the leadership’s opposition. We overcame the chairman’s opposition of those education committees. And we forced the vote, and the people of the House spoke. But again, we were ignored by the leadership of the House.

…(Part of comments on Womick’s proposed bill requiring women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound and explanation from providers):

Does the bill give women the option on whether to hear the heartbeat?

Womick: No. She’ll have to hear the heart. Turn it up and listen to the heart beat and define the dimensions of the child just like normal ultrasounds are done all across this country. She will hear the heartbeat, and she will hear the doctor describe the baby is this old, it’s two months, three months, six months, however old the fetus is within the mother. At that point, she will still have the option to choose whether to terminate her pregnancy.

Haslam begins budget hearings amid calls for tax cuts, increased spending

Gov. Bill Haslam will have his first round of department budget hearings on Monday as various legislators are calling for tax cuts and various interest groups — like state employees who had no pay raise last year — are calling for increased spending. Excerpts from an Andy Sher setup story:

The governor, who will be inaugurated for a second four-year term in January, knows the drill.

“It’s easy to say I’d like to cut taxes. I would, too,” Haslam told reporters earlier this month. “It’s easy to say I’d like to spend more. I would, too.”

But, the governor said, “we have to present a balanced budget.”

Haslam ordered state departments in August to submit plans detailing how they would cut up to 7 percent of their budgets. That was after the state wound up with a $300 million shortfall in the 2014 budget year that ended June 30.

But those cuts are all theoretical right now. The actual amount of any reduction hangs on how much state tax collections rebound, on what needs are most pressing and on Haslam’s own spending priorities.

So far this year, general fund revenues are running $91 million above projections. The 2014-15 budget is $32.4 billion. Some $12.9 billion of that comes from the federal government and the rest from state sources.

Beginning Monday morning, five state agencies will detail their priorities and where they might cut if necessary. (Note: They are Human Services, Tourism, Health, Mental Health, Children’s Services.)

…House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, blamed previous budget cuts for the chaos.

“I’m convinced the problems we had in Children’s Services were, frankly, from cutting staff too quickly and making some changes to save some short-term money instead of trying to make sure we accomplish our long-term goals,” Fitzhugh said.

That’s happening in several areas, Fitzhugh said, noting unemployed Tennesseans are having problems finding work because of major cuts at state career centers.

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, disagreed things have gone too far.

“I think [the governor] has been very judicious in the cuts that he’s made,” he said. “At the same time, we’re seeing increasing funding demands.”

Black backs bill to deny Social Security benefits to Nazis

News release from U.S. Rep. Diane Black:
Washington, D.C. – Congressman Diane Black (R-TN-06) joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing legislation to terminate Social Security benefits for Nazi persecutors who receive them because of a loophole in current law.

“Congress must stop the flow of payments to these war criminals immediately,” said Congressman Black. “That is why I co-sponsored Congressman Sam Johnson’s No Social Security for Nazis Act. This legislation will cut off benefits to anyone stripped of U.S. citizenship—either voluntarily or by order of the federal government—related to their participation in Nazi crimes. The legislation further ensures that, if the offenders are married, they are denied spousal benefits under Social Security as well. These human rights violators don’t deserve one more dime from you and me.”

The legislation is a result of bipartisan work following news reports that some Nazi persecutors, who participated in the systematic murder of millions of innocents, are currently receiving Social Security benefits due to a loophole in the law. By leaving the U.S. voluntarily, instead of being deported, some Nazi war criminals and collaborators were able to keep their Social Security benefits. The House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee have jurisdiction over Social Security.

Sunday column: Dark money flows in TN from inside, outside the state

Dark money flowed into several Tennessee campaigns in the election season recently ended, some darker than others but all indicating — along with some other factors — a trend toward anonymity in politicking that apparently follows national inclinations.

And maybe it works, so we can expect more in the future.

In other recent election cycles, dark money — funding where the donors are undisclosed to the public — has generally come from national organizations. StudentsFirst, for example, reports in Tennessee only that six-figure chunks of cash came from the national headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., then was spent bashing state legislative candidates or local school board candidates who don’t support the “education reform” organization’s agenda or supporting those who do.

Who gave the national group that money? Well, under existing rules, nobody really knows, though national media have reported some generalities such as hedge fund operators.

This year also saw some homegrown dark money, typically using the completely legal ploy of a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation. Set one of those up — they’re known as education and advocacy organizations — and you can raise money without disclosing where it came from. Then the 501(c)4 corporation can give the money to an actual campaign committee, which will then report only that it got money from the nonprofit 501(c)4.

Some examples:
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Two former police officers plead guilty in extortion ring

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Two former law enforcement officers for the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Valley Authority have pleaded guilty to federal extortion charges.

The charges stem from an undercover gambling sting set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2009.

Robert E. Cummings, the former UT officer, and Benito D. Lopez, formerly of the TVA, are scheduled to be sentenced in March and could face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Cummings and Lopez were charged with attempting to commit extortion “under color of official right,” meaning they took payment in exchange for taking, withholding or influencing official action.

Three other current or former officers indicted earlier this month by a federal grand jury have pleaded not guilty.

Note: Developments in the case of another former officer facing charges in post below, or HERE.

Deputy accused in gambling extortion ring got Knox schools school job

Knox County Schools twice hired a deputy sheriff under federal probe in a gambling extortion conspiracy despite being made aware of his alleged transgressions, reports the News Sentinel.

Former Knox County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jimmy W. Douglas remained on the job as an educational assistant for the school system right up to the day federal authorities arrested him. Even now, he remains on the public payroll. The school system placed him on paid leave Nov. 6 after a federal indictment against him was made public.

Douglas is one of six East Tennessee lawmen charged earlier this month with using the trappings of their power, including badges and guns, to protect what they believed were illegal high-stakes poker games. The charges came after a 2009 sting operation by the FBI targeting police corruption.

That probe was interrupted, records show, in March 2010 when Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones confronted Deputy Samuel T. Hardy Jr., accused as one of the recruiters in the extortion plot, which alerted Hardy — intentionally or not — the alleged conspiracy had been revealed. Jones has said he was acting on a tip and was never told by the FBI about the sting operation.

After being interrogated, Hardy identified Douglas and fellow Deputy Robbie Flood as players in the poker protection game. Jones allowed all three to resign. He has not explained why.

Soon after Douglas resigned in May 2010, disgraced Knox County Schools Security Chief Steve Griffin hired Douglas — knowing he had resigned from the KCSO as a result of the gambling extortion allegations.

Voting rights advocates consider another legal challenge to TN photo ID law

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A legendary Tennessee lawyer whose push for voting rights dated back to the civil rights movement died last summer, not long before a new federal report found evidence that he might have had a point about that state’s voter identification law.

Now many of those who worked closely with him say they intend to keep the cause alive.

George Barrett died in August, two months before a new report by the Government Accountability Office found that states — including Tennessee — which toughened their voter ID laws saw steeper drops in election turnout than those that did not.

While there were few reports of voting problems in Tennessee following the Nov. 4 general election, voter advocates say the report justifies the need to examine the effects of the voter ID law in Tennessee, one of 33 states to enact laws obligating voters to show a photo ID at the polls. In doing so they hope to rekindle the efforts of Barrett, a one-man crusader whose courtroom advocacy dated back to the lunch-counter sit-ins of the early 1960s, when it was rare for a white attorney to take up the cause of black college students.

“We are running with the momentum George generated,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which supported Barrett in a lawsuit filed in 2012 against the state’s voter ID law. “His inspiration continues to give us the energy and the wherewithal to move forward, to ensure that access to the ballot box is available to all Tennessee citizens.”
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Tre Hargett says he’s focused on ‘what’s now, rather than what’s next’

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who has been included in speculation about 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidates, says he’s not running. At least not now.

From the Commercial Appeal:

Hargett was among several Republicans included in early speculation after the Nov. 4 election about potential candidates to succeed Gov. Bill Haslam, since Haslam can’t run for a third consecutive term.

But Hargett, who is in the middle of a four-year term, found such speculation uncomfortable and issued a statement Friday saying, “I am not running for governor in 2018. While I am honored to be mentioned and thought of in this regard, I am focused on being the best secretary of state I can be and the best one our state has ever had. The people of Tennessee deserve nothing less. I would rather focus on what’s now, rather than what’s next.”

“I am deeply appreciative of the trust placed in me by the General Assembly and I still have much I hope to accomplish as Tennessee’s Secretary of State.”

Hargett was a state representative from the Bartlett area from 1996 to 2006 and was Republican leader in the House during part of that tenure. He was appointed a director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority in 2008 and was there until the state legislature appointed him secretary of state in January 2009. He was appointed to a second four-year term in January 2013.