Monthly Archives: January 2014

Report says Haslam’s claim of $100m savings through JLL is inflated, includes some ‘pure fiction’

Gov. Bill Haslam’s repeated claim of $100 million in taxpayer savings through private management of state buildings through a contract with Jones Lang LaSalle appears inflated, according to a WTVF-TV report. The actual savings, the station suggests, is around $20 million – and maybe less than that.

It was a claim that the governor’s chief of staff, Mark Cate, repeatedly emphasized to the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee back in July.

“So 10 years, $100 million,” Cates said. “That’s actually net savings after getting out of leases, consolidating space — all of that nets out to $100 million of net savings over that time period.”

But our investigation discovered that, a full three months before that testimony, the administration had an internal estimate showing that the actual “T3 Savings” were $43 million — a lot less than the administration’s $100 million claim.

“It gives the appearance that either he had faulty information, he was given faulty information, or he was dishonest,” said committee member Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville.

We also showed Gilmore more recent internal estimates showing that Project T3 will save even less than expected and cost even more, resulting in net savings of just $20 million dollars.

That’s $80 million short of what the administration has claimed.

…The Haslam administration said that the decision to get rid of older state buildings like the Cordell Hull — a process called “decommissioning” — makes those savings more complicated to track.

“You can’t separate decommissioning from T3, as we would have increased the occupancy in those six buildings had they not been deemed functionally obsolete,” General Services spokesperson Kelly Smith said in an email.

But our analysis discovered that when all the spending associated with decommissioning is factored in, according to the administration’s own numbers, the total operational savings are just $4.5 million over 10 years. That’s $450,000 a year. (To get to $100 million, the administration counts $85.5 in deferred maintenance that might be needed on those buildings and $10 million from the sale of the buildings.)

In addition, after we asked the Haslam administration to show us where it gets the savings they are counting on, they gave us a list of what was supposed to be canceled leases.

It’s a list that, in some cases, was pure fiction.

Take, for example, a building in South Nashville. The administration’s list takes a lease canceled for the Department of Labor and counts it twice, showing almost $1 million extra in savings.

The list also includes a canceled Department of Health lease at a Knoxville building, saving $1.3 million.

In fact, that lease has not been canceled.

And it claims savings of half a million dollars by closing a Department of Safety office in Chattanooga.

It doesn’t count a new lease for a bigger building that will actually cost $1 million more.

Obama might see two Republicans in Nashville visit — Haslam and DesJarlais

President Obama may see a couple of Republicans in his visit to Nashville’s McGavock High School for a speech on education Thursday, reports the Tennessean.

Of the state’s 11 members of Congress, only two would commit Monday to being at the speech — U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean also plans to accompany the president throughout his visit to the city. All three are Democrats.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam plans to greet the president at the airport, but whether he will see Obama elsewhere depends on scheduling, a spokesman said.

…Republican members of the House of Representatives have a ready-made excuse. Obama’s visit happens to coincide with a long-planned caucus retreat in Chesapeake, Md. Several said through their offices that they are committed to being there.

One Republican, however, might make it to Nashville. U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais had already planned to skip the GOP retreat to attend to official business in Murfreesboro. He may be able to fit the presidential visit in, spokesman Robert Jameson said.

“I think the congressman feels he has a responsibility to his constituents to provide a conservative counterpoint to what the president is going to say,” Jameson said. “His constituents expect him to be a voice of opposition.”

In a Washington divided sharply along political lines, that may be the only Republican voice Obama hears.

Loskarn suicide letter says porno videos ‘matched my own childhood abuse’

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s former chief of staff wrote in a letter shortly before hanging himself that he had been sexually abused as a child and that he found himself drawn to child pornography because the violence in the videos “matched my own childhood abuse,” reports Michael Collins.

“This is my deepest, darkest secret,” Jesse Ryan Loskarn wrote shortly before taking his own life.

Loskarn, facing charges of child pornography, apologized to his family and friends and the children whose sexual exploitation was depicted in the videos he was accused of buying and distributing.

“I perpetrated your abuse, and that will be a burden on my soul for the rest of my life,” he said.

Loskarn, 35, was found dead in his parents’ home in Sykesville, Md., last Thursday after apparently hanging himself. A judge had allowed him to live with his parents while he waited to see if a grand jury would indict him on the child pornography charges.

Loskarn had been arrrested at his home in southeast Washington on Dec. 11 on charges of buying and distributing child pornography.

… Loskarn’s rapid downfall stunned his colleagues and friends on Capitol Hill and left them wondering how the savvy political operative they had come to know could be the same person who, according to court records, purchased more than 200 videos showing young boys being sexually abused.

In his letter, which was found after his death and which his family has posted online, Loskarn wrote that he found himself asking the same question.

“There seem to be many answers and none at all,” he wrote.

In the letter, Loskarn agonized over the pain he had caused his family and friends. “The news coverage of my spectacular fall makes it impossible for me to crawl in a hole and disappear,” he wrote. “I’ve hurt every single human being I’ve ever known, and the details of my shame are preserved on the internet for all time. There is no escape.”

Loskarn said he first discovered child pornography during a search for music on a peer-to-peer network. “I wasn’t seeking it, but I didn’t turn away when I saw it,” he said. “Until that moment, the only place I’d seen these sorts of images was in my mind.”

Loskarn said he was drawn to the images because they reflected the sexual abuse he had experienced as a child as young as age 5. “It’s painful and humiliating to admit to myself, let alone the whole world,” he wrote, “but I pictured myself as a child in the image or video. The more an image mirrored some element of my memories and took me back, the more I felt a connection.”

Loskarn didn’t say who abused him but wrote that, as a child, he didn’t understand what had happened.

Voucher lobbies, pro and con, produce noise

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The debate over a school voucher program in Tennessee is heating up with groups for and against speaking out this week at the state Capitol complex.

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, a grassroots organization opposed to vouchers, held a press conference on Monday at the Legislative Plaza. And the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free market think tank that is advocating for a broader voucher program, has an event scheduled for Tuesday.

The events are being held as Republican state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam try to reach a compromise on voucher legislation.

Last week, Republican lawmakers filed a school voucher bill they hope will be acceptable to Haslam, who has repeatedly said he favors a more limited version of the program that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state providing funds for tuition.

Haslam’s proposal is limited to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. He had that measure withdrawn last year when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children.

The measure now being proposed by Republicans would affect students attending the bottom 10 percent of failing schools.

Under that proposal, the program would also be opened to anyone interested if the entire number isn’t filled by students from low-income families attending failing schools.
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Audit discovers problems in DCS

By Shelia Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An audit of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services finds that the state child-welfare agency has had numerous problems, including sloppy child-abuse investigations.

The audit, performed by the state comptroller’s office and released Monday, also found that DCS was not adequately tracking juvenile delinquents on probation and failed to report the deaths of children in its custody, as required by law.

The review looked at the agency from May 2007 to October 2013 — a time that included three different commissioners.

The agency has come under for fire for numerous problems, including the deaths or near deaths of more than 200 children since 2009 that had been reported to the agency as being possible abuse or neglect cases. Former Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned last year when the agency came under intense fire for the child deaths.

Commissioner Jim Henry was appointed last year to replace O’Day. He has since restructured the organization and vowed to make reforms.

Henry described the audit as a “good learning tool” that would help the agency improve.

“I think all the problems they pointed out we agreed with,” he said of the report. He vowed to use the audit as a way to build a better department and stressed that many reforms were already underway.
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Republican Governors Association: Bill Haslam ‘a true pioneer’

News release from Republican Governor’s Association:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Republican Governors Public Policy Committee (RGPPC) announced today that Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam will serve as its Policy Chairman for 2014.

“Governor Haslam has emerged as a true pioneer in the public policy sphere over the course of his first term in office,” said RGA Chairman Chris Christie. “Under his leadership, Tennessee is thriving. The state’s economy is strong, job creation is up, taxes are down, the workforce is growing, and more than ever, a great education is within reach for all Tennesseans. The results Governor Haslam has achieved are a striking example of what can be accomplished when states take the lead and his insight will be invaluable to the organization as many of our governors prepare for re-election this year.”

“Just as we’ve done in Tennessee, Republican governors across the country are drawing on conservative principles and applying creative solutions in order to reform government and reinvent their states,” said Governor Haslam. “While the federal government balloons in size, gets in its own way and fails repeatedly to implement its policy priorities, states are flourishing. I am honored to serve as Policy Chairman at a time when Republican governors are widely recognized as standard bearers for truly meaningful reform, and I am eager to encourage and enable the kind of innovation and experimentation that yields state-level success.”

The Republican Governors Public Policy Committee (RGPPC) is the policy arm of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and the official policy organization of the nation’s Republican governors. With a strong majority of 29 governors, the RGPPC is working to impact public policy on both the state and national levels.

Since taking office in 2011, Governor Haslam has worked diligently to improve education in Tennessee. Accomplishments include eliminating enrollment restrictions for charter schools; overhauling teacher tenure; and implementing a leading edge evaluation system for teachers. These efforts and others resulted in Tennessee becoming the fastest improving state in math and reading in 2013 as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Business Facilities magazine recently named Tennessee the State of the Year citing its creation of jobs and success in diversifying sector growth. Additionally, Governor Haslam has improved the overall business climate through significant tort reform and an overhaul of the state’s worker’s compensation system.

Through comprehensive civil service reform, Haslam has created a more efficient and effective state government, and with conservative, business-principled management, has reduced the government footprint in Tennessee.

Democrat proposes cigarette tax increase to cover state cost of Medicaid expansion

State Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, today filed a bill that would increase Tennessee’s cigarette tax by 44 cents per pack (or 2.2 cents per cigarette, as the bill states), which he figures would be enough to cover the cost of Medicaid Expansion.

He had outlined the premise of the measure (HB2096) earlier, acknowledging prospect for passage by the anti-tax Republican supermajority are not good. (There’s not yet a Senate sponsor.) Excerpt from the Tennessean story:

Odom says the tax increase would raise about $175 million a year, more than enough to offset the state’s eventual share of TennCare expansion, while also taking aim at the harmful effects of smoking.

Tennessee now collects 62 cents a pack on cigarettes, the 13th-lowest rate in the nation.
For nearly two years, Democrats have called for offering TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to 175,000 more poor Tennesseans under the Affordable Care Act. They argue Tennessee should not turn away pledges from the federal government to pick up the full tab for expansion until 2017 and 90 percent or more through 2020, a promise that would bring about $1 billion a year into the state.

But Republicans in the state legislature have focused on the approximately $170 million that Tennessee would have to pick up eventually. They say that money could come only from spending cuts or higher taxes, and they question whether the federal government will live up to its promises.

“I think there are so many unanswered questions about ‘Obamacare’ that you would be nuts to say here we go, not knowing what five years or three years or two years is going to look like,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

Note: Odom appears to be responding as well to recent comments by House Speaker Beth Harwell, who said Democrats favoring Medicaid expansion should be “intellectually honest” and explain either what taxes they would raise or what programs they would cut to cover the projected cost to the state after 100 percent federal financing ends.

There’s a line in the bill that, one suspects, invites GOP outrage, declaring state government will “cooperate with the appropriate federal department in any reasonable manner as may be necessary to qualify for federal aid in connection with the medical assistance program and to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

Liquor lobby: WIGS should get rid of Tennessee’s ‘draconian Blue Law’ and allow Sunday booze sales

One issue in the great WIGS (wine in grocery stores) debate is whether supermarkets, if the bill passes, will be permitted to sell fruit of the vine on Sundays. As drafted, the bill permits Sunday sales – just as beer sales are permitted now in most areas by supermarkets. At the same time, it leaves in place provisions of current law requiring liquor stores to be closed on Sundays.

The bill is up for vote Tuesday in the House Local Government Committee, where a much-anticipated new amendment will be unveiled – maybe addressing Sunday sales, maybe not. Now, a day before the deal worked out by lobbyists is disclosed, a national liquor lobby weighs in with the following.

News release from the Distilled Spirits Council:
Nashville, TN – As state lawmakers and proponents of wine in grocery stores near a deal on legislation to modernize Tennessee’s alcohol laws, the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) today urged that any agreement include an end to the state’s restrictive ban on seven day alcohol sales.

According to DISCUS, Tennessee maintains one of the most draconian Blue Law bans on alcohol sales in the country, despite Tennessee’s heritage and distilling industry history – home to 10 operating distilleries across the state. DISCUS encouraged legislators to protect – not punish – these growing businesses as this legislation begins to move.

“Any bill that transfers foot traffic from liquor stores to grocery stores but fails to compensate liquor store owners with an extra day of sales is going to hurt those businesses and hurt Tennessee distillers who depend on those sales,” said DISCUS Vice President Dale Szyndrowski.

“Distillers across the state have invested millions in bringing back Tennessee’s distilling heritage. Changing the rules on distillers without considering their position in the market will cut the legs out from under them and put them at a major competitive disadvantage. As policymakers modernize Tennessee liquor laws, allowing local option seven day sales should certainly be part of any package,” he said.

Szyndrowski said that in addition to increasing consumer convenience and small business flexibility, seven day sales would bring in millions in additional revenue for the state. A recent economic analysis found that an extra day of statewide sales of wine and spirits in Tennessee would generate between $3.3 and $4.6 million in additional tax revenues annually.

Szyndrowski further pointed out that across America, 16 states have allowed seven day alcohol sales since 2002 for a total of 39 states.

On those informative and objective congressional constituent surveys

On the eve of election season, constituent surveys from incumbent congressmen are starting to fill mailboxes across Tennessee, observes the Chattanooga TFP. And they may not always be objective.

(A)bout 45,000 residents in Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District were sent an “end of year report and survey” by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., this month.

The survey and report give residents a rundown of what the Chattanooga Republican says he’s been focusing on and says it seeks to gauge what constituents want him to do. Fleischmann is seeking renomination for his 3rd District seat. He is being challenged in the GOP primary by Weston Wamp. Whoever wins the primary in August could face Angelia Stinnett, the only Democrat in the race to date.

…”It’s not the most egregious I’ve seen. But is it truly supposed to be a scientific measure of what his constituency thinks? … I’m not sure this will give [Fleischmann] that,” said Michelle Deardorff, head of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s political science department.
Simplicity of language can be a red flag for political polls, Deardorff said.

“Oftentimes, these polls are used to move public opinion,” she said. “We do know that the way questions are framed help to produce certain answers.”
That means the results might not actually represent the true sentiments of most Tennesseans in the 3rd District.

Such mailers and surveys have to clear the Franking Commission, a federal bipartisan committee that approves or vetoes political speech paid for by tax money. The group’s aim is to ensure politicians don’t use tax dollars to campaign.

But despite the clearance, Deardorff said charged language can sometimes sneak through. It did in Fleischmann’s survey, she said: The survey refers to abortion as “the right to life” and refers to the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare.” Deardorff says that language is loaded — but she’s seen much worse.

Lamar laments broken Senate (some suggest he helped break it)

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says the U.S. Senate is broken, reports The Tennessean, with a case in point being the recent bill to extend long-term jobless benefits.

Alexander says the stalemate is just the latest symptom of the Senate’s inability to function, a condition he says impedes his ability to represent Tennessee.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” Alexander lamented in a recent interview. “And I’ve watched it for a long time.”

Alexander, who has represented the Volunteer State since 2003, still reveres the Senate, where he served as an aide to Tennessee Republican Howard Baker in the 1960s and won confirmation as education secretary in 1991.

But he said recent rule changes and maneuvering by the Democratic majority have rendered Republicans practically impotent in a chamber where thoughtful, bipartisan discourse has long been a cherished virtue.

…Reid points out that roughly half of the 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominees “in the history of the Republic” have occurred since Obama took office in 2009. The filibusters were part of a broader GOP effort, Democrats say, to stymie Obama’s agenda after he won a second term in 2012.

…Alexander is just as irked by Reid’s efforts to restrict amendments, as he did on the jobless benefits bill. He also said Reid has the math wrong on which party has been doing the most obstructing.

Data compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and provided by Alexander’s office shows Reid has restricted floor amendments 79 times since his ascension to majority leader in 2007 through 2013. That’s nearly twice the number compiled by the six previous majority leaders combined.

…Independent observers say Alexander has a valid point in criticizing some Democratic tactics. But they also say Republicans have contributed to the current standoff through constant filibusters and attempts to attach politically charged amendments to unrelated bills.

…Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute, said Alexander’s recent performance has been disappointing. He said that’s particularly true of his support for GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s “unprecedented use of tools of mass obstruction” to gum up Senate business.
Alexander, for example, voted against moving forward with the unemployment benefits bill he wanted to amend.

“Lamar’s been a hero of mine for years, but I tell you, I am down on him right now,” Ornstein said. “He’s been at least as much a part of the problem as a part of the solution.”