Category Archives: Legislature

Carter also eyeing run for House majority leader

State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, is telling supporters he “prayerfully” considering whether to seek the powerful Tennessee House majority leader position being vacated by Rep. Gerald McCormick, reports the Times-Free Press.

Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, has already announced she is running. House Assistant Majority Leader Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, is looking at the post as are House Republican Caucus Chairan Glenn Casada, R-Franklin, and House Health Committee Chairman Cameron Sexton, R-Crossvile.

In a posting on his Facebook page today, Carter, an attorney and former county General Sessions Court judge, said McCormick’s decision to not seek re-election to the House’s No. 2 post “came as a surprise to many people, myself included. Gerald has been a strong, capable leaders for 6 years and honestly, I’m sorry to see him go.”

Carter, first elected to the House in 2012, said he has “been humbled and frankly a little surprised by the amount of encouragement I’ve received to run for Majority Leader from people in my own district and across Tennessee.

“While my priority between now and Nov. 8 will be helping fellow members win re-election,” Carter wrote in his post, “I’ve decided to listen to supporters and prayerfully consider running for Majority Leader.”

McCormick announced earlier this week he would not seek a fourth term as Republican majority leader in the GOP-run House, saying he wanted to devote more time to his business.

Feds OK revised TN DUI law for juveniles

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The National Highway Traffic Administration has confirmed that Tennessee is back in compliance with federal zero-tolerance standards for drunken drivers under the legal drinking age.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam hastily called a special legislative session last week to repeal a new state law that threatened to cost the state 8 percent, or $60 million, in federal road money.

The repeal of the law means that the state no longer stands to lose the money starting on Oct. 1.

Sponsors of the original legislation said it aimed to give tougher penalties to all drivers over age 18. But the law also sought to set the maximum allowable blood alcohol content at 0.08 percent for those drivers. The federal standard for drivers under age 21 is 0.02 percent.

Rep. Sheila Butt seeks majority leader post

State Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia has become the first Republican to declare as a candidate to succeed Gerald McCormick as House majority leader, but The Tennessean reports that at least a couple others – Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Cameron Sexton of Crossville – are also interested.

Butt announced her candidacy in an email to colleagues, saying she wants to help the House Republican Caucus “move forward with wisdom, tenacity, civility and better communication.”

“I am confident that I can lead the Caucus in that direction,” Butt said, while saying that she realized during her time as Majority Floor Leader that House Republicans needed improvements in terms of communication.

Butt’s effort comes one day after McCormick, who has been Majority Leader since 2011, informed his colleagues that he was not seeking re-election to the chamber’s second most powerful position. McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is running for re-election in November.

…Sexton told The Tennessean Tuesday that he’s had “numerous members” call him and ask if he’d be interested.

“As members call and I talk to them over the next several weeks I’m going to see what they’re looking for,” said Sexton, who served as House Majority Whip before being defeated by former Rep. Jeremy Durham in 2014.

Sexton said it is “much too early” to be counting votes for the leadership spot and that the priority of the caucus needs to be focusing on making sure every House Republican running for re-election wins in the Nov. 8 general election. Continue reading

New coalition set up to push ‘criminal justice reform’

Press release from Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice
NASHVILLE – Leaders from advocacy, business and social service groups with constituents across the state came together today to launch the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice. The nonpartisan coalition is committed to advancing criminal justice reform. Founding organizations include the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Tennessee Association of Goodwills, and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“These diverse organizations from across the political spectrum came together because we all agree that criminal justice reform is both necessary and urgent,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “Our current criminal justice system is functioning like a revolving door. We as a state can and must do better to ensure public safety, fair treatment and equality in the justice system. This coalition will be a powerful advocate for smart-on-crime policies at the legislature.”

The coalition will promote reforms that enhance public safety, promote rehabilitation and re-entry, and save taxpayer dollars in order to create a just and fair criminal justice system that offers every Tennessean the opportunity to become a productive member of society. Continue reading

Armstrong’s state pension benefits uncertain

Former Rep. Joe Armstrong’s state pension would provide him with $28,744 annually under the application he has filed, but state officials have not decided whether he is entitled to receive the benefits after a felony conviction for filing a false federal tax return.

Shelli King, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, said Armstrong’s application was received on Tuesday and officials are conferring with attorneys to decide whether it will be approved.

King said that Armstrong’s application opts for receiving maximum monthly benefits with no survivor benefits upon his death. If approved, she said in an email, “Rep. Armstrong will receive $2,395.34 per month based on 27 years, 10 months of service in the General Assembly” – or $28,744.08 per year.

Those making the decision will include state Treasurer David Lillard, who oversees the pension system, TCRS Executive Director Jill Bachus and others, she said, and “not just a single person.” She estimated that the process of making a consensus decision – one that might generate political controversy — could take four to six weeks.

Under state law, a legislator forfeits his or her pension benefits when “convicted in any state or federal court of a felony arising out of that person’s official capacity, constituting malfeasance in office.”

That raises the question of whether Armstrong’s federal court conviction arises out of his “official capacity” as a state legislator. The filing of his tax return, of course, was not an official duty as a legislator.

But the conviction was based on a failure to pay federal income taxes on more than $300,000 profit Armstrong made by buying, through a tobacco wholesaler, Tennessee cigarette tax stamps at the rate prior to a 2007 increase in the state cigarette taxes – which he supported as a legislator – then selling them after the increase was approved. Continue reading

McCormick to exit as House majority leader

After six years as state House Majority Leader, Gerald McCormick says he will not seek another term in the position for the next session of the General Assembly. His announcement Monday, first reported by Andy Sher, is likely to touch off a scramble among fellow Republicans who would like to succeed him.

Citing accomplishments he and Republicans have made since seizing a working House majority in January 2011, McCormick told fellow GOP caucus members in a letter that he is “incredibly proud of the work of the ‘People’s House,'” which he said has “confronted extremely difficult issues that were not taken lightly by any of us.”

McCormick, who is still running for re-election without opposition to his seat on Nov. 8, said in an interview he intends to continue serving in the 99-member House, where Republicans hold 73 of 99 seats.

The 56-year-old lawmaker’s announcement is expected to unleash pent-up ambition in the GOP Caucus and could conceivably trigger a major power struggle among Republicans’ sometimes-bitterly divided power factions.

“I am honored to serve the citizens of House District 26 as their Representative in the Tennessee General Assembly and I intend to maintain a strong and intensified commitment to the issues affecting us locally and statewide,” McCormick said in his letter to fellow Republican lawmakers.

“I will continue to serve my fellow Caucus members as you see fit, however, I announce today that I do not intend to continue as House Majority Leader in the upcoming session,” he said.

Memphis, Nashville could pay penalty for pot decriminalization

If the Nashville and Memphis city councils move ahead with plans for modified marijuana decriminalization, state Rep. William Lamberth says he may move to stop sending state highway funding to the cities.

From The Tennessean:

Lamberth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said his potential bill would seek to halt state highway funds from cities that do not enforce criminal penalties outlined in state law. Funding would continue again if a violating city overturns their policy. This past year, the state set aside $129.1 million in highway funds for Shelby County and $119.5 million for Davidson County.

“That’s not a bill that I would want to file, but it’s a bill that I’m certainly willing to file if Nashville and Memphis continue down this extraordinarily reckless and unjust path,” he said. Continue reading

On the prescription painkiller lobby’s influence

(Note: The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity have produced a package of stories published this weekend on the politics of those involved in making prescription painkillers. One of them, focused on lobbying efforts and political contributions at the state level, is below and includes a substantial reference to Tennessee. ‘

The Tennessean has done a sidebar reporting that Tennessee politicians received more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions over the past decade from pharmaceutical companies and other members of the Pain Care Forum, a coalition that meets monthly to discuss opioid-related issues. That report is HERE.)

By Geoff Mulvihill, Liz Essley Whyte and Ben Wieder, Associated Press and Center for Public Integrity
The makers of prescription painkillers have adopted a 50-state strategy that includes hundreds of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions to help kill or weaken measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription opioids, the drugs at the heart of a crisis that has cost 165,000 Americans their lives and pushed countless more to crippling addiction.

The drugmakers vow they’re combating the addiction epidemic, but The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that they often employ a statehouse playbook of delay and defend that includes funding advocacy groups that use the veneer of independence to fight limits on the drugs, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and fentanyl, the narcotic linked to Prince’s death.

The mother of Cameron Weiss was no match for the industry’s high-powered lobbyists when she plunged into the corridors of New Mexico’s Legislature, crusading for a measure she fervently believed would have saved her son’s life.

It was a heroin overdose that eventually killed Cameron, not long before he would have turned 19. But his slippery descent to death started a few years earlier, when a hospital sent him home with a bottle of Percocet after he broke his collarbone in wrestling practice.

Jennifer Weiss-Burke pushed for a bill limiting initial prescriptions of opioid painkillers for acute pain to seven days. The bill exempted people with chronic pain, but opponents still fought back, with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry quietly mobilizing in increased numbers to quash the measure.

They didn’t speak up in legislative hearings. “They were going individually talking to senators and representatives one-on-one,” Weiss-Burke said.

Unknowingly, she had taken on a political powerhouse that spent more than $880 million nationwide on lobbying and campaign contributions from 2006 through 2015 — more than 200 times what those advocating for stricter policies spent and more than eight times what the formidable gun lobby recorded for similar activities during that same period.

The pharmaceutical companies and allied groups have a number of legislative interests in addition to opioids that account for a portion of their political activity, but their steady presence in state capitals means they’re poised to jump in quickly on any debate that affects them.

Collectively, the AP and the Center for Public Integrity found, the drugmakers and allied advocacy groups employed an annual average of 1,350 lobbyists in legislative hubs from 2006 through 2015, when opioids’ addictive nature came under increasing scrutiny.

“The opioid lobby has been doing everything it can to preserve the status quo of aggressive prescribing,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing and an outspoken advocate for opioid reform. “They are reaping enormous profits from aggressive prescribing.” Continue reading

Six legislators went to Europe at Andy Miller’s expense

Investigations into Jeremy Durham’s finances reveal gaping holes in state campaign finance laws that allow lawmakers to receive overseas “education” trips from wealthy donors and use campaign money for investments not reported to the public, reports The Tennessean.

Durham invested his campaign funds in the company of well-known Republican donor Andy Miller, who is the leader of an organization described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Miller also paid for six lawmakers — one Democrat and five Republicans — to take a trip in fall 2011 to Europe to learn about “radical Islam.”

The trips and the investments involved thousands of dollars, and raised concerns among ethics and open government advocates about the influence of money on the lawmakers. But none of these transactions or travel are required to be reported on any state campaign finance document, said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

…Miller is a prominent tea party-aligned donor and leader of the Tennessee Freedom Coalition. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the group is opposed to Islam and those who practice it, landing the organization on the SPLC’s list of hate groups for years, said Stephen Piggott, a senior research analyst at the SPLC.

…The “gift” loophole in state law allowed Miller to pay for six lawmakers to go on a five-day “fact-finding” trip to Europe. Because Miller isn’t a registered lobbyist, Rawlins said, there’s no violation of law, and there is nothing Miller or the lawmakers on the trip would need to report to his agency.

“They can’t accept a gift from a lobbyist or an employer of a lobbyist. So if it was paid for by a lobbyist or employer of a lobbyist, then it would be a prohibited gift. Otherwise, there’s no prohibition on taking a — and I’ll use the term gift, but a trip in this case — there’s no prohibition on that,” Rawlins said.

Miller’s trip included stops in Dearborn, Mich. — a city with a large Arab-American population — London, Brussels, Antwerp and Amsterdam. Those on the trip include: Sens. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis; Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro; Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma; Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough; and then state Rep. Joe Carr, a Lascassas Republican who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. Diane Black in recent primaries.

“The purpose of the trip was to discuss immigration issues with their peers in parliaments there that I had met on previous encounters,” Miller said in an email, also confirming paying for the trip.

“It may be hard for some to understand that I went to this expense simply out of love and concern for my country,” he said. “But that is the fact.”

Carr said Miller paid for flight and hotel costs. When asked is he was concerned about possible criticism of Miller financing an international trip for lawmakers, Carr said: “I don’t give a rat’s ass.”

Sunday column: On the legal validity of dumping Durham

Last week’s extraordinary session of the Tennessee Legislature had some ordinary aspects — predictable partisan and bipartisan bickering, for example — but the Jeremy Durham debacle was really something special.

After the 70-2 vote Tuesday to expel the Franklin Republican from his House seat, Durham made the rounds at Nashville television stations declaring that he’s likely to file a lawsuit, contending that his removal from office violated the state constitution.

This was somewhat anticipated during the House floor debate. Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, suggested that a lawsuit would cost taxpayers more than paying Durham’s pension, which he will lose as result of being booted prior to completion of his term in November. That, and concerns about constitutionality, were among the reasons cited by Holt in boldly pushing the blue light on House voting machines, which means he was present but not voting. Three others did the same, including one bold Democrat, Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis. Continue reading