Category Archives: opinion

Sunday column: On TN bipartisan party dysfunction

When Tennessee Democratic Chair Mary Mancini recently ordered the settlement of a Shelby County Democratic Party squabble over financial mismanagement, her Republican counterpart, Ryan Haynes, promptly issued a press release denouncing “Democrat dysfunction.”

“Instead of taking responsibility and cleaning up the mess, the TNDP wants to ignore the problem in the hope that it goes away. It’s part of a disturbing pattern for them: Democrat public officials do something wrong and their Party pretends nothing ever happened. It’s right out of the Hillary Clinton playbook and it spells disaster for them this fall in Tennessee.”

That followed, by a couple of weeks, a TNGOP news release — with the headline “Tennessee Democrats: Corrupt to the Core” — that recited a list of Democratic officeholders who have run afoul of the law, starting with former Gov. Ray Blanton in the 1970s and continuing to Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, who is facing trial on federal tax evasion charges. Continue reading

Sunday column: On legislators in the summer spotlight

Tennessee’s legislative session may be gone, but legislators are not forgotten in the state media spotlight this summer — especially Reps. Jeremy Durham of Franklin, Andy Holt of Dresden and Martin Daniel of Knoxville.

Though getting out-of-session attention for different reasons, the three have some things in common. They’re Republicans who present themselves to voters as staunch conservatives unafraid to take controversial positions and who face opposition in seeking re-election to new terms.

In the Legislature, the three have been prominent for different reasons. Durham’s most prominent claim to fame was what he called “the Stop Obamacare Act,” a measure that required legislative approval of any Medicaid expansion in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam had already promised not to act without legislative approval, but after his Insure Tennessee plan was killed, Durham and his co-sponsors claimed credit. Continue reading

Sunday column: On the primary muddle in legislative campaigns

As campaigns for state legislative seats develop, the themes that will be in play for the handful of November general election contests are pretty clear while the candidate contrasts in the August primary are more difficult to decipher, though arguably far more important from a statewide policy perspective.

Under Republican-engineered redistricting and the Tennessee electorate’s prevailing political mood, there’s no chance that Democrats, as a matter of practical politics, can end the Republican Supermajority reign for the 110th General Assembly that convenes in January, even though Democrats “came out of the woodwork” – to use Democratic Chair Mary Mancini’s phrase – to qualify as underdog challengers in 40 or so seats now held by Republicans.

That’s about twice as many Democrats seeking Republican-held seats as compared to a couple of years ago. The reason? To speculate at bit, it appears that Democrats at the local level are inspired by both irritation and perceived opportunity.

The irritation, apparently held individually by most candidates, is unhappiness with some Supermajority actions. The opportunity is a perception that voters overall are irritated as well, as indicated in polls on matters such as Insure Tennessee, while Republicans are themselves divided on these matters and on the notion of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. Continue reading

Sunday column: On the need for an Office of Legislative Litigation

In hindsight, given the recent emergence of restrooms as a major issue for Republican legislators, perhaps many members of the Supermajority see as a mistake the rejection of Rep. David Hawk’s proposal for annual September sessions of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Hawk, R-Greeneville, proposed in HB1501 to automatically have legislators return for a couple of days each September, explaining, “in this fast paced world in which we live, there are lots of issues that come up outside the constraints of our regular session that really need to be addressed legislatively.”

After winning initial approval in one House committee, the bill got the cold shoulder late in session – about the same time legislators were also deciding against proposals to hold a special veto override session in May, just in case Gov. Bill Haslam should decide to reject some measure favored by the Supermajority.

The decision against a veto override session proved sound. Apparently as Haslam had tacitly suggested, he was ready to go along with anything else passed, despite his previously-voiced public misgivings on some bills. He did and a veto override session proved unnecessary.

On the other hand, developments otherwise have arguably almost proved Hawk correct about the need for post-session return of legislators to address emerging issues. In this fast-paced world, President Obama’s administration has moved in a post-session “directive” to have transgender persons admitted to restrooms based on their chosen gender, not on the gender appearing on their birth certificate.
Continue reading

Sunday column: More 2016 legislative session standouts

Some more suggestions of standout achievements during the 2016 legislative session:

Furor Resolution Award: Remember the uproar preceding the legislative session over fears of Islamic indoctrination in Tennessee schools? Probably so. Remember what happened a result? Probably not.

What happened was a bill, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, that basically restates what is already standard procedure and declares that the educational bureaucracy publicly notify people about that procedure. Maybe the centerpiece is a declaration that teachers and schools systems cannot “proselytize” when discussing religion, though it can be mentioned in history or social studies. They cannot do so now, but that word wasn’t used in the code before.

The measure, after amendments, was so innocuous that it passed almost unanimously with nobody paying attention. The Family Action Council of Tennessee, the state’s leading Christian conservative lobby, didn’t even mention it in its ratings of legislators this year. In other words, much ado resulted in nothing much, but angry constituents were appeased without triggering a lawsuit and without anyone canceling planned trips or conventions in Tennessee. As it’s said in the unofficial state book, blessed are the peacemakers. Continue reading

Sunday column: Some superlative 2016 legislative session performance

A look some superlative performances during the 2016 Tennessee legislative session from an aging observer’s perspective:

Legislator of the year: Sen. Randy McNally, the General Assembly’s most senior member, showed he still has some of the body’s quickest political reflexes by locking up ascension to the Senate speaker’s throne almost immediately after Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s surprise retirement announcement.

As traditional, the Senate Finance Committee chair from Oak Ridge was also in the pivot position for deciding all things involving state money, ranging from repeal of the Hall tax on investment income to both obscure and prominent provisions of a $34 billion state budget, all the while doing legislative yeoman’s work on local bills, ranging from giving Loudon County a new general sessions judge to rewriting the Rocky Top city charter. He successfully sponsored other endeavors, too — most notably a measure that reduces penalties for misdemeanor drug offenses while raising them for repeat DUI offenders. That one caused much controversy and debate spread over two days in the House while zipping through the Senate 32-0 under McNally’s guidance.
Continue reading

Some TN political reading possibilities, May 8, 2016

Akbari, McCormick profiled
The latest in Sam Stockard’s series of profile pieces on Tennessee state legislators: Rep. Raumesh Akbari, who strives to be a worthy successor to the late House Speaker Lois DeBerry, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who can be “a little mercurial” on occasion.

McCormick, btw, has written an op-ed piece lauding the accomplishments of the 2016 session. It’s HERE (and not mercurial at all).

Blind man now sees, pushes Congress to aid others
A Nashville man, who was once legally blind, can now see and is helping U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and others to fashion legislation that could help others get the experimental stem cell treatments that helped him, according to Michael Collins.

Reflections on religious counseling
David Plazas got a courtesy call from Gov. Bill Haslam prior to the gubernatorial signing of the religious counseling bill – but he still thinks the governor and the legislature have opened a Pandora’s Box. HERE.

Jack McElroy, meanwhile, suspect there may be more to come in the future on counseling legislation — say repealing the exemption for government-sponsored therapists. HERE.

TNGOP leaders ready to accept Trump spanking?
Otis Sanford likens Tennessee Republicans lining up to support Donald Trump to his childhood days of lining up with others boys to be padded by a teacher. Full column HERE. An excerpt:

Although the teacher was not who we were used to — or even liked — she was in control. And we had to follow her orders.

That is exactly what’s happening now, particularly in red state Tennessee, as entrenched Republican Party leaders come to grips with the reality that someone who is not conservative or Republican by any stretch will be the party’s nominee for president.

Columnist calculates Haslam’s Hall tax savings
Martin Harmon calculates that the 1 percent cut in Tennessee’s Hall tax on investments will save Gov. Bill Haslam a half-million dollars and, when the whole thing is repealed, he’ll save $3 million per year. HERE.

Cagle ready for war
Frank Cagle thinks Tennessee needs to launch a war on gang violence. HERE.

David Fowler: ‘One of the state’s most powerful lobbyists’
For those who would rather listen than read, an NPR audio report — put together by Nashville’s Chas Sisk — on Christian conservative activist David Fowler is HERE. Runs about 5 minutes.

Sunday column: Politics makes veto of Hall repeal unlikely

After decades of justified bipartisan bragging on Tennessee’s fiscally conservative status, our state legislators enthusiastically embraced deficit spending this year on a somewhat bipartisan basis, blowing a $300 million-plus hole in budgets of state and local governments for the sake of political popularity.

For the same reason, Gov. Bill Haslam is highly unlikely to veto the bill repealing the Hall tax on investment income, even though he has repeatedly preached on the fiscal irresponsibility of taking such an action without a plan to replace the lost revenue.

There is no such plan, of course. On the last day of the session, legislators basically said to state and local governments that the tax will disappear in six years, so deal with it. The governor sent his two top aides, Finance Commissioner Larry Martin and Deputy Governor Jim Henry, to politely tell lawmakers late in the session that the amended version of SB47 was basically a fiscally stupid idea.

As the final week of the session began, the administration and legislative leadership had reached a somewhat complicated agreement on the Hall: The 6 percent levy would be cut to 5 percent in the coming year and, in future years, a “legislative intent” was declared to repeal another percentage point each year — if state revenue increases otherwise by 3 percent or more in that year.

This year, the state enjoyed a $600 million budget surplus. The first year of the tax cut could thus be easily absorbed, it was reasonably argued, and the language left wiggle room to accommodate unforeseen future fiscal and political realities.

Martin said the 3 percent trigger did not seem very wise. It would mean that, regardless of what happens, cutting the Hall would have priority over all other things that a 3 percent revenue bump could go toward — increasing teacher pay, for example, or the predictable annual increase in other education needs as enrollment goes up, the annual increases in medical costs that send TennCare spending up every year, a costly lawsuit — two are pending that could conceivably add multiple millions to education spending — or, well, any number of things we cannot imagine today.

But for the sake of political expediency, the administration was ready to ignore such concerns and go along, leaving the possibility of changing “legislative intent” to arguments in future years when further Hall reductions could be pitted against other priorities. That wasn’t good enough.

The final version says the tax will be fully repealed, come hell or high water, in six years, barring the unimaginable possibility that legislators in the future will vote to repeal the tax cut now mandated and be accused of voting for a tax increase.

The governor, a billionaire in Forbes magazine’s estimation, presumably is way up toward the top of the 200,000 Tennesseans paying the Hall tax — probably well into six figures as opposed to the statewide average annual payment of $266. But as a policy matter, he has set aside personal financial interest to oppose the plan as fiscally irresponsible for the businesslike operation of government.

Setting aside political interest, though, is another matter. A veto, which would stand since the Legislature has adjourned without an override session scheduled, would provide ammunition for opponents in any future political endeavor — a U.S. Senate race, maybe? — and would lead to a highly-publicized effort to pass the bill again next year that would doubtless succeed, even as he contemplates pushing a gas tax increase.

Two right-wing groups, Americans for Prosperity and Beacon Center of Tennessee, both claimed to have gotten more than a million views on sponsored videos against the Hall tax and to have contacted thousands of voters otherwise. With some justification, they claimed credit for putting the legislative train on track.

Only two Republicans — Reps. Bill Dunn of Knoxville and Steve McDaniel of Parkers Crossroads — had the political courage to vote against the bill, though a dozen or so dodged a vote one way or the other. Several Democrats voted for it; a couple dodged.

The governor has a dodge opportunity as well. He can let the bill become law without his signature, which would indicate that he does, indeed, have future political plans that outweigh pragmatic policy considerations. A veto would indicate he does not and stands on principle.

Sunday column: On blackmail and the bathroom bill

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick perhaps captured the essence of conflict dynamics in the 2016 legislative session when he made an impromptu speech last week on the House floor berating the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce for its stance in opposition to the transgender bathroom bill.

“All these companies who tried to blackmail us over this thing, when they come for their corporate welfare checks next year, we need to have a list out and keep an eye on it,” declared McCormick, whose commentary was echoed by other Republicans and a few Democrats.

The conflict here is between the agenda of social-issue conservatives, who have formed the voter base for electing a Republican supermajority, versus the agenda of business barons, who have provided in substantial part the money used in financing Republican campaigns.
Continue reading

Sunday column: Trump’s TN triumph undermined?

Donald Trump backers rightly saw last weekend’s party maneuvering on Tennessee delegates to the Republican National Convention as undercutting their candidate’s prospects for winning the presidential nomination, but they may have undercut those prospects further with their reaction.

Consider the case of Ken Gross, a member of the GOP’s State Executive Committee representing Knox County who was appointed a Trump delegate — one on a slate put together by state Republican Chairman Ryan Haynes and his staff after much negotiating and approved by the executive committee on a 40-25 vote.

If you’re not familiar with the arcane rules for delegate selection — and very few people are — most of Tennessee’s 58 delegates to the GOP convention were chosen by voting on individual delegate candidates in the March 1 presidential preference primary. But some are appointed by the executive committee and assigned to represent a designated candidate based on the presidential preference primary results. That was the focus of last weekend’s meeting.
Continue reading