Reversing an earlier vote, the Senate Thursday concurred with a House amendment to a bill that clears the way for more liquor distilleries to open in Tennessee cities.
With approval of the House amendment, the bill (SB129) now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. Two cities immediately impacted will be Chattanooga, where plans are afoot to build a whiskey distillery, and Gatlinburg, which will get a second moonshine distillery despite earlier disapproval of city officials.
Both chambers had approved the bill earlier, but the House had added an amendment that was rejected by the Senate.
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said Thursday that he had not explained the amendment well prior to the earlier vote on “a bill that has been confusing from the get-go.” The amendment basically corrects a mistake in the Senate and assured that local governments can require distilleries to be located at some distance from churches and schools. It has nothing to do with allowing sales of alcoholic beverages on Sunday, as some thought previously, he said.
The vote to concur with the House amendment was 23-6.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After defeating several attempts by Democrats to dial back the proposal, the House on Thursday approved Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to change the way the state considers injured workers’ claims.
The chamber voted 68-24, almost entirely along party lines, to approve the bill (SB200). The Senate would have to agree to minor changes before the measure can head for the governor’s signature.
A major feature of the measure is that it would remove workers’ compensation cases from the state’s trial courts and instead create special panels appointed by the governor to hear claims and appeals.
Democrats noted that the bill would grant all the power over the system to the executive branch without input or oversight from the Legislature.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville derided the new system as a “Tennessee kangaroo court,” and offered a symbolic amendment to simply do away with the state’s workers’ compensation program altogether. It failed overwhelmingly.
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, said the changes will jumpstart workers claims, removing uncertainty from both them and their employers.
The House gave final approval Monday to a proposed amendment to the Tennessee constitution that would prohibit a state income tax if approved by voters in a statewide referendum next year.
The House vote was 88-8 after brief debate with two Democrats, Reps. Mike Stewart of Nashville and Larry Miller of Memphis, speaking against the amendment and House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada defending it. The measure (SJR1) was approved 27-4 by the Senate on Feb. 14.
Stewart recalled that former Republican Gov. Don Sunquist had championed a state income tax in 2002 because he “felt that our business and sales tax had essentially reached a peak.” While unpopular now, he said the idea remains “within the solar system of policies” that could be considered in the future as well.
“I think by eliminating this level of flexibility we going down the wrong road… (toward) inflexibility in our tax system,” said Stewart.
Miller said the state constitution is “a sacred document” that “you don’t play politics with.” If voters approve the ban on an income tax, he said, ” It could take another 50 years before we realize the mistake we made.”
“The income tax – that’s the mistake,” replied Casada, contending that a state income tax is a “terrible policy” that deserves special treatment via a constitutional prohibition.
Voters will now have at least three constitutional amendments to consider on the November, 2014, ballot. Legislators have previously approved a proposed amendment setting up a new system for appointing the state’s top judges and another pushed by anti-abortion activists.
The University of Tennessee received state approval Friday to move forward with its plan to drill oil and gas wells for hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — on university land in Morgan and Scott counties, reports The News Sentinel. The four-member executive subcommittee of the State Building Commission voted unanimously after three hours of testimony from UT officials, environmental activists and industry personnel.
The move cleared the way for documents, called a request for proposals, or RFP, that allow UT to begin soliciting bids from oil and gas companies interested in leasing land in the more than 8,000 acres UT owns in its Cumberland Research Forest.
UT intends to use revenue from the natural gas and oil produced to then conduct research on the environmental impacts and best management practices of fracking.
Any contract UT enters into with a company would have to come back before the State Building Commission for approval.
That step is likely several months away, said Larry Arrington, chancellor of the UT Institute of Agriculture.
The subcommittee heard from two dozen members of the public, most of whom were activists concerned about environmental impacts and transparency.
Because research funding would be tied to the productivity of the well and its revenues, the research could not be considered objective, Gwen Parker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the committee.
“I felt the conflict of interest point was not fully understood,” she said after the meeting. “So I think our next step would be to follow up and make sure it’s communicated better.”
State Comptroller Justin Wilson asked questions throughout the testimony about both the potential for research bias and accusations that UT had tailored the RFP to a specific company. He ultimately voted in favor of the proposal.
The House gave final approval Monday to a statewide referendum in November, 2014, on amending the Tennessee constitution to allow the governor to directly appoint judges of the Supreme Court and courts of appeal, subject to confirmation of the Legislature.
The constitutional amendment proposed in SJR2 would also provide for a yes-no retention election for the appointed judges when they seek a new term every eight years. In that respect, it is similar to the system now in place.
But the present system requires the governor to appoint the state’s top judges from a list of nominees submitted by a special nominating commission. The commission is eliminated under the proposal and instead the nominees would face confirmation by both the state House and Senate, though if there is no legislative vote on confirmation within 60 days, it is automatically confirmed.
The measure, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, was approved on a 74-14 vote, well above the two-thirds majority required to send the amendment to voters. On the House floor, there was no debate or discussion beyond Lundberg’s brief description of the measure.
The Senate approved the amendment 29-2 on Feb. 21.
The proposal is the second constitutional amendment to be proposed for the statewide ballot next year. Already approved was a proposal to insert into the constitution a provision intended to reverse a 2000 state Supreme Court ruling that says women have greater rights to an abortion in Tennessee than granted in the U.S. Constitution.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A recent poll shows Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has strong bipartisan support among Tennessee voters.
The Middle Tennessee State University poll shows Haslam has a 76 percent approval rating among independents heading into the third year of his term, 75 percent of Republicans like what he’s doing, and 54 percent of Democrats approve.
More than two in three voters, or 68 percent, say they approve of the way Haslam is handling his job as governor. Fourteen percent disapprove, and 16 percent say they don’t know.
Jason Reineke, the poll’s associate director, said Haslam’s numbers are impressive “considering the partisan climate regarding national politics.”
Poll director Ken Blake said the governor’s high bipartisan support is similar to that of his predecessor, Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“Both men have tended to govern from the political center while steering clear of hot-button social issues,” Blake said.
The recent poll showed Haslam was less popular with African-American voters. Forty-seven percent expressed approval of his job performance, compared to 22 percent who expressed disapproval, and 31 percent who said they weren’t sure.
The poll conducted last month surveyed 650 registered voters. It has an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points.
News release from Tennessee Democratic Party:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney distanced himself from scandal-plagued Congressman Scott DesJarlais, the Tennessee Republican Party said it would stand behind the self-described “pro-life” and “family values” Republican, who reportedly pressured one of his mistresses to have an abortion. Chairman Chip Forrester issued a statement Friday denouncing the GOP’s apathy toward DesJarlais’ habitual dishonesty and hypocrisy.
“I’m truthfully shocked Chairman Chris Devaney has not already withdrawn his party’s support for the disgraceful Scott DesJarlais and that any Republican official would refuse to condemn unethical and immoral behavior of this magnitude,” Forrester said. “Scott DesJarlais could not deny that he had an affair with a patient and, when faced with the consequences of his actions, he subsequently pressured her to have an abortion.
“The silence and inaction of Chairman Devaney and the Republican establishment is tantamount to approval of DesJarlais’ unbelievable dishonesty and astonishing hypocrisy,” Forrester said.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal that would allow public buildings to display such “historically significant documents” as the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence is headed to the governor for his consideration.
The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville was unanimously approved 30-0 by the Senate on Monday evening. The companion bill unanimously passed the House 93-0 last week.
The proposal would allow the documents to be displayed in the form of statues, monuments, memorials, tablets or in any other way that in the words of the legislation “respects the dignity and solemnity of such documents.”
News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
(NASHVILLE, TN) December 7, 2011 – State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) introduced a bill today to help reduce local government debt. Senate Bill 2158 requires counties and cities carrying debt in an amount larger than 10 percent of their taxable assessed value to submit all future issuances of debt to the Tennessee State Funding Board for approval. The legislation is the ninth in a series of announcements by Kelsey in his “12 for ’12” initiative for the next legislative session, which is set to reconvene January 10, 2012.
“Too much debt leads to economic ruin,” said Sen. Kelsey. “Just look at Greece and even at Birmingham, Alabama for examples of what not to do.”
Currently, there are no limits on the amount of debt a local government may hold in Tennessee. The Comptroller counsels local governments to adopt fiscally responsible debt policies. The Comptroller’s Office of State and Local Finance recently distributed model debt guidelines to local government entities that borrow money and directed them to draft binding debt management policies by January 1, 2012. Local governments are also directed to provide for public accountability and transparency which must be included in their debt policies.
Senate Bill 2158 would, in addition, require local entities with excessive debt to submit proposed debt issuances for approval by the state Funding Board. Current members of the Funding Board are Governor Bill Haslam, Comptroller Justin Wilson, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Treasurer David Lillard, and Commissioner of Finance and Administration Mark Emkes.
“Local government debt is killing our taxpayers,” said Sen. Kelsey. “It leads to higher property taxes and leaves our children and grandchildren with bills they cannot pay. If Shelby County paid off its debt today, it could reduce your property taxes by 16 percent.”
At $1.6 billion, Shelby County’s debt load rivals that of the entire state of Tennessee, which owes $1.7 billion. In contrast, according to the Wall Street Journal, Tennessee state government is ranked among the best in the nation for lowest debt per capita.
Several states regulate the amount local governments may borrow. The Kelsey bill proposes a system similar to one successfully used by North Carolina. Under North Carolina state law, local government debt is capped at 8 percent of the entity’s assessed taxable property value and all local debt issues are contingent on approval by the state Local Government Commission.
Many other states, including Georgia, West Virginia, Virginia, Oregon, and Utah set a strict debt ceiling for local governments, ranging from 3 percent to 10 percent of assessed or real market value.