Tag Archives: column

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 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.
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Sunday column: Morgan’s war on ambiguity

In his resignation letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said that during his 40-year state government career, “I have observed that ambiguity is the ally of ineffectiveness and inefficiency.”

Characteristically for his career, the former state comptroller and former deputy governor practiced what he preached in the letter. There’s no ambiguity there.

Morgan is resigning a year ahead of his previously-planned retirement because he believes Haslam’s proposal for overhauling the Regents system is “unworkable” and, as a matter of personal principle, he will not act as a two-faced government bureaucrat and collect another year’s paycheck — basically $327,000 plus benefits — by nodding politely, keeping his views to himself and going along with the game plan as others have often done in state governmental circles.

Morgan’s unambiguous move might be called integrity, perhaps just characteristic candor. It’s probably both, the two often going hand in glove.

Further, Morgan followed up his resignation, effective at the end of this month, with a final gesture of respectful defiance.

Since Haslam has declared higher education institutions will be able to opt out of the governor’s ambiguous plan for privatization of all state property management services, Morgan said he was opting out the 13 community colleges and 27 technical institutes that would remain under Regents’ authority under the Haslam plan for decentralizing higher education.

This move was deemed “premature” by Haslam administration folk, notably including Finance Commissioner Larry Martin.

You see, Terry Cowles, the administration’s privatization guru officially known as director of “Customer-Focused Government,” told a legislative committee last week that further clarification, known as “business justification,” of the governor’s ambiguous outsourcing plan will be coming in mid-February. While saying it’s premature to be more specific, Cowles told lawmakers it’s fair to say that the administration will be able to show the program — whatever it is — will be justified by great savings to taxpayers.

Morgan said nothing whatsoever about the governor’s ambiguous plan for doing something or other to shore up a shortfall in state revenue for building and maintaining roads. Not his bailiwick, though it might have been in the Democrat’s days as deputy governor or state comptroller.

Be that as it may, the big question now is whether Morgan’s unambiguous farewell gestures in his area of expertise will be turn out to be ineffective and inefficient. The guess here is yes, they will be ineffective, but, no, they were certainly not inefficient.

Morgan has stirred a conversation on the Regents realignment that was, as a matter of practical politics, widely considered a done deal in Legislatorland.

This proposal as outlined is, of course, going in the exact opposite direction of the governor’s repeated mantra for streamlining government. It would create six new state university boards of trustees, each acting independently to pick its own president (one of the more entertaining bits of speculation making the rounds last week concerned Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey becoming president of East Tennessee State University) and compete with one another for the shrinking state dollars available to higher education. And for private donations from wealthy citizens — a contest that some institutions, say the University of Memphis, are much better prepared to engage than others, say Morgan’s alma mater, Austin Peay State University.

But it still will probably pass. Morgan more or less assumed this in declining to try “opting out” the six soon-to-be-independent state universities, instead doing so only for the soon-to-be-remnants of Regents direct oversight. And he’s a pretty astute observer of the state political scene.

As for the ambiguous outsourcing plan, the jury is still out. Unlike the creation of new boards, where legislators see patronage opportunities, lawmakers are nervous about making their local folks unhappy by jettisoning constituent jobs in the name of ambiguous claims of government efficiency.

As Morgan said, ambiguity is the ally of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. At the least, he’s on the side of seeking some clarity.

Sunday column: Legislators rule the roost, in session or out

Judging by some recent reporting, there seems to growing enthusiasm among members of the Tennessee General Assembly for asserting legislative authority when the Legislature is officially off duty— “out of session” in the lingo of Legislatorland.

Indeed, state Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, last week floated the notion of the Legislature being in session more often. He told Johnson City TV station WJHL that there’s a lot of support among colleagues for scheduling a regular September session of the General Assembly and he plans to introduce a bill to launch that process.

A lot of public policy matters come up with the Legislature in exile from April through December, Hawk says, and it makes sense to have lawmakers come in to deal with them rather than leaving everything to the governor.

“From January through April we are an equal third branch of government … but my fear is that the other eight months out of the year we lose that equality as a branch of government. And we are to be the voice of the people,” he said.

Passage of Hawk’s forthcoming bill is unlikely, given that Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey gave a quick thumbs-down response to the idea. Other members of the Republican supermajority are equally loath to do anything that could be portrayed by a critic as a spending more government money — as in the $198 per day each lawmaker gets while in session as a supplement to the modest $20,884 annual salary.

On the other hand, Ramsey is generally a big fan of asserting legislative authority. He recently declared, for example, that any major effort by Gov. Bill Haslam to expand outsourcing of state government should get legislative approval. The governor said he doesn’t know about that since he doesn’t know what he’s going to propose on privatization.

But as a general proposition, perhaps Haslam has learned a lesson from previous attempts to get along with a GOP legislative gang that is more conservative than he is himself and would like to avoid the Legislature as much as possible.

Prime example is his promise to seek legislative approval — arguably unnecessary — before any expansion of Medicaid, then signing a bill that made his promise part of state law. The governor then spent two years negotiating what he considered a conservative reformist Medicaid expansion deal with the federal government, only to have it instantly shot down by the supermajority concerned about anything that could be portrayed by a critic as supporting Obamacare. He’s now basically surrendered on that idea.

A couple of of other recent examples of out-of-session legislator assertiveness:

n The Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability was awarded two months ago a $193,000 federal grant to study whether giving employees paid leave when they act as a “caregiver” for elderly or disabled kinfolk is a good idea. But state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, pointed out that a bill to authorize the commission to seek such a grant died in a committee she chairs earlier this year and taking the money would be an end-run around legislative authority. The commission promptly retreated and said “no, thanks” to the federal money. The governor was silent during the whole process.

n While Haslam did a 15-city tour of the state to promote the concept of more money being needed for highway construction and maintenance, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy did basically the same thing with a 10-city tour — and pushed the idea of doing nothing for another year or so. Tracy, House Speaker Beth Harwell and others in the supermajority contend the revenue shortfall can should be kicked down the road and, as a stopgap, some surplus state funds should be given to the road program next year. Haslam says something surely needs to be done, but he is unwilling to say what that is and, given GOP legislators’ fear of being portrayed by critics as supporters of a tax increase, will likely go along with the legislative procrastination plan.

Legislative committees, meanwhile, have met out of session to question the Haslam administration’s handling of prison problems and his outsourcing ideas. In both of those cases, the result seems to have been some backpedaling by the governor in an effort to avoid confrontation.

The upshot: Legislators don’t really need to meet in September. They already rule the roost, in session or out.

Sunday column: On controlling premature email

Pose a verbal question these days to a state government “public information officer” or “communications director” — those are titles for folks designated to deal with media inquiries — and it’s highly likely he or she will decline to immediately answer and instead request the question be sent by email.

This allows the flack — that’s short for flack-catcher and the title long applied informally to PIOs, CDs and the like by media folk who pose questions — to show the email to his or her boss and receive instructions, often after consultation with others within the bureaucracy, on how to respond appropriately.

Occasionally, the responses can startlingly candid and informative. Far more often, they are startlingly evasive and non-committal, especially if the matter involves something controversial. It all depends on what the public should know, as decided by the boss bureaucrats and politicians involved and almost always with the goal of promoting themselves or their objectives.

The email question approach makes this process far more efficient than in the old days of actual time-consuming conversations, either face to face or on the phone. That applies to us media types who find it easier just to send an email, then do other stuff while awaiting a response that can be quickly cut and pasted into what the public reads, as well as the governmental communications bureaucracy interested in controlling what the public sees, hears and reads.

Lately though, the state government gang has discovered there’s a downside to information control when it comes to dealing with the media and email, thanks to Tennessee’s open records law and reporters who did not go through designated PIOs/flacks.
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Sunday column: ‘Revolving door’ from legislating to lobbying still works

If there’s truth in the saying that three occurrences make a trend, there’s a trend in the General Assembly of lawmakers vacating their seats to take higher-paying positions tied to government and politics. In the past, legislators have tended to finish out their terms before making such a move.

The third legislator to give up his seat in the past two years is state Rep. Mike Harrison, R-Rogersville, who announced last week he will resign in December to become executive director of the County Mayors Association of Tennessee. Harrison chairs what is possibly the most powerful panel in the Legislature — the House Finance Subcommittee, which decides the fate of every bill that involves state taxes or spending.

The first legislator to give up a seat was Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, who exited in January 2014 to become executive director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association. In between, there was state Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, who quit in April of this year to become chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

A common theme: A nice pay raise. All three will be making six-figure base salaries in the new positions, compared to the base salary of just over $20,000 for a state legislator, though underpaid service as a legislator was doubtless the key resume entry that qualified them for their new jobs.
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Sunday column: A call from Louie Lobbyist

A political magazine recently did a rating of lobbying organizations in Tennessee and a dozen other Southern states, acknowledging in doing so that this is “a thorny enterprise.” Louie Lobbyist felt that he had been pricked.

The Southern Political Report lists the state’s top five lobbying groups in three categories — big law firms with lobbying arms, “small” firms devoted exclusively to lobbying and professional associations that engage heavily in lobbying the Legislature. It’s based on an online survey of lobbyists and clients.

“Why are you promoting such biased trash?,” Louie growled in a phone call after yours truly had posted the listings on a blog.

Well, it struck me as interesting and I thought they went about it fairly diplomatically — listing by firm and not by lobbyist name, the way some of those lobbyist ratings in bygone days did, which always made a lot of you professional folks mad or jealous. You’re the first I’ve heard complain about this list.
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Sunday column: A looming fiscal fat fight in Legislatorland

Tennessee legislators typically have had far more contentious arguments over government spending in fat years than in lean years and, if that tradition holds true, things seem already headed toward a fiscal-fat fight in next year’s session.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Tennessee tax collections exceeded estimates used when the 2014-2015 budget was adopted by $605.7 million. Back in April, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration saw some of that surplus coming and put in a budget amendment, duly adopted by the Legislature, that spent a sizeable chuck. The biggest item was $120 million for a new state museum.

But the “over-collection” continued post-April, and now the Department of Finance and Administration says there’s $378 million in last year’s leftovers waiting to be spent — separate, of course, from the $560 million or so stashed in the state’s “rainy day” account. And the surplus could grow by the time legislators return in January, given that the first months of the new fiscal year have shown the tax take running ahead of projections used in adopting the current 2015-16 budget.

So how should the money be spent? Well, there are surely more ideas than there are legislators — that’s 132. Not to mention the governor, members of his cabinet and thousands of state employees (how about a pay raise?) and regular citizens. But here are three big-ticket items getting some discussion already:

n Give most of the surplus to the state’s roadbuilding program, which normally relies on fuel taxes for funding. House Speaker Beth Harwell has embraced the idea, and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy has filed a bill to transfer $280 million from the surplus to the road fund, characterizing this as a “repayment” of money “raided” from the fund during years when Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist were governors.

Those were lean years, of course, and there were few serious objections from legislators. The tradition in lean budget years is to grumble and go along with the governor, leaving him to take any resulting political heat from cuts and fund shifting.

Back then, gas tax money was coming in better than other revenue, which was in short supply. Now, of course, the general fund is fat while the road fund is lean, so lean that Haslam might even propose some sort of revenue increase next year. Just as a guess, most legislators will be eager to raid the state’s general fund if that’s presented as the alternative to a tax increase. This may be the most popular surplus spending proposal at the moment.

n Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, filed legislation last week that would use the surplus to cover the cost of repealing the state’s Hall income tax on stock dividends and interest. By Kelsey’s figures, only $167 million would be needed to cover the state’s loss over revenue from the Hall for a year plus another $90 million to cover the lost local government revenue — a mere $257 million total.

You can safely bet that others, especially Democrats, will be pushing instead for a reduction in the state sales tax on groceries. Using surplus money to cut taxes is, naturally, a politically popular idea. But it runs afoul of a basic principle of fiscal responsibility by using one-time money to cover ongoing operational expenses.

n The state Library and Archives has had plans in place for almost a decade to replace the elegant but aged building housing its facilities and historic documents. About $12.5 million has already spent for land acquisition and an architectural design, but another $89.5 million is needed to actually build it. Haslam opted in April to give priority instead to a new state museum. In hindsight, maybe he could have done both. As it stands, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who oversees the Library and Archives, would certainly think the new building should be at the top of the line now for surplus spending.

And that does make fiscal sense in that it uses money available on a one-time basis for a one-time expense. Political sense? Well, not so much. There’s been a well-organized lobbying effort to repeal the Hall tax for years, for example, but no groundswell of support for building a new Library and Archives home. But buying avoidance of a gas tax vote for a year? Well, that’s one-time money for a one-time dodge — temporary political points without the long-term consequences.

Sunday column: New TN Democratic leaders stir political pot

Tennessee’s downtrodden Democrats, widely ignored by ruling state Republicans, may be gaining some traction in efforts to become at least a serious annoyance under new leadership.

Just last week, for example, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart set up a website where Tennessee Department of Correction employees can anonymously relate complaints about prison working conditions — the latest episode in a continuing Democratic effort to fan the smoldering flames over TDOC’s handling of statistics on prison violence, overtime policy for guards and the like.

Stewart, in his first term as caucus chair, was also on Nashville television declaring that the department engaged in “an unprecedented act of retaliation” by bringing criminal charges against a “whistleblower” guard. The officer in question was charged with bringing contraband into Turney Center prison — a cellphone that she used to copy a video showing a violent attack on another officer.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris of Nashville, who is in his first term as leader of Senate Democrats, gained some attention by joining freshman Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville in filing a bill to ban the carrying of guns at city parks when concerts and other ticketed events are being held. This, of course, comes amid considerable controversy over the “guns in parks” law enacted with unanimous Republican support.
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Sunday column: A TN trio of Trump-like politicians

While Donald Trump gains national attention with controversial conservative commentary in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, a fellow political junkie contends there is an informal competition underway among state legislators who would like to be known as the Trump of Tennessee.

Current summer sensation nominees are Republican state Reps. Andy Holt of Dresden, Judd Matheny of Tullahoma and Rep. Rick Womick of Rockvale.

Now, these gentlemen are not billionaires or TV celebrities. But in Trump-like fashion, they have seized on attention-getting national controversies and offered public remarks that appeal to the GOP’s right wing — and to Democrats, who love to quote them as examples of Republican extremism. As astute politicians, they have tailored their comments to Tennessee. So has state Democratic Chair Mary Mancini in news releases denouncing them.

Establishment/moderate Republicans, typified in Tennessee by Gov. Bill Haslam, are left in a hand-wringing mode, uncertain how to respond. Absent the confrontational situations posed by a presidential campaign requiring some sort of response, mostly they choose to ignore the aspiring Tennessee Trumps and hope they’ll go away — a perhaps doubtful proposition.
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