A Chattanooga businesswoman has been named by House Speaker Beth Harwell to fill a vacant director position on the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, reports the Chattanooga TFP.
Robin Bennett currently serves as a vice president and financial center manager for First Tennessee and, according to Harwell, brings to the agency experience in customer relations, business management and federal and regulatory compliance.
Bennett replaces Sara Kyle, who resigned from the TRA in March. The agency regulates investor-owned water and electric utilities, as well as some telephone services.
The mission of the TRA is to promote the public interest by balancing the interests of consumers and monopoly utilities.
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said Thursday a legislative committee should look into the handling of a multimillion dollar state contract with a Chicago-based firm that once counted Gov. Bill Haslam among its investors.
But they also said they believe there was no wrongdoing in the contract with Jones Lang LaSalle or two other contracts negotiated by the Haslam administration to outsource to private businesses work formerly done by state employees.
“Just the whole idea of sole-bidding, I think that’s a legitimate concern for us to examine,” said Harwell. “I do not believe anything has been done wrong, but (a review by legislative committees) is appropriate.”
Ramsey also said he supports having the Fiscal Review Committee, a joint House-Senate panel tasked with oversight of state spending, study the contracts. The panel tentatively plans to do so at a meeting next month.
Yet the Senate speaker, who also serves as lieutenant governor, was adamant in voicing confidence that no misdeeds occurred in contracts negotiated through the state Department of General Services, headed by Commissioner Steve Cates.
“I don’t believe this department has ever been run any better than it is right now,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think anything was done that was illegal and I don’t think that anything was done that was unethical.”
State Comptroller Justin Wilson said his office will be looking into “procedures” involved in the contract “to see whether or not they need to be modified or changed in any way.”
As initially reported by WTVF-TV, Jones Lang LaSalle initially won a $1 million consulting contract, competitively bid, to make a review of state-owned buildings and leases of property with recommendations for an office space “master plan.” That contract was subsequently expanded in stages to authorize up to $11 million in state payments.
The resulting master plan calls for the state to dispose of six buildings deemed “functionally obsolete,” for outsourcing of jobs now performed by Department of General Services employees and for leasing of more office space for state workers in Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis. It is called “Project T3” or “Transforming Tennessee for Tomorrow” and officials project it will save the state $135 million over the next decade.
Earlier this year, Jones Lang LaSalle won a second contract for management of office leasing for the state that is valued at up to $330 million, including pass-through costs such as utility and maintenance payments. The company stands to receive up to $38 million.
Also under one of the contract amendments, the company will act as the state’s broker for the new leased office space to replace the six buildings being abandoned. The firm will receive a 4 percent commission from the buildings’ owners based on the total gross rental fees the state pays over the coming 10 years.
In 2010 while running for governor, Haslam included JLL among a list of companies in which he had invested more than $10,000. He has refused to disclose the amount of any of those investments and, after his election, most of his investments — an exception being the governor’s stake in Pilot Flying J — were placed in a blind trust.
“He doesn’t know what went into the blind trust. He doesn’t know what’s in it,” gubernatorial spokesman David Smith said. “If someone is suggesting that Jones Lang LaSalle got this contract because the governor had a previous investment in it, that’s absolutely untrue.”
WTVF reported Haslam hosted top JLL executives for dinner at the governor’s residence on April 24, 2012, including former NFL star quarterback Roger Staubach and Herman Bulls, CEO of the company’s public institutions division. Also attending were Cates, Herbert Slatery, the governor’s legal counsel; and Mark Cate, the governor’s chief of staff.
Three months later, Cate joined Bulls and other JLL executives in a presentation to the State Building Commission that led to approval of contract amendments by the panel.
Harwell and Ramsey are members of the Building Commission and commented to reporters after a meeting of the five-member panel Thursday on other matters.
Ramsey said that Haslam, like anyone coming into government, would naturally have interests that could become a conflict. The governor handled that appropriately by putting his interests in a blind trust, said Ramsey.
“I don’t know that you could do anything more than that,” he said.
Ramsey acknowledged, in response to a question, that JLL could have an incentive for negotiating higher rental fees for the state since that would mean higher commissions for the company.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville told reporters he plans to write Harwell a letter asking that the Government Operations Committee be assigned to investigate the JLL contract and others.
Harwell said she had not received the letter, but believes the Fiscal Review Committee is the “most appropriate” vehicle for reviewing the contracts.
The Department of General Services has also negotiated a contract with Bridgestone/Firestone for outsourcing maintenance and repair of state-owned vehicles and a contract with Enterprise Rent-a-Car for providing rental vehicles to state employees. The latter contract came without competitive bidding and with a former Enterprise executive hired by Cates to oversee the department’s motor vehicles division.
If Congress allows states to collect sales taxes from Internet sales, Gov. Bill Haslam and leaders of the Tennessee Legislature say they would like to put some of the new revenue generated toward reducing current state taxes.
Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey all favor the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” as the pending legislation in Congress is entitled.
“If the bill becomes law, it will allow Tennessee to collect taxes that are already due, and hopefully we can use those funds to reduce taxes elsewhere for Tennesseans,” said Harwell in an emailed statement last week.
Haslam, asked last week if he would like to lower other taxes if the bill passes Congress, replied, “Sure.” But he added some caveats.
“No. 1, I’m of the don’t-count-your-chickens-before-they-hatch school and we’ve got a long way to go before they pass that thing in the House,” he said.
The Senate has approved the bill, which would require Internet retailers with gross sales of more than $1 million per year to collect sales taxes, with support of both Tennessee U.S. Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. But it is stalled in the House, where many members of the Republican majority are cool — if not outright opposed — toward the idea.
“No. 2, we don’t really know what that number is” for how much new revenue would be generated for Tennessee by collecting taxes from Tennesseans when they buy online from out-of-state retailers.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has estimated that Tennesseans avoided $748.5 million in sales taxes on online purchases last year — about $400 million that would have gone to the state and the rest to city and county governments combined statewide.
But that doesn’t take into account the pending bill’s exemption for retailers with less than a $1 million gross and various other provisions.
And No. 3, Haslam said, there may be areas where the state should increase spending rather than cut taxes. The question, as he put it, is “Are there places where there’s something we’re not doing that we should be doing?”
Full story HERE.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey acknowledges the failure of his campaign finance bill in the GOP-run House this year is part of the reason he decided to stop joint fundraising with the other chamber, reports the Chattanooga TFP. Speaking after the legislative session ended April 19, the Blountville lawmaker said while the split had “been in the works for a long time, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“But,” Ramsey added, “I think it would have happened anyway.”
Among other things, the bill would have eliminated a requirement that corporations report political contributions to candidates as well as political parties and legislative caucuses.
Proponents of lifting the reporting requirement argued it wasn’t needed because candidates report their contributions.
Democratic critics charged that canceling the requirement would eliminate an important accounting cross-check and could lead to candidates simply pocketing corporate cash.
Despite the GOP’s 70-member supermajority in the House, the bill received just 48 votes, all from Republicans. That was short of the 50 votes necessary for passage.
Twenty-two Republicans voted no, abstained or didn’t vote. (Harwell didn’t vote.
…”I just, philosophically, just didn’t feel supportive of that measure,” Harwell told reporters last week. “But I have given everyone fair notice that that was my stand.”
Asked to elaborate, Harwell said, “I have trouble with a company being able to give me money and only I am the reporter. So I think there needed to be a proper check that the company would have to report to. … [If] XYZ Company gave me $10,000, I only reported $5,000, where would the [cross] check be?”
She said the bill’s House sponsor, Republican Glen Casada, of Franklin, has indicated he intends to bring it up again next year.
Proponents shrug off concerns about contributions being reported.
But the state’s Registry of Election Finance found legislative candidates failed to report about 2.5 percent of contributions made by political action committees and corporations in 2012.
Candidates are required to correct omissions, on pain of fines. If the correction is timely, and if the omissions don’t exceed two per year and are less than $2,000 collectively, the registry takes no action.
Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state’s Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, called the 2.5 percent figure for nonreporting low. He attributed discrepancies to honest mistakes by candidates.
“Sometimes candidates make a list of all contributions and one may get left off. Sometimes what happens is that a candidate has lost a deposit slip or something like that so anything that’s on that deposit slip may not have gotten reported,” Rawlins said.
— Note: For related Harwell-Ramsey stuff, see the News Sentinel HERE, and the City Paper’ HERE.
House-Senate hostility is nothing new in Legislatorland, but the basis of tensions that led to the flare-up in the waning days of the first Republican supermajority session just might be more fundamental — and thus more enduring — than the squabbles in bygone days among Democratic leaders.
For one big thing, both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey would like to be governor.
Ramsey, who already has the title of lieutenant governor, tried to scratch the “lieutenant” part in 2010 but lost in the Republican primary to Bill Haslam. Today he says he “can’t imagine” putting himself through that “grueling” experience again and suspects a successful candidate would have to be rich enough to self-finance. But he doesn’t rule it out.
Harwell hasn’t tried before and is quite coy in talking publicly about it, but friends say that her long-term goal is to follow up on becoming Tennessee’s first woman speaker by becoming Tennessee’s first woman governor.
In the aftermath of House-Senate hostility at an end of the legislative session, the Senate Republican Caucus has decided to terminate a joint fundraising operation with the House Republican Caucus.
For years, the two GOP legislative caucuses have combined for fundraising to form the Tennessee Republican Caucus, which would solicit contributions and host events. The joint caucus then paid the fundraising costs and split the remaining money between the House Republican Caucus and the Senate Republican Caucus.
In the past two years, reports filed with the Registry of Election finance show the House Republican Caucus has received checks totaling $460,465 from the arrangement; the Senate Republican Caucus $425,590.
The Tennessee Republican Caucus still had a balance of $123,000 in the last report it filed, dated Jan. 25. That will now apparently be split between the House and Senate.Republicans as the arrangement ends.
After a Union County Republican event, Betty Bean reports that driving Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey around is more expensive than driving House Speaker Beth Harwell around. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security provides security to both the Senate and the House speakers. Ramsey’s driver, Bill Taliaferro, is paid $38.71 per hour, while House Speaker Beth Harwell’s driver makes $26.65 an hour. Both drivers are eligible for overtime and retirement benefits.
Both speakers have 2011 Suburbans, but Nashville resident Harwell’s expenses are considerably less than Ramsey’s – $3,392 in gas and maintenance so far this year to Harwell’s $1,249 – because of his long commute.
“The Lieutenant Governor and Speaker retain their responsibilities and title throughout the year and each is assigned security (state trooper) for protective services,” said Department of Safety spokesperson Kevin Crawford. The troopers are paid per diem rates for lodging and meals when overnighting away from home.
…The most common justification for such practices involves pointing out that it’s nothing new. But Republicans used to rail against Democrats’ profligate spending when they were running the show in Nashville, so more than a touch of irony sets in at the sight of members of the tough-talking, budget-slashing new majority happily settled into the practices that they once deplored.
And the sight of state employees driving state vehicles to tote politicians like Mr. Speaker around the state to purely partisan events is almost as disconcerting as realizing that they don’t give a damn what we think.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker called House Speaker Beth Harwell for the first time ever to voice his concerns about a bill that would let state legislators pick the Republican and Democratic nominees for the U.S. Senate, reports WATE-TV.
Under the bill, which has since been sidelined for the year, Corker could face having to convince Republican legislators to make him the GOP nominee in 2018 when he’s next up for reelection. In a phone interview with 6 News, House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) said she approached Rep. Brooks about removing the bill from the committee agenda after she received a phone call from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
According to Harwell, Corker said he did not support the current legislation but agreed that improvements could be made.
Harwell said the two, “had a pleasant conversation and discussed ways to improve the dialogue [between Nashville and Washington, D.C.]”
Harwell said Sen. Corker had never contacted her before about a piece of legislation in Nashville, but she is glad this bill led to what she hopes to be improved dialogue in the future.
On Tuesday Sen. Corker was asked about the bill in Nashville today and said: “This is up to the general assembly to decide, but my sense is that Tennesseans are a very involved citizenry who like their ability to vote and make those kinds of decisions.”
From Chas Sisk:
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey may have a lot of clout around the state Capitol. But by one measure, House Speaker Beth Harwell appears to have greater pull.
For the second consecutive year, the representative from Nashville’s upscale Green Hills neighborhood managed to upset Ramsey, a farm boy from rural Sullivan County, in a milk-off Tuesday between the leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives.
The event highlighted Agriculture Day, an annual event in which the Department of Agriculture, Tennessee State Fair and other farm-oriented groups set up shop in the corridors of Legislative Plaza.
Harwell went into the contest the underdog, despite having beaten Ramsey in a goat-milking contest a year ago. That event was marred by allegations that Harwell had been helped by a House member who surreptitiously poured a little extra milk in her pail. Smartphone video confirmed those suspicions.
Full story HERE.
Three Republicans who form the majority on the five-person Davidson County Election Commission are on their way out in a shakeup that ensures almost entirely new membership following a turbulent year, reports The Tennessean. The State Election Commission is slated to take up appointments to the commission after Davidson County’s Republican state (legislative) delegation makes recommendations Monday.
According to multiple Nashville commissioners, the delegation — House Speaker Beth Harwell and Sens. Steve Dickerson and Ferrell Haile — plans to nominate a clean slate.
Commissioner Patricia Heim confirmed in an email late Thursday night that she was told she and the other two GOP members, Lynn Greer and Steve Abernathy, will not be back. Heim, who has served on the commission since 1995, said she didn’t know who would be appointed to replace them.
Greer, the commission’s chairman since Republicans took power in 2009, said he told Harwell that he “would prefer not to return” after a decade on the panel.
“Ten years is a long time to serve,” Greer said.
Abernathy — at the center of controversy lately for his proposal to review the citizenship status of recently registered foreign-born voters — said Harwell called him Thursday to say the GOP delegation planned to move in a different direction.
“I told her I appreciated the opportunity and that I felt we had made some positive improvements,” he said of his four years on the commission. “I didn’t ask her why, and she didn’t volunteer anything.”