Monthly Archives: February 2017

Architects, engineers object to Haslam’s park privatization plans

Tennessee architects and engineers say Gov. Bill Haslam’s plans to privatize operations at Fall Creek Falls State Park would largely bypass the State Building Commission, which normally oversees all state property projects, reports the Times-Free Press.

That brings them into “the political battle between the administration on one side and, on the other, state employees and Van Buren County who oppose outsourcing hospitality services at the remote Cumberland Plateau park considered the “jewel” of Tennessee’s park system.”

The administration has set aside $22 million to tear down the park’s inn and build a new one. The proposal would allow vendors to select their own architects, engineers and construction teams. But William Blankenship, a Knoxville architect and president of the American Institute of Architects- Tennessee, said the RFP “circumvents” the State Building Commission.

When “the state of Tennessee hires me as the designer and I sign a contract with the state, I serve the state and I serve the state’s best interest,” Blankenship said.

“When somebody’s working for a concessionaire out of New York City, they’re going to sign a contract with that concessionaire. Do you really think he’s going to work in the state’s best interest? He’s going to move across the table to the concessionaire. And they’re going to work together either for or against the state of Tennessee.”

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Florida-Georgia squabble could impact Tennessee-Georgia border dispute?

Georgia appears on its way to winning a lawsuit with Florida over the use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, reports the Times-Free Press, and that has led to talk of the Peach State launching a legal effort to change its border with the Volunteer State to take water from the Tennessee River.

The Florida-Georgia dispute didn’t involve borders; rather Florida’s 2013 lawsuit sought to restrict Georgia’s removal of water from the rivers in question, which flow south from Georgia into Florida. A special magistrate appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Ralph Lancaster, has issued his findings in the matter, which now go to the Supreme Court for a final decision.

Officials in the offices of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Chris Carr did not respond to questions about whether they might try to parlay Lancaster’s recommendation on the Florida issue into a new legal challenge on the state’s northern border.

Georgia lawmakers have long claimed a faulty 1818 survey left the state line roughly a mile south of the 35th parallel, which is where the border was intended to go. The mistake means the Tennessee River stays in Tennessee until it crosses into Alabama near South Pittsburg.

It comes within about 300 feet of the Georgia state line at one point in Marion County, leaving Dade County, Ga., tantalizingly close to the water.

With a sliver of the river in its control, Georgia could access Nickajack Lake to pump up to 1 billion gallons a day into the state to quench widespread water woes, magnified last year as the area grappled with devastating drought.

Dade County (GA) Executive Ted Rumley said last week the issue is still alive, even though it has been quiet for a few years. In 2013, Georgia lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a resolution offering to give up the border dispute in exchange for 1.5 square miles of Tennessee land, where a pipeline could be built. Tennessee scoffed at the deal.

“There’s some things that are coming back on this,” Rumley said. “It’s never been dead, but it’s just been on the back burner as far as the actual border dispute. I think it’s something you’ll see come back in the next year or so.”

… Marion County (TN) Mayor David Jackson said he remains “totally opposed” to moving the border or offering a slice of his county to Georgia.

“It gets into planning,” he said. “Maybe they should look at better ways to plan in the future.”

Democrat Dean running to succeed Haslam, ‘a very good governor’

After months of touring the state in preparation, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has declared he will seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018. He made the announcement to The Tennessean with the story running in Gannet-owned newspapers statewide on Sunday. An excerpt:

Dean, mayor of Nashville from 2007 to 2015, said he intends to file paperwork Monday to appoint Calvin Anderson, a former executive of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee from Memphis, his campaign treasurer. Doing so will allow him to begin raising money for his campaign in the 2018 race to replace Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

…“Everybody understands that somebody running as a Democrat enters the race with certain disadvantages,” Dean said. “Or maybe a better way to say it is Republicans have a lot of advantages. I appreciate that this will be the hardest thing that I have ever done. I don’t have any illusions about that.”

… Dean said he believes many Tennesseans from both parties favor the middle over party extremes.

He’s looking to stake out the sort of centrist lane that helped catapult Democrats’ most recent statewide officeholder, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who also was an ex-mayor of Nashville. For now, Dean is avoiding partisan attacks. In fact, Dean called Haslam, a Republican, a “very good governor” and he declined to offer a single criticism of the sitting governor when asked.

“I think I’m a moderate,” Dean said, claiming support of Democrats and Republicans as mayor, which was a nonpartisan office. “My sense is good things happen when you’re in the middle of the road. That’s where you can find agreement and move things forward.

…Dean sometimes butted heads with Democrats over his support of publicly financed, privately led charter schools. He’s also not allied with labor unions, a key Democratic constituency. He instead has closer ties to the business community and Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

House begins public posting of committee ‘pre-meeting’ list

On orders from House Speaker Beth Harwell, a list of House committee “pre-meetings” is now being posted on the legislature’s website under the heading “Committee Bill Review.”

 
The initial listing was posted on Friday, reports The Tennessean, which had earlier asked Harwell for a list of the gatherings, held prior to scheduled public committee meetings with pending bills discussed – lobbyists are typically invited to make presentations – but no votes taken.

 
Defenders of pre-meetings, which are held in legislative conference rooms, say they allow lawmakers and stakeholders to prepare for a bill when it appears in committee. Opponents blast the gatherings, saying they lack transparency.

 
“We’ve been trying to find the best way to do this,” said Kara Owen, a spokeswoman for the speaker.

 
Owen said the list of pre-meetings would be updated each week and would be maintained on the House section of the legislature’s website.

 
Note: The list can be found on the legislative website by first clicking on ‘Committees,’ then “House.” On the right side of that page, there’s a list of “House links.” Select “Committee Bill Review” on that list. Doing that will get you HERE for the first posting (pdf).

Boyd ready to spend ‘whatever it takes’ in run for governor

Multi-millionaire Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd tells the Tennessean he’s been touring the state talking about a run for governor since stepping down as ECD commissioner, that he’ll make a formal announcement “in the next few weeks” and that he’ll personally spend “whatever it takes” to win.

“While I’m not ready to announce yet, I’m heavily leaning toward doing so sometime in the very, very near future,” he said.

… “In my business I had a dozen competitors making invisible fences so if I have a dozen competitors running for this it’s not really any different,” Boyd said, while dropping hints about the potential to self-fund a campaign.

“I like my chances. Nobody is going to be able to out-invest me. So I don’t really have to worry about finances,” he said. “From a raising funds point of view, we’ll do well. I’m prepared personally to commit to whatever it takes to be successful.”

In his talks around the state, Boyd said people have been positive about someone who is not a career politician.

“I wasn’t quite sure that I would have liked the idea of campaigning, but if it’s like these last three weeks — it’s a great way to get to know your state,” he said.

Before becoming ECD commissioner in January 2015, Boyd was focused on his various businesses. He owns Radio Systems Corp., a company that owns several brands, including the Invisible Fence.

TN Democrats backing Tom Perez for DNC chair

News release from Tennessee Democratic Party

Nashville, Tenn. (February 24, 2017) – Tennessee Democrats are looking to set their strategy for the future at the upcoming DNC officer elections in Atlanta on February 25th with all 5 DNC members supporting former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez for DNC chair.

“I want to make this clear – this decision should not be viewed a ‘wing-vs-wing’ fight and anyone who characterizes it as such is playing into the hands of those who benefit from perpetuating the idea that the Democratic Party is divided,” said Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini, “The reality is that this was a hard choice between a number of solid progressive candidates all with track records of positive organizational development and grassroots campaign experience.”

“The vision we have for moving forward is one where we will strengthen our team and our bench from the ground up and listen to voters in every area of this state,” Mancini continued, “Secretary Perez agrees with our vision and has the skills to make that vision a reality.”

Perez has earned the endorsements of Vice President Joe Biden, several Democratic governors and numerous state party officials across the county. Secretary Perez has announced a platform that includes increasing resources to all state parties, fighting voter suppression and working to elect a deep bench of candidates from local elections up through federal.

Tennessee DNC members include Chairwoman Mary Mancini, Vice Chairman John Litz, and three at-large members: Gale Jones-Carson from Memphis, Will Cheek from Nashville and Bill Owen from Knoxville.

84 TN welfare applicants have failed drug tests since 2014

Tennessee started drug testing some applicants for welfare benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 2014, in accord with a law approved by the Legislature two years earlier, and since then 84 people have failed the tests, administered at a cost of $38,934, reports WSMV-TV.

“Is this law working?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“I don’t know if it’s working the way it was written in the sense we’re being compliant with the way it’s written,” said Stephanie Jarnagin, with the Tennessee Department of Human Services. “But I don’t think it’s up for us to decide whether or not it’s good policy necessarily.”

… More than 54,835 people applied for TANF in Tennessee between when the law passed in 2014 and Dec. 31 of last year. During that same time period, 814 people were flagged to be drug tested. Of that pool, 84 people failed the drug test.

… Jarnagin said 167 people have abandoned the application process since 2014 when the law took effect. But she said DHS has no idea why people walk away, and the reasons could range from moving out of states to a change in financial circumstance.

… Failing a drug test doesn’t necessarily mean that applicants lose their shot at TANF benefits. The applicant can go through a drug treatment program, which they must pay for.

In the event the state does deny an applicant benefits, the cash assistance can still be given to the applicant’s family. In 16 cases, benefits were routed to children through a protected pay play, Jarnagin said.

Jarnagin added it’s inaccurate to think this law saves money since any denied benefits would go back to helping other recipients. She said currently there is neither a waiting list nor a backlog for benefits.

The report includes comments from House Majority Leader Glen Casada in support of the law and from Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro saying it needs to be reexamined and “maybe we need to go a different route.”

Haslam helping congressmen seek GOP Obamacare repeal deal

Republican congressmen are hoping four Republican governors – including Tennessee’s Bill Haslam – will help them draft a deal for replacing Obamacare, according to CNN.

The governors are Haslam and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who serve in states where Medicaid was not expanded under the Affordable Care Act, along with the chief executives of two states that did expand Medicaid, John Kasich of Ohio and Brian Sandova of Nevada.

The discussions are likely to continue at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington this week, and as Kasich privately meets later this week with Trump at the White House.

The thinking is that if these four can cut a deal, it will help resolve an issue that GOP leaders say is currently the biggest hurdle in putting together a plan to repeal President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But they have a monumental task: resolving concerns from conservatives who want to turn Medicaid into a block grant program and alleviate fears from politicians who hail from states that accepted federal dollars to expand coverage for low-income adults under Obamacare.

“We’re going to have to find a solution that accommodates those concerns,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week.

Republicans are hoping to unveil a plan in March that could be voted on within the next several weeks. They are under a time constraint because they are using fast-track budget rules that will allow them to avoid a filibuster in the Senate and pass a repeal bill on a party-line vote.

The party is still divided over key issues — including how far to take the repeal bill. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus want to pass a full-blown repeal bill that mirrors a plan that Congress approved in 2015 — and Obama vetoed — which would also repeal the Medicaid expansion.

Yet top Senate Republicans privately say that such an approach would not pass their chamber.

Haslam: ‘I am not calculating running for the Senate’

Gov.  Bill Haslam says he expects Bob Corker to run for reelection to the U.S. Senate next year and speculation about his own future, including a bid for the seat, has been “way overread,” reports the Times-Free Press.

“They just said what are you going to do next? I said I have no idea,” Haslam told reporters during a “town hall” meeting (in Cookeville) to promote his proposed IMPROVE Act, which seeks to increase fuel taxes for Tennessee transportation projects while simultaneously cutting non-highway taxes in several areas.

Haslam, who is term limited and will leave office in January 2019, was asked at this week’s Tennessee Press Association and The Associated Press meeting about what he intends to do when his term ends.

“They said, well, you didn’t rule out running for Senate, and I said I have no idea what I’m going to do,” the governor said. “So I am not calculating running for the Senate.”

Asked if Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, has indicated what his future plans are, Haslam said, “my assumption is that he’s going to run for the Senate again. I haven’t heard anything from Sen. Corker that made me feel like he was going to do anything except that.”

… Since November elections in which Republicans maintained their Senate majority and Corker kept his prime spot as chairman, the senator has been vague about his political future and the possibility of running again for Senate or running for governor.

“I just don’t want to go down the path of starting bringing in options,” the former Chattanooga mayor said in a December interview… “What we do is something we’ll be thinking about over the course of the next several months.”

The newspaper further reports that Andy Ogles, Tennessee director of Americans for Prosperity, “didn’t exactly quash” speculation that he will run for the U.S. Senate next year, acknowledging “there has been  speculation along those lines” and adding, “We’ll have another conversation in a few months.”

Stewart faces ethics complaint over questioning TEMA director

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, has filed an ethics complaint against House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart because of questions the Nashville lawyer-legislator asked the director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency during a legislative hearing on Gatlinburg fires.

From The Tennessean:

The statements from Stewart occurred during a House Government Operations Committee meeting on Feb. 16.

Before asking TEMA director Patrick Sheehan questions, Stewart said, “Full disclosure, I’m a lawyer and I can’t remember, but it’s always possible that my firm would have some involvement in lawsuits related to those fires. So just be aware of that.”

Stewart is a partner at the Nashville-based law firm Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings, which was hired to represent someone affected by the fire.

…During the committee meeting, Stewart asked Sheehan to explain what happened with the communications systems that resulted in text notifications not being sent out to nearby residents before the fire reached the city.

…In Ragan’s complaint, he points to a Feb. 6 letter from Stewart’s law firm to TEMA in which they request various information regarding the area’s communications system.

In the letter, the law firm asked for records of statements made by TEMA, communication between federal, state and city employees and any contracts with third party groups that provided emergency warning services.

“Given the timing and nearly identical way in which the questions Representative Stewart asked in committee mirror the questions made by his law firm, I believe that Representative Stewart knowingly asked questions…to aid himself and Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings,” Ragan wrote in his complaint.

…Stewart said he thought he asked very generic questions that he didn’t think were improper… Stewart said until Thursday he was not aware that the Feb. 6 letter was sent by the law firm to TEMA.

Stewart, who previously served as a member of the 10-member House Ethics Committee, said he would be happy to explain his actions in the event that the complaint is taken up by the committee.