Tom Humphrey

Tom Humphrey

Fiscal note estimates Shelby County to lose $18M in funding with voucher bill

A bill to set up a school voucher system would mean loss of about $18 million per year in state funding for schools in Shelby County, the only place that the measure would apply in a measure sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville.

The estimate is included in the fiscal note for HB126. The Commercial Appeal has comments from Kelsey:

Kelsey said Monday the funding loss for SCS would be proportional to the number of students the district would no longer have to educate. The bill also only diverts state money, and requires students using a voucher to be counted toward the enrollment of their local school district. That means the district still retains local funds for them.

“The beauty is they no longer have to educate the child, and yet they’re still getting paid some money,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey’s bill has support, including from co-sponsors Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville and Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis. But it’s not the only pending legislation aiming to create a voucher program. Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, has a broader bill competing in the House. 

SCS said in a statement the district is monitoring the legislation as it progresses but that it’s too early to determine its full fiscal impact.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson previously questioned whether such a bill would be constitutional because it targets only one area. Kelsey said previously he believes his program is constitutional because it’s a pilot program.

The district and school board have also been vocally opposed to any voucher bill.

TN Student Freedom of Expression Act is no longer ‘informally, the Milo bill’

State Rep. Martin Daniel has dropped use of Milo Yiannopoulos’ name in promoting passage of a college campus “free speech” bill since the Breitbart News columnist  condoned sex between grown men and underage boys, according to The Nashville Scene and The Tennessean.

After a video of Yiannopoulos’ remarks became public, the Conservative Political Action Conference canceled his scheduled speech before the group and his publisher canceled plans to print a book he has written.

When contacted initially on Monday about the controversy Scene reporter Cari Wade Gervin says Daniel, R-Knoxville, told her had “seen some headlines” but hadn’t “really read anything” about the controversy and generally downplayed the past prominent references to Yiannopoulos.

During a press conference (Feb. 9) that featured a number of random speakers, including Fox talking head Scottie Nell Hughes, Daniel proclaimed his legislation is needed in Tennessee after protests over a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California in Berkeley turned partially violent.

“This bill, entitled the ‘Tennessee Student Freedom of Expression Act,’ or, informally, the Milo Bill, will, one, create an official university policy that strongly affirms the importance of free expression as a fundamental right,” Daniel said at the press conference, shortly before a statement from Yiannopoulos himself was read by another woman in attendance.

From The Tennessean:

On Monday, the East Tennessee lawmaker backtracked on his endorsement of Milo, sending out a series of tweets saying his bill would be known as “the Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, & the MLK JR. bill.”

In an interview, he said he was not familiar with the full extent of the video controversy.

“It seemed appropriate at that time to name it after someone who has been persecuted for freedom of speech,” Daniel said.

As for the apparent name change, Daniel said the bill is bigger than just one person or incident.

“What we want to do is make it clear that this bill is about freedom of speech, not just one person,” he said. “We are going to reference people who have been free speech advocates in the past.”

The bill (HB739) is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald.”

Note: Gervin’s report includes a partial transcript of Yiannopoulos’ comments, commentary and a recounting of abusive and obscene tweets sent to her after an earlier posting on the Feb. 9 news conference. A previous post is HERE and a copy of the news release announcing the press conference is below.

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Mark Lovell’s night on the legislative reception circuit

The Tennessean has a lengthy review of Mark Lovell’s activities leading up to his resignation from the legislature amind allegations that he sexually harassed at least one woman on the night of Feb. 7. The “fondling” episode came after Lovell made the rounds on the legislative reception circuit and, by several accounts, became intoxicated. An excerpt:

On the night in question, there were at least five formal receptions. Lovell, who has longer, more coiffed hair than most lawmakers and sports a salt and pepper goatee, attended them all. The first event began before the end of the business day.

Lawmakers were invited to The Standard. It costs thousands of dollars a year to join the private club, established in 1843, and although there is a public restaurant at The Standard, a keycode is required to get into the more exclusive rooms.The soiree started at 4:30 p.m. with drinks and food paid for by AT&T and Delta Dental.

…The Tennessee Malt Beverage Association hosted lawmakers at their 14th annual “Brew Ha-Ha.” The invitation for the event, at the German-themed Gerst House near Nissan Stadium, shows a clipart image of a buxom woman holding a beer-laden tray as two figures toast in the background.

…While the food at these events tends to be mediocre, receptions at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant stand out. The Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association spent more than $17,000 at the downtown restaurant that evening, offering heavy hors d’oeuvres like barbecue and cheese plates as live music filled the air at the southern-style eatery. The bacon-wrapped asparagus was particularly delicious.

Anyone attending a different reception hosted by the Tennessee Disability Coalition had the opportunity to meet with people served by organizations including AARP Tennessee, Disability Rights Tennessee and the Mid-Tennessee Council of the Blind. It was at one of the swankier hotels in town, The Sheraton.

…The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents sponsored an event at the Hermitage Hotel. It’s a posh, century-old building with terracotta tiles, Tennessee marble and a painted glass skylight in the lobby that’s hosted countless lawmakers and dignitaries over the years, including serving as a headquarters for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. The hotel is across the street from Legislative Plaza.

Only the Gerst House is outside walking distance from the statehouse.

Lovell said he only had three cocktails between 4 and 9 p.m. at the receptions and afterward. “I’m less than a social drinker,” he said on the day he resigned. Others say Lovell, who is partial to Crown Royal and Coca-Cola, had many more. By 8 p.m., they say he was visibly drunk.

What happens next is disputed. The 5-foot 8-inch West Tennessean said he didn’t recall doing anything wrong at any events he attended that evening. He called the accusations of sexual impropriety “100 percent false.”

All other sources say after the legislative events that evening, the then-lawmaker grabbed a woman inappropriately while at a local establishment. He is accused of grabbing one woman’s breasts and buttocks, in addition to trying to prevent her from walking away. Several sources say he engaged in additional inappropriate touching with another woman.

Gas station group fights ‘indexing’ provision in Haslam tax plan

Tennessee gas station and convenience store operators are fighting a provision in Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax increase plan that would index future fuel-price hikes every two years to the rate of inflation, reports the Times-Free Press.

In a letter sent last month to legislators, Emily LeRoy, executive director of the Tennessee Fuel and Convenience Store Association (TFCA), called the indexing provision a “blank check” for state government.

“We believe our customers will oppose an automatic tax increase, which is anti-consumer and contrary to Tennessee’s reputation as a fiscally conservative state,” the letter states. “We want to support this legislation, but cannot be supportive” if that’s included.

LeRoy told the Times Free Press via email last week the association is not fighting Haslam’s plan to hike fuel taxes by 7 cents per gallon for gasoline and 12 cents per gallon for diesel, just the indexing proposal.

…”It is our strong belief that tax increases should be publicly debated, with opportunity for voters to agree or disagree with the associated spending and that legislators should vote on every increase,” she said.

… The governor and his immediate family are majority owners of Pilot Flying J, a chain of travel centers across Tennessee and the U.S.

While Pilot is a member of the TFCA, a source with direct knowledge of the company’s position said the Knoxville-based chain isn’t involved in TFCA’s fight against the indexing provision.

… Haslam’s press secretary, Jennifer Donnals, defended the index provision, saying the governor “proposed the IMPROVE Act to build and sustain the state’s economic growth and competitiveness, and indexing is an important piece to make sure we can provide a safe and reliable network for the next generation of Tennesseans.”

As for Pilot, Donnals said, “We speak for the governor, not Pilot, and we look forward to Wednesday’s discussion about providing Tennessee with a safe and reliable transportation network in a fiscally responsible way.”

Mike Williams, executive director of the Tennessee Petroleum Council, a trade association for energy companies doing business in Tennessee, said the group would “prefer not to have indexing but that’s a decision the General Assembly is going to have to make about whether they want automatic tax increases or that tax increases should be voted on one at a time.”

On moving James K. Polk’s body from state Capitol grounds to Columbia

State Sen. Joey Hensley tells Nashville Patch that he will file a resolution in the coming week to authorize disinterment of the bodies of President James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah, for relocation to Columbia. The bodies are now entombed on the grounds of the state Capitol in Nashville, having been disinterred and relocated there in 1893.

As initially reported by the Columbia Daily Herald, there’s a move afoot to have the bodies buried at Polk’s boyhood home in Columbia. The move comes with members of the Tennessee congressional delegation seeking National Park status for the Polk home in Columbia. (Previous post HERE.)

Initially, the Patch reports, the Columbia promoters of the remains relocation thought they needed approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission, the State Building Commission and the State Capitol Commission for moving the bodies. But it’s since been discovered there’s a state law, enacted in 1981, that says the bodies of the former president and first lady cannot be moved from the state Capitol grounds unless a resolution approving relocation is approved jointly by the House and Senate.

Hence Hensley’s forthcoming resolution.

The Patch article also has a link to Polk’s will, which calls for he and his wife to be interred on the grounds of their Nashville home. It was part of a Tennessee Historical Quarterly article that’s part of the link, though you have to read past the will to reach the article, which notes court rulings led to portions of the will involving the old Polk residence, where the former president wanted to rest, being invalidated.

Sen. Beavers: Muslims infiltrating churches for Bible Belt jihad

At a Macon County town hall meeting Thursday, state Sen. Mae Beavers said that Muslim terrorists are infiltrating churches and planning a jihad in the Bible Belt, reports The Tennessean. Subsequently, she told the newspaper some of her information “was not entirely accurate.”

The Wilson County lawmaker had an exchange with a woman who said that she knew a local Muslim family and they were good people and “wouldn’t hurt anybody,” but there were some who were “adamant” about harmful acts.

In an audio recording of the town hall obtained by The Tennessean, Beavers responds by saying that we were with “intelligence people” this week who told her that Muslim terrorists were moving into the Bible Belt to orchestrate a jihad and “infiltrating churches.”

“I was with some intelligence people this week. You wouldn’t believe what’s going on in this country; it would scare you to death,” Beavers said. “We are the center of their attention because we’re are the center of the Bible Belt. And they’re purposely moving terrorists in here, and they’re bringing their families in, and they’re setting it up for a jihad, I can tell you right now.

“The Muslims, they believe in the Quran and the Quran says that you’re going to kill all the infidels.” There was then a brief exchange between Beavers and the attendees about Muslim residents living locally.

“Something else that they’re doing is they’re doing is infiltrating the churches, they’ll visit the churches and find out what’s going on,” she said at the meeting.

Asked about her comments in an interview, Beavers said the meeting was with “former intelligence officials” before the town hall on Thursday, but they told her in the meeting the information was not accurate.

“They had received some information they said was not entirely accurate,” she said, acknowledging that one meeting was before the town hall.

Beavers said she didn’t recall talking about “a specific jihad,” but said terrorism in Tennessee has been a topic of conversation and concern for her since she was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee several years ago.

“I know a lot of people that are concerned about the threat of terrorism, and that’s what I was addressing,” she said.

Corker: ‘Wrecking ball’ Trump now ‘evolving to a better place’

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tells the Times-Free Press he sees the Donald Trump administration “evolving to a better place” on foreign affairs and has hopes stability will emerge among the team of rivals staffing Trump’s White House.

“There’s no question it may take a little while for them to get their sea legs,” he said, but he hopes Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, whom he called a friend, “over time will be able to pull all of that together and get them marching in the same direction.”

“It’s almost as though people are working against each other, and you can’t have an organization that functions well when that is the case,” he said, citing a “disconcerting” number of White House leaks.

“It seems to me it’s possible there’s numbers of power centers at the White House, in some cases, set up purposely to be in conflict, and I think that’s led to some of the confusion. I’m hopeful that as they move along — they’ve been in office now four weeks — they’ll be able to consolidate in such a way that some of the missteps that have occurred will not continue.”

Corker advised Trump on foreign policy during the campaign and said he’s continued the practice with Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Though in an interview last week with Politico, Corker called Trump “a wrecking ball” who “remains determined ‘to destroy everything about’ the U.S. establishment’s view of the world,” he told the Times Free Press the president has “begun to evolve to places I think are much better.”

“You have to remember his real focus group during the campaign was these rallies, and he was constantly testing out the messages, if you will, in front of these rallies. He didn’t have a lot of institutional support, he didn’t have people around him who were really advising him on foreign policy, and so as he’s gotten into office, he’s realized that things are far different than he imagined.

“He was very much about wanting to reorient the world,” Corker said. “He’s coming around to a better place as it relates to Israel, he’s coming around to a better place as it relates to NATO, coming around as of (Thursday) to a better place as it relates to Russia, much of which was because of pushback from folks who’ve been involved in foreign policy for many years. I consider it to be a healthy way because we’re moving to a place that is more aligned with what our U.S. national interests are.”

Investigation finds Lovell violated sexual harassment policy

There was an investigation into allegations against former state Rep. Mark Lovell and it concluded that he violated the legislature’s sexual harassment policy, reports The Tennessean.

Although the specific accusations against Lovell are not included in the public investigative memo, the release confirms a probe did take place and the committee found Lovell guilty.

“Based upon the completed staff investigation, which included interviews with all parties, the Ethics Subcommittee finds that Representative Lovell violated the policy,” states the memo dated Friday and included in Lovell’s personnel file.

“Mr. Lovell resigned his seat as a member of the House of Representatives,” the memo reads. “Mr. Lovell has been advised to avoid all contact with the complainant and other parties involved in this complaint.”

…”Mr. Lovell is distressed by these findings, as he still stands by his statement of no wrongdoings. However, he sincerely apologizes for any actions that may have been misconstrued as harassment,” said Valerie Morris, president of Memphis-based Morris Marketing Group who Lovell hired after his resignation.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, confirmed in a statement Friday the special House subcommittee did meet and determined Lovell violated the policy. It is not immediately clear when the committee met.

…In a statement, House Speaker Beth Harwell thanked the committee for its work and hailed the state’s new sexual harassment policy.

“This finding shows that the system works. The policy put in place last year clearly defined a framework for victims to report violations and have those violations investigated professionally while protecting the victims,” Harwell said in the statement via email.

“The identity of the victim was protected, which will always be a priority. We will conduct a review of the policy in a year to determine whether any improvements can be made. It is important to me and all legislative leadership that we provide everyone with a safe environment in which excellent work can be accomplished for the state of Tennessee,” she said

Rep. Holt pays traffic camera tickets with Monopoly money

News release from state Rep. Andy Holt

NASHVILLE, Feb. 16, 2017– On Thursday, Tennessee State Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) took to Facebook Live where he paid two traffic camera tickets with Monopoly money and a photographed image of a $50 bill. On one of the payments, Holt wrote “In the spirit of justice,” before sending it off to processors. Holt says he did the video in an effort to raise awareness for new legislation, aimed at traffic cameras, he’s introducing along with Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) and Senate Transportation Chairman Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta). (Note: The video is HERE.)

“Cities across the state, in concert with photo-enforcement companies, continue to skirt the law and take advantage of our taxpayers, and I won’t rest until everyone knows the truth about this,” says Holt.

The proposed legislation will require all unmanned traffic cameras be used only from a marked police car with the lights blazing, and will require the suspect to be pulled over by the law enforcement officer operating the manned photo-enforcement device.

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Economist opposes grocery tax cut; Haslam says it’s fair

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Reagan administration economist Arthur Laffer is urging Tennessee lawmakers not to include a cut in the sales tax on groceries as part of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to offset a gas tax hike.

Arthur Laffer said in a House meeting on Wednesday that bigger cuts on business taxes would do more to spur the economy. Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston challenged Laffer about whether working families wouldn’t benefit from paying less on essential food items like baby formula.

Laffer responded that such a move would “cut the tax on my buying a steak or caviar,” and that argued that lawmakers should focus on having the greatest economic impact. (Note: He also described the grocery tax cut as “silly pandering.”)

Haslam wants to boost transportation funding by about $280 million annually, while also cutting a commensurate amount of taxes.

Further from the Times-Free Press:

On Thursday Windle rejected Laffer’s argument, saying, “I vehemently disagree with him that cutting taxes on baby formula, milk and eggs and bread for working families is a bad idea or it doesn’t help the economy.”

The Upper Cumberland Plateau lawmaker, who represents a largely rural area, added: “I don’t represent the fat cats out in Belle Meade. And I’m not really concerned about their steak and caviar. I’m worried about working families making ends meet.”

… Haslam told reporters Thursday that while he agrees with Laffer that the corporate tax cut is good for attracting businesses and encouraging existing companies to expand here, he is also trying to be even-handed when it comes to tax reductions.

“If we are going to have a tax cut, I’d like some of that to go to the one tax that everybody pays, and that’s the grocery tax,” Haslam said. “Will that bring more business to Tennessee? No. But is it fair? Yeah, I think it is fair.”

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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