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Shelby-only voucher bill gets House committee approval

A school voucher bill that targets Shelby County only moved through its first major House panel Tuesday amid testy debate among Memphis-area representatives, reports the Times-Free Press.

Education Administration and Planning Committee members spent nearly two hours fighting over the measure (HB126), which creates a five-year pilot project in which poorer parents in low-performing schools can use public tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools.

Then they passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Memphis, the committee’s chairman. It now goes to other House panels. A similar bill is moving in the Senate. (Note: The bill itself was approved on voice vote; on an earlier key amendment backed by Brooks, the roll call vote was 11-5.)

Brooks’ bill retreats from the more ambitious, years-long effort by proponents to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” to low-income students across Tennessee attending priority schools falling into the bottom 5 percent on academic performance.

Those previous efforts would have impacted Hamilton County, Knox County, Metro Nashville, Shelby County (Memphis) and Hardemann County.

But a version of the broader approach is in another bill that remains in committee.

Following the bill’s approval, Roy Herron, an attorney who represents Tennessee’s small school districts, said he’s concerned that if the voucher bill is approved for the Shelby County school system, other rural and urban systems like Hamilton’s will be under threat of similar treatment.

“Memphis is not Las Vegas,” said Herron, a former state senator. “What happens in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis.”

Proponents like to characterize vouchers as “opportunity scholarships,” saying they give parents with children “trapped” in failing public schools more choice. Critics say the loss of money is a harpoon into the side of public education.

Push for legalizing medical marijuana dropped for the year

Rep. Jeremy Faison, a leading advocate for legalizing use of marijuana for medical purposes, is abandoning the effort for this year and says that House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally have agreed to form a task force to study the issue over the coming months.

The House Health Committee rejected Tuesday a non-binding resolution (HJR65) by Rep.  Sabi ‘Doc’ Kumar, R-Springfield, that declared support for use of “government-approved marijuana plant products for medicinal purposes.”

Kumar’s resolution was officially deferred to “summer study” on voice vote – Faison made the motion — after testimony from advocates of medical marijuana use and Dr. Michael Warren, deputy commissioner of the Department of Health, who said he supported “the spirit” of the non-binding resolution.

Faison, R-Cosby, said during the hearing that he thought the resolution was “muddying the water” by suggesting Tennessee use should await Federal Food and Drug Administration approval, a process that could take years.

The legislator took his separate bill (HB495) – filed as a caption bill and still awaiting an amendment to spell out details on legalizing medicinal marijuana on the legislative website  — “off notice,” meaning no vote is scheduled.

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House Transportation Committee votes for revised Haslam tax bill

The House Transportation Committee today approved, 11-7, the same revised version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tax package — including higher taxes on fuel and lower taxes on food – that was approved earlier in the Senate Transportation Committee. The panel has been viewed as the biggest obstacle to ultimate approval of the governor’s proposal, though several hurdles remain.

The vote came after about 90 minutes of debate and defeat or withdrawal of multiple amendments. A couple of amendments were adopted. Most notably, perhaps, one would reverse a current law that says that any cut in federal gas taxes would automatically trigger a corresponding increase in state gas taxes. The amendment says any increase in federal taxes would trigger a corresponding decrease in state fuel levies.

The most debated amendment was on a proposal by Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, that would have diverted money from sales taxes collected from the sale of vehicles to the highway fund without any fuel tax increase. It failed on an 8-10 vote.

The basic bill (HB534), as now approved by both the House and Senate Transportation Committees, raises the gas tax by six cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon – both increases phased in over a three-year period. The governor’s original proposal was seven cents per gallon on gas and 12 cents on diesel, both taking full effect July 1.

The revised version also cut the state sales tax on groceries from 5 percent to 4 percent. Originally, Haslam proposed a reduction to just 4.5 percent. Administration officials say the grocery tax, for most average Tennesseans, would now more than offset the increased taxes they will pay for fuel.

Most other provisions of the governor’s original package remain in place — including a corporate tax break designed to benefit for manufacturers.

The revised bill also won approval today, as expected, in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. In the Senate, it now goes to the Finance Committee. In the House, it now goes to the Local Government Committee.

The committees overseeing local government legislation are involved because the bill also includes provisions allowing city and county governments to hold referendums on raising taxes for transportation spending.

Note: The House committee roll call vote is HERE.

Mailer bashing former Rep. Todd as ‘lobbyist superhero’ wins award


News release from Direct Edge

HUNTINGTON BEACH – Direct Edge Campaigns was awarded two coveted Pollie Awards from the AAPC, the industry’s highest honor bestowed upon political consultants at the national and international level. Direct Edge Campaigns was recognized in the categories of Best Use of Slate Mail – “Morrisey/Mooney 2nd Amendment” (West Virginia Republican Party) and Best Use of Humor – “The Lobbyist Superhero” (Tennessee Federation for Children PAC) in the campaign to defeat (former state Rep.) Curry Todd.

“We are pleased to receive these prestigious awards in two different categories for our work this past election cycle,” said Direct Edge President Gregory Gleaves. “The contest was more competitive than ever this year, so being selected out of the many talented entries is truly an honor.”

The annual Pollie Awards & Conference brings the leading political professionals in the world together to network and hear from top technology innovators, pollsters, pundits and service providers. The bipartisan awards are presented by the AAPC to members of the political advertising and communications industry who have demonstrated superior work on behalf of their candidates and causes.

The AAPC announced this year’s winners at the 2017 Annual Pollie Awards & Conference on March 17 in Huntington Beach, CA. Award winners were selected by a blind jury.

Note: The award-winning mailer was part of about $135,000 in spending by Tennessee Federation for Children’s PAC in attacking Todd, who opposed school vouchers that the federation supports, in last year’s Republican primary. He lost in House District 95 to Mark Lovell, who has since resigned from the Legislature amid sexual harassment allegations.

Study: GOP health care bill cuts subsidies in 4 TN cities; raises them in one

A WalletHub study has found that Chattanooga would face a bigger negative impact than all but four other cities in the nation under a Republican plan for repealing and replacing Obamacare – a loss of $5,786 in federal premium subsidies per household.

On the other hand, the study covering 457 U.S. cities found that the average subsidy available to households in Murfreesboro under the proposal would actually be $924 higher than under Obamacare for Murfreesboro residents.

The review includes six Tennessee cities. In addition to Chattanooga and Murfreesboro, they are (with average subsidy change in parenthesis): Knoxville (-$2,116); Memphis (-$1,826); Clarksville (-$222); Nashville (-$15).

The Times-Free Press has a story focused on the Chattanooga results HERE. The full report is HERE.

Harwell: Not yet running for governor

House Speaker Beth Harwell, responding to a report that she has decided to run for governor, said Monday her decision won’ come until after the current legislative session ends in April, reports the Associated Press.

Former state Republican Chair Susan Richardson Williams recently declared on Facebook that Harwell had called her to declare she’s running. (Previous post HERE.)

Harwell confirmed that she has been making calls to prospective supporters but emphasized that she hasn’t made a decision about whether to mount a bid.

“I have been calling around, exploring with folks,” Harwell said. “I asked for her (Williams’) input, and I made it quite clear that no announcement or decision would be made until after the legislative session.”

…Harwell, who is tied with one other lawmaker as the longest-serving member of the House, said she would base her campaign on her experience at the state Capitol.

“I have a knowledge of state government, and I think I know how to work with the legislative body,” she said. “Governors don’t do anything unless they work with the legislature.” Harwell also cited her “conservative principles that we’ve put in place since I’ve been speaker these six years, and I think it’s been a good thing for Tennesseans.”




No interim appointment to vacant House District 95 seat

The Shelby County Commission voted Monday night against making an interim appointment to fill the House District 95 seat vacated by former Rep. Mark Lovell, reports the Memphis Daily News. The vote was five for making an appointment; six against.

Democrats hold a majority on the commission and there had been some talk of appointing a Democrat to the seat, though Lovell was a Republican. A special election to fill the vacancy has been scheduled, though the general election vote will not be held until June 15.

“I don’t see any sense in us going through with this,” commissioner Terry Roland said of the appointment.

But five of the commission’s seven-member Democratic majority voted to move ahead with the appointment. Democrat Justin Ford voted with the five Republicans present not to make the appointment. Democratic commissioner Eddie Jones was absent from Monday’s meeting.

The commission also approved $320,000 in funding for the special primary and general elections for the state House seat as well as another $40,245 for a special Lakeland election in May to fill a vacant commissioner’s seat.

“Not to throw anyone under the bus, but when people run for office it’s serious,” said commissioner Mark Billingsley. “Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into.”

Anti-tax leader: Revised Haslam transportation bill is not a tax increase

The latest version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation legislation has received a blessing from Grover Norquist, a national anti-tax activist, who says the package overall reduces more taxes than it increases. Haslam, who sought Norquist’s opinion, says that is “a really big deal,” reports the Times-Free Press.

Under the version of Haslam’s plan advancing in the Senate, the state would increase its tax on gas by 6 cents per gallon and diesel by 10 cents per gallon, but also cut other areas including the sales tax on groceries, the tax on earnings from stocks and bonds and corporate taxes owed by large manufacturers.

Norquist, founder of the group Americans for Tax Reform, said in a letter to state House and Senate members that the most recent version of the governor’s bill advancing in Senate represents a “net tax cut,” and does not violate lawmakers’ pledges to not raise taxes.

He also noted that the Senate had removed a proposal to link fuel taxes to inflation, “which means gas tax hikes will not be put on autopilot.”

The Haslam administration sought Norquist’s input on the Tennessee plan after seeing that Americans for Tax Reform supported gas tax increases in New Jersey and South Carolina when they were coupled with tax relief.

Norquist’s position on the Tennessee gas tax proposal contrasts with the strong opposition voiced by the state chapter of Americans For Prosperity, founded by billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch.

…Haslam told reporters he considers the announcement from Norquist to be “a really big deal.”

“This is somebody who’s kind of staked his whole thing on we should never have tax increases,” Haslam said. “Whether you agree or not, the fact that the founder of that movement — who had people sign no-new-tax pledges — says this is not a tax increase.”

Note: The Nashville Post has full text of the letter HERE. Meanwhile, Tennessee Star reports Norquist’s support has caused a backlash.

(T)he fierce backlash from conservative opponents of the gas tax increase in Tennessee to the last minute attempt by supporters of the governor’s plan to bolster its chances by calling in a “celebrity ” who has never lived in the state and knows little of the intricacies of the bill or the state’s budget, spells more, rather than less, political trouble ahead for the governor and his allies.

Senate votes (again) for elected attorney general

News release from Senate Republican Caucus

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 20, 2017 — A resolution that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG) was approved 22 to 8 tonight by the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Joint Resolution 57, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), begins the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved by voters, calls for the AG to be elected beginning with the November 2024 general election.

“Currently, the attorney general is twice removed from those he or she is supposed to represent – the people of Tennessee,” said Senator Beavers. “It is time we let the citizens have more of a say in their government.”

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Sen. Mae Beavers eyes run for governor

State Sen. Mae Beavers said Monday she is “exploring” a possible run for governor to provide a more conservative option to other Republican candidates — especially if Sen. Mark Green abandons his candidacy  for governor and is instead appointed U.S. Army secretary.

From the Tennessean:

“After the announcement of Senator Green possibly being secretary of the Army, I had calls for a couple of days, and we decided to explore the possibility,” Beavers said.

She has not filed any official paperwork and is still in the very early stages of a potential campaign.

“It’s a great country, and if people think they ought to run, they should run,” Green said. He directed any questions to the speculation of the secretary of the Army position to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

…Republicans Randy Boyd and Green have already officially declared. House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who represents parts of Beavers’ district, also are considering campaigns.

Beavers said she would not consider a run for Congress if Black was elected governor next year.

“If I wanted that seat, I would have run the first time that district was available because I represented 10 of the 15 counties,” Beavers said. “I don’t want to go to Washington.”


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

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