Monthly Archives: January 2017

Chief fed judge in Nashville resigns

Kevin H. Sharp, the chief U.S. District Court judge in Nashville, is sending a letter of residentation to President Donald Trump Thursday, reports The Tennessean.

Sharp’s departure means President Donald Trump’s administration will soon nominate two people to federal judgeships in Nashville, who must also be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell previously announced he would take senior status in December 2016, leaving another vacancy.

That’s half of the bench in the Middle District of Tennessee. Some say Trump’s nominations could swing the judiciary more conservative. The last judicial nomination made here by a Republican president was when President George H.W. Bush nominated Robert Echols in 1991, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

Sharp was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011 to the seat vacated by Echols.

Haslam proposes spending $45M on broadband access

News release from governor’s office

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced legislation to increase broadband access to Tennessee’s unserved citizens. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards.

“From the farmer and the accountant in West Tennessee whose businesses are stifled, to the East Tennessee student who can’t complete her schoolwork at home, a lack of reliable internet access is preventing too many rural Tennesseans, rural communities and our state from reaching its full potential,” Haslam said. “While there is no one solution that can guarantee broadband accessibility to every single Tennessean, this legislation provides a reasonable, responsible path to improve access in a meaningful way through investment, deregulation and education.”

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Former TNGOP leader takes Baptist ethics position

Veteran Tennessee Republican Party leader Brent Leatherwood, who recently lost a bid to become state party chairman, has a new job.

News release from Baptist Press
NASHVILLE (BP) — Former Tennessee GOP Executive Director Brent Leatherwood has been appointed as the new director of strategic partnerships for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

In this role, Leatherwood will work to further the organization’s reach in the public square through coalition building and mobilizing, and by serving as an advisor on both state-level and national policy goals.”Brent Leatherwood is the perfect fit to serve as our director of strategic partnerships,” said ERLC President Russell Moore.

“He comes to this role with far-reaching political and organizing experience, deep concern for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and a unique ability to join these together on issues in the public square. I can’t wait to unleash his skill on our task of equipping churches and advancing issues critical to Southern Baptists around the country.”

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New executive director picked for TN State Museum

The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission has selected Ashley Brown Howell, the deputy director at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, to succeed Lois Riggins-Ezell as its executive director, reports Cari Wade Gervin for the Nashville Post.

It seemed like the first motion to hire Howell failed on a voice vote. But before the Commission could take a roll call vote to confirm the failure, chair Tom Smith called for a five-minute recess. When the body returned, Smith asked that the motion to hire Howell be withdrawn, even though one cannot withdraw a motion one has voted on. However, the members went along with the violation of parliamentary procedure, and then recessed for 40 minutes. Once the meeting resumed, the DHSMC voted unanimously (with two members abstaining) to hire Howell.

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Durham spent campaign funds while not campaigning

Former state Rep. Jeremy Durham spent $1,353.91 in campaign funds after he suspended his campaign for reelection, reports the Nashville Scene. On Sept. 12, the night before he was expelled from the state House of Representatives, he watched Monday Night Football at Buffalo Wild Wings in Nashville and he paid for it with campaign funds.

Fourth quarter campaign filings were due today, so for a lark, Pith looked up Durham’s report. What we found is that he spent $1,353.91 after he dropped out of the race.

Durham suspended his reelection campaign on July 14 after the release of the salacious and damning Attorney General’s report chronicling his extensive sexual misconduct and harassment. He officially lost his primary on Aug. 4. Thus, Durham had no real reason to spend his campaign funds on himself after that. He could have legitimately donated to other people’s campaigns, of course, but that’s not what this report shows.

First of all, the fourth quarter filing period runs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. Two of Durham’s claimed expenses are from August and one is from September, which means they should have been listed on his third quarter report. But according to the filing, Durham had $635.97 in unitemized expenses — $64.71 in auto expenses, $15 for a donation, $328.69 on food and beverages, $105 in gas, $21.57 in internet expenses and $101 in parking.

Per itemized expenses, Durham spent $259.94 at Cajun Steamer on Aug. 15, $119.74 at Grays on Main on Aug. 19, $113.57 at Buffalo Wild Wings on Sept. 12, and $104.69 at Kroger on Oct. 1. He also spent $120 for “dues/subscriptions” at Franklin’s Masonic Hiram Lodge on Nov. 17.

No jail time for former Rep. Joe Armstrong

A federal judge on Wednesday spared former state Rep. Joe Armstrong from a prison term, calling his failure to pay taxes on a windfall from a sin tax hike aberrant behavior in an otherwise “exemplary” life, reports the News Sentinel.

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips ordered Armstrong to spend six months under house arrest and perform 300 hours of community service.

He will be on probation for three years and must pay a $40,000 fine, repay the IRS nearly $100,000 in unpaid taxes and an undetermined figure to cover the government’s cost of prosecuting him.

“It was essentially an isolated incident,” Phillips said. “Until this occurred, (Armstrong) has led an exemplary life.”

Armstrong failed to tell the IRS he made a windfall of $321,000 in an under-the-table deal to profit from a boost in a sin tax for which he voted in 2007.

Phillips took direct aim at the Tennessee Legislature for allowing lawmakers to profit from legislation they vote to approve. The judge agreed what Armstrong – and many other legislators – did in profiteering courtesy of a favorable vote wasn’t a crime, but Phillips said it was criminal nonetheless.

“In this court’s opinion, it was unethical and immoral, but not illegal,” he said.

Armstrong, a Democrat who represented East Knoxville’s 15th District for nearly three decades, was convicted last year of filing a false income tax return in connection with a deal he struck with Knoxville tobacco wholesaler Tru Wholesale to buy cigarette tax stamps for him at the 2006 rate of 20 cents per pack and then sell them after a 42-cent hike went into effect in 2007. Armstrong voted for the tax hike.

Haslam sends $159M road wish list to Trump

The Haslam administration has submitted a seven-item list of priority state road projects totaling $1.16 billion for President Donald Trump’s administration to consider, reports the Times-Free Press.

Tennessee is among states that have offered up such lists of “shovel ready” but unfunded projects to the National Governors Association at the request of Trump’s then-transition team.

…Trump’s request didn’t seek cost estimates but figures provided Wednesday by the Haslam officials to the Times Free Press shows a price tag on the planned improvements of the highway and bridges is projected at $159.4 million. 

Haslam, meanwhile, is in the midst of his own pitching his own transportation and economic program, dubbed the IMPROVE ACT, that would raise an additional $296 million for state transportation, primarily through gas and diesel tax increases, to address 962 projects statewide. 

The state currently has a $6 billion backlog of previously approved projects and $4.5 billion worth of projects with no funding expected for years unless new dollars are forthcoming, Haslam has said.

…The Volunteer State list includes a stretch of U.S. 127 in Cumberland and Fentress counties north of Chattanooga. 

In addition to U.S. 127, other projects on the list being forwarded to the Trump administration are:

* Alcoa Highway – Knox County/Blount County – $183.1 million
* Lamar Avenue – Memphis – $252 million
* I-440 – Nashville – $50 million
* State Route 109 – Wilson County – $18.5 million
* I-40 – Jackson – $66.3 million
* I-69 – Obion County – $236.7 million.

Negotiations fail to resolve lawsuit over Fred Thompson’s estate

Recently-filed court documents indicate settlement talks failed to resolve a dispute among members of the late Fred Thompson’s family over distribution of the former actor and U.S. senator’s estate, reports The Tennessean. The battle will apparently continue in court.

Thompson’s wife, Jeri Thompson, and his two adult sons from another marriage are sparring in court filings over what information Jeri Thompson must turn over as the case moves forward.

“(Thompson’s sons) should face the facts,” William Ramsey, a lawyer for Jeri Thompson, argued in the new court documents.

“Perhaps (the sons) are disappointed in their inheritance, but their disappointment does not entitle them to review irrelevant and confidential documents that have absolutely nothing to do with what is alleged in their complaint.”

Thompson’s sons, Tony and Dan Thompson, filed suit in August, accusing Jeri Thompson of having undue influence over their father at the end of his life and forcing him to make changes to his estate plan. Copies of the will in the court file say each son received $50,000 and list Jeri Thompson as the primary beneficiary.

Fred Thompson served Tennessee as a Republican in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003 and he had a prominent role in the television drama “Law and Order.” He married Jeri Thompson in 2002. He died in November 2015 at the age of 73.

His adult sons now want to view documents related to the senator’s assets and his estate planning, court documents say. They say they have evidence — including a $40,000 bill from Nashville law firm Waller, which handled the senator’s will — that suspicious changes were made when their father “lacked the requisite mental capacity.”

Note: Previous post HERE.

Five bills already filed to slash TN professional privilege tax after TACIR study

Although the bill filing deadline is still two weeks  away,five bills have already been filed in the legislature this year to make changes to the state’s professional privilege tax, reports The Tennessean. That matches the number proposed in the last legislative session to slash the levy of $400 per year on some professionals who hold state licenses – doctors, lawyers and accountants, for example.

Three of the five bills introduced this year — two of which are almost exact — seek to phase out the professional privilege tax.

Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, introduced a measure that calls for a four-year phase-out of the tax that would reduce it by $100 each year. Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, introduced a very similar bill.

Another bill, introduced by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, would cut the tax by $80 each year until it is completely gone in 2022.

A bill from Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville, seeks to allow anyone paying the tax over the age of 65 who makes less than $16,000 to receive a 75 percent rebate.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, introduced a bill that would exempt those in the first year of their profession from paying the tax.

The efforts by lawmakers to change the tax are the latest in a long line of moves to eliminate the tax in recent years. They have all failed.

Note: One of the five bills last year was amended to only require a study by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The resulting TACIR report is HERE.  A Knoxville Business Journal column on the subject, written by yours truly a month or so ago, is HERE. An excerpt is below.

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On gas tax, legislators seek anything-but-an-increase alternatives

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to raise Tennessee’s gas tax for the first time in more than 27 years is causing a political traffic jam among GOP lawmakers who are competing to offer anything-but-an-increase alternatives, according to the Times-Free Press.

The list includes diverting a portion of the state’s 7 percent sales tax — about a quarter percentage point — to transportation funding to replace Haslam’s proposal.

But that would depart from a 70-year tradition of Tennessee never using its sales taxes, created in 1947, to support transportation funding. That was the purpose of gas and diesel taxes, created 93 years ago in 1924.

Other plans offered by GOP House lawmakers include diverting a portion of future annual general fund surpluses to transportation. But there’s no guarantee that Tennessee will be in the situation it now has with a nearly $1 billion one-time revenue surplus and some $850 million in recurring money.

It’s the largest bonanza in state history, and some lawmakers don’t think they’ll see the likes of it again, even if lawmakers don’t cut taxes in other areas.

From the GOP-run Senate’s view, Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said, “I think it’s a little bit premature to predict its [proposed gas/diesel tax increase] success or demise.

“I think the governor has included in his proposal a number of things that members have discussed over the course of the past 18 months, frankly,” Watson added, noting, “I think most members I’ve had convervsations with are like me. They’re saying, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good proposal.'”

But, Watson cautioned, “it’s just the first step in a lengthy process, and what ends up being done or not is still a little bit out in the future. I think there are very few members, if any, who don’t recognize that we need to do something. But there’s still a lot of debate about how we go about paying for it.”

… According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, five states have not implemented an increase in their gas tax rates since the 1980s or earlier: Alaska, Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. That’s longer than any of the 45 other states.