Monthly Archives: February 2019

Bill to close Tennessee primaries advancing in House

Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden), left, is the sponsor of a bill seeking to close primary elections in Tennessee.

A bill seeking to require party registration in order to vote in Tennessee primaries is advancing the House. The bill sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) advanced on a voice vote in the Elections & Campaign Finance Subcommittee on Wednesday morning.

When Democrats sought to close primaries after soaring to new heights in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s, Republicans cried foul and the measure was defeated. This time, the roles are reversed, though the fate of this year’s measure remains uncertain.

Then-Gov. Ray Blanton and the Democratic State Executive Committee sought to cement their gains by imposing party registration rules for voting in primaries in the 1970s. Closing primaries, the argument went, would give the liberal wing of the party more sway by excluding Republicans and independents from influencing the nomination process.

Those efforts were thwarted by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats from rural West Tennessee led by House Speaker Ned McWherter of Dresden and Senate Speaker John Wilder of Mason.

House Minority Leader Tom Jensen (R-Knoxville), who died last year year, said at the time Tennesseans had “made it clear they don’t want to be shackled with party registration laws.”

But times have changed. The Republican State Executive Committee in December recommended lawmakers enact party registration requirements in Tennessee.

Former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam called closing primaries “a silly proposal, ” arguing that if the change had been made earlier, it would have been much harder for Republicans to get to the position of power they’re in today. Gov. Bill Lee, who won the Republican nomination amid record turnout in last year’s  gubernatorial primary, was similarly dubious about the proposal, telling reporters that “the current system we have is working.”

Republicans today hold an even stronger position in state politics than Democrats did after Watergate. The GOP controls 73 of 99 seats in the state House and 28 of 33 in the state Senate, seven of nine seats in the U.S. House, and both U.S. Senate seats.

Under current state law, anyone can vote in a party primary if they are “a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party.” The law also permits primary voting if “the voter declares allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and states that the voter intends to affiliate with that party.” The law has been interpreted to mean that seeking a party ballot is a declaration of allegiance.

In practice, many Tennesseans choose to vote in whichever primary is more compelling, meaning their allegiance and affiliation may last for as little as a single election.

Supporters of closed primaries argue that under the current system, crossover voters could help a weaker candidate win the nomination, who would then have a harder time prevailing in the general election. Another refrain is that open primaries give moderate candidates a better chance of winning primaries.

Nine states have closed primary systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another seven have what the organization calls “partially closed” systems in which parties can choose whether to allow independent or voters registered with other parties to participate in primaries on a case-by-case basis.

NCSL counts Tennessee among six states with “partially open” primaries, where affiliation can be changed from election to election. Another 24 states are either fully open or allow independent voters to participate in the primary of their preference.

 

Lee to include repeal of ‘gym tax’ in budget proposal

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to the National Federation of Independent Business at the Cordell Hull building in Nashville on Feb. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee says he will repeal the ‘gym tax’ as part of his first annual spending plan. The tax 10% tax on gyms, fitness centers, and health clubs brings in about $10 million in state revenues per year. It remains to be seen how much of that savings will be reflected in the cost of individual gym memberships. But gym owners are bound to be pleased.

Here’s the full release from the Lee administration:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced his plans to repeal the amusement tax on gym memberships in his upcoming budget.

 

“I’m pleased to be able to include a tax cut in my first budget,” said Lee. “Repealing the gym tax is an important step in reducing the burdens on small businesses in our state.”

 

The nearly 10 percent amusement tax is placed on memberships to gyms, fitness centers and health clubs and disproportionately impacts small business owners. On the books since the mid-1980s, the gym tax represents approximately $10 million in state revenue.

 

“Unfortunately, we’ve discouraged Tennesseans from investing in their health and wellness by taxing their efforts,” said Lee. “The skyrocketing costs of health care and Tennessee’s high rates of obesity and diabetes means we simply cannot afford to discourage healthy habits.”

 

According to the Department of Health, Tennessee ranks 40th in the nation for physical activity and 35th for adult obesity. Recent estimates show that illnesses related to diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease cost Tennessee more than $5.3 billion annually in direct and indirect costs.

 

“I look forward to working with the legislature to modernize our tax code and prioritize the wellness of Tennesseans,” said Lee.

How nigh is the end? House leadership plots course

House Speaker Glen Casada speaks to fellow Republicans in a caucus meeting on Jan. 10, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

For the Tennessee General Assembly to get around to completing its business for the year, committees need to start closing. And for that to happen, the subcommittees need to wrap up. Here’s a schedule for when House leadership expects those panels to call it quits this year:

March 25: Agriculture, Transportation, Consumer & Human Resources.

April 1: Commerce, Insurance, Local.

April 8: Education, State, Health.

April 15: Judiciary. Also the full committees of Government Operations and Naming & Designating.

If all that happens to plan, the chamber will be on course for adjourning the first week of May. Or so we hope.

Former Knoxville mayor speaks out against gutting police oversight panels

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe is speaking out against legislative efforts to gut police oversight boards in Tennessee’s three biggest cities.

Ashe, a former Republican state senator and U.S. ambassador to Poland, noted in his Shopper News column that he created Knoxville’s Police Advisory Review Commission, or PARC, by executive order 20 years ago and that it was was made permanent by unanimous City Council vote two years later.

“PARC has worked well in Knoxville and has stood the test of time. It has gone a long way to establish credibility and objectivity in disputes involving the Police Department,” Ashe wrote. “It is unfortunate that legislation to weaken it is pending, when it has been a credit to Knoxville.”

The Knoxville City Council last week passed a resolution urging its legislative delegation to oppose the bill seeking to strip civilian police oversight commissions of subpoena powers.

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Lamberth: Bill to block ‘harassing’ requests is part of transparency push

Lawmakers gather in Nashville for the first day of the 111th General Assembly. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Majority Leader William Lamberth’s bill seeking to block people deemed to be “harassing” records custodians from obtaining public records is part of what he is calling push for greater transparency in state government.

The Portland Republican’s bill would allow custodians to seek judicial intervention if a member of the public makes three or more annual requests “in a manner that would cause a reasonable person” to feel abused, intimidated, threatened, or harassed.  The same would go for people making multiple requests that are “not made in good faith or for any legitimate purpose.”

A release from Lamberth’s office on Friday makes no mention of the specifics of his proposed legislation other than to say it will “protect record custodians.” But he said an amendment is coming to expand government openness by streamlining requests and increasing online access to records.

Here’s the full release from Lamberth’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) today is calling for greater government transparency that will further serve to protect all records custodians, while expanding public availability of open records through increased online access.

“I am calling on both state departments and local governments to evaluate all records that may be placed online and to explore ways to increase availability,” said Leader Lamberth.

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Legislature reappoints 7 members of State Election Commission

State Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) waits for Gov. Bill Haslam to deliver his final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly has reappointed the seven members of the state Election Commission.

The Republican appointees are Donna Barrett of Murfreesboro, Judy Blackburn of Morristown, Jimmy Wallace of Jackson, and Kent Younce of LaFollette. The Democrats are Greg Duckett of Memphis, Mike McDonald of Portland, and Tom Wheeler of Clinton. Barrett, McDonald and Wheeler are former state House members.

Here’s the full release from the Secretary of State’s office:

The State Election Commission is composed of seven members: four from the political party holding a majority of seats in the Tennessee General Assembly and three from the minority party. These individuals are elected for a term of four years. This is the only commission in Tennessee state government which is elected wholly by the Tennessee General Assembly.

The seven members elected by the Tennessee General Assembly on February 14, 2019 to serve a four-year term include Donna Barrett, Murfreesboro; Judy Blackburn, Morristown; Greg Duckett, Memphis; Mike McDonald, Portland; Jimmy Wallace, Jackson; Tom Wheeler, Clinton; and Kent Younce, LaFollette.

To be eligible to serve on the State Election Commission one must be at least 25 years old, a resident of Tennessee for at least seven years, and a resident of the grand division of the state from which one seeks election for at least four years preceding the election. No more than any two members may be from the same grand division of the state.

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Lee unveils ‘Future Workforce Initiative’

Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks to a Chamber of Commerce event in Memphis on Dec. 6, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s office unveiled a Future Workforce Initiative to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) education training in K-12 schools.

Here’s the full release from Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the Future Workforce Initiative to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) training in K-12 schools as part of his first-year legislative agenda for education.

“Our agenda advocates for increased access to career and technical education for K-12 students and a key part of this includes prioritizing STEM training,” said Lee. “The Future Workforce Initiative is a direct response to the emerging technology industry and making sure our students are first in line to be qualified for technology jobs.”

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Lawmakers spend campaign funds on travel, cigar bars

State lawmakers spent campaign cash on items ranging from cigar bars to hotels in France, according to an analysis by The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert.

Ebert reports Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) spent more than $1,000 to stay at hotels in Paris and Verdun during a a visit to France for the 100th anniversary of Sgt. Alvin York’s heroic deeds during World War I. Campaign funds also paid for Bailey’s $900 flight.

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) and Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville) used campaign funds to cover expenses at cigar bars. A Hill spokesman said the $110 he expensed at a cigar lounge in Johnson City was a “reporting error,” and that he planned to reimburse his account. A Staples spokesman said the lawmaker spent the money during “constituent appreciation” events at the cigar bar in Nashville.

Sen. Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) dropped about $28,300 to buy a car from Lee Beaman’s dealership. He also used campaign finds to cover the cost of car washes and license plate fees.

“He utilizes the automobile to travel to the Capitol on official state business, which is allowable under state law,” a spokeswoman for Southerland told The Tennessean.

Read more of Ebert’s reports about lawmaker spending habits and problems with disclosures.

 

New FedEx Logistics HQ to add 689 jobs in downtown Memphis

Gov. Bill Lee has announced that FedEx Logistics will consolidate its headquarters in downtown Memphis. The move will involve a $44 million investment in the former Gibson Guitar factory and the creation of 689 jobs.

Here’s the full release from the Lee administration:

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe and FedEx Logistics announced today that the company will move its headquarters to downtown Memphis, where it will invest $44 million and create 689 jobs.

“With FedEx Logistics creating more than 680 jobs, and investing more than $44 million in Shelby County, they are once again showing that Tennessee is a great place to do business,” Lee said. “FedEx and its subsidiaries have been a true Tennessee success story, and we as a state are proud to see this company continue to grow and call Tennessee home.”

“I congratulate FedEx Logistics on its decision to move its headquarters to downtown Memphis,” Rolfe said. “FedEx Logistics has been located in Memphis since its creation in 2000, and it means a great deal that this company continues to call Memphis home. I appreciate FedEx and FedEx Logistics for choosing to create nearly 700 high quality jobs in downtown Memphis and for its continued commitment to Tennessee.”

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SCORE outlines annual education priorities

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, has released its annual “Priorities for Progress” report.

See the full release below:

NASHVILLE – The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) today released priorities and action steps for improving student achievement in Tennessee in a new report, Priorities For Progress: 2018-19 State of Education in Tennessee.

SCORE, a nonpartisan education policy and advocacy nonprofit founded by Sen. Bill Frist, M.D., each year conducts a series of discussions with educators, policymakers and partners to compile a report that examines recent successes in K-12 public education and identifies research-supported opportunities to continue Tennessee’s recent record-setting progress in academic achievement. The state has been among the fastest improving on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, although the report notes the pace of growth has slowed since 2015.

“Tennessee can have fast student achievement improvement again,” Frist said. “To do that we must work collaboratively toward preparing all students for success after high school by addressing the priorities in the State of Education report. We must be innovative, and we must be bold to help our students be the best in the nation.”

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