As our state legislature stumbles to adjournment this week, we can now take the full measure of what this gang on the hill considered important and the laughingstock their choices have made of Tennessee.
The smug Republican supermajority’s most towering achievement — the one its leaders feel proudest of — has been the shameful slow-motion train wreck of Insure Tennessee. It has been a policy disaster for regular folks.
History will note that Insure Tennessee came from their own governor. It was Gov. Bill Haslam’s humanitarian proposal to extend Medicaid coverage to more than a quarter-million uninsured Tennesseans. What he got back, on a platter, was a miserable insult that unfolded shamefully over the two-year session.
Last year the defiant Republican-led Senate marched the prisoner down to the dungeon. Last week, the Republican House speaker threw away the key, turning the matter over to a new “task force” — all white, all male, all Republican. RIP, Insure Tennessee.
Left grieving on the sidelines, once again, are those thousands of uninsured folks from Memphis to Mountain City. Forget that the costs would be covered by federal dollars already set aside but spurned by your legislature. As Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper tweeted after the funeral:
“Tennesseans waited 2 years while Gov. Haslam negotiated a plan with the federal gov’t. ... Now we have to wait at least another year? Cancer patients don’t have that kind of time.” What the General Assembly did find enthusiasm for were the so-called “bathroom bill” with its callous ridicule of human beings, and also the loony “Bible bill” to make it our official state book (Editor's note: Governor Haslam vetoed the Bible bill on Thursday) . Turns out that one has hidden costs that nobody thought about until Attorney General Herbert Slatery pointed out conflicts with Title IX. I only hope his news conference was a setup for a veto.
These are lousy laws. Responsible leaders, in whatever days remain in this sorry session, should walk them back to committee. That would be a fine use of a “task force” (read, graveyard) study. Failing that, both are worthy of the governor’s veto.
Add to all that the legislature’s failure to embrace a modern highway program and its disruptive meddling in Nashville’s affordable housing policy and the stability of annexation progress in Memphis.
What all these miseries have in common is this: They are the price we pay for legislative pandering to an array of special interests — ranging from government-hating think tanks to well-heeled developers to extremists who dislike anyone unlike themselves. - Keel Hunt in the Tennessean
Bill Haslam talks with lawmakers about Bible bill vetoOne day after announcing his veto of a controversial bill that would have made the Holy Bible Tennessee's official state book, Gov. Bill Haslam said he's been talking with lawmakers about his decision.
"Obviously right now they have our reasoning and our logic for doing that. I strongly feel like that’s the right move for Tennessee and we’ll be passing that message on to members in the House and Senate," Haslam said on Friday during an appearance at the grand opening of a new Beretta gun plant in Gallatin.
The governor's action on the Bible bill was just his fourth veto in five years. Admitting this is the first time the General Assembly has received a veto from Haslam while lawmakers are still in session, the governor indicated that he’s heard from several members who have said although they voted in favor of the measure the first time, if given a second chance they would vote differently.
“I certainly don’t want to project how people’s votes will be,” he added.
In addition to Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — who voted against the legislation — has expressed skepticism that there would be enough votes to override the governor's veto. - Tennessean
What's Left For Tennessee's Legislature In 2016? Some Big Controversies, ActuallyThe budget has passed, and Tennessee state lawmakers are eager to end the session this week so they can hit the campaign trail. After all, most of them are up for reelection this year. But there are still some loose ends to tie up. And some of the most complicated debates have — as usual — been put off until the final days.
The budget high points, like taking one percentage point off the Hall income tax on investments. Remaining controversial proposals include the "bathroom bill" aimed at transgender students, which has attracted national attention. Unexpected last-minute maneuvering has included legislation to legalize fantasy sports, following an Attorney General's opinion that it amounts to gambling. A conversation from February 16 about taking down the "no guns allowed" signs at Legislative Plaza, which may be roughly where the session ends up. - WPLN
The week ahead: Bible, bathrooms, refugees and gunsAs Tennessee lawmakers return to Nashville for what is expected to be the final week of the 2016 legislative session, any bills still alive will be given one last chance for approval. That means any legislation with a financial impact that isn't accounted for in the budget — which was given approval last week — is dead in the water unless the bill's sponsor can find a way to eliminate the fiscal implications. Legislators will have their hands full as they are expected to take up a variety of controversial measures as well as attempt to override Gov. Bill Haslam's recent veto of the Bible bill. Here's what to watch this week:
Lawmakers will be faced with a tough decision on whether to override Haslam's veto of the bill that would make the Holy Bible the state's official book.
Haslam cited constitutional concerns about the measure, which proponents say simply tries to honor the historical and economic impact the holy scripture has had on Tennessee.
The last time the legislature successfully had a veto override was in 2010, during Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration.
With the Bible bill barely receiving enough votes to pass through both chambers the first time around, all eyes will be on lawmakers early this week when they are expected to attempt to repass the controversial measure. The House, which will gather at 4 p.m. on Monday, will need to take up the measure first before sending it to the Senate, which will hold two floor sessions at 3 and 5:30 p.m.
A bill that would require students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their sex at birth has drawn the ire of as many as 60 businesses, as well as musicians and various advocacy groups, causing the issue to generate headlines — especially given the backlash that occurred in North Carolina, which recently enacted similar legislation.
The sponsors of the proposed Tennessee law, who argue for its necessity citing privacy concerns, are still trying to figure out a way to eliminate an $800,000 fiscal note tied to the bill.
Proponents of the measure are planning to hold a press conference on Monday morning, ahead of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, which is scheduled to take up the measure starting at 1 p.m.
Although the House Finance subcommittee has listed it on one of seven calendars scheduled for Monday when it meets at 1 p.m., the bill's sponsor, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, said she thinks the committee might not get to it until Tuesday's 1 p.m. meeting.
Instate tuition for undocumented students
Undocumented students are planning to push lawmakers one more time on a bill that would provide them in-state tuition.
Last year, the legislation fell one vote short of receiving approval in the House while also gaining supporting from Haslam and a host of lawmakers, including some conservative Republicans, who had been previously opposed.
Proponents of the measure say it would allow undocumented immigrants the opportunity to get an affordable education, but opponents argue it would provide them an unfair advantage over U.S. citizens. Last week, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, the bill's House sponsor, said he was optimistic the measure could come back to the floor before the session ends.
Almost two months after the Senate overwhelmingly approved a resolution that seeks to require the state to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement, the House will have its chance to weigh in on the measure. Sponsors of the legislation argue for its necessity, citing security concerns while also saying the feds have shifted the cost of administering the resettlement program to Tennessee. But opponents believe it will negatively affect the state's refugee community and perpetuate a culture of fear.
Haslam, who has said he is not concerned about the safety issue regarding refugee resettlement, has warned that the provision in the resolution that allows lawmakers to hire outside counsel could set a bad precedent. But unlike the Bible bill, Haslam would not be able to veto the legislation because it comes in the form of a resolution. The resolution is among 37 items on the House's Monday floor calendar, which is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.
Guns on college campuses
A bill that would allow guns on college campuses is still alive, despite concerns from Haslam. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, would let full-time employees carry a gun on college campuses. Haslam has said he would prefer to let the individual schools make a decision on the matter, but the legislation would implement the policy for all public colleges or universities.
Exactly when the House Finance subcommittee takes up the bill is unclear, given the fact it has seven calendars scheduled. The committee will first meet on Monday at 1 p.m. and will reconvene on Tuesday at the same time to finish. The Senate calendar committee has yet to schedule it for a floor vote.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery gave fans of fantasy sports a scare recently when he wrote an opinion that said the activity was considered “illegal gambling.” But lawmakers are set to formally allow the practice by creating a task force that would let companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel pay their share of taxes to operate in the state. The measure would head to the governor's desk if the House approves it during its Monday floor session, which begins at 4 p.m. - Tennessean
Judge orders Jimmy Haslam deposed in Pilot civil suit
An Alabama judge has orderedJimmy Haslam, CEO of Pilot Flying J and owner of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, be deposed in a civil lawsuit related to the rebate scheme plaguing the $31 billion family truck stop chain. The order comes on the three-year anniversary of the FBI raiding the company's Knoxville headquarters.
Haslam is expected to be subpoenaed to appear at a May 11 deposition in Knoxville, according to an order issued Friday by Alabama Circuit Court Judge Sarah Hicks Stewart. The order requests the Knox County clerk issue a deposition subpoena or some similar order because "it appears to this court that the just determination of the issues (in the Alabama case) requires that the deposition testimony of James A. Haslam III be taken." -Tennessean
The new Gilded Age: Close to half of all super-PAC money comes from 50 donorsA small core of super-rich individuals is responsible for the record sums cascading into the coffers of super PACs for the 2016 elections, a dynamic that harks back to the financing of presidential campaigns in the Gilded Age.
Close to half the money — 41 percent — raised by the groups by the end of February came from just 50 mega-donors and their relatives, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal campaign finance reports. Thirty-six of those are Republican supporters who have invested millions in trying to shape the GOP nomination contest — accounting for more than 70 percent of the money from the top 50.
In all, donors this cycle have given more than $607 million to 2,300 super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. That means super PAC money is on track to surpass the $828 million that the Center for Responsive Politics found was raised by such groups for the 2012 elections.
The staggering amounts reflect how super PACs have become fundraising powerhouses just six years after they came on the scene. The concentration of fundraising power carries echoes of the end of the 19th century, when wealthy interests spent millions to help put former Ohio governor William McKinley in the White House. -The Washington Post
Hall income tax poised for chop
NASHVILLE — After years of talk of eliminating or reducing Tennessee’s Hall income tax on stock and dividend income, the state Legislature appears poised to cut the tax rate next week.
The $34.9 billion state budget that lawmakers approved Thursday provides for a reduction in the 6 percent income tax rate to 5 percent — effectively a nearly 17 percent rate cut for the 200,000 or so households who pay it. Final approval of a bill to implement the cut will come before the General Assembly adjourns for the year this coming week.
The bill is set for review Monday in the finance committees of the House and Senate, which will work out final details. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the rate cut will be effective with tax year 2016 and be reflected on tax returns due April 15, 2017.
Norris said the bill will also contain language saying the “legislative intent” is to phase out the Hall tax entirely by 2021, which means each successive annual legislative session is expected to continue to cut the rate by a percentage point a year if the economy and state tax revenues permit.
The Hall tax, enacted in 1929, taxes income from taxable stock dividends and certain interest. Taxpayers 65 and older are exempt from the Hall tax if their total income from all sources is $68,000 or less for joint filers and $37, 000 or less for single filers.
In addition, the first $1,250 in taxable dividend and interest earnings for all single filers and the first $2,500 for all joint filers is tax-exempt. The tax isn’t levied on interest earned on savings accounts, certificates of deposit, government bonds, credit union accounts, bank money market accounts and dividends from bank stock, insurance companies, credit unions and other sources, which are exempt.
The Legislature’s budget amendment approved Thursday accounts for a $27. 7 million loss in state revenue as a result of the rate cut.
- Rick Locker, Knoxville News Sentinel
- Rick Locker, Knoxville News Sentinel
Subsidies, student fees power athletics
Packed stands on Saturdays at Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium or sellouts for basketball at FedEx Forum in Memphis overshadow deeper financial problems for athletic departments at Tennessee’s public universities.
Most of the athletic departments at the state’s nine public universities manage to break even or turn a small profit, but that’s only thanks to hefty subsidies from the academic side of the university, according to data provided through a USA TODAY national investigation.
The Volunteers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville far outpace the rest of the state’s public schools when it comes to revenue and, at least recently, haven’t relied on an infusion of school funds, thanks in large part to their television contract and other benefits of playing on a big stage. But for six of the state’s public universities, 70 percent or more of their athletic department budgets come from the university. Knoxville News Sentinel
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It’s on: Tensions between Trump and the GOP escalate in public fight
Tensions between the Republican Party and its own front-runner erupted into a full-blown public battle as top party officials rebuked Donald Trump on Friday for alleging that the GOP primary system was “rigged” against him.
The dispute, which has been simmering for days, centers on Trump’s failure to win any delegates last weekend in Colorado, which selected its 34 delegates at a party convention rather than a primary attended by voters. All went to Trump’s chief rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
The outcome prompted a daily stream of complaints and allegations this week from Trump, who wrote in an op-ed published in Friday’s Wall Street Journal that the “system is being rigged by party operatives with ‘double-agent’ delegates who reject the decisions of voters.”
A senior Republican National Committee official fired back with a thinly veiled response, writing in a Friday memo to reporters that “each process is easy to understand for those willing to learn it.”“It ultimately falls on the campaigns to be up to speed on these delegate rules,” wrote RNC communications director Sean Spicer. “Campaigns have to know when absentee ballots are due, how long early voting lasts in certain states, or the deadlines for voter registration; the delegate rules are no different.”
- Washington Post
Billy Moore's Report from WashingtonThe U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Monday on an immigration case that could profoundly affect the balance of federal power. Amid a failure to pass a budget, Congress is advancing energy and aviation legislation to prepare for kicking appropriations into high gear. President Barack Obama travels to Germany, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia to discuss trade and terrorism.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments that will decide the future of President Obama's programs allowing unauthorized immigrants to apply for protection from deportation. The issues involve whether states have standing to challenge immigration policy, whether the programs comply with authorities granted by Congress, whether the implementation of the programs complied with civil procedures, and whether the President abandoned his constitutional obligation to "take care" to enforce the law by creating the programs. How each question is decided could enhance or limit the power of the Administration, the Congress and the states. A decision is anticipated in June.
Senate leaders are clearing the decks in anticipation of appropriations bills dominating the floor for months to come. After casting aside tax amendments, they cleared the path for passage Monday of a 14-month extension of aviation programs. By promising alternative vehicles to resolve disputes over Flint, Michigan's water crisis, they have set up a long-delayed energy policy measure for passage.
House and Senate appropriators are hustling toward early completion of committee work despite the lack of a budget resolution. Operating under spending limits enacted by last year's budget deal, the Senate plans three months of appropriations work beginning next week.
The six Republican senators who met with Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland last week maintained their opposition to his confirmation. Democrats have yet to signal their response to the intransigence.
House Republicans say a blueprint of a comprehensive tax overhaul plan will be ready by June, although action on the proposal is unlikely this year.
Billy Moore is a partner at ViaNovo, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington, DC, Austin, Dallas and Mexico City.
Thought for the day: