Mar 13 2012

Sen. Kyle Defends The “UnDo Can’t Do” Bill – #SB2762

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

One of the more onerous bills that passed out of last year’s session was HB0600 dubbed the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act”.

Sponsored by Glen Casada (R) of Franklin, the bill sought to remove the ability of a local government to set certain ground rules in contracts.

That’s shorthand for enacting non-discrimination ordinances.

Here’s Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D) Ripley from last year laying out one of the critical flaws of HB600.

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You can watch other video from the debate here and the whole video here.

Almost a year since the passage and nullification of Nashville’s CANDO ordinance, Sen. Jim Kyle (D) Memphis is leading a push, sponsored by Metro Nashville and Shelby County government to repeal the repeal.

Here’s his opening statement:

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A member of the Nashville Metro Council also spoke in favor of the bill, but what is more interesting to me are some of the questions for the sponsor. Here’s an exchange from Sen. Mike Faulk – (R) Church Hill:

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You’ll notice that at the end of the clip, Sen. Faulk seems to get it. I don’t know if he agrees or disagrees, but he gets it.

Even Sen. Majority Leader Mark Norris (R) Collierville seems to be somewhat swayed, despite past efforts to overrule local control of government.

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Of course, some were just trying to get a few specific words. In this case Sen. Stacey “Don’t Say Gay” Campfield – (R) Knoxville tries and fails to extract the words “discriminating against religion” out of the sponsor and supporters. Watch if you dare:

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You can see video of the whole discussion here.

At the end of the day, we have to decide if we’re going to let local government…you know…govern. In the wake of the passage of HB 600, that’s a lot harder.

I’m not sure if the bill has a chance in hell, but I’m glad Sen. Kyle is pursuing it and I hope his colleagues on both sides of the aisle will too.

Mar 13 2012

Delay Tactics #EndMTR – Updated

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Update: Please contact the members of the House Environment committee and tell them you support the Scenic Vistas Protection Act.

Contacts to the House Environment Committee:
House Environment Committee E-Mails – Email contactsPhone Numbers via TNLEAF

Tennessee General Assembly – House Environment Committee Link

Original Post follows…

(Zeb Mountain, Tennessee / photo by Chris Irwin, United Mountain Defense)

As reported by the AP, yesterday the Tennessee State Senate delayed a vote on Scenic Vistas Protection Act, sponsored by Senator Eric Stewart – Belvedere.

The bill, which has been buried for the past five years was delayed once again in an attempt to kill it, despite claims by the Senate Majority Leader to the contrary.

In fact, they’re trying to do it on the anniversary of successfully killing it last year. I’m sure its just a coincidence.

Coal mining in Tennessee isn’t one of our core industries. In fact, Tennessee ranks 21st in the nation in coal production (25 states produce none, meaning there are only 4 states in the US that produce less). There are fewer than 650 people employed in the coal industry in Tennessee. These individuals typically operate specialized equipment or have specialized explosives expertise. In short, opening up the coal industry in Tennessee isn’t going to produce any real jobs.

In fact, while Tennessee was producing the greatest amount of coal in its history, jobs were being cut due to increased mechanization. This was 1972. I guarantee it hasn’t gotten any better, despite the empty rhetoric of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

Last week, a Senate committee voted to gut the bill with an amendment. This week they’ve sought to delay that gutted bill until April 2. The GOP leadership in the Senate is terrified of having a vote recorded in the full Senate on this measure. I seriously doubt there will be any vote on it April 2nd either.

That said, if you want to see this bill passed, I suggest you make plans to be in Nashville on April 2nd. We need to fill the Senate gallery to overflowing, and make a show of support for this bill. And if they try to delay it again, we need to make sure they know we’re not happy about it.

Barring any bill schedule changes, I’m planning to be there. Hopefully you will too.

So why does a guy in Memphis, hundreds of miles away from the affected mountains care about this bill? Because even though its not in my backyard, it impacts me. If water quality suffers in East and Middle TN, then the health of folks in those areas suffer. Legislators intent on reducing water quality standards will use water quality levels in other areas to lower the standards here, which means we’ll have more undesirable things in our water. It’s a downward spiral that I don’t want to happen to anyone. Not here in Memphis, or Monteagle, or Mountain City.

Tak a moment to call or write every one of these State Senators. Tell them you support the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, that you’re upset that the bill was watered down in committee, and that you’re going to be there April 2nd to make sure they do the right thing: restore the original language, and pass the bill.

Getting this done is going to take a show of strength. I hope you’ll take a little time out of your day this week, and make plans to be in Nashville on the 2nd.

For more information check out TN LEAF or NRDC.

Feb 05 2012

Bridges v. Walls – Annexation Edition

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County, State Politics

Gray's Creek, from the Shelby County Area Plan

This week’s big story locally has been the fight between the State legislature and the City of Memphis over the Gray’s creek annexation area.

The two biggest issues revolve around A) a city’s right to annex area to expand its borders, and B) the desires of the residents of that area to remain autonomous.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled on this issue this week, and a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’. Ugly things have been said about both sides by both sides. A quick look at the Letters to the Editor in this morning’s Commercial Appeal as well as others from earlier in the week show that pretty conclusively.

Us v. Them

Certainly, there’s an “Us v. Them” element to any annexation. In every city I’ve ever lived in there’s always been an “Us v. Them” scenario where annexations were concerned.

In Jonesboro, AR back in the early 1990’s, which is anything but a metroplex, the annexation of Valley View was greeted with much the same rhetoric that we in Memphis see coming from not just the residents of Gray’s Creek, but a lot of the suburban areas ringing the eastern border of the City.

In Little Rock, throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the attitudes of people in the surrounding cities of North Little Rock, Sherwood, Jacksonville, as well as those in the counties surrounding Pulaski; Faulkner and Saline, reflected a kind of disdain for the ever expanding Capitol city.

The reality is, these kinds of attitudes dominate in any potential annexation, as noted in this Editorial by Otis Sanford from this morning’s CA. Here’s part of what he had to say.

…The point is, Memphis, by necessity, has always relied on annexation as a primary tool to maintain revenue. That reliance has grown in recent decades because tens of thousands of residents — and their tax dollars — have left the city.

Many Memphians who remain — like those in the 1960s — believe suburbanites take unfair advantage of all the amenities Memphis has to offer, but are unwilling to share in the cost.

But instead being of the municipal equivalent of Pac Man, perhaps it’s time for Memphis and its suburban neighbors to revisit their 1998 annexation reserve plans.

Instead of trying to expand all the way to the Fayette County line, perhaps it’s time to put serious effort behind helping Memphis grow and revitalize from within.

Sanford is both right and wrong.

Sanford’s Thesis

Sanford is right in that Memphis should be working to revitalize from within. It can’t do this alone. The damage that the perpetual eastward expansion in the County has done to the city hinders its progress and makes the kind of annexations we saw from the late 1960’s through the present, necessary to maintain revenue. This isn’t about waste, its about a highly mobile tax base and a growth policy at the county level that has ignored the symbiotic relationship that Memphis and its suburbs have, as noted by Chris Peck’s editorial from this morning.

Shelby County can no longer afford to have an “Us v. Them” mentality. There is no them. And while this “Us” may be very diverse and have a huge diversity of opinions, the end result is that we must acknowledge and accept the roles we have played in creating and maintaining this “Us v. Them” mentality, both in the City and in the Suburbs, because both sides are culpable in defining a “other” to blame for its problems.

But Sanford is also wrong and ultimately misses the larger point on the issue of annexation generally. The 1998 agreement that set up the annexation reserve we currently have must be honored, not only by those who made that agreement, but also the State.

The move by Sen. Norris, and Reps. Todd and Lollar to circumvent that agreement is what brought this on, not any desire to go on a massive land grab, as noted by Wendi Thomas and this editorial.

By seeking to effectively “go over the heads” of the local governments that made this agreement some 14 years ago, the City of Memphis was forced into action to protect its right, as set forth in that agreement, to extend its borders. Honestly, any of the cities involved in this agreement would have sought to do the same thing under the same circumstances.

That Sanford conveniently ignores this point, is a critical flaw in his analysis.

Bigger Than Annexation

The larger point is that Memphis government has a lot on its plate, and declining resources to get that plate of things done. The County plays a huge role in the fate of Memphis. Until these two entities get on the same page, Memphis and the region as a whole is going to continue to suffer.

Looking at the political climate, it seems the outlier is the County Commission, where in the past it was pretty much all parties concerned. There is a growing consensus between the Administrations on the City and County side, as well as the City Council that the two governments must work together to maintain the economic driver of the region, which, by virtue of its size and infrastructure is Memphis, not the surrounding suburban and rural areas. That the County Commission hasn’t gotten on board with this is due in large part to the investment many on that body have and continue to make in the rhetoric of division on the grounds of location, class and yes, race.

But it’s not just suburban Commissioners that engage in this, its also Commissioners representing people inside the city that maintain the division. In doing so, they do harm to their own cause by using the rhetoric of their opponents to further their point rather than building their own rhetorical case to push the debate forward.

If rural and suburban Shelby Countains want to maintain the status quo in terms of boundaries and annexation, it would serve their best interests to play a long game of working to strengthen the entire community rather than a short game of immediate self-interest. This means working to build bridges instead of walls.

Defining a Bridge

Demanding that the county take care and maintain the property it is responsible for in the City, including the 3600 some housing units owned by the Shelby County land bank is a step in the right direction. Asking the County government to work with the city to redevelop that land, and in the process, better the living conditions of those who have had to live around these vacant and often blighted properties will bring both better living conditions and better outcomes for all those involved, including people outside the City limits.

This is a “We” issue. “We” must agree that we will not allow our governments in the County and the City to maintain substandard living conditions in our community through a policy of neglect that has been prevalent for some time. “We” must agree that it is in the best interest of all: urban, suburban and rural County residents to create an environment of prosperity for everyone. Doing so will net long-term rewards by eventually reversing problems that have dogged our county for decades: declining density, poverty, blight, low educational attainment, and want.

But these things can’t happen in a vacuum, and they can’t be conditional. They have to be addressed in a coordinated fashion and with a kind of resolve that we simply haven’t seen in this county, well, ever.

By demanding that their suburban Commissioners get on board with dealing with the problems the County government has jurisdiction over in the City and working to make a better Memphis, the people of Gray’s Creek, and other areas in the City’s annexation reserve can protect the lifestyles they seek to maintain by building a bridge rather than building a wall.

That bridge is finding common cause with the City to increase density and remove blight within the city to increase the standard of living throughout so the City doesn’t have to look at its annexation reserve. This is a positive action based on offense (bridges) rather than defense (walls).

Walls work until they are overcome. Bridges, on the other hand, have a positive impact on people on both sides of the bridge. That’s what this county needs. We have enough walls, we need more bridges.

Mar 14 2011

Charter School Shenanigans

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Gov. Haslam Likes Chocolate Pie This Much
via Nashville Scene

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam likes Charter Schools. In fact, he likes them so much that he wants to remove any caps on the number that can be chartered in the state and make sure locals have no say in the matter if they don’t want them.

Have some chocolate pie, it’ll make you feel better.

When Governor Haslam introduced his legislative agenda last month, removing local control over the approval of charter schools wasn’t one of the things that was heralded. Nope, most folks talked about tenure reform for those greedy no good teachers. That, of course, caused a stir that made the good Governor ask for more civil dialogue from the legislature.

I really think you need more pie now.

Of course, I guess calling for civility just five days after you said you can do what you want without the support of the loyal opposition is strategery.

Just a little more pie now…

The bill, HB 1989 would remove all limitations on who can attend Charter Schools, allow potential charter schools to apply with the state rather than the local school board, remove the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, and change the process for dealing with revocations.

The biggest issue is that local school boards will lose the right to control the public educational affairs in their districts if the state approval process goes forward.

Which raises several questions. Will the local school district have to contribute to the Charter School that it had no say in creating? What about the County Commission, who is responsible for funding a huge portion of the cost of education through property taxes, will they also have to fund these separately, through the school district that had no say in the charter school, or directly to the state?

What about the enrollment provisions. It is my understanding that Charter Schools were designed to give students from underperforming schools access to better schools in their area. By removing the requirements for enrollment, what’s to stop charter schools from cherry picking the creme of the crop and leaving the underprivileged behind?

What this really looks like to me is a Trojan Horse, that I’m sure isn’t filled with chocolate pie.

See Also: Haslam Bill Would Make State “Alternate Authorizer” of Charters

Feb 08 2011

Norris’ Incorrect Assertion #MCS

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County, State Politics

Last night there were a lot of assertions given by Sen. Norris to rationalize the effective disenfranchisement of Memphis residents in the transition process. Most of those assertions either slightly misrepresented reality, or were patently false.

One of those assertions was that the Memphis City Council challenged the maintenance of effort law because they couldn’t afford it any more. That’s only part of the story, of course. At the time there was a great deal of talk about single source funding to normalize the property tax disparity between City and County residents.

When single source funding failed MCS challenged in court that Memphis must maintain their effort. That lawsuit succeeded.

However, Norris asserted on the floor of the Senate that because Memphis was derelict in its duty to pay some $57m to Memphis City Schools, it was somehow not entitled to have a seat at the table in the transition. This of course, ignores that Memphians have been contributing to their school district for eons, as well as the county district through their county property taxes.

Further, Norris implies that the City of Memphis is still not contributing to Memphis City Schools, which is a fallacy. In the FY2011 budget, the City of Memphis transferred out $60m to Memphis City Schools. In addition, the city government has been in talks with the City Schools on a settlement to the 2008 lawsuit.

So that’s one thing that’s just plain wrong about Norris’ argument. The other part of that argument is that MCS is a “special” special school district and that for whatever reason because of that the City government has no say over the School system.

Well, MCS disagrees with this assertion. From their FY2011 budget:

Memphis City Schools (MCS or District) is a component unit of the City of Memphis, which is defined as the oversight entity by Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Codification Section 2100. Reporting for the District follows the criteria established by the GASB.

What does “component unit” mean?

A component unit is a legally separate organizations for which the governing board and/or management of the primary institution is financially accountable. It can be another organization for which the nature and significance of its relationship with a primary institution is such that exclusion would cause the primary institution’s financial statements to be misleading or incomplete.

Because MCS is accountable to the City of Memphis, and the City Council must approve the MCS budget as well as appropriate funds, Memphis is fully vested in its schools, despite what Sen. Norris would assert.

In the end, Sen. Norris just out and out lied about Memphis government and its involvement in the school system for a political purpose.