Oct 22 2014

The November Election Post I’ve Been Meaning To Write

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

Wedding Night After Party

Wedding Night After Party

Election day is right around the corner, and I’ve been meaning to do a post on all of the Constitutional amendments that are on the ballot this November…but I’ve been a little busy.

After 5 years together, my beloved Ellyn and I got hitched back on October 11th. Needless to say, the wedding plans took a lot of time to put together.

But now that the wedding is over, and so is the planning, I’ve got a little more time to think about the upcoming election…and especially the amendments.

They’re not that complicated, but they’re also not as easy to sift through as you might think.

With that in mind, I’m going to touch on the amendments in this post. I may write about the state and federal races later, and I’m working on a post about the City’s “Civil Service” referendum as we speak.

A note on Constitutional Amendments in Tennessee

For a constitutional amendment to pass in Tennessee, two things must happen:

1. The “yes” votes for the amendment must make up the majority.
2. Those “yes” votes must be greater than 50% of all the votes cast for Governor.

So, if you want something to pass, vote for someone on the ballot (write-ins don’t count) in the gubernatorial election.

And, if you want something to fail, you sure as hell better raise that bar a little higher by voting in the Governor’s race (again, write-ins don’t count).

I fully expect a TV station or two somewhere in the state will declare something having passed when it hasn’t crossed these two thresholds, but I’ll wait until election night to mock them for that.

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown.

Amendment 1 – Removing your right to privacy

Some people call Amendment 1 “The Abortion Amendment”, and if you just read the caption on the ballot, you might think you’re right.

But since the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade in 1973, the issue of government intervention in difficult health decisions been about privacy.

I’ve written about this extensively in the past.

The caption for Amendment 1 says:

Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

But the idea of the right to privacy in health decisions, and abortion, which is a medical procedure, are inextricably linked.

That’s what the TNSCOTUS ruled in 2000.

So, to make a medical procedure potentially “illegal”, which is what the majority of the TN legislature wants, is to take away the privacy in medical decisions away from patients.

The married couple agrees...Vote No on 1

The married couple agrees
Vote No on 1

The Legislature can’t do this on their own…they need you, the voter, to eschew the additional privacy protections inherent in the Tennessee Constitution, so they can then further limit your choices on your medical decisions.

If you think this will stop at abortion, you’re sadly mistaken. The legislature could use this amendment to regulate any number of widely accepted medical procedures under the guise that they have effectively restricted privacy with this amendment.

Its ironic really. The political right consistently rails against government intervention in personal decisions…until it comes to medical decisions, then they don’t think you’re qualified to do it on your own.

If one were to be consistent, they would strike down this amendment with an overwhelming majority…because none of us want Ron Ramsey, or Brian Kelsey making medical decisions for us.

They’ve already proven time and time again they don’t have our best interests at heart.

I urge you to vote NO on Amendment 1.

Amendment 2 – Judicial Disco

Judicial retention (for Appellate and Supreme Court justices) has been a big topic in State politics for a while now. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s effort to remove TN SCOTUS judges in the August election was just the start of a fight that’s been boiling over since Ramsey took the top spot in the State Senate.

Amendment 2 seeks to clarify it all…and enshrine a system similar to the current system in the State Constitution. However, the differences have many folks up at arms.

Currently, a nominating commission makes recommendations to the Governor, who then selects from a paired down field of candidates. That Commission expired in 2013, and wasn’t renewed.

Under the amendment, there would be no mandated commission (though Haslam has said he approves of the commission), and the General Assembly would have veto power over the selection by the Governor. In a state where a simple majority can overturn the Governor already, that’s a lot of political power over the judiciary from the legislative branch.

Opponents of the amendment say to vote no, because the current system, without the added step of the legislature approving of the nominations works, and we shouldn’t bend to the legislature just because they scare the be-jesus out of us.

Supporters I’ve heard from don’t really seem to support the amendment, per se, but say its better than direct election of Appellate judges (which would be a disaster by any measure). They fear that could happen if the Constitutional Amendment isn’t passed.

Opponents counter that even the most radical on both sides of the aisle don’t want that, and bills seeking to make that the law of the land consistently fail in committee.

To be honest with you, I’m still torn. But as a person who: a. doesn’t take kindly to bullies, and b. is ready to take out my policy brass knuckles at the drop of a hat to beat down really dumb ideas from Nashville (there is an ample supply), I’m inclined to vote No.

When someone’s being a bully you don’t bend to them, you turn around and kick their ass so they’ll leave you alone. That’s what needs to happen here.

Amendment 3 – Tennessee Tax Dystopia

Unlike Amendment 2, Amendment 3 is simple. If you want your sales tax to start bumping up to 14%…vote for it.

If you don’t, vote against it.

Tennessee already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation.

The Legislature, with the help of the Haslam administration, has been cutting taxes on the wealthiest of the wealthy. As things get more expensive, and we keep underfunding every damn thing we have to fund…that revenue will have to be replaced somewhere…and the sales tax is the only place to go.

Sponsors of this Amendment, like Brian Kelsey of Germantown will say this saves the state from the tax hell of having an income tax…and by virtue, stops taxes from increasing.

But as anyone with half a brain in their head knows, the absence of a kind of tax doesn’t stop taxes in general from increasing. Come on dude…really?

Vote NO on Amendment 3.

Amendment 4 – Veteran’s Bingo “Gaming”

Amendment 4 is an effort to include Veteran’s organizations in the “games of chance” carveout that was enshrined in the lottery.

Currently, many not-for-profit organizations can hold fundraisers that involve games of chance (gambling, cakewalks, etc. but not bingo)…but Veteran’s groups can’t.

The reason goes back to a scandal in the 1980’s.

The amendment lays out some high hurdles for Veteran’s groups to be able to do this…and that’s actually my problem with the Constitutional amendment.

If the amendment just said the Constitution allows this type of organization to do this and the “how” may be regulated by the state, I’d probably be for it. But this amendment sets forth a specific policy prescription and safeguards, which, if they don’t work, will take years to change because they’ll require another constitutional amendment!

So while I certainly think Veteran’s groups do good work…and far too often they do work the state itself should be doing, I can’t support this amendment because it reads too much like a bill and not enough like a constitutional amendment…if that makes any sense.

So, I say vote No on Amendment 4.

So there ya go. Take it for what its worth. But most importantly, go vote.

Jan 02 2014

A “must watch” for all Tennesseans

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Investigative reports can play an important role in understanding what’s going on behind the scenes in business, government, or any institution, but it ain’t cheap. Media outlets, especially TV outlets have fewer resources and smaller staffs to do these kinds of things.

Watching NC 5’s “A Question of Influence” is not only important for people all over Tennessee…so they can see what’s happening behind the scenes, its also important to reward them by watching it at their website.

Doesn’t cost you a thing.

Here’s part 1. Go check out the other 6 parts at their website, and get your learn on.

Happy new year.

NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather

Jul 09 2013

Is Haslam running government like a business?

Posted by Steve Ross in corruption, State Politics

TN Gov’t Contracts 101: Question 1. Are you a friend, friend of a friend, or paying a friend for counsel?

Back in 2010, when Gov. Haslam used millions of his personal wealth to win both the GOP primary and eventually the general election, a constant theme was that he would “run government like a business”.

Now, anyone with half a brain in their head should have looked at this promise pretty skeptically. Its just like any other promise a politician makes, subject to change based on future events.

And while the notion of “running government like a business” may seem like a good idea, 2010 was just two years after businesses…really big businesses…essentially tanked the economy by screwing over people who just wanted to own a home.

So, maybe we didn’t ask the right question at the time. Maybe we should have asked, “What kind of business?”

Of course, a fawning media, ready to crown a victor well before the election, didn’t help with the questions. They were falling all over themselves to use every adjective they could to make Haslam seem inevitable.

30 months into this term, the shine is starting to wear off with the media, and problems both inside and out of his administration have more than a few observers wondering about the Governor’s decision-making and the patronage system that has emerged.

Lead by the Legislature

Riding a wave of Republican victories across the state, Gov. Haslam was inaugurated with a newly ensconced GOP led House and Senate. While the Governor was just getting settled in, the legislature went to work, removing collective bargaining for teachers, instituted a photo ID bill for voting, and passed a bill allowing corporate contributions to political campaigns, among other things.

By the end of the 2011 session, many on both sides of the aisle rightly asked who was in charge of the state…the Governor or the Legislature? By 2012 the Governor started getting his sea legs, even if the legislature continued dragging him further to the right than most thought possible.

A post-mortem of the Gov.’s second year in office, noted that Haslam had a hard time reigning in the far right elements in the legislature. In the days following the end of the 2012 session, a slew of articles noting both the secrecy of the legislature and the Executive Branch intent on keeping information about the workings of government from the people, under the guise of “privacy”. One such effort sought to shield the owners of companies from public disclosure of their receipt of cash grants from the state.

All of these things led to the state being saddled with the dubious distinction of having the worst State Legislature in the US in 2012, and led to many questions, including those wondering if Gov. Haslam would ever live up to his “moderate” public image?

Apparently, the Gov. had other things in mind…like fulfilling the worst fears of what “running Government like a business” can be.

Patronage and personal interest

With the passage of the TEAM Act, a bill that radically changed the way Civil Service jobs are awarded, and which led to the hiring of what one writer called his patronage chief, Larry Martin, the nature of that “business climate in government” began to emerge.

Martin, who retired from First Tennessee Bank in 2006, also served as Chief of Staff for the Haslam Administration in Knoxville. While its not unusual for a political appointee to follow an executive from one place to another, Martin’s connections to the Haslam family are deeply rooted.

Both Jimmy Haslam and R. Brad Martin (U of Memphis interim president and chief Pilot internal investigator) served on the First Tennessee board while Larry Martin was COO of First Tennessee’s Financial Services division.

Another Haslam staffer, Mark Emkes, a Director at First Horizon (Parent Co. of First TN) became Director of Finance and Administration until he retired recently and was replaced by Larry Martin.

While the tangled web of business friends of the Haslam family that litters the upper echelon of the Haslam Administration is interesting, I’ll leave that for a future post to deal directly with the personal interests that have been rearing their ugly head for months now.

In June, a committee tasked with oversight of state contracts deferred the review of a contract for the Dept. of Corrections, that was awarded to a company employing the wife of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield…and cost the state $15m more.

This same group was also exploring looking into contracts offered to Enterprise Rent-a-car and Bridgestone, the latter formerly headed by recently retired Director of Finance and Administration, Mark Emkes.

But it doesn’t end there.

The Governor recently awarded a $330 million contract to a company he listed on his disclosures as an investment, one of the scant few I might add. He also signed a law that benefitted a business buddy in Gatlinburg and says he’s unconcerned about a coal company that has ties to his family business.

All of this leads us to a report from NC5 yesterday that alleges inside dealings on contracts by Tom Ingram, who, until recently was paid privately by the Governor.

This after several administrative problems involving child deaths at DCS, and the rewards totaling $1m that went to the TN Dept. of Labor after misspending $73m of unemployment money, which ultimately led to the Governor seeking cover behind newly appointed State Chief Operating Officer Greg Adams.

Apparently, “running government like a business” in part, at least, means placing layers of folks between you and government so you don’t really have to take responsibility for governing.

Cloudy skies ahead?

Of course, this is going on while the FBI and IRS are investigating the family business. An investigation that, while not directly connected to the Governor yet, certainly puts a pall on the overall outlook for Tennessee’s first family.

Which brings me back to something I said at the beginning…just what kind of business did candidate Haslam intend to model Tennessee government after?

While the jury may be out on that question as a whole, the evidence is pointing to the same kind of crony capitalism that brought down the banks in 2007-08 and is causing his family business all kinds of trouble right now. The kind that works with its friends at the expense of everyone else.

And while the Governor has enjoyed a certain measure of teflon like “unstainable” status in public opinion, one has to wonder how many scratches that surface can withstand before the public turns their back on the Governor.

What should be even more troubling for the Governor is that while he’s taken some dings to his image, the investigations into poor management and potential misdeeds in his administration are just beginning.

And just like most things, the bandwagoneers in the media will eventually jump on this en masse to do the thing they like doing more than building someone up…taking them down.

Feb 02 2012

Why Would Anyone Want to Teach in Tennessee?

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Track HB 740 here

This is a question I keep asking myself as bill after bill slides right through the state legislature.

Teachers Should be Angry
via Principal Principles

Last year it was the right to have a seat at the table when negotiating salary, class sizes, and all sorts of other things. This year its tenure and perhaps most egregious, payment of student loans.

I have student loans. So does just about everyone I know that has graduated from college in the past 20 years or so.

Quite honestly, you can’t go to school, even with scholarships, without some kind of loan unless your parents have the money to pay for school outright…which is a very small minority of people.

Student loans, like every other kind of loan, are a contract between the institution loaning the money (often backed by the Federal Government) and the individual requesting the loan. Like all those other loans, there is a process by which the lender can seek relief if the individual is not paying their loan back. Garnishments, court, you name it. They have ways to get paid.

So I’m kind of stunned (though I probably shouldn’t be) that members of the state legislature are seeking to decline, suspend, or revoke the licenses of teacher if they haven’t kept up with the student loans. I mean, wow. That seems unnecessarily punitive to me.

I’m curious to know how the sponsors of this bill expect those student loans to ever get paid if the people can’t work, but I’m even more curious to know where it will stop.

Will teachers also lose their license for defaulting on a car loan? Paying their credit card bill late? What about the cable bill? I know there are a lot of legislators that collected a pretty penny in donations from ATT when they were pushing their cable service legislation up there a few years ago. Will people get effectively fired for not paying for their uVerse bill?

Tennessee is in the middle of the pack in terms of starting teacher pay (22nd by my count), and 33rd in the nation by average salary. What’s more, because the state government funds education so shabbily (we’re 46th in the nation) most teachers have to spend thousands of dollars of their own money to get the things they need to adequately equip their classrooms.

Considering the average starting salary for a teacher in the state of TN is around $32,400, by the time you take out taxes, school supplies and living expenses there isn’t all that much left for repaying student loans.

This is a choice the Tennessee legislature has made, to be the fourth lowest funder of education in the United States, which, in turn, impacts teacher salaries, equipment, as well as other resources in the educational system and student achievement. Now they are choosing to insert themselves in the personal finances of teachers and punish them if they can’t make it with the meager amount of money they appropriate to education.

At this point it should be fairly clear that the enemy is not what they’ve told us it was. Last year the boogey man was Teacher Unions. We were led to believe that the General Assembly, upon slaying that dragon, would actually start working on real things like increasing educational investment, or working to improve the quality of the overall school environment. But no, this bill directly attacks the teachers themselves, as individuals, not some disembodied third party.

The enemy of this GOP controlled legislature is Teachers and its time for Teachers to start fighting back.

Jan 31 2012

$15,000,000 For Fewer Than 900 People a Year

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

$16k savings per fabulously rich dude.

For as long as I can remember, Republicans have been kicking and screaming about the “DEATH TAX”, also known as the inheritance or estate tax.

The estate tax is one of those taxes you hear about a lot, but probably won’t ever have to pay, unless your family is fabulously wealthy. Even then, there are ways around it, and the people that most likely have to deal with it have the money to hire lawyers and planners to help minimize the exposure to the tax.

Nonetheless, this is an issue that has captured the talking-points of Republicans and some Democrats since the dawn of the Republican Revolution. Citing the harm that could befall family farms and others, the specter of the estate tax has been used as a means to scare the dickens out of people that will most likely never have to deal with it.

So, its no surprise that in yesterday’s State of the State address, Governor Haslam proposed to cut the estate tax by $15m by raising the exemption from $1,000,000 to $1,250,000.

A quick look at the rules and regulations regarding the inheritance tax, as it is called in Tennessee, shows a graduated rate for estates of $1,000,000 and above. Basically, anything over $1.5m and you’re paying around 10% on the inheritance over $1,000,000. If you inherit an estate, in full or part, that is worth less than $1,000,000, you owe nothing in both state and federal estate taxes (though you may still have to file to prove that, consult a tax attorney to be sure).

That sounds like a lot of money, but the reality is, if your parent’s estate is worth $2m, and you have a sibling, you’re in the clear up to $2,040,000. You can do the math from there to see how many brothers, sisters, cousins, and ne’er-do-well hangers on you might need to avoid this tax depending on the size of your family’s estate.

One thing that no one really talks about is how many people the estate tax really impacts. I mean, we’ve been hearing about this thing for so long, and with such vitriol, that one might think its a whole bunch of people.

So I decided to call up the TN Dept. of Revenue and ask them just how many people actually pay the tax every year for the past three fiscal years. The individual on the other side of the phone didn’t have an immediate answer, so I gave him my email address and a couple of hours later, I had an answer.

The verdict: less than 1000 each year, or about .01% of the 6.8 million people in Tennessee every year.

Here’s how it breaks down.

Fiscal Year
2009
2010
2011
Returns Filed
905
811
845
Tax Collected
$91,469,868.33
$81,090,705.57
$113,351,186.58
Average per Filer
$101,071.68
$99,988.54
$134,143.42

We make money the old fashioned way, we inherit it.

Now someone out there is going to say that any amount is too much. Ok, you can believe that, but they’re also the same people that complain when roads aren’t paved, or the line at the DMV is too long, or the trash doesn’t get picked up…as if that’s magical or something.

The long hard reality is that people don’t pay anything on the first $1,000,000 they inherit. So if the average is about $112,000 per filer, each year, then these folks are inheriting more than $2.1 million dollars, which means they’re really only paying about 5% or less of their total inheritance in state taxes.

But we’re looking at the average here, when in reality we should probably be looking at the median. I didn’t ask what the median was. I’ll leave that up to some intrepid reporter that’s actually getting paid to research this stuff, but I’m pretty sure the median is going to be a lot less than this $112,000, with a few, very fortunate souls skewing the average with very large inheritances.

So who is really paying the tax…I mean, the bulk of it. Folks inheriting a whole lot more than most of us will ever make, see, or have any kind of access to.

This is billed as tax relief, and I suppose it is, on some level. But this is not the kind of tax relief that’s going to impact…well…anyone but the 1000 or less most fortunate people in Tennessee.

So, is this really tax relief? No, this is wealth relief.