Author Archives: Steve Ross

Bully Bill Battle

Is Mark White feeling heat from the right?

Definitions are not the enemy.

As session lumbers on, most of the goofy distraction bills have either been passed, or passed up. Its time to take a look at some of the things we missed while we were being distracted, and bills that are coming up.

One of those issues is addressing the problem of bullying in a substantive way.

There are two competing bills before the General Assembly that are currently moving: HB 927 sponsored in the House by Karen Camper of Memphis, and HB 2122 sponsored in the House by Mark White of Memphis.

While both bills seek to address the issue of bullying…one does so in a much more specific and effective way.

Just a quick look at the summary for 927 vs. 2122, shows the difference between a bill that seeks to enumerate what bullying is, rather than dress up current (an ineffective) law with a bow and sending it on its way.

Below is a piece Lauren Lee from Fox13 in Memphis did on the bill. At the end is an interview with Michelle Bliss, who carefully deconstructs the differences between the two bills.

Mid-South News, Weather, Traffic and Sports | FOX13

For Rep. White to say, “If you define that bullying is someone’s expression of their sexual or gender identity, their perceived identity, then you set up a situation where, it may not be bullying to another person, they just have a different set of standards.” is disingenuous. The law defines all manner of undesirable activity in specific, sometimes graphic detail. We do this to ensure that individuals who engage in such undesirable activity can be held accountable for their actions.

By removing the specific language that defines what bullying is, and who the likely targets are, Rep. White is minimizing the issue, and placing thousands of children at risk, all for the sake of someone’s “different set of standards”. Taken to its logical conclusion, any manner of activities, from speeding to assault, or even more heinous violent crime could fall under that “different set of standards” that Rep. White seems to hold so dear, making prosecution of these crimes essentially impossible.

Rep. White’s decision to leave these definitions out of his bill means the current hodge podge of policy will continue, without any clarity or consistency, which also means it will not reduce or enact any real change.

In the end, his bill amounts to passing legislation for the sake of saying you’ve passed legislation on a hot topic isn’t what we send our legislators to Nashville to do. We expect them to make laws that will truly address the problems we face.

Contact Representative Mark White at and ask him to support HB 927. Post your email to Facebook and Twitter and tag Tennessee Equality Project and State Representative Mark White in the post.

If you need help with an email, check out this post from TEP, its a good guide. Also check out

If we want to protect our children from bullying, we have to have clear and consistent guidelines for what bullying is…not some mushy nondescript standard.

You can also email the members of the House Education Committee in support of HB 927. Their email addresses can be found here.

HB 927 is scheduled to be heard in the House Education Subcommittee on Tuesday at 3pm. HB 2122 is scheduled for the Education Committee on Tuesday at noon.

Haslam terrified of democratic process

Terrified of business and workers working together

Terrified of business and workers working together

As workers at the Chattanooga VW plant prepare to for a vote that would decide whether or not the UAW could represent them in the plant, Gov. Haslam is continuing his chicken little dance about the prospect.

Haslam has been clucking about the potential for a union vote in Chattanooga since September, but VW officials don’t seem nearly as alarmed…and for good reason.

VW has a long history of working with unions rather than in opposition to them. Unions are the norm in Germany. The German “works councils” work together with managers to come up with ways to become more efficient and train workers in that new efficiency.

But for some reason, Gov. Haslam is terrified of the model VW has used all over the world coming to Tennessee.

It will “have some ramifications” and “dampen enthusiasm” Haslam has said. But is there any proof of that? We’re talking about one plant in one city where the company itself is not only NOT resisting the vote, but embracing it! Heck, the only enthusiasm for jobs in the state have been when they’ve involved scads of taxpayers dollars for low pay jobs or trying to give state buildings away.

And why is the Governor inserting himself in the way a business wants to conduct business? I mean, can’t they do what they think is best for them? Why is the Governor using his office to interfere with business?

The whining and crying from the Governor’s office has continued on, unabated since the fall…when charges arose that the Governor offered incentives for VW to reject the vote. Haslam denies these charges, but will not release any information about the discussions.

Still, he’s concern trolling the vote…a democratic vote of the workers at the plant to decide…as they have a right to do, if they will participate.

What makes it even more mystifying is that the vote doesn’t change anything about “right to work” rules in the state or guarantee employment.

Why does the Governor have such a big problem with the democratic process?

Beaver’s “Obamascare” bill would cost billions

State Sen. Mae Beavers R-Mt. Juliet

State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet

In her zeal to scuttle Obamacare, State Sen. Mae Beavers has introduced an already constitutionally suspect bill that would make enforcement, participation, and material support illegal.

The bill is similar in scope and writing to measures in Georgia, and South Carolina.

It would basically make it illegal for any state entity or contractor to “establish or administer, or assist in establishing or administering, any specific regulatory scheme to operate the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, or any subsequent federal amendment to such act, in this state.

One thing’s for sure, Republicans will stop at nothing to seem more “anti-Obamacare” than the next guy…until it costs $6.5 billion.

As Tom Humphrey reports the fiscal note (cost to the state) of the bill would come out to 20% of the entire state budget.

Needless to say, action on the bill was deferred yesterday, and the “author” says she doesn’t understand why it would cost so much to do this.

Perhaps she should just read the 3 page fiscal note that describes the economic destruction Sen. Beavers is prescribing for the state.

Folks, we get it. Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act…not because huge swaths of it were written by the Heritage Foundation, but because Obama shepherded it through Congress and gleefully accepted the moniker “Obamacare” when the GOP tried to saddle the legislation with it.

Maybe Beavers should find something better to do with her time than propose bills that would economically devastate the state…like familiarize herself with the Supremacy Clause.

Analysis: TN State of the State #TNSOTS2014

Unicorns and daisies in stunning monochrome

Unicorns and daisies in stunning monochrome®

So last night Gov. Bill Haslam delivered his 4th State of the State address of his term.

It was the same kind of “long on promises and short on details” self-congratulatory affair that we’ve come to expect from the Governor, complete with that good ole fiscal conservatism that says tax cuts for people who don’t miss the money are better than services for people who need them.

It was only imaginative in the way it manipulated or simply omitted facts to further a narrative of success that most people haven’t felt yet.

The Governor talked a lot about education. Nearly half of the speech was about it in some way or another. But to start, we should probably cover some of the other topics, so they don’t get lost in the mix.

Long List of “Accomplishments”

The Governor started off with a long list of “accomplishments”. Real long. Like almost two pages of them.

Lots of accolades from being named 3rd best managed state in the nation (I couldn’t find that, but I did find us at 16th last year which is better than most, that one needs a citation.

He also noted our award for state of the year from Business Facilities Magazine. The magazine notes the state brought in 6900 new jobs, but that’s less than 3% of the 237,700 people who were looking for work in December. Hardly a stellar performance for the people actually looking for jobs.

Haslam also hailed the drop in space state offices occupy. He says this will save the state money. Unfortunately, even his own numbers, as reported by NC5 in Nashville, tell a very different story. NC5 could only find about $450,000/year of savings, and further found the math the Governor has used is more than a little fuzzy. Good to know as we head into the budget section of the presentation.

$260m + -$340m = cut taxes

Haslam laid out new revenues for the upcoming year of $260m. Of course, his projections for this year are already $171m off the mark, so who knows if this is real or more fuzzy math from the Governor.

He also laid out $340m in new spending ($180m in Tenncare, $40m in employee health insurance, and $120m for education). That leaves an $80m hole in the budget.

The Governor defended tax cuts for estate taxes and the Hall income tax as “revenue growth” policies. This is a common GOP refrain, that makes no sense and that has been proven wrong over and over again.

Gov. Haslam offered no proposal that would cover the $80m dollar shortfall, so there’s that.

Education policy du jour

Of course, education was a huge part of the speech, since that’s the one thing just about everyone agrees the state should pay for (within limits). The Governor hailed the gains in the state’s overall TCAP scores for 2013. There’s no question that seeing scores go up is a positive, but a seven point jump in two years when the national average is only one point, should be a cause for skepticism. Further, going back to 2003, the states scores have increased by 12 points (seven of those between 2011 and 2013).

Had the gains been a gradual upswing (they weren’t) they would seem to be the result of a policy decision. But a seven point swing in two years looks more like an outlier than a trend. This is something we’ll have to watch more in the coming years to see if a trend is actually established. My gut tells me no. The state scores have hovered in the same 3 point swing zone since 2005.

He also hit on all the “blame the teachers” policies his administration has been pushing since 2011, and vouchers…something drains resources from already under-resourced public schools.

Tennessee Promises, Promises

The biggest attention grabber was the “Tennessee Promise” program. Under this plan, high school students would be given two years of free tuition at a two-year school to get an associates degree. If they chose to move on to a four-year institution, they could begin as a junior.

On the face of it, this seems like a good and progressive idea. Get kids who might not have the resources or the grades to make it in a four-year school to get their feet wet in a two-year school, and parlay that success into higher educational attainment overall.

But he devil is in the details, and the plan to use money from the Tennessee Lottery Scholarship fund raised the ire of the panned the funding idea because it would drain the fund, and possibly hurt four-year institutions in the state, by draining away college Freshmen and Sophomores.

I’m also skeptical about the “endowment fund” that would pay for this program. How will the endowment be administered? Will it have a board packed with cronies like just about every other government institution in the state? What happens if it runs out of money?

Seems to me, the money would be better spent as intended…to fully fund college, and that more money should be allocated to higher education to bring tuition costs down, and maybe even attract out of state students that pay way more than in-state students do.

As for the Community Colleges, they’re critically important, no doubt. But shouldn’t they be focused on the things they’re already successful at…providing access to some General Ed. courses for students and graduating students who aren’t on a four-year track.

On a political note, the idea that this General Assembly would pass a bill that amounts to a new entitlement is cute. I don’t see it happening.

So there it is. The state of the state. The response from the House Democratic Caucus can be found here.

What you won’t hear in Gov. Haslam’s “State of the State” address

For Haslam...a lot is better left unsaid.

For Haslam…a lot is better left unsaid.

Tonight, Gov. Haslam will deliver his “State of the State” address. I expect it will go a lot like last year’s address, keying in on education and fiscal restraint. He might say something about Tenncare expansion, but if he does, it will only be to say we can’t afford to take a couple of years of free money to care for 180,000 people in our state…because, you know, free money from the Feds is too costly when you’re terrified of the Lt. Governor.

Haslam will have to face the fact that revenue collections are $171m short for the first 6 months of the year. That’s a lot of scratch any way you slice it. Perhaps this isn’t the economic miracle that he thought it was.

Of course, lower tax collections means the Governor has an excuse to cut necessary services. Every year he’s been in office he’s directed all departments other than education to cut an arbitrary 5% from their budgets…all while lowering taxes on folks who make their money through investment income.

All of this fits neatly into an ideology that’s centered around the”haves” and “can’t haves”…a worldview the Governor doesn’t explicitly articulate, but one he is a studious acolyte of.

But there’s so much more you won’t hear from the Governor.

Giving our money away to other states

Giving our money away to other states

You won’t hear that his Tennessee plan for Medicaid Expansion is a plan in name only, or that, as of today he’s surrendered $85,000,000 of Tennessean’s Federal Tax dollars to other states because he thinks a health insurance plan based on Republican ideology, and authored largely by the Heritage Foundation, aka Obamacare, is a clunker.

You won’t hear about government contracts he supports with a company he formerly invested in, or that an audit calls that same contract into question, or that when he tried to get more government money for his former investment he was told no by members of his own party.

You won’t hear anything about any of these issues, or the contract he gave to his Finance Commissioner’s former employer, or the contract General Services awarded to Enterprise-Rent-a-Car after hiring one of its former execs.

You won’t hear him talk about his economic development plan that includes paying $100,000 per job to a company that gave over $36,000 to his campaign, and is represented by his under the table paid “advisor” Tom Ingram.

You will hear how he’s running state government like a business…he just won’t mention that business is his family business, Pilot Flying J which is under Federal investigation for defrauding clients.

I mean, there’s a whole page of questions and an hour long special to boot.

But despite all this graft, regular Tennesseans must suffer cuts because a state with one of the lowest tax burdens on the wealthy in the nation must find more ways for them to accumulate wealth so…they will “create jobs” even though business leaders say tax cuts don’t create jobs, and so does a study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

You probably will hear him crow about education, but he won’t mention the reforms he’s taking credit for were first offered by a Democratic President, and put into action by a Democratic Governor.

You won’t hear him talk about our poverty rate that is higher than the national average, or our jobless rate is higher than the national average.

You won’t hear him talk about any of these things because he doesn’t have to. This is just another victory lap in a life of victory laps for a Governor that likely won’t have anyone running against him in the fall, and that feels he can act as he pleases, so long as it doesn’t raise too much of a stir so as to damage his widely held image as a “moderate”.

So enjoy the kabuki theater that will be tonight’s State of the State address, which will be aired online and on your local PBS station.

It’ll be a doozie…I’m sure.

PRESS RELEASE: Welcome Rally for President Obama

Press Release from the Tennessee Democratic County Chairs Association


Our President is coming to visit Nashville!

Join us at a welcome rally for President Obama! We all know that not everyone will get into McGavock High School to hear the President’s speech, so let’s meet outside to show the spirit of Tennessee’s best values.

We’ll wave signs and cheer for the President and rally for the values we honor here in Tennessee: hard work, opportunity, and fairness. Bring your own homemade sign or help place hundreds of “FORWARD: Tennesseans for Obama” signs all around the area to make a great welcome for the President. Come early, any time after 11am, if you’d like to help with placing the hundreds of signs. It’s estimated that the President will be coming in sometime around 1pm and staying in town until after 3pm, but remember this is a fluid situation so times are approximate.

Tuesday night we heard our President reaffirm his commitment to making 2014, a true year of action. The State of the Union address outlined realistic reforms that will help build a stronger middle class, create jobs, and expand opportunity for all.

The President reminded us of one of our core values as Democrats and as Americans—if you work hard and play by the rules, you should have the chance to succeed.

Here in Tennessee we already stand for those values: hard work, opportunity, and fairness for all Tennesseans. And Democrats are standing up: in the State Legislature, in our communities, and right here in Middle Tennessee with grassroots with volunteers, activists and citizens like you.

January 30, 2014 at 1pm – 3:30pm
McGavock High School
3150 McGavock Pike
Nashville, TN 37214
United States
Google map and directions

Whine and groceries

So very true

So very true

I’m going to tell you a secret.

I hate Wine in Grocery stores.

I don’t hate the idea. I love the idea.

I hate the amount of oxygen Wine in Grocery Stores sucks out of the “room”.

The incessant coverage of Wine in Grocery stores, means media outlets can say they’ve met their responsibility for covering state issues if they just cover this one topic.

Its not true.

People looking for jobs don’t care about Wine in Grocery Stores.

People wondering how they’re going to pay their medical bills, or hell…just their regular bills, don’t care about Wine in Grocery Stores.

Grocers. That’s who cares most about Wine in Grocery stores.

This is, more than anything, a grass-tops campaign. There’s no real movement to be able to buy wine where you buy your bread. People think it might save some time. It might be a convenience. But its not like our society will collapse if there’s not wine in grocery stores.

Its a luxury. We’ve spent the better part of four years and countless hours of coverage on a luxury.

That’s ridiculous.

You know what I want.

I want something completely different.

I want mixers in liquor stores.

Actually, no. I want to be able to buy all the fixin’s for my Super Bowl party at a liquor store. Mixers, sodas, regular American beer…as well as chips and all the junk food to make it go.

That’s what I want.

But how important is that to me? I mean really. As a priority, where would I place that? In the things I need? In the things I think I need? In the things I want? In the things that might be nice?

Yeah. The last one.

I think its interesting that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a cultural and fiscal conservative, is pushing for this bill to pass. It’ll be interesting to see how much the Grocer’s Association gave his campaign…and more importantly, his PAC. I’m not saying there’s an explicit quid pro quo, I’m just sayin’.

So pass the damn bill and open up some airspace for the things that really matter to Tennesseans.

Vouchers are no “golden ticket”

There's always a catch to every golden ticket

There’s always a catch to every golden ticket

Its “National School Choice Week” the press release reads, and they loaded up busses from Southland Mall in Whitehaven this morning to take people to Nashville in support of the School Voucher bill supported by Brian Kelsey and John DeBerry…and not supported by Gov. Haslam.

Last year when Kelsey and Haslam butted heads on the voucher bill, it died in the last days of session. This year its anybody’s guess.

Voucher bills, and the people that introduce them have been getting some big time financial support over the past few years thanks to the big time money that has been seeking to shepherd the legislation through all 50 state houses.

Groups like The American Federation for Children, funded by the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame, and the DeVos family of Amway, have been literally pouring money into “independent” groups like AFC, and others…not to mention the campaign coffers of politicians to get their favored education reform passed.

It would be easy to point you to an an angry screed about the “dark money” that’s funding these efforts.

I could point you to articles about the ugly truth of school choice.

I could have sent you to a photo of a llama in either one of those links and you’d probably be none the wiser.

Most folks, either for or against school voucher plans aren’t really interested in that.

They’re interested in their kids succeeding and they’ve been told “school choice” or vouchers are the way to make that happen.

Unfortunately, there are no sure things in life, and vouchers are just another example of that.

There’s plenty of evidence that shows vouchers don’t work and aren’t any more efficient at delivering educational outcomes than anything else.

The problem is, the real problem is much bigger than the school your kids go to.

Vouchers are a solution avoiding a larger problem

Voucher supporter, and President of the Memphis Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Dwight Montgommery says,

Children of lesser means are being discriminated against and forced “to attend schools that are not adequate to serve their learning needs,” said Montgomery. “This is as unacceptable today as it was 59 years ago in 1955.”

There’s no denying he’s right about this. Poor children have largely been left behind, but education is only one aspect of that reality. Yesterday I wrote about the opportunity gap in the south. Poor children, and their families, have been repeatedly failed by society. They’ve been left behind, derided for their circumstances, and written off by more people than I could name.

Unfortunately, vouchers only compound this problem for the reasons I laid out here.

There’s no question in my mind that we, as a society, need to do more to tackle the opportunity gap head on.

There’s no question we need to do better by poor kids in the US, and a lot of that means pouring more into public education.

But rather than do that, we’ve sought stop-gap measures that have the effect of actually de-funding public education, all while blaming teachers for not getting more done with less.

While I have no doubt that voucher supporters like Rev. Montgommery have the best intentions, the truth is, educators have done as much with less as they can.

If we really want to make education better in Tennessee, we need to start giving our children more opportunities to get ahead (Pre-K, after school and summer programs, parental involvement programs) and our educators more tools to make a difference. That means spending more in a state that’s one of the most stingy with its education dollar in the United States. We have to do all this while working in earnest to help the parents of these kids get to a place where they’re not struggling to survive.

But none of that is on the table this week. Just golden tickets, and an empty promise of “success”.

Press Release: Johnnie Turner Joins NAACP in Opposition to Vouchers


MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis) is speaking out against efforts to take money away from public schools to spend on private vouchers.

“I strongly believe that private school vouchers paid for by public school funding is wrong for students, wrong for our schools, and wrong for our community,” said Turner. “Vouchers have never been proven to work around the country wherever they have been tried. They do not improve student outcomes, and they clearly are meant to attack and weaken public schools.”

Turner, a lifelong educator with strong Civil Rights ties in Memphis, says that community-based public schools are the best way to educate the next generation.

“Our community faces many challenges that can and must be addressed with education. The idea that we should privatize education as the best way to meet those challenges is wrong on the facts, and a real threat to the future of our community,” said Turner. “The vast majority of our children go to public schools. Supporting those schools, not taking precious resources away, is the best thing for Memphis and the state of Tennessee.”

Rep. Turner has been a long time member and leader in the NAACP, the nation’s oldest Civil Rights organization. The NAACP is strongly opposed to vouchers, publishing the following statement:

The NAACP has consistently supported investments in our public schools that will benefit all students, not just potentially a few. School vouchers do not offer a collective benefit. Vouchers take critical resources away from our neighborhood public schools, the very schools that are attended by the vast majority of African American students. Furthermore, private and parochial schools are not required to observe federal nondiscrimination laws even if they receive funds through voucher programs. In fact, many voucher proposals often contain language specifically intended to circumvent civil rights laws, and many proponents insist voucher funding does not flow to the school but instead to the parent or student precisely to avoid any civil rights obligations. This specificity in language allows private institutions to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, disability and language proficiency – and even merit, again, despite the fact that they are receiving taxpayer funds.


Opportunity Hamstrung

Not much chance of getting out of poverty in the south

Not much chance of getting out of poverty in the south
Click to see the full map.

Friday, Knoxviews mentioned an ongoing study on the equality of opportunity in the United States.

The results shouldn’t be all that surprising if you’ve been paying attention…especially here in the south.

According to the report, economic mobility…or the chances of someone starting at the bottom 20% of income earners and ending up in the top 20% of income earners is incredibly remote…especially in the southeast US.

When ranking the top 100 largest metropolitan areas in the US…three Tennessee cities appear: Nashville is 79th, Knoxville is 87th and Memphis is dead last…again.

When you look at all the areas in the US, Tennessee has 19 “places” which include urban, suburban, and rural areas all over the state. The best place in Tennessee for upward mobility? Cookeville, TN…which ranks 471st out of 709 places listed.

So while Marsha Blackburn sees a “thriving economy” and Bill Haslam trumpets Tennessee as an “Economic Miracle”, the reality for people who grow up in less fortunate situations is, they aren’t experiencing the prosperity they’re talking about.

The lack of opportunity in these areas is due to systemic problems that include: racial and economic segregation, income inequality, educational system, the strength of social institutions, and family structure.

Its interesting that the areas that are most adversely impacted are also areas that actively seek to attract low wage/low skill jobs. The problem with focusing on these low skill/low wage jobs is, there’s also less opportunity for more highly skilled individuals to find the jobs they’re looking for…which often leads to them moving from the area.

Their departure ultimately serves as a drag on the ability of folks who are trying to work their way up because the intellectual capital of the community has been diminished.

Its been a quandary for urban and rural areas alike for decades…especially those that once relied on the steady stream of high paying low skilled jobs that were a staple in the 1960’s and 70’s.

But jobs alone aren’t the primary factor in fostering this opportunity gap, its wages. Wages have dropped 12% for low income earners. Efforts to increase wages for these individuals have been hampered by conservative politicians who think CEO’s deserve a 762% increase in pay while the folks on the line only get 5.7%. After all…they built it, right?

So while the tippy-top of the income spectrum enjoyed nearly 95% of the economic growth since the dawn of the economic downturn, the rest of us have been left to fight for the 5% or so that remains.

An ABC/Washington Post poll released in December showed that 64% of Americans believe current economic policy favors the wealthy. That same poll showed 66% of Americans favor raising the minimum wage.

Since the 1980’s we’ve been told that prosperity would trickle down if we worked hard enough…yet even large low wage companies are being forced to admit that working for them won’t pay the bills. Its bad enough that even folks who try to better their circumstances are met with more hurdles than they can overcome.

Clearly, the preferred economic policies that we’ve been pushing for the past several decades have failed us. Unfortunately, those policies haven’t really changed in the past several years…and even if they had, we wouldn’t have felt the impact of those changes yet.

It takes a long time to turn a $15,700,000,000,000 economy around.

But we have to start sometime.

As the President prepares for the State of the Union on Tuesday, I hope he focuses on the real issues that have helped bring the debate about income inequality into the mainstream.

This isn’t about putting one group over another. This isn’t a war on the rich. Its about adjusting policy so people can realize the American Dream in a new world.

I hope that’s something we can all get behind.