The Elephants in the Room

In Nashville, the GOP is large and in charge; Democrats can stay out of the way or climb on board.

| February 07, 2013
- Greg Cravens
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NASHVILLE — In the middle of last Wednesday's first formal meeting of the Shelby County legislative delegation in Nashville, Democratic state representative Antonio Parkinson, who was moderating the meeting, was redirecting somebody's question about some pro forma matter to the delegation's newly elected chairman, state senator Reginald Tate.

"Chairman Norris?" he said, in what had to be some kind of Freudian slip.

Tate decided to riff on the error, which had begun to draw modest guffaws from the delegation. "I'm the real Mark Norris," he said, as if in casual acknowledgment of a long-held secret.

And that set up state representative Joe Towns, a Democrat and African American like Parkinson and Tate but one less inclined than either to work hand-in-glove with the General Assembly's dominant Republicans, of whom Norris, the GOP's majority leader in the Senate, was a highly influential one.

Under his breath but audibly to most of those nearby, Towns said, "Y'all look like twins. That's why I believe in birth control."

All parts of that exchange were uttered — and taken — lightly, but that is not to say that the back-and-forthing did not betoken some serious issues within the delegation. It did.

Less than a week before, after a dinner meeting of the Germantown Democratic Club (at which he'd been a lively raconteur), Tate was discoursing on his place in the legislature's political firmament, responding specifically to questions about his seeming coziness with leading Republicans and his estrangement from the current leadership of the ever-shrinking state Democratic Party.

"It just so happens that I'm not dancing to the music," Tate said. As to his easy and frequent access to GOP leaders like Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, the Senate speaker, the south Shelby County legislator was up front: "If I can't get you to help me, then I'm going to get somebody else to help me."

Yes, he conceded, he is friendly with Ramsey, but that's because "he wants to reach out to the Democratic side." Besides, said Tate, who had challenged fellow Memphian Jim Kyle, the longtime Senate Democratic leader, for control of the sorely diminished party caucus and lost by a single vote, 4-3, "If I'm not dancing to Kyle's music, what makes anybody think I'd dance to Ramsey's music?"  

On that latter point, Tate acknowledged voting counter to other Democrats and with local Republicans Norris and state representative Curry Todd on the two Republican legislators' several bills to pave the way for suburban school independence, but that, he suggested, could result in possible quid pro quo arrangements down the line for the areas he represents.

Tate was talking realpolitik of a fairly basic kind, and, while he may be more active than most Democrats in courting such trade-offs — and certainly more open in discussing them out loud — he is certainly not the only Democrat to seek accommodation with the Republican majority.

It's a matter of arithmetic, really. Starting with the election of 2008, in which there seemed to be a state backlash against the first Obama presidential candidacy, continuing with the Tea Party wipeout of Democratic seats in 2010, and culminating with another strong Republican showing in 2012, assisted by some artful redistricting by the now dominant GOP, Democrats are barely on the legislative map at all.

They have the aforesaid seven of the state Senate's 33 members. They have 27 of the 99-member state House of Representatives. The GOP has the governorship, all of the state's constitutional officers, seven of the nine congressional seats, both U.S. Senate seats, and what would seem to be the same kind of firmly committed loyalty that Democrats used to possess and now can count on in only a very few isolated patches of Tennessee — most notably Shelby County, largely because of its black population; and Davidson County (Nashville), arguably the sole surviving remnant on Planet Earth of the old solid Democratic South.

For Democrats in the Tennessee legislature, the old expression "go along to get along" has very definite relevance.

Even Kyle, a longtime party point man who, by virtue of his leadership post, is one of the official upholders of the Democratic standard, has found it necessary to deviate from strict orthodoxy. After Republican-controlled reapportionment relocated him in a district that was not up for election last year, in effect deleting him from the Senate, he was forced to negotiate with the GOP powers-that-be for inclusion in a district he could run in.

That turned out to be District 30, which already had a Democratic incumbent, Beverly Marrero, who was not exactly thrilled to find her party leader opposing her reelection and who would lose that match. And, rather than opposing outright certain GOP agenda items — like one for state education vouchers, which is backed by the governor and currently picking up steam — Kyle indicated last week that his strategy will be to seek modifications.

In his State of the State message to the newly reconvened General Assembly on January 28th, Governor Bill Haslam issued what sounded like a sincere nod to bipartisanship:

"I believe we have to begin this evening by addressing the elephant in the room — or I guess I should say the elephants in the room. There are a lot of expectations and preconceived notions about how our Republican supermajority is going to govern. ... As we go through this legislative session, I ask everyone in this chamber this evening to keep in mind what Senator [Howard] Baker said: 'The other fellow might be right.' Tennesseans don't want us to be like Washington. They don't want continuous conflict. They do want principled problem solving."

That was reassuring, coming from a governor who, in contemporary terms, has to be considered a moderate (though the genial Pilot Oil scion and former Knoxville mayor, like all other Republicans on the planet, shies away from such a term as the kiss of death, insisting on being called a "conservative").

The difference between a Haslam and an archconservative like Ramsey (who finished third in the 2010 Republican primary behind Haslam and then Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp) is basically one of degree — but the degrees count for much.

In 2011, when he laid out Phase One of the educational-reform package that he clearly intends to be a major part of his legacy, for example, the newly elected Haslam focused on such issues as merit pay for teachers, tenure reform, and expansion of charter schools.

Revocation of teachers' rights to collectively bargain was never part of his agenda, but it was part of Ramsey's, who declined to accept the modest tweaks proposed by Haslam (and House speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, for that matter) and constructed a solid front for abolition in the Senate.

In the end, Haslam gave way on that issue, as he did on several others that first year of his tenure. Since then, he has strived, with mixed success, to hold his own with Ramsey, and the two — like partners to an arranged marriage — make a conscious, and not always successful, effort to stay on the same page.

The realities are that legislative debate for the foreseeable future in Tennessee is likely to be a matter of compromise between Republican factions, with Democrats, confronted with GOP supermajorities in both House and Senate, hoping at best to impact such few borderline votes as may occur.

Here are some of the major issues known to be coming in the 2013 session of the General Assembly:
The voucher bill: What the governor proposes is a modest pilot program, beginning with a maximum of 5,000 students, all of whom must be members of households below the official poverty line and currently be attending schools performing in the lowest 5 percent of Tennessee schools, according to standardized tests.

To critics who maintain such bills will undermine public education and strip already struggling schools of per-pupil funding, Haslam noted in his State of the State address that he is funneling an additional $57 million into the problem institutions, all of which seem destined for the fledgling state-managed Achievement School District created under Haslam's reform package.

State senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who introduced the first voucher bill two years ago, more or less along the lines Haslam is proposing now, had floated new proposals involving wider scope and higher subsidies but seems content for the moment with the Haslam bill. Formally sponsored by Norris and House majority leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, it envisions some 20,000 students within three years.


Medicaid expansion: As originally enacted, President Obama's Affordable Care Act required states to expand Medicaid coverage (Tennessee's version is TennCare) to individuals earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal government would fully fund the increased costs through 2015, after which states would begin to pick up the slack, incurring a maximum of 10 percent liability for the new expenses in 2022.

With expansion now optional as a result of last summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision finding "Obamacare" constitutional, debate rages in every state with a conservative majority, and that definitely includes Tennessee. Here is another instance in which the inclinations of Haslam and an assortment of supportive Republicans and Democrats favoring expansion may be thwarted by Ramsey and ultraconservative GOP legislators.

It is generally believed that the governor, earlier on, had been willing to have Tennessee avail itself of the option to form its own medical exchange under Obamacare, but that stout opposition from his right wing backed him off. That pattern seems to be repeating itself on the issue of Medicaid expansion, which the state's hospital administrators have lobbied for. Haslam has indicated a willingness to consider participating, but two bills — one by Kelsey, which already has 16 of the 33 senators as sponsor — have been introduced to prohibit any expansion, and Ramsey has said flatly (in what may actually be a concession to Haslam) that the issue won't be dealt with this year.

And that's probably the case.

Workers' compensation: Given that the once semigenerous provisions of Tennessee's workers' compensation laws were already weakened by bills supported by Democratic governor Phil Bredesen less than a decade ago, it's a slam-dunk proposition that they will undergo major surgery in the current legislative session.

Here's a case in which Haslam himself has proposed to wield the scalpel. The most important provision of a measure he announced in his State of the State message is the establishment of a new state bureaucracy that would adjudicate all injury claims and other job-related disabilities which once went directly into litigation and, under the proposed law, would seriously limit the potential grounds for judicial appeal.

Another portion of the Haslam bill would increase the burden of proof on a claimant.

There are doubtless union representatives and trial lawyers who will try to lobby against the bill, but the day in which star lobbyists like John Summers could retard such legislation are now in the past. For better or for worse, making Tennessee more "business-friendly" is now the order of the day, and on this point there is no quarrel between Republican factions.

Guns in parking lots: One bill which famously did divide the GOP in the 2012 legislative session would have further expanded the prevalence of guns in Tennessee even more than had been the case in the NRA-mentored sessions of 2011 and 2012.

Allowing guns in bars and parks was a fairly easy matter for the firearms lobby, notoriously generous (or punitive) with financial and organizational support during political campaigns. But in 2012, a proposal to allow guns in parked cars on business parking lots put the rank-and-filers, including numerous members of the Tea Party class of 2010, in serious conflict with business-minded Republicans, including the governor and the party's legislative leadership — not to mention the state's major corporate interests, such as FedEx of Memphis and Volkswagen of Chattanooga.

It was a battle between property rights and gun rights, and, lo and behold, guess who won? The bill was bottled up in committee and held off the floor, and Representative Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, the GOP caucus leader in the House, later paid a penalty, losing her seat in a 2012 primary race to an opponent heavily supported by the NRA and the Tennessee Firearms Association, whose executive director called for Maggart to be "crucified" as an object lesson.

That experience makes it likely that some reprise of the bill will get a fairly attentive hearing in 2013. And a compromise measure seems to be taking shape that would allow permit holders to have the guns concealed in locked cars on business lots, provided that the businesses could keep a record of their permits on file.

Charter school legislation: This one — at least in its full dimension — is the subject of mystery and intrigue on the part of Shelby County's suburban interests and the legislators who represent them. They seek some legally and politically acceptable substitute for the municipal-schools legislation struck down last year by U.S. district judge Hardy Mays.

What seems to be developing is a proposal for a state authorizer empowered, after an appeals process, to overrule local school boards that might choose to reject this or that charter school application. That much is known, and it's consistent with the known predilection of Governor Haslam and his Education Department for blowing out the number of charter schools.

The hard part for the suburbanites and their surrogates — Norris and Todd — will be to fashion some schema that would allow large-scale charter school networks to be formed and simultaneously pass muster not only with the courts but, almost as difficult, with legislators, of both parties across the breadth and depth of Tennessee, who don't want their school boards monkeyed with.

It is the requirement in state law that legislation affecting only a single county be approved by the legislative body of that county (in this case, the wholly resistant Shelby County Commission), which caused a breakdown in Republican Party solidarity last year, forced principal architect Norris to disguise a private bill as a public one, and got an ultimate turndown from Judge Mays.

It remains to be seen if this water can be made into wine.

Wine in grocery stores: Speaking of which, both speakers are now lined up behind the perennial effort to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores. What makes such a bill possible this time around is the requirement in the new version for referenda in those counties that want such privileges.

And there will be more — including as many novelty measures as the inimitable Stacey Campfield of Knoxville (now a state senator) can dream up. He's already thought up a new version of last year's discredited and deflected "Don't Say Gay" bill. This one would force school counselors to identify likely gay students and expose them to their parents. And there's Campfield's bill to take away welfare payments from families whose school-agers are screwing up at school.

The shame of it is that Campfield, who got himself a billet on the Senate Education Committee to wreak this mischief, is capable of applying himself to better ends, as he indicated with some acute questioning in committee of the principals involved in state-subsidized virtual (i.e., online) education. This would-be innovation, authorized in the giddy 2011 session, seems to have flunked out due to its poor student scores.

Haslam has called for limiting its enrollment, and legislators from both parties have threatened it with extinction.

Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, one of those who calls the shots
Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, one of those who calls the shots
- Jackson Baker
Democrats like Memphis state
representative G.A. Hardaway (right) have to deal with right-wing gonzos like state senator Stacey Campfield of Knoxville.
Democrats like Memphis state representative G.A. Hardaway (right) have to deal with right-wing gonzos like state senator Stacey Campfield of Knoxville.
- Jackson Baker
State senator Mark Norris and
state representatives Curry Todd and Jim
Coley, all Shelby County Republicans, listen to request from representative Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat.
State senator Mark Norris and state representatives Curry Todd and Jim Coley, all Shelby County Republicans, listen to request from representative Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat.
- Jackson Baker


Comments (18)

Showing 1-18 of 18

Again, when dealing with the schools, I didn't see a mention of an effort to get the MSD ban lifted statewide. I would assume that will be on the agenda, and I would hope that would be option 1 for suburban interests.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 02/07/2013 at 10:38 AM

Baker, in your haste to paint your picture on the school issue, you forgot to do all necessary research.

"It is the requirement in state law that legislation affecting only a single county be approved by the legislative body of that county (in this case, the wholly resistant Shelby County Commission)"

This is only one way of remedying "special legislation", the other is allowing a vote by the citizens of the county. I actually hope Judge Mays rules N-T special legislation and orders a vote by the populace. Only 47,812 Memphians voted for the MCS charter surrender in the first place and about 85% of most of the munis voted for their own school districts...

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Posted by True_Statement on 02/07/2013 at 1:17 PM

(1) Grove, I doubt it. There's a reason why Norris had to go local; the complaints from fellow Republicans about having their own situations changed by a statewide bill were numerous and passionate. Check out the videos of debate, available on the General Assembly website.

(2) True, you are entitled to hope. We'll see.

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Posted by Jackson Baker on 02/07/2013 at 1:31 PM


You will kow better than I, but given the number of children required by the state to even start a municpal school, how many Republicans' school districts would be affected?

And I wonder how many of them even knew there was a state numbers requirement, and how many now know it?

As I recall, only a comparatively few in the House could see any change at all.

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 1:40 PM

Sounds like a bunch of heffalumps and woozles to me. Oh bother.

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Posted by Jeff on 02/07/2013 at 2:03 PM

That's my point AP. I really don't see too many counties that could even be affected by MSD legislation.

Some of those counties already have them. In most, the municipalities are too small to form. In many others, the size of the county district is small already and the few cities in the county have all the control, so why would they want to separate?

I bet if some real in depth analysis was done on the issue, we would find out that only a handful of counties would be affected by a statewide lift of the MSD ban, and I would bet that of those that would be affected, most wouldn't even face the likelihood of it happening under their watch.

Point being, I think, if approached properly this time, that vote can be swayed. This isn't the same legislative session where the suburban reps were hurrying to get legislation through due to the circumstances. They've had time to further study the issue, and if sold properly, I think it would be possible.

If it isn't, anyone who pays property taxes and remains in Shelby County 20 years from now will be paying astronomical rates to counter the loss of population.

Also, I do agree with True, and I wish Mays would rule N-T special legislation and rule that a countywide vote be held to determine its fate.

In a non-Presidential election cycle and with the passion in the suburbs, there would be a very good chance of the vote going in favor of accepting N-T. The swing would be whether the unincorporated areas would come out to vote, and if they did, which way they would vote.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 02/07/2013 at 4:22 PM


I understan you consternation, however, you need to be practical about the matter.

You want local control of your schools in your municipality. Well, the couinties' boards of education want to keep the power and control that they have. It is not a question of how many municipalities would qualify for msds, it is the opening of what could be a slippery slope deteriorating the power now held by the conties' BOEs.

You also misjudge the temperment of the voters. When agitated enough and made fearful and/or angry enough, voters will turn out irrespective of the election cycle. In Memphis, pastors have tremendous power in getting their members riled up. If they agitate and put up enough fight, your county wide vote on msds will fail.

During the initial back and forth on the school charter surrender, you probably could have won a countywide vote. But, you, not you personally, stuck your foot in your mouth by castigating the elected leaders of Memphis and the BOE. Then you lambasted the parents of Memphis' school children. Then you topped it off by denigrating the children of Memphis. That is an unforgivable sin. So, all of the leaders that you disrespect, the pastors, etc have to do is bring that up to make sure the people go and vote. It is just like all of these voter id, voter supression, laws that was being pushed. It made African Americans fighting mad and they showed up at the polls in greater numbers than they did in 2008.

The hardest thing to do is to take away a right and/or power that was previously given to people. The county schools boards in the state want to hold on to that power that they were given and Suburban Shelby County's proplem is not theirs.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/07/2013 at 4:47 PM


Educate me. Make the argument why lifting the ban on municipal systems would create a slippery slope for County BOEs. And why they would lose power. I can't wait to hear this one.

I have seen your statement that someone (Surburban leaders? Anybody whose opinion counts?) denegrated the children of Memphis. Denegrating the Memphis leaders and the MCS BOE is fair game. They are politicans and that comes with the territory.

Bullshit. Another victimizatiion play. Of which you have many, poor guy.

Show me.

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 7:04 PM


It just doesn't work anymore.

You darn well know what I mean.

The facts are the facts about the vile statements made about the leaders, the parents and the students of MCS. Judge Mays alluded to them in his ruling. You want to know when and where, look it up yourself. You are super intelligient.

Sillipery slope: First they want to take our assault type weapons, then all of our guns comes next.

Ap, you figure that one out!

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/07/2013 at 9:22 PM

I don't count facts as vile statements.

If I was an alcoholic and you called me an alcoholic, that wouldn't be a vile statement. It would be a statement of fact. Pointing out the ugly truth may upset people, but that doesn't make it vile.

Based on history, I don't see the people of Memphis rushing to the polls in a non Presidential election. Many issues that you would think mobilize the vote just don't.

I do know that in the suburbs, the vote would be very overwhelming, and the turnout would be strong. I also think that the city interests aren't doing themselves any favors proving that economies of scale were a lie, replacing the leadership was a lie, and overhauling the system was a lie. Many that voted for consolidation would either not come out or vote to give the suburbs a chance out of disgust for their leadership and the lies they were told. Not everyone in Memphis sees suburbia as the evil white devil like you do. The entire city isn't filled with the level of anger you have that would mobilize them.

A vote may not go in our favor, but I think you know that the vote would at the very least be a lot closer than you would like it to be.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 02/07/2013 at 10:01 PM


As usual.

When challenged, you have no cogent response, no links, no facts, no logical explanation as to why the BOE's would lose power. Your facts are non- existent.

Which means you were just bullshitting as usual.

Yeah, thats what I thought.

What is the Bullshit monitor on you up to now? 25 or so?

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 10:22 PM


Just for grins, go to the CA site and re-read the article about the suburban leaders meeting in Nashville.

Please read Mayor Mc Donald's comments about opportunities several times. I think you may get an idea.

PM me on the CA site if you wish.

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 10:25 PM


You guys need to leave poor oldtimer alone. He has facts. Just like the black voter turnout. Look at the 2008 election. Look at all the other elections. The blacks in Memphis are known to turn out in force in every election. Look at the 2012 presidential election. They turned out in more force than 2008. No wait a minute. I'm sorry I'm wrong. They turned out in much less numbers than the 2008 election. But look at all the other elections in Memphis. They are known to turn out in large masses. It is in the teen percentage of registered black voters. Oh wait another minute. Turning out in less than 20% is not impressive at all. My mistake. They turn out en mass in something but I can't think of it off hand. Phones, money, and housing ring a bell but I just don't know. See all his grand knowledge has me really confused. I will have to check the statistics and get back to you.


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Posted by clarion on 02/08/2013 at 12:01 AM


Blacks are not stupid. In 2012, blacks turned out more than they did in 2008 in the places that matter, Ohio, Fl., Pa, etc. Black people know then their vote is of the utmost importance. They realize that in Memphis, turnout doesn't really matter because it is a red state.

Why do you think Romney and the gop were surprised. They thou8ght that the turnout among african americans would be less, especially with the efforts they made to supress their votes.

Turnout in Memphis is usually low, especially in mid-term elections because there are usually no stark differences between the candidates. Most time, either candidate is acceptable to blacks in mostly black districts. But, when you look at previous elections where the differences were stark, Ford Sr. v Kukendahl for congress, Herrington v Hackett for mayor, blacks turned out in droves. Nobody has shown up that has the qualities to unseat Cohen, so, blacks don't turn out in huge numbers. We know there is a difference in voting for Janis Fullilove for city council than voting to send a congressman to Washington. There is a huge difference. We don't like republican policies, so no republican, whether black or white, will unseat Cohen.

So, please, keep underestimating the black voting power, I like it.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/08/2013 at 8:51 AM

OTP, those percentages were higher in those areas because the Obama campaign did a great job mobilizing the vote in areas that mattered.

The Obama campaign schooled the Romney campaign with its use of technology to target voters and mobilize the vote. It was a game of checkers against chess when it came to targeting individual voters.

It wasn't a case of black voters knowing where their votes meant the most and then mobilizing. Those voters were mobilized by the campaign. They were targeted and motivated by strategic efforts of the campaign.

As to the school issue, the passion in the city is not big with schools. We've seen that. As long as you keep their school open and allow the children to spend 8 hours a day in the building, they're happy. A referendum on an MSD law wouldn't likely mobilize a ton of voters. Keep in mind, these are the same voters that voted 2 to 1 to reject a tax increase marketed as a pre-K tax.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 02/08/2013 at 9:22 AM


I respectfully disagree with you. If there is acounty wide vote on allowing msds, it will be an all out campaign.

As for voting down the tax for pre-k, a lot of people, educated and not don't think that pre-k is as relevant as it is made out to be. A normal child that is from the right socio-economic background, that does not attend pre-k will easily catch up and surpass the students that do attend pre-k. By the same token, a child from the wrong background, pre-k will not be a tremendous help compared to the money expended.

Kids need time to mature and get used to things before they are thrown into a regimen of school work. Saying that the regimen is more important than the normal developement of the child is debatable.

My youngest 5 year old, never went to headstart, pre, pre school, nor even daycare. He went to school behind most of his peers, however, in this short time, he has surpassed most of those kids. In comparison to the kids that were farmed out, at a very early age to day cares, pre, pre school, he is more mature and aware of himself and moral values than they are. I get this feedback from all of the teachers he come in contact with at school. In chinese, he is outstanding. Hell, he is even complimented by our favorite chinese restaurant people. He can actualy hold a very simple conversation with them in chinese.

So, Grove, you can't equate that vote on the tax for pre-k with the outcome if a vote was held allowing msds countywide. If you look at the results, not everyone from the suburbs was onboard with the idea of msds. I think around 15% or so voted against it.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/08/2013 at 11:00 AM


One more thing to consider...many in the suburbs that voted AGAINST MSDs voted against them because they believed it would lead to increased taxes. If I'm on a fixed income (retired), then the only concern I have for MSDs is how it might impact the safety of my neighborhood and my taxes.

Given that the County Commission is going to eventually have to ask for a SIGNIFICANT tax increase to fund this charlie foxtrot of a merged district, I think a lot of those concerns about tax increases will be gone, since they will already be so high that there won't be ANY concern about potential municipal property tax increases.

Once the CC8 is forced to raise property taxes to fund schools, it will make MSDs easily affordable, even moreso than was originally planned. We may even be able to fund middle school sports and fully fund high school sports and bands without the need for booster clubs with the taxes we're going to have to pay for schools at the county level.

Posted by GroveReb84 on 02/08/2013 at 3:18 PM

By the way, I see where the suburban mayors walked away from the negotiating table today, not all that long after coming back from meetings in Nashville, meetings that included Knox County (the biggest opponent to MSD legislation).

What do you think that means OTP?

Posted by GroveReb84 on 02/08/2013 at 3:52 PM
Showing 1-18 of 18

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