Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)
With political talk focusing on redistricting of Tennessee congressional and state seats, as well as the lack of a Senate Republican plan, some lawmakers are questioning a proposal brought by a state attorney in the Attorney General’s Office this week.
Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Nashville Democrat, is among those who want to know why someone in the Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office is entering the fray.
The proposal was made by Clark Hildabrand, assistant solicitor general, but the presentation was made by a state attorney, not him.
“I think that’s a conflict of interest. The AG’s Office has to defend the maps if it goes to court. So to have him submitting a map is a conflict of interest and also very odd. It’s coming out of nowhere. He’s not submitting any other maps. It just seems odd to me,” Campbell says.
The AG’s Office said Thursday Hildabrand submitted the plan “on his own time and as a private citizen, which is his right to do, and his plan reflects his own views.” The AG’s Office didn’t submit a redistricting plan and is not concerned about a conflict of interest, spokeswoman Samantha Fisher said.
Notably, the Hildabrand plan splits Democratic Sen. Raumesh Akbari’s Memphis district into three parts in western Shelby County, while the Democratic Caucus plan keeps her District 29 lines intact.
Hildabrand’s plan also pushes Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey’s District 31 lines farther east, removing some of Democratic voters and giving him a better chance to survive the next election. Kelsey, R-Germantown, faces a five-count federal indictment for allegedly funneling money from his state account through two groups to his failed 2016 congressional campaign. Trial is set for Jan. 18.
I think that's a conflict of interest. The AG's Office has to defend the maps if it goes to court. So to have him submitting a map is a conflict of interest and also very odd.
– Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, of a redistricting map submitted by a staff member for Attorney General Herbert Slatery
Hildabrand’s proposal also stretches District 30 held by Democratic Sen. Sara Kyle east and west, while the Senate Democrats’ plan keeps it largely the same.
The Senate Democrats’ proposal pushes District 33 held by Democrat Katrina Robinson to the western corner of Shelby County, which would go into an area held now by Republican Sen. Paul Rose of Covington. Hildabrand’s plan does nearly the same thing. It is unclear whether Robinson, who was convicted this year on two counts of illegal use of a federal business grant, will be able to run for re-election. She is challenging her conviction.
Republican Sen. Paul Rose’s 32nd District lines would face major change under both plans. It takes in Collierville, Lakeland, Bartlett and Arlington and all of Tipton County where Rose lives in Covington. Under the Senate Democrats’ plan, District 32 would take in Tipton, Haywood and Fayette counties and only the northeast portion of Shelby. Hildabrand’s plan puts Tipton, Haywood and Fayette counties and most of northern Shelby in the 32nd.
The Democrats’ plan and the Hildabrand proposal both make major changes in Davidson County.
Under the current configuration, Campbell’s 20th District takes in the outer rim of Davidson, making nearly a complete circle around the downtown area, and includes Oak Hill, Forest Hills and Belle Meade. Under Hildabrand’s plan it wouldn’t change much. But the Senate Democrats’ plan appears to create a more compact District 20, which would take in Campbell’s home.
Democratic Sen. Brenda Gilmore’s District 19 would stay largely the same under both proposals, taking in most of inner Davidson County but would lose areas to the southeast under the Hildabrand plan.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro’s District 21 stretches from an area south of downtown Nashville to Antioch and then back north to Madison. Under Senate Democrats’ plan, District 21 would run from Bellevue north to Goodlettsville and then wrap around the northern edge of Davidson, and go south, taking in much of eastern Davidson.
Hildabrand’s plan would keep District 21 in the southeastern part of Davidson.
Senate Democrats’ plan is sure to catch the attention of Rutherford County Sens. Dawn White and Shane Reeves, both Republicans, because it realigns District 13 to northwest Rutherford and southeast Davidson and gives District 14 the rest of Rutherford, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.
Proposals for state Senate and congressional districts put forth by members of the public can be found at: https://capitol.tn.gov/senate/committees/redistricting.html
Biding their time
The Senate redistricting committee accepted maps this week from the public, including Hildabrand and Senate Dems, yet Senate Republicans refused to unveil their map for public comment, the one most likely to be adopted.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who chairs the committee, seemed a bit shocked that people, including reporters, would want to see the Senate Republicans’ plan. The Franklin Republican could not give a timeline for the next meeting when it would be unveiled.
After all, at an October meeting, Johnson said, “This committee will probably convene sometime in December to vote on a plan that will be a recommendation to the General Assembly.”
Maybe the word “probably” gave him an out, because by this week, things were much different. Maybe their colored pencils broke.
“We’re doing our level best to be as transparent and provide as much opportunity for the public to submit their ideas and their feedback relative to a proposed map,” Johnson said.
He refused to accept the premise that the Senate Republicans’ map is the only one that really matters. He noted he didn’t present a map at Tuesday’s meeting because he hasn’t prepared a map.
Asked if Senate Republicans have done nothing in terms of putting together their own plan, Johnson said, “We’ve had conversations and meetings with folks. But this was the important part of the process, (and) it would be premature, I think, to try to finalize any type of a map or come with any definitive map until we’ve accepted input from the public.”
Charlane Oliver, leader of the Equity Alliance, which advocates for greater representation for Black Tennesseans, presented a plan that creates six majority minority districts in the state, up from four. Notably, it combines Haywood, Fayette and Madison counties, which have large concentrations of Black residents.
“It essentially allowed minorities who have not had their own representation in the past the opportunity now to have their own senator,” Oliver says.
Yet she’s afraid the committee’s hearings are merely “lip service and formalities” and that the controlling Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the Senate and House, will “slice” the districts the way they want and ignore everyone else.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro was a bit miffed that Senate Republicans declined to put forth a proposal.
“I have no explanation for that. I think it was clear during our last meeting that the maps we were going to consider were going to be pushed forward today,” he said.
The Nashville Democrat wasn’t sure whether Senate Republicans don’t have a plan or were simply refusing to show it. If that’s the case, it would be a “significant problem,” he said, because the committee’s purpose was to put together maps from the plans submitted this week.
Ever hopeful, Yarbro did say “it’s not inconceivable” that one of the maps presented Tuesday could represent the thinking of the Republican Caucus.
He must be waiting for dogs to fly.
Jaded folks think otherwise.
No blood, no foul
The Senate Democrats’ congressional plan raised some eyebrows when they came out with it last month because it puts Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais in the same district with Republican Congressman John Rose.
Yarbro, however, contends the plan doesn’t harm or benefit any member of Congress.
In fact, DesJarlais wouldn’t be compelled to move into a realigned 4th Congressional District in order to remain in Congress. Federal law only requires members of Congress to live in the same state where they are elected.
Of course, it still won’t meet the scrutiny of Republican map drawers, who’ve already let it be known the plan won’t fly.
Slipping in the polls
The Vanderbilt Poll released this week shows Gov. Bill Lee’s popularity is sliding among Tennesseans. He isn’t on the verge of losing the next election, but his favorability rating fell to 55% from 65% since May, the poll showed.
The governor remained wildly popular among Republicans but saw his numbers slide among independents and Democrats.
The more than 1,000 respondents also showed disdain for some of the decisions Lee and legislators made recently, including telling the private sector it couldn’t require employee vaccinations.
It appears the only people happy with the outcome of the October “not so special session” were some of the legislators themselves.
It’s about time
Gov. Lee announced a 37% pay increase for new Department of Correction officers as the state tries to cope with low prison guard numbers.
Annual starting pay would jump to $44,500, and those on staff will draw at least a 15% pay increase. The department will keep offering a $5,000 hiring bonus and part-time opportunity for current and retired law officers to bolster staff numbers.
The move won’t affect this year’s budget but will be reflected in the fiscal 2022-23.
“As we face staffing shortages across the country, rewarding officers with competitive pay will ensure we recruit and retain the most highly qualified individuals in our workforce,” Lee said in a release.
Former Correction Commissioner Tony Parker told lawmakers in October the state had 1,017 vacancies for correctional officers, with prisons statewide facing problems.
The Legislature approved $21.1 million in 2019 to bump starting pay to $32,000, enabling the department to boost hiring. But that slowed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and vacancies started to increase again, according to Department of Correction officials.
Even when people started to go back to work after federal unemployment benefits ended in July, vacancies went up. As a result, the overtime budget hit $42 million as prison guards started pulling longer shifts to fill gaps.
The problem with that strategy is heavy work hours doesn’t always mean good things. In prisons, you’d better be on your toes all the time.
One of the department’s biggest problems is drug abuse, as people continue slipping stuff such as fentanyl into prisons to ease their pain. The department added body scanners at checkpoints and sally port areas to see whether new inmates, work crews and other visitors are bringing in illicit drugs. Cell phones are a threat and should be jammed, Parker said.
Unfortunately, officers will violate their oath and bring illegal drugs into facilities. People will even throw drugs over fences to inmates.
“When we find they’re introducing contraband, we prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law,” Parker said.
Maybe, just maybe, a hefty raise will keep them on the straight and narrow.
Money in the bank
For the umpteenth straight time, Tennessee’s revenue collections passed expectations, coming in at $1.4 billion in November, 21.73% more than last November and $286.5 million than projected.
Sales tax and corporate tax growth drove the increase, according to Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley.
For the first four months of the fiscal year, revenues are $1.189 billion more than expected.
The state already had well over a billion in its rainy day fund and several billion more in funds across the state government.
It makes one wonder why the Department of Correction had to wait so long for a decent pay raise. Former Commissioner Parker and our lawmakers like to talk about the dedicated public servants working in state prisons, but considering what they were getting paid, we wonder how much state leaders really value them.
Shaken or stirred?
The Department of Education is returning four schools to Shelby County Schools from the Achievement School District, much to the glee of ASD critics.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson is among those who believe the state-run district is a monumental waste of time and money, with the state spending more than $800 million on 30-plus schools since the program started more than five years ago and getting very little return. Studies prove him correct.
This also reminds me of a story. An audit from 2016 found ASD officials were using money intended for classrooms for parties instead. No, not birthday parties for kids, but rock ‘n’ roll parties for adults.
At one, ASD personnel spent $2,500 on a holiday event at the Sheraton in Memphis, in part to recognize outgoing superintendent Chris Barbic. It included pricey finger food, booze and a bartender.
ASD management also spent $1,630 worth of alcohol for a staff recognition event and charged it to Charter School Grant Funding, a private grant restricted to operating expenses for five schools.
The audit was overseen by the grinch of all grinches, Comptroller Emeritus Justin P. Wilson, so it’s not surprising the ASD was busted for all alcohol consumption.
It must be noted, I enjoy a cold beer as much as anyone. But unless my friends are buying, the cash comes out of my pocket. It ain’t cool spending the kids’ school money on booze.
“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” – John Prine.
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