- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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July 31

The Knoxville News-Sentinel on state Rep. Jeremy Durham:

The leadership in the Tennessee House of Representatives is circulating petitions among members for a special session to consider the expulsion of disgraced state Rep. Jeremy Durham.

Members should take a day off from campaigning to make the trek to Nashville before the Aug. 5 deadline. Disciplinary action against Durham would send a clear message to the women who work in the Legislative Plaza that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

The drive began last week in reaction to a report from Attorney General Herbert Slatery III that found the married Williamson County Republican sent inappropriate text messages and made unwanted sexual advances to legislative staff members, interns and lobbyists, and conducted a brief affair with a 20-year-old college student.

The report covers Durham’s interactions with 22 women between 2012, when he was first elected to the Legislature, to early this year. According to the report, many of the women were shaken by his behavior. They avoided him or refused to meet him without another person present. Some either left government work altogether or decided not to enter politics.

Durham did not agree to an interview with investigators, then labeled the report as unfair. He has suspended his re-election campaign but has resisted calls for his resignation from Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and others.

Holding a special session on Aug. 15 would be an extraordinary step, but it is the right thing to do. Two petitions are being considered. One calls for a special session to address Durham’s behavior in isolation, while the other would include consideration of the expulsion of state Rep. Joe Armstrong as well. Armstrong, a Knoxville Democrat, is scheduled to go on trial next week in federal court on income tax evasion charges.

A special session can be called by the governor or by a two-thirds majority of the House membership - 66 of 99 representatives. House rules do not allow electronic signatures, so members will have to go to Nashville in person to sign. As of Wednesday morning, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported, only four lawmakers had signed the each petition.

Primary Election Day is Aug. 4, one day before the deadline, so many lawmakers might be loath to interrupt their campaigns to travel to Nashville. They should take the time.

Durham’s outlandish behavior - according to the report, he used his office for a tryst and told lobbyists he wanted something in return for his votes - that action is necessary, even if Williamson County Republicans reject him at the polls. The women who work at the Capitol and the people of Tennessee need to know that such behavior will not be condoned.

Armstrong’s situation is much different. He was arrested last year on charges he helped pass a cigarette tax increase, bought $250,000 worth of tax stamps at the lower rate, sold them at the higher rate and failed to pay taxes on his profits. He trial is set to begin on Aug. 2 in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.

Unlike Durham, Armstrong is unopposed in the primary and will not face a Republican in the November general election. Independent Pete Drew, a former legislator who has unsuccessfully run for numerous offices in recent years, will be on the November ballot.

House members can afford to wait for the outcome of Armstrong’s trial, which could yield valuable information for them, before possibly taking action. If convicted, of course, Armstrong should resign.

Durham, on the other hand, does not face charges in connection with his behavior. With his refusal to resign, he can escape sanctions if House members do not act.

Act they must. Durham has embarrassed and cheapened the Tennessee House of Representatives. To restore some measure of respect for the institution and obtain a semblance of justice for the women involved, the state’s representatives should hold the special session and expel Durham.

Online:

http://www.knoxnews.com/

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July 31

The Commercial Appeal on Memphis’ finances:

Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson, who delivered a blistering critique of city of Memphis finances three years ago, delivered some good news on that front Monday.

“Conservative budgeting” has put Memphis on the path to reclaiming its “rightful place among the truly vibrant cities of the world,” Wilson said in a letter to city officials.

Despite the good news out of Nashville, this is not the time to hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the front of City Hall. The city still has worrisome debt issues, especially regarding its pension system and other post-employee benefits (OPEB).

In 2013, Wilson sent a letter to Memphis leaders threatening action by the state if the city did not act to resolve fiscal issues relating to its debt.

In a candid interview with a member of the newspaper’s editorial board after the release of the letter, Wilson said Memphis was traveling along an unsustainable financial path, piling up debt while dealing with an inadequate revenue stream to pay for it.

A significant amount of that indebtedness was buried in the city’s pension system, because the city had not been putting enough money into it over the years. That fact was one of the chief reasons the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation mandating that municipal pension systems must be solvent by 2020. Also, a disastrous debt restructuring in 2010 exacerbated the problem.

As a result, then-Mayor A C Wharton garnered the City Council’s approval in 2014 to make painful reductions in employee and retiree benefits, with the savings used to pump more money into the pension plan. The council faced withering criticism from retirees and some employees in meeting after meeting before and after their vote. Some police officers and firefighters staged blue- and red-flu job actions, and the city has seen a debilitating exodus of public safety employees, especially police officers.

The cuts and other austerity actions prompted two major rating agencies, Fitch and Moody’s, in April to revise the city’s credit outlook to “stable” or “positive” following the pension and benefits cuts made by Wharton and the council, and partly implemented by Mayor Jim Strickland.

In the past three years, the city has nearly halved the unfunded liabilities in its pension and other post-employment benefits funds, and has increased its reserves from less than $50 million to more than $90 million, city Chief Financial Officer Brian Collins said.

On the flip side, the city still has an unfunded pension liability of $418 million and an unfunded OPEB liability of $700 million. Still, the city is in a much better position now than three years ago, when there were concerns that Memphis could follow a path similar to Detroit, which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013.

And it also is a reality that the city still needs to increase its yearly contribution to the pension fund to meet the 2020 solvency deadline.

Strickland has made it clear that his administration will be brilliant at the basics and will steer clear of any big-expense projects. Some City Council members, however, may see Wilson’s letter as a catalyst for increased spending, especially on projects in their district.

Wilson’s letter could give some city employee union officials more hope that Strickland or the council would be amenable to restoring some benefits next year.

But this is no time to loosen the purse strings.

Wilson called the city’s improved financial situation “a remarkable achievement. Just three years ago, there was a serious question about whether the City Council would take the necessary steps to control its budget and determine Memphis’ future.”

The council withstood the criticism and did the right thing. But that could swiftly turn around if council members fail to stay on the course of financial prudence.

Online:

http://www.commercialappeal.com/

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July 30

The Johnson City Press on a sales tax holiday:

Tennessee recently had a three-day sales tax holiday aimed at giving parents some relief in buying back-to-school supplies for their children. There was no sales tax applied to purchases of such things as clothing, art supplies and computers. There was a maximum price of $100 per item to be exempt. Computers were exempt up to $1,500.

While it might sound like a good idea, the sales tax holiday is little more than a cruel gimmick.

What Tennesseans actually need is relief from suffocating high sales taxes every day of the year. Tennessee, with a maximum combined local/state sales tax of 9.75 percent, has the highest sales tax rate in the nation. Tennessee also taxes food, something that is exempted in 33 other sales tax states.

A sales tax holiday offers only temporary relief to a burdensome tax system that Tennesseans for Fair Taxation says is one of the most inequitable and plainly unfair tax systems in the nation. TFT says a family in Johnson City making less than $22,000 a year pays more than three times the taxes as a portion of its income than families with much higher annual incomes.

Tennessee government operates on a sales tax system held hostage to the ebb and flow of the economic cycle. What good would it do to remove the sales tax on food today if an economic downturn forces lawmakers to restore the very same tax in a year or two?

Online:

http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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