By Tom Humphrey, KnoxNews.com
April 27, 2012

NASHVILLE — Sen. Stacey Campfield cast the sole vote against Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to begin giving corporations cash grants for expanding or locating in Tennessee after declaring they could be a step toward “crony capitalism.”

The bill (HB2344) was approved by the Senate 29-1 and now goes to the governor for his signature. It was approved 96-0 in the House. The “FastTrack” grants would be in addition to tax credits and infrastructure improvements that no go to companies moving into Tennessee.

Campfield, R-Knoxville, defined crony capitalism in a floor speech as “when governments start using taxpayer dollars to gamble with.”

Couching some of his comments in the form of questions to the bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, Campfield compared the proposal to the national controversy over Solyndra Inc., which received huge federal grants and then went bankrupt.

“We (Republicans) all yelled and screamed that was crony capitalism,” he said. “Now it’s our turn at the trough and we’re doing the exact thing … with straight cash giveaways.”

Norris’ reply included the observation that Knoxville “has probably received as much or more” in “state largesse.”

A bit later, after the bill had passed, Campfield spoke again to “make clear my comments on the economic stimulus package” were “in no way to infer that (Norris) was corrupt” and were directed solely to the “legislation itself.”

Campfield’s initial comments also included a reference to the TNInvestco, a venture capital fund set up by the state three years ago, as having produced about 200 jobs with a $200 million in spending.

That prompted a rebuttal later by Sen. Douglas Overbey, R-Maryville, sponsor of the TNInvestco legislation in a floor speech. He said legislators can be proud of TNInvestco, which has invested $46 million into 64 small companies around the state and produced “over 325 jobs” since being set up in 2009. The state stands to get a return on its investment under the program, he said.

“These are investments, not giveaways, not loans, as was intimated,” said Overbey.

Judicial selection: The House joined the Senate on Thursday in moving toward amending the state constitution to have Tennessee’s top judges appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.

The resolution (SJR710) was approved 70-27 in the House. The Senate voted 23-8 in favor of the proposal last week.

The measure next must be approved by the 108th General Assembly, which will convene next year. If that happens, it will then go to a statewide referendum in 2014.

The resolution is comparable to the federal judicial selection system, wherein the president appoints judges subject to U.S. Senate confirmation. A difference is that if the Legislature does not act to reject a governor’s choice within 60 days, he or she will be deemed confirmed.

The House has left hanging without action — and thus effectively dead — a competing proposal that had passed the Senate. That proposed amendment would have left the Legislature with broader discretion to enact a judicial selection system with specifics decided by statute in the future.

Kindergarten age: The Senate approved and sent to the governor Thursday legislation that would mean most children reaching age five after Aug. 31 would have to wait a year before entering public school kindergarten.

The measure (HB2566) is supported by teachers who say many kids now are not ready for “the rigors of kindergarten,” according to Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, the sponsor.

Currently, children may enter kindergarten if they turn 5 on or before Sept. 30 of the school term they’re entering. The bill moves the cutoff date to Aug. 31 next year and to Aug. 15 in 2014.

Children could receive a waiver to the general requirement and be admitted earlier by local school systems if their parents request and they pass an evaluation on readiness for kindergarten.

Conflict disclosures: The House gave final approval Thursday to a bill (SB3649) that will require members of city, county and regional planning commissions to file conflict-of-interest disclosures with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, as now done by legislators and most local elected officials.

Sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, said there are an estimated 3,000 people serving on planning commissions statewide.

The bill was unanimously approved earlier in the Senate. It passed the House 88-2.

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