A Great Records-Rich Story on a Tennessee Property Tax Soak

Memphis Commercial Appeal reporters Marc Perrusquia and Grant Smith (a former student!) just published a series that peels away the curtain to reveal a law originally intended to keep farmers from losing their farmland turned in to a cash cow for rich landowners.

From the first story:

An investigation by The Commercial Appeal and its sister publication, the Knoxville New-Sentinel, found Lightman and many other savvy property owners across Tennessee are reaping dramatic tax savings — often paying pennies on the dollar — because a 1976 law to prevent farmers from being taxed off their land is full of loopholes and timidly enforced by many of the state’s 95 assessors.The newspaper found more than half of the land in Tennessee — nearly 15 million acres — is enrolled in the program protecting farmland, the vast majority in rural counties where agriculture is the dominant industry. Yet, in urban areas the tax rolls evidence significant abuse — from wealthy estate owners living in mansions on huge tracts to real estate developers escaping much of their annual tax bills by declaring a woods a timber preserve, a manicured lawn a pasture, a future subdivision a farm. And, by all accounts, it’s legal.

It’s a great read, and without access to records, it’s not possible.

The Commercial Appeal

The Commercial Appeal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Want to Know Your Kids’ Teachers’ Ratings? Tennessee Doesn’t Want You to…

In a classic example of cloak-and-dagger lawmaking, a Tennessee legislative committee tacked a secrecy provision onto a completely unrelated piece of legislation with no advance notice to anyone

Tennessee lawmakers want to close the door on teacher performance to parents and the media, keeping all aspects of educators’ new evaluations confidential.

A new measure is drawing praise from the state’s largest teachers union and disappointment among some observers. In a time of massive education reform, opponents say, parents and the public should get to see how it’s working.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to advance SB1447, sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. The bill will be heard in a House subcommittee today.

The vote came as a surprise to many. An amendment to keep teachers’ scores confidential was tacked onto a bill that would have done the same for licensure tests administered by the state Department of Commerce and Insurance.

So, let me get this straight: revamp the way teachers are evaluated, then shield the whole thing from the consumers of the education system. Yeah, that makes a TON of sense…

A nice blog post on just how deep the skullduggery went here.

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Economic Development Secrecy At Stake in Tennessee…

Secret economic development…always a bad idea, rears its ugly head in Tennessee:

A bill that would restrict access to economic development records is drawing fire, with critics arguing it could open a door to corruption.

A measure proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam to clear up disclosure laws has hit a barrier in the state Senate, amid persistent questions about whether it will actually conceal crucial economic development records from the public. The measure is scheduled to come up for debate again this morning.

Supporters say the bill will give staffers at the Department of Economic and Community Development better access to sensitive corporate information. But critics say the bill would invite abuse by making secret even the names of who owns companies receiving public subsidies…

Critics say the bill, SB 2207, would go too far. The measure lists several groups of corporate records that would be exempt from disclosure, including “organizational structure and ownership.”

Despite that language, ECD officials say the names of the entities receiving grants would still be disclosed to the public. The State Funding Board, which includes the state comptroller, also would have access to sealed records, including ownership structures.

But opponents say the provision would make it easy for state officials, associates and others to use shell companies to receive public grants in secret.

Always a Bad Idea: Closing 911 Records

Looks like the Bad Exemption That Won’t Die has popped up again, this time in Tennessee:

Senate Bill 1665 sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville and House Bill 1539 sponsored by Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna would short circuit public access to these important records. Sponsors of the bills argue that it is intended to protect the privacy of 911 callers. We would counter with: What about the right of the public to know what its publicly paid for government services are doing?



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