Speaker’s job changes hands

Victor Ashe
Government/Politics columnist

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally turns 73 on Monday, Jan. 30. He represents part of Knox County and all of Anderson County in the state Senate. He is the first person to represent Knox County to be Senate speaker in over 100 years.

State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, who came close to winning the GOP speakership contest in Nashville over incumbent Beth Harwell, turns 58 on Feb. 5.

Harwell had been considered a candidate for governor but is viewed as a longer shot now due to the difficulties she has encountered the past two years as speaker. With 30 of the 74 GOP House members voting against her to be speaker for a fourth term, they are not likely to favor her bid for governor either. Nevertheless, Harwell is now passing the word she may run after all. This means this would be her final term as speaker.

Her House clerk, Joe McCord, abruptly retired as clerk just four days before the House reconvened on Jan. 10. He had become a source of controversy for Harwell, and she quickly named Tammy Letzler – a onetime employee of Jimmy Naifeh – the first woman ever to be clerk of the House in his place. McCord, 49, will be eligible to draw a generous state pension at age 55 as he is a former legislator.

Her committee appointments last week sought to punish several who opposed her for speaker, which may haunt her next year when she campaigns in the counties of those House members. There was not a healing process here.

Harwell will need to articulate a compelling story of her time as speaker and what she has accomplished to make headway over former economic development chief Randy Boyd, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, the three state senators – Mark Green, Mark Norris and Doug Overbey – and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee.

Five City Council members depart in a little over 10 months on Dec. 16, but they will not depart the city’s payroll, as they will receive a modest city pension based on eight years of service. The current council annual salary is $19,000 a year. Three of the five who are over 66 will receive $2051.52 a year. They are Vice Mayor Duane Grieve, Brenda Palmer and Nick Della Volpe.

Former mayor Daniel Brown will receive the highest pension at $7,635, which is a result of his 11 months as mayor when he received the mayor’s salary of $130,000 a year. Because the pension is based on one’s highest two years of pay, this generously upped the pension amount for Brown. Former vice mayor Nick Pavlis receives the least at $1,838.52, since he is not yet 66.

Mayor Madeline Rogero, too, will transition from her mayor’s salary to a city pension the day she leaves office in December 2019. Her pension will be based on 11 years with the city, which will work out in rough figures to $30,000 a year plus a 3 percent annual increase, which in 10 years in 2029 means a 30 percent increase compounded in her pension.

Several other high-paid city employees such as Bill Lyons will depart then, but in his case his annual pension will likely exceed $58,000 a year also with the same 3 percent annual escalator. He will have put in 16 years with the city. He is currently the second-highest paid city employee at $168,240 a year plus $1,320 in longevity pay and $5,830 a year car allowance – when he lives at 607 Union Ave. and usually walks the five short blocks to work.

Lyons’ total pay package exceeds $175,000 a year with a guaranteed 7.5 percent increase on top of this for the remaining three years he has with Rogero. Rogero earns $142,000 a year but does not receive an annual increase nor does council. Five city employees make more than the mayor.

The Confucius Institute at UT Knoxville, located in the International House, is funded primarily by the Chinese government under the name of Hanban in Beijing, which is part of the Chinese Ministry of Education. Its funding is less than $150,000 a year, which is less than 25 percent of the new UTK Chancellor’s salary. By UTK standards, this is almost pocket change.

What has become controversial is discussion of the real motive behind the Institute, which now has over 500 locations around the world in 105 nations as part of China’s overseas propaganda strategy. China interestingly picked the name of Confucius, who has never been part of the Chinese Communist ideology. Clearly, had it been named Mao Institute it would have created major public relations issues in the USA.

The respected University of Chicago did not renew its contract with the Institute in 2014 as the Confucius Institute has weighed on free speech issues at some campuses by expressing concern with some programs viewed as anti-China by the Chinese government. The concern voiced about Confucius is having a foreign government with a clear agenda exercising influence on college campuses inconsistent with academic freedom. This would include, for China, discussions on Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong and the Dalai Lama. China carefully monitors these topics within China in a way that contradicts America’s concept of true academic freedom.

Problems have not yet surfaced at UTK, but they could, depending on the actions of the Chinese government. China’s government has a different view on academic freedom and independence than does the USA.

The city has received a study on Fort Dickerson Quarry Lake from Sanders Pace, paid in part by the Aslan Foundation. While not generally available yet, it could set the stage for a dynamic improvement to this South Knoxville gem. Former vice mayor Pavlis will be a strong backer of improvements there. Watch the city budget for funding this spring.

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