VOL. 9 | NO. 5 | Saturday, January 30, 2016
Cutting taxes, school choice, tort reform drive Sen. Kelsey
By Sam Stockard
State Sen. Brian Kelsey calls himself “a proud conservative who likes to get results.”
Based on his legislative record as a Republican state representative and senator from Germantown, he is doing both without exactly toeing the tea party line but bolstered by a GOP supermajority in the House and Senate.
“I think my legislative record is very clear to anyone who’s followed it,” says Kelsey, who is entering his 11th year in the General Assembly, including five in the House.
“I’ve really focused my career on three broad issues, and that is reforming education to ensure our children have the best chance for success, ensuring that we don’t have frivolous lawsuits in this state so we can encourage more businesses to locate here and then cutting taxes so that families can thrive and have opportunities for jobs.”
Some of those pursuits remain a work in progress, as does most legislative work. But he secured the position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee after winning a special election in 2009 and was successful in sponsoring and passing constitutional amendments to outlaw an income tax in Tennessee and to change the way appellate judges are selected.
Another favorite piece of legislation he co-sponsored is an act reforming tort laws by cutting the amount of damages on lawsuits.
He points toward the fruits of his labors on his office wall in the Legislative Plaza during a recent interview where copies of the new laws hang.
“Brian does a good job analyzing some difficult issues. That’s important as chairman of Judiciary,” says Sen. Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican and Senate Republican Majority leader. “He’s a hard worker, and we’re both from Shelby County, so we’re both sort of home boys together.”
Issues such as the income tax, judicial selection and tort reform are “of great importance,” Norris points out. “They predated his service, and it’s good to have his assistance as we complete a lot of those tasks.”
One of his main goals has been more elusive – offering vouchers, or public dollars, to pay for children in failing schools to attend private schools.
Kelsey, 38, who grew up in the Collierville and Germantown suburbs of Memphis, wasn’t exactly from the wrong side of the tracks. His mother was a teacher at St. George’s in Germantown, and he went there in elementary school before moving on to Memphis University School, benefitting from scholarships.
Saying he’s “more passionate” about voucher legislation than any bill he’s been involved with since vaulting onto the Capitol Hill scene, Kelsey says, “We’ve got to be focused on what’s best for children, and each child’s needs are different.
“I’m very fortunate. I’m the beneficiary of a scholarship to attend a private school. And there’s no doubt in my mind I would not have been able to be elected at such an early age (27) if I had not received that scholarship.”
Opponents of voucher legislation say it diverts money from public schools and is part of a bigger goal to privatize education.
Sen. Brian Kelsey (R)
Senate District 31
Education: Memphis University School; bachelor of arts from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; law degree from Georgetown University
Religion: Fellowship Memphis Church, choir member and former first-grade Sunday school teacher
Career: Attorney, The Kelsey Firm, PLLC, former undergraduate adjunct professor of constitutional law at University of Memphis
Committees: Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Senate Education, Senate Government Operations
Memberships: Republican National Lawyers Association, Christian Legal Society, Lester Community Center former volunteer children’s reader, Federalist Society, Memphis Lawyers Chapter board member, Shelby County Republican Party, Tennessee Holocaust Commission
Kelsey contends, however, he simply wants to provide the same opportunities he had to other children in Tennessee and points out high-income families already have “school choice” while low-income parents and children are “stuck” because they can’t afford private-school tuition or houses in some of the state’s best school districts.
Though his view might not show much confidence in public schools, Kelsey says Memphis had failing schools year in and year out and little was done about it until the state adopted the Achievement School District five years ago.
He says he believes the Achievement School District is working even though the Legislature’s Black Caucus recently called for a moratorium on the number of schools placed under state jurisdiction after a Vanderbilt study showed Innovation Zone schools, Priority list schools run by local systems, are making more improvement than ASD schools run by charters or the state program.
“The Achievement School District injected that necessary competition into the system that encouraged Shelby County Schools to create the successful iZone program,” he says.
After finding himself at odds with Gov. Bill Haslam on voucher legislation during the last couple of years, Kelsey says he and the governor worked out the details. The Senate has supported the measure consistently, but after stumbling in the House, it advanced recently in a key subcommittee and has its best chance yet.
Stand on taxes
When it comes to tax alternatives, Kelsey says he doesn’t want to give the state Legislature a shot at other options, even though the state’s sales tax is said to put a greater burden on lower-income people.
“I want to handcuff the state from having income taxes,” he explains. “The fact is that Gov. Haslam has shown very successfully that you can grow the economy and grow the state budget by not increasing taxes.”
Next in his sights is the Hall income tax, and he wants to abolish it this year, saying there’s no reason it can’t be done because the state had $600 million in “over-collections” last year and should have even more this year. He says it would cost only $300 million to do away with the Hall tax on dividends, interest and capital gains.
Kelsey says he believes it can be done without hurting local governments, many of which depend on the revenue to shore up their budgets. He’s unconcerned about a study showing an end to the Hall tax would stop people from earning a federal tax deduction.
“I think Tennessee this year should use our surplus to abolish the state portion of the Hall income tax, and if the local governments want to continue to impose their portion they ought to be allowed to do so,” he says.
Norris is sponsoring legislation to accomplish the task.
How he started
Kelsey earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, then a law degree at Georgetown University, planning all along to return to the Germantown/Collierville area where his family goes back seven generations.
He developed an interest in politics at age 14 after going through a YMCA Youth and Government program and while at Georgetown interned for former U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant and worked for former Sen. Bill Frist. He also interned in the White House counsel’s office under President George W. Bush.
With the Republican primary heating up, Kelsey isn’t going with the far right. Instead, he is the West Tennessee chairman for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign and seeking a delegate position.
“I think he’s the best candidate to beat Hillary Clinton. He provides an optimistic view of the future of America, and it’s one that I believe in as well,” Kelsey says.
“Marco Rubio is the most effective communicator we’ve had in the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan.”
Asked if he has concerns about federal overreach such as President Barack Obama’s executive orders on gun control and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, Kelsey doesn’t address them, saying his goal is to help Rubio win election “to make sure that the news we’re getting out of Washington is positive and it allows for freedom of states to operate and serve their communities and freedom of individuals.”
Kelsey is no fan, though, of the Affordable Care Act. He says he believes it should be repealed and replaced by the next president.
In fact, he and Rep. Jeremy Durham sponsored a bill requiring the Legislature to approve what came back as Haslam’s Insure Tennessee, which led to its demise in Senate committees in 2015.
Insure Tennessee supporters stormed the state Capitol on the first day of this 2016 session, the same day Durham managed to hold on to his whip position in a closed House Republican Caucus meeting. Earlier that morning, Kelsey predicted Durham would “survive.”
“I think that his colleagues will see through a personal attack on him for his strong stand against Obamacare,” says Kelsey, who was the best man in Durham’s wedding.
Asked if he thought it was a media attack or came from within the Republican Party, Kelsey says, “It was clearly instigated by the liberal media, who is in favor of expanding Obamacare in Tennessee.”
Nearly two weeks later, though, Durham resigned his leadership post after The Tennessean newspaper reported three anonymous women accused him of making inappropriate text messages, some late at night asking for pictures of them.
Kelsey’s liberal media statement drew criticism from Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini, who called him another example of “radical Republican extremism,” pointing out he blames Insure Tennessee supporters for Durham’s “inappropriate actions.”
Durham wrote a letter of support for a former Bedford County youth minister who pleaded guilty to federal charges of child porn possession and statutory rape. Durham also escaped drug task force allegations of prescription fraud.
Says Mancini: “Sen. Kelsey, along with his tea party leader Lt. Gov. (Ron) Ramsey, continues to put politics above the people of the state.
“Whether it’s opposing Insure Tennessee or stripping funds from our public schools, Sen. Kelsey is a reverse Robin Hood, taking money from hard-working Tennesseans and giving it to wealthy donors and his cronies.”
For his 2014 re-election campaign, Kelsey received $8,000 and $2,000 respectively from the Tennessee Federation for Children PAC and Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First, groups favoring vouchers and charter schools.
He keeps about $155,000 in his election coffer.
Kelsey donated $4,000 to Durham’s campaign in 2014 and gave tens of thousands of dollars to Red State PAC, which doled out donations to conservative candidates such as Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield.
A few years ago, Kelsey sponsored the Religious Freedom Act, which was dubbed the ‘Turn Away the Gays’ bill. He downplays the incident.
“The religious freedom act was already law, that in Tennessee if a baker doesn’t want to bake a cake for a wedding ceremony, they don’t have to do that. That’s why I realized I made a mistake in introducing the bill and ultimately dropped it,” Kelsey explains.
He says the bill was restricted to that area and calls media reports on the legislation incorrect.
In response to a spate of crime in Memphis, this year he is sponsoring legislation to increase prison sentences for people convicted of especially aggravated burglary in carjacking and home invasion cases.
Kelsey also wants to rein in the state’s civil asset forfeiture law, which enables police to confiscate people’s money and property – without making an arrest – if they suspect it has anything to do with illegal activity.
“I think Tennessee has a problem with policing for profit, and we need to make sure that we have a process in place that protects our citizens from the innocent taking of their money and belongings,” he says.
Kelsey scoffs at a comment by Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who says the senator’s idea of putting the money in the hands of legislative bodies to decide how it’s spent smacks of socialism.
“My gosh, it’s quite the opposite,” Kelsey says.
As with many of his other bills, Kelsey says he is simply trying to follow a system of checks and balances set up by America’s Founding Fathers.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.