A Democratic legislator contended Thursday that a bill approved by the House and Senate amid debate over “flash mobs” was actually “a Trojan horse bill designed to help corporate polluters.”
The sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden, said that there was “definitely an oversight” if the contentions of Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, are correct.
“If there is any tangible change at all (in state anti-pollution laws), I personally will be the first to come back next year to to fix it,” said Holt.
The bill in question (HB2029) was approved by the House Tuesday, 58-37, having been approved earlier by the Senate, 29-0. It was among bills drafted and promoted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the current session and creates a new crime of “retail vandalism” in Tennessee. (Note: Previous post HERE)
During contentious House debate, Holt said the measure was intended to assure that organizers of “flash mobs” could be prosecuted for vandalism – even if they were not present at the scene – should the activities result in disruption of business at retail establishments or destruction of merchandise. Flash mobs typically involve a group of people – frequently teenagers – suddenly converging in one place, generally for entertainment or celebration of some event in response to social media postings.
But Stewart noted that the bill also contains a provision declaring that pollution of an area can be categorized as “retail vandalism.” The penalty specified in the bill for “retail vandalism” is a misdemeanor. Under current state law, businesses or individuals who intentionally pollute a stream or property can be charged – depending on the extent of damages – with a felony.
Passage of the bill, Stewart contended, thus means a potential reduction in the state’s criminal penalties for pollution from a misdemeanor – punishable by no more than 11 months, 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine – from a felony, which can mean years in prison and unlimited fines.
“Because the Republican leadership has focused on shutting down debate rather than writing good laws, we’ve just passed legislation that could have dramatically damaging consequences,” Stewart said in a news release. “House Bill 2029 is a gift to all corporate polluters who want to cut corners, destroy our environment, and pollute Tennessee farm land in order to make a few extra bucks.”
Holt said he was unaware of any such potential impact, but would look into whether Stewart’s contention is true and, if so, strive to change it “whatever it takes.”
Glen Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an email request for comment to a Chamber lobbyist, that the bill “establishes new protections for employers against acts of retail vandalism, including acts that take place during union pressure campaigns.”
“The opponents of HB 2029 apparently had an honest disagreement about whether unions should be allowed to engage in vandalism,” Spencer said. “ But now that the bill has passed the legislature, they have sought to disguise that disagreement behind new complaints.”
“Illegal acts of pollution are covered by numerous state and federal statutes with criminal penalties, including felonies,” he wrote. “Moreover, HB 2029 includes a new provision that allows restitution for landowners to restore property damaged by vandalism.
“HB 2029 will benefit employers, property owners, and the state. That is why the U.S. Chamber supports the bill, as did a substantial majority of the legislature.”
Stewart filed an amendment to repeal the provision in question Thursday when another bill pushed by Chamber came up on the House floor. The amendment was killed on a 51-31 vote after Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, said it was inappropriate under a provision of the state constitution that prohibits adding extraneous issues to a bill under consideration as “outside the caption.”