Rep. Van Huss praying for recognition of ‘Almighty God’ in TN constitution

State Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, talks with the Johnson City Press about sponsoring HJR71, which proposes to amend the Tennessee constitution to add this sentence:

“We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God, our Creator and Savior.”

”I’m praying about it,“ Van Huss said.

…The reason Van Huss says he sees this as a positive course for action has everything to do with trends he sees across the country.

“As a nation, we are drifting from the morals of our founding, and I think it’s important to reaffirm that our liberties do not come from the King of England,” Van Huss said. “They do not come from Barack Obama. They come from God.”

The Tennessee Republican also showed appreciation across the aisle and finds himself in agreement with the words used by President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address, when he said “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

On his website, Van Huss says he’s a ”born-again Bible-believing Christian,“ and that he graduated from Pensacola Christian College in 2003, with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

…Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said politicians should stay out of religious decisions for Tennesseans.

“Aside from the historical fact that our civil liberties are grounded in the Bill of Rights, Tennesseans hold a wide range of religious beliefs,” Weinberg said. “Yet this resolution privileges one religion over another, marginalizing the thousands of Tennesseans who choose to practice other religions or not to practice religion at all.

”Religious freedom thrives when religious matters are left in the hands of families and faith communities, not politicians. The Tennessee General Assembly has crucial economic, education and health care issues to deal with. Legislators should not be spending time promoting government overreach into the very personal realm of religion,“ she said.

…“If you put this together, it looks like a violation of the Establishment Clause,” said Stewart Harris, creator and host of the radio show “Your Weekly Constitutional” and a professor of law at the Appalachian School of Law.

The Establishment Clause is the first of several proclamations in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in which it’s said that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Because HJR71 would be an amendment to the Constitution of Tennessee, not the nation, it may be consitutional on a state level but might not hold up federally.

Harris said he believes the case could be made that Van Huss’ HJR71 could be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Van Huss admits he’s no legal expert, but he said he believes HJR71 would not be unconstitutional because it would give Tennesseans a choice brought forth through the democratic process.

“Again, we the people are a representative democracy and we vote on all kinds of things people don’t agree with,” Van Huss said. “That’s why this is a vote of the people of Tennessee who’ve been given an opportunity to make that statement.”

Attorney contends TN Highway Patrol has a quota system for DUI arrests

A Johnson City attorney contends in a court filing that a Tennessee Highway Patrol memo shows there is a quota system for DUI arrests by state troopers. Highway Patrol officials adamantly deny the claim, but the Johnson City Press reports talking with officers who – when allowed to speak anonymously – disagree.

The memo in question, emailed to troopers in the Fall Branch district on Dec. 17 by Lt. Traci Barrett, addresses what she called “enforcement goals” for each officer as well as the district. Don Spurrell filed the email – which he said was obtained by someone outside the department – as an exhibit to the motion on behalf of his client, Steven Valley, 44, of Limestone.

And while top THP officials said the allegations about arrest quotas simply are not true, the Press interviewed several state troopers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and they disputed their superiors assertions. One said state troopers have resorted to focusing on areas around bars in Johnson City in order to get their DUI arrest numbers up.

“They make these rounds (and) if they see one pull out, they’ll nab it,” one trooper said. One problem this person has seen comes from higher arrest numbers is a conviction rate that doesn’t correspond.

“If they’re not drunk, don’t arrest them,” the trooper said, adding that the smell of alcohol on a person is no indication of their level of intoxication. “Just because someone has had one drink doesn’t mean you take them to jail.”

“Our job is to cover the interstates and main highways,” not patrol Johnson City where there is a city police force, the trooper said.

Another trooper said there is a lot of conversation among troopers about the DUI arrest requirements, and many have been forced into making arrests they were not comfortable with just to appease a supervisor and put another mark in their arrest column.

…In Barrett’s email to her troop of officers, she never tells them there is a certain number of DUI arrests they must make, but encourages them to keep up with the district average and help each other out if another trooper is “falling behind.”

“If we have personnel that fall behind the district trooper average on DUI arrests, then I cannot allow us to remain on permanent shifts. As we all know, DUI arrests are extremely important, and no group of personnel should be expected to ’carry’ another group,” Barrett wrote to her officers in Troop C.

…THP Col. Tracy Trott, in a phone interview from Nashville, said the agency has never had quotas of any kind for any type of offense. His agency is simply focused on “saving as many lives as possible,” he said.

“We don’t have a quota on any type of arrests, DUI, speeding or otherwise,” Trott said. “There’s no unwritten policy.”

Trott said the “district trooper average” simply refers to statistics from the last few years.

“I think what some supervisors still do is they will look statistically at the history of the last few years and see what the volume has been in that particular area. In some areas, like Johnson City, you’re going to have more DUI enforcement than you would in Grainger or Hancock County because of the population and the fact you have an urban area,” Trott said.

Supervisors will “use that average over a period of time to judge how we’re doing at this particular time,” he said.

Passenger train service across TN? No money, no way, officials say

The idea of passenger train service across Tennessee is being floated again, reports the Commercial Appeal, but state officials say it’s not going to happen.

“It would be fabulous to see this,” Liza Joffrion said of reconnecting Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga with passenger train service.

“But given the funding that we know about today, it’s not something that looks like can happen,’’ said the multimodal resources director at the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

…The owner of a fledgling business, OnTrack Group of Tennessee, made a three-minute pitch to MATA about OnTrack’s goal — unfunded so far — to create and operate a passenger system across Tennessee. John Haas likened his company to a small version of Amtrak, the government-subsidized company that operates the national passenger system.

(Amtrack now has a station in Memphis — a stop on the passenger train’s run between Chicago and New Orleans. But there are no trains running east or west.)

…Citing a 2011 study by consultant TranSystems, Joffrion said the capital cost for using the former L&N route between Memphis and Nashville, so that a train could run up to 125 mph, would be $1.8 billion. That project would use a combination of existing and new rail.

Using the CSX freight line between Memphis and Nashville for speeds up to 125 mph would cost $751 million.

Using the Nashville & Eastern Railroad between Nashville and Knoxville for speeds up to 125 mph would cost $1.1 billion and require building new rail to cover a 70-mile gap.

Asked to describe the level of interest in Tennessee for restoring passenger service, Joffrion said, “There’s definitely some interest, but I’d say it pales in comparison to our No. 1 need, to maintain our roads.

“Not even build new ones, but just keep the ones we got. Fix potholes, rebuild bridges — that’s dominating the transportation budget.”

First week of winter storm cost TDOT $11.3M; overall impact now being assessed

The first week of February’s winter storm weather cost the Tennessee Department of Transportation more than $11 million and that’s just the beginning as officials calculate the impact with an eye toward seeking federal disaster aid, reports the Commercial Appeal.

Gov. Bill Haslam, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and other state agencies say cost estimates haven’t been compiled, but the Tennessee Department of Transportation, or TDOT, reported Friday that its costs totaled nearly $11.3 million in labor, equipment and material for anti-icing, de-icing, plowing snow and other activities for the first week of the bad weather.

“All of our regions are still tabulating overtime, equipment, supply use for this week,” TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said. “Potholes is another matter entirely — and I don’t have that yet.”

While all the emergency work costs money, the state — and local governments in hard-hit areas — may also take a hit in their sales tax revenue during February: many shopping centers simply closed when the streets were iced over and those that opened were virtually devoid of shoppers.

February sales tax revenue isn’t remitted to the state until March, when the monthly revenue tally will determine whether and how much the storms cost in lost tax revenue.

“We don’t know yet (what the state’s cost will be),” Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday night in Memphis. “Of course, you have both the costs for public entities — cities, counties and the state — and then you have the lost economic opportunity as well. We’re in the middle of computing all that because to get a presidential disaster declaration, you have to meet certain economic criteria. For the state total, it’s like a million dollars. So we will far exceed that.”

TN weather-related fatalities now at 30

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Tennessee officials now say a 30th person has died in relation to severe winter weather this month.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency says the death of a 55-year-old man in Bledsoe County overnight was confirmed to be caused by hypothermia.

TEMA says at least 11 of the deaths were caused by hypothermia.

Several victims died in highway accidents as a result of ice-covered roads or interstates. Some were found dead in their homes after being without heat. At least two were elderly people who were found dead outside their home because they slipped and fell and could not get up.

Corker’s anti-human trafficking bill almost guaranteed smooth path to passage?

Legislation that would create a $1.5 billion global fund to combat human trafficking has won unanimous approval in a Senate committee Thursday, almost certainly guaranteeing a smooth path to becoming law, according to The Tennessean.

“We’re getting ready to have a profound impact on people, the 27 million who are in slavery,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the bill’s lead sponsor, said after the vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Corker is the chairman.

The nonprofit End Modern Slavery Initiative Foundation would finance efforts around the world to rescue victims of human trafficking and prosecute the offenders.

The U.S. would contribute $250 million over seven years. Foreign governments would add $500 million, and $750 million would come from private donors.

Corker said the U.S. share, about $36 million a year, would come from existing foreign aid accounts and would not require new spending. President Barack Obama’s administration supports the idea, Corker said, and the State Department helped craft the legislation.

Here’s a video of Corker promoting the proposal, distributed by his office:

Push to ban TN traffic cameras includes ‘total polar opposites’

The Chattanooga Times-Free Press has done a report on legislation to ban traffic cameras in Tennessee, emphasizing the role of Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, the lead Senate sponsor, while House sponsor Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, has done a press release emphasizing the role of Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, who has signed on as a co-sponsor though Holt says they are “total polar opposites politically.”

From the TFP article:
In “Tennessee Freedom from Traffic Cameras Act,” the Chattanooga Republican calls traffic cameras “a form of mass surveillance over ordinary and innocent Tennessee motorists.” He says they deny people’s constitutional right to face and cross-examine their accuser in court, “because the accuser is a machine.”

And the money generated by the tickets often goes to out-of-state companies, he adds.

“Millions of dollars every year leave our economy at the cost of our constitutional rights and the aforementioned constitutional rights do not have a price-tag,” according to the proposed law.

Gardenhire said Friday he and House sponsor Andy Holt, R-Dresden, had been discussing traffic camera legislation for some time and this session just seemed like the right time.

“It’s just a huge, huge source of complaints from people all over the state,” Gardenhire said. “It’s looked at as a revenue producer for cities and counties more than a safety matter.”

His biggest issue with traffic camera tickets is there is no effective way to fight them in court.

“Is there an excuse for speeding? No. But there are circumstances, and [with cameras] there’s not even anybody to go talk to about it,” Gardenhire said.

If passed, the law would make Chattanooga’s more than a dozen traffic cameras illegal. City spokeswoman Lacie Stone said that would be unfortunate.

“Because of these cameras, we have successfully reduced accidents, in some areas dramatically, and made these areas safer for citizens,” Stone said.

Note: Holt’s press release is below.
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AP story on Kelsey’s hope to ‘blow up Obamacare’ by banning health insurance exchange

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Some Republican lawmakers still reveling in the recent defeat of a proposal to expand Medicaid coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans are now setting their sights on 230,000 people enrolled through the federal health insurance exchange.

State Sen. Brian Kelsey’s latest proposal would ban Tennessee from creating a state-run exchange should the U.S. Supreme Court rule that the federal government can’t pay subsidies in states that declined to set up their own insurance markets. For many Americans, the subsidies make the insurance affordable.

“I’m hopeful the plaintiffs will be successful in this case and it will blow up Obamacare,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown.

Tennessee is among the 30 states — largely led by Republicans — that have declined to set up state-based systems and have exchanges run by the federal government instead. The bill represents an early effort to pre-empt efforts to cope with the fallout if the court rules the way many conservatives hope it will.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, while the high court will likely take several weeks to release a decision.

Kelsey’s proposal is getting pushback from Republican leaders, including Gov. Bill Haslam and state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.

“The concern is about tying the state’s hands in the future to what may or may not be the right proposal,” Haslam told reporters in Memphis on Thursday evening. “At the end of the day, I think good government is about making certain we provide the best alternatives possible.”

Ramsey said he had spoken to Kelsey about his concerns about the bill, which he described as “overkill.”
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Public TV starts new show on TN Legislature

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee public television stations are airing a new show about the happenings in the state Legislature.

The first of four 30-minute episodes of the “Tennessee Capitol Report” are scheduled to air Sunday morning on public TV stations in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Lexington-Jackson and Cookeville. The next episodes are scheduled to air on March 29, April 26 and May 31.

The program is hosted Chip Hoback and produced by Tim Weeks. The first episode features interviews with Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell.

Topics include the failure of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal and the winter weather that has wreaked havoc across the state.

Weeks says the aim of the program is to offer in-depth looks at the personalities shaping the issues at the Capitol.

TN gets flurry of visits from GOP presidential hopefuls

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee has kicked off a flurry of visits from potential Republican presidential candidates.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters meeting in Nashville this week, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are scheduled to appear next month.

And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been signed up as the headliner for the Tennessee Republican Party’s annual fundraiser on May 30.

Jindal will keynote the Tennessee GOP’s Leadership Series in Memphis on March 20, and Santorum is scheduled to speak at the Montgomery County Republican Party’s Lincoln Reagan Day on March 28.

Huckabee won the Republican presidential Tennessee primary in 2008, while Santorum won in 2012.