Did ‘flash mobs’ bill reduce the criminal penalty for corporate pollution from a felony to a misdemeanor?

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.”

Legislature adjourns with no override session and contentment with governor-supermajority compromises

The 108th General Assembly shut down permanently Thursday, deciding not to return for a suggested May veto override session after approving two key bills that were not tailored to Gov. Bill Haslam’s wishes.

But Haslam said in a post-adjournment news conference with House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey that he knows of nothing on the list of late bills approved by the Legislature that he would be inclined to veto – including measures on limiting sales of cold medications containing pseudoephedrine and revising the state’s stance on controversial Common Core standards for the state’s public schools.

In both cases, the bills given final approval on adjournment day were compromises and the governor said he could accept them.

Haslam had launched the bill to put limits on sales of drugs containing pseudoephedrine (HB1574), which can be used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine, describing it as a middle-ground approach between law enforcement groups who wanted to have all sales of drugs such as Sudafed and Claritin D by prescription only to block meth making and those who wanted no further restrictions, deeming the legislation as an unwarranted intrusion on law-abiding consumers who suffer from allergies. The opponents included the Consumer Health Products Association, funded by the makers of such medications, which had mounted a state radio advertising campaign against the bill.

The House and Senate had passed conflicting versions of the bill – the Senate basically aligning with Haslam on the amount that can be obtained without a prescription. The House doubled the amount in its version of the bill.

On the last day of the session, the Senate retreated and the bill was passed with twice the level backed by the governor – 28.8 grams per year, or about the amount needed for five months of taking the medication regularly.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who sponsored the bill for Haslam, said that senators accepted the House version as an alternative to “the specter of no bill at all.” He noted the final bill includes a Senate-proposed provision that says persons under age 18 cannot by any medicatio containing pseudoephedrine without a prescription. Haslam said he was “grateful” that the bill was passed as a first step.

On Common Core, Haslam had admantly opposed any changes in the state’s embrace of the standards and the launch of new tests tied with them in the teaching of math and language arts. The bill given final approval Thursday by the Senate (HB1549) was again based on a House-Senate Conference Committee agreement.

It delays the testing tied to Common Core for a year and requires the Department of Education, during the year, to solicit bids for an alternative test. Haslam said there have been “a lot of questions about what is an appropriate assessment tool” and that “all in all” he can accept the Legislature’s action.

Ramsey had earlier raised the possibility of a special veto override session of the General Assembly, bringing the Legislature back next month to consider rejecting any bills that Haslam may veto after adjournment. The 108th General Assembly officially ceases to exist – unless summoned back for a special session by the governor before the November elections – upon adjournment “sine die.” The adjournment resolution approved Thursday calls for a “sine die” adjournment.

There has been no veto override session of the Legislature since Republican Don Sundquist was governor and Democrats held a majority in the General Assembly. Harwell and Ramsey said the decision to abide by the tradition of legislators of the majority party not having a special session to override vetoes by a governor of the same party was based on practical considerations.
“I think members were eager to go back home and not have that hanging over their heads,” said Harwell.

Ramsey said that, as a philosophical matter, he – and perhaps a majority of Republican senators – still believe legislators should have a veto override session just as a balancing of legislative and executive powers. But, practically, he said, “I couldn’t think of anything (among bills passed) where we needed one.” And he said House members seemed opposed to the idea, so it was dropped.

State law also declares that incumbent legislators cannot raise money for their re-election campaigns until the session has adjourned. Ramsey said “that may have entered into it (the decision against a May override session) a little bit.”

Speakers will appoint a majority of members for Textbook Commission under Legislature-approved bill

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Legislation that makes changes to the process for selecting books for public schools is headed to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

Lawmakers in both chambers on Thursday agreed to minor changes made by a conference committee.

Currently, a 10-member textbook selection panel recommends its selections to the State Board of Education, and local school systems then choose which textbooks to adopt.

Criticism of the content of some books led to calls for a stronger public review process.

Under the legislation, the speakers and the governor would each make three appointments to the panel, as the Senate had proposed. The House had called for the speakers to make two appointments each to the panel and for the governor to appoint five.

The legislation also requires that history and fundamental documents be taught.

AP’s winners and losers list for 2014 session of the TN General Assembly

By the Associated Press
Here is a list of some of the winners and losers of the legislative session that concluded on Thursday.

The following bills passed this session:

— ANNEXATION: Bans cities from annexing land without a referendum. HB2371.

— BALLPARK BEER: Allows sale of beer at new Nashville baseball stadium. HB2405.

— BEER IN PARKS: Allows local governments to obtain licenses to sell beer in local parks HB2339.

— CHARTER AUTHORIZER: Creates statewide authorizer to overrule local school board decisions on charter schools. HB0702.

— COMMON CORE: Delays implementation of testing associated with Common Core education standards by one year. HB1549

— DEATH PENALTY: Allows electrocution if shortage of lethal injection drug. SB2580.

— DRONES-OUTDOORSMEN: Prohibits use of drones to conduct unauthorized video surveillance of outdoorsmen. SB1777.

— FREE TUITION: Offering free community college tuition to any high school graduate. HB2491.

— HASLAM-BUDGET: Gov. Bill Haslam’s $32.4 billion annual spending plan. SB2596.

— HEMP PRODUCTION: Allows the commercial production of hemp in Tennessee. SB2495.

— IN GOD WE TRUST: Instructs the State Capitol Commission to study having “In God We Trust” painted in the tunnel under building. SB2003.

— LICENSE PLATE IMAGES: Limits the amount of time governments can store images of license plates. SB1664.

— MASS TRANSIT: Requires legislative approval of mass transit projects like Nashville’s Amp. HB2156.

— MEDICAID EXPANSION: Requires legislative approval of Medicaid expansion in Tenn. HB0937.

— METH PRODUCTION Sets monthly and annual limits on cold and allergy medicines used to make meth. HB1574.

— RELIGIOUS DISPLAYS: Allows schools to teach about “traditional winter celebrations.” HB1906.

— RELIGIOUS VIEWPOINTS: Banning schools from discriminating against students for expression religious viewpoints. HB1547.

— ROCKY TOP: Allows Lake City to vote to change name to Rocky Top. HB1469.

— SLAVERY RESOLUTION Expresses regret of slavery and segregation in Tennessee. HJR847

— STRONGER BEER: Allows beer of up to 10 percent by volume to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. HB0047.

— SWITCHBLADE KNIVES: Legalizing switchblades and other knives with blades longer than 4 inches. SB1771.

— TEXTBOOK PANEL Changing the makeup of the state’s textbook selection panel. HB2249

— TRAIL OF TEARS: Expresses regret for the forced removal of more than 15,000 Native Americans in the 1830s. HJR0553.

— TUITION-IMMIGRANTS: Ensures citizens who are children of parents in country illegally are eligible for in-state tuition. SB2115.

—WINE IN SUPERMARKETS: Allows local governments to hold referendums on supermarket wine sales. HB0610.

The following bills failed this year:

— ATTORNEY GENERAL-CORRUPTION: Giving attorney general power to investigate public corruption. SB2038.

— ATTORNEY GENERAL-ELECTION: Constitutional amendment calling for popular election of attorney general. SJR0123.

— DAYLIGHT SAVING: Ending daylight saving time in Tennessee. HB1909.

— FOR-PROFIT CHARTERS: Allowing for-profit entities to run charters schools in Tennessee. HB1693.

— GUNS IN PARKS: Doing away with local control over banning guns in parks. SB1496.

— HALL INCOME TAX: Phasing out Hall tax on income from dividends and investments. SB1427.

— HEALTH FREEDOM ACT: Declaring Tennessee won’t comply with federal health care law. SB1888.

— MOTORCYCLE HELMETS: Allowing adults not to wear helmets on motorcycles. SB0548.

— OPEN CARRY: Allowing open carry of handguns without state-issued permit. SB2424.

— OPEN CONTAINER: Banning passengers from drinking alcohol in moving vehicles. HB0084.

— PARENT TRIGGER: Creating mechanism for parents to convert failing schools into charters schools. HB1959.

— SCHOOL VOUCHERS: Creating a limited school voucher program in Tennessee. SB0196.

— SENATE NOMINATIONS: Giving state lawmakers the power to appoint nominees for the U.S. Senate. SB0471.

— SEX WEEK: Directing University of Tennessee to require parents to opt in to allowing student fees to go toward events deemed “controversial or objectionable.” SJR0626

— TEACHER-TEST SCORES: Prohibits standardized test scores from being tied to teacher licensing. HB2263

— TENNESSEE FLAG SALUTE: Encouraging schools to have students recite Salute to the Flag of Tennessee. SJR715

— TUITION EQUALITY: Making students in country illegally eligible for in-state tuition to public colleges. SB1951.

— VOTER ID: Permitting student ID cards to be used for voting. SB1082.

— WEDDING SERVICES: Banning lawsuits against businesses refusing wedding services to gay couples. SB2566.

— WELFARE LIMITS: Reducing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families assistance from 5 years to 4 years. SB2039.

— WHISKEY WAR: Repealing the state’s legal definition of “Tennessee Whiskey.” HB2330.

AP story on the end of the 108th General Assembly

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State lawmakers concluded a session Thursday in which they approved measures to allow folks to buy wine in grocery stores, fight methamphetamine production and give high school graduates free tuition at community colleges.

But the 108th Tennessee General Assembly rejected a key educational proposal to create a program that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school using state funds. It also eliminated planned raises for teachers and state employees, which ended up being one of the most contentious issues toward the end of the session.

Gov. Bill Haslam had planned to give a 1 percent pay increase to state employees and 2 percent to teachers, but later said he wouldn’t be able to because of poor revenue collections.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the House presented proposals to give teachers and state employees one-time bonuses and contingency pay increases, but all those amendments failed.

Haslam said during a press conference after the session that he’s still committed to trying to find ways to make the pay hikes happen, particularly in the case of teachers.

“Going forward, is it a priority for me? The answer is 100 percent,” he said. “People teach for reasons way beyond pay, but it’s a piece of it.”
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Senate gives final legislative approval to electrocution option for execution

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee could electrocute death row inmates if lethal injection drugs are unavailable under legislation that’s headed for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

The Senate voted 25-3 on Thursday to agree to changes to the legislation made by the House, which approved the measure 68-13 the day before.

The legislation keeps lethal injection as the preferred method for executions, but allows the electric chair if the state were unable to obtain the necessary drugs or if lethal injections were found unconstitutional.

And electrocutions would be allowed regardless of when the crime was committed.

Under Tennessee law, death row inmates could choose to be electrocuted if their crimes were committed before 1999, when lethal injection became the preferred method.

There are 76 inmates on Tennessee’s death row, including one woman.

Common Core bill goes to governor

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The testing component of Tennessee’s Common Core education standards would be delayed a year under legislation headed to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

The measure was sent to the governor on Thursday after lawmakers in both chambers voted to accept a conference committee report that recommended the delay. Haslam has said he doesn’t want any type of delay, so it’s unclear what he will do with the legislation. (Note: The Senate vote, taken Thursday, was 27-0. Previous and more extensive post on House vote and discussion is HERE.)

Last month, lawmakers passed a bill that sought to delay further implementation of the new standards for two years. It also sought to delay the testing component for the standards for the same amount of time.

The measure now only affects the testing component, which is scheduled to begin in the school year that begins in August.

Rep. Stewart: ‘Flash mob’ bill actually reduces punishment for pollution

News release from House Democratic Caucus:
The Tennessee House has passed HB2029 by Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) on a vote of 58-37. While the sponsor said the bill and the resulting new classification of vandalism was geared towards stopping flash mobs, in fact, it places vandalism in the form of pollution in this new class, and makes it punishable only as a misdemeanor, no matter the monetary amount of property damage done as a result of pollution.

“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,” said Rep. Mike Stewart. “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.”

In order to address the problem, Rep. Stewart introduced an amendment to HB1687 that would have fixed the problem created with the passage of the bill by deleting the language in Rep. Holt’s bill as it relates to pollution.

“By voting against my amendment, the House confirmed my suspicions that this was a Trojan horse bill designed to help corporate polluters,” said Rep. Stewart. “I hope the Governor will take a strong look at HB2029 and veto it for all the property owners who could be harmed by these actions.”

Note: Previous post HERE.

On fundraising in the 3rd and 4th Congressional District GOP primaries

Challengers are outpacing incumbents in Tennessee’s 3rd and 4th congressional districts, campaign finance reports reviewed by the Chattanooga TFP show.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann’s camp announced Tuesday it had more than $640,000 on hand for his 2014 re-election bid, but finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that $91,500 of that can’t be used in the August primary. That means the incumbent has a $178,500 lead on challenger Weston Wamp.

Wamp’s reports show his campaign has $373,000 on hand, after raising $403,000. All but $2,600 of Wamp’s money can be spent in the primary.

“We feel very comfortable with where we’re at in the campaign,” said Jordan Powell, a senior adviser for Fleischmann’s campaign.

Answering criticism from the Wamp campaign that a few Fleischmann supporters had contributed more than the $5,200 legal limit for the cycle, Powell said the campaign would correct any errors it found in the reporting. But he said it could have simply been a clerical or computer error.

..In the 4th District, Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy maintained his fundraising lead over incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., in the first three months of 2014, reports show.

Tracy, who is from Shelbyville, reported raising $172,061 from Jan. 1 through March 31. In DesJarlais’ disclosure, the South Pittsburg physician reported raising $76,102.

Meanwhile, Tracy’s campaign war chest stood at $913,561 as of March 31. DesJarlais’ cash on hand was $198,356.

…Republicans John Anderson, Oluyomi “Fapas” Faparusi, Steve Lane, David Tate and Michael Warden are also seeking the seat. Only Lane has filed. He has $13,000 on hand.

Democrat Lenda Sherrell is seeking to beat the GOP pick in November. She reported raising $190,000 so far in 2014 and has $100,000 on hand.

CRC Health Group to pay $9.25M in TennCare fraud settlement

News release from attorney general’s office:
CRC Health Group (CRC) has agreed to pay $9.25 million to settle allegations of TennCare fraud related to its New Life Lodge Facility in Burns, Tennessee, Attorney General Bob Cooper announced today.

The State alleged that between 2006 and 2012 CRC provided substandard services, repeatedly exceeded its state-licensed patient capacity, and caused third party pharmacies to bill the TennCare program for prescription drugs that New Life Lodge was obligated to provide to TennCare beneficiaries as part of their TennCare-paid per diem. The settlement is the result of a joint investigation between the State of Tennessee and the United States. The recovery will be divided between the state and federal governments with the State of Tennessee slated to receive approximately $3.4 million.

“New Life Lodge accepted millions of dollars of TennCare funds with the understanding that it would provide necessary substance abuse treatment services to some of the State’s most vulnerable citizens,” Attorney General Cooper stated in response to the settlement. “Instead, far too often those operating the facility failed to meet their obligations by falling short of minimum necessary standards of care or using third-party pharmacies to double-bill the program.”

In addition to double-billing and licensure issues, the agreement identified several ways the facility allegedly failed to meet acceptable TennCare standards. Among the allegations were that New Life Lodge relied on personnel who were not appropriately licensed or supervised; billed for services that were not documented or provided; failed to conform to the facility’s own patient treatment plans; failed to provide required access to a psychiatrist; and failed to meet legal “medical necessity” requirements that are prerequisites for payment under TennCare. The settlement agreement provides that it is neither an admission of liability by CRC nor a concession by the State that its claims are not well founded.
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