Monthly Archives: February 2014

Open container bill hailed as life saver, criticized as harassment of the law-abiding

A bill outlawing open containers of alcoholic beverages inside vehicles got out of a House sub Wednesday, reports the Kingsport Times-News. Meanwhile, Frank Cagle opines that the proposal – repeatedly defeated in past years – is an example of “wrong-headed and unnecessary” legislation.

From the Times-News:

After years of failure, a Tennessee State Government Subcommittee advanced on Wednesday state Rep. Jon Lundberg’s so-called “Pass The Bottle” legislation that would ban passengers from having open alcohol containers in vehicles.

Lundberg, R-Bristol, had argued over the years that the legislation would save lives and bring more federal highway funds to Tennessee, but it repeatedly failed to get out of any committee.

“It’s really quite sad. … It’s legal to drink alcohol in a car in Tennessee,” Lundberg told lawmakers on the subcommittee. “Often it’s the driver doing it and when the car is pulled over, he simply passes the bottle to the passenger.”

Tri-Cities municipal governments had consistently advocated Lundberg’s bill by noting Tennessee has “foregone more than $90 million in federal transportation funding” since 2004 by not being in compliance with federal open container requirements.

The bill’s fiscal impact statement estimated there would be about 650 open container violations each year with a current average individual fine of $40. A violation would be a misdemeanor offense.

From Cagle:
The premise of this bill is that people drinking in a vehicle means they have a drinking or drunk driver. The argument is that a driver stopped by the police just tells a companion to “hold this.”

First of all, have you ever heard about designated drivers? It’s one of the successful campaigns by anti-drunk driving advocates. One member of the group volunteers not to drink anything but ice tea on the way to the game, the tail gate, the lake, or back and forth to dinner.

Then there are van drivers and limo drivers taking people to football games or concerts.

As to the argument the driver just hands his beer to a passenger when stopped by the law, I just have one response—what world do you live in? If you get stopped by the law and there is alcohol, open containers, or just the smell, you can bet the officer will have the driver out on the side of the road administering a field sobriety test at a minimum or likely blowing into a Breathalyzer.

The idea that a clever drinking driver can just hand his beer to a passenger and thus fool the cops or just sit smugly victorious because the state doesn’t have an open-container law is so funny, any legislator making that case ought to be laughed out of the chamber.

This is one of those feel-good bills that make people think we are doing something about drunk driving. Drunk driving is a pernicious problem often related to mental illness, self-medicating for depression, and alcoholism. You do something about it with expensive treatment, dealing with the root causes of the problem, and other approaches that cost money no one is willing to spend.

But what can be done, easily and cheaply, is to pass bills to harass law-abiding social drinkers.

‘Preemptive measure’ puts restrictions on union ‘mass picketing’

Unions may face new restrictions when they picket under a bill making its way through the legislature, according to The Tennessean.

House Bill 1688 would add a new misdemeanor of “mass picketing” that could be used to punish labor activists who block the entrance to a business or private residence. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jeremy Durham, and other supporters say the legislation would supplement laws already on the books that prohibit trespassing.

“People have the right to free speech, but they do not have the right to prevent people from going to work,” said Durham, R-Franklin. He said Tennessee unions added 31,000 members in 2013, which represents the largest percentage increase among the states last year.

“I feel like if that’s such a growing part of our economy, we need to take preemptive measures to make sure our businesses have the rights and protections they should be entitled to.”

…The House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee approved the measure Wednesday, the first step toward passage.

Former Rep. Chris Clem named to county election commission seat

The Hamilton County Election Commission’s former attorney, who resigned in December after butting heads with its chairman, has been tapped to serve the body again — this time as a commissioner.

Further from the Chattanooga TFP:

In an emailed vote over the weekend, the Hamilton County legislative delegation recommended Chattanooga attorney Chris Clem to fill the Republican appointee seat being left by Tommy Crangle. Crangle is leaving the Election Commission to seek the Tennessee House District 27 post being vacated by state Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga.

…Clem resigned as the commission attorney after the commission approved a petition to let Chattanooga voters decide whether the city will keep an ordinance to extend health benefits to domestic partners of city employees.

At the time, Clem and Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden disagreed because Clem had advised Hamilton County Tea Party President Mark West, who was leading the petition effort, to speak to the state about how to proceed. Walden said going around the local body helped to politicize the issue and put the election commission’s objectivity in question.

Clem said Tuesday his resignation would not impact his service on the election commission if his appointment is confirmed.

He left the commission to get more involved in local politics, he said. And he’s had his fill of that.

“I got quite a bit involved with helping a lot of these campaigns get off the ground, just giving unpaid advice about where to get signs, and things like that … I’ve been involved sufficiently enough,” Clem said.

He also said his disagreement with Walden is water under the bridge.

Note: Clem is a former Republican state representative who also serves on the state Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.

Bill sets DCS disclosure rules — lower than current standards

House lawmakers gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill that sets new disclosure rules for the Department of Children’s Services, says The Tennessean.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee unanimously approved House Bill 1505 on a voice vote Wednesday afternoon after members raised no objections to the measure. The bill lays out the disclosures DCS must make when a child dies or comes close to death, and it says a full report must be made once an investigation is concluded.

State Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, said he consulted the department in drafting the bill. He told the subcommittee that the measure “codifies and memorializes” current practices at DCS, which has begun posting records on fatal and near-fatal cases following a court battle led by The Tennessean.

But the bill sets minimum standards for disclosure short of the reports currently released by the department. DeBerry said he would consider future changes to the measure.

“The main goal I had this year was to put into law some of the rules that he (DCS Commissioner Jim Henry) had already made,” DeBerry said.

A spokesman for DCS says department officials did not request the bill and have taken a neutral position on the measure.

Senators decide against being marrying men (and women)

While members of a House committee have voted to grant current and former state legislators legal authority to perform marriage ceremonies, a majority of Senate Judiciary Committee members balked at the idea Wednesday.

The move came on a bill by Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, that as filed granted former county clerks authority to perform marriages.

In the House Civil Justice Committee, the measure was extended by amendment to provide marrying authority to current and former members of the General Assembly.
When the matter came up in Senate Judiciary, Yager professed himself neutral on the issue of legislator wedding.

Current law allows current and former speakers of the state House and Senate to perform marriages along with an array of other state and local officials – but not rank-and-file legislators.

“If former county commissioners can (perform marriages), why not legislators?” asked Sen. Douglas Overbey, R-Maryville, at one point.

But when the vote came on the amendment, only three voted yes and four voted no. The bill was then approved by the committee 9-0 in its original form, applying only to former county clerks.

‘Ag Gag’ returns as ‘surreptitious commercial surveillance’? Two other bills also alarm animal welfare activists

Almost a year after Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a so-called “Ag gag” bill, animal welfare activists say new legislative efforts pose an even greater threat to their efforts toward protecting animals from abuse.

“This is worse than ag gag,” said Leighann McCollum, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Sherry L. Rout, legislative director for the Southern region of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, described one of the three pending measures as “a cleverly-crafted ag gag bill.”

The bill vetoed by Haslam last year after considerable controversy would have required anyone making a photograph or video of livestock abuse to promptly report the abuse to law enforcement officials and turn over copies of the recordings. It followed publicity of HSUS releasing a video of Tennessee walking horses being abused that was taken by a person working as an employee of the horse farm.

Critics said the “ag gag” bill was intended to prevent such operations in the future, reducing chances of prosecuting animal abuse. Backers insisted it would enhance prosecutions.

Of the three bills criticized by the animal welfare groups this year, perhaps the most akin to last year’s bill is one largely devoted to regulating the use of drones in agriculture. But section ten of the seven-page bill (SB1892) – a “sneaky” insertion, said McCollum – is a provision creating the crime of “surreptitious commercial surveillance.”

The offense occurs, according to a legislative staff summary, when an employee or another person on a business property delivering goods or services makes recording without the business’ permission and under “false pretenses.” The crime is deemed “aggravated,” with a higher penalty, comes when the “electronic or photographic images or audio recordings” thus obtained are transmitted to others.
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Senate panel votes to let legislators issue lawsuit orders to state attorney general

A Republican-sponsored bill declaring the Legislature can order the state attorney general to either file a lawsuit or dismiss one initiated on his own was approved on a 5-3 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

“The attorney general is the state’s chief litigator, and he should be responsive to the people of Tennessee and their concerns,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, in a press release hailing the 5-3 committee vote in favor of SB2085. “This bill makes the office of attorney general more accountable to the people.”

State Attorney General Bob Cooper declined two years ago to file a lawsuit challenging the federal Affordable Care Act despite being urged to do so by Republican lawmakers. Attorneys general in other states joined in such a lawsuit, which led to the U.S. Supreme Court upholding most of the federal law, but striking down a provision that said states must accept Medicaid expansion envisioned in the law as enacted.

Critics said the measure amounts to unwarranted legislative interference in the judicial branch of government and could mean substituting legislators’ political judgment for the attorney general’s professional legal judgment.

House Republicans kill bill to establish a TN minimum wage

Republicans on a House subcommittee Wednesday killed a Democrat-sponsored bill that would have established a Tennessee state minimum wage of $8.25 per hour for employees of companies that do not provide them with health care insurance.

House Democratic Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville, sponsor of the bill, said 41 other states have a state minimum wage – 21 of them setting it at a level higher than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Turner’s bill (HB1694) would set a state minimum wage of $7.25, matching the federal rate and with a provision declaring that will increase in alignment with any future increase in the federal minimum wage. For companies that do not provide medical insurance, the state minimum would be $1 higher.

“This is the right thing to do and it’s time we did it in Tennessee,” he told the House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee. “We’ve done very little in this state to help people on the lower end of the wage scale.”

None of the Republicans on the panel offered comments on the bill during the brief hearing, other than subcommittee Chairman Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, complimenting Turner on a “good presentation.”

But all three Republicans present voted no on the bill. A fourth was absent. The panel’s two Democrats voted yes. The defeat effectively kills the measure for the year.

The fiscal note prepared by legislative staff said there are 247 part-time state employees who do no get health care insurance and would thus be covered by the bill, costing the state about $701,500 annually.

Note: The Democratic party commentary on the rejection is below.
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Haslam: I’m not passing the buck on Medicaid expansion, just waiting for the next step

Gov. Bill Haslam is taking issue with the perception that his latest agreement to wait for a federal proposal expanding health care to Tennessee’s working poor amounts to him passing the buck, reports Andrea Zelinski.

“Somehow this has been phrased as me saying ‘Ok, we give up. You all do something.’ It was more of saying, ‘Let’s you all take the next cut of what you think will work,’” Haslam told reporters Wednesday.

After nearly a year of ongoing discussions, Haslam said he met with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius multiple times over the weekend to discuss what kind of plan the two can assemble that meets federal guidelines and could win the blessing of the state’s Republican supermajority in the legislature.

“It wasn’t me saying, ‘OK, you all propose something to us.’ It was her saying, and us together saying, ‘OK, let’s have them take a cut at what they think will work and we’ll use that as the next step.’”

…When asked, the governor said he is not trying to set up the federal government’s proposal to be shot down as not good enough.

“All I can do is make my best effort to get something out of Washington that I think will pass, then it’s my job to convince 50 in one house and 17 in the other,” he said. “I think if we can work out a plan that is more consumer driven, and yet still covers more people, the argument to legislators would be this is a good thing for the state and for the country long term, if we can get there.”

The governor said he has no timeline for when he expects to know whether a deal is possible between his office and HHS.

Haslam sees ‘merit’ to allowing children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition rates — but not free tuition

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says legislative efforts to make children of people living in the country illegally eligible for in-state tuition “have some merit,” but that he has no plans to change his own free tuition proposal to include those same students.

Haslam wants to create the country’s first free community college program for all high school graduates by using state lottery reserves to cover the difference between tuition costs and all available aid.

The governor’s proposal would require students to exhaust all possible support by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which requires a Social Security number.

Haslam told reporters Wednesday that removing the requirement.