Haslam administration policy maneuver on handgun permits could sink ‘open carry’ bill

In an unusual maneuver, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has apparently used intractracies of the state Legislature’s procedural process in an effort to kill legislation that would allow Tennesseans to carry handguns openly without a permit.

Spokespersons for the administration acknowledged that Haslam opposes the bill, but declined to respond directly to contentions by a gunowners advocacy group that the tactics used in doing so amount to providing the Legislature with “false or misleading information.”

The aministration move revolves around the “fiscal note” for SB2424, approved by the Senate on a 25-2 vote last Tuesday. It is scheduled for its first House subcommittee vote on Monday as the General Assembly pushes to adjourn by this Tuesday or Wednesday.

Legislative rules require that every bill be evaluated by the Fiscal Review Committee staff to determine if enactment would require any expenditure of state funds.
At the time the bill passed the Senate, the standing fiscal note – the second issued on the bill – said costs to the state were “not significant.” A day later, the Fiscal Review staff issued a “corrected” fiscal note “based on subsequent information provided by the Department of Safety,” which is in charge of issuing handgun carry permits. The corrected fiscal note says that it will cost $100,000 in taxpayer funds to implement the bill.

Currently issued handgun permit cards are valid for carrying a weapon either concealed or openly. If the bill is enacted, they would be needed only for concealed carrying; not for open carrying. The department declared that, as a matter of policy, it would want to alter permits to affix a statement declaring the permit is valid for concealed carrying.

“The legislation does not require nor will it cause the Department of Safety to make any changes to handgun carry permit cards,” says the revised fiscal note. “If the Department does not make any changes to handgun carry permit cards, the fiscal impact for the bill as amended is not significant.

“However, the department has indicated that, based on departmental policy, it will elect to make changes to the permit cards, for a one-time cost of $100,000, to reflect permit cards are issued for the purpose of carrying a concealed handgun,” the note says.

The Fiscal Review staff effectively endorsed the department’s statement, declaring the estimated cost to taxpayers as $100,000.

Under Senate rules, any bill with a fiscal note of $100,000 must pass through the Finance Committee. In the Senate, the bill sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, had avoided a trip to the Finance Committee because, at the time it came to a vote, the fiscal note said the cost to the state was “not significant.”

Under House rules, a bill with any cost to the state whatsoever must go through the Finance Committee. The original fiscal note on SB2424 – before the first revision to deem costs “not significant” – had deemed there would be a cost to the state.

The bill was thus assigned to the House Finance Subcommittee, which must approve any bill before it gets to the full Finance Committee. It has remained there through the entire 2014 session, now expected to conclude on Tuesday.

The state budget bill, appropriating $32.4 billion for spending in the coming fiscal year, was approved by both the House and Senate on Thursday. Under long-standing tradition, the finance committees reject any significant expenditure of state funds not appropriated in the budget bill once it has passed.

John Harris, president of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said in an email that the move “appears to be a scheme by the administration to falsify a fiscal note for the purpose of delaying or killing” the bill.

“Of course, this is of great concern that the very basis on which proposed legislation is considered by the Legislature can be falsely and intentionally manipulated,” he wrote.

Under normal legislative procedures, it would be extremely unusual for the House Finance Subcomittee to approve any bill requiring an unscheduled expenditure of state money after the budget has passed. In practice, having a bill placed “behind the budget” – a frequent procedural move – is often a signal the measure is doomed.

The House sponsor of the “open carry” bill, Republican Rep. Micha Van Huss of Jonesborough, filed a motion Friday that would bypass the subcommittee and the full House Finance Committee to bring the bill up for a vote of the full House on Tuesday. But to do so, his motion would first have to be approved by more than two-thirds of all House members, or 67 of the 99. In recent years, such attempts on other bills have routinely failed.

“The governor’s Office supports the Department of Safety’s efforts to effectively administer any new law that changes the permitting process for firearms,” said David Smith, spokesman for Haslam, in response to an inquiry on Harris’ contentions. He deferred other comment to the Department of Safety.

Jennifer Donnals, communications director for the department, said in an email that the department has “flagged” the bill – meaning a letter has been sent to lawmakers stating the administration is opposed.

“There is a fiscal cost of $100,000 for making what we believe are necessary changes to permit cards to reflect the cards are issued for the purpose of carrying a concealed handgun,” she wrote. “The governor supports the department’s efforts to effectively administer the handgun permitting program.”

“While not required by the legislation, we believe it is good policy to make it clear on the permit cards that they are issued for the purpose of carrying a concealed handgun. There is a one-time cost to make this change to the cards, therefore the department has flagged the bill for fiscal reasons,” she said.

Also pending in the House Finance Subcommittee is a Senate-passed bill (SB1496) that would override local ordinances prohibiting the carrying of weapons in city and county parks for handgun permit holders. It, too, has had fiscal note problems.

Earlier, Fiscal Review staff estimated it would cost local governments $32,800 to replace signs now in parks that declare guns prohibited. In the Senate, an amendment was adopted to eliminate the fiscal note by declaring the signs need not be changed until they wear out. That amendment had not been adopted in the House, however, and the bill was placed “behind the budget.”

A separate bill already passed by the House and Senate (SB1612) generally declares local governments have no right to regulate the use, possession or carrying of firearms – except to prohbits discharge of firearms within city limits or decide the location of a shooting range. That measure, however, does not impact the current right of cities and counties to prohibit guns in their parks, which was explictly approved in a specific state law enacted in 2010.