Haslam vetoes ‘retail vandalism’ bill for ‘unintended consequence’ of helping polluters

Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday vetoed a bill that would have created the new crime of “retail vandalism” in Tennessee, saying it had the “unintended consequence” of reducing criminal penalties for some types of pollution.

The bill, drafted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden. During intense and lengthy House floor debate, Holt described the overall intent as protecting retail stores from “flash mobs,” allowing criminal prosecution of those organizing such events when property is vandalized.

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.

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, had pointed out the pollution provision during debate before the bill was approved on a 63-31 House vote — mostly along party lines with Republicans for, Democrats against. On Thursday, Stewart praised Haslam for the veto of “mislabeled legislation.”

“Hopefully, this is the last time we will be asked to vote for bills that would actually cut the penalties for criminal polluters who profit by ruining their neighbors’ land,” Stewart said in a news release.

Said Haslam in a statement:

“The original intent of this bill was to define and penalize retail vandalism. In a review of the amended legislation, it has been determined that the bill had the unintended consequence of reducing the criminal penalties for certain types of polluting in Tennessee.

“The vast majority of Tennessee is rural farm land, and farm property can occasionally be used illegally by non-property owners as dumping grounds for garbage. The vandalism statute in the Tennessee Code is used to police that act, and the amended version of HB2029/SB2178 would reduce unintentionally the penalty on polluters in Tennessee.

”Tennessee is blessed with unparalleled natural beauty, and we have to protect our land and water for future generations so it remains an attractive place for people to live, work and raise a family. For this reason, I have vetoed this legislation, and I respectfully encourage the General Assembly to reconsider this issue.”

The questioned amendment basically says that pollution can also be prosecuted as vandalism under the proposed new law, which makes the crime of “retail vandalism” a misdemeanor. Under current state law, however, businesses or individuals who intentionally pollute a stream or property can be charged in some cases — depending on the extent of damages — with a felony.

Had the bill become law, then, some severe cases of pollution would be considered only a misdemeanor and subject to much smaller penalties, both in fines an jail time, than now, Stewart said.

The pollution provision cited by Haslam – and by Stewart in House debate – was added in the Senate Judiciary Committee with virtually no debate or discussion at the behest of the panel’s chairman, Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, and with Campfield’s consent, a video of the April 2 meeting shows.

The bill passed the committee unanimously, then was approved on the Senate floor 29-0 April 9 – again with little debate or discussion. Videos show the Senate committee spent abour four minutes approving the bill. On the Senate floor, about three minutes elapsed between Campfield making the motion for passage and the vote being taken.

Campfield said Thursday that any impact on the state’s pollution laws was unintended and he does not object to the veto, if that is the case. The senator sai he did not realize there was any such impact in acquiescing to Kelsey’s amendment. He expressed some consternation that the administration had raised no questions about the measure while it was going through the legislative process.

“There was never a flag on the bill,” he said, refering to a gubernatorial letter sent when the administration opposes a measure. “There was never any complaint or any contact at all from the administration.”

Holt could not be reached for comment Thursday. In House floor debate, he disagreed with Stewart’s contentions, but declared at one point, “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 fix it.”

Campfield said he anticipates sponsoring the basic bill – without any mention of pollution – again next year. In his brief comments to the Judiciary Committee, the senator said it was aimed at situations such as an organized group of protesters coming into a Home Depot and slashing boxes with knives.

The veto was the third for Haslam since he became governor. Even if sponsors wanted to override the veto, they could not since his veto comes with the 108th General Assembly permantly adjourned, At one point, legislative leaders considered returning for a special “override session” this summer, which would have provided an opportunity to override vetoes, but that proposal was ultimately abandoned.

Holt was sponsor of one of the bills previously vetoed by Haslam – a so-called “ag gag” bill that would have required anyone making photographs or a video of animal abuse to turn them over to law enforcement authorities promptly after they were recorded. Critics contended that measure was intended to stop surreptitious recordings such as a widely-publicized Humane Society of the United States video of Tennessee Walking Horses being abused.

Stewart later filed an amendment to repeal the provision in question when another bill came up on the House floor. That effort 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 to legislaton matters extraneous issues under consideration.

Glen Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an April email, responding to a request for comment on Stewart’s contentions at the time, that the measure “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.”

Spencer said illegal acts of pollution are otherwise covered in state and federal law that leave felony prosecution as an option so that the questioned provision would not have any real impact.

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