As he leaves office Monday, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield faces a final defeat, reports Andy Sher — his effort to persuade the state Legislature to toughen Tennessee’s anti-gang laws. The problem for Littlefield’s Gang Free School Zone Act is its costs for housing gang members expected to go to state prisons under its effects.
By year 10, legislative analysts project it would cost $2.3 million annually to imprison an estimated 77 criminal gang members under the proposed law’s three provisions.
In the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Wednesday, the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire, of Chattanooga, had an amendment that sought to provide funding for the bill in Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed annual spending plan. It failed for lack of a motion.
The official death knell for this legislative session is expected Monday afternoon when the bill is scheduled to come before the full Senate Finance Committee.
“They can still hear it, but basically I’m told they won’t take action on it this year because of the fiscal note. If I can count correctly, if it wasn’t for the fiscal note, it would pass,” Gardenhire said of the bill which received an enthusiastic bipartisan thumbs up in the Judiciary Committee and its House counterpart.
By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A renewed push is under way to get Tennessee lawmakers to allow local official to hold more closed-door meetings.
Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who also spearheaded a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Current law forbids members of a local legislative body from meeting privately to deliberate on public business. It does not ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters or from having other conversations.
But Barnwell notes in the letter that the law does not apply to the General Assembly.
“The goal of this legislation is to make the Open Meetings Laws as consistent as possible for all elected officials whether state and local,” he said.
Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, called the effort “misguided.”
State health officials and members of the restaurant industry plan to ask the legislature to update Tennessee’s 1976 food safety law next year, reports The Tennessean. “Our rules are so old they don’t even address sushi,” said Hugh Atkins, who oversees restaurant inspections for the Tennessee Department of Health.
The Tennessee Food Safety Task Force first considered tweaking compliance rules but finally decided the law itself needed a complete overhaul.
The statute, more than three decades old, does not prohibit restaurant employees from fingering your food and lists temperature requirements for already-cooked dishes that can cause mashed potatoes to get crusty and meats to get leathery.
Task force members say the law wastes resources, falls short of federally recommended standards and can penalize restaurants that operate in older buildings. The temperature requirements for already-cooked foods have no safety benefit, Atkins said. Another requirement mandates that inspectors check a peanut and candy shop as often as a full-fledged restaurant, where the risk of a food-borne illness is much higher
Thousands of Tennesseans who haven’t paid court costs and fines will start losing their driver’s licenses on July 1 under a law enacted by the General Assembly last year. Bob Fowler reports that county court clerks and judges, who are preparing to begin enforcing the law, have differing opinions about whether it’s a wise thing to do.
The law applies to misdemeanor and felony cases that were resolved after July 1, 2011. Defendants one year from the date of a guilty plea or conviction to pay off their court costs and fines and, if they don’t they are faced with loss of license. The revocations, thus, will begin after July 1, 2012. “Imagine the court having to have a hearing on every unpaid court cost case,” Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk Barry Pelizzari said. “It would be a burden that this system could not handle.”
“It’s going to be a huge mess,” Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Don Elledge predicted. He said he expects to discuss the issue with fellow jurists during a judicial conference in June.
Roane County Circuit Court Clerk Kim Nelson offers another view. She said she’s “thankful that the Legislature has provided court clerks with another enforcement tool in collecting court costs.”
…State Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, spearheaded passage of the law. His main reason: “There’s almost $1 billion statewide in unpaid fines and court costs,” he said.
Defendants facing the loss of their driver’s license will now have “an incentive to pay their fines,” he said.
Gotto said he was asked to introduce the legislation by representatives of the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk’s office. “They see what a huge problem this is.”
Gotto said the law allows defendants unable to pay off their court costs in full within a year to either seek a six-month extension or set up an installment plan for paying.
“There are all kinds of safeguards to keep from disenfranchising any group,” he said, “but it brings some real consequences to folks who just won’t pay.”
Several clerks said they have either already sent out notices to defendants owing court costs in cases resolved last July, alerting them about the new law, or plan to do so soon.
The House has joined the Senate in approving Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to restructure the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, which Democrats contended is unnecessary and unwise.
The bill, SB2247, returns to the Senate for concurrence on an amendment that says part-time directors of the new agency will be given state health care coverage as well as a $36,000 salary. The Senate is expected to approve the amendment, sending would send the bill to the governor for his signature.
(UPDATE NOTE: The amendment was approved, bill sent to gov.)
House Republicans rejected several Democrat-sponsored amendments, including one that would have replaced this year’s Haslam TRA reform plan with last year’s Haslam TRA reform plan, which failed.
Last year’s version called for replacing the present four-member TRA board with three full-time members and a full-time executive director. This year’s version would set up a five-member part-time board with a full-time executive director.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh also criticized the Haslam administration for secrecy about the process used to develop the proposal. The reference was to the administration refusing to fully comply with a Chattanooga Times-Free Press request for information on the top-to-bottom review that led to drafting of the proposal. (Previous post HERE.)
The final House vote on the bill was 60-28. The Senate vote was 20-13.
Three Republicans voted no in the House: Reps. Joshua Evans, Greenbrier; Matthew Hill, Jonesborough; and Jimmy Matlock, Lenoir City.Only one Democrat, David Shepard of Dickson, voted for the bill.
Legislation authorizing Tennessee city and county governments to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings has been introduced by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.
The bill (SB2641) includes the Ten Commandments as appropriate for display in city and county buildings and property along with the U.S. Constitution, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as and other documents “recognized to commemorate freedom and the rich history of Tennessee and the United States of America.”
Last year, the House approved a resolution – which has no legal effect – urging all Tennessee counties to display the Ten Commandments. That measure (HR107), sponsored by Watson, says that 88 of Tennessee’s 95 counties “have already adopted resolutions acknowledging the historical significance of the Ten Commandments and pledging to defend their right to display them.” Note: Andy Sher has a thorough report on the bill, HERE. Some excerpts: Bell said Friday he thinks “it’s important that our local government buildings and our local legislative bodies know they have the right to post those documents.”
He said displays that include the Ten Commandments should withstand legal challenges in a state where several counties, including Hamilton, have been directed by federal courts to remove stand-alone Ten Commandments displays.
…Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said he thinks such moves are constitutionally suspect.
…Suzanna Sherry, a Vanderbilt University School of Law professor and expert on constitutional law, said the legality of such displays “depends on exactly the context” in which governments act to install them.
“This is a really difficult question, and the Supreme Court has visited it and visited it a number of times,” Sherry added.
She said justices have examined “what were the circumstances under which it was posted. What were the likely motivations of those who posted it? … What was the message that both was intended to be sent and received … by those who viewed it?”