Firearms Group Excluded from Negotiations on Guns-in-Lots Bill

House Speaker Beth Harwell told reporters Thursday that Republican leadership was continuing to work with “all interested parties” on guns-in-lots legislation, a group she says does not include the consistently boisterous Tennessee Firearms Association.

Speaking at her weekly press conference, the Nashville Republican said her caucus is still searching for the fine line between two of the party’s primary concerns.

“This caucus is dedicated to gun rights, the Second Amendment,” she said. “We are also dedicated to property rights. And we’re going to merge those until we get to a point where we’re satisfied, or we will not. We’ll continue to work.”

Throughout the ongoing debate over the legislation, which would allow workers to store guns in their cars on company lots, the TFA has appeared to be a player, throwing grenades via press release and testifying before a House committee in support of the bill. But Harwell said they’re not in the loop on negotiations about the details of the bill.

“As far as I know, the association that reflects the Second Amendment rights in this state is the National Rifle Association, and we have had ongoing discussions with them,” she said.

The NRA’s chief lobbyist in Tennessee was not available for comment at press time.

The executive director of the TFA, John Harris, told TNReport his association is working with other organizations, including tea party groups in the state, whom he says have made the issue a top priority. He said the TFA has been in contact with the NRA and is working with their lobbyist on the issue. But when it comes to the ongoing negotiations with legislators, Harris confirms that TFA is on the outside.

“The legislature has decided they’re not going to talk to TFA, which is the only state organization to have a presence in this issue for 15 years,” he said. “There are a significant amount of legislators talking to us off the record, because they’ve been threatened by leadership not to talk to us.”

Harris balked at the suggestion that the association’s frequently aggressive rhetoric might be the reason for legislators giving them the cold shoulder. He said they’re just “playing games.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, said Wednesday he expected to file two amendments to the bill before calling for a vote in a House committee next week. One, he said, would narrow the bill’s scope so that it applied only to gun carry permit holders, a limitation that Harwell said would make party leadership “more comfortable.” The second would create an exemption for nuclear facilities.

On Wednesday, a release from the TFA called the amendments “nothing but appeasement by these Republican leaders to the ‘Golden Goose’ of corporate money.”

Harris said Thursday the TFA is open to looking at the amendments once they’re filed. But if the bill strays too close to similar legislation in Georgia, which includes a long list of exemptions, he said the association will work to kill the amendment and possibly the bill itself.

For the most part, Democrats have been on the sidelines for what has been an in-house debate amongst Republicans. But during a press availability Thursday, Democratic House Caucus Chairman Mike Turner gave reporters his take.

“I’m a member of the NRA, OK? I believe in the Second Amendment,” he said. “But it’s been broadly interpreted here, lately, what that means. I think next thing you know, we get guns in parking lots, we’ll be carrying guns in the factory cafeteria. They keep reaching, reaching, reaching on issues. I think we’ve got enough gun laws on the books now.”

Faulk Refining Guns-in-Lots Bill

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Wednesday that a long-gestating guns-in-lots proposal would “find a lot more favor” with his administration if it more closely resembled similar legislation in Georgia.

Sen. Mike Faulk’s SB3002 would prohibit employers from enacting policies that ban workers from storing firearms in their cars on company lots. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday delayed action after Faulk referred to a few tweaks he’d be making to the bill.

A companion bill, SB2992, that would prohibit “employment discrimination based on an applicant or current employee’s ownership, storage, transportation or posession of a firearm.” The Senate’s commerce committee delayed action on the legislation Tuesday and it is still awaiting a vote in a House subcommittee.

Faulk told TNReport Wednesday that amendments were finished, but hadn’t been filed.

“Both bills are pared back to cover gun permit carry holders only, so it isn’t nearly as broad in scope as the original bill,” he said. “I believe the second amendment exempts nuclear facilities. Those are the only two I’ve seen, and at this point, the only two I expect to file.”

Representatives from the state attorney general’s office appeared before the committee Tuesday to present the AG’s opinion, stating that the legislation is constitutionally defensible.

“While there is limited case law on this issue and a difference of opinion among commentators, two courts in other jurisdictions have upheld bills similar to SB3002 against constitutional challenges,” the opinion stated.

In Georgia, a similar law contains multiple exceptions, including one allowing for such prohibitions in cases where the employer is also the property owner. The long list of exemptions in the law has lead some to question its true effect.

The Tennessee Firearms Association, which has been a thorn in the side of Republicans throughout the conservative-on-conservative debate, released a statement Wednesday suggesting that further delays and changes to the legislation could lead firearm owners to oppose the bill completely. The release called Faulk’s amendments “nothing but appeasement by these Republican leaders to the “Golden Goose” of corporate money.”

Told of the TFA’s comments, Faulk said he hadn’t seen the comments.

“But, if they’ve not seen my amendments, I would say that’s a little premature,” he said.

Lollar to Fill In For Hawk as Conservation Committee Chair

House Speaker Beth Harwell wants Rep. Ron Lollar to chair final meetings of the committee vacated by David Hawk, who was accused of domestic assault over the weekend.

Hawk announced late Tuesday he would step down from his leadership post as head of the Conservation and Environment Committee to concentrate on his legal defense.

“My dedication continues to be caring for my family and serving my constituents,” he said in an emailed statement. “Proving my innocence will take much of my focus, so I feel relinquishing my chairmanship will best serve these goals.”

Hawk was arrested Sunday after his wife told police he hit her while she was holding their 11-month old daughter. The representative contends he did not hit her. Instead, he says she pulled a gun on him while he held their baby, threatening to “put a bullet in my head.” His court date is set for May 21.

Because the committee plans to shut down for the year in two weeks, the speaker opted to not appoint an official replacement, according to Harwell’s spokeswoman. Lollar, the three-term Bartlett Republican, is currently committee’s vice chairman and will run the body’s final meetings.

Ending Inheritance Tax a Priority to Many Farmers

Tennessee farmers flooded the state Capitol for Ag Day on the Hill Tuesday, in part to show off their livestock and the impact of farming on the state’s economy — but also to urge lawmakers to eliminate the so-called “death tax.”

The tax applies to inheritances, which to them means paying thousands to tens of thousands of dollars if they are left the family farm and its value exceeds $1 million.

“I already paid for it once. And I already pay taxes on it every year to keep it,” said Mark Klepper, a farmer and former Greene County board member for the Tennessee Farm Bureau.

“You work hard all your life to make the money, you get taxed on it while you make it, you get taxed on it to keep it and the interest you make of it. And then when you die, your children have to pay tax on it just to keep it again,” he said. “It’s not fair for the person who actually works to achieve wealth gets punished for working.”

Gov. Bill Haslam is making it his priority to scale back the tax on inheritances this year. His plan, SB3762, includes raising the existing tax exemption from property and wealth valued at $1 million to $1.25 million. His administration’s long-term goal is to increase that to $5 million over several years.

The bill hasn’t moved far in either chamber of the General Assembly, generally because lawmakers were waiting for state officials to finalize the plan’s budget impact. It would save taxpayers some $14.2 million, but would also mean that much less in the budget to fund programs. It is scheduled for a hearing in the House Finance Subcommittee Wednesday.

Wearing a button that read “Kill the Death Tax,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said the measure is crucial to farmers.

“Unfortunately, because we have such an aggressive death tax in this state, a lot of times they have to sell the farm when someone passes away in order to pay the death tax rather than let the family inherit it and keep it in the family. We want to stop that,” she said.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee has also pushed to eliminate the death tax. The free-market think tank released a report recently that profiled farmers who say the tax has hurt them, including a cattle farmer from Robertson County and a farmer in Christiana who deals in row crops and cattle.

“Tennessee is one of only two states in the south that imposes a death tax, and not a single state in the Sun Belt has a death tax,” the reports stated. Another study the Beacon Center co-authored with Arthur Laffer’s Center for Supply-Side Economics concluded that the inheritance tax “is an immoral tax that hits homeowners, small business owners & farmers disproportionately hard.”

The tax on inheritances is one of several lawmakers are pushing this year, including the taxes on food, gifts and interest from stock and bonds.

Lowering the death tax is the most important because it is “disruptive to the family farm, disruptive to our rural heritage,” said Tom Brown of Manchester, who is part of the Tennessee Farm Winegrower’s Alliance. “They get carried away with the taxation system to fund all these entitlement folks, and that’s not what America was built on. The backbone of the American economy is small business and the family farm.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is confident the state will gradually lift the death tax exemption, but it’s going to take time.

“We can’t just pass a bill and worry how to pay for it down the road. That’s the reason why we’re going to do it in stages to get rid of this,” Ramsey said. “If there’s any industry in the state this affects more, it’s farmers, the people that probably inherited their farm, and they want to pass it on to their kids, too.”

Ramsey said he’d like to see lawmakers also reduce the Hall tax this year, which taxes interest from stocks and dividends. However, Harwell and Haslam have said they plan to take a pass on that this year.

Custer: Occupy Nashville Planning Last Stand

Most of Occupy Nashville’s tents may soon be cleared from view of the Capitol Building in accordance with a newly minted state law, but there are still demonstrators who will stick around to be arrested, according to a protest organizer.

State officials last Friday said they would wait a week before enforcing the state’s new law banning tenting or laying down of bedding on state property not expressly permitting camping. That includes War Memorial Plaza, a marble-topped public square where protesters have camped since October.

Michael Custer, Occupy Nashville’s most vocal spokesman, told TNReport several protesters will announce at a press conference Thursday they will risk arrest to stay on the plaza.

State officials declined to comment about exactly when or how they plan to enforce the new law.

“We’re prepared to enforce the law when those seven days are over,” said Jennifer Donnals, spokeswoman for the Department of Safety.

The clock seemingly began ticking on Friday when the Department of General Services announced the seven-day timetable.

State Gift-Tax Cut Weighed Against Other Requests

Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s considering the idea of cutting or eliminating the tax on large gifts, which has “been brought up by several legislators.” But the governor said he won’t know until April whether the state can afford it.

Knocking down the gift tax is the newest addition to a handful of tax cuts Republican leaders say they want to see this year.

“We’ve heard a lot of folks saying they would like that addressed,” Haslam told reporters after speaking to the Nashville  Area Chamber of Commerce in downtown Nashville Tuesday.

“We have a whole lot of requests for budget amendments. Way, way more than we can ever fund, and so we’re trying to wade through that and prioritize amongst a lot of different areas of interest,” he said.

People now pay a 5.5 percent to 16 percent state tax on pricey gifts such as a car, land or wealth.

The tax applies for gifts worth $13,000 within the family or gifts of more than $3,000 to others.

Last budget year, the state collected more than $296,000 in gift taxes, a 9 percent increase over the year before, according to the Department of Revenue.

Eliminating the gift tax is as important as the governor’s preferred tax cuts on food and inheritances, said House Speaker Beth Harwell.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he’ll back a reduction in the gift tax, but he’s also pushing for a reduction in the tax on income from stocks and dividends although Harwell and Haslam say that tax is not among their priorities.

“We actually don’t have anything on the Hall this year,” Haslam said. “We did last year. There’s nothing on the Hall this year.”

Guns-in-Parking-Lots Foes Speak Their Piece

Two Senate committees delayed action Tuesday afternoon on legislation aimed at allowing employees to store legally owned firearms in their cars on company parking lots.

After hearing testimony from proponents of the idea two weeks ago, the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees hosted its opponents on Tuesday.

In the Commerce and Agriculture Committee, legislators are considering SB2992, which would prohibit “employment discrimination” based on a person’s “ownership, storage, transportation or possession of a firearm.” Its companion in the Judiciary Committee, SB3002, would prevent companies from banning the storage of guns in employees’ cars on their lots.

The legislation has brought about some friendly fire between gun owners and business interests, two groups that are traditionally pillars of the GOP constituency.

Both committees received a parade of business and university representatives opposing the bills on the grounds that it would impede their private property rights and diminish their ability to ensure the safety of employees and students.

Among those testifying before the committees were representatives from FedEx, Volkswagen and Bridgestone and the presidents of Belmont and Trevecca Nazarene universities, as well as Vanderbilt University’s police chief. In the Judiciary committee, so many individuals had come to testify in opposition to the bill that, when time ran out, committee chair Sen. Mae Beavers asked the remaining dissenters to stand up so they could at least be seen. Around half of the room rose to their feet.

Belmont University president Bob Fisher addressed the Commerce committee and said such legislation would introduce firearms where they haven’t been for years.

“In 12 years, I know of no shots ever fired on our campus,” he said. “There was one armed robbery, there was a gun drawn once in 12 years that I know of. And I want to keep it that way.”

In concluding his statement, he said, “I simply cannot logically connect how it could be any safer with untrained students or untrained employees having easy access to firearms.”

Nashville attorney and chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry Bill Ozier also spoke. He said he is often called upon by businesses before they fire or bring disciplinary action on an employee. He said the discrimination bill would create a new protected class of employees.

“Because of the wide range of employment discrimination laws – both federal laws and state laws – that most of these employers are subject to, the first thing we do when I get the call is to go down the list and say, ‘Do they fall in any of these protected categories,” Ozier said. “This bill would create another box for those employees to check.”

The testimony gave way to a lengthy back-and-forth between legislators and the bill’s opponents.

Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, who is sponsoring both bills, challenged Ozier and others with hypothetical situations involving other objects an employee might keep in the car, such as a Bible. He also pressed them on their concern for employee safety on their way to and from work.

“Do you have any care for the safety of your employees after they leave your premises?” he said. “Or when they leave their home and before they get to your premises coming to work?”

Republican Sens. Beavers and Delores Gresham also raised the question of an employer’s liability in a case where an employee – who has been banned from keeping a firearm in his car – is attacked and injured in the company parking lot.

In the Judiciary committee, though the bill was technically different, many of the arguments were the same, revolving around the tension between the rights of private property owners and those of gun owners.

Mark Hogan, vice president of security for FedEx, said the company believes an employer’s right to decide what is allowed on its property trumps an individual’s right to carry a firearm onto that property. He repeated a common theme expressed throughout the hearings, that allowing guns in parking lots adds volatility to possible confrontations.

“FedEx should be allowed to continue to implement policies that are designed to protect our employees from irrational or heat-of-the-moment actions by their co-workers,” he said. “Allowing employees to have near, immediate access to firearms, at work, creates an element of risk that is unacceptable.”

Trevecca Nazarene University president Daniel Boone said that university security officials currently know who is supposed to have a gun on campus. If passed, he said, the bill would make it more difficult for security officials to make that determination and make it harder for them to ensure the safety of the student body.

Knoxville Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield presented the panel with a number of questions about the rights of property owners, including that of an employer’s liability in certain situations. Among them was the prospect of employers reserving the right to search a car on their lot. Ozier acknowledged the difference between a customer and employee in such a situation but said that, ultimately, parking on a company lot is a privilege, not a right, and that by parking on a company lot, an employee implicitly submits to the rules set by the employer.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, asked Hogan if FedEx, which has property across the country, had encountered problems in any states that allow employees to store guns in their cars on company lots. Hogan said that he did not know of any problems in those states, but that FedEx had opposed those laws as well.

Republicans in Crossfire: Gun Rights vs. Property Rights

High-ranking GOP lawmakers entered this year’s legislative session vowing to steer clear of confrontations over gun legislation. But two months later a showdown is primed between two constituencies Republicans typically like to try to keep happy: Big business and big fans of the Second Amendment.

Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives who earlier this year said they wanted to disarm any attempts to expand the rights of gun owners are now trying to broker a compromise that does just that. Their turnabout is in no small part due to political sabre-rattling by the Tennessee Firearms Association, which has a long history of holding state lawmakers’ feet to the fire.

The TFA last week described House Republican leaders as an “axis of evil” for “pandering” to businesses interests that oppose the Legislature granting Tennesseans the express legal authority to keep a firearm locked in their vehicle if it is parked on a company’s property.

TFA’s executive director, Nashville attorney John Harris, accused Republicans of being interested first and foremost in trying to “appease the Big Business – big money investors in House leadership.”

“Sadly for conservatives, this support is apparently based more on Chicago-style influence peddling for dollars rather than supporting bills based on conservative and constitutional principles that directly impact the citizens,” Harris wrote in a March 1 TFA member alert.

But even if such language hits the bullseye as far as gun-rights activists are concerned, one of TFA’s favorite lawmakers says it’s off-putting to GOP politicians. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, finds TFA’s penchant for firing off volleys of bombast a bit disagreeable.

“It upsets me some, what he’s said about Republicans and others,” Ramsey said of Harris. “The way he has acted is not the way you win friends and influence people.”

Harris said he respectfully disagrees. Tough political tactics and a take-no-prisoners rhetorical style worked pretty well when Democrats ran the show on Capitol Hill — and there’s no reason to go soft now that the GOP has the reins, he suggested.

“When they put their necks out and do stuff, and we don’t like it, and we tell people about it, they take some offense to it,” Harris told TNReport. “We’re not going to tone it down just because they’re unhappy.”

Harris said there’s a natural tendency for politicians of all stripes to claim they’re friends to this or that issue- or interest-group during campaign season, then ignore the people who got them elected after the ballots are counted. Tennessee gun-rights advocates have become particularly sensitive over the years to seeing bills they favor bottled up in legislative committees even though they’d likely pass if put to a floor vote, he said.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, has agreed to assemble a bill that would allow workers to lock guns in their cars under certain circumstances. Meanwhile, Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, and Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, have a TFA-backed proposal — HB3559 — to allow all gun owners to stow their guns in locked vehicles on employers’ public and private parking lots.

McCormick says his plan to introduce a scaled-back guns in parking lots bill is “an attempt to do it right,” although he said he is still working on an amendment to rewrite HB3660 and declined to provide details about what the legislation would include.

“While we’d rather concentrate on jobs and the economy this year, some of our members would rather talk about guns, and we just want to do it in a responsible way,” he said Thursday.

The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and other opponents to the legislation presented their case to a pair of Senate committee Tuesday. The chamber sent a letter to each member of the General Assembly pressing them to drop the plan because it would pose “a major infringement on private property rights.”

“Supporters of this legislation argue that this enhances individual rights, but you cannot expand rights for one person by restricting the rights of another. And you cannot use more government regulation to create less regulation,” read the letter signed by 18 interest groups ranging from chambers of commerce, the Tennessee Retail Association and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Last month the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from advocates of granting individuals legal protection to keep a firearm locked in a vehicle parked on an employer’s property.

Harris maintains that appealing to property-rights arguments as justification for prohibiting an employee from keeping a legally owned firearm locked in his or her own car is something of a red herring. “What right does the employer have to regulate what an employee decides they’re going to transport in their vehicle?” he said.

Ramsey says chances are ultimately pretty good that whatever guns-in-parking-lots bill the Legislature ends up passing won’t be altogether satisfying to the Tennessee Firearms Association.

“I can’t tell you where we’re going to end up on this. But in the end, there’s a real possibility that TFA won’t be happy, the NRA won’t be happy, but I think we’ll have reached a compromise that will get 17 and 50 votes,” said the lieutenant governor.

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters after speaking to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning that “Republicans believe in property rights, and they believe in 2nd Amendment rights.”

“We talk a lot about balance,” said the governor. “This is one of those when getting the balance right is important.”

Mark Engler contributed to this report.

Occupy Nashville’s Tent City Has 1 Week to Clear Out

It’s official: It is now illegal to pitch tents outside the Capitol Building or any other state-owned property not explicitly permitting camping.

Department of General Services says it will give Occupy Nashville protesters a week to clear off War Memorial Plaza, a marble topped public square the demonstrators have called home since the fall.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislative measure into law Friday, giving the state authority to begin enforcing the law today. However, Haslam has said he’s not interested in playing a game of “gotcha” with protesters and wants to give them a heads up before he puts the statute into play.

He told the Tennessean Wednesday he was still consulting with the Attorney General about whether the state should exercise the new law or first finish up changes to rules governing use of War Memorial Plaza.

He told reporters two weeks ago he planned on signing the bill into law but added it would be a matter of “months, not weeks” before the new rules would be finished, and he was unsure whether his administration would wrap that process up first before evicting protesters. That hearing is scheduled for April 16.

“We’re following the rule making process. We’ll have to talk with the attorney general and others to decide, once you pass the law, what does that give the state the authority to do,” he told reporters then.

Protesters can still demonstrate over night under the law, but tents and any other bedding must be removed by Friday, March 9. Punishment is a Class A misdemeanor criminal offense punishable with up to 364 days in prison and a $2,500 fine.

Governor Shooting for Narrowed Scope of Guns-in-Parking-Lots Legislation

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Wednesday that he expects to see “guns in parking lots” legislation on his desk this session, though he would like to see it altered before it gets there.

A bill brought by Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, would require employers and landowners to allow workers to store legally owned firearms in their cars on company parking lots. The bill would apply to private businesses as well as public institutions and would cover all gun owners, as opposed to just those with handgun carry permits.

Haslam said the bill, as currently written, is too broad, and that he’s working to find a balance between the concerns of gun rights advocates and business associations. He did not say, however, what specific changes he’d like to see made to the legislation.

“We felt like it was overly broad in terms of it covered all parking lots, everywhere, whether it was at a school or other things,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten to the specific level of saying and what should be out. I haven’t done the hard work of thinking through all the different circumstances.”

While lawmakers attempt to rein in the bill, which Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell have characterized as overly broad, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce says the plan in any form would shoot holes in its property rights.

“I still don’t know how you can take away the private property rights of individuals in the name of the 2nd Amendment or the right to bear arms,” said Deborah Woolley, chamber president. “Both rights have to be protected, and telling someone they can’t bring their weapon on my property, it doesn’t take away a right to bear an arm. It means they can’t bring it on my property.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday heard testimony from fans of the bill, who argued that, when a company’s gun-free policy includes workers’ cars, it impedes on their own property rights and their right to self-defense.

Sam Cooper, a FedEx employee from Memphis, told the committee that workers don’t need a firearm at work, but rather on their commute to and from the workplace. By banning guns in parking lots, he argued, companies effectively prevent workers from leaving their homes with a legally owned firearm.

“When my employer, or any employer that bans legal storage of legal firearm, says to me, or anybody, ‘you can’t have it in the parking lot,’ they’ve essentially extended their property rights all the way to my front door,” he said.

West Tennessee Firearms Association Board Member Richard Archie said his daughter picks up her child on the way home from work. Without the ability to carry a weapon in her car, he said, she is left defenseless if anything should anything go wrong.

“If she has a flat tire on the way there on (U.S.) 412, coming back, we’ve turned her loose to the wolves of the world,” he said.

NRA lobbyist Heidi Keesling and Shelby County small-business owner Kenny Crenshaw also appeared before the committee in support of the bill. Keesling said another goal of the legislation is to create more uniformity amongst various states, which have different laws governing where gun owners can take and store their firearms.

In response to the testimony, Sen. Beverly Marrero said she routinely drives about Memphis – which is among the most dangerous cities in the country – without a firearm or concern for her safety.

“I drive around in Memphis all the time. I’m able to drive around all hours of the day and night, all over Memphis. I don’t have a gun. Don’t carry one in my car. I feel relatively safe,” said the 73-year-old Shelby County Democrat. “It seems to me that gentlemen seem to me more afraid to drive around at night in Memphis, than women. Maybe we should talk to y’all a little bit more.”

The committee will hear testimony from opponents of the measure, including the Chamber of Commerce, on March 6 before taking any action on the bill.

 

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report