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Niceley Proposes Sales-Tax Holiday for Guns, Ammo

In light of rising hunting-license fees and soaring ammunition costs, a rural East Tennessee state senator wants to give hunters a break on their supplies similar to what families get each year on back-to-school goods.

“I just thought maybe the sportsmen need a break, let’s see what it’s going to cost,” state Sen. Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican and farmer, told TNReport last week.

Niceley pointed to the sales tax holiday the state currently grants to families of students on the first weekend in August each year, and said his proposal is “just a little something to jump-start the sports world.”

He added similar proposals in Louisiana and Mississippi have worked well and are “very popular.”

Niceley said he wanted to give Volunteer State sportsmen a break due to rising ammunition costs and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s recently proposed increase in what he thinks are already expensive hunting licenses.

In mid-January the state Fish & Wildlife Commission approved a 22 percent increase in licensing fees, raising the Type 1 resident hunting and fishing license from $27 to $33, and the annual sportsman license from $135 to $165. The new fees will go into effect on July 1.

Under the legislation, SB0206, purchases of firearms, ammunition and “hunting supplies” — defined as “archery equipment, firearm and archery cases, firearm and archery accessories, hearing protection, holsters, belts and slings” — would be exempt from having sales tax levied on it. “The Second Amendment Sales Tax Holiday” would take place the first weekend of September.

The proposal also requires the state to reimburse local governments for any losses incurred as a result of the exemptions.

Niceley framed his legislation as another in a line of tax cuts since the GOP took control of the General Assembly several years back, such as the reducing the grocery tax and Hall Income Tax, as well as abolishing the state’s inheritance and gift taxes. “That’s what Republicans do. Republicans cut taxes,” he said.

However, Niceley also admitted if the bill has “too big a fiscal note” then he “obviously won’t be able to get it passed.”

The bill currently has no House sponsor.

Audit Finds Purchasing-Oversight Problems in State Wildlife Agency

Some of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s management practices open the department up to risks of fraud and spending abuses, a recent audit released by the state comptroller’s office said.

The most egregious example of a lack of oversight is with state payment cards, which allow TWRA employees to buy goods and services for the agency. According to the audit, between July 1, 2009 and Jan. 24, 2013, TWRA employees made more than 57,000 purchases, totaling nearly $13.3 million.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency management did not maintain proper controls over State Payment Cards, increasing the risk that state resources will be used improperly due to fraud, waste, and abuse,” the audit found.

Employees were allowed to make purchases that should not have been permitted, and also to avoid purchasing limits because, according to the audit, supervisors failed to double check and approve receipts in some situations.

While TWRA policy requires employees to maintain logs of purchases that are then approved by supervisors, state auditors found that record-keeping was not always maintained and approved properly across the board, leaving an opportunity for fraudulent purchases.

Also the audit found cards are not always deactivated promptly after a cardholder leaves the employ of TWRA. “Management did not always promptly terminate cardholders’ payment cards, resulting in one purchase (totaling $55) made on a terminated employee’s payment card,” wrote the probe’s authors.

Agency overseers recognize a need to revise its policies to encourage better compliance and say steps are being taken to address the issues raised in the report, said Jeff McMillan, chairman of the Tennessee Wildlife Management Commission, which meets Thursday and Friday at Meadowview Conference Center in Kingsport.

“This is why we need to do an audit every year,” said McMillan, a dentist from Bristol. “We have audits to find where things need correcting and we’ve done that.”

McMillan maintained, though, that the agency overall is doing the job it was set up to do, which is manage wildlife. “We’ve got elk, geese, sandhill cranes. It’s like the good ole days,” he told TNReport this week, adding the agency manages the wildlife of Tennessee on a balanced budget.

However, one of TWRA’s most vocal critics in the Tennessee General Assembly, Strawberry Plains Republican Sen. Frank Niceley, said the audit is proof positive the agency’s leadership needs an overhaul.

“What people need to realize is, the TWRA is set up as a free-standing agency,” Niceley said in an phone interview with TNReport Tuesday. “It is the only agency that is set up that way. It was done as an experiment in the ‘70s and it has failed.”

Nicely noted that some of the issues found by the Comptroller have been found in the past and not corrected.

“Management has not been managing. They are having a big party on the sportsman’s dime,” Niceley said. He said he has no problem with the mission of the TWRA, he just wants to see it more efficiently run.

“It needs new management,” Niceley said. “It needs a commissioner (who should) answer to a standing committee.”

McMillan defended his volunteer post, saying the commission is removed from politics. “You get a non-political opinion on what needs to be done with wildlife,” he said.

In addition to failing to rigorously monitor purchases with state money made by employees, the audit found problems in how TWRA manages state-owned equipment, crop leases and computer security.

The audit found the agency doesn’t always carefully track equipment and suggested an annual inventory of the approximately $35.5 million worth of TWRA-owned guns, vehicles, boats and tractors. Auditors found not all state property was sufficiently documented and lost items were not always reported correctly or in a timely manner.

“Due to the sensitive nature of these items and the decentralized nature of the agency’s operations, it is critical that TWRA maintains proper internal controls over equipment,” the audit said.

The audit, which can be read in full here, also reported:

  • TWRA did not oversee crop leases properly, which increases the chances of lost revenue for the agency
  • It did not enforce its conflict-of-interest policies; and
  • It did not always protect its Remote Easy Access Licensing (REAL) computer system, which could open the agency to hackers.

State, Counties to Fund GSMNP Operations for Five Days

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is reopening Wednesday morning through the weekend despite the federal government’s partial shutdown.

Noting that “for the Smokies and the people around it, the month of October is the most important time of the year,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced late Tuesday afternoon that “America’s most visited national park” will stay open at least through midnight Sunday, Oct. 20.

Last week the federal government agreed to let national parks reopen if individual states agreed to pay for their daily operation. Parks in Utah, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Arizona had reopened as of Tuesday.

After the federal offer, Tennessee and the National Park Service needed to hammer out details – like how much of the park will be opened, who is responsible for what in the park – before the state agreed to pay the $60,000 a day the feds say it cost to run it, Haslam told reporters earlier Tuesday.

Haslam said the State of Tennessee will pay 80 percent in the form of a $240,400 tourism grant to Sevier County with Sevier and Blount counties funding the remaining $60,100 to fully fund operation of the park for five days. In all, $300,500 was sent to NPS to open the park for five days.

If congress can resolve its impasse before Sunday, NPS will refund any money to the state.

“According to the agreement, if the shutdown ends before the money is spent, NPS will refund to the state the unspent balance of the state-donated funds,” said Dave Smith, spokesman for the governor’s office. *

State Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, is pleased the park will reopen to tourists. The park has been closed to visitors since Oct. 1, which has “had a terrible impact on the park and surrounding communities,” Overbey said.

Overbey said many East Tennessee communities, as well as the state government revenues, have been impacted by the closure of the park with the state losing $300,000 a day in revenue.

“This is (typically) the second highest month for sales tax receipts in the state next to July,” he said, adding the state’s investment in the park will garner high returns in sales tax receipts.

Overbey said he has heard many anecdotes from families who decided against a trip to East Tennessee because the park is closed. “People come to go to the park,” he said. “We have other things to do – lakes, golf courses, attractions – but people want to come to go to the park, especially to see the fall colors and drive through the mountains.”

The federal shutdown has closed national parks across the state, but the Smoky Mountains presents a unique situation because it’s the most visited park in the country, state Sen. Frank Niceley said.

Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, is also suggesting now is a good time to start talking about Tennessee taking over operation of the park full time. “We need to tell the federal government, ‘If you can’t run it, then we will take it back’,” he said.

The park was created in 1934 and paid for by both federal, state and private funds. Niceley said the people of Tennessee ought to rescind their donation.

“The federal government is out of control with all its borrowing and spending. We need to take it back and run it ourselves,” Niceley said.

An NPS report found that the 9.6 million visitors to GSMNP during 2012 had an economic impact of $818 million in communities surrounding the park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

* Update to original article.

Nixing U.S. Senate Primaries Put Off for Now

The full state Senate heard opening salvos of debate Monday on a bill that would change the process by which Tennesseans pick their U.S. senators.

The legislation, Senate Bill 471, introduced by Strawberry Plains Republican Frank Niceley, would hand the power to choose candidates over to state lawmakers, who would caucus along party lines and place their choices on the ballot for general elections. The measure was approved last week in the Tennessee Senate State and Local Government Committee on a 7-1 vote, with only Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate voting “no.”

Currently, Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate are selected by voters in open primaries, although the party establishments retain some authority to void or challenge election results if they’re dissatisfied with the results.

After noting that for the first 126 years of the country’s history U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures, Niceley argued on the upper-chamber floor Monday evening that formally reintroducing General Assembly lawmakers back into the selection process would bring Tennessee — and, over time, the country — more in line with the intentions of the country’s founders.

In 1913, passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave authority for selecting membership in what has been termed “the world’s most exclusive club” directly to the American people. In Niceley’s view, an unfortunate national consequence of that shift in state-level political dynamics was to loosen a reliable curb against unrestrained expansions of federal power.

“The check that the states had on a runaway federal government was the (United States) Senate,” Niceley said. “The Founding Fathers wanted the state legislatures to…elect the U.S. Senators so that the U.S. Senators would be ambassadors to Washington.”

Niceley was quick to point out that Volunteer State voters would still get the final say as to who goes to Washington in the general elections under SB471. He asserted, though, that establishing a system whereby major-party U.S. Senate nominees are picked by members of the General Assembly would bolster the Legislature’s Beltway influence.

If “10 or 15 small Red States” were to follow suit, a philosophically like-minded bloc might “get control of the U.S. Senate,” said Niceley. Three or four other states have considered or are considering such a move, he said. “Washington is out of control — it’s not going to fix itself,” Niceley declared. “This is about trying to save America.”

“The greatest fears of our Founding Fathers have come true,” said Niceley. “The federal government has usurped our powers, there’s no denying that. Anyone who thinks Washington is working, you’re in a dreamworld.”

Niceley’s logic wasn’t universally embraced, even by Republicans. Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey bristled at the idea of taking any decision-making power from state voters.

“This bill is anti-democratic,” the Germantown Republican told his fellow senators. “This bill smells of elitism, of cronyism, and it would open up a system that was, and could be in the future, rife for corruption. It is entirely self-interested of this General Assembly to vote to give itself the power to pick the political party nominees for the United States Senate. It is a bad idea and I sincerely hope we do not pursue it.”

Kelsey noted the curious irony that exactly 100 years ago, on April Fools’ Day 1913, Tennessee ratified the 17th Amendment.

No Democrats rose to voice opinions one way or the other on Niceley’s bill Monday night, but earlier in the day Roy Herron, the Tennessee Democratic Party’s recently installed chairman and himself a former state senator from Dresden, said his side doesn’t want to be included in the bill. “Once again, the reactionary and radical Republicans want to take us back a couple of centuries, to the 1800s when the Legislature picked our senators until corruption and the people finally ended the practice by constitutional amendment in 1913,” said Herron.

GOP Sens. Mark Norris of Collierville, Janice Bowling of Tullahoma and Rusty Crowe of Johnson City asked for time to discuss the issue with constituents. Niceley agreed to postpone bringing SB471 up for a vote until the end of this year’s session — possibly later this month.

It’s unclear the level of support the proposal will draw, but the state Senate’s most powerful legislator appears on board. Speaking to reporters last week, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called Niceley’s legislation an “interesting prospect.” He acknowledged that doing away with primaries will strike some as voter disenfranchisement, but said party-level or pre-general election candidate selection processes aren’t uniform across the country.

“Lot’s of states do caucuses,” said the Tennessee Senate speaker, a Republican from Blountville. “Lots of states don’t use the primary system…and in the end, in November, obviously (the people) will get to vote.”

The House version of Niceley’s legislation, HB415 by Knoxville Republican Harry Brooks, is still working its way through the committee system. It’s scheduled to go before the Local Government Committee April 2.

John Klein Wilson and Mark Engler contributed to this story.

Gibbons Promises State Law Enforcement Won’t Abuse Anti-Camping Statute

Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said he doesn’t foresee any unintended consequences from enforcement of the bill intended to de-occupy legislative plaza, despite qualms of some lawmakers.

“I can’t speak for any other law enforcement agency, but in terms of our state troopers, I am confident that we will handle any matter that comes up correctly and professionally,” Gibbons said after speaking to the Tennessee Municipal League Monday.  Prior to coming to work for the Haslam administration, Gibbons was the Shelby County district attorney general.

“Right now we’re in a period where we’re making sure that all citizens have proper notice of the new law, and after an ample period of time, we’ll be prepared to enforce the new law,” he said.

However, not all lawmakers share his optimism.

Knoxville Rep. Frank Niceley, the sole Republican holdout when the House voted to pass the bill on Feb. 16, chose not to vote on the bill because of its overly broad nature.

“I was fine with moving the protesters off of the plaza,” Niceley said last week. “I thought that needs to be done, but the way they wrote the bill, it would affect anyone. If you’re out in the country — and the state owns hundreds of thousands of acres of state land — and you accidentally camp on one, well, some overzealous deputy could get you in trouble.”

The controversial de-occupy bill has passed both chambers, been signed by the governor, posted in public spaces and is now awaiting enforcement, which begins March 9.