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TN Senate Dems Criticize Deferment of Medical Marijuana Bill to Summer Study

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; March 24, 2015:

Any progress is welcome, but very sick Tennesseans will be denied relief

NASHVILLE – Medical marijuana has been proven to be an effective treatment, and Republican efforts to restrict it to only a few patients are cruel and out of step with the majority of Tennesseans, Democrats said.

“There is a mountain of scientific evidence demonstrating that medical marijuana is an effective treatment for a variety of debilitating ailments,” state Rep. Sherry Jones said. “To block treatment for everyone is an insult to the sick and undermines the decisions doctors are qualified to make.”

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Jones, The Medical Cannabis Access Act (HB 561), was sent to summer study. Following polls of Republican primary voters showing majority support, Republicans have filed their own restrictive version.

“Democrats have led the way on this issue,” said state Sen. Sara Kyle, Senate sponsor of the Medical Cannabis Act. “Any progress is welcome, but there are very sick Tennesseans who aren’t getting relief from available medicines. They won’t get help with half measures.”

Dunn: Vouchers Not Dead, Just Delayed

School-voucher legislation passed the Senate Finance Committee on a 9-2 vote Tuesday morning, but was “taken off notice” in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee later in the day.

But that shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he’s getting cold feet, the House measure’s sponsor, Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn, told TNReport.

“Don’t read anything into that,” Dunn said.

Several education committee members were absent from Legislative Plaza who want to weigh in on the issue, and Dunn said he desires that the legislation get a robust hearing and full committee vote.

Dunn said he took the bill off notice instead of “rolling it” because House rules tend to discourage simply delaying the vote on a bill multiple times if it is otherwise “on notice” for a committee hearing. Taking a measure off notice and later calling it up again translates to a smoother parliamentary maneuver, said Dunn, who also chairs the committee that schedules bills for votes on the full House floor.

Dunn said he intends to press ahead with his voucher or “opportunity scholarships” bill in the education committee next week.

The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, however, issued a press release Tuesday indicating they see the voucher bill’s “failure…to advance” as a hopeful sign that it’s floundering, or maybe even dead in the water.

Similar legislation authorizing vouchers passed the Senate last year, but failed in the House.

The legislation, HB1049/SB0999, would grant opportunity scholarships to low income students in schools districts with a school in the bottom 5 percent of statewide education institutions.

Those voting for the Senate’s measure — sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga — in the Finance Committee were Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, Mark Norris, R-Collierville, John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

Sens. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville and Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, voted the voucher bill.

Alex Harris can be contacted at alex@tnreport.com.

‘Intractable Pain Act’ Repeal Goes to Guv

Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have voted to do away with the state’s “Intractable Pain Act,” which has been in existence for 14 years.

On Monday the House of Representatives voted 93-0 to eliminate a provision in the law — dubbed the “Pain Patient’s Bill of Rights” — granting people “the option to choose opiate medications to relieve severe chronic intractable pain without first having to submit to an invasive medical procedure.”

There was no discussion on the repeal bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville. Last month the Senate approved the repeal as well – one of the first bills to pass the upper chamber this year.

Sponsor Janice Bowling of Tullahoma said the 2001 “Pain Patient’s Bill of Rights” was partly responsible for Tennessee becoming known as one of the states along the “Hillbilly Heroin Trail.” She said that the Act negatively impacted the criminal justice system and state’s economy and has resulted in babies being born with addictive drugs in their system.

Under the statute the Legislature is seeking to repeal, doctors who refused to prescribe effective pain medication are required to inform patients of others who will. Advocates of eliminating that mandate say it has compounded the problems of pain-pill abuse and “doctor shopping” in Tennessee.

In August 2014, the Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services issued a press release indicating as of July 2012 pills had replaced alcohol as Tennessee’s favorite drug to abuse.

There are those, though, who don’t necessarily believe making pain medications harder to obtain legally is going to put much of a dent in the overall problem of addiction.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon who is CNN’s chief medical correspondent, has noted that when pills are unavailable to pain medication addicts, they frequently turn to heroin, which is often cheaper.

And in Tennessee, the state’s top public safety officials have recently fretted about a surge in heroin use across the state.

In November and December of last year, during a series of budget hearings for the next fiscal year, both Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Dir. Mark Gwyn, and Department of Safety & Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons, informed Gov. Bill Haslam that heroin was on the rise.

The news website Vox.com recently noted a rise in heroin overdoses, and suggested drug-abusing populations are being driven from pills to heroin as pills become harder to obtain, as well as by a generational shift in drug culture.

The bill now goes to Haslam’s desk awaiting his signature.

Contact Alex Harris at alex@tnreport.com.

TN House Votes to ‘Stand with Rand’ (and Babs)

The Tennessee House has passed a resolution in support of a joint proposal by U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to reinvest in the Highway Trust Fund “at no additional costs to taxpayers.”

Sponsored by Dresden Republican Andy Holt, HJR0094 encourages Congress to “Stand with Rand: Invest in Transportation.” It passed Wednesday on an 86-3 vote.

Paul and Boxer are pushing federal legislation to allow companies to voluntarily repatriate their earnings held in foreign banks at a tax rate of 6.5 percent, and funnel that revenue to the highway fund.  The adjusted tax rate would only apply to funds that are in excess of the company’s recent average repatriations, and only to money “earned in 2015 or earlier,” according to a press release. The companies would have five years to take advantage of the proposal.

Holt said Tennessee could see over $100 billion in transportation infrastructure revenue, should the legislation pass.

The possibility of raising the gas tax — both federally and at the state level — has been floated recently as ways to continue road improvements and shore up the trust fund.

Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, D-Memphis, questioned if “Stand with Rand” was Sen. Paul’s campaign slogan. Holt replied that he wasn’t sure, but said the purpose of the resolution is to show support for the transportation funding action taken by the Kentucky senator at the federal level.

Parkinson voted against the measure, joined by fellow Democrats G.A. Hardaway of Memphis and Bo Mitchell of Nashville.

If no congressional action is taken, the Highway Trust Fund is projected to go insolvent by May 31.

Support for federal land transfer more partisan

The House passed another Holt-sponsored resolution as well Wednesday, but mostly without support from Democrats. That measure, House Joint Resolution 92, passed 64-25 with 3 abstentions.  It calls on the federal government to cede federally controlled public lands in the western United States back to the states in which they are situated.

The resolution declares that “limiting the ability of western states to access and utilize the public lands’ natural resources within their borders is having a negative impact upon the economy of those western states and therefore the economy of the entire United States.”

Three Republicans — Ryan Haynes and Eddie Smith of Knoxville, and Cameron Sexton of Crossville — joined the majority of Democrats to vote against the resolution. GOP Reps. Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain and Pat Marsh of Shelbyville, and Memphis Democrat Johnnie Turner, indicated they were present but not voting.

Livingston Rep. John Mark Windle was the only Democrat to vote yes on the resolution.

Holt explained that while the resolution calls on the federal government to transfer public lands to the states they occur within, it also requests the states return to the U.S. government any land designated as being a part of the National Park System, the National Wilderness system or belonging to the military.

Holt got pushback on the floor from Rep. Jason Powell, a Nashville Democrat, who said “we must protect America’s backyard, the American West.”

The House Democratic Caucus issued a press release following the House session condemning the resolution as a vote against hunters and others who enjoy outdoor recreation in the nation’s parks.

The South Carolina Assembly passed a similarly worded resolution in 2013.

According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, since Utah passed legislation in 2012 calling for the transfer of public lands to the state, several other states have passed legislation along the same lines, including Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico.

Both the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Republican National Committee have issued “model resolutions” in support of the concept, but both are worded differently from Holt’s resolution.

Contact Alex Harris at alex@tnreport.com.

State NAACP Prez: Butt’s Comments Out of Line With TN’s Improving Image

A top leader in the Tennessee NAACP believes the recent controversy over Rep. Sheila Butt’s “NAAWP” comment reflects poorly on the whole state — and that’s a shame because much progress has been made over time to rehabilitate the Volunteer State’s hillbilly image.

During the NAACP’s 14th Annual Legislative “Day on the Hill” this week, state conference president Gloria J. Sweet-Love told TNReport that encouraging strides have been made to overcome national perceptions of Tennessee as a “backwards state” liberally populated by “hick folks that run moonshine.”

Tennessee has also progressed toward better understanding between white and black communities to the point that the state currently enjoys “very good race relations,” she said.

And that’s one of the reasons Sweet-Love said she was “discouraged” that a prominent political leader like Butt would be appear oblivious to how her comments on Facebook, and explanations for her behavior afterward, might be perceived by a wider audience.

“In 2015, it really bothers me that we have a Tennessee elected person that would make that comment,” Sweet-Love said of Butt’s posting back in January of a comment to a Facebook thread suggesting a need for a “Council on Christian Relations” and a “NAAWP.”

Butt, a Republican from Columbia and the House majority party’s floor leader, made her remarks as an apparent expression of solidarity with criticism of a national Islamic group’s call for Republican presidential contenders to “Engage Muslim Voters.”

Butt said later that she was unaware the NAAWP was once a white supremacist group. She said she instead meant for the “WP” in the acronym she “made up” to denote “Western Principles” or “Western Peoples,” but not “White People.”

Butt told members of the General Assembly on Feb. 26 that her Facebook comment was “meant to be inclusive of every gender, culture and religion.”

Sweet-Love said she’s hopeful Butt will ultimately sit down with some of the people who took offense to what she said and “have some conversations” about “what is appropriate.”

Sweet-Love explained that the “colored people” in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is in fact meant to include people of all colors — including white. The NAACP, founded in 1909, included “more white folks than black folks,” and the organization’s governing boards at the local, state and national levels have “a diverse number of people.”

“I don’t think she knows that in our organization, colored people come in all colors — from the beginning, and now,” Sweet-Love said.

She said her organization had received many requests for comment, but has declined to make an official statement because they feel like “those kinds of things don’t really rise to the occasion where we need to spend our time.”

However, the whole episode has been evidence of the communication problem in the information age, Sweet-Love said. “The internet has allowed us to say a lot of things that we wouldn’t normally say to people face-to-face.”

Sweet-Love pointed to comments like Butt’s — “from people in leadership” — as one reason for why they still see comments such as those made in a recently surfaced video of a University of Oklahoma fraternity singing a racist song.

“We’re about racial reconciliation, we’ve always been that way,” Sweet-Love said, adding the NAACP “will continue to keep the high road.”

Bipartisan Coalition Looks to Take Down Traffic Cameras

Dresden House Republican Andy Holt said earlier this year he was hoping for bipartisan support to do away with Tennessee traffic camera enforcement.

And he appears to have it.

Led by Holt, Sens. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, held a press conference Tuesday morning to pitch the “Tennessee Freedom From Traffic Cameras Act” and lay out their opposition to camera enforcement.

Holt’s bill is scheduled to be heard Wednesday afternoon in the House Transportation Subcommittee and the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee.

HB1372/SB1128 would prohibit local governments from entering into any contract “to provide for the use of any unmanned traffic enforcement camera” to enforce traffic violations. House Democrat Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory is also a co-sponsor.

“The rule of law, the integrity of law enforcement and the court system in our state, must be preserved,” Holt said.

Holt called the use of camera citations “fundamentally flawed,” and pointed out that the language of the law itself said a traffic camera alone would not provide enough evidence to charge someone with a moving violation.

He also said camera enforcement denies a person the right to face their accuser and the presumption of innocence that “form the bedrock of our judicial system.”

Additionally, there’s been a problem where “the municipalities and the companies involved actually lower the time of the yellow lights” so that they can gather more revenue, said Gardenhire, the primary Senate sponsor. However, he noted, much of that revenue goes to the company running the equipment, and the cities keep very little.

Referring to the initiative as “bipartisan,” Harris pointed out the differences between himself and Holt — “I’m a very proud liberal Democrat, he’s a very proud conservative; I’m from a city, an urban center, and he’s from a less urban center; I think he has a farm, and I’ve never been on a farm.” — but explained they were able to find a common ground on opposing traffic cameras.

Similarly, in a late February press release announcing Harris as a co-sponsor of the legislation, Holt indicated himself and Harris were “total polar opposites politically,” but were “linking arms on a huge issue” to many of their constituents.

“These things in my view are un-American,” Harris said. “Because in America, we’ve got the tradition that you are innocent until proven guilty, and red light cameras fly in the face of that.”

Harris added that traffic camera programs like the one in Memphis “undermine the quality of life” of the citizens, and “make them mad at government.”

Holt and Harris both admitted to reporters they have had some personal involvement with camera enforcement.

The proposal’s proponents also argued that if safety was the goal, red light cameras do a poor job of meeting that. A majority of peer-reviewed studies on the effectiveness of traffic cameras “have shown that cameras actually lead to more accidents, and disincentivize cities to seek safer engineering practices as alternatives because of, unfortunately, the almighty dollar,” Holt said.

However, if past attempts to repeal the legislation and opposition from local governments with camera enforcement contracts are any indication, doing away with camera enforcement looks like an uphill battle for the bipartisan group.

And shortly after Holt first announced his intentions in January, a pair of Middle Tennessee Republican lawmakers both criticized the move, and said that the decision for whether or not to deploy traffic cameras was better handled by local governments.

The legislation’s fiscal note indicates that while it will not significantly affect state coffers, local revenue would be decreased in excess of $978,000.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are 607 communities nationwide with speed and red light camera enforcement, and 24 of those are in Tennessee.

In 2010, Tennessee’s then-Attorney General Robert Cooper issued an opinion that found the use of red light cameras was constitutional.

In 2011, the Legislature passed a law that regulated traffic camera use statewide. That legislation clarified that for an infraction to occur, the motorist has to have entered the intersection following the light change. The law also ended the practice of ticketing drivers for a right turn on red, unless explicitly posted.

And in 2012, a Knox County judge ruled against an effort by traffic camera operators to overturn the 2011 law due to a decline in their revenue.

School-Voucher Bill Moving Forward in Legislature

The debate on school choice is underway in Tennessee Legislature and one measure, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, is working its way forward.

Last week the Senate Education Committee approved the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, on a vote of 8-0.

Senate Bill 999 would provide scholarships for private-school tuition to low-income students in the state’s worst-performing public schools.

The total number of vouchers the state would award would gradually increase from 5,000 available scholarships in the 2015-16 school year to a peak of 20,000 from the 2018-19 school year forward. The fiscal note on the legislation indicates a cost of $125,000 for the Department of Education to implement the policy.

The House companion legislation — HB1049 — sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, also easily cleared the House Education Planning & Administration subcommittee last week on a vote of 7-1, though not without debate.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat who is also a teacher, said the “gains and strides” made in education the last few years would be endangered by potentially removing $70 million from local school district. Dunlap said he’s “very, very concerned about the future of public education” as a result.

Rep. Dunn said critics of school vouchers, like Dunlap, appear more interested in protecting the status quo and putting “the emphasis on the system” rather than focusing on academic achievement outcomes.

“I’d like to put emphasis on the student,” said Dunn.

The Tennessee Education Association, many local school officials across the state and most Democrats in the Legislature have steadfastly opposed enabling parents to spend public monies on private education for their children.

“You’re taking away funding from an already underfunded school and putting it in vouchers. I don’t think it’s productive for public schools or private schools,”said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the Memphis Daily News in February.

A February 2013 MTSU Poll found that while 46 percent of Tennesseans oppose vouchers, 40 percent favor the idea and 12 percent were undecided at the time.

Dunn’s legislation is scheduled to be heard in full Committee next Tuesday. Gardenhire’s Senate bill is assigned to the Finance Committee, but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Another school choice proposal, sponsored by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not received as warm a welcome.

Both Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey have said that Kelsey’s legislation is unlikely to be funded, even if it passes the Legislature.

Haslam told reporters during a press conference last week that Gardenhire’s proposal was in line with what he’s indicated the administration would be willing to fund, and as such, he intends to fund that legislation rather than Kelsey’s more expansive plan.

While both Kelsey and Haslam are supporters of vouchers, they have clashed over the scope of such legislation in the past. In 2013, Ramsey pointed the finger at Kelsey as to why the voucher bill failed in the Senate. Kelsey had indicated earlier that year that he wanted to amend Haslam’s proposal to extend it to more Tennessee students.

Senate Judiciary Cmte Approves Resolution to Allow Voters to Pick TN AG

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; March 4, 2015:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 4, 2015  — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a resolution on Wednesday that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG).  Senate Joint Resolution 63, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), would begin the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved, would go to voters in the 2018 general election.

“Tennessee is the only state in the nation in which the people have neither a direct nor indirect voice in the selection of their attorney general, and we are the only state that gives that power to our Supreme Court,” said Senator Beavers.

Beavers’ resolution calls for the AG to serve a six-year term, but would limit it to two consecutive terms.  The resolution requires approval by the 109th General Assembly currently in session, and the 110th which will take office in 2017, before going to voters in a statewide referendum.

Beavers said that when Tennessee’s Constitution was written, calling for nomination of the AG by the state’s Supreme Court justices, the court was popularly elected.  Forty-three states already select their attorney generals through popular election.  In six other states, the AG is selected by either the popularly elected governor or the popularly elected state legislature.

“Along with the overwhelming majority of Tennesseans and 96 percent of the rest of this nation, I feel that the citizens of this state ought to have a ‘say so’ in the highest legal office in Tennessee,” she concluded.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor where it will be heard on three readings before taking a final vote.  It will then travel to the House of Representatives for approval there.

AG Pressed to File Suit Over FCC Broadband Ruling

A trio of prominent Tennessee House Republicans on Tuesday called for the state’s attorney general to challenge the Federal Communications Commission’s recent decision to strike down state restrictions on municipal broadband expansion.

Last week the FCC ruled in favor of the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga and their request to set aside a 1999 Tennessee law limiting municipal electric providers to offering internet services only within their electric footprint.

House Majority Whip Jeremy Durham and House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, both of Franklin, as well as Dresden Rep. Andy Holt, vice chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, are urging state Attorney General Herbert Slatery to fight back against what they term the FCC’s “unconstitutional violation” of Tennessee’s sovereignty.

The three Republicans are accusing the FCC of having “usurped Tennessee law.”

In a press conference at the state Capitol Tuesday, Durham questioned the legality and appropriateness of “an unelected, federal body…overturn(ing) laws that have been made by the duly elected members of the Tennessee General Assembly.”

“I believe it’s another example of federal overreach. It doesn’t have to be the pen of Barack Obama and an executive order, sometimes it’s these unelected bodies like the FCC,” Durham said.

Whether or not the FCC ruling constitutes “good public policy or bad,” isn’t so much the issue as that the subverting of state laws sets “a very dangerous precedent,” said Durham.

According to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the decision was made because “some states” have limited competition by designing “thickets of red tape,” and through its action, the commission is “cutting away that red tape consistent with Congress’s instructions to encourage the deployment of broadband.”

EPB officials, though cautious of possible pending litigation, praised the decision last week.

“Many neighbors have been struggling with the economic and educational disadvantages of not having access to broadband services. We are looking for the quickest path forward to help those neighbors join the 21st century information economy,” said Harold DePriest, EPB’s president and CEO, in a press release.

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Tuesday he’s still weighing options and mulling the FCC ruling and hadn’t made a decision on if he supports Tennessee appealing. “Before you decide to appeal something, you have to make certain that there’s a reasonable reason to do that,” Haslam said, adding that he’ll be looking to Slatery for guidance on the issue.

Haslam said he recognizes “value” in people gaining access to high-speed Internet if it is otherwise unavailable, but there are also concerns about “the local government subsidizing something that makes it hard for business to compete.”

The General Assembly’s Democrats issued a press release Tuesday afternoon criticizing the governor and lawmakers for working “to limit consumer choice,” instead of supporting the FCC’s decision to expand the choice for Tennesseans.

According to both chambers minority leaders — Memphis Sen. Lee Harris and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley — Tennessee consumers “consider the matter settled” with the FCC ruling, and “don’t care so much about these technicalities,” if it means having access to high speed internet service.

Tullahoma Sen. Janice Bowling, a Republican, is pushing legislation this year to let municipal electric companies offer their services to what she called the “under-served or un-served” areas of the state.

Neither chamber has taken action on the bill.

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TN Senate Dems Criticize Haslam, Lawmakers for Opposition to FCC Municipal Broadband Ruling

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; March 3, 2015:

Consumers want choices, not government obstruction to limit Internet options

NASHVILLE – Tennessee lawmakers should embrace competition when it comes to broadband services, not work to limit consumer choice, Democratic leaders said.

“Anyone who has spent hours on the phone with a service provider to dispute a bill or get proper services knows consumers need more choices when it comes to Internet service,” Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said. “It is disturbing to see lawmakers act so quickly to limit consumer choice when Tennesseans are demanding more.”

Last week the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Chattanooga’s EPB could provide lightning-speed Internet outside the municipal power distributor’s service area. The move would mean new options for consumers in the Chattanooga area and increased broadband speeds, which are a critical tool for economic development outside of major cities.

However, the governor, the attorney general and other lawmakers have stood in opposition to consumer choice, even considering a lawsuit against the federal government at great cost to the taxpayer.

“Communities like mine in rural West Tennessee don’t care so much about these technicalities,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “They care less about service areas and more about having access to fast, reliable Internet. If a provider wants to bring that to my constituents, I don’t think I want the state to get in the way.”

The decision whether to sue the FCC on this issue will be a true test of the attorney general’s independence.

“With the FCC ruling, consumers consider this matter settled,” Sen. Harris said. “No one wants to see our attorney general give in to demands from lawmakers who want to play politics rather than do what’s best for consumers and our economy.”