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Bill to Block College IDs for Voting Draws Dem Doubts

Questions from Democrats about the true intent of legislation drafted to clarify Tennessee’s voter ID law peppered discussion in a House committee Tuesday.

The legislation would have allowed voters to use college IDs as a form of accepted identification. The bill would rewrite a section of the current code that blocks their use. In HB 229’s original language, college IDs were simply not mentioned.

Rep. Jeremy DurhamJeremy Durham

However, that changed with freshman Rep. Jeremy Durham’s amendment that “basically just eliminates the college IDs part of the bill,” Durham told the Local Government Committee. “I think it’s good public policy to make sure the right people are voting.”

The amendment drew a slew of questions from Democratic committee members as to the true intent of the bill.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, of Nashville, made the argument that state-funded institutions of higher learning are “part of the state of Tennessee” because they receive funding from the state.

“There’s plenty of people who get direct money from the state, but I don’t want them to write down on a napkin who’s qualified to vote,” Durham, R-Franklin, said.

Rep. Larry Miller, of Memphis, was one of three Democratic members to ask either Durham or House sponsor Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, if they could describe any “real-world occurrences” where students had committed fraud using college IDs to vote. Neither could provide an example.

When Rep. Mike Stewart, of Nashville, asked Durham for an example of a problem with college IDs, Durham said, “I suppose that the real problem is if we stick with just state and federal, I think that’s better than having 20, 30 different forms of ID from all these different state-funded universities.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of Memphis, questioned what effect the bill may have on a decision before the Tennessee Supreme Court regarding the use of photo library cards as acceptable ID. The bill forbids using them to vote as well.

“A court decision would not affect the current law,” Lynn said. “A judge is not a lawmaker, and a judge can’t just deem that local IDs are acceptable if the General Assembly has passed a law saying that they are not acceptable, and the governor has signed the law.”

The companion bill, SB125, passed the full Senate last week. However, it allows college IDs to be accepted as valid forms of identification but disallows library cards and out-of-state IDs.

Because the two chambers’ versions differ, it is possible that a conference committee will be appointed to try and reach an agreement, which is necessary before final passage is possible.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

House Limits Local Authority on Wage-Setting Mandates

Despite a rather testy exchange between the two parties’ caucus chairs about the “Tennessee Wage Protection Act” on the House floor Thursday, the bill passed 66-27-1 and heads for the Senate committee process beginning next week.

The chamber’s approval moves House Bill 501 one stop closer to ending a four-year battle to prohibit cities and counties from setting wages, family leave and insurance benefits that private businesses must offer employees as a condition of obtaining local-government contracts or operating in the jurisdiction.

“These are issues best left up to the state and federal governments, not local government,” Republican Caucus Chair Glen Casada said.

If the bill becomes law, it would nullify regulations passed in Nashville and Shelby County requiring businesses contracting with those governments to offer a certain level of wages and benefits to employees.

“Once again we have a piece of legislation that will tie the hands of the local government. You are preventing them from being able to negotiate good contracts,” said Democratic Rep. Larry Miller, whose amendment to exempt his home of Memphis and Shelby County was tabled.

The issue of prevailing wages brought Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner to the floor. He grilled Casada on whether he knew what a prevailing wage was, and a touchy back and forth ensued.

According to the bill, when awarding contracts local governments cannot “require a prevailing wage be paid in excess of the wages established by the prevailing wage commission for state highway construction projects in accordance with title (state law) or the Tennessee occupational wages prepared annually by the department of labor and workforce development, employment security division, labor market information for state building projects.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of Memphis, questioned the differences in the costs of living in Shelby County and Crockett County, population 14,500, and suggested the local officials there know what’s best for their workers.

Casada fired back: “If a local government, and I’m not going to use any names, mandates 30 bucks an hour for a construction job, that drives up the cost of that construction, and it causes that entity go further in debt. In turn, that causes taxes to go up on the taxpayers of that community. This bill is an attempt to stop that.”

Parkinson complained of the hypocrisy he perceives in the Republican-run Legislature dictating mandates on local governments when often GOP lawmakers criticize federal intervention in state affairs.

“When the federal government puts things on us that take away personal freedom or economic freedom, that’s wrong,” Casada replied. “When local government does the same invasion on local folks, it’s up to us to protect the citizens of the state.”

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick got in the last word before the vote. Decisions made by local governments reach beyond their jurisdictional boundaries, he said.

“Big cities affect the whole state. They don’t just affect their city limits,” the fifth-term Republican from Hixson said. “They are economic generators for the surrounding counties. That alone is reason enough not to let them set up some little people’s republic in some city in the state of Tennessee.”

The vote went mostly along partisan lines. Republicans siding with Democrats against the bill included Mark Pody of Lebanon and David Alexander of Winchester. Joining them was Kent Williams, an independent. Charles Curtiss of Sparta was the only Democrat to vote in favor of HB501.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667. 

TNGOP Slams Dems Voting Against Income Tax Ban

Press Release from the Republican Party of Tennessee, Jan. 19, 2012:

Once Again, Tennessee Democrats Stand Up For A State Income Tax

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding language to ban a state income tax. SJR 221, sponsored by Representative Glen Casada, passed the Republican-controlled House by a vote of 73-17-3.

The amendment will now have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate in the next session. The amendment will then be placed on the ballot, coinciding with a gubernatorial election, to allow Tennessee voters to approve.  “I applaud our Republican leadership for moving us one step closer to solidifying the unconstitutionality of a state income tax. However, several Tennessee Democrats once again showed their liberal mindset by reinforcing their belief that government should not be restricted from  dipping into your paycheck,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

“While Tennesseans work hard to get through this economic recession, Tennessee Democrats are content with duplicating President Obama’s philosophy of raising taxes to meet reckless government spending, instead of reducing government to meet current revenue,” said Devaney.

Democrats Who Voted Against Banning a State Income Tax: Karen Camper, Barbara Cooper, Charles Curtiss, Lois Deberry, G.A. Hardaway, Bill Harmon, Mike Kernell, Larry Miller, Gary Moore, Jimmy Naifeh, Joe Pitts, Jeanne Richardson, Johnny Shaw, Mike Stewart, Harry Tindell, Joe Towns, and Johnnie Turner.

UPDATED: Guv Signs Memphis Merger Bill

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon Gov. Haslam signed the legislation addressing the potential merger, saying “The bill addresses two of my biggest concerns. It allows an orderly planning process for transition, while leaving the local vote in place for March 8.”

Gov. Bill Haslam has yet to say publicly whether he plans to sign a bill which aims to slow the process of consolidating the two school districts in Shelby County, though legislative leaders expressed confidence the measure would become law.

The bill, SB25, sets down rules and a planning process for merging Memphis City Schools, the state’s largest school district, with Shelby County Schools. It also postpones consolidation until the 2013-14 school year if Memphis voters approve the merger next month. The bill passed the House Thursday and the Senate earlier this week, with both votes along party lines.

Late Thursday afternoon the Memphis City Council voted to allow the Memphis City Schools Board of Education to surrender its charter. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that city council members indicated they still want the March 8 referendum to go ahead as scheduled and could rescind Thursday’s decision if the referendum asking voters whether to transfer administrative control of city schools to Shelby County fails.

Speaking before the Tennessee Press Association immediately following the House vote — and prior to the Memphis City Council vote — Gov. Bill Haslam said it was “premature” for him to say whether he planned to sign it.

“We’ll go back and talk about it like we will everything else,” he told reporters from around the state gathered at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Nashville.

The Republican-sponsored measure zipped through the bulk of the legislative process in eight days.

Memphis Democrats in the Senate tried to convince Republicans to slow down passage of the bill, saying an issue of such magnitude should take more than a week to consider. Democrats pulled out all the stops in the House Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to derail the bill, filing 14 amendments to the legislation, all rejected by the House GOP majority.

Democrats charged Republicans with hypocrisy, saying GOP lawmakers were already guilty of betraying the limited-government rhetoric that’d helped them win so convincingly across the state in November.

“My friends across the aisle who are supposed to be the champions of smaller government, who are the champions of not having Big Brother interfere on smaller governments, stood up in lockstep and voted to act like Washington,” Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman from Old Hickory, said in a press conference immediately following the vote.

Haslam could veto the bill or, if he takes no action by Feb. 21, it would become law without his signature.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders say they have not talked with the governor about his views on the bill, but both expect he’ll OK it, if tacitly.

“We’re not sure exactly if he’s going to sign the legislation or if he’s just going to sit on it and then it automatically becomes the law,” Rep. Larry Miller, the ranking House Democrat of the Shelby County delegation, told reporters in a press conference shortly after the House vote.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said he’s hopeful the governor will sign the legislation quickly so the state has time to prepare for the March 8 referendum.

Last week, Haslam and the state’s acting education commissioner asked Memphis and Shelby County school districts to submit a transition plan by Feb. 15. Having a plan was imperative to the success of any merger, Haslam said at the time, but he stopped short of weighing in on whether the school systems should merge or comment on the merits of Norris’ bill.

Miller said he hopes Haslam will find a way to keep Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton more involved in the process. The City of Memphis does not have a seat on the 21-person transition board outlined in the bill.

Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and House Speaker Beth Harwell would each appoint a member. Seats would go to the county mayor and the chairmen of the county and city school boards, and those three officials would each pick five other members.

Haslam, who has said he’s been in constant contact with Wharton throughout the past few weeks, said he wants to see “a little bit more city representation” on the committee.

Haslam added, though, that discussions about schools in Memphis and Shelby County need to evolve beyond partisan rancor and regional political feuding in order to address the city’s bleak public educational picture.

“I think we’re having the wrong conversation,” Haslam said. “At the end of the day, the conversation’s all about the legal issues around it instead of how are we going to help educate all 150,000 of those children, and I mean all 150,000.”

The Memphis City Schools board voted 5-4 in December to dissolve the district and hand over authority for educating its 103,000 students to the smaller Shelby County Schools. The board’s decision heightened longstanding area racial tensions and sparked heated political debate over school finances, quality of education and the proper role of state government in the affairs of counties and local communities.

A slim majority of voters favor merging the systems, a recent poll conducted for the Memphis Commercial Appeal showed.