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NSA Data-Collection Targeted by State Legislation

The U.S. National Security Agency claims that the broad surveillance powers it has assumed are necessary to protect Americans against terrorist attacks. But some Tennessee lawmakers are backing legislation to prevent state-run service providers and facilities from in any way aiding in warrantless data-collection by the federal government.

The Tennessee Fourth Amendment Protection Act (HB0679/SB0782) — sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, and Republican Jonesborough Reps. Micah van Huss and Matthew Hill — would prevent the state or any of its subdivisions from assisting or otherwise providing “material support or resources to enable or facilitate” the gathering of an individual’s data by the NSA without a judge’s approval.

The legislation was conceived by a privacy rights advocacy group called the Off Now Coalition, whose aim is to “shut down the surveillance state.” It is designed to help protect against the NSA’s domestic data-collection program revealed in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Tennessee legislation represents part of a broader national strategy by activists to gain regional leverage against the NSA where political efforts in Washington, D.C. have largely come up short.

y-12 billboards 1940sThe proposed legislation in the Tennessee statehouse doesn’t include a definition for “material support.” However, OffNow.org argues that because “the spy agency needs resources like water and electricity” and “cannot operate its facilities without these essential resources,” state or municipally owned utilities fall into the category. Partnerships between NSA and state higher education institutions would be blocked, as would use of federal warrantless data by state agencies.

The Multiprogram Research Facility is a part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is run by a collaboration between the University of Tennessee and the Battelle Memorial Institute.

The NSA is using the facility to produce a supercomputer capable of sifting “through enormous quantities of data – for example, all the phone numbers dialed in the United States every day,” according to James Bamford, an investigative journalist who covers national security and intelligence-gathering issues.

If passed, Tennessee’s Fourth Amendment Protection Act would also prevent law enforcement here from using any NSA-collected data in court.

Fourth Amendment Protection Acts have been introduced in 13 states. None have yet won approval.

A more narrowly written Electronic Data Privacy Act has become law in Utah and New Hampshire. The American Civil Liberties Union lauded Utah’s passage of the legislation last year.

A somewhat similarly worded Fourth Amendment Protection Act was also filed in Tennessee last session, sponsored by state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden and former Knoxville Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield. However, it died in committees.

The aim of the 2014 legislation was to resist the NSA in its attempts to collect private, personal communications between Americans, Holt said. “It is disturbing to me to think that every conversation, whether that is a telephone call, a text message or an email, may potentially…be used against me at some point by the federal government, and I am not comfortable about that,” Holt said during a hearing on the measure last spring.

Even though the legislation failed in 2014, U.S. government spying on Americans appears to be a matter of concern that crosses party lines in the Legislature.

“The NSA’s attempt to collect data on American citizens is just a complete outrage,” Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville attorney and now chairman of the House minority-party caucus, said last year. “There is no reason in this country ever for people to be collecting information that is private without a warrant.”

Guv Inks Tighter Voter ID Provisions

Library cards and other types of county-or-city-issued photo ID cards are no longer enough to cast a ballot in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a General Assembly measure outlawing their use at polling places.

The bill, sponsored by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, was an initially more extensive overhaul of the state’s existing voter ID law.

Most notably, it aimed to add college ID cards — both for students and staff — to the list of acceptable forms of identification.

That effort drew skepticism from some other Senate Republicans, but Ketron’s argument that the changes would make the law more “consistent” eventually won out in the upper chamber. The Senate passed the legislation 21-8. Four Republicans voted “no.” They were Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, Mike Bell of Riceville, Stacey Campfield of Knoxville and Jim Summerville of Dickson.

However, Ketron’s reasoning fell on deaf GOP ears in the House.

Sponsor Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, readily accepted an amendment from House Local Government Committee Chair Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, that stripped the college ID provision. The language nixing library cards stayed.

Hill told members of the House during floor debate on the measure back in March that his committee removed college IDs because they felt the cards were “too easy to duplicate, they’re too easy to access, too easy to acquire.”

“Some of them do not even have expiration dates on on them, and that poses a danger and a hazard to the voting process,” Hill said.

While discussion in the Senate focuses almost entirely on the college ID issue, some lawmakers in the House were equally vocal in their concern regarding the move to ban the use of library cards on election day.

Chief among them were Democrats from Memphis who said the legislation as a move to overrule a state Supreme Court decision allowing library cards to be used in that city.

Johnnie Turner didn’t mince words, calling the proposed changes “a form of voter suppression,” and chiding House Republicans for meddling in local affairs.

“Locals have voted for, it has been approved by the courts,” Turner said. “Speaker after speaker after speaker will say, ‘We don’t want the federal government telling us what to do.’ And yet, on the state level, we’re doing the same thing.”

Antonio Parkinson, also a Memphis Democrat, said he felt he had been “hoodwinked” and “bamboozled” by Republicans. He accused GOP lawmakers of focusing attention on the more contentious issue of college IDs to draw scrutiny away from their real objective to nullify the decision of the state’s courts.

Going heavy on the sports metaphors, Parkinson said “the end run play was ran and you scored a touchdown, scored the final dunk and now you’re on the House floor with this bill.”

“The point of the matter was simply this,” Parkinson continued. “To run interference of a decision that was to be made by the Tennessee Supreme Court in regards to library cards that were being proposed to be used by the city of Memphis.”

The House passed the bill, largely along party lines, by a vote of 65-30 and the Senate subsequently concurred with the House version, dropping the college ID language with little discussion on the floor.

Property Disclosure Requirement for Lawmakers Hits Snag

An ethics bill requiring Tennessee policymakers to disclose all real property they own other than their primary home has hit a snag this year, and the bill sponsor said she doesn’t expect it to pass.

Rep. Susan Lynn said she would still like to get the bill back in committee this year as a thermometer test.

Susan Lynn

“I perceive that a lot of members think that it’s a good idea, but I perceive also that a lot of members strongly oppose it,” the Mt. Juliet Republican said. “So it may need a little bit more time to become more apparent to the members as to why it’s important.”

Originally assigned to the House Local Government Committee, HB1063 was moved back to the speaker’s desk after Lynn failed to appear on two separate occasions to present her bill. However, Chairman Matthew Hill made a procedural error by invoking Rule 13, meant to kick in after the sponsor fails to appear for a third time.

To get the bill back on track, the House clerk’s office told Lynn she will have to see Rep. Joe Carr, chairman of the Local Government subcommittee.

“I need to call the clerk’s office to find out why I need to talk to the subcommittee chair, “ Lynn told TNReport.com. “I think it was a mistake we’re going to try and get worked out.”

HB 1063 would require all elected and certain appointed public officials, such as those on local and regional planning commissions or state boards, to disclose any real property owned by them, their spouses or any minor children living at home.

Earlier in March, Lynn told TNReport.com that she would entertain an amendment excepting state legislators from the new disclosure requirement if that’s the only way to make it a requirement for local government officials.

“I think it’s very important for local government to make this disclosure, especially the planning commission members,” she said. “I think property holdings that one has, especially holdings that they hold for some future opportunity, should be disclosed, [because] maybe they’re in a position to vote on things that will make the opportunity better.”

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, agrees that the bill “offers a lot for citizens who don’t have the advantage of public office.”

“I think it’s critical for this legislation, or anything similar to it, to be enacted, simply to level the playing field because of economics,” said Flanagan, the former state bureau chief for The Associated Press.

During public discussion of a proposed development, if “everyone knows who owns property and where that property is located, then everyone knows where everyone stands. When people own property and don’t disclose it, I think that’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Still, the former newspaper editor doesn’t hold out high hopes for the bill’s passage.

“I think in terms of this legislation, the chances of it passing are probably slim with the legislator exemption,” Flanagan said. “If they’re not exempt, I don’t think it has a chance of passing.”

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

Sanderson Seeks to Curb Self-Service Beer Sales

Troubled by the age-old problem of underage drinking, Rep. Bill Sanderson is pushing a bill to clamp down on grocery stores that use self-service lanes.

The Kenton Republican has put forward a proposal to limit self-checkout lanes – “Welcome, valued customer. Please scan your first item.” – to six per attendant. Sanderson says House Bill 304 will deter youths who scan a six-pack of Coca-Cola, then sneak a six-pack of Bud into their grocery bags.

Bill Sanderson

“The notion that one person can oversee an infinite amount of self-checkouts is not even practical,” Sanderson said Tuesday before the House Local Government Committee gave the nod to his bill. “So, this legislation says that if you’re monitoring self-checkouts it should be limited to four self-checkout lanes if you are selling alcohol in that store.”

The Senate version, sponsored by Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, is pending a hearing in a Local Government subcommittee.

But retailers already limit the number of self-checkout lanes they have in operation per employee, a lobbyist for the grocers told lawmakers, and a majority of stores in the state have no more than six per attendant.

“I would say that stores are watching those, and monitoring those in a way that they don’t want an infinite number of checkout stands for one person,” Jarron Springer, with the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, said. “But I think each individual store probably has a different determination on their number.”

Sanderson’s bill comes as the nation sees a drop in drunk-driving fatalities.

Thirty-two states including Tennessee recorded a decrease in drunk-driving fatalities from 2009 to 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nationally, deaths were down 4.9 percent.

The trend holds true among minors, with alcohol-impaired driving fatalities among youths down 60.7 percent since 2000, according to federal numbers tracked by the Century Council, a distilleries group.

Committee chairman Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, questioned the practicality of the legislation. After all, store workers are already required to check the ID of anyone buying alcohol before the checkout process can be completed.

Hill said that he was concerned that the state was “using the government to mandate the number of employees” stores employ.

During committee discussion, several legislators seemed supportive of the bill on the grounds that it would address the issue of alcohol accessibility to minors.

Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, likened the decision of grocery retailers to abide by their own guidelines in this situation to allowing them to determine their own rules in other areas.

“So, if we just say that we should just allow industry to just conduct their own measurable accountability in all these situations, maybe we should do away with several other programs as well, because businesses can just institute that for themselves in home,” Holt said. “Food safety, inventory controls, responsible vending, all of these things.”

Reps. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin; Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville; and Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, requested to be recorded as voting no on the measure. 

Shipley, Hill Praise MSHA On Winning National Health Care Award

Press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus; August 24, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The National Quality Forum (NQF) recently announced that Mountain States Health Alliance (MHSA) has been named the recipient of its 2012 National Quality Healthcare Award. The award will be presented at the NQF Annual Meeting in Washington, DC in spring 2013.

As part of its mission to improve the quality of healthcare in America, NQF presents the Quality Healthcare Award annually to an exemplary health care organization that has achieved a number of quality focused goals and achievements. Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA), a Johnson City, TN-based health care system serving a largely rural community, is the 19th recipient of the annual award and the first health care organization in Tennessee to receive the award.

“At MSHA, our shared vision is to passionately pursue healing of the mind, body and spirit as we create a world class health care system,” said Dennis Vonderfecht, president and CEO of MSHA. “We are committed to this vision because our region deserves nothing less than world class, and we are delighted to receive this recognition from the National Quality Forum because it is an affirmation that we are headed in the right direction. The credit for this recognition goes to the thousands of physicians, nurses, team members, board members, and other volunteers who are traveling together on this healthcare journey with MSHA as we all work to fulfill our mission of bringing loving care to health care.”

Representative Tony Shipley (R—Kingsport) stated, “MSHA does a tremendous job delivering quality health care to our region. They received this award because of their remarkable track record in patient-centered care. They’re the first organization in Tennessee to win this award and deservedly so. I congratulate MSHA on their achievement.”

“With Tennessee being a hub for health care, it is an outstanding achievement for MSHA to be recognized above its peers,” remarked Representative Matthew Hill (R—Jonesborough). “They are incredible partners for our community and our region because of their commitment to excellence. I appreciate all they have done and wish them more success.”

MSHA has created and utilizes a set of ten Patient-Centered Care Guiding Principles illustrating the importance of safe, customized care provided in a transparent manner and openly communicated with the patient, family, and caregivers throughout the course of treatment. Direct engagement with patients and families continues following discharge through hosted support groups and patient events, calls from care providers to patients post-discharge, and the recruitment of former patients and family members to serve on patient advisory committees throughout the system.

MSHA has taken a comprehensive approach to measurement—an increasingly important factor in promoting increased quality and safety within a health care system. Performance measures used by MHSA are aligned with the National Quality Strategy. Metrics are reported to internal staff through their quality dashboard on a monthly and annual basis, compared against projected year-to-date targets, and tracked regularly by senior leadership and board members. MSHA staff exhibit a strong commitment to transparency—a Patient Safety Report on the staff intranet page monitors errors, and safety and performance information is regularly made available on a public website. To date, MSHA’s commitment to measurement has led to measureable reductions of waste within the system, providing better value for patients and lowering costs overall.

Lawmakers Refereeing ‘Turf Battle’ Over Pain-Management Care

The question of who exactly should be legally authorized to shoot powerful medications into easily injured areas of the body, like a patient’s spine, dominated talk on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Lawmakers heard testimony from the medical community about rules governing the tricky job of pain management.

Members of a House Health and Human Resources subcommittee are studying the implications of HB1896, a bill that limits when nurse practitioners and other caregivers with advanced training can administer “interventional” pain medications, which are injected within a half-inch of the spinal cord.

Under the proposal, which won committee approval in the Senate but stalled in the House, these nurses would only be able to perform the procedures under the supervision of specialists.

Lawmakers walked away from their four-hour discussion generally in agreement to add government mandates for better training of nurse practitioners, assistants and physicians alike as they try to defuse a war among the competing health care occupations.

“Sometimes though, these are turf battles, and money’s involved. And it’s whether which side is going to end up with the most procedures to make the most money,” said Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman and a member of the panel examining who can perform the pain-management procedures.

“We have to determine which is which, whether this is the best medical procedure or we’re just settling a dispute between two or three occupations,” Turner said. The debate among the medical professionals is “pretty volatile,” he added, with physicians on one side and the nurse practitioners and physician assistants on the other.

“We do not believe that a few weeks of training can possibly equate a three-year residence and a year of fellowship in training,” said Dr. Joe Browder, speaking for the Tennessee Medical Association. The TMA argues that the procedure should be done by doctors, not nurses or assistants.

Opponents of HB1896, including state associations of physician assistants and nurse anesthetists, argue that restricting non-physicians from performing the procedures is anti-competitive and unnecessary. Opponents believe such a move would reduce options for patients at a time when more people will begin seeking health care as Baby Boomers age and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is scheduled to start taking effect.

“This bill is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Sharon Adkins, executive director of the Tennessee Nurses Association. “Our focus needs to be on access to the provision of quality patient care, not the pocketbook of the provider.”

The nursing industry is no stranger to debates on Capitol Hill. Last year it went to blows with the Legislature after the state Nursing Board refused to implement new laws regarding lower-level nurses issuing medications in the way the General Assembly intended.

Rep. Matthew Hill, who chaired the subcommittee meeting, called Thursday’s discussions a “starting point.” The Jonesborough Republican said he expects to amend the original bill with an eye toward requiring more extensive training for anyone performing the procedures while hoping the two sides will seek to meet each other halfway.

House Moves to Rescind Con-Con Call

The state House of Representatives took steps today to try and make sure Tennessee doesn’t accidentally help instigate a wholesale rewrite of the U.S. Constitution.

But one House lawmaker says she’s convinced the state could and should call for a limited constitutional convention to focus on a single issue — chiefly, making it easier for the states to amend the federal government’s guiding document.

“There has to be the political will to do that, and I don’t know that we’re at (that) point,” said state Rep. Susan Lynn, a Mt. Juliet Republican and self-styled state sovereignty enthusiast.

The Tennessee House of Representatives voted 65-23 Thursday to rescind any past expressions of legislative desire that a constitutional convention be convened. Tennessee lawmakers most recently called for a constitutional convention in 1977, with the idea in mind of forcing the federal government to live within its fiscal means.

One lawmaker who voted against rescinding the 1977 resolution argued that the issues that gave rise to the call to convene a convention 33 years ago are still serious problems today.

“The threat of a constitutional convention can serve as leverage to encourage constitutional change and fiscal responsibility,” said Jim Coley, R-Bartlett.. “I believe we should honor the collective wisdom of these assemblies and vote not to rescind.”

A constitutional convention is still warranted to address “the unchecked growth of the federal government over the 1970, 1980s, 1990s and now the 21st century,” Coley said.

Thirty-four states would need to officially request a constitutional convention. Twenty-one states, including Tennessee, are currently on record as desiring one.

That’s a risky proposition to be supporting, said Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican and sponsor of the bill to repeal the request. Hill worries an open-ended effort to amend the constitution would range far afield from what most Tennesseans would regard as proper, necessary or wise.

“Once you open up the box, they can do whatever they want,” he said of the constitutional-convention amendment process.

If the Tennessee Legislature wants to rally for a rewritten U.S. Constitution, lawmakers should take the time to examine the issues now and renew their call rather than relying upon the 1977 legislature speak for the today’s General Assembly, Hill argued.

“We do not need to trigger a constitutional convention with resolutions that are over 30 years old,” said Hill.

Lynn today joined the Tennessee House majority voting to rescind the call for a convention. But she said she’ll also soon be joining other state lawmakers from across the country pushing to revise the U.S. Constitution to require the federal government to pass a balanced budget each year.

Lynn voiced support for a constitutional convention at a Tea Party rally earlier this month, saying “we have to keep going, we have to keep pushing until we push this monster of a federal government back to where they belong.”

The measure must now be taken up in the Senate to officially remove the previous calls for a constitutional convention.

Andrea Zelinski can be reached at andreazelinski@tnreport.com.

Tempers Flare Over ‘Smart’ Crime Bill

Partisan acrimony boiled up on the floor of the House of Representatives on Monday when an East Tennessee Republican tried to alter a bill Democrats have been carefully crafting and claiming as a core element of their legislative agenda this session.

The proposed “Smart on Crime” bill, HB2813, would take away the discretion of Tennessee judges to sentence certain first-time perpetrators of “non-violent property offenses,” typically involving damages of less than $1,000, to jail terms. Instead, judges would sentence them to “community corrections, probation, pre-trial diversion or judicial diversion.”

At the same time, the proposed legislation would require that the more serious crime of armed robbery be added to a list of offenses for which the possibility of early release from prison is diminished.

“To make prison space available to ensure that these violent offenders serve a sentence of sufficient length to remove them as a threat to society and to deter others from committing these offenses, it is in the public’s best interest that certain non-violent property offenders currently serving prison sentences for less serious offenses be given alternative sentences not involving incarceration,” according to the bill. “By doing so, the property offenders are able to work in order to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes without threatening public safety thereby permitting longer sentences for those offenders who do threaten public safety.”

But during House debate on the bill Monday night, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, proposed an amendment to remove several offenses — shoplifting, passing forged checks, burglary from a motor vehicle and burning personal property — from the list of 19 crimes for which a judge couldn’t sentence an offender to jail time.

“I like a good part of this legislation, but I also think that if you do any of these four things…you should serve time,” said Hill.

Democratic Party Leader Gary Odom, the chief House sponsor of the legislation, became visibly agitated when responding to Hill and the proposed amendment.

Odom expressed disappointment that Hill hadn’t raised his objections earlier and didn’t “(think) enough to bring the concerns or the proposed amendment to me so I could speak with (Hill) about it.” He also accused Hill of “misrepresenting what the judge can do with these situations.”

“This bill does not give anybody a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Odom. “There is no reduction in sentencing under this bill. The time that someone would be in the custody of the Department of Corrections would remain the same for all these personal property crimes, most of them less than $1,000 in value. What this would do, though, is move them to a different location where they pay their debt to society.”

Odom also said Hill’s amendment would “destroy the legislation” by throwing the fiscal impact estimations of the bill out of whack.

According to the Fiscal Note for HB2813, Tennessee is averaging 1,012 prison admissions a year for the lower-level property offenses defined in the bill. On average over the past 10 years, 669 people have been sentenced each year for aggravated robbery.

In sum, the state would incur additional new costs of about $10 million for the additional incarceration under the terms of the bill.

Odom said the drafters of the bill calculated that moving the small-time property criminals to community corrections and diversion programs would cost the state only five dollars a day instead of $65 a day. By doing that, he added, armed robbers could begin serving roughly six years in jail, up from from the current average of 2.4 years.

“We got up to 74 percent of the minimum sentence (for armed robbers),” said Odom. “All of our other violent crimes in the state, you serve 85 percent. And we couldn’t get all the way, but if you start picking and choosing, you are going to destroy the balance we have in this bill.”

Hill was unmoved.

“Everyone in the state would agree that people that commit the violent crimes that you’re seeking to have serve more of their sentence time — we want them to serve that sentence time,” he said. “That being said, I’m also not interested in a get-out-of-jail-free card. But I also see this as having strong potential to just not going to jail at all.”

Odom made a motion to table Hill’s amendment, but that effort failed on a 47-50 vote, largely along party lines. Only Dennis E. Roach, R-Rutledge and Curry Todd, R-Collierville, left GOP ranks to vote in favor of tabling the amendment. Memphis Democrats John J. DeBerry and Ulysses Jones, Jr. joined with Republicans in opposing Odom’s motion, as did Mark Maddox, D-Dresden. Speaker Kent Williams, the lone “Carter County Republican” in the legislative body, voted against tabling the amendment.

A vote on the actual bill was postponed until later this week.

Andrea Zelinski shot video and contributed reporting for this story.