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Plan to Ban Traffic Cams Not Universally Supported in Legislature

He hasn’t even filed the bill yet, but Rep. Andy Holt is facing opposition within his own party on his plan to eventually ban traffic enforcement cameras.

Holt, a Republican from Northwest Tennessee, argues that cameras used to ticket motorists for speeding and running red lights “have very little to do with safety, and everything to do with municipal greed.” And he believes they violate the United States Constitution.

But two Middle Tennessee GOP lawmakers — Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville and Rep. Mike Sparks of Smyrna — recently told the Daily News Journal that whether or not city and county governments use traffic cameras is a local control issue.

As the upper chamber’s Transportation Committee chairman, Tracy is an influential voice on legislation that affects the Tennessee roadways. He doesn’t think traffic cameras “should be regulated by the state.” And for that matter, he doesn’t fancy even taking the issue up again so soon after the General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 that established a “framework” for “local communities to use” when it comes to deploying traffic cameras.

Tracy acknowledged in the article that some local officials might abuse the practice. But others, such as Murfreesboro, are using it “in the proper way” to ensure safety.

Likewise, Sparks maintains that the cameras improve safety — something Holt disputes. Anybody who doesn’t like traffic cameras in their community should raise the issue with local politicians — and the state should stay out of it, he said.

“I don’t like them, but I do think they save lives,” Sparks told TNReport Tuesday. He added that he’s had a close call himself when someone ran a stoplight in front of him. The practice is also safer for cops who face the danger of being hit by a passing car when they have to write tickets on the side of the road, he said.

“I’m tired of the federal government telling us what to do, and I’m sure the locals are tired of us telling them what to do. So, if you don’t like their decision, vote them out of office,” said Sparks, who will serve as vice chairman of the House Local Government Committee.

Sparks said he doesn’t have any traffic cameras in his district. One thing he is open to considering is legislation to better protect people’s due process rights when it comes to paying the fine.

Like Rep. Holt, he doesn’t like that out-of-state companies that own the cameras are profiting off traffic violations in Tennessee. Sparks said he wishes “the revenue would be kept in Murfreesboro, rather than going over to a private company in Arizona.”

Murfreesboro’s police chief recently praised the city’s program on the grounds that it has improved safety. And while $2.5 million in traffic camera fines remains unpaid — one-third of the $7.5 million in issued citations — the city council voted to renew the contract for another year.

But not all local governments have used their programs “in the proper way.”

In 2008, a municipal judge ordered the City of Chattanooga to repay $8,800 in fines paid by 176 motorists when it was discovered the yellow-light cycle was about one second shorter than required by law.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 to regulate the use of traffic cameras across the state, which clarified an infraction hasn’t occurred unless the motorist enters the intersection after the light has turned red. The law also put a stop to ticketing motorists for turning right on red, unless a sign is posted specifically prohibiting a right-turn-on-red.

In 2012, a Knox County judge ruled against traffic camera operators in their effort to overturn the 2011 law due to a significant decline in collected revenue. The companies argued that a right turn on red should remain a ticketable offense in municipalities they had contracts with prior to the 2011 law. According to a Knoxville Police Department captain, from July to December 2010, their traffic cameras issued 58,000 citations, but only issued 8,000 citations during that same time period in 2011.

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

Retiring, Defeated Lawmakers on Taxpayer-Funded Getaway

Updated Aug. 7, 2012: Sen. Roy Herron called and said he had planned to attend the conference but decided against it due to a family emergency.

Six Tennessee legislators leaving the General Assembly this year are expected in Chicago this week on what could amount to a taxpayer-funded junket.

Four retiring legislators and two state reps who lost their bids for re-election in last week’s primary have given the state notice they plan to get reimbursed for attending the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in the Windy City that began Monday, a trip that could cost as much as than $2,500 in registration, airfare, hotel stay, per diem and cab rides.

They are Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

One of the General Assembly’s highest-ranking Republicans says he trusts that the departing lawmakers have good reasons behind their decisions to make the trip.

“I know it will be beneficial to the others who attend to get the benefit of their wisdom and their years of service,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “I think discretion is the better part of valor with these things, and obviously they’ve exercised their discretion and think it’s fine to go. I’m not passing judgment on it.”

Legislators are permitted to let taxpayers foot the bill for out-of-state legislative trips, complete with a per diem, travel and lodging expenses. Even outgoing lawmakers are entitled, said Connie Ridley, director of Tennessee’s office of Legislative Affairs.

“Members of the General Assembly serve as a legislator until the general election in November,” Ridley said in an email. “They are no longer eligible for compensation of any form the evening before the November general election.”

Richardson says she may have lost her primary election, but she still has legislative responsibilities to handle at the conference.

“I signed up because I am one of the representatives, there’s just a couple of us, who represent Tennessee on the Health Committee,” she said. “These are working committees where we share what we’ve done, and find out what other states have done and make policy recommendations for states. So, because I represent Tennessee on the health committee, I still need to come to the meeting.”

Attempts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.

A handful of retiring lawmakers are also on the trip, including Naifeh and Faulk, according to their offices. Herron and Harmon’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Legislators can collect a $173 per diem each of the four days of the conference, for $692 total. Registration to the NCSL event ranges from $549 to $690, depending on when lawmakers registered for the conference online. Guests were encouraged to reserve rooms in downtown Chicago with rates ranging from $199 to $227 a night if locked in prior to Aug. 1. Lawmakers can also be reimbursed for airfare, which runs about $300 roundtrip, and cab rides, which average between $25 to $42 from the airport to the convention site.

If lawmakers decide against splitting hotels and cab fare, the cost to taxpayers could approach almost $2,500 for the four-day, three-night trip.

But no money has left the taxpayers’ pocket yet, Ridley said. Lawmakers will have to submit receipts to have their travel expenses paid for once they return, although the conference’s registration will be billed directly to the state.

While the practice is legal and learning how other state legislatures are tackling difficult policy issues is valuable, sending outgoing lawmakers on an out-of-town trip is still “questionable,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a government accountability advocacy group.

“I have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of those going who will not be coming back, whether by the election or their own choice,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to do something in public life, they could make good public use of that.”

Here are the other 22 lawmakers slated to attend, according to the office of Legislative Administration:

House of Representatives

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory

Senate

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville

Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis

Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis

Sen. Steve Sutherland, R-Morristown

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

Republicans Rhapsodize in Rutherford Co.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, charged into a passionate defense of his intent on a “cyber-bullying” law he sponsored this year as part of a broad town hall discussion Thursday night in Murfreesboro.

The meeting at a restaurant with about 100 people became an elaborate debriefing of five Republican legislators on bills that passed in the General Assembly this year, the histories behind some of those bills and some of the aftershocks that continue to rumble on some of the most controversial legislation.

Ketron found himself the focus of a lot of it, mostly because of his efforts on the anti-bullying law and the “material support” bill that began on a highly controversial note because of its early inclusion of references to Sharia law, which was ultimately yanked from the legislation before it passed.

Debate was scarce at Thursday’s event, since the lawmakers were basically preaching to the choir, a setting organized by the Rutherford County Republican Party, the 9.12 Project of Rutherford County and the Rutherford County Tea Party. Ketron was joined by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, and Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale.

The gathering played out as a self-congratulatory victory lap, which has become common in Republican crowds as the party faithful celebrates newfound GOP control of Capitol Hill.

Ketron stoutly rejects claims that HB300, the cyber-bullying bill, violates free speech.

“There was no attempt to take away free speech. There’s not a vein or a thread in any of us that wants to do anything to take away free speech. We’re Republicans. Good gosh. That’s not the issue,” Ketron said.

“I disagree at this point with those comments made that it takes away free speech, and I believe the General Assembly felt the same way, and that’s why it was passed in a bipartisan manner.”

He said Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, brought the bill to him seeking a Senate sponsor. Ketron said the legislation was vetted by legislative staff attorneys.

“We asked them, ‘Does this take away free speech?’ We were told that it doesn’t,” he said. “And I stand to be corrected. If it does, we’ll change it, because that is not the intent. The intent was to eliminate these kids from destroying other kids’ lives. That’s why we brought the bill.”

He noted that the bill was debated in committees before it went to the House and Senate floors, and he said laws have long been on the books against libel, slander and defamation of character and that they simply took those same codes and tried to adapt the principle to modern social media.

Ketron said a case would still have to be taken up by a prosecutor and that the harm would have to be intentional to be a crime. Nevertheless, Ketron said he has asked for an attorney general’s opinion on whether it violates free speech.

The cyber-bullying law says those convicted of using electronic devices to harass anyone must serve up to 30 hours of community service for transmitting an offensive image where malicious intent is involved by a juvenile to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to the victim. The bipartisan-backed measure has been criticized and ridiculed nationally for the free-speech issue.

When the subject turned to Ketron’s anti-terrorism bill, SB1028, he was asked who lobbied him to take the word “Sharia’ from the bill. “There was not a group that lobbied me nor House Speaker Pro Tempore (Judd) Matheny to remove the word ‘Sharia,'” Ketron responded.

Ketron said the bill was first presented to him by the Eagle Forum with the premise that it would deal with homegrown terrorism. Ketron then recounted the story of Memphian Carlos Bledsoe, who Ketron said went to Nashville, then Yemen, became radicalized and went to Arkansas and killed an American soldier. He said he felt it was best to share a controversial video on the issue with his colleagues, a move that garnered criticism from his hometown newspaper.

Ketron brought in Commissioner of Safety Bill Gibbons, as well as officials from Homeland Security and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and Ketron said it was Gibbons’ idea to roll the bill into the material support bill already in the law passed by the Legislature in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Gibbons said Ketron might want to look at taking it to a Class A felony, Ketron said.

“That’s exactly what I did,” Ketron said.

“I’m here to tell you, I feel it was divine intervention. I believe it was brought for a purpose and a reason, to protect the citizens of our state and I hope the other states will pick up on the same language and pass the bill next year.”

Ketron referred to Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis.

“Ophelia Ford was totally against the bill. She looked at that tape, for whatever reason, and she voted for the bill, and before she voted she said, ‘Senator, that’s pretty scary, what’s happening in my city.’ She’s going to be meeting with the officials in Shelby County over the next two or three weeks,” Ketron said.

Ketron said he and Speaker Pro Tempore Matheny, R-Tullahoma, met with Muslims from Tullahoma, Rutherford County and Davidson County. He said he knew the word “Sharia” would have to come out of the bill because it simply wouldn’t pass without removing it.

“You’ve got to get the votes,” he said.

Carr burst into a carpe diem speech, explaining how the party in power had seized the moment of running state government.

“When we started the session, we knew we were going to try to get a lot done, because you never know how much time you have. You really don’t,” Carr said. “So we wanted to seize the day, and you people said, ‘We want you do it now. We don’t want to wait anymore. We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting, and we’re tired of waiting. We want it now.’

“We did more in less time than I ever remember being a citizen of Tennessee and following politics. Not only did we do more in this session of the 107th General Assembly, we did it in record time, getting out early, saving the taxpayers money, which proves the Republicans are more productive and more efficient than the Democrats.”

It took long hours, Carr said.

“At the very end, we were working 14-, 16- and 18-hour days. As Rick and Mike now know, it’s rather manic the last two weeks, but that’s just the nature of the beast.

“What we’re trying to do is create good laws that are efficient to a community with the conservative principles and ideals that we all represent, because you sent us there.”

Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, was not part of the program but showed up and was given a few minutes to speak. He thanked people for their support in his victory in his special election. Roberts replaced former Sen. Diane Black, who was elected to Congress last November.

TN Dems: Rutherford GOP Candidate Lies About Resume

Press Release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; Aug. 24, 2010:

NASHVILLE – Rutherford County Republican state House candidate Mike Sparks has once again gotten himself into trouble over a Facebook posting that implies he is a 1997 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University.

According to MTSU officials, Sparks has never received a degree from the university. Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester is asking Sparks to apologize to Rutherford County voters for “falsifying his resume.”

“People are routinely fired from their jobs for a lie like that,” Forrester said. “Mr. Sparks is guilty of falsifying his resume. He should explain to the citizens of Rutherford County why he decided to pass himself off as an MTSU graduate.

“This is just one more in a list of blunders Mr. Sparks has made during his campaign for the state House. The people of Rutherford County deserve a representative in the General Assembly who is honest, hardworking and beyond reproach. Mr. Sparks is not that leader.

“Just a few weeks ago Mr. Sparks posted anti-Semitic material written by a Nazi sympathizer (PDF) on his campaign Facebook page and provided a link to other bigoted YouTube videos. Someone who shows this kind of judgment has no business running for an elected office in this state or this country. The Tennessee Republican Party should immediately remove Mr. Sparks from the ballot,” he said.

Sparks, a Rutherford County commissioner, is seeking the House seat currently occupied by state Rep. Kent Coleman of Murfreesboro.

Forrester also pointed out that Sparks had to amend a filing with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance revealing that he has made expenditures during his campaign. His first two filings with the state agency claimed no expenditures had been made. Sparks’ campaign website also fails to list an appropriate authorization line as required by state law.

“Mr. Sparks is not at all ready for prime time,” Forrester said. “We need lawmakers who understand that we need good jobs for our families, good schools for our children and safe, desirable communities in which to live.”