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1-2-3, Go! Redistricting Maps Advance

Tweaks to the lines on redrawn Democratic districts in the state House came down to something like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

House lawmakers approved the new maps 67-25-3 Thursday. Speaker Beth Harwell said she had politely encouraged Democrats to throw some votes her party’s way for the sake of bipartisanship appearances.

“I said to (Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner), ‘If we are making these concessions for some of your members, I would appreciate votes from your caucus,’” she said.

That left the #1 and #2 Democrats to figure out who would make Harwell feel appreciated.

“I’d like to think it was a little punitive, maybe, because the discussions were pretty hot and heavy,” Turner, of Old Hickory, said. … “I thought it was worth that to save a couple of our members.”

Turner threw down rock to Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s paper in their session to make sure the speaker got at least one leadership vote from their side. Turner was one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican-drawn maps, while Fitzhugh toed the party line.

“Everybody we had that was paired, we tried to do so something about that,” said Turner, who had been one of the most vocal critics of GOP maps. “In areas where it didn’t impact their members, they decided to give us a couple of those back.”

In the final hours before the map was approved by the chamber, Republicans agreed to make these concessions to preserve incumbent advantage:

  • Separate Democrats Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart, who had been drawn into the same south Nashville district.
  • Return Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, to the district he represents now. He had been lumped into the same district as Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
  • Adjust the lines in the district represented by Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville.

Democrats pitched a handful of other amendments to the maps on the House floor, mainly attempts to make more Shelby County districts represent a greater percentage of minorities. All those attempts failed.

The maps fell “way short on minority representation,” according to Turner, although he said he wanted to talk to the Tennessee Democratic Party, the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and other “interested parties” before deciding whether to challenge the lawsuit in court.

Harwell said the Democratic votes symbolize that the map has bipartisan support.

“Bottom line is, surely it sends a clear message that a majority of the members in this General Assembly is pleased with it, and I think the people of this state will be well represented by this map,” she said. “No one can doubt that we have drawn these lines fairly, that there’s proper representation from each district.”

In the new map, sitting House members who would have to run against other legislators (unless they relocated) are situated in:

  • District 28 in Hamilton County: Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga
  • District 31 in Sequatchie, Bledsoe, Rhea and part of Roane counties: Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
  • District 86 in Shelby County: Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis
  • District 98 in Shelby County: Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The Senate is expected to vote on its maps and OK the House drawings Friday. If approved by both chambers, the maps will go to the governor for his approval.

Rep. Stewart Criticizes Mitt Romney’s Plan to Privatize Veterans’ Health Care

Press Release from the Tennessee Democratic Party and Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville; Nov. 17, 2011:

Tenn. Rep. Stewart Responds to Mitt Romney’s Plan to Voucherize Veterans’ Health Care

NASHVILLE – In response to Mitt Romney’s dangerous plan to voucherize our veterans’ health care, Tennessee State Rep. Mike Stewart, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, released the following statement today ahead of Romney’s fundraiser in Knoxville:

“Veterans’ healthcare is the moral responsibility of the American people. But under Mitt Romney’s disastrous proposal, America’s veterans, who have risked their lives to protect our country, would be left to fend for themselves on the open insurance market.

“Tennesseans believe in honoring our commitments—especially to our veterans. That means ensuring proper treatment and care for all our former service men and women—a commitment that every American president has honored since the VA Department was founded in 1930.

“A voucher is a coupon, not a commitment. These brave men and women volunteered to put on the uniform and fight for our country. They shouldn’t have to fight a privatized system for their healthcare the rest of their lives.

“Tennessee veterans deserve better. Unsurprisingly, this is the same Mitt Romney who wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program, who wants to let homeowners hit rock bottom, and who made a fortune breaking up American companies and shipping jobs overseas.”

Background: 

Romney: Give vouchers to U.S. veterans:

“Meeting with about a dozen veterans in South Carolina, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney suggested privatizing the healthcare system of military veterans… “If you’re the government, they know there’s nowhere else you guys can go, you’re stuck,” Romney told the veterans. “Sometimes you wonder if there would be some way to introduce private sector competition, somebody else who could come in and say each solder has ‘X’ thousand dollars attributed to them and then they can choose where they want to go in the government system or the private system with the money that follows them. Like what happens with schools in Florida where people have a voucher that goes with him.” [UPI, 11/11/11]

Maggart Appreciates Dems Raising Voter ID Law Awareness

Tennessee Democrats are railing against the state’s new photo ID law every chance they get, and Rep. Debra Maggart, a Republican, says for that she’s grateful.

Maggart, the House GOP caucus chairwoman who sponsored the law, said Tuesday that partisan debate on the issue has helped encourage people without a photo ID to get one.

“Thankfully, even though the Democrats continue to complain, they’re actually helping us get the word out, and I appreciate that,” said Maggart, of Hendersonville. “I don’t think they mean to, but they are. That’s an unintended consequence with their unhappiness with this law.”

The Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, kicked off a PR campaign Tuesday with meetings in all 95 counties about the new voting requirements. Democrats are launching their own campaign this week to tell voters of the new rules and try to drum up support to repeal them.

As of early last week, the state had handed out 2,385 photo IDs to people who need one to vote. Estimates of the number of people who are in need of identification before election day range from 126,000 to 675,000, depending on which party is talking and how those numbers are counted.

Chip Forrester, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, on Monday chastised the state for an “under-organized” effort to get people IDs.

“It’s a woefully inadequate plan,” said Forrester.

About 20 Democratic voter registration drives are planned for this Saturday, he said.

“We’re launching this effort to make sure that voters do understand what they need and so when they do go to the polls, they won’t be disenfranchised,” Forrester said.

To cast a ballot, Tennessee voters must show as of Jan. 1 a form of government-issued photo ID, namely a current or expired in-state or out-of-state driver’s license or identification card, or a U.S. passport, state or federal government employee ID, U.S. military ID or a gun permit card.

The list of acceptable forms of identification is similar to those a new hire must show an employer in order to legally work in Tennessee or anywhere in the country. According to the Department of Labor and the Secretary of State’s office, the only documents employers are allowed to accept that the election overseers don’t are birth certificates, certificates of citizenship, certificates of naturalization and “lawful permanent resident” cards, otherwise known as “green cards” issued to immigrants authorized to live and work in the U.S.

While Democrats are looking to educate the public on the law this weekend, they’d prefer it be rescinded.

“Taking somebody’s right to vote away by statute and then offering some education program, that’s like stealing some body’s car and then dropping by their house and offering them a secondhand bicycle,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.

Democrats and Republicans have bickered over the voter ID law since its passage last spring. Maggart and House Democratic Caucus Leader Craig Fitzhugh have been especially combative, periodically exchanging Twitter fusillades over everything from underlying political motivations for the law to the number of people who actually lack ID necessary now to vote.

Although the GOP-dominated Legislature voted solidly in favor of the law, Democrats are holding out hope that they can get more than a dozen Republicans to change their mind and back their push for a repeal come next year’s legislative session, which begins in January.

Rep. Stewart: Haslam Should ‘Rescind All New Policies Designed to Make Peaceful Demonstrations More Difficult’

Press Release from State Representative Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, Oct. 29, 2011:

Statement regarding the Haslam Administration’s effort to suppress the right of all Tennessee citizens to peacefully assemble on Legislative Plaza:

There is no more fundamental American freedom than the freedom of speech. The right of the people to exchange ideas and to protest government actions they find unwise is enshrined in the both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. Defending such essential American rights should be the very first job of our State Government.

The Haslam Administration’s recent efforts to shut down protests on Legislative Plaza goes in the other direction and should be condemned by all Tennesseans, regardless of political persuasion. Legislative Plaza is a public place, owned by the people, paid for by the people, and used by the people for years as a place to exercise their First Amendment rights. Now, all of a sudden, the Haslam Administration is charging citizens for the right to use their own Plaza, limiting citizens’ access to that public space to hours when most citizens with day jobs cannot exercise their free speech rights, and imposing a million dollar insurance requirement that many citizens doubtless cannot satisfy. The intended effect is to close the Legislative Plaza to the very citizens who are supposed to be in command of our democratic state and federal governments.

Administration officials’ suggestion that the new policies are needed to prevent “deteriorating sanitary conditions” and “maintain security and safety” do not hold water. Tennessee has long had laws in place to deal with such issues; if individuals are acting in ways that endanger others, then state and local officials have the power to stop those particular people without at the same time infringing on the rights of other citizens.

At a time when young men and women are putting themselves in harm’s way in war zones halfway around the world to defend our rights, we should be particularly vigilant to preserve those rights at home. The world has always looked to our country to set the example for all peoples desirous of freedom; we should be careful every day to maintain that moral high ground.

It was not long ago that a group of college students led a protest march past what is now Legislative Plaza to the Davidson County Courthouse and successfully persuaded then Mayor Ben West to be the first leader in the South to de-segregate downtown businesses. In that same spirit, we should welcome peaceful protesters to our public spaces whether or not those protesters happen to be promoting ideas that we agree with.

Our Tennessee Constitution reminds us that “all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority.” I call on Governor Haslam to immediately rescind all new policies designed to make peaceful demonstrations more difficult and to thereby return Legislative Plaza to the control of the people of Tennessee.

Republicans Broaden Anti-Terrorism Bill

Tennessee lawmakers stress that an expanded plan to fight “homegrown terrorism” has nothing to do with religion.

To prove it, they’ve crafted a bill that focuses not only on suspected radical Islamic fundamentalists or proponents of “Sharia Law,” but any group or individual in Tennessee suspected of harboring terrorist intentions or providing “material support” to groups “designated” by the government as potential terrorists.

Hundreds of Muslims who packed into Legislative Plaza Tuesday still beg to differ — although it was unclear whether they’d received a copy of the amendment, which at post time was not on the internet.

Members of the Muslim community jammed into two overflow committee rooms and a legislative lounge and lined the hallways to watch the House and Senate judiciary committees ultimately advance a measure that would give the administration power to identify terrorist entities and punish people who help them.

The original version of the bill specifically targeted people who practice Sharia Law, the foundation of Islamic Code. The two Republican sponsors have since given the bill a make-over by stripping any language about religion and instead widening the reach of the bill to anyone exhibiting potentially terrorist-like tendencies.

The current measure would allow the governor and the attorney general to label anyone as a terrorist if investigations from the state Department of Safety as well as the Office of Homeland Security suggest they are enough of a threat.

The 15-page “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011” would ultimately fight “homegrown terrorism,” whether the state finds that threat in gangs, cults, religious groups or individuals, according to lawmakers carrying the bill.

However, no one group would be specifically targeted, according to Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny who is sponsoring the measure, HB1353, in the House.

“I would just, please, like to implore the Muslim community, this is not against you,” said Matheny. “This is not a witch hunt. This is nothing but to protect ourselves where the federal government can’t or won’t.”

Members of the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill 12-4 while the measure won a 6-3 favorable vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both measures now advance to the houses’ Finance, Ways and Means committees.

The problem is the bill doesn’t give enough of a recourse for people falsely accused of being or helping terrorists, said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat.

“It’s un-American as far as I’m concerned,” said Stewart. “What we’re saying here is that somebody in Tennessee, a regular person, can be declared a terrorist, and they have no right to a trial of their peers to clear their good name. That’s just completely the opposite of what we should be doing in this country.”

Votes for the measure fell on mostly partisan lines, although in both chambers, one Democrat voted with Republicans in favor of the bill, and one GOP lawmaker voted with Democrats against it.

Rep. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he’s worried the move would give the governor’s office too much power to brand people — and ultimately groups — as terrorists or supporters of terrorists.

The measure feels a lot like the “Patriot Act Part Two for Tennessee,” said Sen. Stacey Campfield, a Knoxville Republican.

“I may be wrong, and by God I really hope I’m not, but for me at this time it’s a bridge too far,” he said.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee agrees, saying the language is much too vague and potentially unconstitutional.

Last year, the ACLU landed on the state’s Fusion Center tracking list — which monitors suspected terrorism and suspicious activities —  for penning a letter about respecting religious preferences during the December holiday season. State officials later said the posting was a mistake.

Democrats like Rep. Gary Moore of Joelton and Sen. Tim Barnes of Adams, siding with Republicans, said they are comfortable with the bill as is, although Barnes expects to draft an amendment that would clear up language on due process rights for those accused of being mixed up with terrorism.

Barnes noted to sponsor Ketron that not nearly the outrage would have arisen had the legislation been dubbed the “Timothy McVeigh Bill,” rather than the “Sharia Bill.”

“You can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube, and that’s where we are now,” Barnes said. “This bill has evolved remarkably from where it started out.”

Mohamed Ahmed, an imam from the Islamic Center of Nashville, testified briefly before the House Judiciary committee, telling lawmakers the new version of the measure dwells on emotional blackmail and penalizes the Muslim community, but more than that, it violates the rights of all citizens.

“We believe in justice. We trust our representatives. We’re going to oppose the bill. We’re going to go all the way, Finance Committee, the Senate,” he told reporters after the hearing. “We’re not going to give up. This is not the end. This is the beginning, and we still have a very long way to go.”

Here’s what the measure would do, according to the latest draft adopted Tuesday:

  • The Safety commissioner and state director of homeland security can investigate and recommend the governor and attorney general jointly label a person or group as a terrorists or a terrorist entity.
  • Terrorists are defined as any person or group of two or more people with the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity that threatens the security or safety of any U.S. resident.
  • Terrorist activity, according to U.S. Code Section 1182, includes any unlawful activities which involve any of the following: highjacking or sabotage of an aircraft, vessel or vehicle; holding someone hostage to compel a third party to do or not do something; a violent attack on public officials or their families; or use of biological or chemical agents, explosives, or weapons to endanger people or cause substantial property damage for more than monetary gain.
  • Anyone knowingly helping a person or group deemed a terrorist or terrorist group would be found guilty of a Class B felony, which would be upgraded to a Class A felony punishable by life in prison without possibility of parole if someone dies as a result of their material support.
  • “Material support” means “any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe houses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, transportation, and personnel of one (1) or more individuals, including the entity itself; and does not include medicine or religious materials.”
  • Seven days before the designation is made official, the individual or group of people shall be served a summons. The individual or group will then have seven additional days to challenge the classification before it is posted on the Secretary of State website and made public in major newspapers.
  • Once the terrorist label becomes public, designees can seek a judicial review at the chancery court of Davidson County no more than 30 days after the designation kicks in.
  • Any confidential information used by the administration to designate the person or people as terrorists will remain confidential but may be disclosed at the administrative review.
  • A terrorist label can only be removed or blocked by a joint resolution of the General Assembly, a joint decision by the governor and the attorney general or by a court after a challenge by the designee.

Soda Tax Shelved ‘Behind Budget’

State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, has proposed boosting the tax on soft drinks and lowering the taxes on other groceries. But his plan may ultimately fizzle this session.

Stewart’s HB 537 would increase the tax on sugary drinks by one cent per ounce and lower the tax on food from 5.5 percent to 4.5 percent. It would mean the soft drink tax alone on a 2-liter bottle of soda, at 68 cents, would exceed the 62-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes.

“I just don’t see how anybody can say it’s any big deal to pay a little more for a Coke so that somebody down the street doesn’t have to pay more for, or can pay less, for food for her children,” Stewart said.

Raymond Thomasson, president of the Beverage Association of Tennessee, said it was indeed a very big deal — and not just to the companies he represents. He rallied against attempts to “(use) tax policy to interrupt an individual’s right of choice and personal responsibility.”

“Soft drinks are not alcohol, and they’re not tobacco,” Thomasson said. “The sponsor has equated them the same. No one is being arrested by the police for driving a vehicle and abusing the consumption of a soft drink.”

Under the bill, a standard 12-ounce can of soda would cost an extra 12 cents. The bill would have the effect of increasing state revenues by $8.9 million annually, according to a legislative analysis. Stewart says his plan is “not a tax increase”; rather, it is “a tax swap.

“All it does is take the tax off food like milk and eggs that people have to buy, and you pay for that by slightly increasing the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages,” he said.

The bill was pushed back Wednesday in the House Finance Subcommittee behind the upcoming budget hearings, a move that typically means a particular piece of legislation won’t see the light of day again for the rest of the legislative session.

Stewart, however, expressed optimism after the committee meeting that his bill’s not dead yet.

“I can easily correct the fiscal impact to make sure that local governments are held harmless,” he said. HB 0537’s “fiscal note” declares that the measure would decrease local government revenues by $3,015,300, while increasing state revenues $8,888,300.

There were 29 states with soft drink taxes, including six in the Southeast — North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi — as of a 2009 survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Nationwide, Rhode Island and New Jersey had the highest tax rates on sodas at 7 percent, though neither had a general sales tax on food. Of the 14 states with a food tax, Tennessee had the third highest.

Proponents of the bill say that such a tax increase would dissuade consumers from buying sugary soft drinks, which would improve public health. But an April 2010 study in the medical journal Health Affairs found that soda taxes need to be as high as 18 percent in order to make a significant difference.

Stewart: Higher Tax on Soda, Lower on Food

Press Release from Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, March 29, 2011:

Legislation Seeks to Help Family Budgets and Children’s Health Stewart: “It’s time to cut the tax on milk, bread and eggs”

NASHVILLE (March 28, 2011) – We need to get rid of Tennessee’s tax on food and HB 537 is a step in the right direction.

HB 537 offers a simple trade – cut Tennessee’s food tax – one of the highest in the nation – and pay for it with a tax on sugar sweetened beverages, which have been linked by many experts to the epidemic of childhood obesity.

“Families have to buy food, but they can cut back on non-essential items like soda when times get tough,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Mike Stewart.

Even with the proposed tax, soda would remain cheaper than it was in the 1970’s, adjusted for inflation. “With the use of high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar, the price of soda has come way down whereas the price of food is going through the roof. This is one way to help a young family buy food without imposing a new tax on businesses that might hurt the economic recovery,” Stewart observed.

Additionally, studies show that much like the increase in the cigarette tax this would likely lower consumption and improve health, an increase in soda taxes also can lower the obesity rate for high risk children.

The fiscal note for the bill shows that the proposed 1% reduction in Tennessee’s food tax, which would reduce Tennessee’s rate to 4.5%, would be entirely paid for by the increased tax on sugar sweetened beverages. Beverages that are not sugar sweetened, such as diet sodas, would be taxed less under the proposed change. “For most families, this will be a well-deserved tax break,” Stewart noted.

The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Budget Subcommittee on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 11:00am.