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Ramsey May Go His Own Way on Guns-in-Lots

As gun advocates continue dropping political bombs on legislative incumbents this election season, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he’s beginning to think legislative leaders and lawmakers may not be of “a mood” to expand gun laws next year.

At least, not with the help of gun rights groups.

Between the National Rifle Association launching an expensive political war with a top House Republican and the Tennessee Firearms Association firing criticism all over the party’s leadership, Republicans have lately felt themselves unfairly targeted. Ramsey said Thursday those attacks may sour leadership’s plans to consider allowing gun owners to keep their weapons locked in their car while at work, or cause leaders to sideline state and national gun groups from helping hammer out a bill.

“I don’t know what the mood of the General Assembly will be when we come back in, whether it will be a mood to pass a bill or whether it will be a mood that you don’t negotiate with people that threaten you. I don’t know where we’ll be,” Ramsey told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday, adding it’s “pretty obvious” guns groups are trying to bully lawmakers.

However, John Harris, Tennessee Firearms Association executive director and a vocal critic of GOP leadership, said actions that may appear like bullying to a politician could more appropriately be described as an effort to add accountability into the political mix.

Statehouse GOP leaders have adopted an attitude of “We’re the rulers, and we’re the ones who make the decisions, and you don’t tell us what to do,” said Harris.

“That’s not being a representative of the people who voted for you,” he said. “If their mentality is, ‘Play with us on our terms or we’re not going to deal with your issues,’ then our response as a grassroots organization is, ‘We’re going to go in your district and find someone who will beat you in the primary or beat you in the general election.'”

That’s exactly what’s being attempted by gun-rights advocates in Sumner County, where the National Rifle Association has poured more than $75,000 into an effort to unseat Rep. Debra Maggart, the House GOP Caucus leader they blame for holding up the so-called “guns in parking lots” bill. They are supporting challenger Courtney Rogers, a former Tea Party organizer and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, in the Aug. 2 GOP primary.

The guns-in-lots issue divided the Republican party this year as they had to choose between two key constituencies: Second Amendment advocates who want the tools to protect themselves and business leaders who say they have a right to ban guns from their property. Firearm advocates eventually agreed to compromise by narrowing the bill to only handgun permit holders, but Republicans stopped the bill just short of a House floor vote.

Ramsey contends the issue is “not about the Second Amendment,” but rather the right of employers to set workplace rules.

“The Second Amendment protects us from the government, from the government taking away our firearms,” said Ramsey. “This is a contract between two people. We’re talking about landowner and an employee.”

Guns-in-lots legislation supporters contend that the property-rights argument cuts both ways, given that an employee’s personal vehicle is involved and the employers are in essence demanding the authority to dictate what’s transported to and from work inside them. Harris said the real issue is essentially one of state-sanctioned discrimination against a certain class of otherwise law-abiding citizens exercising a constitutional right.

“If the employee owns the car, they have a right to have whatever they can legally transport in the car, and the employer shouldn’t have a say in there,” said Harris.

Ramsey, who has delighted in the support of gun-rights enthusiasts in the past, said he’s now grown weary of the TFA and NRA. The lieutenant governor — who like leaders in the House intervened to ensure no vote would be taken on the matter on the chamber floor — said he may try to hammer out a related piece of legislation next session with or without support from gun groups.

He said the bill could include employees putting a copy of their handgun carry permit on file with their employer. Ramsey said he would also like to include language that reiterates that handgun-carry permit holders must have taken a gun safety course, submitted to background checks and allowed the government to keep their fingerprints on file, he said.

Dem Leader Forecasts Partisan Fireworks Over Education Again in 2013

Even though Republicans are lately focused primarily on the federal health care ruling, a top House Democrat expects education will again emerge as the most contentious political issue in next year’s Tennessee Legislature.

Debate about college tuition, charter-school expansion and school choice will be among the hottest of hot-button issues come dead of winter 2013, minority-party caucus chairman Mike Turner predicted this week during a conversation with reporters in Nashville.

And Turner doesn’t seem particularly optimistic his party will fare any better getting its way and protecting its interests than has proven the case in the last two years. During the 2011-2012 Tennessee General Assembly, Democrats failed to successfully defend one of their dearest and most loyal constituencies, unionized teachers, from landmark legislative defeats at the hands of a politically aggressive GOP bent on removing the Tennessee Education Association as an obstacle to majority-party education reforms.

“I don’t think next year is going to get any easier,” Turner said. “They may be better at what they’re doing. Governing is new to them, being in the majority is new to them. God help us all if they get their feet underneath them before we get it back.”

He added, “I think education next year will be a big fight again.”

Gov. Bill Haslam has said his next big issue is indeed higher education. Haslam has said he wants the state to re-evaluate the system’s costs, boost the number of graduates and better weave degrees with Tennessee employers’ needs.

On that particular education issue, and likely few others, Turner hinted that Democrats and Republicans might be able to find some common ground trying to determine how to diminish bloated, upper-level bureaucratic dead weight in the state’s university system.

“Higher ed has got to learn that we are in difficult times. When they cut, they just tend to cut the bottom,” said Turner, a firefighter from Old Hickory who isn’t facing a re-election opponent this year. “They’ve still got their 19 vice presidents and their department heads and above them they’ve got chancellors, and I don’t think they live in the real world up there. If the United States can have one vice president, I’m not sure UT needs 19.”

Such concerns are in fact presently on the minds of some of those attending government-funded colleges. Recently, students at the University of Tennessee launched an online petition drive in Knoxville to protest a $22,000 raise for its chancellor at a time when student tuition is expected to jump an average of $289 per semester.

Nevertheless, Turner characterized the pending evaluation of the costs of higher education as something of “a crisis coming” for college-bound students of low-to-moderate means.

Turner expects the Republican-led Legislature to take another shot at raising the bar on awarding the state-funded Hope Scholarship. Students now need either a score of 21 on the ACT or a 3.0 grade point average.

Haslam last year slid school choice issues to the back burner, asking a panel to study the implications of allowing parents to send their children to private, charter or other public schools outside their local area using a voucher program. The panel is expected to report its findings to the governor this fall.

“I think vouchers will be in play, big time this time,” said Turner. “I think they’re going to push them hard.”

Turner also anticipates a GOP-led push to expand charter schools, which he predicts “will ultimately lead to private re-segregation of the schools.”

Haslam began his first few months in office working to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can open statewide.

Voters to Decide if ‘Personal Right’ to Hunt & Fish is Reasonable

The term “reasonable” doesn’t appear in the U.S. or Tennessee Constitutions, except for proscriptions against the government carrying out “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

But the Tennessee Wildlife Federation — with the endorsement of all but three members of the state Legislature — wants to add that word, and 59 or so others, in the form of a constitutional amendment that would place hunting and fishing on the list of legally protected rights enjoyed by Tennesseans.

The amendment, which if passed would be added to the section of the Tennessee Constitution that grants state government the authority “to enact laws for the protection and preservation of game and fish,” reads as follows:

“The citizens of this state shall have the personal right to hunt and fish, subject to reasonable regulations and restrictions prescribed by law. The recognition of this right does not abrogate any private or public property rights, nor does it limit the state’s power to regulate commercial activity. Traditional manners and means may be used to take non-threatened species.”

The process of getting the measure before voters has been years in the making. Conceived in 2004, the language has twice been approved by the General Assembly — most recently, this past legislative session — and must now attract “yes” votes from a majority of voters participating in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

Critics of the amendment suggest that a change to the Constitution is unnecessary and excessive.

Argues the state’s largest metropolitan newspaper, “a simple resolution would have sufficed to send the message that hunting and fishing is here to stay.” Furthermore, the use of the word “reasonable” is “vague and open to interpretation.” It could, for example, embolden litigious malcontents to challenge licensing and fee requirements placed upon sportsmen by the Tennessee Department of Fish and Wildlife and thus jeopardize “a crucial revenue source,” the Tennessean editorial board worries.

Those concerns, however, don’t appear to be shared by state government wildlife managers.

Nat Johnson, TWRA assistant executive director of staff operations, said the term “reasonable” sounds reasonable enough to officials and attorneys with the department, although he noted that the agency cannot by law take a formal stance of support or opposition on the measure.

Officials do, however, offer that they in no way see the language of the amendment as hindering “the responsibilities of the agency to set manner and means” for taking fish and wildlife, said Johnson, who also serves as TWRA’s legislative liaison to the Tennessee General Assembly.

“Legal staff has looked at this, and they have not seen it become an issue in any other states,” he said. “They haven’t seen that it provided any avenues for people to challenge a state’s ability to regulate and set reasonable rules and regulations.”

More than a dozen other states have guarantees of hunters’ rights written into their constitutions, and others are considering measures.

Tennessee Wildlife Federation CEO Michael Butler told TNReport his group consulted closely with state wildlife officials, constitutional attorneys and the chief legislative sponsors of the amendment, Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, and Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, to ensure that the amendment language enumerates the desired right without undermining state government fish and wildlife management authority.

“Most people already think they have a right to hunt and fish. So for most people, this amendment is just confirming what they already thought,” Butler said. “They can’t really imagine not being able to do it.”

However, the whole point of the amendment, he said, is to add a layer of legal defense against political activists and pressure groups that believe hunting and fishing not only aren’t “rights,” but probably shouldn’t even be tolerated by government.

Constitutionally speaking, “all it would take now to get rid of a hunting or fishing season is a vote by the Legislature,” Butler said.

Johnson confirmed that the department advised the wildlife federation on the amendment “almost since its inception.”

“We worked to achieve a comfort level that we thought everybody could live with,” he said.

Vanderbilt constitutional law professor James Blumstein noted that although the term “reasonable” isn’t one you’ll find in constitutional language, it “permeates our law.”

While a subjective interpretation might at times be “fairly debatable,” Blumstein said, judges generally approach it from the standpoint of asking if government has “a rational basis for doing something, and that it meets a reasonableness test.”

“There will be some deference to the regulation, but the regulations have to be reasonable,” he said. In situations where hunting rights conflict with public safety, private property or species management goals, Blumstein said he believes the amendment leaves the government “ample authority to regulate.”

“But what the government cannot do is to simply say we’re against hunting, on the grounds of policy, or that we think that is immoral or that it’s inappropriate in some way, and just have a flat-out ban,” Blumstein said. “Most rights in the Constitution are not absolute rights, and this is recognizing that the right to hunt may exist, but it is not absolute.”

McWherter, Haslam Denounce Mosque Fire, Laud Zoning

Both major party candidates for Tennessee governor denounced the burning of construction equipment at the site of a new mosque in Murfreesboro over the weekend.

And both also reiterated earlier statements that local zoning officials should decide if and where controversial building occurs.

Candidates Mike McWherter, a Democrat, and Bill Haslam, a Republican, addressed the issue Tuesday night at a “Student Town Hall” forum sponsored by Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte.

Asked how “as governor (he) would balance freedom of religion with concerns about security,” McWherter said that while he’s a “huge proponent of religious freedom” he “understand(s) the constraints and problems you have when you locate an institution like that inside of a quiet neighborhood.”

“As a community you ought to be able to have some zoning restrictions, and make sure that the house you bought is something that you can continue to resell, and will not disturb your neighborhood,” he continued.

McWherter, a businessman from Jackson, went on to denounce the perpetrators of the crime, calling it an “atrocity.”

Responding to a question from a reporter outside the forum later, Haslam took a similar tack.

“No one should condone what’s just happened, OK. It’s just not acceptable in any way, and those folks should be found and appropriately punished,” said the Knoxville mayor.

On the issue of whether the mosque should be built, Haslam said it is a “local land-use issue.”

“As somebody who has been a mayor, I didn’t want the state or federal government telling us what to do,” he said. “That’s where you follow constitutional guidelines and local land-use planning and you let the local land-use people decide.”

Federal law enforcement agencies are investigating the setting ablaze of a piece of earth-moving equipment in the early morning hours of Aug. 28 at the location of a proposed 52,000-square-foot Islamic religious center in Rutherford County.

A local FBI official was quoted by CNN as saying that while the the cause of the fire is believed to have been arson, “We have no reason to think it’s a hate crime.”

A statement issued by an Islamic Center of Murfreesboro spokewoman Monday declared “we feel heartbroken that we have been a victim of yet another shameful crime, however, we are grateful to the majority members of this community who expressed their support.”

“We believe that this event was instigated by the hate campaign that our Muslim community has been subjected to recently,” the release continued.

Sen. Tate Sponsors Healthy Neighborhoods Bill

Press Release from Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, March 17, 2010:

Legislation Would Allow Community Groups To Clean Blighted Properties

NASHVILLE – Neighborhood groups and community organizations will be allowed to clean up blighted and abandoned properties under a bill passed 29-0 Wednesday in the state Senate by Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis.

“This bill gives neighborhoods a greater opportunity to clean up neglected properties, making our communities safer and more beautiful,” Tate said. “Our neighborhood associations and community organizations will be able to take care of these bad properties quickly, and absentee owners will be billed accordingly.”

Under the bill (SB2983), community organizations like school clubs, church youth groups and neighborhood associations can request permission from the county to clean up overgrown properties. Property owners will have to pay the community organizations for the services, just as they would if the county cleaned up.

A lien will be placed on the property until the owner pays the groups back for the service they provided. For the worst offenders, the county can acquire the property under eminent domain, just as it can under present law.

“I believe in property rights for responsible property owners, but when owners aren’t responsible, they lose their rights,” Tate said. “A clean neighborhood is a safe neighborhood, and residents deserve both.”

The House version of the bill is in subcommittee.

TCPR: An Idea a Day to Keep Big Government at Bay

Press release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, 12 Jan. 2010:

Forty-five legislative ideas for a prosperous Tennessee

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Center for Policy Research today made available in electronic version its most recent publication, An Idea a Day: 45 Ideas for a Prosperous Tennessee. The pamphlet offers one innovative free market idea for each remaining legislative day of the 106th General Assembly. Each idea is surmised in one brief sentence, followed by a link to original work published by TCPR on the issue.

Hardcopies of the pamphlet were provided to each member of the General Assembly last week. The electronic is now available to members and their staff as the Legislature embarks on the second session of the 106th General Assembly.

“When lawmakers look for solutions that will expand individual liberty, return taxpayers’ hard-earned money to their pockets, and reduce the size and scope of government, they now have a place to turn,” said Justin Owen, Director of Policy at TCPR. “We hope members of the General Assembly utilize this simple, concise resource as they conduct the people’s business.”

The pamphlet offers solutions in each of the following policy areas:

  • Budget
  • Education
  • Government Reform
  • Government Waste
  • Healthcare
  • Property Rights
  • Regulation
  • Taxation
  • Technology
  • Transparency
  • Transportation

The electronic version of An Idea a Day, complete with links to original TCPR work on the ideas offered, can be viewed by clicking here.

TN Forestry Commission to Meet Jan. 12; Off-road vehicle-use on private property up for discussion

State of Tennessee Press Release:

The Tennessee Forestry Commission will meet Jan. 12, 2010 at 9 a.m. EST at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry’s East Tennessee Nursery, located at 9063 Hwy. 411 S. in Delano, Tenn.

The commission will hear reports on off-road vehicle use on private forestlands, timber trespass, property access for hunting, tree planting practices on state property, State Forest assessment and strategy plans, the Division of Forestry budget and legislative issues. Following the meeting, commission members will tour the East Tennessee Nursery, which produces genetically superior hardwood and softwood tree seedlings for reforestation projects on public and private lands in Tennessee.

The meeting is open to the public. Individuals interested in addressing the commission should plan to arrive prior to the start of the meeting in order to be placed on the agenda.

The Tennessee Forestry Commission comprises seven members representing the public’s interests as it relates to forest resources in the state. The commission advises the Tennessee Department of Agriculture on forest resource issues and the Division of Forestry. For more information, contact the TDA Division of Forestry at 615-837-5520.