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Voter ID Law Debate Continues

Officials on both sides of the debate over the state’s new voter ID law are pointing the blame at each other about who, exactly, is disenfranchising voters.

Liberal advocacy groups like Citizen Action say the lawmakers who agreed to turn away voters who show up at the polls without a government-issued photo identification are at fault.

But a handful of conservative lawmakers and Haslam administration officials speaking to the issue on Capitol Hill Tuesday are blaming those same groups for implying that the General Assembly is taking away some people’s ability to vote.

“Misinformation is a disenfranchisement. If someone reads that they are disenfranchised, they may believe that,” Mark Goins, the state’s coordinator of elections, told the Senate State and Local Government study committee that met to discuss the issue.

One such example, said Goins, was a recent op-ed by Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who alleged the Legislature is obstructing his 94-year-old mother’s right to vote because she doesn’t have a photo ID. In the editorial that ran last week, Herron tallied the cost of getting proper identification to at least $100, adding up the cost of ordering a birth certificate, the cost of gas getting to and from the DMV to obtain a photo ID and the cost of taking time off work and characterizing it as a “poll tax.”

“For those who are working people and poor people and hurting people … this will make it harder for them to vote,” Herron said after the hearing. “Those who don’t have photo IDs, and there are 675,000 Tennesseans, according to the Department of Safety, that do no have a driver’s license with a photo on it, they might have some other ID, but if I was not a state senator, I would not have any other government-issued ID, and that’s true of most people.”

Goins says anyone over 65 who doesn’t get a photo ID can vote absentee by mail, which is contrary to comments like Herron’s that indicate the state is creating barriers to the ballot box. He said 126,000 registered voters have driver’s licenses without photos, although some of them have other forms of ID they can use.

But absentee voting for some is not fair for all voters, said Mary Mancini, executive director of Citizen Action of Tennessee, a “consumer advocacy” which is asking voters to sign petitions asking the Legislature to repeal the new law.

“Voting is supposed to be a level playing field. It’s the most basic right that we all have,” she said. “As it stands right now, only voters 65 or older could vote, no questions asked, absentee. That’s an exception, and whenever you are making an exception like that, you are unleveling the playing field.”

The issue has become a national one. According to a report by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, some 5 million people will have a tougher time voting this year as they adapt to new rules.

U.S. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin quizzed Gov. Bill Haslam about the state’s new voter ID law last month by sending him a letter asking how the Volunteer State expects to implement the new law to make sure every voter — including those who are elderly, live in rural areas, are low-income or belong to a minority group — has what he needs at the ballot box.

Haslam’s no-frills response included details about asking county clerks to issue photo IDs, opening up express lanes for ID seekers at the DMV and reaching out to voters.

“Can I absolutely guarantee there will be no lines anywhere and you walk right in? No, I can’t,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday in Nashville after speaking to a monthly luncheon meeting of Republicans.

“But we’re doing everything we can from our standpoint, and again, like I said, everything from extending that to county clerks to make that as easy as possible,” he continued.

Some 30 county clerks have agreed to issue photo IDs, a number Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons told the committee he hopes to expand to at least 50 in the next few years. He also plans to open certain DMV centers on Saturdays beginning in November and running through the March presidential primary.

According to the Department of Safety, any government-issued photo ID can be used at the polls, including:

  • Valid or expired Tennessee drivers license with photo.
  • Valid or expired out-of-state driver’s license with photo.
  • U.S. passport.
  • Federal employee ID with photo.
  • State employee ID with photo, including IDs issued by state universities.
  • U.S. military ID.
  • Gun permit card with photo.

College student IDs are not eligible.

Herron: Goodyear Closing Showed ‘Lack of Patriotism,’ ‘Insensitivity’

Press Release from Tennessee State Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, July 11, 2011:

DRESDEN – State Senator Roy Herron issued a statement Monday regarding the treatment of 2,000 Tennesseans who found themselves suddenly without jobs at the Goodyear plant in Union City.

“Goodyear showed its lack of patriotism by firing 2,000 Americans the week of the Fourth of July, its callousness by stopping their pay on 9/11, and its insensitivity by both firing everyone and cutting off their pay on the Sabbath,” Herron said.

“Goodyear is firing Tennesseans while they are hiring Chinese, and they can sell their tires overseas and forget selling another tire to this Tennessean. I have driven my truck 417,000 miles on American-made Goodyear tires, but this American will never buy a single foreign-made Goodyear tire.”

Workers at the plant were told upon arriving to their shifts Sunday and Monday morning that production at the plant had ceased. The announcement came five months to the day after Goodyear had announced the plant would close by the end of the year. Goodyear has been closing American plants as it has been opening new plants overseas, including a new plant opening in China in a few months.

Under federal law, workers will receive two months’ salary — meaning their pay will end on September 11, the 10-year anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Herron is already working to fill the massive hole that Goodyear’s sudden departure will leave in the regional economy.

“I have invited Governor Haslam, the Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, and the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development to come to Northwest Tennessee and talk with workers, business leaders, and citizens about what they are going to do to help our people,” Herron said. “I will do everything I can to make sure the state government responds to the needs of our people and helps bring new jobs here.”

Tort Reform Bill Passes Senate

The Senate delivered for Gov. Bill Haslam on one of his primary legislative objectives Thursday, passing a tort reform measure that includes caps on non-economic damages in jury awards.

The vote was 21-12, with Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, the only Republican voting against it. Faulk explained that he is a conservative and that that means believing in personal responsibility and less government, so he could not support legislating the change in the judicial system.

The measure, HB2008, still needs another trip through the House because of a minor Senate amendment before it goes to the governor, but there was a celebratory spirit among the Republican leadership and the Haslam administration outside the Senate chamber after the vote.

The bill is the second major legislative victory for Haslam, following his successful initiative on tenure reform for teachers. The House passed the tort reform bill earlier this week 72-24.

The legislation has been characterized as a jobs bill, with proponents saying it will help create an environment that would be attractive to businesses looking to relocate or expand in the state. It has been difficult to pin down lawmakers on how many jobs might be created because of tort reform.

“I believe this legislation will be an important piece of the puzzle — the mosaic as it were — that will make Tennessee more attractive for new and expanded business. I do sincerely believe that,” Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the Senate majority leader who carried the bill for Haslam, said after the vote.

“How many jobs? Nobody can say. There’s no crystal ball for that. We’ve joined the majority of states in the nation that have put a number of these reforms in place. At least on the global scale we can remain competitive.”

The Senate used well over three hours of debate before the vote. Norris and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, did most of the talking for the bill, while Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, and Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, made most of the arguments against it.

Herron was especially passionate, suggesting that caps on non-economic damages on someone who has been harmed for life could be calculated to be less than what lawmakers get in their per diem serving in the Legislature.

As advocates for the bill told individual stories related to the bill, Berke called the bill “legislation by anecdote,” which Norris said was not the case. Kelsey argued that the bill could bring certainty and predictability into the system of awards in civil suits.

The bill caps non-economic damages at $750,000. It does not cap economic damages. It also caps punitive damages at $500,000 or two times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater — although those caps would not apply in cases where the defendant’s act resulted in a felony conviction, or if records in the case have been intentionally falsified or concealed, or if the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the act.

Another key element of the bill is the establishment of a cap of $1 million in cases that are considered to be “catastrophic” in nature. That figure had been the point of adjustments throughout the legislative process. One Democratic amendment offered Thursday would have raised the caps on non-economic damages to $1.25 million and catastrophic damages at $2.25 million but was defeated.

The bill spells out which conditions are to be considered catastrophic, including spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia; amputation of two hands, two feet or one of each; third-degree burns over 40 percent or more of the body as a whole or third-degree burns on 40 percent or more of the face; or the wrongful death of a parent leaving a surviving minor child or children for whom the deceased parent had custody.

Several other attempts by Democrats to alter the bill failed, including one that would have tied caps to increases in the consumer price index and one that would have added brain damage to the list of conditions spelled out in the catastrophic category.

Herbert Slatery, Haslam’s legal counsel, said the administration seeks a better environment for businesses.

“As the governor said, the long-term impact hopefully will be to create a more predictable structure in which businesses can quantify what the risk is going to be,” Slatery said after the vote. “It’s one really important factor in how they decide to expand in Tennessee or relocate in Tennessee. It’s just a very, very important factor.

“I think that kind of structure and predictability will allow them to assume what we really want them to assume, and that’s the risk of placing capital in the marketplace. If they will invest their capital and sign guarantees and things like that to expand their businesses, and take the business risk without having to worry so much about the legal side of it, at least they will know what the risk is — more now than they did. Then they will expand and relocate, we hope.”

Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey was also in the hallway outside the Senate chamber following the vote.

Slatery’s presence in the hall was noticeable for the absence of former U.S. Sen Fred Thompson, who had been a high-profile lobbyist against the measure. Thompson was in Washington on Thursday, where he joined a group advocating for a totally different type of reform — creating a popular vote tally to determine the outcome of a presidential election.

Thompson was named a national “co-champion” of the National Popular Vote campaign, saying in a formal statement, “This is an idea whose time has come.”

Democrats had lawyerly spokesmen, however, in Herron and Berke, among others, against tort reform in Tennessee.

“Those who have done the worst will pay less of a price,” Herron said after the vote. “Those who have been hurt the most will pay more of a price.”

Herron is still looking for the problem that brought on the legislation.

“When you look and see where Tennessee ranks in terms of site selection and business rankings, we’re right at the top of the list, right now, already,” Herron said.

Norris emphasized the need to compete with other states.

“Competitiveness is important. But holding the system together and improving it along the way are also important, and I think these changes will do that,” Norris said.

“And if they don’t we’ll revisit them and fix them.”

Norris was asked what he would say to a victim who had been seriously wronged.

“That if there were not caps in damages there might be no system from which they could recover at all,” he said.

As the debate went long in the Senate, stacks of pizza were delivered to the lawmakers, with a list of other items on the calendar creating a work session that ran close to six hours. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, made special mention of the length of debate on tort reform.

“It was an excellent debate,” Ramsey told the members. “That was four hours we spent on one bill, but it deserved four hours.”

Said Slatery, Haslam’s counsel, “I thought it was a very valuable exercise and was well-evaluated.

“I was proud of how the system worked.”

Democrats: Haslam’s Tort Reform Substitutes Will of Politicians for Wisdom of Juries

Press Release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, May 12, 2011:

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats fought Thursday against efforts by Senate Republicans to arbitrarily cap damages awarded to victims of horrific accidents, medical malpractice and other life-changing injuries.

“Today state lawmakers put a price on the life of our children. They put a price on the life of our parents and grandchildren. They put a price on the life of the weak, the paralyzed, the neglected — all under the guise of economic development,” Senator Eric Stewart of Belvidere said.

House Bill 2008, as passed by the Senate 21-12, would cap damages for pain and suffering awarded by a court to $750,000, and $1 million for severe injuries. Currently Tennessee does not have a cap on such damages.

“By passing this law, lawmakers are taking the decision-making process away from a jury of citizens and telling them that the government doesn’t trust them to make the right decision,” Senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga said.

Punitive damages would be capped at the greater of either $500,000 or twice the amount of the combined economic and non-economic damages. Because economic damages include lost wages, the total payouts will be lower for those who make less.

Sen. Roy Herron noted during floor debate that a young quadriplegic woman receiving the maximum amount possible under the caps would receive an estimated $29 per day over the remainder of her life.

An Associated Press story noted that last year in Tennessee, only 14 trials exceeded the proposed caps, meaning there would be no radical change to the state’s job creation climate, as supporters claim.

“We should be up here talking about measures to create jobs and put people back to work,” said Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson. “This legislation doesn’t create jobs. Instead, it hurts those who need help the most.”

The bill will now go to Governor Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign the legislation.

Senate Dems Weekly Legislative Overview, April 8

Press Release from Senate Democrat Caucus; April 8, 2011:

Protecting domestic violence victims

On Thursday, the Senate passed Senator Andy Berke’s bill to authorize the use of global positioning monitoring systems as a condition of bail in domestic violence cases.

Under Senate Bill 567, the victim would receive information on the location of the accused offender and would have an electronic monitor to notify when the defendant was in an area covered by an order of protection. The House version of this bill is in the Judiciary Subcommittee.

Securing voting rights

A bill sponsored by Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney to provide free photo identification cards to Tennesseans of voting age passed unanimously in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1384 would require that, should photo identification be needed to vote in Tennessee, such ID cards would be provided free of charge to those who do not otherwise have an ID or photo drivers license.

The bill is largely a response to Senate Bill 16, a bill passed earlier this year by Senate Republicans that would require photo identification for voting. Senate Democrats have voiced their concern that such legislation would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Tennessee seniors, disabled voters and those that could not afford such identification cards, and could potentially open Tennessee up to a federal lawsuit. The bill will now go to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Living up to our “Volunteer State” name

Senator Eric Stewart passed a bill Monday to allow Volunteer Tennessee to raise funds through a partner nonprofit organization. Senate Bill 2009 would allow Volunteer Tennessee, a 25-member bipartisan citizen board appointed by the governor, to more effectively link private and public funds in order to solve community problems in the state.

Among other things, Volunteer Tennessee oversees federal grants and training services to support AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, the Governor’s Volunteer Stars Awards and volunteer centers throughout the state. The House version of the bill is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Update on Senator Herron

Over the weekend, Senator Roy Herron was in a bicycle accident that hospitalized him until Monday afternoon. Herron was training for an Ironman triathlon when he was unable to complete a turn, resulting in a wreck that left him with a broken collarbone and several broken ribs. He was treated at Union City Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In a statement, Herron said he is grateful for the excellent treatment he received, and for his bicycle helmet. Herron attended session on the Senate floor Monday and Thursday.

Democrats Can’t Slow Voter ID Bill in Senate

Tennesseans who lack proper photo identification are a few short votes away from having to bring a new form of identification with them the next time they hit up the ballot box.

A bill passed Monday in the Senate requires that in order to cast a ballot, a prospective voter must produce identification bearing his or her name, address, and photograph of the voter. According to Senate Bill 16‘s summary, a voter’s social security card, credit card bearing the applicant’s signature, or other document bearing the applicant’s signature, would no longer be adequate identification.

Acceptable forms of ID under the bill include a valid Tennessee driver license or ID card issued by a state or the federal government, a passport or a U.S. military ID.

Despite futile cries from Democrats that mandating photo identification creates additional bureaucratic barriers to voting for the poor and older voters, the majority party — with the help of one Democrat — outmuscled SB16’s detractors and sent it on its way to the House of Representatives.

Prior to the bill’s passage, opponents tried to attach six amendments to it ranging from adding a Medicaid ID to the list of six eligible identifications that would be acceptable, allow the local Election Commission office to take a snapshot of the photoless voter and offering to dole out state IDs for free. All the amendments were shot down.

“Republicans did not want our input, even when that input was to make sure that senior citizens could have the right to vote,” said Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat. Dresden Sen. Roy Herron called the bill the equivalent to “a modern-day poll tax.”

Nonsense, said Murfreesboro GOP Sen. Bill Ketron, who described the bill as nothing more than an effort to secure the integrity of the system to ensure that people who can’t legally vote don’t. Ketron noted that the bill has contingencies for the elderly, poor and those who refuse to be pictured for religious reasons to vote without a photo ID.

The lone Senate Democrat who voted for the legislation was Nashville Sen. Dougas Henry.

A nationwide advocate for seniors weighed in via a press release shortly before the Senate was called to order, offering the view that the lawmakers ought to be trying to make voting easier, not more difficult.

“AARP has concerns about any legislation that creates obstacles for eligible voters, particularly those who are older, poor and geographically isolated,” said AARP Tennessee State Director Rebecca Kelly.

The measure now awaits a hearing in the House, where it is sponsored by GOP Caucus chairwoman Debra Maggart.

Herron: National Dems Pulled Funding as Payback for Anti-Pelosi Remarks

State Sen. Roy Herron made a stop at the Capitol Tuesday to talk to reporters about his uphill battle to win the 8th Congressional District seat in West Tennessee.

Herron added that it would be an “amazing coincidence” that the Democratic Party just happened to pull its financial support from his campaign the day after he said he wouldn’t vote Nancy Pelosi in as U.S. House Speaker.

Herron faces Republican Stephen Fincher and independents Mark Rawles and Donn Janes.

Here’s what Herron had to say: