Education Featured NewsTracker

Repeal of Common Core Enacted

A measure intended to repeal and replace Common Core State Standards in Tennessee has been approved by Gov. Bill Haslam.

Although Haslam has supported the controversial standards and hailed them as a key reason for Tennessee’s nationally recognized improvements in public education, he signed legislation this week that, in the words of Republican Sen. Mike Bell, the bill’s sponsor, “replaces Common Core, period.”

Sponsored in the House by Republican Billy Spivey of Lewisburg, the measure passed the lower chamber 97-0 and the Senate 28-1. It requires the state to “cancel any memorandum of understanding concerning the Common Core State Standards” that exists with the developers of that system — the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Haslam told reporters last week he’s not terribly disappointed the Legislature decided to move away from Common Core. And now is in fact a good time to make a shift, since the state is due for an education-standards review anyway, he said.

The governor said he expects the new system, which involves more voices from the field of education providing input into the review and development of K-12 benchmarks to promote college and career readiness, to work smoothly.

Haslam announced a standards review process last fall. The new legislation enshrines the administration’s existing review process in statute, as well as creates an additional 10-member panel jointly selected by Haslam and the speakers of both chambers of the General Assembly. That panel will review the recommendations of Haslam’s appointed committees, and will determine whether or not to send those suggestions along to the State Board.

Haslam said his appointees to the extra panel will likely include people already on the prior review committees, “just so you have some people that have been a part of the process the whole way through.”

Common Core, developed in 2009 by the National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, was approved in 2010 by the Tennessee Legislature in order to receive a waiver from the federal Department of Education from the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

However, opposition to the national standards arose from divergent points across the political spectrum since its introduction — with those on the Right concerned about federal overreach and those on the left concerned with the impact on students of putting too much emphasis on standardized testing.

Tori Venable, communications director for the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity — which has long been pushing to kick the standards to the curb — told TNReport Wednesday that the group was satisfied with the proposal, which “is a great stride in the right direction.”

Tennessee’s unique standards-development process will help “push back against the overreach of the federal government,” Venable said.

“We have confidence the standards will be unique to Tennessee and not merely a rebranding of Common Core,” she said.

Not every critic of Common Core is pleased by what’s been signed into law, though.

Shane Vander Hart, of Truth in American Education — a national group that opposes Common Core standards — wrote in April that while the Tennessee legislation constitutes “a positive step in the right direction considering the alternative,” he’s concerned that giving final approval to the state board of educationis an approach that has led in other states to little more than a “rebranding” of the existing national-standards package.

A similar attempt to do away with the standards in Indiana last year has been roundly criticized by anti-Common Core activists as a “warmed-over version” of the national standards.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Featured Health Care NewsTracker

‘Right to Try’ Becomes Law in TN

People diagnosed with terminal illnesses in Tennesseans will now have the right to access experimental medications that haven’t passed the federal Food and Drug Administration’s final approval processes.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed the “Phil Timp-Amanda Wilcox Right to Try Act” into law Friday.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol and Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, both Republicans, unanimously passed both chambers of the General Assembly in April.

The legislation, House Bill 143, will grant Volunteer State doctors the ability to prescribe to terminally ill patients drugs that haven’t yet been fully vetted by the FDA, as long as they’ve passed phase 1 testing for safety.

The measure has been pushed nationally by the Goldwater Institute, and it received support in the Volunteer State from the Beacon Center and Tennessee’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

“By passing the Right to Try bill, Governor Haslam and the state legislature have given terminally ill patients a fighting chance,” said Lindsay Boyd, Beacon’s policy director, in a statement Friday.

However, while the measure has enjoyed wide support, some remain skeptical the law will be a panacea, and concerns have been raised about the law possibly raising false hopes among Tennessee’s terminally ill of a miracle cure being found.

Similar legislation has become law in 17 other states, and is awaiting the governor’s signature in Florida. And the legislation has been introduced in about 20 more states across the nation.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Business and Economy Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Palcohol Prohibited

The sale of crystalline powdered alcohol, which is used to make mixed drinks by just adding water, is now illegal in Tennessee.

The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly earlier this year to outlaw the product, which goes commercially by the name “Palcohol.” The product has won federal approval for sale but isn’t yet on the market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is so far taking a wait-and-see approach to determine if federal regulation appears warranted. But at least one powerful veteran U.S. lawmaker, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, wants Palcohol banned nationwide because he thinks it “creates an immense danger to teens and others.”

Tennessee’s Senate Bill 374 passed 92-0 in the 99-member House, and 31-1 in the Senate. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law on April 28, and it became effective May 1.

Republican sponsors Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia sponsored the measure to outlaw Palcohol. They argued that it makes better sense to ban it first and potentially ask questions about how the government might ease it into circulation with regulatory controls later. They claimed the ban was the only alternative to entirely unrestricted sales across the state because the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission only has authority to regulate “beverages” not powders.

Palcohol’s creator, Mark Phillips of Tempe, Ariz, has said he developed the product line, which he claims is “safer than liquid alcohol,” in order to provide outdoor recreationists a light and packable means of carrying adult beverage mixers. The controversy and consternation over Palcohol is misguided, he argues. His company, Lipsmark LLC, is expecting to start selling Palcohol in states where it isn’t illegal beginning this summer.

According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, powdered alcohol has been banned in Alaska, Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and Virginia. Washington’s governor signed a ban into law Thursday. And Minnesota has a temporary ban in place.

On the other hand, Colorado, Delaware, Michigan and New Mexico have all passed laws to allow the regulation of sales of Palcohol within their borders.

Additionally, an attempt to ban Palcohol look unlikely to pass in Texas this year. Arizona’s Legislature passed a measure banning Palcohol but Republical Gov. Dough Ducey vetoed it, saying “there does not appear to be evidence that this bill is necessary.”

In Tennessee, violation of the law against selling Palcohol will be a Class A misdemeanor — punishable by less than a year in jail and a fine up to $2,500. State alcohol regulators also have authority to suspend or revoke any alcohol sale permits held by those found in violation.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Featured Health Care Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

House Republicans Douse Last-Ditch Medical Pot Amendment

For the first time since Lamar Alexander was governor, a medical marijuana legalization measure appeared on the full floor of a Tennessee legislative chamber. But unlike three decades ago, when the General Assembly approved the use of government-grown cannabis with a doctor’s prescription, this year’s proposal was snuffed.

On Tuesday, Nashville Democrat Sherry Jones, a long-time advocate of easing pot prohibition, made a motion to amend a GOP-sponsored bill dealing with elder abuse to include language allowing physician-prescribed cannabis. The amendment sought to grant ailing Tennesseans the right to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home. Sufferers of serious illnesses like cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, ALS, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder were among those listed who would have qualified under the provision.

“I believe firmly that cannabis helps people, and it helps people that have debilitating pain and disease,” Jones said on the House floor. “I am asking those of you who believe in compassionate care for all people — and you have seen those people up here and you know who they are and you see how they are suffering — to help me pass something to help them. Let’s show a little compassion to some of these people who have been coming up here for years.”

The Republican supermajority however voted en masse to kill the medical marijuana amendment, 73-22. Three Democrats were listed as having not voted.

Criminal Justice Committee Chairman William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, spoke forcefully against the amendment. He said it hadn’t been vetted properly by the chamber’s committee system.

“In Washington, D.C., there are all kinds of different ideas that they toss onto a bill that have nothing to do with that bill — that’s not how we run this chamber,” Lamberth, a former prosecutor from Cottontown, said on the floor.

Lamberth said members of the Criminal Justice committee who voted to to set medical marijuana legalization aside for another year “did not take this issue lightly.” He asserted that Republican lawmakers are “very serious about continuing this discussion,” and suggested Rep. Jones wasn’t prepared to convincingly present her case when the bill came up in subcommittee.

“We want to hear from doctors, patients, individuals — none of which actually showed up in the criminal justice committee to testify for your bill,” said Lamberth.

Jones shot back that she didn’t feel compelled to invite a list of witnesses to the earlier proceedings because Republicans had already made it known to her “that the bill wasn’t going to pass out of that committee.” She denied she was “playing politics” with with the issue by attempting to tack it on to an unrelated bill so late in the session, noting that the elements of her amendment were the result of years of legislative talks.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted in late March to send Jones’ perennial medical marijuana legislation to summer study following a motion by Morristown Republican Tilman Goins, who voiced concern the group had lacked the time to properly vet and weigh the outcomes of moving forward with such a measure.

Jones alleged on the floor that Republicans had pushed her proposal to the side to make way for their own measure, which they subsequently also tabled for the year.

“I just thought that since the Republicans had said that they were going to pass their own, and then withdrew it, that we needed to try to do something for people,” Jones told TNReport later Tuesday.

Jones said she hopes the “70 percent of their constituents in favor” of allowing the medical use of marijuana will put pressure on their representatives to reconsider their positions.

“The right thing to do is pass that, and let them have those little plants,” Jones said.

Recent statewide polls by Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University have shown a sizeable majority of Tennesseans favor legalizing marijuana use for at least medical use. Additionally, 23 states, as well as D.C., have legalized the medical use of marijuana, and support for legalizing the plant polls 51 percent nationwide.

Jones also pointed out the measure had been introduced several times in the years prior, but had never come up on either chamber’s floor for a vote by the full body.

The Tennessee Medical Marijuana Act was first carried in 2005 by then-Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis, as Senate Bill 1942.

But although the Legislature was Democrat-led at that point in time, the measure failed 3-3 in the Senate’s General Welfare committee.  Its House companion never received a hearing before being taken “off notice” April 19, 2005.

similar measure appeared in 2007, carried by Jones, but was deferred to summer study — a familiar resting place since.

But while it may seem like extremely long odds to get the General Assembly to even consider discussing changes to the state’s pot policies, medical marijuana was allowed in the Volunteer State once before.

In 1984, then-Gov. Lamar Alexander signed a law to include Tennessee in the federal medical marijuana state research programs. However, the program petered out later that decade, given the difficulty in receiving approval for federal marijuana.  And when AIDS patients began inundating the federal program with applications in the early 90s, it was scrapped altogether, and subsequently repealed in Tennessee in 1992.

Two medical marijuana measures — the one sponsored by Jones, and a more-restrictive proposal crafted and sponsored by Republicans — were already sent to summer study by their respective committees earlier this year, amid fears of increased drug abuse by Tennesseans, as well as of running afoul of federal supremacy.

But the tone of the federal debate could be changing as well.

A bill filed at the federal level with bipartisan support — co-sponsored by Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — would reclassify cannabis from Schedule I down to Schedule II, expand access to the plant for research, allow inter-state transport of some medicines derived from the plant and allow banks more freedom to work with the industry.

The U.S. House version is co-sponsored by Tennessee’s own 9th District Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen.

Additionally, the National Institute of Drug Abuse recently gave the green light to supply marijuana for a study approved by the federal government in 2014 to consider the effects of marijuana on veterans suffering from PTSD.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Business and Economy Education Featured NewsTracker

No In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants in 2015

It’s all over but the finger-pointing.

On the last day of the Tennessee Legislature’s regular session, a bill to grant public university in-state tuition to Tennessee students brought into this country as children by undocumented immigrant parents has failed for the year in the House, 49-47. Fifty votes are needed in the 99-member body for a bill to pass.

The “tuition equality” bill has been in the legislative mix for three years. Sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire in the Senate, it passed the upper chamber last week, 21-12.

The loss in the House was especially troubling to supporters of the measure because two House Democrats were absent when the vote was taken — Nashville Reps. Darren Jernigan and Bo Mitchell. Speaker Beth Harwell also skipped the vote on SB612, but she later said she would have voted against the bill anyway. Neither Harwell nor Mitchell were listed as “excused” from the vote, although Jernigan was.

As a result of its failure to receive the necessary amount of votes to move forward, the bill was re-referred to the House Calendar and Rules Committee where it’ll likely see action at the beginning of 2016.

Mitchell told TNReport later that having missed such a key higher-education vote “rips me up.”

“It’s unfortunate, I wish I’d gotten the opportunity to vote on the bill,” he said.

Mitchell explained that as a “citizen” legislator, he’s forced to balance the legislative schedule with his job duties, and that he had to attend a “mandatory work meeting” which prevented him from being present in the chamber when the bill came up. He acknowledged that he made no effort to seek formal recognition for an excused absence.

On the other hand, he pointed blame at the Republican sponsor of the bill, Memphis Rep. Mark White, for bringing the measure to a vote Wednesday morning. “The sponsor knew I wasn’t in the room, and knew I would be back after 1 o’clock,” Mitchell said.

Likewise, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart told TNReport that Rep. White had been informed beforehand of Mitchell’s absence. White could have elected to postpone debate and a vote on the until the afternoon. “Everybody was aware that Bo Mitchell was going to be back to vote, and so we certainly could have taken this vote when he was here, people chose to go forward — it was probably a smart move, but it didn’t work out,” Stewart said.

But White denied that he was made aware of Mitchell’s absence. “I didn’t get that message,” he said. And he was surprised when the bill failed because beforehand he was confident it had the necessary support to win passage.

All the same, White is optimistic the measure is a can’t-miss next year, “sitting alive and well in Calendar and Rules.”

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who have been lobbying in support of the bill, released a statement shortly after the bill stalled in the House, criticizing those who had pledged support for “faltering at the last minute.”

“We wish that members of the General Assembly had demonstrated as much courage and leadership as the immigrant students who have fought for this legislation, the same students who are now effectively denied access to an affordable college education for another year,” said Stephanie Teatro, the organization’s co-executive director.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Education Featured NewsTracker

Voucher Legislation Done for Year — Again

Proponents of school vouchers are left high and dry again in 2015, as clearing the General Assembly’s lower-chamber committee system once more proved too arduous for the long-chewed-over concept.

Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn on Tuesday took his House Bill 1049 “off notice” due to a perceived lack of support in the GOP-run legislative body.

“We were very close on the vote, but I didn’t feel it was good to press it today,” Dunn told TNReport. He said some lawmakers who may have been otherwise sympathetic to school choice were “feeling pressure from the systems back home” to oppose the voucher bill.

The bill would have allowed low-income students in school districts with a school performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide to use public funds to attend private schools. Supporters have argued the proposal would be very beneficial to poor families whose children are stuck in bad schools, while opponents are concerned a program with unproven results will take money from already struggling public schools.

The measure, which has been before the General Assembly for several years, hasn’t had much trouble passing the Senate — including this session: 23-9 — but each year fails to muster enough support in the House.

The hold-up in the lower chamber is that “it gets to that little subcommittee, and it just takes a handful of people to kill it, and we just happened to have a handful of people who are feeling pressure,” Dunn said.

Democrats hailed the defeat as a victory for public education.

“Of all the harebrained education schemes people are pushing on our schools, vouchers are the worst of all,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville. “Tennesseans should thank the subcommittee members who once again ensured that this bill would not see the light of day.”

The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank based in Nashville that supported the measure, released a statement after the measure failed. Justin Owen, the organization’s CEO, called the move “disappointing.”

“Thousands of children will have to wait yet another year to get the quality education they so badly need and deserve,” Owen said.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Education Featured NewsTracker

Common Core Rollback Approved by House

The Tennessee Legislature is close to endorsing an effort to kick the controversial Common Core education standards to the curb.

The House of Representatives on Monday night passed a measure carried by Lewisburg Republican Billy Spivey that is designed to do away with the controversy- and criticism-plagued national standards program and replace it with with Volunteer State-specific standards.

House Bill 1035 passed 97-0 Monday night, with little in the way of discussion.

The Common Core State Standards, developed in 2009 by the National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, were first approved for Tennessee by the General Assembly in 2010 as a part of “Race to the Top” — which allowed Tennessee a waiver from requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” education reform.

However, opposition to the standards grew from divergent diverse points on the political map.

But Gov. Bill Haslam has always tended to defended the concept of national standards. He partly attributes recent imcreases in education performance made by Tennessee students as evidence that high standards yield beneficial results. Yet the governor has also over the past year come to recognize that the Common Core “brand” has become a flashpoint of controversial. Last fall he called for a review of what works and what doesn’t.

An administration press release issued in October indicated the public comments would be collected by the Southern Regional Education Board through the end of Spring, which would then be reviewed by two committees whose members were selected by the administration, but appointed by the State Board of Education.

Spivey’s measure would both enshrine Haslam’s review in statute and build upon the ongoing process.

The House-approved bill would also create a new 10-member panel to review the recommendations made by Haslam’s committees and decide whether or not to send them to the State Board.  The panel would include four appointments by the governor, and three each by the speakers of both legislative chambers.

The members of the secondary review committee would “be subject to confirmation by the Senate and the House of Representatives, but appointments shall be effective until adversely acted upon” by the Legislature.

HB1035 also requires the state to “cancel any memorandum of understanding concerning the Common Core State Standards entered into with the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.”

However, not all of Common Core’s most vocal detractors are altogether satisfied with the measure that the Legislature appears poised to pass.

Former state Rep. Joe Carr, a 2014 Republican primary candidate for the U.S. Senate and a current radio talk show host, wrote an op-ed in late March, criticizing the language used in the proposal, and suggesting that it didn’t go far enough as the word “repeal” doesn’t appear in reference to the state’s action on Common Core.

Referring to the bill as Haslam’s “gambit” — similar to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s “Trojan Horse” of “Race to the Top” in 2010 — Carr also took issue with inclusion of the term “college-and-career-ready standards”

“If you replace Common Core with ‘college-and-career-ready standards’ you effectively have replaced Common Core with Common Core, and because this bill doesn’t ‘repeal’ Common Core, nothing has effectively changed,” Carr wrote.

But the bill’s sponsors have argued that the legislation in fact “replaces Common Core, period.”

One amendment to HB1035 deletes the term “college-and-career-ready,” instead replacing it with “postsecondary-and-workforce-ready.”

The Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, who have been pushing the legislation this year, issued a laudatory statement from the group’s state director, Andrew Ogles, shortly after its passage Monday.

“This bill will give us our own Tennessee education standards, written for Tennesseans by Tennesseans,” Ogles said. He added that the measure’s easy passage, as well as “the defeat of Medicaid expansion a few weeks ago,” has made it clear that the General Assembly doesn’t “want federal control of our healthcare or classrooms.”

The measure, sponsored in the Senate by Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, is scheduled to be heard by the upper chamber Tuesday.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Legislature Sends Budget to Governor

The Tennessee General Assembly has approved a $33.8 billion budget, which includes a state appropriation of $13,778,481,400.

By comparison, the state appropriation for last year’s $32.4 billion budget was $14.9 billion, Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent told TNReport following the vote.

“Last year (the breakdown) was 45 percent state, 40 percent federal and about 14 percent other services,” the Franklin Republican said.

Thursday afternoon, the state Legislature completed its main task for the 2015 session in moving a budget forward to fund the state for another year.

Now, just a few more days of floor sessions and committee meetings remain next week to allow the state’s legislative body to wrap-up loose ends and hear final bills.

The House took up the appropriations measure first, and despite amendments offered and objections proffered by several members from both sides of the aisle, the lower chamber passed a budget with no riders and no changes from the measure established by the Finance Committees Wednesday evening.

One area of contention was a one-time, $120 million appropriation to fund a new state museum, which is currently housed in the basement of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, across the street from Legislative Plaza. The state will also raise $40 million in private donations for the project.

Since its announcement by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration in March, Republican Reps. David Alexander of Winchester and Rick Womick of Rockvale both voiced opposition to spending so much on a project that’s akin to a monument when some of the state’s employees and services were facing funding shortfalls.

Alexander, a vice-chair of the House Finance Committee, offered an amendment to take $60 million of the museum project funds and instead send half to the state’s reserve fund, and the other half to the state Department of Transportation. However, that amendment was rejected.

House members also voted to reject several amendments offered by Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

One of Fitzhugh’s amendments would have urged Haslam to continue his negotiations with the federal Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services to get a written agreement for a medicaid expansion waiver.

But Sargent argued that an appropriations measure was not the appropriate place for the House to consider Fitzhugh’s amendment.

Additionally, several objections were raised by the Volunteer State’s minority party to a Finance Committee amendment blocking local school boards from using funds granted to them by the state’s Basic Education Program funding formula to sue the state government.

That amendment was added by committee Republicans Wednesday night in response to a recent decision by several of the state’s school boards to sue the state government claiming that the BEP is being inadequately funded.

House Bill 1374 passed the lower chamber 80-12. Womick was the only member of the GOP to join 11 Democrats in voting against the measure.

Sargent congratulated the representatives for passing “one of the finer budgets we’ve had in a long time.”

Fitzhugh told TNReport after session that he took the budget “very seriously,” and while there were “good things in it,” there were “two major factors” that led him to vote against the bill. It doesn’t contain any allowance for the governor to pursue Medicaid expansion and the state’s tax-relief program for disabled veterans and senior citizens will “come up short this year,” he said.

“The way that the budget was put together was a little strange this year, but those were the main two reasons that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on the budget,” Fitzhugh said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris lauded the GOP-run House for sending Republicans in the upper chamber an “intact budget.”

According to Norris, the 2015-16 budget was “basically flat” in growth, representing about a 2 percent increase over last year, and includes $74.5 million for the state’s rainy day fund.

The Collierville Republican added that over the past four years the General Assembly has done a lot to reduce the size of government and “increase its efficiency.”

“Washington, D.C. — that’s not Tennessee,” he said.

The Senate passed the appropriations measure in short order, 32-1, without spending much time on debate. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, a freshman from Memphis, supplied the only vote in opposition.

“This may be the first year in a number of years I had any red lights against it, but it was smooth here and generally supported very strongly,” Norris told TNReport after the Senate adjourned for the week.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, speaking with reporters after the end of session, praised the budget’s passage, especially the inclusion of funds for the State Museum.

“I do think that we’ve been long overdue on building a state museum. It’s a shame that we have our museum in the basement of a building,” the Blountville Republican said. He added that since they “had a little one-time money, that was the thing to do there, too. So I think it’s a great budget.”

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Bill Mandating TBI Collection of Crime Data Demographics Headed to Governor

The General Assembly has passed a requirement that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation start including more demographic information in yearly state crime reports that the agency presents to lawmakers and law enforcement.

Sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, the bill would mandate the TBI report percentage breakdowns of suspects, crime victims and convicted offenders “based on race, gender, age, nationality, and any other appropriate demographic.”

The TBI’s report is a compilation of data from state, county, and municipal law enforcement and correctional agencies, as well as courts.

Harris told upper-chamber lawmakers Wednesday that he wants to build on “a data-driven approach to law enforcement,” a process which has “resulted in large reductions in crime in big cities.” This includes Memphis, which Harris added has “credited a 31 percent decrease in the crime rate between 2006 and 2010” as a result of using data to inform policies.

During criminal justice reform hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer, several criminal justice policy experts testified on the need for better crime data to help inform data-driven policies.

The House version passed Monday on a consent calendar, 94-0.

But the legislation did hit some resistance in the upper chamber Wednesday, where some of Tennessee’s senators fretted about issues that might arise from collecting crime data specifying racial and ethnic demographics, including the fear this would contribute to racial profiling.

Harris explained that while he is generally “loathe” to base policy “on race,” his bill is based on “a variety of demographic categories that may be helpful to law enforcement.”

Lawmakers also voiced concern the additional reporting requirements would cost law enforcement time and money in cases when the data isn’t already being produced.

Harris said the TBI already collects the information and was neutral on the legislation. He added there was no fiscal note indicating that any additional state or local budget resources would be necessary for implementation.

The Senate ultimately approved the measure 23-4. Six lawmakers refused to vote one way or another. The Senate’s three freshman Democrats joined a majority of Republicans in voting to approve the measure.

Voting against the measure were Nashville Democrat Thelma Harper and Republicans Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Randy McNally of Oak Ridge and Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains.

Members who refused to participate in the vote were Republican Sens. Paul Bailey of Sparta, Mike Bell of Riceville, Rusty Crowe of Johnson City, Joey Hensley of Hohenwald and Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, as well as Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate.

The measure is headed next to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk for his signature.

Last year, Haslam announced a Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force, to study Tennessee’s criminal justice system with the intent of addressing the Volunteer State’s prison overpopulation problems.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Liberty and Justice NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Legislature Approves Seat Belt Fine Increase

Tennesseans should remember to click it, or they’ll face an even bigger ticket.

On Wednesday the General Assembly approved a measure to increase the state’s fines for driving without a seat belt.

At $10 for a first offense, Tennessee places one of the lowest burdens on its drivers who have little concern for their own safety — and that’s a problem for some state Republicans looking to protect Tennesseans from themselves.

According to Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, around 50 percent of Tennessee’s roadway fatalities that occurred between 2010 and 2013, were the result of individuals not wearing seat belts.

The Volunteer state has “one of the lowest fines in the country,” with no court costs, and “little punitive effect” for repeat offenders, said Ketron, chairman of the Senate GOP Caucus.

Ketron emphasized the legislation, which had the support of AAA and the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, “is not about raising revenue, it’s about saving lives in our state.”

Ketron’s measure raises the fee for a first offense to $25, as well as increases the fine for repeat offenses from $20 to $50, and the fine for juvenile drivers from $20 to $25 for all offenses. An offense of driving without a seat belt would still carry no court costs, and wouldn’t assess any points against a drivers license.

“Studies show higher fines increase seat belt usage and lower fatalities,” Ketron said. He added every $10 increase results in 7.4 percent seat belt usage increase — especially when enforcement is publicized.

Currently, Ketron said the state’s seat belt usage rate was “about 89 percent,” and the goal is to get that to the mid-90s. He pointed out that Oregon and Washington have some of the highest fines in the state at $100 for a first offense, and their usage rates are between 95 and 98. “So there is a direct correlation on the amount of the fine and seat belt usage,” he said.

However, Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville questioned whether those statistics truly applied to Tennessee.

Bell pointed out that Oregon’s fine is 10-times higher than Tennessee’s, but seatbelt use by drivers still isn’t at 100 percent. He suggested there would be a “diminishing return” on the number of people the fine encourages to abide by the law.

But the measure passed the Senate Wednesday morning on a vote of 23 to 10.

The House took up the same proposal shortly thereafter.

House sponsor Jimmy Matlock, a Lenoir City Republican, also emphasized the measure was more about “saving lives” than revenue.

But that’s just why Morristown Republican Tilman Goins said he opposed the measure. “Many of my constituents feel that’s the problem with government: government is trying to get too much into our personal lives.

Goins added that although he is a “seat belt wearer,” the Legislature is not there “to try to keep us safe from ourselves.”

However, the measure had support from Rep. David Alexander, a House Finance Committee vice chairman, who announced on the floor that he “really like(s) this bill.”

Alexander added that not wearing a seat belt was “a choice that people make,” and urged passage of the bill.

It passed the House 69 to 22, with seven members not voting.

Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons took to Facebook to thank the Legislature for approving the fee hike, which “will save lives in Tennessee!”

The measure now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

Alex Harris can be contacted at