TN Pols Make Play for Manning

Peyton Manning is looking for a new home where he can set up under center, and state politicians are making no secret of their desire for the former UT gridiron titan to choose Tennessee again.

Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives “wholeheartedly” signaled a bipartisan hope that the legendary Rocky Top signal-caller “remember his roots in the Volunteer State as he makes his decision about where to play football in 2012.”

“The whereases and wherefores are legal terms to say that Peyton Manning was a great UT football player, a great pro-football player, a great Tennessean and we want him,” House Clerk Joe McCord said to the audible agreement and appreciation of the chamber.

The resolution, HJR0785, was passed easily by a voice vote.

At an event at Lipscomb University this week Gov. Bill Haslam said he’d been passing texts to Manning, and had even gone so far as to offer the superstar QB “free temporary housing in the governor’s residence” if he needs some downtime in Nashville to make a decision.

Since his release from the Indianapolis Colts on March 7, Manning, the NFL’s only four-time league MVP, has become this off-season’s most sought-after free agent. The 14-year veteran — six times the AFC’s player of the year — has been scrambling around the country meeting with teams to discuss offers.

Wednesday, Manning spent about eight hours meeting with the Titans in Nashville. Team owner Bud Adams reportedly tossed up a Hail Mary in the form of a “contract for life” if the Super Bowl XLI MVP would agree to play out his career calling plays at LP Field.

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False Claims About Military Service Criminalized Under Bill

A guy could soon face steep penalties for attempting to impress women in bars with bogus claims of combat heroism following the Senate’s passage Monday of a bill that criminalizes impersonating military personnel.

The measure, HB2491/SB2287, makes it a Class B misdemeanor to falsely represent yourself as a military service-member with the intent to deceive — whether or not any benefit is received. The offense would carry a fine of up to $500, as well as the possibility of six months in jail.

The bill passed the Senate easily, 33-0, and the House almost as easily on Feb. 16, 93-2, with Knoxville Republicans Rep. Bill Dunn and Sen. Becky Massey, neither of whom are veterans, sponsoring the measure.

“You know, there are people going into bars, and trying to get free drinks by passing themselves off as military people,” Dunn said. “And once again, they’re stealing something that others rightfully earned by putting their lives on the line.”

Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, one of only two that opposed the measure in the House, said that it can go both ways, and she was concerned that it might unintentionally make things more difficult for veterans.

“As a matter of fact, I had a vet come up to me right after that vote and say, ‘Thank you so much for voting no for that, because I’d hate to have to prove to everybody in the world that I was a member of the armed forces,’” Butt said. “So you can look at that both ways, and I thought that was just a slippery vote right there.”

However, individuals won’t to come to the attention of law enforcement unless they are turned in, and the burden of proof would rest on the accusers, according to Dunn.

Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, the other opposing vote, said that he thought the bill went further than necessary.

“If you lie to commit fraud and harm someone, that’s one thing,” Kernell said. “What if we had a bill that simply said it’s a misdemeanor to lie? I don’t think the courts would uphold that, so I think the bill needs to be written differently.”

Next, the bill heads to the governor’s desk for his approval.

Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Gibbons Promises State Law Enforcement Won’t Abuse Anti-Camping Statute

Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said he doesn’t foresee any unintended consequences from enforcement of the bill intended to de-occupy legislative plaza, despite qualms of some lawmakers.

“I can’t speak for any other law enforcement agency, but in terms of our state troopers, I am confident that we will handle any matter that comes up correctly and professionally,” Gibbons said after speaking to the Tennessee Municipal League Monday.  Prior to coming to work for the Haslam administration, Gibbons was the Shelby County district attorney general.

“Right now we’re in a period where we’re making sure that all citizens have proper notice of the new law, and after an ample period of time, we’ll be prepared to enforce the new law,” he said.

However, not all lawmakers share his optimism.

Knoxville Rep. Frank Niceley, the sole Republican holdout when the House voted to pass the bill on Feb. 16, chose not to vote on the bill because of its overly broad nature.

“I was fine with moving the protesters off of the plaza,” Niceley said last week. “I thought that needs to be done, but the way they wrote the bill, it would affect anyone. If you’re out in the country — and the state owns hundreds of thousands of acres of state land — and you accidentally camp on one, well, some overzealous deputy could get you in trouble.”

The controversial de-occupy bill has passed both chambers, been signed by the governor, posted in public spaces and is now awaiting enforcement, which begins March 9.

Liberty and Justice

Effort to Expel Tent-Dwellers from TN Statehouse Plaza Passes Senate

A bill requiring that Occupy Nashville protesters break camp on War Memorial Plaza passed the Senate Thursday, 21 to 9. The legislation is in need now of only one more formalizing vote in the House before heading to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Known as the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, the proposed new law states that camping will be prohibited on any state-owned public property not designated as a campground. It also defines camping as erecting any temporary structure, or laying down bedding materials for the purposes of sleeping.

An amendment on the bill also states that “camping” includes cooking activities and storing of personal belongings, as well as engaging in digging.

Some lawmakers believe the measure’s language is too open-ended.

Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who said he originally expected to vote for the bill, argued against the bill, saying its language is too broad and subject to on-the-spot interpretation. It might cause a law-abiding citizen — like, for example, a hunter in a duck blind warming up some food to eat on public lands — to unintentionally commit a crime, he said.

Other critics voiced disapproval of the bill on grounds that it restricts the fundamental right to assemble for peaceful protest.

“If it were not for protest in this country, we would not have had a civil rights movement, we would not have had people have the opportunity to gain the rights that should have always been afforded to them, the Vietnam War might still be going on if it weren’t for a certain number of protesters,” said Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

Two other Memphis Democrats, Jim Kyle and Ophelia Ford, expressed similar views. “I would just like to briefly remind everyone in this senate, that this country was created out of civil unrest,” Kyle said. “And I would only say to you that if the government silences civil unrest, it’ll find itself with uncivil unrest.”

Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, also opposed the bill and suggested that creating a regulation, instead of writing a law to deal with this problem, is preferable.

“If you put this into statute, and something comes up – times change, situations change – it takes another public act to amend it,” Henry said, and explained that a regulation is easier to remove or change than a law.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, sponsor of the legislation, defended the bill, saying it has nothing to do with limiting constitutionally protected freedoms. The only intent is to help ensure public land “be managed responsibly for everyone,” she said.

Although the Senate conformed to the House Bill, HB 2638, it also amended the bill to incorporate a severability clause. Even though the substance of the bill wasn’t changed Thursday from the House’s version passed earlier this month by a wide margin, the bill now needs one more vote of approval from the House.

After it goes to Gov. Haslam and he signs it, Ramsey said he expects that there will be a short grace-period to allow anyone still camped out on the plaza time to remove themselves and their belongings.

“We want to be reasonable about this — to give some warning to the people that are permanently camped on the legislative plaza, to say you have a week, 10 days, whatever the administration decides, to get off or you will be removed,” said Ramsey. “I think that’s being very reasonable.”


Photo Display Commissioned for Legislative Plaza

Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the new collage of photographs at Legislative Plaza is worth $3,157.

Where vending machines once stood along the wall of the hallway connecting Legislative Plaza with the War Memorial Building, the wall is now covered by a spread of photographs from across the state of Tennessee.

The total project cost is being paid for with excess funds from last year’s General Maintenance Fund, according to Connie Ridley, director of legislative administration.

The collage, which was commissioned by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, after she was elected to her position last year, is part of an ongoing effort to beautify Legislative Plaza, according to her office.

“Every part of our beautiful state is represented somewhere on these pictures,” Harwell said at the dedication. “There will be a key coming in the weeks ahead that will let everybody identify each one of these pictures and where they are. In the meantime, you’re going to have fun trying to pick out a few pictures from your districts and your areas.”

The photos, all of which come from the archives of the state photographer, were decided on by a task force of House staffers. In a ceremony held on Jan. 30, Harwell and the House leadership presented the task force with a plaque for the work done on the display, with special thanks to the state photographer and the Tennessee State Museum.

Business and Economy Environment and Natural Resources NewsTracker

No Netflix Bill Rewrite

The revision planned for last year’s controversial “Netflix bill” has been deemed unnecessary by the legislation’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who withdrew it from consideration Wednesday.

McCormick said prosecuting lawful account sharing was not the intent of the bill. “For you to be breaking the law it required criminal intent — and…sharing inside the family under the terms of the subscription agreement certainly cannot, and does not, meet that test,”  said the Chattanooga Republican.

Netflix, and other subscription services, have user agreements that allow sharing and for account sharing to be considered criminal intent, the individual in question would have to be making money from the act.

The original bill was carried by McCormick with, he said, the intention of protecting intellectual property rights of musicians by limiting the sharing of passwords for subscription-based services like Rhapsody. However, the lawmaker soon encountered unintended consequences.

The bill was perceived by some to potentially make it illegal for family members and close friends to share their passwords for subscription video services like Netflix, and McCormick received several emails on the subject.

Though McCormick has said that the bill should be reviewed and revised to fix the problematic language, he has also said that he agrees that the Legislature files too many bills.

After reviewing the subscription agreements and the language of the bill, McCormick said that a revision isn’t needed.

Liberty and Justice

Occupy Bill Occupies Legislators

A bill to make camping on public property illegal passed both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees Tuesday, over the protest of members of the Occupy Nashville group.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has been an outspoken critic of the protesters’ encampment, says the issue is one of safety, not squelching of First Amendment rights.

“I support our constitution and embrace with open arms our rights of free speech and assembly,” Ramsey wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page after the measure passed overwhelmingly through committees in both chambers. “Liberal judges here in Nashville and on the federal bench can try and twist the law however they want but the reality is clear: this occupation has gone beyond speech and assembly and become an embarrassment — both to causes Occupy purports to support and the state of Tennessee at large.”

House Bill 2638 passed the House committee, 14-2, with the only dissenting members being Reps. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, and Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.

It also passed in the Senate committee, 7-1, with one legislator, Memphis Democrat Ophelia Ford, abstaining from the vote.

In the Senate hearing, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, expressed concern over the wording of the bill, and that it might be interpreted to prevent protesting in general. Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, voted against the bill.

The bills now go to scheduling committees before being heard on both chamber floors of the General Assembly.

The bills were each amended to make a violation a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum punishment of a a $2,500 fine and nearly a year imprisonment. It would have previously been a Class B offense.

“I think this bill is very redundant, because the acts that they’re pointing to are already illegal,” said Megan Riggs, member of Occupy Nashville.  “They do have the power to patrol the plaza and make sure it’s safe, not just for who they’re concerned about, the people that work here, but also the protesters on the plaza, the people that they’ve been elected to protect.”

The bill is being opposed by Occupy Nashville on the grounds that it negatively affects their constitutional right to protest and that it would criminalize being homeless.

But Judiciary Committee Chairman Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, the bill’s House sponsor, disagrees.

“It’s totally different,” Watson said. “They’re the ones bringing up that issue. They’re saying the that homeless are going to be arrested. Well, they can be arrested now, and that’s something they need to do the research on.”

Watson said homeless people could be arrested for violating local loitering laws.

Watson said that while he supports the Occupy Nashville members’ right to protest, he doesn’t perceive their activities to be a protest. He said he hadn’t seen signs or placards recently, for example. He was also upset that some members had been arrested for drug use and theft, and that a protester had urinated on a Capitol staffer.

“One of the employees that works at the plaza here was peed on,” Watson said. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, and if you approve of that – if you think that’s peaceable assembly – you need to be peed on, see how you like it.”

There were a couple dozen Occupy Nashville members present at the hearings, with a few members speaking to the committee.

“When we the people said we want money out of politics, the U.S. Supreme Court said money was free speech,” said Michael Custer, an Occupy Nashville representative. “Well, if money is free speech, then surely a 24-hour vigil, seven days a week, through the rain and cold of our Tennessee winters must also count as free speech.”

Corporations have money to buy advertising on television and billboards so that their voices are heard, but the Occupy movement doesn’t have the money to buy advertising for their voices, Custer said.

“Those tents, they are our billboard,” Custer said.

This sentiment is shared by several other Occupy members.

“If money, in our country, constitutes free speech, then so does protecting yourself from the elements,” said Lindsey Krinks, a member of Occupy Nashville, “So does being out on a 24-hour vigil and keeping yourself dry and being able to sleep and maintain acts of daily living.”

There was some brief discussion between Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, and Reps. Stewart and Camper in the House committee.

Dennis backed the bill, saying that it was the responsibility of elected officials to determine the best use for public property, and to protect it for use by all.

Stewart claimed that the bill was an attempt to take a peaceful protest and turn it into a crime, while Camper identified the Occupy movement with sit-ins from the civil rights movement of the ‘60s.

The Occupy Nashville group has been camped in Legislative Plaza since the beginning of October of last year in protest of the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics. Since then, a federal court judge issued an injunction barring the state from removing the protesters.

The Haslam administration attempted to remove the protesters from the plaza in October. A federal judge halted the arrests.

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Lawmakers Hunger for Larger Grocery Tax Cut

Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to cut Tennessee’s sales tax on food by a half percentage point over three years has been joined by several other proposals from Republican and Democratic legislators alike.

The volume of bills related to the tax has prompted lawmakers to move all of the proposals to a special meeting of the House General Subcommittee of Finance, Ways and Means, toward the end of the session, after the committee approves the budget, said Rep. Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, vice chair of the sub-committee.

“I think that’s wise, what the chairman of the finance subcommittee did,” said Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, “because what it says is ‘Gentlemen, you’ve got until late April to figure out where to come up with those things you want to do,’ and, in other words, don’t just come to us and say, ‘I want to cut the sales tax on food,’ and then complain, when that’s all you bring, is an idea, and you don’t propose a way to do it.”

One such bill, HB2239, sponsored by Casada, proposes to cut the sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5 percent and would take effect July 1 of this year. A family of four spending $884 on groceries per month would save about $53 a year under Casada’s plan. Tennesseans would pay about $46 million less in grocery taxes annually, and Capitol researchers estimate they would spend some of that money on other items subject to sales tax.

The net effect would be a $42 million loss to state coffers.

Casada has requested the bill be moved to the special tax committee in order to find a way to offset the decrease in revenue to the state.

“That’s why I put the bill on notice and put it behind the budget,” Casada said. “That way it becomes public. Everyone knows what’s going on and knows exactly what I’m trying to do, and I’m looking for other legislators to help me find areas they may know about, where we could find this $42 million.”

Haslam’s proposal to cut the sales tax follows eight months of tax revenues increasing by 5 percent or higher. Republican lawmakers, who recommended against cutting the sales tax several months ago, have said the uptick in revenues has given them a reason to support the proposal.

While Democratic lawmakers have put forward bills that would make steeper cuts to the tax, they have said they view the proposal positively. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said that although he doesn’t view a reduction to the sales tax as a priority, the gradual reduction proposed in the governor’s plan is prudent.

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Bill to Make Occupy Nashville Decamp Moves Along

Tents and other “living quarters” would not be allowed on public spaces, under a bill advancing at the Capitol aimed at the Occupy Nashville protest – whose members have been camped on War Memorial Plaza for four months.

Members of that group say the bill would limit free speech and criminalize homelessness. On Wednesday it moved out of a subcommittee to the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill, HB2638, aims to prevent “people from living on publicly-owned property not designated for residential use and prohibits people using publicly-owned property from posing a health hazard or threat to the safety and welfare of others.”

“It is not a bill that will make the protest on the plaza end. It is not a bill that denies First Amendment rights to any individual,” said Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, the sponsor of the bill. “What this bill does, though, it restores the entire public’s right to utilize all the public property around the state, not just a single group.”

Occupy Nashville released an open letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, the General Assembly and the Highway Patrol in response to this bill’s filing.

The bill was amended Wednesday morning to provide the state with the right to prevent people from camping on public grounds where camping is not permitted.

The new amendment, which is named the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012,” is based on a 1984 federal law, supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, that gives the states the right to do this, Watson said.

Additionally, the amendment would change a violation of the no-camping law from a Class C to a Class B misdemeanor, raising the fine from $50 to $500. However, the amendment doesn’t allow for incarceration as a form of punishment.

“This seems to me to be sweeping legislation that could be used to silence dissent and punish our unhoused brothers and sisters for their poverty,” said Bill Howell, a member of Occupy Nashville and the progressive group Tennesseans for Fair Taxation at the subcommittee meeting. “What we see on the plaza every day is the direct result of bad public policy, both state and federal, that has served to further enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.”

Howell said people participating in the round-the-clock protest could catch cold if tents were banned.

The Occupy movement claims the bill is unconstitutional.

“The $500 fine is an infringement of free speech because it would have a negative effect on 24-hour vigils,” said Jane Steinfels Hussain, a group spokeswoman.

Last fall, when the Occupy movement was evicted from Legislative Plaza, Gov. Bill Haslam said that the reasoning behind the new policy was public safety, not to prevent free speech.

A few weeks later Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that although he believes in freedom of speech, the Occupy movement had overstepped its bounds.

The Occupy Nashville group has said it is opposed to the corrupting influence of corporate money on the political process.
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Democrats Applaud Haslam Food Tax Cut — Wish It Were Bigger

The governor’s proposed reduction to the food tax is laudable, but Democratic lawmakers believe it doesn’t go far enough.

During the Democratic response to Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, said that they applaud Haslam’s proposed reduction from 5.5 percent to 5 percent over a few years, but said that they would like to see a gradual elimination of the food tax.

“This would indeed help all Tennesseans,” Finney said. “This would help everybody around the state. And I think especially if you go in and you look at low-income areas, you look at rural areas around the state, you would see that this legislation could have a really positive impact.”

The gradual elimination of the grocery tax has support from Democratic leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly.

“We’re actually glad that the governor’s doing this,” said Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory. “But we’ve already had bills filed. We’ve got several different bills filed from last year that we’re carrying forward.”

One sponsored by Turner aims to cut the sales tax from 5.5 percent to 5 percent in the first year and to 4.5 percent in the second year.

“We’re a very sales tax-dependent state, so it’s hard for us to cut sales tax, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Turner said. Sales taxes make up about 54 percent of Tennessee’s state tax revenue.

Turner also suggested that instead of making the cuts the governor has proposed to the inheritance tax and the Hall income tax on investments, which he says will only benefit the wealthy, that the Legislature take that money and apply it to steeper cuts to the grocery tax to benefit everyone.

Turner’s bill, HB1529, originally scheduled to be debated in the House Finance Subcommittee Wednesday, was deferred to be debated alongside other sales tax legislation, including Haslam’s bill. Turner said that he expects it to be taken back up within the next few weeks.

In addition to the governor’s bill and his own bill, Turner said that Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, had several amendments to attach to Turner’s bill that would make steeper cuts to the grocery tax.

Turner and Naifeh would need political support from their colleagues in the GOP — who control both chambers of the Legislature and the executive branch — for their proposals to have any chance of passage.

Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, one of the state’s most vocal opponents of taxing food purchases, in fact does not support Haslam’s grocery tax reduction, or any other tax cut that isn’t offset by an increase in revenues somewhere else.

“We’re all about removing the tax on groceries, but we also want to make sure there is still adequate funding for public services,” TFT executive director Elizabeth Wright told TNReport. “We feel that Tennessee has a budget crisis, and we can’t really afford to lose any more income coming in because people are losing jobs, services are being cut and the quality of our public services is declining even further than it has been.”

Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic leader, says that in fact because revenue estimates were lower than what the state has actually collected, the proposed grocery tax cut is essentially revenue neutral.

“We have the revenue to do this, because the revenue has increased since revenue estimates were made,” Fitzhugh said. “I think the governor recognized that, and we’re glad that he did — and I’m glad see him support our measure that we came forth with.”

Bill Howell, TFT’s Middle Tennessee director, doesn’t buy Fitzhugh’s reasoning. Cutting any of the state’s taxes without finding ways to bump tax collections up in other places will “result in a steady ratcheting down of the state’s revenues,” Howell said.