Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice News

‘Guns-in-Bars’ Law Shot Down – For Now

A judge in Nashville on Friday triggered renewed debate over a controversial issue that fired up a range of competing interests during the 2009 Tennessee legislative session.

Davidson County Trial Court Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman declared on Friday that a recent change in law to allow non-drinking patrons to carry firearms in bars is so “fraught with ambiguity” as to be essentially indecipherable, and therefore unconstitutional.

Her legal finding likely reloads the topic to become a political flashpoint again in 2010.

Opponents of the law hailed Bonnyman’s ruling as “common sense.” Supporters promised to “reword the law” to ensure that it passes future legal muster.

Enacted over the veto of Gov. Phil Bredesen, the law allows permit-holding firearm carriers to posses their weapons in alcohol-serving eating establishments that meet certain caveats. In particular, the law declares that an establishment must derive more than 50 percent of its income from food, rather than the sale of booze, for customers to legally pack heat.

However, to the judge’s way of looking at the suit, which was filed by a group of restaurant and bar owners, calculating an establishment’s food-versus-liquor sales breakdown isn’t something citizens could reasonably be expected to determine for themselves.

Health Care News Tax and Budget

Cuts Coming to State Employee Health Plans?

NASHVILLE – Gov. Phil Bredesen said Wednesday Tennessee government-worker medical coverage won’t be spared the budget scalpel, and that benefit-reductions and co-pay increases are cost-savings measures under review in the current fiscal climate.

The $820 million the state spends for employee health care is “a huge piece of the equation” and “a big pot of money…that’s growing rapidly,” Bredesen said during a hearing with Department of Finance and Administration officials. Controlling those costs is “something we need to look at,” he said.

The budget allotment for employee medical benefits “is bigger than our Corrections Department, for example,” said Bredesen, who earlier this week heard prison officials suggest they’ll have to release roughly 3,300 inmates to meet the kinds of reductions in their FY2011 spending plans the governor wants them to prepare for.

“Everywhere else I’m telling people they’ve got to give up six and nine percent, and (the state employee health-benefits package) is coming in at what it is, plus another $65 million,” Bredesen told reporters after the hearing. “I want to provide good health insurance and health care to people, but in this environment…you can’t just let that happen without pulling it apart a little bit and seeing if there are ways you can make it work better.”

Bredesen also said he’s skeptical that substantial short-term budget savings can be realized through creating more employee-incentives for “healthy behaviors,” as one state official suggested might be possible.

“All of this stuff about health behavior is very politically correct,” said Bredesen. It’s nevertheless “very difficult to show it has any effect on health care costs,” he added.

Said Bredesen later: “We’ve talked a lot about preventative care, and there are a lot of things I’m in favor of with all this kind of stuff, (but) it’s not going to change the cost next year. It just isn’t going to do that. I need to change the cost next year.”

Bredesen described “the big-ticket items” in the state budget as TennCare, higher education, K-12, public safety and government health benefits. There’s no balancing the budget “without tackling those in some fashion,” he said.

“I’m just saying, nothing’s off the table,” Bredesen said.

Liberty and Justice Tax and Budget

State Considers Releasing Thousands of Inmates to Save Money

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Corrections Department Commissioner George Little says the only way to meaningfully cut the state’s prison budget is to grant early releases to between 3,000 and 4,000 prisoners the agency deems of little or no violent threat to society.

“We have frankly exhausted all other alternatives besides (prison) population management,” Little told Gov. Phil Bredesen Monday during the first day of the governor’s budget-writing hearings for next year.

“We did consider other options, and those options would have involved, frankly, higher levels of releases and the decommissioning or taking offline of additional prison beds,” Little continued. “We felt that between the two, in our view, unpleasant choices, that this was the more palatable of the two.”

Bredesen is requesting the agency lop 9 percent or $53 million off its desired $664 million 2011 budget in order to address the state’s fiscal woes. The governor called the proposal to release offenders before their sentences had expired “a dramatic step” and said he wouldn’t sign off on it unless the savings actually show up in the state’s budget.

Little said those who’d be considered for release include offenders convicted of nonviolent class C, D, or E felonies and within a certain number of months or years of release eligibility, or inmates suffering a “terminal illness or permanent incapacitation.”

Little added that the agency believes “people who are in prison are by and large people who ought to be in prison.”


New Rep Bolsters GOP House Majority

NASHVILLE – With the official swearing-in of Shelbyville trucking company owner Pat Marsh recently, Tennessee Republicans expanded their control over the state House of Representatives to a majority plus one.

House Speaker Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, who introduced Marsh to take the oath of office from state Supreme Court Justice Bill Koch, immediately named Marsh to the House committees on transportation and commerce.

Williams told the 60-or-so people scattered about the House floor observing the ceremony that Marsh’s “expertise in the business world,” and  “expertise in transportation — being in that field his whole life,” suit him well to oversee legislation affecting the two.

Born in Fayetteville and a graduate of Fayetteville Central High who later graduated with a business degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Marsh, 59, worked for Ford Motors and later Goggins Truck Line — which he eventually bought and then sold — before starting a new line called Big G Express in 1995, according to his campaign bio.

Marsh, who said his legislative priorities include promoting “job opportunities, improved education and safer neighborhoods,” routed Democrat Ty Cobb in a District 62 special election earlier this month.

The election is perceived by some here and elsewhere as an example of Republicans capitalizing on local dissatisfaction with prominent national-level Democratic Party initiatives. For state Democrats, the outcome was at minimum a “disaster,” reported the Nashville Scene.

Even a Wall Street Journal political columnist took note of the election, which delivered the traditionally Democrat-held District 62 seat into the hands of a Republican for the first time in generations.

“In Tennessee, Republican businessman Pat Marsh won 56 percent of the vote to defeat Democrat Ty Cobb,” wrote WSJ‘s John Fund. “It wasn’t as if Mr. Cobb had a name unknown to voters. His brother Curt had held the seat before resigning to take another government office (and it probably didn’t hurt having the same name as a baseball legend). But Mr. Cobb attributed his defeat to the fact that ‘a lot of people based their opinions on national issues . . . the health care issue was the main one.'”

Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice

Still Draining the Nation

Earlier this year Reason magazine offered up a much dimmer view of the Tennessee Valley Authority than that no doubt favored by the federally owned corporation’s 50-member public relations staff.

In “How Big Government Infrastructure Projects Go Wrong,” the libertarian Cato Institute’s Jim Powell cast “America’s biggest monopoly” in a light that by no means revealed it to be the economic savior and cultural redeemer of its much-publicized promise.

It was heralded as a program to build dams that would control floods, facilitate navigation, lift people out of poverty, and help America recover from the Great Depression. Yet the reality is that the TVA probably flooded more land than it protected; much of the navigation it has facilitated involves barges of coal for coal-fired power plants; people receiving TVA-subsidized electricity have increasingly lagged behind neighbors who did not; and the TVA’s impact on the Great Depression was negligible. The TVA morphed into America’s biggest monopoly, dominating an 80,000 square mile region with 8.8 million people—for all practical purposes, it is a bureaucratic kingdom subject to neither public nor private controls.

Powell’s sentiments are reflective of what seems to be a growing consensus among critics of various ideological stripes who agree on little except that the time has come for the Tennessee Valley Authority to be gone.

Today, TVA, although no longer a beneficiary of direct congressional funding, “pays none of the federal, state, and local taxes that private businesses pay,” Powell said in his article.

“As a government-backed entity similar to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the TVA can borrow money cheaper than private businesses,” said Powell. “Currently, the TVA has about $26 billion of debt.”

In a January 2009 op-ed for a local newspaper, Shaka Mitchell, at the time vice president for the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, observed that the hospitable, appreciative manner in which TVA and its leadership seems always to get handled by state and federal authorities (citizen lawsuits are applying the real heat) is typically (and tragically) symptomatic of government ownership or operation of just about anything.

When a private company screws up, someone is held accountable. People stop buying its products. Shareholders fire the CEO. The company goes bankrupt. But when a government-run company has a similar problem, no one takes the blame.

Officials at TVA don’t have to answer to shareholders or voters. Government run companies, like the TVA, are interested in one thing; maintaining their own existence. As long as they keep their jobs, they couldn’t care less about the quality – or dangers – of their product.

We are learning an important lesson about the differences between what happens when a private company and a public one impact the community negatively. Exxon had to pay over half a billion dollars to fix the mess it caused, and rightfully so. Troublingly, taxpayers will be forced to pay to clean up the TVA’s debacle.

A 2001 paper (highlighted in Powell’s Reason article) from the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a “non-partisan research organization dedicated to economic vitality, environmental quality, and regional equity,” assessed TVA in terms just as damning.

“Sixty-five years after it was created, this giant federal agency can no longer justify its existence,” wrote Richard Munson, now the senior vice president of Recycled Energy Development, in “Restructure TVA: Why the Tennessee Valley Authority Must Be Reformed.”

“Why should 242 million Americans be forced to subsidize the electricity rates of the 3 percent of Americans who happen to live in the Tennessee Valley,” asked Munson, who also testified before Congress on the subject of TVA in 1999. “There’s little doubt that TVA has become a burden to the nation’s taxpayers. What’s becoming increasingly apparent is that the status quo also harms the very Tennessee Valley residents that TVA is supposed to serve.”

Last winter a prominent longtime critic of the Tennessee Valley Authority called on President Obama to embark upon perhaps the most counterintuitive political undertaking an FDR-idolizing stimulator-in-chief could conceive of.

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor back in February, environmental activist William U. Chandler, a graduate of Harvard and the University of Tennessee, offered that if President Obama really wanted to throw his GOP detractors for a real mindbender, he’d take an aggressive run at radically reforming – and perhaps even dispensing with – the granddaddy of all New Deal boondoggles.

Obama will have to grapple with the history and the politics of this question as he ponders how to make TVA a force for more-efficient energy use, better jobs, and a low-carbon future. At the least, Obama could put TVA management on notice of his expectations. He could direct his Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency to define steps TVA should take to reform the 75 year-old agency. He could require – and reward – investment in energy efficiency and disincentivize the wasteful use of power. He could require TVA to create the most advanced carbon mitigation measures of any US utility – and then of any utility anywhere in the world. He could inform managers that if by 2011 this plan is not well advanced, they will be replaced, and the agency put up for sale.

Such blasphemies are the sort that once laid low the higher political ambitions of Barry Goldwater, who got himself in Dutch with the Tennessee masses for offhandedly quipping that he’d sell TVA “for a dollar” given half a chance. And speaking of “Dutch,” the plug got summarily pulled on Ronald Reagan’s job as host for General Electric Theater at around the same time, after he expressed similarly contemptuous views of the “big government” powerhouse, which he soon discovered was as “sacred as motherhood” in some quarters.

Of course, all that was long before Dec. 22, 2008, when overnight TVA’s popularity sank to levels rivaling that of a lump of coal in the public’s collective stocking.

For a little perspective on the gargantuan nature of the 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that roared forth from the Kingston Fossil Plant, which as of last summer TVA was estimating would cost up to $1.2 billion to clean up, here’s what Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation deputy commissioner Paul Sloan told state lawmakers during a hearing last session: “If you took the Great Smoky Mountains and you subdivided it in one-acre tracts – over half a million acres – the amount that spilled (at Kingston) would be sufficient to put about 11 tons of ash on every one of those acres. So that’s the scale that we’re dealing with. So, yes, this is a very long-term cleanup.”

But like the others who have for years criticized the massive agency, it’s not just TVA’s darkest-day disaster that ought to cause America to rethink TVA organization, oversight and even ownership, Chandler argued.

The Tennessee Valley Authority — an “icon of the New Deal” that also happens to have “the worst environmental record of any utility in the nation” — in fact never did “live up to its supposed goals,” he said.  In particular, its promises of bestowing collective prosperity on the region’s inhabitants fell demonstrably short: “Both during and after the Great Depression, manufacturing jobs were created faster just outside the TVA area than within it,” he wrote.

Non-TVA counties in northern Georgia and Alabama and western North Carolina in 1933 were as poor as or poorer than TVA counties, but by 1953 they were generally better off. Even rural electrification and the use of household appliances grew faster in the non-TVA south.

To be sure, TVA created jobs for some 13,000 workers, but for at least four decades, Depression-era investments in TVA dams, waterways, and recreation areas have failed to pay for themselves by any economic measure.

In his 1984 book, “The Myth of TVA,” Chandler observed that “(a)mong the nine states of the southeastern United States, there has been essentially an inverse relationship between income per capita and the extent to which the state was served by TVA.” Furthermore, he wrote, “In a critical measure of economic performance, growth and income, no evidence exists to suggest any special contribution by TVA to the development of the Tennessee Valley.”

Chandler concluded his book with words that no doubt reflect sentiments held today by far more ratepayers and taxpayers than when first published 25 years ago: “The fundamental result of the TVA experiment teaches that buying flexibility by giving away democratic control is a false bargain.”


TN Stimulus Snapshot

On Aug 6 The Wall Street Journal published a state-by-state breakdown of “some of the major spending in the stimulus legislation.”

Here’s what the newspaper reported for Tennessee:

  • Education: $1,415,737,842 (per capita: $228)
  • Pell Grants: $146,500,714 ($24)
  • HUD: $188,804,358 ($30)
  • Health: $333,557,637 ($54)
  • Crime Fighting: $50,380,636 ($8)
  • Job Training: $71,721,699 ($12)
  • Water: $77,743,500 ($13)
  • Transportation: $644,717,407 (per square mile: $15,298)