TN Complying With SCOTUS Same-Sex Marriage Ruling: Governor, AG

Gov. Bill Haslam issued a statement Friday pledging that state government departments “will comply…as quickly as possible” with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that appears to nullify a “marriage protection amendment” added to the Tennessee Constitution a decade ago.

“The people of Tennessee have recently voted clearly on this issue,” Haslam said of the same-sex marriage ban voters overwhelmingly ratified in 2006. “The Supreme Court has overturned that vote.”

Media outlets across the state reported a rush among same-sex couples to obtain legal nuptials from duly authorized government officials in wake of the ruling.

On a 5-4 vote in the case of  Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee, joined the court’s liberals — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — in declaring that states cannot ban same-sex marriages and also must recognize such marriages performed in other states.

Tennessee was among the states, along with Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky, where prohibitions against same-sex marriage recognition were under challenge before the high court.

Writing for the majority, Kennedy observed that society’s assumptions about marriage have been subject to modified over the ages. But marriage remains, he wrote, “a keystone of the Nation’s social order.”

“Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations,” he contended.

“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest,” Kennedy said. “With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter.”

Kennedy wrote that it has become apparent to the 5-member majority that the state laws in question “burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and it must be further acknowledged that they abridge central precepts of equality.”

They therefore concluded that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.”

“The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry,” wrote Kennedy. “No longer may this liberty be denied to them.”

The bottom line, he wrote, is that a majority on the court believes “same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all States.”

“It follows that the Court also must hold—and it now does hold—that there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character,” Kennedy wrote.

In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged “strong arguments rooted in social policy and considerations of fairness” advanced in the majority opinion.

Nevertheless, Roberts remarked, “this Court is not a legislature.”

“Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be,” wrote Roberts, who just a day before the Obergefell v. Hodges came down released a controversial opinion of his own on the Affordable Care Act. As a result of his reasoning in King v. Burwell, the chief justice — who was appointed by George W. Bush — was himself accused by critics of reconfiguring statutory language to suit a desired outcome.

Quoting Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, Roberts proclaimed, “The people who ratified the Constitution authorized courts to exercise ‘neither force nor will but merely judgment’.”

State’s Arguments Slain, Slatery Vows to Bow to SCOTUS

In the wake of oral arguments before the Supreme Court back in April, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued a statement reiterating his desire to see the justices leave decisions about marriage recognition to individual states.

“This has been the longstanding province of the states and our position is that it should stay that way,” said Slatery, adding that “citizens of the state (should) vote and decide such important issues.”

On Friday afternoon, Slatery issued an opinion blasting the ruling.

The majority’s order “not only changes the definition of marriage, but takes from the states and their citizens the longstanding authority to vote and decide what marriage means,” Slatery said in a prepared statement.

“To the Tennessee citizen who asks, ‘Don’t we get a chance to vote on this in some way?’ the answer from the Supreme Court is a resounding, ‘No, you do not’,” Slatery continued. “For the court to tell all Tennesseans that they have no voice, no right to vote on the issues is disappointing.”

All the same, the attorney general committed his office to “take the necessary steps to implement the decision.” In a press conference Friday afternoon, Slatery advised that government marriage-license issuers should refrain henceforth from discriminating against same-sex couples.

Issue Appears Partisan Now, But Wasn’t Always

The Tennessee Republican and Democratic Parties issued sharply differing reactions to the ruling after it was released Friday.

“With today’s decision we see that love and respect has triumphed and we rejoice knowing that every person has the right to marry the person they love,” TNDP chair Mary Mancini said in a press release statement. “Today is a day that Democrats celebrate with those couples as they build strong families while securing a future for themselves, in Tennessee and across our nation.”

butt scotus2Ryan Haynes, chairman of the Tennessee GOP — which dominates state and congressional elected offices — lamented the court’s invalidation of the apparent will of the people.

“Tennesseans overwhelmingly voted to define marriage as between one man and one woman,” Haynes said. “If a change was to be made, it should have been allowed to play out through the democratic process but, unfortunately, today’s judicial activism short-circuits that ability. While this has long been pushed by the Democrats’ agenda, the issue is far from settled.”

In fact, both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly were controlled by Democrats when it voted twice on lopsided tallies in favor of altering the state’s constitution to limit legal marriages to “one man and one woman.” Among the co-sponsors of the gay-marriage ban, which won approval in 2004 and 2005, were Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, the present-day House minority leader, and former Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, who in the past served as House Democratic Caucus chairman.

Mike Turner and Craig FitzhughTwo-term Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who preceded Haslam, supported the same-sex marriage ban when it won ratification before voters in 2006, the same year he won re-election to the state’s highest elected office.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Fitzhugh indicatd he’s altered his perspective over the years. While he understands how “emotionally charged” the debate over same-sex marriage has been, the ranking House Democrat said he supports the Supreme Court’s decision.

“I firmly believe that civil marriage is a fundamental right for all people, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation and that there should be no governmental interference with the bond that two loving people have for each other,” Fitzhugh said. “Today’s Supreme Court decision affirms this founding principle.”

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 Alex@TNReport.com.

Lifetime Handgun-Carry Permits to Become Available in TN

Tennesseans who want to sign up for a permit to legally carry firearms in public will soon have the option of making that government-issued permission slip valid for their entire lifetimes — for a $500 fee.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam this week signed the measure into law. It was sponsored by Republicans — Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains and Rep. John Holsclaw of Elizabethton — but passed on lopsided bipartisan votes in both chambers.

During Senate discussion on the bill April 13, Niceley said the purpose is primarily that of convenience.

“At my age I would be foolish to get a lifetime carry permit, but if you are a young man or a woman — and a lot of women have carry permits now — you pay a one-time fee of $500, and you never have to go back,” said the 68-year-old East Tennessee lawmaker.

Niceley added that the cost of the lifetime license the state is charging “actually makes a little money for the department.”

Up to now, a handgun permit was only good for four year stint on a variable fee structure, then had to be renewed, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Under the terms of the bill the department would still do periodic background checks to determine if permit-holders have been convicted of a crime that would warrant suspension or revocation. Typically, if someone is convicted of a felony their permit is seized at that time by the judge, said Niceley.

Roughly 500,000 people in Tennessee are licensed to carry firearms in public — a number that’s gone dramatically up in the last several years.

In order to obtain a permit, a person must complete a firearms safety course and undergo a background check.

Haslam Pledges to Closely Monitor Developments with New Guns-in-Parks Law

Tennesseans licensed to carry firearms in public have been granted the right, as a matter of course, to ignore locally imposed gun-bans in parks and recreation areas.

Both chambers of the state’s General Assembly this year passed legislation by decisive margins that proposed exempting gun-carry permit holders from local gun-free-zone ordinances in city and county parks. Gov. Bill Haslam, who has expressed unease with the effort, on Friday announced he’d be signing the bill into law.

Tennessee’s chief executive issued a statement to House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey on Friday explaining his decision. In it, the governor indicated that while he still isn’t altogether comfortable with House Bill 995, he believes the final language has important safeguards that are “a vast improvement” over earlier drafts the General Assembly contemplated.

Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, voted against the legislation in final form. Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, voted for it.

In particular, Haslam lauded a provision allowing local governments to continue banning weapons in the “immediate vicinity” of school-sponsored events in parks involving children. According to HB995’s language set to become state law, a gun-carrier could face a criminal charge for not taking “reasonable steps to leave the area of the athletic event or school-related activity after being informed of or becoming aware of its use” in the public park.

The governor wrote that he’s nevertheless “concerned that an unintended consequence may be operational challenges for local leaders in managing their parks in a safe, effective and consistent manner, due to events and situations that could not have been anticipated in drafting this law.”

“As you know, I have expressed concerns about changing the law to remove local control of locally-owned parks, in part because I know community leaders have the best sense of the specific activities taking place in their parks as well as the unique conditions that exist in and around those areas,” Haslam’s wrote. “Some of the most sensitive situations state and local leaders must consider are those activities involving school children.”

The governor said he’ll be monitoring future events and incidents across the state related to guns in parks in order to “asses the impact of this law.”

A statement from Safe Tennessee Project, which opposed the legislation, expressed disappointment that Haslam went along with what they regard as a dangerous and ill-advised piece of legislation. “We at The Safe Tennessee Project feel blindsided by the news today,” according to the group’s statement. “We’d hoped for a veto but thought it likely Governor Haslam would choose to allow the bill to go into law without his signature. We did not expect him to sign the bill.”

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said Haslam should have vetoed the bill, and that not doing so constitutes “an absolute failure of leadership.”

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 Alex@TNReport.com.

Focus on Guns-in-Parks Bill Shifts to Haslam

Legislation to allow Tennessee gun carry permit holders to pack firearms in public parks is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has never indicated he’s much of a fan of it.

Whether he will veto it is one of the big outstanding questions of this legislative session.

In Haslam’s view, the issue is not so much about the Second Amendment but “property rights” for local governments. The governor argues that local governments should be granted authority to make their own rules with respect to people carrying guns — or being banned from carrying guns — on locally owned and managed lands.

Advocates of gun-control tend to be more wary, particularly in urban areas, of giving even permit-holders a legal pass to carry firearms in the presence of children, especially when the youngsters are gathered for school functions. They argue that “common sense” limitations on firearms possession is well within the scope of legitimate local governance.

That is in fact a philosophical question that goes to the center of the debate over guns-in-parks. The Tennessee Constitution declares that the General Assembly “shall have power, by law, to regulate the wearing of arms with a view to prevent crime.”

Last week when the Senate voted for final passage on the guns-in-parks legislation, Sen. Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican who sponsored the 2009 measure that first allowed permit-holding gun-owners to carry in state-owned, questioned whether the local opt-out provision he supported back then is really even permissible. When Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who’d been mulling a veto, ended up signing the law, he urged local elected leaders “to use the opt-out provisions of this bill to remove parks from its effect where they are located close to schools and other places where large numbers of children gather.”

The Senate sponsor of the current legislation, John Stevens of Huntingdon, said on the floor last week that in his view indeed the state’s foundational document “does not give us the authority to delegate that power (to regulate firearms possession) to the locals.”

That issue has long rankled gun-rights advocates like John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association. Harris is pretty lukewarm on the final version of the guns-in-parks legislation that the House and Senate agreed to in a “conference committee” last week.

Like some of the Democrats who voted against the measure and criticized its ambiguities and the manner in which it was passed, Harris said it raises just as much legal uncertainty as lawmakers are purporting it to address.

On April 16, the final version of House Bill 995 passed the Senate 26-6 and 62-25 in the House, where Republican Speaker Beth Harwell joined the group of mostly Democratic lawmakers voting against it. It overrides gun prohibitions in state parks for permittees, but declares that if a public school function is ongoing in the “immediate vicinity” of the area, then the gun owner must vacate the premises.

“Does it move in the right direction? Yeah, I guess it does because it is a little better than where we were,” Harris said of the legislation. “But does it meet the test of whether the average police officer, citizen, judge and district attorney all agree on what the law means? No, it fails miserably on that.”

Harris said he won’t be surprised — and for that matter won’t be terribly disappointed — if Gov. Haslam vetoes the bill. In an emailed statement to the group’s membership on Friday, Harris wrote that while “TFA sees (legislative passage of the guns-in-parks bill) as at best an incremental step on a path that is decades old,” he also believes “it creates more confusion.”

The true root of the problem is that the Legislature has made a practice of ignoring the state constitution’s actual language on the matter, he said. Only the Legislature has the authority to regulate the wearing of weapons and only with defensible justification that restrictions it passes are aiding in crime prevention, said Harris.

“It is what we call a ‘non-delegable duty,’” he said.

Harris noted that the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in an 1871 case that the General Assembly must lay out a rational justification for limiting the carrying of arms that has “well defined relation to the prevention of crime.”

Harris questions whether any legitimate justification for limiting firearms possession in parks or on school grounds has ever been convincingly articulated by gun-control advocates in the Tennessee Legislature.

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 Alex@TNReport.com.

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 Alex@TNReport.com.

House, Senate Republicans Reach Accord on Gun Bill

Should the Legislature vote to approve a tweaked “guns-in-parks” proposal, handgun-carry permit holders will be allowed to possess a pistol at any public park in the state.

However, firearms will remain prohibited at the Capitol, and Tennesseans packing otherwise legal heat will be blocked from being in the “immediate vicinity” of any park property that “is being used” as part of a “school sanctioned event.”

Tuesday afternoon three members from each chamber met to hash out an agreeable version of House Bill 995, which passed the two chambers in different forms earlier this month.

Through the legislative process, the measure picked up some contentious amendments, including a Senate amendment allowing permit-holders to carry in the Capitol, and one from the House prohibiting openly carrying an imitation or toy gun within 150 feet of a school.

Huntingdon Republican John Stevens, the Senate sponsor, said he would like the conference committee report to allow a handgun permit holder the “fundamental right of self-defense,” wherever they may be.

The committee also included House sponsors Mike Harrison of Rogersville and Tilman Goins of Morristown, as well as Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville. Nashville Democrats Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Harold Love, Jr., rounded out the panel.

The majority recommendation struck both amendments from the bill, while keeping a provision to not require the locals remove any signage banning guns from their parks.

The report produced by the committee also clarified guns wouldn’t be allowed “immediate vicinity” of grounds being used by a school at the time. However, the new proposal also created a legal exception for permit-holders who may be unaware of a school event taking place, which allows them to willingly leave a restricted area once notified.

The vote was 4-2 in favor of the majority report, with both Democrats opposed, which will soon be presented to both chambers for approval.

Stevens told reporters after the vote the term “immediate vicinity” was purposefully undefined. “If you go into a specific feet, or a specific thing, we’ve created a gun-free zone, and that’s not what we want to do,” he said.

Stevens added his intention was to “create a situation where the lawful handgun-carry permit-holder is able to protect themselves, but not interfere with school events.”

The proper distance would be determined by law enforcement agents in individual cases, he said.

Yarbro also shared his views with reporters following the hearing. “I fear that we’ve created more problems than we’ve solved,” he said.

According to the freshman Senate Democratic Caucus chairman, the failure of the conference committee to support allowing permit-holders to carry at the Capitol showed hypocrisy and an unwillingness “to subject ourselves to the same standards” being imposed on the state’s local governments.

Additionally, Yarbro was unhappy with the lack of attention paid by the panel’s majority members to the issue of parks adjacent to schools.

And Beth Roth with the Safe Tennessee Project — a “gun violence prevention organization” — told reporters after the meeting she didn’t feel like “there was any adequate answer” as to how to handle the issue of parks that abut school property.

“Honestly, what Sen. Stevens just said about school resource officers should call 911 if they look out and see someone in a park with a gun, that seems very confusing to me since the whole point of all these bills seems to give people the right to carry guns in these parks,” Roth said.

She added not only is Tennessee home to many accidental shootings, but the state Department of Safety’s gun permit statistics show there were about 1,500 Tennesseans who had carry permits revoked or suspended in 2014.

According to Tennessee permit statistics from last year, 1,541 Tennesseans had their permit rights suspended (1,257) or revoked (284).

However, John Harris, a Nashville attorney and executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, told TNReport permits get suspended and revoked for many reasons not specific to violent crime or negligence.

According to Harris, permit-holders can lose the right to carry for failure to pay the renewal fee, failure to pay child support or writing bad checks and “other non-violent crimes.”

Tennessee Department of Public Safety statistics indicate that of the suspended permits, 491 were due to misdemeanor convictions, 457 were for felony arrests, 165 were from orders of protection, 143 were from administrative suspensions and one was suspended by a court. Of the revocations, 204 were court ordered or administrative, and 80 were the result of felony convictions.

But although Harris and his organization support expanding gun rights for law-abiding Tennesseans, some concerns still remain with regard to where this year’s legislation is going, specifically the “school grounds issue.”

“It sounds like they didn’t deal with the problem, they just found an approach that doesn’t really solve the problem of the term ‘used’ affecting not just parks, but all other kinds of properties,” Harris said. “It sounds like they just caved.”

While Harris is happy to see an expansion of gun rights “moving forward,” he’s concerned it “leaves the opportunity for abuse by local governments” who might “assert” a park is in use by a school so often that “it’s effectively off-limits all the time.”

He added he also sees an issue with the “morphing situation” this legislation creates, where a park generally open to gun-carriers could suddenly become closed because a school is using the property.

“That to me is just a bad way to establish public policy, particularly on a statute that could send you to prison — it’s a Class E felony,” Harris said.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

Elect-the-AG Amendment Alive in Legislature

The Tennessee Legislature is once again seriously considering whether to ask voters if the state’s attorney general should be chosen by the people.

Under the current selection method, the person who serves in the position is appointed by the Supreme Court.

Senate Joint Resolution 63 seeks to amend Article VI, Section 5 of the Tennessee Constitution to require that “beginning with the November 2020 general election, and every six years thereafter, an attorney general and reporter for the state shall be popularly elected by the qualified voters of the state and shall hold office for a term of six years and until a successor is elected and qualified.”

The vote on SJR63 was 23-9-1. Notably, Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey Voted against it. Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, voted in favor.

Also voting yes was Republican Mark Green of Clarksville, who in the past has advocated for transferring AG-selection authority to the Legislature. Green said a popularly elected attorney general is “the next best alternative.”

“The will of the people needs to be heard,” said Green.

elcting ag vote senate 2015 april 14The measure wouldn’t appear on the ballot until 2018 if it were to win final approval from the Legislature.

Tennessee’s current attorney general, Herbert Slatery, was appointed to an eight-year term last year. His term expires 2022.

Tennessee is the only state in the nation in which the government’s chief legal officer is selected by the state’s high court.

Forty-three states popularly elect their attorney general, and the rest have some form or combination of gubernatorial or legislative appointment.

Numerous efforts over the years to alter the current process have come up short in Tennessee’s lengthy process of amending the state constitution, the last step of which is putting the question before the electorate in a statewide referendum.

As with past attempts, the latest elect-the-AG push is sponsored in the Senate by Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet.

“Our state is tied for dead last in the number of statewide elected officials,” Beavers said, referring to the governor and two United States senators. “We have only three people who are elected statewide. It is time we let the citizens have more of a say in their government.”

Beavers squared off during floor debate against the Senate’s most vocal opponent of changing the current system, Doug Overbey of Maryville.

Both hit upon points they’ve made on multiple occasions when the issue has come up before.

Overbey noted that he’s so familiar with the talking points that “it puts me in mind of the 1993 movie ‘Groundhog Day’ starring Bill Murray, where Bill Murray’s character was in a time loop, repeating the same thing, day after day after day.”

“This issue has been before the General Assembly as far back as I can remember, and it has never advanced to the ballot, and for good reason,” he said. “That’s why it seems to me we are in a time loop repeating the same thing year after year after year.”

Overbey went on to say Tennessee’s current system “has worked and continues to work since the adoption of the 1870 constitution.”

“I would submit that we only change what has been in place when it no longer works,” said Overbey, who himself submitted an application to become the state’s more powerful lawyer last summer but was passed over by the Supreme Court in favor of Slatery.

Overbey added that he believes the current system has produced a long line of attorneys general who proved themselves independent and untainted by higher-office political ambitions and partisan agendas.

By contrast, Beavers argued that the office of attorney general isn’t as institutionally autonomous as supporters of the system plan like to claim.

“I am not trying to disparage our current attorney general, who I believe to be a fine lawyer, however let’s not fool ourselves,” she said. “Our AG was chosen by some judges who he himself interviewed and helped put on the bench. So don’t tell me that there are no politics in the current system.”

Prior to becoming attorney general, Slatery served as chief legal counsel to Gov. Bill Haslam. In that role he was charged with advising the governor on appointments to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which included Justices Holly Kirby in 2013 and Jeffrey Bivins last spring. Both were on the high court when the five justices tapped Slatery to become attorney general last September.

GOP Leader Norris said good points can be made both for and against the attorney general becoming a popularly elected position in state government — and voters are capable of sorting those arguments out for themselves.

“What can’t be denied is that the people should have their right to vote,” said Norris. “The debate begins here again today, but it will continue. Let the people decide.”

Any effort to amend Tennessee’s founding document must win simple majority support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate during one two year session — and then two-thirds majority support in the next two-year session. Afterward, it goes to the people for a vote.

A House version of SJR63 died in committee this year, but can be brought up again next year.