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Liberty and Justice News

Seeking Consensus on Traffic Cameras

Instead of slamming the brakes on red-light traffic cameras, House Transportation Committee members have tentatively agreed to try and hash out a three-part proposal to guide and regulate their use instead.

The rough plan, which includes a series of studies and a possible moratorium on new red light cameras, would give lawmakers more tools – and time – to decide the ultimate role the new technology will play in Tennessee communities.

Still, a number of lawmakers haven’t backed off their basic objections with the red-light cameras, saying both that the photos they take subvert civil liberties and that the private camera-vendors collect too much profit off the issuance of violations.

But the hope is to approve one comprehensive plan and move it through the Legislature, according to Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, who chairs the committee.

The panel batted around ideas Wednesday, including a plan by Maryville Republican Rep. Joe McCord to shuffle profits from citations to drivers education or trauma services statewide.

McCord, a vocal opponent of red light cameras, introduced legislation last year banning the technology. He has since dropped the ban, saying he now sees a safety value of the system, but he’s still uncomfortable with how the ticket-generated revenues are divvied up.

Many on the 12-member House Transportation Committee agree that the private traffic-camera service-providers currently have too much unchecked, profit-driven power over motorists.

The vendors capture alleged violations on camera, examine the pictures, cross reference the information with the Department of Motor Vehicles, then mail out the citations. In return, they receive the lion’s share of fines collected.

Harmon wants the state comptroller to take a hard look at the traffic cameras and report back to lawmakers on issues like what impact the systems have on vehicle crashes, the make-up of traffic-camera service contracts, and detail as to how citation revenues are spent.

Harmon also wishes to see the state Department of Transportation conduct an engineering study on each intersection proposed to use a traffic camera, and added he hopes to ban all unmanned speed cameras on state highways.

While many lawmakers on the panel generally seemed supportive of Harmon’s ideas, some still argue the cameras are unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. “If it intrudes a little, it’s too much,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican.

A study (pdf) by the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research released earlier this year argued that traffic-enforcement cameras are unwise, unnecessary and unsafe.

The City of Gallatin collected nearly $1 million in traffic citations linked to the traffic cameras in 2007, according to TCPR’s study. At least 16 Tennessee cities use some sort of traffic camera: Chattanooga, Clarksville, Cleveland, Gallatin, Germantown, Jackson, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Knoxville, Memphis, Morristown, Mount Carmel, Murfreesboro, Oak Ridge, Red Bank and Selmer.

“There’s a lot of money being made here,” said TCPR policy director Justin Owen, an attorney who co-authored the report.

Instead of installing cameras, he says lawmakers should require municipalities to extend the length of the yellow light, giving drivers more time to travel through the intersection instead of stopping short for fear of a traffic ticket.

“The mere presence of the watchful cameras encourages drivers to attempt to stop at yellow lights even if passing through the light would be safer. Coupled with a decrease in yellow light timing, this can readily explain the increase in the number of rear-end collisions that occur at intersections with red light cameras,” stated the TCPR report.

Rep. John Tidwell, an engineer from New Johnsonville, says he’ll push lengthening the yellow light next year.

The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police maintains that the cameras help enforce the rules of the road, reduce crashes and generally improve safety, said Maggi Duncan, executive director. The association plans to push for the red light and speed cameras this legislative session.

The committee hopes to formulate an initial legislative proposal at their next meeting on Jan. 11.

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Liberty and Justice News

Lawmakers Focusing on Possible New Traffic-Camera Rules

Traffic cameras may be growing in popularity among local governments and law enforcement agencies across the country, but some state lawmakers are questioning whether they belong in Tennessee.

Some say the cameras – which snap pictures when motorists drive through a stop light – are simply a tool to raise money.

“There’s no doubt that in some places it’s not about safety. It’s about revenue,” said Rep. Richard Floyd, a Chattanooga Republican.

House lawmakers examining the use of the high-tech traffic enforcement tools plan on introducing bills next year that could create statewide guidelines on the sorts of intersections where cameras could be used, and lengthening the duration of a yellow light before it turns red.

New Johnsonville Democrat John Tidwell, a civil engineer, said yield signals made one second longer will help reduce vehicle crashes, and he hinted he’ll push that issue in the coming session.

Also under discussion are laws to prohibit speeding-enforcement and stoplight-cameras completely.

The cameras are typically operated by private companies that set up the equipment, snap photos, evaluate violations and mail tickets to vehicle owners. Those organizations also receive a chunk of the revenues collected by violators, which is adding to the unease and outright opposition some critics are voicing.

Red-light cameras are under fire right now in a lawsuit arguing that traffic enforcement systems are operating illegally because they’re not properly licensed. Other suits attacking the practice have cropped up around the country.

Lawmakers Tuesday heard from Gordon Catlett, a patrol-support commander for the Knoxville Police Patrol Division who is a supporter of the cameras – and threat of a ticket – to change driver behavior.

“A lot of us treat a traffic signal like a yield sign,” he said.

The Transportation Committee will meet again Wednesday morning to discuss possible alternatives to traffic cameras, and ways to tinker with the system already in place.

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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.

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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.”

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Education Environment and Natural Resources Health Care Liberty and Justice News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Committee Questions Need for Sex-Offender Oversight Board

NASHVILLE – A state panel that develops standards and guidelines for monitoring and treating sex offenders after they’re released from prison is in limbo due to spotty board member attendance at regular meetings.

Lawmakers discussing whether or not to advise the full Legislature that the Tennessee Sex Offender Treatment Board should continue to function chose to offer “no recommendation” this week after the board failed to produce members’ attendance records for the last two years as requested by a recent Division of State Audit performance inquiry.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a member of the Joint Government Operations committee, also called it “disturbing” that members known to be repeatedly absent from the treatment board’s meetings typically never sent proxies to sit, observe or act in their place.

At a subcommittee hearing Oct. 21, the Memphis Democrat said he wonders if the absences reflect a fading need to keep the board running.

Hardaway added that he wouldn’t support the board’s continued existence until it had at least complied with the request by auditors to examine board-meeting attendance records.

“I don’t see how we can evaluate this…we don’t even know if the board members are showing up,” said Hardaway.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who chaired the hearing, warned that “failure to respond to questions appropriately” by members of boards, commissions and departments called before Joint Government Operations subcommittees for performance reviews will result in a “no recommendation” finding. A “no recommendation” subcommittee stamp means that a board or agency will have to convince the full Government Operations committee of its legitimate necessity during the 2010 legislative session, or face sunset termination.

Created in 1995, the board is charged with establishing best-practices for how sex offenders should be treated after they’re released to ensure public safety. The board designs treatment programs, trains treatment providers and assesses the likelihood of recidivism.

Board member Dr. J. Michael Adler, a licensed psychological examiner, says the board’s goal is to change behaviors among sex offenders by setting guidelines and offering training to treatment providers.

Adler was nominated to chair the board after Dr. Jeanine Miller, former director for the Department of Corrections’ mental health division, left the post after taking a job with TennCare.

Adler says less than 15 percent of sex offenders are rearrested after undergoing treatment programs. Sex offenders who haven’t undergone treatment programs have a 30 percent chance of being arrested again for similar acts, he said.

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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.”