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First Amendment, Second Amendment values jostle

via First Amendment Center

By Allie Diffendal

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — First Amendment and Second Amendment values jostled  yesterday in a First Amendment Center panel discussion on whether state handgun-permit records should be public.

A dispute arose last year when The Commercial Appeal newspaper of Memphis posted the full state database of some 257,000 handgun-permit holders on its Web site.

After many gun owners expressed anger at the inclusion of gun carriers’ addresses and dates of birth, the newspaper took out those parts of the database but kept the rest of the information online. An effort in the Tennessee Senate to close access to the names of people permitted to carry loaded handguns failed in June of this year. A renewed push is expected in 2010.

In yesterday’s 90-minute give-and-take, at the John Seigenthaler Center on the Vanderbilt University campus, Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck defended publishing the records as part of an effort to give people accurate information to make informed decisions.

He gave the example of parents who might want to know whether a house their kids visit has a gun in it. Peck also said that his newspaper’s analysis of the data found 70 people in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, who had been issued permits despite being legally prohibited from carrying guns because of their violent records.

But the Second Amendment side of the equation came prepared with its own examples.

John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said many permit holders feared that their being identified publicly was an attempt to intimidate them as gun owners. “This is not a gun issue, but a privacy issue,” Harris said.

Harris said many gun-permit holders don’t want their identities known because they have been victims of domestic abuse or stalking.

Permit holder Richard Archie of Bells, Tenn., said making the data public put him and his wife at risk from gun thieves. A public database, he said, created a “menu” for people looking to steal weapons and should be used for law-enforcement purposes only.

Peck said there was no evidence that criminals were using the information to target gun owners at their homes. Gun thefts tend to be “crimes of opportunity” that occur in break-ins by thieves looking for anything valuable, he said.

The purpose of making the permit data available, Peck said, was not to punish or intimidate gun owners, but to satisfy the public’s the right to know information about an important public issue.

“In an open society people take that info and make of it what they will,” he said.

After a reader commented on a Commercial Appeal story about a shooting, asking whether the assailant had a permit, Peck said an editor replied, “I don’t know, but you can go to our database and look.”

“Accountability and transparency in government is the bottom line on this,” Peck said.

Harris said the kind of government information that should be publicly available should help citizens monitor government operations. Voter-registration databases would fit that bill, he said.

Archie said it was fine that the newspaper had exposed the 70 illegal handgun carriers, but it should have confined itself to publishing their names, not those of legal permit holders.

He said he was one of the people who wrote “some pretty striking letters” when he first saw his name, address and birth date on The Commercial Appeal’s Web site.

The outrage directed at the newspaper and Peck personally was unmatched in his 30 years of journalism, the editor said. He said a gun-rights supporter posted online his name, photograph, a map to his house and pictures of all of his children so that he could “see how it feels.” The newspaper asked for police protection because of the level of threats made after the database went online, Peck said.

The larger issue, said First Amendment Center scholar David L. Hudson Jr., involves the long-time clash between privacy and the First Amendment. Public consciousness of topics such as open gun-permit records has been heightened by the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down a broad gun ban as a violation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Allie Diffendal is a senior majoring in political science and American studies at Vanderbilt University.

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Press Releases

Bredesen Proclaims October 30 Weatherization Day in Tennessee

State of Tennessee press Release; Fri, Oct 30, 2009

  • Recovery Act
  • Human Services

Recovery Act Helps Boost Participation In Program

NASHVILLE— Governor Phil Bredesen has proclaimed October 30th Weatherization Day in Tennessee to promote the economic and environmental benefits of this home energy efficiency program.

“The Recovery Act has increased funding and expanded eligibility for this program that previously benefited only a few thousand Tennesseans each year,” said Governor Bredesen. “I’m extremely pleased more families now qualify and encourage all those that do to take advantage of this opportunity to reduce their energy consumption and utility costs.”

Through the Recovery Act, the U.S. Department of Energy is making $99 million available to Tennessee for its weatherization program. Eligibility was expanded by the General Assembly last spring from 125 percent to 200 percent of poverty, ensuring that even more Tennesseans would qualify for the home energy improvement program. Priority is still given to families with small children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

Weatherization can help reduce energy consumption and a home’s utility bills by up to 32 percent through measures that include insulation, weather stripping, installing new energy efficient windows and/or even replacing entire heating and cooling systems. Citizens can apply for the program at their local Weatherization agency, or download an application from the DHS website.

“Citizens in every corner of the state are benefitting from this program,” said DHS Commissioner Gina Lodge. “Once approved, a certified energy auditor will assess the energy improvement needs of the home. Within a few weeks, that job is contracted out and the weatherization work is performed. Thanks to our partnership with 18 local non-profit and government agencies, DHS has been able to aggressively put Recovery dollars to work in Tennessee.”

DHS worked with the Tennessee Valley Authority to increase the pool of certified contractors and auditors over the summer. More than 340 contractors and 240 auditors were trained and certified.

To date, more homes have been pre-audited in the first four months of the year than were weatherized during the entire last full fiscal year. DHS expects to weatherize more than 10,000 by September, 2010.

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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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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.'”

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Bredesen Announces SBA Declaration Granted for Hamilton and Surrounding Counties

(Oct. 10, 2009) Governor Phil Bredesen today announced the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has granted his request for a disaster declaration for Hamilton and the contiguous counties in Tennessee and Georgia following severe storms and flooding in September.

“This is welcome news for Tennesseans in these counties,” said Bredesen. “The ability to access low-interest loans through SBA will help those impacted by the heavy rains and flooding in September to speed their recovery efforts.”

A preliminary damage survey found that Hamilton County suffered more than $455,000 in damages to homes and businesses throughout the county. There were 90 homes with major damages and 50 homes with minor damages. Also, there were 26 businesses with minor damages and three businesses with major damages. More than 31 homes and businesses experienced uninsured damages in excess of 40 percent or more of their fair replacement value. One person was killed when he was swept away by rushing flood waters.

An SBA disaster declaration makes homeowners and businesses affected by the disaster eligible for low interest loans. In this case, the rate for homeowners will be 2.75 percent or 5.5 percent, depending on whether they can get credit elsewhere, and business rates range from 4 to 6 percent.

SBA declarations make victims in adjacent counties eligible for aid as well, so the declaration includes the Tennessee counties of Bledsoe, Bradley, Marion, Meigs, Rhea and Sequatchie, and the Georgia counties of Catoosa, Dade, Walker and Whitfield. Those affected have until December 21, 2009, to apply for relief from physical damage and until July 21, 2010, to apply for relief from economic injury caused by the September 16 storms and flooding

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Bredesen Announces Recovery Act Funds to Eight Transit Agencies

$9.7 Million in Recovery Act Funds Awarded to Small Urban Transit Providers Across State

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen announced today that eight small urban transit agencies will receive $9.7 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for transit services in Tennessee’s small urban areas of Bristol, Clarksville, Cleveland, Jackson, Johnson City, Kingsport, Lakeway and Murfreesboro (click link for details on each).

“Many Tennesseans, particularly those with limited mobility, already rely on public transportation for their daily needs and many others would like to see expanded transit options,” said Bredesen. “The Recovery Act funds announced today will help our small urban transit providers in Tennessee improve service and replace aging fleets with safer, more reliable vehicles.”

“Many of the vans and buses in the state’s transit fleets have accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles over the years and have outlasted their useful life,” said TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely. “Replacing these vehicles will allow transit agencies to provide safer, more dependable service to their customers and will generate manufacturing work for the companies providing the vehicles.”

Federal Recovery Act Transit funds are administered by TDOT’s Division of Multimodal Transportation Resources. Tennessee received a total of $72 million in Recovery Act transit funds. Of those funds, $42.2 million was directed by the federal government to the state’s four large urban areas, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

For more information on TDOT’s Division of Multimodal Transportation Resources visit www.tn.gov/tdot. For more information on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, visit www.recovery.gov. For TDOT specific information on the Recovery Act visit www.tn.gov/tdot/recovery.

###
For More Information Contact:
Julie Oaks
TDOT Public Information Officer
615-741-9930
Juile.A.Oaks@tn.gov

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News

TN Rated High in Economic Freedom & Limited Government

Two studies released this year by separate free-market think tanks paint Tennessee state government as among the most fiscally restrained and constitutionally prudent in the country.

Forty-eight out of 50 states offer better legal environments for securing the principles of limited government under their state constitutions than can be found in federal court under the U.S. Constitution,” write the authors of the Goldwater Institute’s “50 Bright Stars: An Assessment of Each State’s Constitutional Commitment to .Limited Government.”

“Nevertheless, Arizona Alabama, Tennessee and Idaho are in a class by themselves.”

And a nationwide analysis by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center scorecarding state-level government deference toward for personal and economic liberty ranked Tennessee among the Top 10 in key policy areas.

In addition to high marks for government fiscal restraint and comprehensive freedom, the the Virginia-based group’s paper, published last Feb 26, puts the Volunteer State at No. 8 in “economic freedom.”

The Mercatus authors — Texas State University professor William Ruger and State University of New York assistant professor Jason Sorens, both political science specialists – say their “Freedom in the 50 States” study is “the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres.”

The No. 1 state in the country in overall freedom, according to the authors, is New Hampshire. Bringing up the rear is New York.

Of Tennessee’s eight neighboring states, only Missouri ranked higher in overall freedom at No. 6.

Tennessee didn’t however fare nearly as well in “regulatory policy” or “personal freedom” in the Mercatus study, ranking No. 28 and No. 18 in those categories respectively.

The Goldwater Institutes study says it uses “the U.S. Constitution and federal court system as a baseline, this report assesses each state’s constitutional jurisprudence for its commitment to limited government.”

“Taking into consideration the findings of a recent Mercatus Center study of economic freedom among the 50 states, which serves as a proxy for the freedom friendliness of each state’s political culture, this report reveals that principles of limited government are most secure under the constitutions of Arizona, Alabama, Idaho and Tennessee,” writes the institute’s Center for Constitutional Government director, Nick Dranias.

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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.”

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News

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)
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