NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Marrero Prepares to Hang it Up

Sen. Beverly Marrero wears many hats. But as of Nov. 6, she’ll be wearing one less.

After 10 years in the Legislature, Marrero lost her bid for re-election to her Memphis district in last month’s Democratic primary against Sen. Jim Kyle.

Although Marrero said she’d like to be remembered for standing up for women, the environment and people with disabilities, she also realizes people will probably also remember her for her hats.

“It takes a little bit of nerve to wear a hat,” she told TNReport. She was back in Nashville last week beginning to clean out her legislative office.

She says people tend to feel more comfortable around her when she’s donning one of her many hats that she transports in boxes between her Memphis district and the state Capitol.

Here’s some more of what she hat, er, had to say:

NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Marrero Still Feels a Little ‘Betrayed’ by Kyle, Mulls ‘14 Run for Kelsey’s Seat

Sen. Beverly Marrero says she has yet to forgive Sen. Jim Kyle for edging her out of office in the Democratic primary instead of running against a Republican.

But the 73-year-old says she hasn’t totally ruled out taking another stab at getting back into the Legislature by running against Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, in 2014.

“It flashed on my mind a little bit that I might run against Brian Kelsey, but I would have to move to do that,” she said Wednesday in her Capitol Hill office during an interview with TNReport. Marrero added that many of her constituents for the last decade were drawn into Kelsey’s district this year.

“I’m sure that they’re not going to be happy with their choices. However, I’m sure there are enough Republicans in that district where he’ll easily be able to win. I may make him work for it a little bit. I don’t know,” she said.

Marrero lost her bid for re-election last month against Kyle, the highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, who asked Republicans to draw him into a race against Marrero instead of Kelsey during redistricting this year. Kyle beat Marrero with 55 percent of the vote in the Memphis district.

“I’m trying to deal with my feelings about it because I do — had — a certain feeling that I had been betrayed by a member of my own party, particularly when he was originally drawn into a district with a Republican and he chose to run against me,” Marrero said.

“I do feel a little bit put upon on by that. Unfortunately, that’s quite often the way things work. People look out for their own interest rather than for the members of their party,” she said.

Kyle could have gone up against Kelsey, who is up for re-election in 2014. Kelsey wants students to be able to use public tax dollars to attend the private school or their choice and is among the more conservative members of the GOP in the legislature.

Education Featured News NewsTracker

‘Gateway Sexual Activity’ Bill a Tease — Won’t Change Much, TN Edu. Official Says

The thrust of sex education classes taught in Tennessee schools will stay the same under a controversial bill awaiting the governor’s signature, according to the Department of Education.

The so-called “gateway sexual activity” bill seeks to punish teachers and third-party groups that promote “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior” and rewrite state code to emphasizes abstinence education — both issues that caught the national spotlight this year.

“It really will not do much to change the current curriculum, the ways schools operate currently,” said Kelli Gauthier, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

Lawmakers easily passed the bill after much debate in the Legislature about whether abstinence education works, whether definitions of “gateway sexual activity” are too vague and whether teachers can get in trouble for not discouraging hand-holding, hugging or kissing.

The legislation points to the state’s current definition of “sexual contact” as “intentional touching of any other person’s intimate parts, or the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of … any other person’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.”

“Intimate parts” is defined as “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being” in state law.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s unsure what action he’ll take on the bill. From his study of HB3621 so far, “I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice,” he told reporters last week after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new science building at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

But bill sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto says the law’s current definition of abstinence isn’t clear enough.

Abstinence is “being interpreted as anything goes as long as your action will not result in a pregnancy. That’s exactly the way it’s being taught today,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville.

According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of Tennessee teen pregnancies is down 19 percent to 9,254 pregnancies in 2010. But the pregnancy rate is still among the top 10 in the nation.

In the House, the bill passed 68-23 with some bipartisan support. The bill won near unanimous approval in the Senate with only one holdout, Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

“We want to teach our children to be abstinent, but in the event that they don’t listen to us, we need to protect our children and see to it that they don’t fall victims to unwanted or unneeded pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases,” she said on the Senate floor shortly before the bill passed.

Democratic leaders in the House were split on the issue, with Caucus Leader Mike Turner saying the bill was merely an example of Republicans being “obsessed with sex this year” and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh saying bill is flawed only because it does little to address teenage pregnancy.

Rep. John Deberry, D-Memphis, instead, says the state finds itself in a quandary between supporting personal freedoms and trying to legislate behavior to stop unwanted pregnancies.

“We have a whole state department that takes care of somebody else’s mess,” he said, adding that one school in his district was home to 70 girls who had become pregnant.

“We can’t tell people what they shouldn’t do. Well, when we don’t tell them what they shouldn’t do, then we end up paying for what they do. At some point in time, we have to say, change the behavior,” Deberry said before voting for the bill.

Critics cite another rub: The bill would give parents the power to file complaints against any instructor or organization that promotes or demonstrates any sort of sexual activity.

Only instructors teaching sex ed and promoting “gateway sexual activity” would be subject to discipline. If the individual is employed by an outside group to teach the material, the teacher or its organization can be fined up to $500. Science teachers, instructors verbally answering students’ questions about sexual activity in good faith and teachers of other courses would not be subject to discipline.

Featured Liberty and Justice News NewsTracker

Legislative Confirmation for Judges Advances

There’s little consensus on Capitol Hill over how the state should pick its highest ranking state judges, and the plot just got a little thicker.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a plan Tuesday to change the state’s guiding document to reflect the federal practice for choosing judges, despite calls from top Republicans leaders to reinforce the state’s current practice of appointment by the governor.

Under SJR475, the governor would nominate judges for the Supreme and other appellate courts, and the Senate and House would confirm them.

The governor currently chooses those judges, who are subject to yes-no retention elections by voters every eight years, a process dubbed the “Tennessee Plan.”

Debate boils down to a long-running disagreement over whether the state currently follows the state’s Constitution.

“In my view, the Constitution says that the judges will be elected by the people, and that’s not what we’re doing so we’re actually in violation of the Constitution right now, in my opinion,” said Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet.

According to the Tennessee Constitution, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” It also says, “The judges of the Circuit and Chancery Courts, and of other inferior Courts, shall be elected by the qualified voters of the district or circuit to which they are to be assigned.”

The Supreme Court has upheld that the Tennessee Plan is constitutional, but others say the Constitution calls for popular elections like the ones legislators face.

Gov. Bill Haslam, along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, declared early this year they want to edit the Constitution to legitimize the plan and eliminate debate once and for all about whether it satisfies the intent of the state’s founding fathers.

Lawmakers have yet to take up any other judicial selection proposals this year, although Republican lawmakers may be running short on time given they want to adjourn in April.

“The Senate is more fixated on these judicial issues than the House is,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who said he’d prefer judges not face any sort of election.

“The Constitution clearly says we’re supposed to have elected judges, and I don’t think that’s necessarily good for the state,” he added. “However, the Constitution says it. So we’ve got to either have to change the Constitution or do what the Constitution says. And I think we ought to change the Constitution.”

The Senate measure advanced from committee 5-2 with two senators abstaining. It now moves to the Senate Finance Committee, but it has a long way to go. Any measure changing the Constitution would need approval from both chambers this year, then again before going before the voters in 2014.

“I just want to say as a point of fact that I don’t intend to vote for any more tinkering with the Constitution of the state of Tennessee,” said Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, who voted against the bill. “Laws can be changed. When you screw the Constitution, that’s long and involved.”

Business and Economy Liberty and Justice

Gun Rights Bills Advance in Senate

Senate committees sided with gun owners over business owners Tuesday afternoon, moving two pieces of guns-in-lots legislation after weeks of debate and delay on the issue.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed SB3002, which prohibits employers from banning the storage of firearms in cars on company lots. The Senate’s commerce committee passed a companion bill, SB2992, which prohibits “employment discrimination based on an applicant or current employee’s ownership, storage, transportation or possession of a firearm.” Both bills were brought by Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill.

As expected, SB3002 was amended so that it only covers gun carry permit holders. Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, further amended the bill to include licensed hunters over 21. Another amendment added exemptions for single-family homes, nuclear facilities and United States Department of Energy sites, such as one in Oak Ridge.

Memphis Democrat Beverly Marrero expressed concern about applying the bill to licensed hunters, citing the lower standard of training and expertise required to obtain such a license as opposed to a carry permit. An Associated Press reporter apparently ordered one during the committee’s discussion for $27.

An amendment proposed by Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, would have given the directors of K-12 schools and university presidents the authority to make their own decision about whether to allow the storage of firearms in their parking lots. The committee rejected that proposal, 5-3.

Citing the changes to the bill’s scope, Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, requested that the committee hear from representatives from FedEx and other companies, who had previously appeared before the committee to voice their opposition to the legislation. Faulk attempted to placate Ford by asking business representatives in attendance to stand if the amendments changed their position in any way. No one stood.

Moments later, judiciary committee chair Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, denied the request and called a vote on the bill, which passed 6-1. Marrero voted no. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville, and Ford abstained from the vote.

Faulk’s employment discrimination bill was amended so that it remained consistent with SB3002, but eventually faced more opposition. Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, called the bill a “job killer for the state of Tennessee,” and Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, expressed concern that the new age restriction would open the door to discrimination against 18-, 19- and 20-year-old employees who are licensed hunters.

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, joined Burks and Stewart in voting against the bill, which passed 6-3.

Unlike the Judiciary Committee, legislators in the commerce committee did hear from business representatives. As Faulk had suggested earlier, their feelings on the matter were unchanged.

Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry lobbyist Bradley Jackson called the bill “the worst bill” that any state had brought forward on the issue. Dan Haskell, a Nashville attorney representing the area Chamber of Commerce, added, “We were against it before. We’re against it now.”

National Rifle Association lobbyist Darren LaSorte said while the group  does not support restricting the bill to carry permit holders, the legislation still has NRA support. He said the bill appropriately respects the rights of those on both sides of the issue.

“We think this is the perfect balance. We think the property rights intersect where the rubber meets the asphalt,” he said. “So as long as that firearm is being kept in that person’s private vehicle, we’re honoring the private property rights of the property owner who owns the parking lot or the business where employees are prohibited from carrying.”

Featured Liberty and Justice News NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Judges, Lawmakers Strike Deal on Ethics Board

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed Tuesday to compromise legislation that would revamp the Court of the Judiciary, an ethical watchdog panel charged with probing and punishing judges accused of improper or unprofessional behavior.

Members of the committee found common ground on a list of provisions that will rename and reconstitute the makeup of the body with the intent of emboldening it to more aggressively investigate complaints against judges. The new board would also be required to report on its official inquiries to top House and Senate leaders.

“Nobody is completely happy, and nobody is completely miserable, and I hope that’s the situation we’ve arrived at,” Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, said just prior to the 8-0 judiciary committee vote on Senate Bill 2671.

The key change requires that the board hand the two General Assembly speakers a rundown of statistics on each judge reprimanded more than once. Information on “public reprimands” is already available, but “private reprimands” would be available only to the speakers.

“We’re very satisfied with that,” said Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, who worked with the Legislature to broker the deal.

“We think that’s a fair balance because the Legislature has an obligation under their impeachment power to have notice of what’s going on,” he said.

Concern that the Court of the Judiciary lacks independence, transparency and resolve has existed for some time. In September Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers hosted a series of hearings examining purported flaws within the Court of the Judiciary. The key phrase lawmakers like Beavers have used to sum up what they see as the core dysfunction within the Court of the Judiciary is “judges judging judges.”

The Mt. Juliet Republican, who has been the driving force behind judicial ethics reform, offered little in the way of comment to the committee as the sponsor gave her credit for pushing the issue, saying only, “I think you can say I’ve been a lightening rod, and I feel it.”

Senate Bill 2671 would set up a new panel to review ethics complaints against judges, called the Board of Judicial Conduct. It would still be controlled by judges.

Ten current or former judges, appointed by various councils of judges, would sit on the panel. In addition, the governor and chamber speakers would each pick an attorney and a layperson to join the board, for a total of six non-judges.

The bill also requires a subcommittee within the panel to decide whether to trash a complaint or use it to launch an investigation. That group would be required to have at least one non-judge. Currently, the board’s disciplinary counsel decides whether a complaint has merit, not its members.

The last time bill sponsor Sen. Mike Faulk ran a similar measure in the committee, it stalled on a 3-3-3 tie.

Judges and reformers in the Legislature have argued over the bill. The latest reincarnation results from a compromise by the judges. Prior to adding the component sending information to the speakers, the measure faced criticism in the House where some lawmakers argued the new board still lacks public accountability and gives judges too much power to police their own. The House Judiciary Committee still approved the bill, advancing it to another committee.

If the plan passes, it would dissolve the current Court of the Judiciary on June 30 and launch the Board of Judicial Conduct July 1.

Faulk, R-Church Hill, said he expects the full Senate to consider the bill Monday. The House measure faces a vote in the Government Operations Committee Wednesday before it can proceed to the full chamber.

Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice

Governor Shooting for Narrowed Scope of Guns-in-Parking-Lots Legislation

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Wednesday that he expects to see “guns in parking lots” legislation on his desk this session, though he would like to see it altered before it gets there.

A bill brought by Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, would require employers and landowners to allow workers to store legally owned firearms in their cars on company parking lots. The bill would apply to private businesses as well as public institutions and would cover all gun owners, as opposed to just those with handgun carry permits.

Haslam said the bill, as currently written, is too broad, and that he’s working to find a balance between the concerns of gun rights advocates and business associations. He did not say, however, what specific changes he’d like to see made to the legislation.

“We felt like it was overly broad in terms of it covered all parking lots, everywhere, whether it was at a school or other things,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten to the specific level of saying and what should be out. I haven’t done the hard work of thinking through all the different circumstances.”

While lawmakers attempt to rein in the bill, which Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell have characterized as overly broad, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce says the plan in any form would shoot holes in its property rights.

“I still don’t know how you can take away the private property rights of individuals in the name of the 2nd Amendment or the right to bear arms,” said Deborah Woolley, chamber president. “Both rights have to be protected, and telling someone they can’t bring their weapon on my property, it doesn’t take away a right to bear an arm. It means they can’t bring it on my property.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday heard testimony from fans of the bill, who argued that, when a company’s gun-free policy includes workers’ cars, it impedes on their own property rights and their right to self-defense.

Sam Cooper, a FedEx employee from Memphis, told the committee that workers don’t need a firearm at work, but rather on their commute to and from the workplace. By banning guns in parking lots, he argued, companies effectively prevent workers from leaving their homes with a legally owned firearm.

“When my employer, or any employer that bans legal storage of legal firearm, says to me, or anybody, ‘you can’t have it in the parking lot,’ they’ve essentially extended their property rights all the way to my front door,” he said.

West Tennessee Firearms Association Board Member Richard Archie said his daughter picks up her child on the way home from work. Without the ability to carry a weapon in her car, he said, she is left defenseless if anything should anything go wrong.

“If she has a flat tire on the way there on (U.S.) 412, coming back, we’ve turned her loose to the wolves of the world,” he said.

NRA lobbyist Heidi Keesling and Shelby County small-business owner Kenny Crenshaw also appeared before the committee in support of the bill. Keesling said another goal of the legislation is to create more uniformity amongst various states, which have different laws governing where gun owners can take and store their firearms.

In response to the testimony, Sen. Beverly Marrero said she routinely drives about Memphis – which is among the most dangerous cities in the country – without a firearm or concern for her safety.

“I drive around in Memphis all the time. I’m able to drive around all hours of the day and night, all over Memphis. I don’t have a gun. Don’t carry one in my car. I feel relatively safe,” said the 73-year-old Shelby County Democrat. “It seems to me that gentlemen seem to me more afraid to drive around at night in Memphis, than women. Maybe we should talk to y’all a little bit more.”

The committee will hear testimony from opponents of the measure, including the Chamber of Commerce, on March 6 before taking any action on the bill.


Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report


Redistricting Maps Approved By Legislature

Dispensing with the heavily politicized process of redistricting in its first week in session, the Legislature on Friday has approved a set of maps for state House and Senate and U.S. Congressional seats.

The maps, which will go to Gov. Bill Haslam for his sign-off, dictate the political makeup of voting districts throughout the state for the next 10 years.

“I think it’s the best we can do. It’s the fairest and most legal redistricting plan upon which we could agree,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who sponsored the Republican maps in the Senate. “There’s something about this plan that just about everyone can dislike a little bit, and some dislike a lot.”

The Senate approved its GOP map, 21-12, with two high-ranking Democrats, Minority Leader Jim Kyle and Sen. Andy Berke of Chattanooga, voting in favor of the plan in exchange for a few concessions. Republican Sens. Kerry Roberts, of Springfield, and Mae Beavers, of Mt. Juliet, voted with Democrats.

“It was part of our negotiating,” Kyle, one of the GOP plan’s toughest critics, told reporters as Norris stood behind him to listen in. “The process of congeniality, accommodating. Folks need to be supportive of the process, and it came to pass, and I voted for the bill.”

The new Senate map lumps Kyle into the same Shelby County district as fellow Democrat Beverly Marrero. The plan also pairs Roberts and Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, in the same district. Roberts’ term is up in 2012, while Summerville’s is up in 2014, meaning Roberts would likely have to wait for another senate run.

The House did much of its heavy lifting on Thursday by approving its Republican-drawn map on a 67-25-3 vote largely along party lines — with the Democratic caucus leader voting in favor of the plan after some compromises. Six other Democrats also voted in favor of the new map.

Lawmakers are required to redraw the districts every decade in conjunction with the U.S. Census to ensure all districts represent roughly the same number of people. By law they must keep as many counties, as well as minority communities, as whole as possible.

Republicans in Tennessee have never been in a position to have complete control over the new district maps until this year. They’ve penciled in the new maps behind closed doors for months, all the while contending the process has been transparent. Democrats say Republicans could have used the Internet to share the maps more widely.

“Be careful what you ask for,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. “Obviously, I will say this has been a grueling process, the whole redistricting issue, and it’s tough to draw districts that are both fair and legal — and I believe we did that — and yet have the constraints that we have both constitutionally and legally.”

Republican leaders in both chambers unveiled their chamber’s maps Jan. 4. A majority of both chambers approved the maps Jan. 13.

Republicans says they believe their maps can withstand any legal challenges launched by Democrats, who contend the newly plotted lines may violate the Voting Rights Act. Democratic leaders say they have yet to decide whether they’ll file any lawsuits.

Press Releases

Democrats Spend Day 2 of Jobs Tour in West TN

Press Release from Senate Democratic Caucus; Sept. 21, 2011:

Owners discuss potential for growth in tough economy

DRESDEN – House and Senate Democrats continued their statewide jobs tour Tuesday with stops at small businesses in Jackson, Martin and Dresden, to hear owners speak on state contracts and challenges in an extended recession.

“Our small businesses form the backbone of Tennessee’s economy, and we need to listen to those entrepreneurs and owners if we want our communities to thrive,” said State Senator Beverly Marrero.

Members visited Jackson businesses Tuesday morning to discuss downtown revitalization efforts and development hurdles in real estate laws. The tour continued in the afternoon to Martin and Dresden, where officials visited companies employing anywhere from two to 60 people.

“The loss of major employers in rural areas has had a major impact on small businesses who relied on those companies’ employees for customers,” said State Representative Johnny Shaw. “One factory closing has an ripple effect on an entire community.”

The jobs tour continues Wednesday with stops in Columbia and Smyrna. For more information, call (615) 812-2157.

Press Releases

Senate Democrats Try to Add Coverage Mandates to ‘Health Freedom Act’

Press Release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; Feb. 23, 2011:

Senate Democrats fight to protect heath care for students, seniors, uninsured

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats fought Wednesday to protect health coverage for thousands of students, seniors and previously uninsured citizens as Republicans continue to fight political battles instead of addressing real issues affecting Tennesseans.

“It’s disappointing that the majority party continues to ignore the pressing issues of this state,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Secretary/Treasurer Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis). “Instead, Republicans pass bills that don’t even do what they claim. They’re pulling a bait-and-switch on their own base.”

Senate Bill 79, as written, is a powerless bill addressing federal health care legislation. Senate Democrats offered four amendments to protect coverage for the following groups:

• Tennessee’s children and young adults, up to age 26;

• Tennesseans with preexisting conditions;

• More than 48,400 Medicare recipients in Tennessee whose vital prescription medications are not covered

• Tennesseans dropped from their private insurance plans for exceeding their lifetime maximums.

Republicans defeated all four amendments on party-line votes.

“I wanted to ensure that a person isn’t denied health care coverage simply because of a preexisting condition,” said Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney (D-Jackson).

“Unfortunately, the majority party wanted to make a political statement instead. Our communities need jobs and our schools need help. We should be working together on those issues.”

The House version of the bill is in a subcommittee.