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Environment and Natural Resources Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Bill to Make Occupy Nashville Decamp Moves Along

Tents and other “living quarters” would not be allowed on public spaces, under a bill advancing at the Capitol aimed at the Occupy Nashville protest – whose members have been camped on War Memorial Plaza for four months.

Members of that group say the bill would limit free speech and criminalize homelessness. On Wednesday it moved out of a subcommittee to the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill, HB2638, aims to prevent “people from living on publicly-owned property not designated for residential use and prohibits people using publicly-owned property from posing a health hazard or threat to the safety and welfare of others.”

“It is not a bill that will make the protest on the plaza end. It is not a bill that denies First Amendment rights to any individual,” said Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, the sponsor of the bill. “What this bill does, though, it restores the entire public’s right to utilize all the public property around the state, not just a single group.”

Occupy Nashville released an open letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, the General Assembly and the Highway Patrol in response to this bill’s filing.

The bill was amended Wednesday morning to provide the state with the right to prevent people from camping on public grounds where camping is not permitted.

The new amendment, which is named the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012,” is based on a 1984 federal law, supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, that gives the states the right to do this, Watson said.

Additionally, the amendment would change a violation of the no-camping law from a Class C to a Class B misdemeanor, raising the fine from $50 to $500. However, the amendment doesn’t allow for incarceration as a form of punishment.

“This seems to me to be sweeping legislation that could be used to silence dissent and punish our unhoused brothers and sisters for their poverty,” said Bill Howell, a member of Occupy Nashville and the progressive group Tennesseans for Fair Taxation at the subcommittee meeting. “What we see on the plaza every day is the direct result of bad public policy, both state and federal, that has served to further enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.”

Howell said people participating in the round-the-clock protest could catch cold if tents were banned.

The Occupy movement claims the bill is unconstitutional.

“The $500 fine is an infringement of free speech because it would have a negative effect on 24-hour vigils,” said Jane Steinfels Hussain, a group spokeswoman.

Last fall, when the Occupy movement was evicted from Legislative Plaza, Gov. Bill Haslam said that the reasoning behind the new policy was public safety, not to prevent free speech.

A few weeks later Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that although he believes in freedom of speech, the Occupy movement had overstepped its bounds.

The Occupy Nashville group has said it is opposed to the corrupting influence of corporate money on the political process.
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Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Democrats Applaud Haslam Food Tax Cut — Wish It Were Bigger

The governor’s proposed reduction to the food tax is laudable, but Democratic lawmakers believe it doesn’t go far enough.

During the Democratic response to Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, said that they applaud Haslam’s proposed reduction from 5.5 percent to 5 percent over a few years, but said that they would like to see a gradual elimination of the food tax.

“This would indeed help all Tennesseans,” Finney said. “This would help everybody around the state. And I think especially if you go in and you look at low-income areas, you look at rural areas around the state, you would see that this legislation could have a really positive impact.”

The gradual elimination of the grocery tax has support from Democratic leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly.

“We’re actually glad that the governor’s doing this,” said Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory. “But we’ve already had bills filed. We’ve got several different bills filed from last year that we’re carrying forward.”

One sponsored by Turner aims to cut the sales tax from 5.5 percent to 5 percent in the first year and to 4.5 percent in the second year.

“We’re a very sales tax-dependent state, so it’s hard for us to cut sales tax, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Turner said. Sales taxes make up about 54 percent of Tennessee’s state tax revenue.

Turner also suggested that instead of making the cuts the governor has proposed to the inheritance tax and the Hall income tax on investments, which he says will only benefit the wealthy, that the Legislature take that money and apply it to steeper cuts to the grocery tax to benefit everyone.

Turner’s bill, HB1529, originally scheduled to be debated in the House Finance Subcommittee Wednesday, was deferred to be debated alongside other sales tax legislation, including Haslam’s bill. Turner said that he expects it to be taken back up within the next few weeks.

In addition to the governor’s bill and his own bill, Turner said that Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, had several amendments to attach to Turner’s bill that would make steeper cuts to the grocery tax.

Turner and Naifeh would need political support from their colleagues in the GOP — who control both chambers of the Legislature and the executive branch — for their proposals to have any chance of passage.

Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, one of the state’s most vocal opponents of taxing food purchases, in fact does not support Haslam’s grocery tax reduction, or any other tax cut that isn’t offset by an increase in revenues somewhere else.

“We’re all about removing the tax on groceries, but we also want to make sure there is still adequate funding for public services,” TFT executive director Elizabeth Wright told TNReport. “We feel that Tennessee has a budget crisis, and we can’t really afford to lose any more income coming in because people are losing jobs, services are being cut and the quality of our public services is declining even further than it has been.”

Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic leader, says that in fact because revenue estimates were lower than what the state has actually collected, the proposed grocery tax cut is essentially revenue neutral.

“We have the revenue to do this, because the revenue has increased since revenue estimates were made,” Fitzhugh said. “I think the governor recognized that, and we’re glad that he did — and I’m glad see him support our measure that we came forth with.”

Bill Howell, TFT’s Middle Tennessee director, doesn’t buy Fitzhugh’s reasoning. Cutting any of the state’s taxes without finding ways to bump tax collections up in other places will “result in a steady ratcheting down of the state’s revenues,” Howell said.