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Press Releases

Tracy, Womick Postpone Ultrasound Bill in Favor of ‘Pro-Life’ Constitutional Amendment Initiative

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; March 6, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) and Representative Rick Womick (R-Rockvale) announced today they will not seek passage of a bill this year to require abortion providers show or describe an ultrasound image to a woman before the procedure can be performed. The lawmakers said they will focus on passage of Senator Joint Resolution (SJR) 127, a pivotal constitutional amendment initiative which will come before voters in 2014 that would allow the legislature to put abortion laws into place within the bounds of “Roe v. Wade.”

“This constitutional resolution is the cornerstone of future legislation to protect life in Tennessee,” said Senator Tracy. “We will be focusing all of our efforts on promoting its passage on the 2014 ballot.”

Tracy was a co-prime sponsor of SJR 127, which was passed by the General Assembly in the 106th and 107th General Assemblies. It addresses a State Supreme Court decision in 2000 that struck down provisions in Tennessee law allowing women to receive “informed consent” information about the surgery and to wait 48 hours before they receive an abortion. The state’s high court also ruled against a state requirement that all abortions after the first trimester be performed in a hospital. That ruling made Tennessee more liberal than the U.S. Supreme Court required in “Roe v. Wade” and made the right to an abortion a “fundamental right” in Tennessee. SJR 127, if adopted, provides that the right to an abortion is only protected under the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brian Harris, President of Tennessee Right to Life said, “Pro-life Tennesseans are especially grateful for Senator Tracy’s resolve to ensure that the focus is not distracted from what remains the single most important pro-life objective: public approval of SJR 127 by voters in 2014.”

“We are very blessed in Tennessee to have legislators who are firmly and unequivocally committed to life,” said Bobbie Patray, President of Tennessee’s chapter of Eagle Forum. “Tennessee Eagle Forum commends Senator Jim Tracy and Rep. Rick Womick for recognizing the foundational impact of SJR 127. They clearly understand the educational challenge before us, and we are grateful that they will be focusing their time and energy on the passage of this proposed amendment the State Constitution. Tennessee is an overwhelmingly pro-life state, and they are setting an example that we hope the voters will follow as we approach the vote in November of 2014!”

“As the original sponsor of SJR 127, I’ve always had the strong support of Senator Tracy and Rep. Womick, who I didn’t get to serve with, is cut from the same cloth, added David Fowler, President of FACT (Family Action Council of Tennessee). “I applaud their desire that all pro-life efforts for the next year be focused on the most important pro-life issue in Tennessee history, the passage of SJR 127. I appreciate their leadership in making sure that nothing distracts from that overarching objective upon which all pro-life legislation in the future depends.”

“Given the fact that most abortion clinics in Tennessee already administer an ultrasound before performing an abortion, it only makes sense that we as legislators should be allowed to ensure that the pregnant mother is given the opportunity to see the video and hear the heartbeat,” added Representative Womick. “Actively seeking adoption of SJR 127 to our State Constitution will afford lawmakers that opportunity.”

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Press Releases

Tracy Bill to Protect Student Athletes with Concussions Passes Senate Education

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 20, 2013:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 20, 2013 — Legislation designed to protect student athletes who suffer concussions from risking further medical complications or death overcame its first hurdle this week with passage in the Senate Education Committee. Senate Bill 882, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), ensures guidelines are in place to help coaches, youth athletic instructors and parents recognize a concussion and its symptoms in order to keep an injured player from risking their health by returning to competition too soon.

“This is a much needed bill,” said Senator Tracy, who has been a high school coach and NCAA basketball referee. “Education and instruction regarding concussions can help avoid a preventable tragedy.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that from 2001-2009, concussions among youth increased 60%, leading the agency to label concussion frequency as reaching “epidemic” proportions. Approximately 70.5% of sports-related emergency visits for traumatic brain injuries were among youth aged 10-19. Once an athlete has suffered an initial concussion, his or her chances of a second one are 3 to 6 times greater than an athlete who has never sustained a concussion.

“This legislation provides better protection for Tennessee’s youth athletes by requiring a more uniform and formal approach to the treatment of concussions. We applaud the sponsors of the bill and urge you to support its passage during this legislative session. Parents, coaches and teachers will benefit from this measure. And, most importantly, so will our kids.” said Adolpho Birch, Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs for the National Football League (NFL).

Tracy’s bill requires schools and community youth athletics authorities where students are under the age of 18 to adopt guidelines based on those developed by the Tennessee Department of Health (DOH). The guidelines must include the nature and risk of concussions, training in recognizing signs and symptoms of head injuries, and the necessity of obtaining medical attention for injured youth athletes.

The legislation also requires that coaches, volunteers, and team medical providers complete a “concussion recognition and head injury safety education course” program that would be available on the DOH website, free of charge. Coaches, as well as parents, must then sign and return concussion and head injury information sheets annually to school administrators or directors for community organizations to show they have reviewed the guidelines.

In addition, schools and organizations must have a policy of removing youth who show signs of concussion from activity for medical evaluation by a team doctor or designated person. Youth cannot return to any activity or competition until evaluation and written clearance by a doctor who has either received training from the National Federation of State High School Associations or reviewed the CDC’s Concussion Toolkit for Physicians.

“This legislation ensures that everyone from coaches to parents understand the signs and symptoms of a concussion,” added Tracy. “Prompt medical attention is key to help these youth make a full recovery.”

Sports that lead to greatest frequency of concussions are football for males and soccer for females. Forty-three states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws protecting athletes under the age of 18 from returning to play too soon after suffering the effects of a concussion.

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Press Releases

Tracy Bill to Prohibit EBT Card Use in Liquor Stores, Strip Clubs Passes Committee

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 20, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Senator Jim Tracy’s (R-Shelbyville) bill to curb abuse of purchases made through Electronic Benefit Transaction (EBT) cards used by recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program sailed through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee today. Senate Bill 244 prohibits use of a welfare recipient’s EBT card in liquor stores, adult cabarets and casinos or gambling facilities.

“It is outrageous that these benefit cards, which are meant to help feed families with children in times of desperate need, are reported to have been misused for purchases like alcohol, gambling and adult cabarets,” said Senator Tracy. “Tennessee law should make it perfectly clear that we will not tolerate this fraudulent use of taxpayer money.”

The legislation comes after a report was released last summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which uncovered numerous examples of abuse by welfare recipients. The Center reported one transaction at a liquor store totaling $790.

Under the bill, welfare recipients who use EBT benefits at liquor stores, adult cabarets, or gambling establishments would be subject to disqualification from the program as permitted by federal law and also would have those misused benefits recouped by the Tennessee Department of Human Services. The legislation also prescribes civil penalties to businesses that sell those products and accept EBT benefits as payment in violation of the law. The fine for a violation by the seller would be $1000 for the first violation, $2500 for the second violation within five years, and $5000 for a third or subsequent violation within five years.

In addition, the bill bans the use of EBT benefits at an ATM located inside a liquor store, adult cabaret, casino or gambling establishment.

“I’m proud to sponsor this bill and help reform the welfare system in Tennessee,” said Senator Tracy. “We need to continue to make sure that taxpayer money is used appropriately and I applaud the Department of Human Services for working with me on this bill.”

“Many taxpayers struggle to make ends meet and to pay their taxes,” added Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen. “The selfish misuse of the welfare system undermines those who truly need and utilize temporary assistance lawfully and causes widespread public distrust in government services. Taxpayers should not tolerate it.”

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Republicans Pledge to Resist Abuse-of-Power Temptations

The Tennessee Waltz bribery sting.

Cronyism at the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Deep-seated ethics problems at the state legislature.

These fits and starts of scandal marked the last years of Democratic control of the governor’s mansion and state legislature.

Now Republicans have a stranglehold on state government, complete with supermajorities in the House and Senate — the GOP doesn’t need a single Democratic vote to pass legislation.

Will this new supermajority keep their members from falling into a similar sewer of scandal and ignominy?

They say they can.

“You gotta stay focused on what you got to do, and you need to have good people elected,” said Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “You’ve got to stay focused on what you’re here for. You’re here as a public servant.”

Not being distracted from the issues, such as smaller government and keeping taxes low, is also key, said Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin.

“Number one, stay in tune with what the voter wants,” he said.

That may be easier said than done. Two House members resigned their committee chairmanships recently after brushes with the law.

Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, stepped down as chairman of the House Conservation and Environment Committee after his arrest in March on a domestic assault charge. He maintains his innocence, and the Greene County Criminal Court Grand Jury is scheduled to consider the case within weeks.

Rep. Curry Todd, sponsor of Tennessee’s guns-in-bars law, resigned as chairman of the powerful House State and Local Government Committee last year after he was jailed and charged with drunken driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence. The Collierville Republican pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Nov. 30.

Beth HarwellHarwell

“I think we need to adhere to the highest ethical behavior that we can at the body,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes and that it’s not composed of human beings — it is. But it will be my job as speaker to make sure that we have the most ethical standards that we can.”

“There is caution that should occur in all states where there is a supermajority,” warns Peggy Kerns, the director of the Center for Ethics in Government for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There need to be strong values in play of fairness and consistency, treating everyone the same and also, fair representation for the public.”

Having a supermajority doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more or less corruption, “but it doesn’t help,” says Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University.

He says, though, that the public must be vigilant to make sure that the supermajority doesn’t use its power to dismantle ethics safeguards — such as open records laws and civil service rules — that are already in place.

“That’s the key,” Oppenheimer said. “ When a party has a large majority what do they do about the safeguards against corruption that are already in place?”

It’s not just Tennessee that may face ethics problems that come with supermajorities.

From Salon.com:

Democrats in California gained their first supermajorities since 1883 in both the Assembly and Senate. Republicans captured total control of the North Carolina Capitol for the first time in more than a century. The GOP… won two-thirds majorities in the Missouri Legislature for the first time since the Civil War.

Republicans also gained or expanded supermajorities in places such as Indiana, Oklahoma and — if one independent caucuses with the GOP —Georgia. Democrats gained a supermajority in Illinois and built upon their dominance in places such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

This is a growing trend at the state level, unlike in Washington, D.C., where control is split between Republicans and Democrats: In the wake of Election Day, one party will hold the governor’s office and majorities in both legislative chambers in at least 37 states, the largest number in 60 years.

Of course, Tennessee doesn’t have a monopoly on ethics problems that stewed during one-party rule.

Republicans were able to make gains in the North Carolina legislature after continuous waves of ethics problems under Democratic rule. North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black, for example, resigned in 2007 and pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge.

And there appears to be almost constant corruption in Illinois, for example, with the recent jailing of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, as an exhibit.

And problems with one-party control may be seen at the national level, too.

From Slate, in 2004, when the GOP controlled both Congress and the White House:

The speed with which Republicans have forgotten their “core values,” as David Brooks put it after the vote on the (House Majority Leader Tom) DeLay rule, has been shocking. Earlier this year, a Boston Globe article made a few comparisons between the 1993-94 Congress that Newt Gingrich ousted and the one now ending. The Republican Congress added 3,407 pork barrel projects to appropriation bills in conference committee, compared to 47 for 1994, the last year Democrats held both houses. The Republican Congress allowed only 28 percent of the bills on the floor to be amended, “barely more than half of what Democrats allowed in their last session in power in 1993-94.” The number of nonappropriations bills “open to revision has dropped to 15 percent.”

And, of course, DeLay was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally plotting to funnel corporate contributions to Texas legislative candidates.

“I think we have to be humble,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney. “I think all of us in any kind of leadership position need to be humble and know that we’re here … as servants of the people. They have to remember that.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Plumbers’ Union Lets Campaign Cash Flow, Racks Up $400K Debt

One of the most politically active labor unions in Tennessee is doubling down on the election this year, doling out more campaign cash than it did in 2010 or 2008, even as other unions have cut back on their political giving.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters Education Committee — the Tennessee union’s political arm — has given out $278,300 in campaign contributions so far in 2012, records show. That already has surpassed the $270,100 the union gave during the 2010 election season and the $245,440 it provided to politicians in 2008.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters union has even taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans — largely from Farmers & Merchants Bank — apparently to underwrite the union’s political payouts.

Records show the union’s political action committee has an outstanding loan balance of $398,971. Records show the committee taking out loans steadily for years. The last bank loan was for $70,000 received Oct. 12.

It’s unclear what this nearly $400,000 debt will mean for the union’s members.

And the election isn’t over yet. The campaign finance reports for the crucial last days have yet to be filed, so it’s all but certain that the Plumbers & Pipefitters will have far exceeded $300,000 in political giving by Election Day.

Spending more money on candidates this year was not deliberate, said former Secretary of State Riley Darnell, who serves as the union’s political adviser. There are simply more campaigns this year that the union has an interest in.

“We have a lot of candidates in support of working people,” Darnell said. “The need was greater.”

As far as the bank debt, Darnell said he couldn’t comment and that decisions such as taking out loans are made by internal union officials.

Plumbers & Pipefitters has long been one of the biggest political unions on Tennessee’s Capitol hill, frequently cutting five-figure checks to the state Democratic Party and giving large contributions to union-friendly candidates such as former state Sen. Jim Lewis, a Democrat running for a state Senate seat in District 16, which encompasses Marion, Warren and Coffee counties, and Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan, a former Democratic House majority leader.

The plumbers are priming the political pump as other labor unions in Tennessee have curtailed their campaign donations.

plate

The Tennessee, later known as Mid-South, Carpenters Regional Council political action committee, for example, doled out $68,700 in campaign contributions in 2010. In 2012 that number has dropped to $28,960.

Tennessee’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers political action committee spread around $102,500 in campaign cash in 2010. This year, its campaign contributions are $80,700.

And the Tennessee Laborers PAC handed out $73,000 politicians in 2010. In 2012 that has shrunk to $45,500.

You can see the details of the Plumbers & Pipefitters campaign records, as well as all Tennessee campaign finance reports, by clicking here and using the state’s online search database.

The vast majority of union giving is aimed at Democrats and Democratic causes, though some union money is starting to trickle to Republicans. The carpenters union, for example, gave $500 to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s political action committee as well as $2,500 to the Tennessee Republican Caucus. The Laborers gave donations to Gov. BIll Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell’s PAC and state Sen. Jim Tracy from Shelbyville.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters’ giving has heavily favored Democrats.

The union’s escalation in campaign spending comes at a time when public employee unions in Tennessee are facing an increasingly hostile legislature. With Republicans controlling the governor’s mansion and both houses, unions have few seats at the bargaining table.

During the the 2011 legislative session, the Legislature passed efforts to curb union influence in state government and schools. Democratic state lawmakers reacted angrily, but they didn’t have the votes to thwart the measures.

Tennessee isn’t the only place where a union is placing big bets for Election Day.

In Michigan, not only are unions are working toward setting collective bargaining privileges in stone via a provision in the state Constitution, they are also trying to unseat a pair of conservative Justices on the state Supreme Court.

And nationally, the Service Employees International Union has emerged as the top outside spender on Democratic campaigns this year, surpassing even President Barack Obama’s main super PAC.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Press Releases

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

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Press Releases

Transparency in Tennessee: Assessing the 107th General Assembly

Commentary by Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, May 3, 2012:

Secrecy seemed to be a common thread running through the session of the Tennessee Legislature that ended May 1. The latest “secret” revealed is that key members of the Legislature met on April 23 at a Nashville restaurant of the session to work out deals on amendments to the governor’s $34.1 billion state budget proposal.

The secret session was revealed in an Associated Press story filed the following day. No one in the Legislature or the governor’s office seemed upset that the meeting was held or revealed in news stories. But a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam did take care to note that no one from the governor’s office participated in the weekend meeting.

Tennessee political reporters and observer s know that this happens near the end of every legislative session in Tennessee. And it’s the reason the State Integrity Investigation, a national project to determine the potential for corruption in all 50 states, gave Tennessee a score of 0 out of a possible 100 on whether the “state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner.”

“There have been secret meetings, I’m not going to deny,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the AP. “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”

Despite a flare-up between Senate and House members over so-called pork barrel projects and efforts by the minority Democrats, the budget passed largely as hammered out during that weekend meeting.

Over all, State Integrity gave Tennessee a C+ for receiving 79 points out of 100 for the transparency of its budgeting process even with that big fat 0.

Secrecy was the major sticking point in another bill presented by Gov. Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which wants to give incentive grants to private companies to bring jobs to the state. In order to perform the department’s due diligence in checking out privately held companies, the state wanted to keep confidential the companies’ identity and all proprietary information. The administration and legislators were unable to reach agreement on confidentiality and the measure did not pass.

On the other hand, public teacher evaluation scores, under a new system developed last year, will remain confidential under legislation negotiated between the governor and Legislature with the Tennessee Education Association.

The bill to amend the public records act was passed quickly and with little fanfare through the use of a “caption” bill, which was passed largely unnoticed in a Senate committee before open government activists had a chance to oppose it. The only relevant element on the caption bill was the reference to “public records” before the rest of the caption was rewritten to keep teacher evaluation scores secret.

Still another bill brought by the administration would keep secret the names of all applicants for the top job at Tennessee’s universities and colleges except for the finalists. The amended bill called for finalists’ names to be announced at least 15 days before the appointment is made and required that officials publicly name at least three finalists for each post.

To find out more about issues of transparency in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

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Press Releases

TCA Opposes Bill Establishing Automatic Agreement to Insurance Policy Changes

Press Release from Tennessee Citizen Action, April 20, 2012:

Tennessee Citizen Action Asks the Haslam Administration and Their Department of Commerce and Insurance Why They Support a Bill That Will Erode Consumer Protections

Nashville, Tenn. (April 20, 2012) — Yesterday, the sponsor of a bill that would further erode consumer protection in Tennessee stated that the Department of Commerce and Insurance was aware of, and supported, the bill. The bill, SB2271 (HB2454) by Rep. Charles Sargent and Sen. Jim Tracy, states that a consumer or small business is bound to a change in their insurance policy by the simple act of paying their premium – either by check or by automatic bill payment. In other words, a consumer’s cashed check or automatic bill payment is enough to allow an insurance company to completely change their policy.

“The sponsor of HB2454/SB2271 said that the Department of Commerce and Insurance reviewed his bill ‘and they are very fine with this legislation…’” said Mary Mancini, Executive Director of Tennessee Citizen Action, “Since the mission of the Department is to protect “the interests of consumers while providing fair, efficient oversight” and this bill would create an unfair financial advantage for insurance companies over consumers and small businesses, we would like to know why they are “very fine” with it.”

A vote on SB2271/HB2454 was rolled in the House until Monday, 4/23.

Amendment Summary: (b) The payment of premium for an insurance contract, or amendment thereto, by an insured shall create a rebuttable presumption that the coverage provided has been accepted by all insureds under the contract.

Tennessee Citizen Action works in the public interest as Tennessee’s premier consumer rights organization. Our mission is to work to improve the overall health, well-being, and quality of life for all people who live and work in Tennessee

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Liberty and Justice News

Few Fined for Texting Behind the Wheel

Tennessee lawmakers outlawed texting while driving more than two years ago. At the time, predictions were that 3,650 people a year would end up getting pinched thumbing their noses at the law while they thumbed away at their hand-held communication devices.

This year, Tennessee Highway Patrol has issued only 174 citations.

Although state officials say they don’t know how many local police citations have been written up, lawmakers who drove the bill through the Legislature say that despite the lack of tickets issued, they still believe the new law has been a success, and not a solution in search of a problem.

“I think law enforcement is beginning to figure out how to enforce it now, and it is difficult, but I think you’re going to see more enforcement as we move on,” said Chairman Jim Tracy who carried the bill in the Senate and runs the chamber’s Transportation Committee.

In 2009, lawmakers approved the texting and driving ban under the assumption it would also collected some $41,600 in fines through the up to $50 per ticket fee.

But in 2010, the state only collected $2,010 in state and county-issued citations, drastically below the state’s original estimates. THP issued 171 citations that year.

Officials who hand off such projections to the Legislature admitted earlier this year they overestimated the number of citations that would be issued for texting and driving in Tennessee.

The new law has yet to cover the price of implementation, which cost taxpayers $10,500 in programming changes to departmental systems required to enforce and track violations of the ban.

“Despite the challenges, the Tennessee Highway Patrol is and continues to strictly enforce this law,” wrote Department of Safety Spokeswoman Dalya Qualls in an email. “It is our hope that the prohibition of texting while driving in Tennessee, along with enforcement and education, will help alter the behavior of drivers around the state.”

The law bans sending a written message on a cell phone or other electronic communications device while the vehicle is in motion, punishable with a Class C misdemeanor which is limited to an up to $50 fine, although the state projected the average fine would be $15. Although the vehicle is in motion, the violation is ranked as non-moving and is not marked on a driver’s record.

The number of vehicle crashes involving cell phone use is on the rise. In 2007, the state counted 577 phone-related crashes, which has climbed to 918 last year, however the department statistics are unclear as to how many of those crashes included texting verses talking.

Rep. Jon Lundberg, who sponsored the ban in the House, said he’s torn between whether the low numbers are a result of a lack of enforcement or greater public awareness that texting while driving is prohibited.

“In most of our nature, we want to do things that are legal,” the Bristol Republican told TNReport. “I think most folks know that texting while driving is illegal in Tennessee.”

Thirty-five states currently ban texting while driving. Another nine have banned talking on handheld phones behind the wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this month recommended Congress and state legislatures consider a ban on using cell phones, including hands-free devices, while driving.

But apparently there’s little immediate desire to jump on the next bandwagon and try to legislate cell phones out of Tennessee drivers’ hands.

“Talking on the phone and texting are different,” said Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “You’re doing a running conversation while you’re texting and you’re not concentrating on driving, where you can talk on the phone and keep your eyes up and look at the road. So I don’t see a movement to ban telephones yet.”

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Featured Liberty and Justice News

State Looking to Ease Pain of DMV Visit

Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said he’s re-examining how often Tennesseans should be required to subject themselves to the anguish and aggravation of visiting a state motor vehicle office.

In fact, Gibbons, whose office oversees drivers license facilities, said he’s even trying to figure out ways to ease the misery of what often seems a nearly intolerable, inescapable encounter with the bureaucratic machinations of state government.

Gibbons and his staff are currently engaged in a “top-to-bottom review” of drivers license examination processes and renewal centers with an eye toward transforming them into “customer-friendly” hubs that get people in and out before they noticeably age or descend irreversibly into madness.

The average wait time across the state is 55 minutes, says Gibbons, but that doesn’t even count the hours it takes to stand in lines that sometimes wrap outside the building and leave people in the sweltering heat for hours before reaching the first kiosk to take a number.

In brainstorming ideas to help shorten up the wait to about 30 minutes, Gibbons said he’s considering whether to give more time between drivers license renewals.

He said he’s looking into Arizona, for example, where drivers only need a new photo and an eye exam once every 12 years.

The downside to that specific system is the state has a harder time keeping track of drivers’ mailing addresses since they don’t need a new ID every time they move, according to Harold Sanders, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation. It also means drivers aren’t held accountable for staying up to snuff with the rules of the road since they aren’t subjected to driving tests every few years.

The upside, he said, is it motivates people to drive safely, shortens lines at the driver’s license facilities, and saves the state, and drivers, money.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Tracy said he, too, is looking at that practice but is leaning towards a more modest version of the concept.

“We’re definitely looking at it, and we need to make sure it’s done correctly,” said Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “It entirely takes too long right now to get your driver’s license. We’re trying to make it more customer-friendly.”

He is looking into a Democratic proposal that died in committee last year that would have changed the five-year renewal period to every eight years.

About 1.4 million people wait in lines at their local driver’s license center each year. In Memphis, officials recently had to set up tents and hand out water bottles due to the steamy temperatures.

“Everyone has a driver’s license story,” Gov. Bill Haslam told the Legislature in his first State of the State address last March. He then challenged Gibbons to make the driver’s license offices operate more like a business since the visits serve as many taxpayers’ primary interaction with the state.

The long lines raise questions as to whether the state is equipped to handle a new law that requires people to have some form of government-issued ID to vote. About 130,000 voting Tennesseans will need to get a driver’s license or some form of ID before Election Day, Gibbons said.

“We’re talking, for some people, hours and hours and hours and for some people even days of jumping through hoops,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, which fought the new ID law. “Voting should not be this difficult.”

Gibbons said officials expect to put those people who are seeking a state ID for voting purposes into express lines.

The commissioner said he’s not worried that multiple-hour wait times will trigger a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects against discriminating voting practices.

The long lines are “not in any way limited to communities with a minority population,” said Gibbons, formerly Shelby County’s Attorney General, adding he’s aware there’s been an inquiry with the U.S. Justice Department by Memphis Congressman Steven Cohen into the state’s driver’s license system. Gibbons said wait times are long in metro areas, like parts of Memphis and Nashville, and in more rural areas, like Cookeville and Johnson City.

The commissioner has a few other ideas up his sleeve for driver’s services overhauls, but he said the department won’t have a firm plan of action to reform the drivers license centers until it finishes its top-to-bottom review in early October. Reforms could include:

  • Sending drivers who are reinstating suspended licenses to separate facilities. The most time-consuming task at the driver’s license center is reinstating licenses that were taken away, such as those suspended for a DUI. It takes about 30 minutes to actually process that transaction — not including the time waiting in line. Gibbons plans to designate as many as six offices as reinstatement centers and require those drivers to take their business there, which he says will shorten lines at the other facilities.
  • Better encouragement for people to renew licenses online. Drivers simply renewing their license can do so online, but many still do it in person. To help, the department plans to install electronic kiosks that take photos and issue licenses at the stations. The state already has federal homeland security money set aside for the machines, Gibbons said.
  • Providing driver’s license renewal services at county clerk offices and private entities. Gibbons has inked deals with 30 clerks to open up driver’s license services there. He says he hopes at least another 20 clerks — adding up to half of the state’s counties — will join the bandwagon. He said he’s still working on getting private entities involved.
  • Consolidating service centers. Of the 49 driver’s license facilities, the department plans to ditch the ones that are underutilized or poorly designed. This will move employees around, better staff centers that need more workers and save the state money, Gibbons said.
  • Standardizing centers’ hours of operation. Beginning Aug. 15, all offices will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
  • Hiring someone to manage driver’s services. Gibbons and Gov. Bill Haslam expect to announce a new assistant commissioner of driver’s services position in the next few weeks. “We’ve never had that one person overseeing the entire operation. I’m not sure why that’s been the case. We’d like to fix that.”

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