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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Kelsey Seeks to Limit TN Cops from Using Surplus Military Equipment

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to stop and reverse a trend in Tennessee toward what critics characterize as police “militarization.”

Brian Kelsey, a Republican attorney from Germantown, has filed legislation for the General Assembly to take up this year that would prohibit “state and local law enforcement agencies from owning or using certain military vehicles, aircraft, and weaponry.” The bill — SB0039 — would also require “the divestiture or destruction of such vehicles, aircraft, or weaponry” by January 1, 2016.

“I think we can support both our police officers and our citizens by ensuring that our police officers are not viewed as the enemy. This bill is an important step in that direction,” Kelsey recently told the Johnson City Press. He said while he hasn’t spoken with Tennessee law enforcement officials yet, the bill would start that conversation.

Military weapons are defined in the bill as “machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, flamethrowers, grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons, recoilless rifles, and crew-served weapons.” Magazine-fed, gas-operated, air-cooled rifles and carbines designed for automatic or semi-auto fire — such as M16s — as well as grenade launchers adapted for non-lethal rounds, have been exempted.

Google ChromeScreenSnapz010Since at least 1997, law enforcement agencies nationwide have received surplus military equipment to aid counter-drug and terror operations under the 1033 program, established under that year’s National Defense Authorization Act. About 8,000 local law enforcement agencies have participated in the program, and have received more than $5.1 billion in military equipment — including sand bags, medical supplies, cold weather gear and maintenance equipment, but also vehicles and weapons.

Earlier this year News Channel 5 reported 30 Tennessee agencies — including departments in Lebanon, Hendersonville and La Vergne — were the recent recipients of mine-resistant vehicles. Additionally, an order error caused the McMinn County Sheriff’s Department — which employs 31 officers and investigators — to receive an order of more than 150 firearms, including 71 M16 rifles and 71 .45-caliber pistols.

Police officials have long held they need the equipment in case of emergency situations, such as natural disasters or stand-offs with armed suspects

However, accountability of issued equipment has been a nationwide problem, with many departments misplacing military equipment. For example, it took a small-town police department in Arkansas a week to even notice someone had stolen their Humvee from the station’s parking lot.

The Pentagon suspended the national program in June as a result of the myriad of accountability problems. They announced the program would remain suspended until participating law enforcement agencies complied with a request for a comprehensive audit of all equipment acquired under the program.

And earlier this month President Barack Obama announced he was creating a working group of cabinet officials to review the program and recommend reforms as to what equipment is proper for use by civilian law enforcement departments, as well as to ensure agencies receive proper training.

Several Tennessee agencies have been guilty of misplacing acquired military gear.

A Tennessee comptroller report from 2008 found that between January 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007 the town of Surgoinsville received $872,580 in surplus military equipment, but couldn’t locate $137,104 of the equipment — including a sandblaster, a plasma cutter and nine central processing units.

Last September, the Tennessean reported that four of the state’s 232 participating departments had been suspended as a result of missing equipment: the Tennessee Highway Patrol for two missing M-14 rifles; the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for a stolen M-16 that was later recovered; and the Columbia and Claiborne Police Departments for one missing M-14 each.

Additionally, this July, the state put its LESO coordinator on administrative leave after it was discovered he hadn’t notified the Department of General Services Tennessee had been suspended from the program for two months the previous year.  The state announced at the time they planned to conduct a full review of the program.

A proposal introduced in the California State Legislature this month would require law enforcement agencies get permission from the legislative body governing their jurisdiction prior to receiving military equipment from the federal government.

A complete list of all military equipment issued under the program from 2006 through April 23, 2014, compiled and organized by NPR, can be viewed here.

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Press Releases

TN Senate Holds Hearings on Criminal Justice Reform

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; September 16, 2014: 

(NASHVILLE, TN), September 16, 2014 – Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) is presiding over hearings today on reforming the criminal justice system in Tennessee.

“We must keep the public safe and hold offenders accountable in a way that protects taxpayer dollars,” said Sen. Kelsey. “Tennessee has not comprehensively evaluated the criminal justice system in over twenty years. We can learn from other states that have successfully used data to reduce costs and increase safety.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Kelsey, is currently conducting hearings on criminal justice reform during its annual summer study committee. The subjects of the session are: 1) How we got where we are in Tennessee, 2) What other states have done, and 3) Suggested changes for Tennessee. Expert witnesses and Tennessee participants are discussing such topics as truth in sentencing, pretrial release, reentry programs, probation and parole reform, community-based corrections, and reducing recidivism rates.

The scheduled participants for the hearings are as follows:

  • Sheriff Robert Arnold, Rutherford County
  • Beth Ashe, Executive Director, Tennessee Corrections Institute
  • Deputy Tennessee Attorney General Amy Tarkington
  • District Attorney General D. Michael Dunavant, 25th Judicial District, Fayette, Hardeman, Lauderdale, McNairy, and Tipton Counties
  • Paige Edwards, Tennessee Public Defender’s Conference
  • Rebecca Silber and Nancy Fishman, VERA Institute of Justice
  • Mayor Terry Frank, Anderson County, Tennessee
  • John Summers, Executive Director, Tennessee State Employees Association
  • Commissioner Bill Gibbons, Tennessee Department of Safety
  • James Musice, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • Marc Levin, Director, Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation
  • John G. Malcolm, Director, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies
  • Richard Montgomery, Chairman, Tennessee Board of Parole
  • Justin Owen, President/CEO, Beacon Center of Tennessee
  • Chief David Rausch, Knoxville Police Department
  • David Raybin, Esq., criminal defense attorney
  • Justyna Scalpone, Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender
  • Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield, Tennessee Department of Correction
  • Christopher Slobogin, Professor, Vanderbilt College of Law; member, Tennessee Consultation on Criminal Justice
  • Thomas E. Tique, Chief Deputy Attorney, Tennessee General Assembly Office of Legal Services
  • Commissioner E. Douglas Varney, Tennessee Department of Mental Health
  • Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director, ACLU of Tennessee
  • Charles White, Director, Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents
  • Judge John Everett Williams, Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown. He is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Press Releases

Kelsey Statement on TN Trial Courts Judicial Weighted Caseload Study

Statement from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey; October 31, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – “We are shrinking government in Tennessee, not expanding it,” said Senator Kelsey. “Judges must keep this in mind in making recommendations to the legislature. While the caseload study may prove useful in the allocation of judges, any recommendations for increased funding will be difficult in a tight budget year.”

“The judicial workload is actually decreasing in two significant areas. All workers’ compensation reform cases were removed from the judiciary in a bill signed by Governor Haslam this April, and from 2005 through 2012, medical malpractice case filings were down 42 percent.”

“The numbers regarding Shelby County do not fairly reflect the probate case filings that our county is choosing to fund on its own. That factor needs to be considered as we look at recommendations for Shelby County,” he concluded.

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Press Releases

Senate Judiciary Holds Hearing on Bill to Help Reformed Felons Find Work

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; October 28, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing today on a bill introduced by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) that would help reformed former felons seek employment. Senate Bill 276 will help spur job creation, reduce crime, and protect businesses from needless lawsuits. The bill will allow former criminals to petition courts for a certificate of employment restoration, and it will protect future employers who hire these new job-seekers from claims of negligent hiring.

“At a job fair last October, the number one request I heard was for legislation that would help reformed felons,” said Senator Kelsey. “With this bill, these individuals will now have a meaningful path to obtaining employment and leading a law-abiding life.”

Christopher Slobogin, Milton R. Underwood Chair in Law and Director of the Criminal Justice program at Vanderbilt University Law School, testified in favor of Senator Kelsey’s legislation. Professor Slobogin stated that providing a means for employment is the best way to reduce criminal recidivism.

This legislation will especially impact those former felons who may have been convicted of a nonviolent crime many years ago and have already paid their debt to society by fulfilling all of a court’s sentencing requirements.

“This bill protects the public by requiring a judge to determine that an individual does not pose a risk to public safety before he can receive a certificate of employment restoration,” said Sen. Kelsey. “This bill will help prevent future crimes by ensuring these individuals have access to good paying jobs and are not tempted to return to a life of crime.”

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Press Releases

TN Senate Judiciary Cmte to Hold ‘Confidential’ Investigation of District AG Bebb

Letter from the Senate Judiciary Committee to Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey; October 28, 2013:

Dear Governor Ramsey:

I am writing to inform you of the status of the Senate Judiciary Committee Investigation of District Attorney General R. Steven Bebb. Pursuant to Senate Resolution 40, the committee is investigating the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation file relating to the subject. The investigation will remain ongoing and confidential. At this time, the committee does not plan to make a recommendation to the full Senate prior to its convening in January.

Sincerely,

Brian Kelsey

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Press Releases

Kelsey Files Resolution Promising Legal Action Against Feds for Violating 2nd Amendment

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 27, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and the Senate Judiciary Committee took action today that will simultaneously work to uphold the United States Constitution and promote the safety of law enforcement officers working to enforce our laws. SB 250, deemed unconstitutional by the Attorney General and opposed by the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and Governor Bill Haslam, failed to pass in the Judiciary Committee on a 4-4 vote.

Kelsey, an ardent 2nd Amendment supporter, today filed a resolution aimed at upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of Tennessee gun owners. The resolution recognizes the right of the people to keep and bear arms, and promises immediate legal action by the State of Tennessee should that right be infringed upon by the Federal government. “Senate Resolution 17 is the constitutional way to address executive orders and acts of Congress that attempt to violate the 2nd Amendment.” Based on the rule of law, this action takes our disputes to the courts.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” said Kelsey following today’s meeting. “The Constitution doesn’t let you force sheriff’s deputies, against their will, to shoot and kill federal authorities who are enforcing U.S. Supreme Court decisions.”

Senator Kelsey felt that supporting SB 250 would violate his oath to uphold the United States Constitution. Kelsey concluded by stating, “I will not violate my oath. I will stand by my oath, and I will stand by the United States Constitution.”

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Press Releases

Beavers Congratulates Kelsey on Judiciary Committee Chair Appointment

Press release from State Senator Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet; January 16, 2013:

(NASHVILLE TN), Wednesday, January 16, 2012 – Last week, State Sen. Mae Beavers (R – Mt. Juliet) congratulated her friend and colleague, Sen. Brian Kelsey (R – Germantown), on his recent appointment to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Beavers also expressed gratitude for the honor of serving as chair of the distinguished committee for the past six years.

“I am very proud of the hard work that was exhibited by the committee members and the committee staff over the past six years,” said Sen. Beavers. “I took great pride in efficiently completing our committee work in a timely fashion, and was excited to lead the committee towards becoming the most technologically advanced committee in the legislature. Also, Im appreciative of my colleagues who consistently praised the great work that the committee produced, and I’m proud to have been one of the few women in leadership in the state legislature.”

Sen. Beavers was elected to the state house in 1994, and to the state senate in 2002. She was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 2007 until last year, being one of the only females and non-attorneys in recent times to do so. Sen. Beavers was consistently recognized by Republicans and Democrats alike for effectively and fairly running the Senate Judiciary Committee – one of the largest committees in the legislature in terms of legislation volume, and one that covers all legislation dealing with civil and criminal laws. Under her leadership, the committee became the only committee in the legislature to operate in a completely “paperless” fashion. Sen. Beavers is particularly grateful for the hard work of her three past research analysts and her executive assistant, some who have served the committee for over six years.

In addition, Sen. Beavers served as the contact person for hundreds of Tennesseans who expressed their frustration with the lack of accountability and transparency amongst Tennessee’s judiciary. She conducted numerous hearings on judicial oversight, and was considered by many to be one of the driving forces behind increased transparency and accountability to the board that oversees complaints against judges, the formation of more stringent judicial recusal rules, as well as the online publication of trial judgment statistics brought about after her ‘Report Card for Judges’ legislation.

“In addition to laws regarding greater judicial accountability, I am proud of all the legislation that we shepherded through the committee, including tort reform, tougher DUI and meth laws, laws increasing our 2nd Amendment rights, important constitutional amendments protecting the rights of the unborn and prohibiting a state income tax, and numerous other laws to help increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our civil and criminal justice system,” said Sen. Beavers. “I am also thankful for all of the senators – Democrats and Republicans – who served on the committee (often late into the evening) and all that they have contributed to the state of Tennessee.”

Finally, Sen. Beavers is appreciative of the opportunity to serve as 1st Vice Chair for both the Senate Transportation & Safety Committee and the Energy, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, and welcomes the possibility of bringing better roads and bridges to District 17. In addition, she looks forward to the additional time she will get to spend interacting with the citizens of Cannon, Clay, DeKalb, Macon, Smith and Wilson counties, serving as their senator for the remainder of her term and for what she hopes will be additional terms after that.

“I was honored to have served on the Judiciary Committee and am proud of all that we accomplished,” said Sen. Beavers. “However, I know that it is time for me to move on and provide my expertise in other areas of the legislature, and I look forward to spending more time in my district serving the citizens of the six great counties that I represent for what I hope will be many more years.”

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NewsTracker Tax and Budget

AG Cooper: More Funding or Lose Lawyers

Attorney General Robert Cooper told lawmakers Tuesday his office lost 14 percent of its lawyer workforce to other offices and firms last year, in part because the state’s salaries for experienced lawyers are not competitive.

That figure was more than double the percentage that left the prior year, fiscal year 2010, Attorney General Cooper said at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

“My most important issue in the office is finding the money to keep excellent lawyers that we have, keep them working for the state,” Cooper said.

Cooper underscored his office’s work suing people to bring money into state government coffers.

“In the current fiscal year budget, my office is receiving $24.1 million in state dollar funding. In comparison, just four of our divisions – Bankruptcy, Collections, Consumer, and Medicaid Fraud – returned to the state $33 million in fiscal year 2010-2011,” Cooper said.

According to Cooper, 48 of the lawyers in his office, or about one-third, make between $50,000 and $60,000 a year. Of that one-third, 40 make between $50,000 and $55,000 a year and have up to 10 years of experience.

The median wage per year for lawyers in the Nashville area is roughly twice that figure at $100,320, according to an American Bar Association study of Census and other data.

Cooper said many of the lawyers who left the AG’s office received pay increases between $10,000 and $20,000.

Gov. Bill Haslam has said he is interested in finding better incentives for good employees after several commissioners have complained they struggle to retain quality workers. As part of his legislative package, Haslam has proposed ways to place more emphasis on merit and skills — as opposed to just years with the state — in hiring and promotion decisions.

“The team with the best players wins. It’s just true,” he said at a Cookeville meeting with local civic and business leaders. “So the most important thing we do is make certain we have the very best people.”

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Press Releases

Senate Republican Weekly Wrap: March 31

Press Release from the Senate GOP Caucus, March 31, 2011:

Legislature marks first anniversary of Race to the Top win

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 31, 2011 — The Senate Education Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), and Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to create an environment that promotes the growth of high quality public charter schools in Tennessee. The bill is one of three education reform measures proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to improve student achievement by giving students the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“Public charter schools are a critical tool to improve public education and provide every child in Tennessee the opportunity to receive a great education,” said Speaker Woodson. “This bill creates an environment that promotes the growth of high quality charter schools, allows districts access to innovative tools to address their unique challenges, and gives many more parents the option of sending their child to a school that better suits his or her needs.”

Key provisions of the Senate Bill 1523 include:

  • Removes the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state
  • Allows for open enrollment in charter schools (removes eligibility restrictions while maintaining current system that gives preference to certain applicants and provides for a lottery system when applications exceed the number of seats available in the school)
  • Gives preference in the application process to proposed charter schools that demonstrate a capability to support certain high-need populations
  • Provides the Achievement School District with the ability to authorize charter schools within the district
  • Allows for appeal of charter revocation or nonrenewal to State Board of Education except when those decisions are based on the current AYP accountability guidelines for charters (maintains high accountability standards)
  • Removes “automatic repeal” provision so that there is no automatic sunset date on the charter law

“High quality charter schools serve as laboratories of learning for struggling school districts,” added Leader Norris. “We have attracted significant investments to help more quality charter schools get started in our state. However, we are missing the flexibility within our law to foster that growth.”

“The national spotlight is now on Tennessee’s education reform efforts,” added Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville). “This legislation makes commonsense changes which are a critical part of our strategy to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools.”

Recently, Tennessee was awarded $40 million in investments to support new charter schools in Tennessee. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of the measure’s financial impact.

Race to the Top — Action on the education reform bill came one day after the first anniversary of Tennessee’s Race to the Top win. The Senate Education Committee heard testimony that, since being awarded upward of $501 million, school districts have begun executing a dramatic set of school reforms as a result of the bold initiatives passed last year.

The first year has been a combination of planning and successes. The plan focuses on three main student performance goals: young students’ academic readiness, high school graduates’ readiness for college and careers, and higher rates of graduates enrolling and succeeding in post-secondary education.

Tennessee’s complete Race to the Top proposal and other First to the Top accomplishments are detailed on the Tennessee First to the Top website at www.tn.gov/firsttothetop.

SJR 127 to restore the people’s voice on state’s abortion laws meets first test of 2011 with passage in Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6 to 3 this week to give Tennesseans the opportunity to restore their voice in determining what state law should be regarding abortions. The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 127, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) 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 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 abortion a “fundamental right” in Tennessee.

“I am pleased that this resolution has been approved by our Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Senator Beavers. “This would enable Tennessee to begin the process to restore the right of the people to decide through their elected legislature what protections should be in place regarding abortions. The only way to restore these protections is to change the constitution and give the legislature authority to write commonsense laws.”

The resolution would allow citizens to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to say that the right to an abortion is only protected under the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. It would give the people the right, through their elected state representatives and senators, to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape, incest or life of the mother. The practical effect of the legislation would be to bring Tennessee back into a position of neutrality so the people’s elected representatives can decide within the bounds of federal decisions what protections can be put into place.

The resolution was approved by the 106th General Assembly by a simple majority. The amendment process requires a two-thirds majority in the current General Assembly before citizens will see it on the ballot in November 2014.

Comprehensive legislation approved by Senate Transportation Committee would provide statewide guidelines for unmanned traffic enforcement cameras

The Senate Transportation Committee has approved comprehensive legislation to provide statewide guidelines to govern the use of unmanned traffic cameras. The proposal comes after much legislative debate on the matter during the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions. The use of automated systems for surveillance of intersections and roadways is growing as more communities across the state are utilizing the devices. Opponents of the cameras have argued that the motivation behind the cameras is money instead of safety, while those who favor the cameras claim that the devices have made streets safer by reducing the number of crashes.

“The purpose of this bill is to give uniform standards across the state,” said Senator Jim Tracy, who is sponsor of the bill and Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We have worked on this proposal for several years and have put together a very comprehensive bill.”

Senate Bill 1684, as amended, includes statewide provisions that:

  • Invalidate traffic camera citations issued for failure to make a complete stop before making a right hand turn at a red signal unless clearly marked signs are posted saying “No Turn on Red.”
  • Clarify that advance signage to inform drivers is required of at least 500 feet, but not more than 1000 feet, before the enforcement area of the unmanned traffic enforcement camera.
  • Require an independent traffic engineering study before any new camera can be set up to assure that the proposed camera meets certain criteria to ensure that the purpose is to improve traffic safety.
  • Prohibit speed trap cameras by banning the use of traffic enforcement cameras on any highway within one mile of a reduction of speed limits of 10 mph or greater.
  • Provide that no more than one citation shall be issued for each offense committed.
  • Vehicle registration information must be consistent with the evidence recorded by the enforcement camera or the citation is invalid.
  • Mandate that notice of violations be mailed to the alleged offender within 20 days and that all responses and payments be made to a Tennessee address.
  • Set the fine at $50 if the violator elects not to contest and provides that citation notices must list any additional late fees or court costs separately in the event they should decide to go to court and are found guilty.
  • Amend current law to allow only POST certified or state-commissioned law enforcement officers to view evidence from a traffic enforcement camera and issue the citation. Present law only requires an “employee” of the law enforcement agency.

“My goal is to protect the public from abuse of these camera systems by providing clear guidelines to ensure that the focus is on public safety,” added Tracy. “I am very pleased with the bill’s progress and believe the chances of passage are excellent.”

The bill would not affect current unmanned traffic enforcement contracts in place. If passed, the law would become effective July 1, 2011.

Judiciary Committee approves bill calling for popular election of state’s appellate and Supreme Court Judges

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill calling for a change in the method for selecting the state’s appellate and Supreme Court Judges. Senate Bill 127, sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), calls for judges to be popularly elected in the same manner as other candidates for office, like those competing for governor, state representatives, or state senate. Tennessee currently uses the “Tennessee Plan” for selecting appellate and Supreme Court judges.

Under the current Tennessee Plan, a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission sends the governor a panel of three nominees for consideration after reviewing nominees. The governor must then appoint one of the nominees or reject the panel of three and request a second panel. After being appointed through this process, the judges serve until the term for which they were appointed expires at which time they must stand for approval by the voters in an election where the voters will decide whether or not to “retain” or “replace” them.

Tennessee’s Constitution says judges must be “elected by the qualified voters of the state.” Much of the debate has focused on whether or not the selection process with a retention vote meets that constitutional test. While the constitutionality of the plan has been affirmed twice by Court decisions, many legal scholars dispute the ruling.

Passage of the bill came after Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) was asked to break a 4-4 tie on the measure. Afterwards, Ramsey said he took the step because he believes the state constitution is unambiguous in its proscription that judges “shall be elected” in the state of Tennessee.

“While I do not believe electing judges in statewide elections is the best policy for our state, our Constitution is very clear on this matter,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey.

“Our Constitution is what we swear by oath to uphold,” said Senator Campfield. “The Constitution says the members of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of this state — not selected, not appointed, but elected. Everybody in here knows what election means because we have all been through it. If any of us said there is not going to be an election (for State Senate) anymore and that it would be by a retention vote, they would laugh every one of us out of office.”

In Brief…

Cutting Red Tape — Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey this week announced he will launch a website dedicated to shining a light on unnecessary government regulation. TNRedtape.com’s mission is to be a space on the web where regular Tennesseans can have a voice and seek relief from oppressive government red tape. The site offers the opportunity to small business owners to tell their story of overbearing government regulation and how it has affected their lives. The most flagrant examples will be highlighted on the blog and the site will also aggregate stories of government red tape in the news.

Government Efficiency — The State Senate voted 31 to 0 this week to terminate the Occupational Safety and health Administration Labor Advisory Council. The action on Senate Bill 213, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Bo Watson (R-Hixson), comes as a result of the General Assembly’s sunset review process. The purpose of sunset review is to identify and eliminate waste, duplication and inefficiency in government agencies. In his State of the State Address, Governor Haslam asked the General Assembly to join him in reviewing the state’s boards and commissions to see whether 140 are necessary. He also noted the progress of the Senate Government Operations Committee and its Chairman, Bo Watson, in this regards. The full Senate also approved Senate Bill 240 by Senator Watson this week. That legislation will complete the wind down process of the Board of Review in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development which was terminated by the General Assembly last year. The duties of that board will be absorbed by the Department of Labor.

Animal fighting – The Senate Judiciary Committee this week approved the “Animal Fighting Enforcement Act,” which strengthens penalties for attending dog fights and cockfights. Senate Bill 785, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), imposes a fine of $2,500 for the Class A misdemeanor of cock fighting, increases the penalty for a 2nd or subsequent conviction of cock fighting from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony, enhances the penalty for being a spectator at an animal fight from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor, and imposes a $2,500 fine for such violation. The link between animal cruelty and other forms of illegal activities is a national concern. Other states like North and South Carolina have driven animal fighting to Tennessee due to increased penalties imposed in their states.

Consumers / Banks — The State Senate has approved Senate Bill 1800, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), to help provide consumers notice regarding a solicitation that might appear that it is coming from their bank. A problem has arisen where companies obtain mortgage information and contact the customer offering to refinance their mortgage but are not affiliated with the bank. By using the bank’s logo when making contact with the customer, it becomes a misrepresentation because the customer thinks that their lending institution is offering the new financing. The bill clarifies that it is unlawful for a person, “other than the lender or a person authorized by the lender” to use a loan number, loan amount, or other specific loan information that is not publicly available in a solicitation for the purchase of services or products unless it clearly states in bold face type the name, address and phone number of the solicitor. It must also contain a statement that the person making the solicitation is not authorized or affiliated with the bank, nor does it contain loan information provided by them.

Military Parents / Child Custody — The State Senate has voted to approved legislation sponsored by Senator Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) to require a court to hold an expedited hearing, if appropriate, for a temporary modification to a decree for child custody or visitation when a parent, who is to be mobilized into military duty, requires immediate attention. With the substantially increased activity of our armed forces around the world today, Senate Bill 721recognizes the need to protect the rights of both service members and their children. The legislation requires the court to allow testimony to be given by electronic means while the military parent is out of the state, if necessary. It also authorizes the court to permanently modify a decree of child custody or visitation if a parent volunteers for successive or frequent duties that remove the parent from the state.

Budget Hearings — The State Senate budget hearings have begun as state departments and agencies appeared before committees this week to review their requests in the 2011-12 appropriations bill. Senate Committees will continue the hearings for the next several weeks. The budget is traditionally one of the last bills to be passed before adjournment.

Teacher tenure reform bill goes to governor – The full Senate approved a minor amendment to Senate Bill 1528 regarding teacher tenure reform and sent the bill to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), changes a teacher’s probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure from three to five years as well as links tenure status to performance evaluations, among other changes. The legislation builds on the bold initiatives passed last year with Tennessee’s First to the Top program to give Tennessee students more opportunities to succeed.

Cost savings / uncontested city elections – The full Senate voted this week to approve Senate Bill 922, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), designed to save Tennessee cities money spent on early voting when there is no opposition in a city election. The bill would remove the requirement that an early voting period be held for any municipal election if there is no opposition for any of the offices involved, including any write-in candidate that has filed notice. The legislation only applies in cases when the election is not held in conjunction with a primary election, the regular August or November general elections, or any special primary or special general election for state or federal offices.