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Discussion Continues on Proposal to Tighten Voter Registration Requirements

Senate debate over a bill aimed at preventing non-citizens from registering to vote is scheduled to continue today after it was held up in the Senate last week by accusations and counter-accusations that the proposed polices under discussion could lead to racial or ethnic profiling.

The legislation, SB 0194, would require anyone seeking to vote in a Tennessee election to prove they are a citizen of the United States. The current system is based solely on an applicant’s word — they simply check a box on the voter registration form stating that they are indeed a citizen

Supporters of the bill say it will reduce voter fraud.

Democrats worry the legislation will enable local officials to engage in “profiling,” and disenfranchise legitimate voters.

“I truly believe we do not want to be in a situation where people are being profiled, where some people are asked to submit proof and some people are not asked to submit proof,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.

Kyle’s suggested solution was to require county election administrators to report to the state on the gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality of anyone who did not include the accepted ways of proving citizenship. It was an idea he offered in the form of an amendment to the bill.

Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron quickly observed that “keeping records of gender, race, nationality, etc.” sounds suspiciously like profiling in its own right.

“If you have papers…you’re here legally, then it’s recorded,” said Ketron. “If you don’t, then you don’t register to vote.”

Nevertheless, Kyle argued that without the reporting requirement included in the amendment, the public will never know “whether (a registrar) is profiling or not profiling.”

Local election officials are “operating in a vacuum,” he said. “The only one who’s going to know is person who got profiled.”

Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, added that she believes Kyle’s amendment “would give us some sort of information and some sort of guidelines where we could judge whether or not the people at the (county) election commission are seriously looking at the voter applications and whether they are rejecting a lot of applications.”

Mike Faulk, a Kingsport Republican, said some groups turn in masses of registration forms after a voter registration drive which could make a county election administrator look like they are profiling when they are not.

He said that at such voter registration drives, the registrar would not meet face-to-face with each person filling out a form, and the sheer volume of forms turned in after a voter registration drive would make it hard for a registrar to have time to check into each one to verify the citizenship information submitted is accurate.

Kyle disagreed, saying the reporting requirement would show whether the election offices are treating people equally.

When dealing with stacks of voter registration forms, he said, it would show whether a registrar decided whether “I’m going to question every third one, or I’m going to question every one, or I’m only going to question the ones where the guy’s name is ‘Jose,'” said Kyle.

A vote on the bill was put off after the sponsor of the original bill, Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, voiced concerns that Kyle’s amendment would cost the state money, but agreed to allow Kyle time to do a price check with election officials.

A version of the bill has already passed in the House.

Press Releases

Sen. Kyle Wants Action On Lottery Scholarship Funding Issues

Press Release from Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis; April 6, 2010:

Senate Committee Failure To Plug Gap Threatens Future Scholarships

NASHVILLE – Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis is calling on lawmakers to address an insolvent lottery scholarship fund after a Senate committee failed to plug a $13 million funding shortfall that threatens scholarship availability.

“This is the first step to reducing scholarships and denying accessibility for thousands of Tennessee students who depend on the lottery scholarship as their sole opportunity to attend college,” Kyle said. “This inaction threatens the ability to keep our promise to these students. The time to act is now.”

The Senate Education Committee voted 4-4-1 Wednesday on Senate Bill 3343 along party lines: Democrats for, Republicans against with one Republican abstaining. The bill would have transferred between $56 million and $91.4 million in lottery funds for energy efficient school projects to the scholarship fund.

Wednesday’s tie vote effectively kills the legislation unless the committee chair recalls the bill. The committee closed Wednesday evening.

Currently, the lottery scholarship fund will require the use of reserve money for a second straight year to cover existing scholarships. The continued use of such reserves could lead to a decrease in interest income that funds lottery scholarships – and a subsequent decrease in scholarships.

Kyle is urging lottery scholarship recipients to contact their state lawmakers to tell what they want done to shore up the scholarship fund. If the Education Committee doesn’t reconsider the energy efficiency funds transfer, Kyle will call for it when the 2010-11 budget legislation comes up for a vote.

“On our current course, we are going to leave state education officials no choice other than raising academic requirements and cutting both the number and amount of lottery scholarships,” Kyle said. “Lawmakers are crippling our children’s futures by sitting on their hands.”

Liberty and Justice

Legislators Move Toward Rewriting DUI Law

A bill that advanced in the state Senate this week would give some DUI offenders more driving options after a conviction.

Under an amendment to SB2965 brought by sponsor Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, some first-time, non-aggravated offenders would be given a choice of whether to get a restricted license or have an interlock device installed on their vehicle in order to legally drive.

Right now, such offenders can only get a restricted license, which places geographic restrictions on a where a person can drive, like just to and from work, school, and church. But if a person convicted of a DUI offense chooses to get an interlock rather than a restricted license, the offender would no longer face such driving restrictions.

The amendment would also require that the interlock be installed on only one vehicle operated by an offender, rather than on all vehicles owned or operated by an offender, as current law stipulates.

One goal of the bill, according to proponents, is to encourage more offenders to use interlock devices. In addition to making the streets safer, they say, funds from the increased use of breath-activated ignition devices would go to offset their costs to those whom the court has deemed indigent.

Offenders with multiple DUI violations, or first-time offenders who are considered “aggravated” — which includes getting caught with a blood-alcohol content of at least .15, driving drunk with a child in the vehicle, driving drunk and being involved in an accident, or violating the implied consent law — would still be required to have an interlock device.

In 2008, there were 21,033 DUI convictions in Tennessee, according to Roger Hutto, a representative from the Department of Safety. He said 13,000 were first-time offenders, and 3,877 of those eligible for a restricted license obtained one.

Some lawmakers on the committee indicated that the low number of people getting restricted licenses shows the current law is already hard to enforce and that there may not be much of an increase in the number of interlock users.

“The cost of a DUI is very, very high,” said Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson. “A lot of these people are just working people who haven’t got two nickels to rub together. The cost and consequence of a DUI are beyond their means.”

“You know what they are doing?” he continued. “They’re getting a restricted license – they’re driving anyway. People are going to do what they are going to do. Some of these people…it’s just an unfortunate circumstance they find themselves in and they’ve got kids to feed and a mortgage to pay.”

“It’s all on the honor system, anyway,” he added.

Beavers countered that people would choose to have the interlock device rather than a restricted license because of the fewer restrictions of having an interlock device under her amendment.

“I think that’s going to be an incentive for people to get the interlock, and we’re going to be safer on our streets,” she said. “The Department of Safety has told us this (legislation) will save 200-300 lives a year, and I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What are those lives worth?’”

Beavers also downplayed the cost DUI offenders face after conviction.

“How much are these people spending on alcohol (already)?” she asked rhetorically. “What are they taking away from their families right now with the amount they have to drink every day to get up to a .15 (blood alcohol content)?”

Jackson said while that might be true for some people, “some just get caught coming home from the family reunion.”

Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said the fees for the devices vary greatly because of the lack of a competitive market in the state, allowing some vendors to charge “what they want to charge.”

“There isn’t competition…until there’s a market presence by more than one vendor, and we’ve not been shown any proof to that effect,” he said. “While there are people who are in the business, there are people in the business with 20 locations, and there are people in the business with just one or two locations.”

Since current law requires that vendors charge a “reasonable” fee, Kyle suggested a cap or a fee structure.

In response, the committee adopted an amendment by Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, that would limit installation fees at $70 and monthly fees at $100.

That may be revisited by the Senate Finance Committee, where the bill is headed next, after Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, suggested the Legislature give the Department of Safety the authority to set the fees so the Legislature does not need to revisit the fees every year.

Action on the companion bill in the House was deferred by a subcommittee Wednesday morning.

Press Releases

Kyle Bows Out of Dem Primary

Statement from Sen. Jim Kyle, Feb. 26, 2010:

NASHVILLE – Memphis Senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) announced today that he will be withdrawing from the 2010 Tennessee Gubernatorial race, and issued the following statement:

“After careful consideration and consultation with my family, I have decided that I will no longer be a candidate for Governor of Tennessee.

“It is clear to me that while our campaign had the assets to be competitive in the Primary, the legislative fundraising restriction, the economy, and my duties as Senate Leader have severely hampered my ability to generate resources which would have been vital to our success in the general election. Our state faces unprecedented budget and funding issues that cannot wait for the next Governor, and I plan to devote all my energies to working with Governor Bredesen and my colleagues in the legislature to ensure that the best interests of all Tennesseans are placed first.

“I started this campaign for governor to help our state create the recession-proof jobs that will move us forward. My vision for accomplishing this task was to take “Higher Education to a Higher Place,” and make our colleges economic engines for Tennessee. While no longer a candidate for Governor, I will continue to be an outspoken advocate to promote and define the solutions that answer our state’s most pressing challenges, in both higher education and job creation. Perhaps, my exit from this race will enable some of my legislative initiatives, which will address these challenges, to be seen and heard more clearly.

“For a guy whose Mom worked in a tire factory and whose Dad drove a truck, perhaps the most humbling support has been from Tennessee’s working families. My parents’ jobs were hard jobs, and because of the Unions they belonged to, they were able to provide a better life for our family.

“I would like to thank each and every Tennessean who has assisted me in this campaign. I am proud to call Tennessee home. I have built a career in this great state, raised my family here, and will continue to pursue the same goal I set for this campaign: that we have a government that measures its success one citizen at a time.”

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Ramsey’s Balancing Act Takes Up Two Stages

When you’re the Speaker of the Senate, it’s not like you can skip out on your job for a day and nobody’s going to notice.

It doesn’t take long to see that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s legislative role is both an advantage and a disadvantage in running for governor when the General Assembly is in session.

Tasked with conducting the Tennessee Senate’s daily political business to the general satisfaction of his legislative colleagues, the press and the public, the Blountville Republican must also invest the energy necessary to get his name and message out where the likely GOP primary voters are.

Foremost in juggling the facets of his self-imposed predicament, Ramsey said he’s trying to “make sure I don’t miss any sessions.”

“I’m in Nashville Monday afternoons, Wednesday mornings and Thursday mornings. But I am traveling here in Middle Tennessee some on Tuesdays and obviously on the weekends,” he said recently.

Ramsey is in the thick of the Republican primary for governor, where the main opposition is Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. Under no circumstances does Ramsey want to be away from the Capitol when key legislation he could be charged with implementing and executing as governor comes up on the Senate agenda.

“It’s tying me down some because I want to be doing the people’s business,” Ramsey said. “I want to make sure we’re balancing the budget without raising taxes. We’re going to do that. It’s still pretty well flexible where I can get out in the collar counties around Davidson County.”

Fortunately for Ramsey, though, he really doesn’t have to go far from the Capitol to locate some prime vote-hunting grounds. This year the “collar counties” surrounding Nashville — most notably Sumner County, Rutherford County and Williamson County — are the central battleground in the four-man Republican field for governor, primarily because none of the candidates are originally from Middle Tennessee.

The political landscape wasn’t always that way. In recent years, the growth of population in the collar counties surrounding Nashville has been significant, and it has especially been so for the Republican Party.

“When I became caucus chairman of the Republicans, Republicans had one of the six state Senate districts around Davidson County. We now have five of the six,” Ramsey said. “That just shows you the trend that’s going on, especially in the Republican primary.”

The situation might even be considered a geographic advantage for Ramsey, who among all the candidates is in some ways closest to “home” in Nashville. Gibbons and Haslam have to work Middle Tennessee from opposite ends of the state.

Wamp has to spend a lot of his time working in Washington, D.C. Not only is the nation’s capital one of the last places rank-and-file Tennessee Republicans are likely looking today for political leadership on issues of state concern, it’s many more miles away from Nashville even than Sullivan County.

None of this is unusual, though: It’s an election year, which means all public officials who are running for new jobs are in a constant state of juggling responsibilities. And it’s one reason state legislators are hopeful the session won’t last too long, since they want to be on the campaign trail.

Another factor for members of the General Assembly is that they may not raise money for their state campaigns while in session, which puts Ramsey at a disadvantage alongside state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, who was the last of the current Democratic gubernatorial field to announce his candidacy.

Just as being lieutenant governor can boost the visibility of Ramsey working on state business, Kyle can make a similar claim. Kyle was quite visible as a workhorse on education reform in the special session called earlier this year by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Actively handling important legislation can be as important as making campaign stump speeches.

Other Democratic gubernatorial candidates are Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, and Kim McMillan, a former House majority leader.

One drawback to being in the legislature is the law that prohibits legislators from raising funds during the session. As long as lawmakers are at work, they must refrain from accepting campaign donations, at least until after May 15. The prohibition does not apply to opponents who aren’t in the General Assembly.

Lawmakers who are running for federal office, however, may raise money during that time, which applies to state Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin. Herron is running for the retiring U.S. Rep. John Tanner’s seat in the 8th District, while Tracy and Black are both among candidates for the 6th District seat being vacated by Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon.

But just as important to remember is that in an election year, it’s not exactly everyone for themselves. A lot of networking goes on, which means candidates help other candidates. Such an example could be found last Wednesday night when Ramsey appeared at a gathering for Dustin Dunbar, who is running for Williamson County commissioner in Spring Hill.

“He and I are good friends. We’ve worked together on several projects in the past,” Dunbar said. “I told him I’d be running for county commission here in Williamson County, and I would definitely appreciate his support. By having the support of those state-level leaders it’s definitely beneficial for somebody on the county level to have some cooperation from people on the state level, because there is so much interaction we have.

“I would say he supports me in my efforts, and I support him in his efforts.”

As if to prove the point of all the interaction, Spring Hill Mayor Michael Dinwiddie addressed the crowd at the Spring Hill event and said he would introduce all the politicians in attendance but it might take an hour, so he called for applause for anybody running for office or currently serving. Dinwiddie introduced Ramsey, and the lieutenant governor introduced Dunbar to the crowd.

“Obviously, if I’m standing in front of a crowd I always want to remind people I’m running for governor,” Ramsey told the group. “I want to just bring that up.”