Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Bipartisan Coalition Looks to Take Down Traffic Cameras

Dresden House Republican Andy Holt said earlier this year he was hoping for bipartisan support to do away with Tennessee traffic camera enforcement.

And he appears to have it.

Led by Holt, Sens. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, held a press conference Tuesday morning to pitch the “Tennessee Freedom From Traffic Cameras Act” and lay out their opposition to camera enforcement.

Holt’s bill is scheduled to be heard Wednesday afternoon in the House Transportation Subcommittee and the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee.

HB1372/SB1128 would prohibit local governments from entering into any contract “to provide for the use of any unmanned traffic enforcement camera” to enforce traffic violations. House Democrat Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory is also a co-sponsor.

“The rule of law, the integrity of law enforcement and the court system in our state, must be preserved,” Holt said.

Holt called the use of camera citations “fundamentally flawed,” and pointed out that the language of the law itself said a traffic camera alone would not provide enough evidence to charge someone with a moving violation.

He also said camera enforcement denies a person the right to face their accuser and the presumption of innocence that “form the bedrock of our judicial system.”

Additionally, there’s been a problem where “the municipalities and the companies involved actually lower the time of the yellow lights” so that they can gather more revenue, said Gardenhire, the primary Senate sponsor. However, he noted, much of that revenue goes to the company running the equipment, and the cities keep very little.

Referring to the initiative as “bipartisan,” Harris pointed out the differences between himself and Holt — “I’m a very proud liberal Democrat, he’s a very proud conservative; I’m from a city, an urban center, and he’s from a less urban center; I think he has a farm, and I’ve never been on a farm.” — but explained they were able to find a common ground on opposing traffic cameras.

Similarly, in a late February press release announcing Harris as a co-sponsor of the legislation, Holt indicated himself and Harris were “total polar opposites politically,” but were “linking arms on a huge issue” to many of their constituents.

“These things in my view are un-American,” Harris said. “Because in America, we’ve got the tradition that you are innocent until proven guilty, and red light cameras fly in the face of that.”

Harris added that traffic camera programs like the one in Memphis “undermine the quality of life” of the citizens, and “make them mad at government.”

Holt and Harris both admitted to reporters they have had some personal involvement with camera enforcement.

The proposal’s proponents also argued that if safety was the goal, red light cameras do a poor job of meeting that. A majority of peer-reviewed studies on the effectiveness of traffic cameras “have shown that cameras actually lead to more accidents, and disincentivize cities to seek safer engineering practices as alternatives because of, unfortunately, the almighty dollar,” Holt said.

However, if past attempts to repeal the legislation and opposition from local governments with camera enforcement contracts are any indication, doing away with camera enforcement looks like an uphill battle for the bipartisan group.

And shortly after Holt first announced his intentions in January, a pair of Middle Tennessee Republican lawmakers both criticized the move, and said that the decision for whether or not to deploy traffic cameras was better handled by local governments.

The legislation’s fiscal note indicates that while it will not significantly affect state coffers, local revenue would be decreased in excess of $978,000.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are 607 communities nationwide with speed and red light camera enforcement, and 24 of those are in Tennessee.

In 2010, Tennessee’s then-Attorney General Robert Cooper issued an opinion that found the use of red light cameras was constitutional.

In 2011, the Legislature passed a law that regulated traffic camera use statewide. That legislation clarified that for an infraction to occur, the motorist has to have entered the intersection following the light change. The law also ended the practice of ticketing drivers for a right turn on red, unless explicitly posted.

And in 2012, a Knox County judge ruled against an effort by traffic camera operators to overturn the 2011 law due to a decline in their revenue.

Press Releases

TN Senate Dems Criticize Haslam, Lawmakers for Opposition to FCC Municipal Broadband Ruling

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; March 3, 2015:

Consumers want choices, not government obstruction to limit Internet options

NASHVILLE – Tennessee lawmakers should embrace competition when it comes to broadband services, not work to limit consumer choice, Democratic leaders said.

“Anyone who has spent hours on the phone with a service provider to dispute a bill or get proper services knows consumers need more choices when it comes to Internet service,” Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said. “It is disturbing to see lawmakers act so quickly to limit consumer choice when Tennesseans are demanding more.”

Last week the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Chattanooga’s EPB could provide lightning-speed Internet outside the municipal power distributor’s service area. The move would mean new options for consumers in the Chattanooga area and increased broadband speeds, which are a critical tool for economic development outside of major cities.

However, the governor, the attorney general and other lawmakers have stood in opposition to consumer choice, even considering a lawsuit against the federal government at great cost to the taxpayer.

“Communities like mine in rural West Tennessee don’t care so much about these technicalities,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “They care less about service areas and more about having access to fast, reliable Internet. If a provider wants to bring that to my constituents, I don’t think I want the state to get in the way.”

The decision whether to sue the FCC on this issue will be a true test of the attorney general’s independence.

“With the FCC ruling, consumers consider this matter settled,” Sen. Harris said. “No one wants to see our attorney general give in to demands from lawmakers who want to play politics rather than do what’s best for consumers and our economy.”

Press Releases

TN Senate Dems Fret About Impact of Anti-Exchange Bill

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; February 24, 2015:

Legislation would ensure Supreme Court ruling strips people of health care

NASHVILLE – Weeks after a committee denied a full vote on Insure Tennessee, a new piece of legislation will be heard in committee today that could take health insurance away from 229,000 people who already have it.

“This legislation addresses a hypothetical scenario, but it could have very real consequences for a lot of Tennesseans,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro said. “It would be tragic for Tennesseans to lose the security of health insurance just to prove an ideological point.”

While Insure Tennessee would have covered people who earn between 100-138% of the federal poverty level, others who earn between 138-400% of the federal poverty level receive tax credits to buy insurance on the federal exchange.

SB 72 is on the calendar for today’s 1:30 p.m. meeting of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. It seeks to prohibit Tennessee from establishing a state exchange if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in King v. Burwell that Tennesseans who purchase insurance on the exchange are ineligible for federal tax credits. For most of the 229,000 Tennesseans who used the federal exchange to purchase insurance, this legislation would effectively eliminate their health care coverage. A ruling could come as early as this summer.

Under the Affordable Care Act, Tennesseans are receiving more than $700 million in federal tax subsidies that would vanish if the Supreme Court rules against the Obama administration. Notably, the proponents of SB 72 signed onto an amicus brief with the court, arguing that Tennesseans should not receive tax credits and cost assistance.

“It’s hard to believe we’re now starting a process to take insurance away from hundreds of thousands of people who already have it,” Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said. “I hope someone wakes me up from this. This is a nightmare.”

Press Releases

TN Senate Dems: Haslam’s Longevity Pay Cut Won’t Improve State Workforce

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; February 19, 2015:

NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to slash longevity pay takes money out of state employees’ paychecks without doing anything to improve our state workforce, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said.

“The governor seems to propose taking part of these employee paychecks, using that part to create a pool of money, and giving it right back to the same employees and calling the process a raise,” Sen. Lee Harris said. “That’s not what most people in the private sector would call a raise. There’s got to be some way to give our top performers in government a real raise without the subterfuge.”

The governor’s plan to eliminate longevity pay would end the $100 raises workers receive for each year after three years of service. In lean budget years, it may be the only increase employees receive to keep up with cost of living.

“Some employees have worked and earned these paychecks for decades,” Sen. Harris said. “These paychecks are not bonuses. They are, more or less, part of our employees’ salaries. These employees depend on the income and had no reason to believe it was in jeopardy.”

Press Releases

Mancini Praises State Democratic Legislators’ Renewal of Push for Medicaid Expansion

Press release from Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini; February 12, 2015:

After Republicans such as Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga-has his choice of two health care plans) and Sen. Kerry Roberts (R- Springfield-defended his vote based on false information) tried to kill Insure Tennessee last week in a special legislative session and thereby deny 300,000 hardworking Tennesseans access to affordable health care, Democrats introduced two bills and two resolutions today that will keep Insure Tennessee alive:

“State Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville)…has introduced two senate joint resolutions and one bill…The first resolution would allow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to pursue his Insure Tennessee proposal in the regular General Assembly session. The second aims to authorize full expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, according to a news release….Yarbro’s bill (SB 885) would repeal legislation passed last year that would require the governor to get the General Assembly’s approval before expanding the state’s Medicaid population under the Affordable Care Act….”Democratic lawmakers agree this issue is too important to let drop just because the governor’s own party let him down,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart (D-Nashvillle) said…”We are committed to finding a way to bring affordable health care to Tennesseans.” State Sen. Lee Harris (D-Memphis) also filed a bill Thursday to make part-time state employees eligible for the same health insurance plans available to state lawmakers.” (Read more...)

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Press Releases

Harris Proposes Scholarship Funded by Red Light Camera Revenue

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; February 4, 2015:

Proposal would invest red light camera revenue in our students

NASHVILLE – Legislation filed today by state Sen. Lee Harris would create new scholarship opportunities for students to attend college paid for entirely by revenue from municipal red light cameras.

“Red light cameras frustrate citizens and distract from more important public safety measures,” Sen. Harris said. “If we can’t eliminate them altogether, let’s invest the revenue they produce in our students, not the bottom line of traffic camera companies.”

Sen. Harris filed Senate Bill 361 Wednesday to create the Drive to College scholarship, which invests all revenue generated by new red light camera contracts after July 1, 2015 in sending students to college.

In Memphis alone, according to a report in the Commercial Appeal, red light cameras have generated $3.1 million in camera-related fines, but the Arizona-based contractor earned $4.8 million.

“As a member of the Memphis City Council, I worked on and authored comprehensive legislation to make our streets safer for pedestrians and drivers,” Sen. Harris said. “Taking the profit out of red light cameras will keep us focused on more serious ideas, like speed bumps and traffic-calming devices.”

Press Releases

Harris: Out of State Special Interests Pressing Legislators to Choose Politics Over People

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; January 27, 2015:

Leader: “It’s easy to be a critic, but we were elected to govern.”

NASHVILLE – Political mailers and radio ads funded by out-of-state interests are putting undue pressure on legislators to consider politics first, people second, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said.

“Instead of listening to out-of-state special interests, we should be hearing from people who are working but still can’t afford quality health care,” state Sen. Lee Harris said. “It’s easy to be a critic, but we were elected to govern.”

Mailers and radio spots funded by the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity have blanketed the state at a time when legislators are considering whether to expand Medicaid for 200,000 Tennesseans, half of whom work but can’t afford health insurance.

“Unfortunately, the Tennesseans whose lives would change with access to health care can’t afford to influence legislators in the same way,” Sen. Harris said.

A copy of an Americans for Prosperity funded mailing sent to Chattanooga-area constituents is attached below.

Press Releases

Sens. Kyle, Harris to Take Part in Memphis Insure TN Roundtable

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; January 20, 2015:

NASHVILLE – Senate Democratic leaders said they hope to learn some of the details of a plan to expand Medicaid in Tennessee at a legislative roundtable on the issue Wednesday in Memphis.

“We know that co-pays and premiums can serve as a barrier to receiving care for the poorest among us,” state Sen. Sara Kyle said. “In many cases, we are talking about families who work but still can’t afford basic necessities. Will they be able to afford the governor’s plan?”

“Under the plan, the state would make direct payments to employers to cover the employee’s share,” Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said. “How much the state will contribute to these private insurance plans is still unknown, as far as I can tell. Look, we’re going to have to know real soon how much the state will contribute to private insurance plans.

“The incentive effects on this score could be alarming. Employers will have some incentives to reduce their employer coverage to whatever’s not paid for by public resources. I believe the governor’s got a cap on the private insurance subsidy, but I want these issues to be front and center. I’m glad he’s coming to Memphis to answer some of these questions. It’s absolutely the right thing to do. If we’re going to do this – and I hope we do – we have to do it right.”

Sens. Kyle and Harris are set to take part in a roundtable discussion on the Medicaid expansion plan at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Christ Community Health Services Frayser Health Center at 969 Frayser Blvd. in Memphis.

Press Releases

Harris Announces Appointment of 2 Memphians to State Boards

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; January 16, 2015:

NASHVILLE – Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris is proud to announce the appointments by Gov. Bill Haslam of two distinguished Memphians – William Evans and William Troutt – to serve on state boards.

“I want to congratulate Mr. Evans and Mr. Troutt on their selection by the governor to these boards, which make crucial decisions about education in Tennessee,” Sen. Harris said. “I want to thank Gov. Haslam for recognizing their expertise, and I know they will serve Tennessee well.”

Appointed to the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, William Evans is the retired President and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He currently serves on the Board of Memphis Tomorrow until July 2014. During Evans’ te4nure as its CEO, St. Jude was ranked annually in the top 10 best places to work in academia by Scientist magazine and ranked the No. 1 children’s cancer hospital by Parents Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.

Appointed to the State Board of Education, William Troutt is in his third decade as a college president, currently serving as president of Rhodes College in Memphis. A nationally recognized leader in education, he has chaired the American Council on Education and National Association of Independent Colleges at Universities, as well as national Congressional committees on education.

Sen. Harris filed the Senate Resolution 0001 and Senate Joint Resolution 0035 for their respective appointments Thursday, and they now await approval by the General Assembly.