Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Squabble Between TBI, Local Prosecutor Temporarily Stalls High-Profile Murder Investigation

A dispute between the attorney general of Tennessee’s 24th Judicial District and the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation briefly caused the agencies to sever ties. That meant TBI sleuthing was temporarily halted last week across a five-county area in West Tennessee — including their work on the closely watched Holly Bobo case.

Both the TBI and the office of District AG Matt Stowe said in a joint statement Friday that their row had been put to rest. Nevertheless, Stowe has asked that a special prosecutor be appointed to take over the Bobo case.

According to a Dec. 17 TBI press release, the dispute arose from comments made by Stowe during a Dec. 12 meeting that included the TBI and a number of prosecutors from West Tennessee.

Gwyn said Stowe made “allegations of misconduct by TBI and other law enforcement agencies, both local and federal.”

Stowe also “repeatedly stated he wanted our Agency to suspend all activities in his district,” Gwyn added.

Stowe issued a statement the same day saying he “strongly denies” that he “initiated the suspension of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s support.” However, Stowe also sent Gwyn a letter earlier in the week acknowledging that the meeting “became unexpectedly heated and somewhat emotional. ” In that letter he requested that the TBI resume service to his district.

Stowe, elected to his post in August, has been critical of how the Bobo case has been handled by authorities since her disappearance more than three and a half years ago. According to the TBI release, the agency has “devoted thousands of hours of casework and forensic analysis” to the Bobo case.

The 20 year old nursing student went missing in April 2011 from her family home in Darden, Tenn. Her remains were discovered this September in the northern part of Decatur County. Six individuals have been charged in connection with the crime.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, whose office was supplying a prosecutor for the Bobo case, also released a statement acknowledging “a conflict arose as a result of how to proceed with the Holly Bobo case.” She added that the conflict led her to file a motion to remove their lawyer assisting in the case.

Adding to the tension between the TBI and the DA’s office, the judge in the Bobo case criticized the prosecution over how slowly the case was progressing.

During Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget hearings earlier this month, Gwyn told the governor he’s always striving to improve his agent’s training, because to “solve cases like Holly Bobo, you’ve got to have the very best trained agents in the county.”

The TBI is a great asset to the state because the agency can focus all of its energy on investigations, as opposed to a state police force that will have to handle traffic and other situations, Gwyn said at the hearing. He added that the agency will continue to “adhere to our policies and our procedures,” and wouldn’t “deviate” from its mission of investigations. “That’s what we do. And I want us to do it the best in the country,” he said.

The TBI, which has no official oversight body, operates on a sunset cycle and reports to the General Assembly every two to four years, depending on the findings of occasional Comptroller Office audits. The agency also reports to the governor during the state’s annual budget hearings.

Gwyn acknowledged to TNReport in December 2013 that the agency had no dedicated body for oversight of its actions. However, Gwyn asserted that the agency is “very regulated” and “scrutinized every day.”

“Well, I think the 6.4 million citizens, the Legislature, the governor, anybody that wants to oversee and make recommendations can make recommendations,” Gwyn said. He added the agency also goes “through audits all the time.”

State Sen. Mike Bell, an East Tennessee Republican who heads the upper chamber’s Government Operations Committee, told TNReport Friday that he didn’t foresee any changes being made to the oversight process for the state investigative agency. He added that while he’s heard “numerous” complaints about local law enforcement and drug task forces, he couldn’t recall many complaints about misconduct or corruption in the TBI during his time in state government.

Press Releases

Bell, Gresham Call on TN Board of Ed to Review New AP U.S. History Courses for ‘Negative’ Revisionism

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; August 26, 2014:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) have called on the Tennessee State Board of Education to conduct a review of the new framework and materials used in all Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) courses taught in Tennessee classrooms. The request was made by the lawmakers in a letter to Board Chairman Fielding Rolston and comes after widespread criticism that the new College Board framework for APUSH reflects revisionist views of American history that emphasizes negative aspects, while omitting or minimizing the positive.

Advanced Placement courses are college-level classes that students can take while still in high school. Most colleges and universities in the United States grant credit and placement for qualifying scores. The exams are produced by the College Board, a private company, which also is responsible for the SAT college admission test.

“There are many concerns with the new APUSH framework, not the least of which is that it pushes a revisionist interpretation of historical facts,” said Chairman Gresham. “The items listed as required knowledge have some inclusions which are agenda-driven, while leaving out basic facts that are very important to our nation’s history. We need a full review of the framework by our Board as to its effects on Tennessee students and our state standards. We have also asked the Board to provide a forum in which parents and other concerned citizens can let their voices be heard on the matter.”

Tennessee law specifies students in the state must be taught foundational documents in U.S. and Tennessee history. It also provides that instructional materials, specifically in U.S. history, comply with this state mandate.

The APUSH framework includes little or no discussion of the founding fathers and the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and other critical topics which had previously been included in the course. It presents a negative interpretation regarding the motivations and actions of 17th – 19th century settlers, American involvement in World War II, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.

In addition, the APUSH framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military, battles, commanders, and heroes, as well as mentioning many other individuals and events that shaped history like the Holocaust and American icons Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, and Dr. Martin Luther King.

“The APUSH framework appears to differ greatly from Tennessee’s U.S. history standards,” added Chairman Bell. “This interferes with our state law and standards for U.S. history if our teachers focus on preparing their pupils for the AP examination, which is a very important test for college-bound students. We have worked very hard over the past several years to ensure that our students are learning history based on facts, rather than a politically-biased point of view.”

Approximately 500,000 students across the nation take Advanced Placement courses in U.S. History each year. Tennessee has worked diligently over the past several years to push students to take Advanced Placement exams as part of the effort to increase the number of citizens with post-secondary degrees.

Press Releases

Bell: Tennesseans Want AG to Join Legal Fight Against Obamacare

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; July 23, 2014:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennesseans should be vigorously represented in the nation’s highest court as two new federal appeals court decisions delivered yesterday point to a final legal battle on Obamacare says Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville). Bell said State Attorney General Bob Cooper chose not to join other states in challenging the illegal action of the IRS and the Obama administration to put into place a federally-run insurance exchange program in Tennessee. The federal exchange program also triggers unauthorized taxes against individuals and employers in Tennessee.

“This was a huge decision,” said Bell. “The federal appeals court ruled in Halbig v. Burwell that the IRS and Obama administration are imposing taxes and spending funds through federal exchanges in the 36 states which rejected state exchanges, without statutory authority. Tennesseans want their voices heard in fighting against federal overreach of power. We, again, urge General Cooper to join in the efforts to defend the rights of Tennesseans as this case appears to be headed for a final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Unlike other states, Tennessee’s attorney general is selected by the State Supreme Court. Three court justices who face election this August and have received increased criticism for liberal actions involving cases in the state’s highest court, voted to appoint Cooper to the Attorney General position.

“This inaction by our state’s highest legal officer to represent the overwhelming desire of Tennesseans just underscores our skepticism about the court and their decisions,” added Bell. “The legislature and the governor have chosen not to establish state exchanges and to reject Obamacare. We need our views represented at this critical juncture as this and other cases challenging the federal overreach of power move to a final decision in the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Several other similar cases are progressing elsewhere in the judicial system, including one in which the court ruled in favor of the federal government’s actions on Tuesday afternoon.

“We continue to see one decision after another by the Obama administration that ignores the law,” added Bell. “It’s time that Tennessee steps up and defends our citizens’ rights.”

Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Switchblades Now Legal to Carry

Knives with blades longer than four inches in length, as well as automatic knives — also known as “switchblades” — are now legal to carry no matter where you live in Tennessee.

The change to the language of the Tennessee statute  was to ensure statewide consistency in the law that governs the type and size of knives that can be legally carried, said the sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville.

“If compared to guns, it would be like allowing a city to say you could only own a .22 rifle, but you couldn’t own a .30-06 rifle,” said Bell, a Republican, who also serves as the Senate Government Operations Committee chairman.

The legislation passed 24-1 in the Senate and 75-16 in the House, where it was sponsored by Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It also increases the maximum fine for carrying a switchblade with the intent to use it in the commission of a felony from $3,000 to $6,000. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the measure April 8 and it took effect July 1.

A 2013 bill with the same sponsors would have scrapped the four-inch restriction, as well as allowing brass knuckles and switchblades. However, after receiving pushback from police in the state, the a duller version of the bill was adopted that restrained local municipalities passing stricter ordinances than those adopted by the state.

Prior to approval of last year’s “preemption” bill, a person carrying a knife with a four-inch-blade within the bounds of the law in Nashville would’ve been acting illegally by possessing that same knife in Clarksville, observed Bell.

He defended the loosening of the knife restrictions while keeping the restrictions in place for brass knuckles and other weapons. “A knife is a tool — they’re used as tools all over the place,” Bell said, but added that there isn’t much practical use for brass knuckles or other similar weapons, and he hasn’t heard people “clamoring to use” those items.

According to Bell, when he began looking into issues around knife violence several years ago, he discovered that most attacks were carried out with kitchen knives, and that the crimes were usually domestic-assault related.

“When I first spoke to the TBI about this bill about three years ago, the TBI told me that automatic knives, or switchblades, don’t even show up as a statistic in crime,” Bell said. “That’s how rare it is for somebody to use one.”

Todd Rathner, a board member for the group Knife Rights — an organization somewhat like an “NRA for knife owners” — testified in the Legislature this year about switchblades, and informed that that 30 other states in the United States had no restrictions on automatic knives.

“Back in the 1950s, because of movies like ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ and other silly Hollywood productions, the federal government in its wisdom saw fit to place restrictions on so-called switchblade knives, and then a number of states followed,” Rathner said. “Some states didn’t. My home states of Arizona has never had a law against switchblades, and it’s never caused any kind of a problem.”

Bell said he knows several people who enjoy outdoor activities that use automatic knives in the pursuit of those activities because of the handiness of having a knife that can be operated with one-hand.

And previously law enforcement officers and firefighters had special exemptions to the law for similar reasons, Bell said. Additionally, he said that the change in the law could lead Tennessee knife manufacturers to expand their operations, and provide more jobs for Tennesseans.

But the change in law has faced criticism from the state’s minority party since it was proposed last year, despite some Democratic members ultimately voting in favor of this year’s legislation.

Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat, lampooned the number of weapons-related bills the General Assembly’s been considering over the past couple years. “Are y’all expecting the zombie apocalypse, or something, because there are just so many weapons available now, and I was just wondering if you knew something we didn’t?” Jones said.

This week, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, tweeted that, “#Switchblades & #swords are now legal to carry in #Tennessee, but not brass knuckles. This does not seem fair (or like a good idea).”

However, the bill received two votes from Democrats in the Senate and six in the House, including a thumbs-up from House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. The upper chamber’s lone no vote belonged to Lowe Finney, the minority party caucus chairman who is retiring from the Legislature.


Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Senators Considering Oversight of State Drug Task Forces

Their budgets are often significantly funded through property seizures and confiscated cash, and their governing rules generally unclear. What’s more, Tennessee’s system of 25 drug interdiction “task forces” appear to be lacking any meaningful oversight.

During a recent state Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing geared toward gaining a better understanding of Tennessee’s drug task force activities, Republican lawmakers appeared to be in agreement that reform is needed.

Chief among the specific concerns expressed by Sens. Mike Bell, Stacey Campfield and Brian Kelsey during the Nov. 20 hearing was how the task forces generate revenue — in particular, their practice of posting up on Tennessee freeways, pulling over motorists and seizing cash from vehicles without making an arrest for any criminal activity.

“A clear governing structure” is needed to address the issues facing the state’s task force operations, Bell said to TNReport. He suggested one possible remedy would be to put them under the direction of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. A similar arrangement is in place in Georgia, he said.

Kelsey said it is obvious “proper oversight” is lacking. “We’re definitely going to have to do something next year, because we have some really bad actors among the drug task forces,” he said.

A joint session of the House and Senate Judiciary Subcommittees will likely meet shortly after the beginning of the 2014 legislative session to consider measures to clarify the purpose, oversight and accountability of the state’s drug task forces, as well as make their operational and accounting procedures uniform across the state, Bell said.

David Hicks, the director of the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force, which operates along I-40 in Dickson County, told committee members that his task force’s budget, including the money for agents salaries and bonuses, relies solely on funds received from asset seizures—whether it be cash or through auctioning off seized property. While task force officials generally argue that nobody’s money gets taken unless there’s reason to believe it’s in some way connected to criminal activity, they acknowledge drug cops will sometimes seize cash from a vehicle if the sum is suspiciously large and none of the occupants offers a plausible and legitimate reason for  possessing it.

But media investigations into  “policing for profit” in Tennessee have uncovered instances where it appeared the officers confiscated money from motorists with little or no legal justification. An award-winning, years-long investigative series into the issue by Nashville’s News Channel 5 was discussed extensively during the Senate’s hearing last month.

Hicks said he was hesitant to discuss questions about his agency’s cash-seizing practices “out in public” due to “security problems.” But he invited the committee members to have an “off the record” meeting at his task force headquarters in Dickson to explore the issue deeper.

One case of asset seizure that Hicks was particularly “reluctant” to talk about during the hearing involved the seizure of $160,000 from a New York man traveling through the state. Hicks said it was later determined the man had “terrorist ties overseas.” Nevertheless, the man’s money was returned to him about a year later. Committee members questioned why the money was returned if it had connections to terrorism, to which Hicks replied, “The DEA returned it to him, we didn’t.”

A story by News Channel 5 that ran later in the day following Hicks’ testimony stated “there’s absolutely no evidence that the terrorism claim is true.”

Kelsey, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said a policy of tying a cop’s pay to how much money he or she seizes “just doesn’t make any sense.”

“We’ve got to remove these incentives to go ahead and seize more and more money,” he said.

Bell, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, drew a parallel between the habit of seizing money for funding drug task force operations to the unseemly practice of local police targeting out-of-town motorist not so much out of concern for traffic safety, but to beef up department budgets. Bell suggested it’s not unreasonable to conclude that when any law enforcement agency relies too heavily on funding from imposing fines or expropriating cash, it risks getting hooked on a potent and potentially corrupting financial incentive.

“I think the way they’re set up, it does at least create the appearance that that’s what’s going on — that they have to reach a certain level of funding, or they could lose their jobs,” Bell told TNReport after the hearing.

Bell also said he was disappointed and perplexed that the drug task force witnesses like Hicks didn’t seem better prepared to discuss their agency functions and activities.  “I had a hard time understanding why somebody would come to testify before us who didn’t have any answers to the questions that we asked,” he said.

Education Featured NewsTracker

State’s School Textbook Selection Process May Get Overhaul

After two days of hearings on Tennessee’s public school textbook selection process, majority-party Senate Republicans are indicating they’ll push for developing new review-and-approval procedures, and perhaps throw the current system out altogether.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham told reporters after the close of the meeting she “sensed a real doubt” among fellow Republicans that “the Textbook Commission as it is structured now is fixable.”

“I think that what will happen now is that we will look at some of what these other states are doing and take the best practices and see if we can reconstitute our state textbook commission so that it works better,” said Gresham.

The hearings, held jointly by the Senate Education and Government Oversight committees, consisted of testimony from state Department of Education officials and Textbook Selection Commission members.

The lawmakers also listened to a number of conservative activists who said many state-approved education materials contain an assortment of passages that are ideologically biased, erroneous or in other ways objectionable and unsuited for Tennessee public school classrooms. The complaints focused on what those testified said they perceived to be unflattering depictions of capitalism and Christianity, omissions of key facts and outright inaccuracies in many of the social studies and history textbooks used to instruct high-school aged kids in Tennessee.

Hal Rounds, a Fayette County attorney and self-described libertarian, took issue, for example, with how recently approved textbooks in government-run schools are representing early American history and basic tenets of the United States Constitution. “The point is that the textbook selection process is supposed to provide us with tools that we can give our kids, that tell them what the world was really like. And it is not doing that,” said Rounds.

Claudia Henneberry, a retired teacher and activist with the Tea Party-affiliated 9.12 Project, said she spent several weeks researching state textbooks and found numerous instances of “racial bias” in which whites were cast in a negative light or are portrayed as oppressive intruders into North America. She also complained that most social studies and history texts in public schools generally tend to exhibit a liberal or pro-Democrat political slant.

On economic matters, Henneberry said “capitalism is portrayed as unfair in these books, most of them, and that wealthy is greedy, whereas socialism and other states of socialism are shown as preferable.”

Others who spoke leveled similar criticisms. Some also said that when they raised concerns with local school officials they were often either ignored or told the state has ultimate decision-making authority over the books schools use.

As the meeting came to a close, Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell said that after listening to all the protests from the conservatives who spoke he’s inclined to scrap the current process and “start all over.”

Bell said he’d favor Tennessee borrowing from what other states are doing and at the same time ensure the public has more input in the process. The states that are doing the best with how they select textbooks offer “more parental input, more local input, more transparency,” said the Republican from Riceville. Virginia, Utah and Louisiana have models worth looking into, he said.

Additionally, Bell said that he would like the General Assembly to have some decision-making ability over the membership of the commission. Currently, state textbook commissioners are appointed solely by the governor for a term of three years.

Gresham said addressing the issues raised by critics warrants being a legislative priority in 2014. “It’s evident from the hearings that we’ve had today and yesterday that we need to give our full attention to the state textbook commission and its structure and its function,” said the Somerville Republican.

Press Releases

Bell Supports Strong Rules for PPACA Navigators

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; Sept. 24, 2013:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), September 24, 2013 – Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) said today that Navigators operating in Tennessee under the Federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) should be registered with the state as proposed in rules recently filed by the Department of Commerce and Insurance. Bell also said he favors providing strong consumer protections, including those to safeguard privacy of medical and financial information.

Navigators, or Application Counselors, are individuals or entities who facilitate enrollment in insurance exchanges pursuant to the PPACA, which is also known as Obamacare. The General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year directing the Department of Commerce and Insurance promulgate rules to oversee them. Those rules, which are already in effect on an emergency basis, are scheduled to be heard by the General Assembly’s Joint Government Operations Rule Review Committee on November 13.

“I want to see strong consumer protections in place as these Navigators will have access to private consumer health and financial information,” said Chairman Bell. “Although this is a federal mandate that the state opted not to participate in, we are still responsible to ensure Tennessee consumers are protected. We continue to see monumental implementation problems with this massive program which was rushed through Congress without due diligence. Our Committee will look very carefully at the emergency rules that have been filed by our state’s Commerce and Insurance Department to ensure that they provide adequate protections.”

Among other provisions, Tennessee’s proposed rules call for applicants to be at least 18 years old, be of good character and integrity, maintain a principal place of business in the state, pass a background check, and complete the federal training program for Navigators or Certified Application Counselors. The proposed rules also provide parameters in which the Navigators can operate and prescribe consequences for violation of the registration including fraudulent, coercive or dishonest practices.

“We need appropriate training requirements, criminal records checks, conflict of interest disclosures, and a code of professional conduct to protect consumers,” added Bell. “For example, it is important that we keep convicted felons from gaining access to a consumer’s financial information.”

“There are a wide variety of professions in Tennessee where similar rules apply,” said Bell. “This helps to ensure, to the best of our ability, that Tennessee consumers are working with knowledgeable and trustworthy professionals.”

PPACA marketplace enrollment begins on October 1.

Featured Liberty and Justice

No Switchblades for Now, But No More Local Knife Rules Under Proposal

A bill initially intended to lift restrictions on knives in Tennessee has been scaled back in the state House. It now only prevents cities or counties from putting new restrictions on the books that are more stringent than statewide law.

As first introduced, House Bill 581 by Savannah Republican Vance Dennis would have scrapped the state’s current ban on carrying blades longer than four inches. It also would have okayed switchblades and brass knuckles.

But after reportedly receiving pushback from law enforcement, the sponsor accepted an amendment Tuesday morning that rewrote the bill, dropping all references to blade size or type and focusing solely on state “preemption” of local rules.

While the measure, as amended, wouldn’t change the state’s current four inch rule right away, it does open the door for lawmakers to lift those restrictions in the future without worries that local authorities could interfere.

That prospect rankled some House Democrats who took up the cry for local control.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley voiced his opposition, telling the chamber “there are ordinances all across the state local governments have put into place affecting these particular instruments and what we’re doing here is just doing away with them. I think we need to be consistent about local control and with this amendment, it doesn’t happen.”

But sponsor Dennis wasn’t convinced, saying the legislation would simply “provide uniformity across the state in relation to knives in exactly the same way as we do with firearms.”

Last month, the Senate passed a companion version of the bill, sponsored by Mike Bell, R-Riceville, that included language dealing with blade length and knife style. But Bell told TNReport he plans to adopt the house version.

Bell said he thought that the current restriction were outdated and that he may address them with future legislation, but he said that the preemption aspect was the core of the legislation.

“It’s not the part of the bill with the most titillation factor — switchblades would be — but if you tried to pass a law legalizing switchblades without the preemption part, then every city could just ban them,” said Bell. “The preemption part is the most important part of the bill and that’s what we’re going to get.”

Environment and Natural Resources NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Senate Approves ‘Repealer’ to Root Out Bad Laws, Regs

Legislation to create a state Office of the Repealer passed the Senate 30-1-1 Thursday, while the House version still has a couple of committee hurdles to clear next week.

The Repealer’s job would be to go through Tennessee code and make recommendations to the Legislature on laws, rules and regulations that need to be repealed or modified because they are no longer relevant, overly burdensome or outdated.

Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis cast the only no vote and was the only one to speak out against the legislation. Fellow Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville, abstained.

“Simply to explain my vote, it is somewhat ironic that we’re creating an office to try to find duplicitous government agencies and rules when its creation duplicates the work of the Government Operations Committee,” Kyle said.

“To create another branch of government to do exactly what we’re already doing is doubling up and spending money that doesn’t need to be spent,” he continued.

According to Sen. Jack Johnson, sponsor of SB595, there is no fiscal note attached to the legislation, as the position will fill an existing vacant position within the Secretary of State’s office.

Responding to Kyle’s argument, the Franklin Republican said,“There is no single individual in all of state government whose sole responsibility is to try and shrink the green books.” Johnson was referring to the bound issues of the Tennessee Code Annotated.

Johnson said he thinks it “entirely reasonable that we dedicate a single position to meet with our business owners, to meet with citizens across the state, who have to interact with state government day in and day out, and identify things that we don’t need anymore.”

Answering to the Secretary of State, the Repealer would be required to set up an online system to receive recommendations from the public, which he or she would be required to take into consideration. 

The bill sets up the post for four years, “at which time such position will cease to exist.”

Sen. Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, offered a single amendment that passed on a voice vote. The amendment adds both chambers’ government operations committees to the list of those receiving recommendations from the Repealer, as well as quarterly updates of his or her actions.

HB 500 is on the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee’s calendar for Wed., April 3.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Bills Easing Helmet Requirement, Increasing Seatbelt Fines Advance in Senate

Bikers over 25 who have met safety requirements would be able to ride sans helmet, under a bill that advanced Thursday at the Capitol.

The Senate Transportation Committee also voted to bump up the fine for not wearing a seatbelt, from $10 to $50.

The helmet bill, SB548, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, would allow older bikers to ride helmet-free if they meet minimum insurance requirements and complete a qualified safety course, as well as pay a $50 fee to the state.

The committee approved the measure to ease helmet restrictions by a vote of 6-3.

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, questioned whether the insurance requirements were high enough considering the cost of “traumatic brain injuries,” and speculated that the state may have to cover long-term health costs of those injured in an accident while not wearing a helmet.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, disagreed that any fiscal issues applied to the legislation.

“It’s obvious that if you’re not wearing a helmet, you’re in the morgue,” Niceley said. “That’s bad, that’s terrible, but that’s not something where we need to worry about dollars here. We can’t worry about that side of it.”

“It makes the undertakers money, but it saves the state money,” he added.

Sen. Bill Ketron said his seatbelt bill, SB 847, is needed to promote safety.

With the second lowest fine in the country for not wearing a seatbelt, Tennessee saw a decline of 4 percent in seatbelt use over the year 2011, the Murfreesboro Republican said.

Conversely, Ketron said, Washington state has the highest fine in the nation and the highest percentage of seatbelt usage.

“I know some people don’t like wearing them, but it is our law,” Ketron said.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said she thinks that people should be able to take care of themselves in situations like this without a law to guide them. Beavers said an increase in seatbelt enforcement would distract law enforcement from more important issues.

The committee approved the bill, 5-4.

Both bills have their next hearings in the Senate Finance committee.

The House bill to reduce the helmet restrictions for motorcyclists has already passed the House Transportation committee. The House version of the seatbelt bill is still awaiting a hearing.