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Governor Shooting for Narrowed Scope of Guns-in-Parking-Lots Legislation

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Wednesday that he expects to see “guns in parking lots” legislation on his desk this session, though he would like to see it altered before it gets there.

A bill brought by Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, would require employers and landowners to allow workers to store legally owned firearms in their cars on company parking lots. The bill would apply to private businesses as well as public institutions and would cover all gun owners, as opposed to just those with handgun carry permits.

Haslam said the bill, as currently written, is too broad, and that he’s working to find a balance between the concerns of gun rights advocates and business associations. He did not say, however, what specific changes he’d like to see made to the legislation.

“We felt like it was overly broad in terms of it covered all parking lots, everywhere, whether it was at a school or other things,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten to the specific level of saying and what should be out. I haven’t done the hard work of thinking through all the different circumstances.”

While lawmakers attempt to rein in the bill, which Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell have characterized as overly broad, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce says the plan in any form would shoot holes in its property rights.

“I still don’t know how you can take away the private property rights of individuals in the name of the 2nd Amendment or the right to bear arms,” said Deborah Woolley, chamber president. “Both rights have to be protected, and telling someone they can’t bring their weapon on my property, it doesn’t take away a right to bear an arm. It means they can’t bring it on my property.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday heard testimony from fans of the bill, who argued that, when a company’s gun-free policy includes workers’ cars, it impedes on their own property rights and their right to self-defense.

Sam Cooper, a FedEx employee from Memphis, told the committee that workers don’t need a firearm at work, but rather on their commute to and from the workplace. By banning guns in parking lots, he argued, companies effectively prevent workers from leaving their homes with a legally owned firearm.

“When my employer, or any employer that bans legal storage of legal firearm, says to me, or anybody, ‘you can’t have it in the parking lot,’ they’ve essentially extended their property rights all the way to my front door,” he said.

West Tennessee Firearms Association Board Member Richard Archie said his daughter picks up her child on the way home from work. Without the ability to carry a weapon in her car, he said, she is left defenseless if anything should anything go wrong.

“If she has a flat tire on the way there on (U.S.) 412, coming back, we’ve turned her loose to the wolves of the world,” he said.

NRA lobbyist Heidi Keesling and Shelby County small-business owner Kenny Crenshaw also appeared before the committee in support of the bill. Keesling said another goal of the legislation is to create more uniformity amongst various states, which have different laws governing where gun owners can take and store their firearms.

In response to the testimony, Sen. Beverly Marrero said she routinely drives about Memphis – which is among the most dangerous cities in the country – without a firearm or concern for her safety.

“I drive around in Memphis all the time. I’m able to drive around all hours of the day and night, all over Memphis. I don’t have a gun. Don’t carry one in my car. I feel relatively safe,” said the 73-year-old Shelby County Democrat. “It seems to me that gentlemen seem to me more afraid to drive around at night in Memphis, than women. Maybe we should talk to y’all a little bit more.”

The committee will hear testimony from opponents of the measure, including the Chamber of Commerce, on March 6 before taking any action on the bill.


Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report

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Guns-in-Parking-Lots Compromise Could Win Haslam Support

Gov. Bill Haslam hinted this week he wouldn’t necessarily shoot down legislation that would  allow Tennessee gun owners to keep a firearm stored in their vehicle while they are at work — even over the objection of their employer.

Still, the proposal idling in the General Assembly seems “overly broad” to the governor. But during a meeting with the Capitol press corps Wednesday, Haslam suggested that if the House and Senate can pass a compromise, he’ll likely sign on.

Sen. Mike Faulk and Rep. Eddie Bass are sponsoring the legislation, which gained some traction last year but not enough to win over GOP leaders in the House.

Proponents are confident it would pass if Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, were to allow the bill to come to the chamber floor for a vote.

Harwell has said she’s sensitive to employers’ private property rights, and for that reason the legislation gives her pause.

“We certainly want a piece of legislation that is business-friendly. We are not in the business of doing anything to harm the businesses that we currently have in place in Tennessee,” said Harwell, who added she’s unsure exactly what will be included or deleted from the working proposal.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, strongly supports the parking-lot bill, saying he understands businesses want to maintain their private property rights, “but there are some almost public parking lots that people should be allowed to do that (travel with a firearm) if you’re a gun carry permit holder and if you keep it in your car.”

In its current draft, the bill prevents employers from preventing employees from keeping a firearm locked in their own vehicle while parked on company property during work hours.

“It is the intent of this section to reinforce and protect the right of each citizen to lawfully transport and store firearms within his or her private motor vehicle for lawful purposes in any place where the vehicle is otherwise permitted to be,” according to the bill. Bass says he’ll move the House version after it wins approval from the Senate.

“We’re neutral and will stay that way,” said Jim Brown, Tennessee director of the National Federation of Independent Business, one of the few business groups hugging the sidelines. “We have members who are on both sides of that issue between 1st and 2nd Amendment rights.”

The governor is concerned with the “scope of location” in the Faulk-Bass legislation, according to his spokesman, but Haslam says if a deal is doable he won’t block it.

“The current bill that’s out there is overly broad, and we’d like to see it addressed some more, which I think is in the process,” the governor said.

Backing the bill is the Tennessee Firearms Association, which has been breathing down the House Republican leadership’s collective neck for the last few months for refusing to extend the state’s gun rights laws ahead of the 2012 elections.

The TFA has been pressuring lawmakers, namely Harwell and her caucus’ “shadow operatives,” to take up pro-gun bills instead of “pandering to businesses” by ignoring the legislation.

Haslam said he’s used to hearing such fighting words.

“Five times a day I’ll have somebody say, if I don’t do this, ‘we’re going to unleash all the power of fill-in-the-blank on you,’” Haslam told reporters Wednesday.

He added, though, “I think most veteran lawmakers try to figure out how  to weigh all that in and don’t get overly swayed by that.”

Bass said the bill should face an up-or-down vote despite any worries it would distract the Legislature from focusing on issues like the budget and the economy.

“I think if it’s one bill, and if the people don’t like it, they’ll vote it down. That’s how the system works. We all have opinions,” he told TNReport.

A Democrat, Bass wouldn’t reveal his plans when asked Wednesday whether he’ll switch party affiliation and run in the August GOP primary.

Bass has won over John Harris, executive director of TFA, who describes Bass as a “consistent supporter of individual rights, particularly for firearms owners.”

For that matter, Harris told TNReport his organization isn’t prone to obsessing over party affiliation when assessing a lawmaker’s reliability as a right-to-keep-and-bear-arms defender. Rural Tennessee Democrats are oftentimes better friends to firearm-carry enthusiasts than urban Republicans, said Harris.

“Independent of whatever partisan label you put on him, Eddie Bass is about as strong a 2nd Amendment supporter as there is in the House,” Harris told TNReport last month when Republicans were thinking about drawing Savannah Republican Vance Dennis and Bass into the same district.

High-ranking House Democrat Mike Turner says he hasn’t recently polled his caucus on the guns in parking lots issue, but is keenly aware business interests are no fans of the idea.

“Traditionally Democrats have not supported the bill, but we’re going to actually talk about that when it comes up,” said Turner. “(Republicans) traditionally want us to bail them out in those types of situations, but we’ll see what happens with that.”

Another bill on the docket this year would ban employers from forcing employees or job applicants to disclose whether they use, own, possess or transport a firearm unless those duties are required for the job.

The Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees expect to hear from proponents of the gun rights bills Feb. 21. The committees will then hear from opponents March 6. Faulk said he hopes the committees will vote on the measures that day.

The Department of Safety has issued 339,000 handgun carry permits to Tennesseans since it took over responsibility for that function in October of 1996, according to the agency’s website. Prior to that handgun carry permits were issued by local sheriff’s offices.

Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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Fmr. Speaker Williams Eyes Unicoi Co. in Redistricting

It wasn’t clear if Rep. Kent Williams was spilling the beans on something he knew or whether he was speculating, but he introduced himself at an East Tennessee business roundtable this week by saying he would pick up Unicoi County as part of his district next year.

That would be, of course, if Williams wins re-election.

Gov. Bill Haslam went around the room having members of the General Assembly introduce themselves to business leaders from the region at a roundtable in Kingsport Tuesday.

Lawmakers took turns giving their names and the districts they represent by generally saying which counties their districts include. Heretofore, Williams, from Elizabethton, has represented Carter County, and his page on the official website of the General Assembly lists him as a “Carter County Republican” as opposed to being simply a Republican.

The “CCR” designation dates to when Williams was disowned by the Republican Party for his deal that made him Speaker of the House in the 2009-2010 General Assembly. Williams, a recognized Republican at the time, struck a deal with the Democrats where he won the speakership by getting every Democrat to support him and by voting for himself, upsetting many Republicans.

When it came Williams’ turn to introduce himself on Tuesday, he said, “I used to say Carter County, but with redistricting coming up, I say ‘4th District’ now, because I think the 4th District is probably going to incorporate Unicoi County.

“I would be proud to serve Unicoi County if I get the opportunity.”

Unicoi County is currently in the 5th District, represented by Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville.

Williams added that he is a former Speaker of the House, although most of the people in the room clearly would know that.

“I enjoy doing what I’m doing and enjoy working with my colleagues,” Williams said.

Other legislators in the meeting were Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, and Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport.

Republicans are drawing the lines for redistricting, power won by virtue of their strong majority status attained in the 2010 elections. Speculation has been rampant over what the designers of districts would do, both in terms of legislative districts and congressional districts based on the 2010 census.

Press Releases

Senator’s Labrador Named ‘Spokesdog’

Press Release from the Senate Republican Caucus; July 26, 2011:

 Senate’s “Top Dog” gets New Role Promoting Responsible Pet Ownership

(NASHVILLE, TN), July 26, 2011 — The Tennessee Senate’s “top dog” Rueben Faulk has a new gig as “Spokesdog” for Spay Tennessee. The organization tapped Rueben, who belongs to State Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), for the position after watching a news report on the chocolate Labrador Retriever’s “twitters” from Capitol Hill.

Rueben accompanies Senator Faulk from his Church Hill home in Upper East Tennessee to Nashville during the legislative session where he delivers a twitter report on everything from politics to the squirrels on the Capitol lawn. Faulk says Rueben is excited about having his own role in community service in encouraging responsible pet ownership.

“This was a perfect fit for Rueben,” says Faulk. “He definitely has strong opinions on how you need to treat your dog. Now, he gets to lead on that point.”

“We really enjoyed Reuben’s story being told on the news and knew that there are things he can do to help others of his kind by using his twitter account and new-found fame to promote responsible pet ownership,” said Julie Jacobson, of Spay Tennessee. “Preventing unwanted litters is the best way to stop shelter euthanasia. We hope Rueben can help spread the news regarding our referral service to help all Tennessee pet owners find affordable spay/neuter services in their area.”


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Tort Reform Bill Passes Senate

The Senate delivered for Gov. Bill Haslam on one of his primary legislative objectives Thursday, passing a tort reform measure that includes caps on non-economic damages in jury awards.

The vote was 21-12, with Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, the only Republican voting against it. Faulk explained that he is a conservative and that that means believing in personal responsibility and less government, so he could not support legislating the change in the judicial system.

The measure, HB2008, still needs another trip through the House because of a minor Senate amendment before it goes to the governor, but there was a celebratory spirit among the Republican leadership and the Haslam administration outside the Senate chamber after the vote.

The bill is the second major legislative victory for Haslam, following his successful initiative on tenure reform for teachers. The House passed the tort reform bill earlier this week 72-24.

The legislation has been characterized as a jobs bill, with proponents saying it will help create an environment that would be attractive to businesses looking to relocate or expand in the state. It has been difficult to pin down lawmakers on how many jobs might be created because of tort reform.

“I believe this legislation will be an important piece of the puzzle — the mosaic as it were — that will make Tennessee more attractive for new and expanded business. I do sincerely believe that,” Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the Senate majority leader who carried the bill for Haslam, said after the vote.

“How many jobs? Nobody can say. There’s no crystal ball for that. We’ve joined the majority of states in the nation that have put a number of these reforms in place. At least on the global scale we can remain competitive.”

The Senate used well over three hours of debate before the vote. Norris and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, did most of the talking for the bill, while Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, and Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, made most of the arguments against it.

Herron was especially passionate, suggesting that caps on non-economic damages on someone who has been harmed for life could be calculated to be less than what lawmakers get in their per diem serving in the Legislature.

As advocates for the bill told individual stories related to the bill, Berke called the bill “legislation by anecdote,” which Norris said was not the case. Kelsey argued that the bill could bring certainty and predictability into the system of awards in civil suits.

The bill caps non-economic damages at $750,000. It does not cap economic damages. It also caps punitive damages at $500,000 or two times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater — although those caps would not apply in cases where the defendant’s act resulted in a felony conviction, or if records in the case have been intentionally falsified or concealed, or if the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the act.

Another key element of the bill is the establishment of a cap of $1 million in cases that are considered to be “catastrophic” in nature. That figure had been the point of adjustments throughout the legislative process. One Democratic amendment offered Thursday would have raised the caps on non-economic damages to $1.25 million and catastrophic damages at $2.25 million but was defeated.

The bill spells out which conditions are to be considered catastrophic, including spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia; amputation of two hands, two feet or one of each; third-degree burns over 40 percent or more of the body as a whole or third-degree burns on 40 percent or more of the face; or the wrongful death of a parent leaving a surviving minor child or children for whom the deceased parent had custody.

Several other attempts by Democrats to alter the bill failed, including one that would have tied caps to increases in the consumer price index and one that would have added brain damage to the list of conditions spelled out in the catastrophic category.

Herbert Slatery, Haslam’s legal counsel, said the administration seeks a better environment for businesses.

“As the governor said, the long-term impact hopefully will be to create a more predictable structure in which businesses can quantify what the risk is going to be,” Slatery said after the vote. “It’s one really important factor in how they decide to expand in Tennessee or relocate in Tennessee. It’s just a very, very important factor.

“I think that kind of structure and predictability will allow them to assume what we really want them to assume, and that’s the risk of placing capital in the marketplace. If they will invest their capital and sign guarantees and things like that to expand their businesses, and take the business risk without having to worry so much about the legal side of it, at least they will know what the risk is — more now than they did. Then they will expand and relocate, we hope.”

Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey was also in the hallway outside the Senate chamber following the vote.

Slatery’s presence in the hall was noticeable for the absence of former U.S. Sen Fred Thompson, who had been a high-profile lobbyist against the measure. Thompson was in Washington on Thursday, where he joined a group advocating for a totally different type of reform — creating a popular vote tally to determine the outcome of a presidential election.

Thompson was named a national “co-champion” of the National Popular Vote campaign, saying in a formal statement, “This is an idea whose time has come.”

Democrats had lawyerly spokesmen, however, in Herron and Berke, among others, against tort reform in Tennessee.

“Those who have done the worst will pay less of a price,” Herron said after the vote. “Those who have been hurt the most will pay more of a price.”

Herron is still looking for the problem that brought on the legislation.

“When you look and see where Tennessee ranks in terms of site selection and business rankings, we’re right at the top of the list, right now, already,” Herron said.

Norris emphasized the need to compete with other states.

“Competitiveness is important. But holding the system together and improving it along the way are also important, and I think these changes will do that,” Norris said.

“And if they don’t we’ll revisit them and fix them.”

Norris was asked what he would say to a victim who had been seriously wronged.

“That if there were not caps in damages there might be no system from which they could recover at all,” he said.

As the debate went long in the Senate, stacks of pizza were delivered to the lawmakers, with a list of other items on the calendar creating a work session that ran close to six hours. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, made special mention of the length of debate on tort reform.

“It was an excellent debate,” Ramsey told the members. “That was four hours we spent on one bill, but it deserved four hours.”

Said Slatery, Haslam’s counsel, “I thought it was a very valuable exercise and was well-evaluated.

“I was proud of how the system worked.”

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Multiple Proposals Filed to Reform How TN Picks a Chief Attorney

GOP lawmakers are so eager to alter how the state’s top lawyer is chosen that the real fight in the Legislature this year may not be over whether change is necessary, but what solution is most prudent, affordable and politically doable.

“All I want is somebody who’s more accountable to the voters,” said Sen. Mae Beavers, who for the second year in a row is pushing for the popular election of the attorney general via a constitutional amendment.

So far, Republican lawmakers have pitched three proposals for changing up how Tennesseans get an attorney general, and other bills are rumored.

Among the ideas being batted around are the popular election of the attorney general by the state’s citizenry or an appointment by the Legislature or the governor. Also under consideration is a shifting of power to a solicitor general either elected by voters or hand-picked by lawmakers or the governor, and, finally, granting the governor new powers to seek and deploy specialized legal counsel.

Gov. Bill Haslam has said he’s not convinced turning the attorney general, now appointed by the state’s Supreme Court, into a popularly elected position is a prudent move. Haslam worried the office might be transformed merely into a political training ground for higher office-seekers. Haslam “only half-jokingly” told a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter he’d prefer to choose the next AG himself.

In fact, some lawmakers, like Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, think that’s not a bad idea at all and ought to be taken seriously.

Although the attorney general doesn’t have to listen to any of the three branches of government if they ask him to take legal action, he is still constitutionally tucked in under the governor’s purview and should act accordingly, Carr said.

“In a sense, we have a fourth branch of government, and that certainly is not constitutional,” Carr said.

Because Carr believes the state’s top lawyer and the governor should be philosophically on the same page, the second-term Rutherford County lawmaker is introducing a bill granting the governor power to seek special legal counsel to pinch-hit in court for the state if the AG won’t litigate at the chief executive’s bidding.

In any case, lawmakers pushing for change say the current system has at minimum institutionalized a clear conflict of interest that warrants addressing: the state Supreme Court chooses the attorney general, who in turn regularly argues cases before the state’s highest court.

“I’m open to any idea that can fix that,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

His counterpart in the House of Representatives, Speaker Beth Harwell, told TNReport earlier this month she is as yet undecided about whether or in what way to change the attorney general’s selection process.

Another issue fueling the debate is Attorney General Robert Cooper’s refusal last year to join a growing list of states challenging the constitutionality of aspects of the 2010 federal health care package.

Tennessee Tea Party leaders, who are no fans of so-called ObamaCare themselves, have said making the attorney general stand for election in Tennessee is a key legislative priority for them. Barring that, they’ve suggested shifting duties to an elected solicitor general would work as an alternative.

But the state already has a solicitor general, who has an upper management role in the AG’s office, double-checking its cases moving through the legal system and overseeing the drafting of official opinions. And in 2006, then-Attorney General Paul Summers opined that repositioning the solicitor general as the elected legal heavyweight is unconstitutional because those duties were specifically meant for a constitutional officer.

Sen. Stacy Campfield is pitching that idea, anyway.

“I’m for electing just about everybody, really,” said Campfield. “I’d go down to the dog catcher should be elected.”

The Knoxville Republican’s plan to change state law could be passed with a simple majority vote of the Legislature — although some kind of legal challenge down the road wouldn’t seem unlikely in that scenario.

Beavers’ plan, by contrast, would require a lengthy constitutional amendment process. Tennessee’s is one of the most arduous in the United States. It requires lawmakers to approve the measure twice — the second time on a two-thirds majority vote — before placing the question before voters in a gubernatorial election year.

Beefing up the solicitor general’s duties would likely carry a hefty price tag, Sen. Mike Faulk said.

“It’s one more position that we can’t afford,” said the Kingsport Republican, who formerly served as vice chairman of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission. “I’m sure additional staff would be necessary.”

Like Beavers, Faulk is proposing a constitutional amendment that would pave the way for voters to decide the AG question in 2014 at the earliest. His bill would allow for a popularly elected attorney general, however he would require candidates have seven years of state residency before running for election whereas the Beavers bill requires five years.