News analysis: ‘Year of the Gun’ ends with a bang

On June 21, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal June 21, 2009 NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers finally headed home after a mad rush of legislative action last week that included expanding charter schools, refusing to delay new verifiable voting machines and passing a $29.4 billion state budget. But the 2009 General Assembly that ended its five-month run late […]

By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
June 21, 2009

NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers finally headed home after a mad rush of legislative action last week that included expanding charter schools, refusing to delay new verifiable voting machines and passing a $29.4 billion state budget.

But the 2009 General Assembly that ended its five-month run late Thursday was the Year of the Gun.

Legislators approved several bills expanding where Tennessee’s 220,000-plus handgun-carry permit holders, and millions more from states whose permits are valid here, may legally carry their firearms. They include bars and restaurants serving alcohol (unless owners post their own gun bans), state and national parks, and local parks unless local governments act to keep their parks gun-free.

Memphis started exempting its parks last week.

Other bills allow permit holders to carry loaded rifles and shotguns in private vehicles if the ammunition isn’t chambered, and to let some judges go armed.

Lawmakers declined, by three votes in the Senate, to make confidential the state’s public list of gun-carry permit holders.

The new state budget is the tightest spending blueprint since the income-tax battles of a decade ago. State tax revenue began declining more than a year ago, and projections of another $1.1 billion decline for the fiscal year starting July 1 set off the major partisan battle of the year during the final week.

Senate Republicans sought to expedite cuts proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen, slash university building projects and a $350 million bond issue for bridge repair and replacement, and speed up layoffs of 700 state workers.

But Democrats, advantaged with a Democratic governor, fought off most of the immediate cuts and worked with the GOP majority to restore bonds for nine university building projects — none in the Memphis area.

In lieu of the $350 million bond issue at once for bridges, the budget contains the first of four planned annual bridge bond issues of $87.5 million.

With the first Republican majority since Reconstruction, there was no doubt the 2009 General Assembly would be different. It opened five months ago amid heavy skirmishing when a second-term GOP House member joined all 49 Democrats to elect himself House speaker over his party’s nominee.

Speaker Kent Williams appointed a bipartisan leadership and committee system that let Democrats hold some power in a chamber with a 50-49 GOP edge. When the state Republican Party booted him out, he officially declared himself a “Carter County Republican.”

Mountain folks can be ornery like that.

“We had a great year,” said Williams, 59. “I’ve got a little experience now and I think I can do better next year. We’re going to get out of here a little sooner next year.” The June 18 adjournment was the latest since a July 4 adjournment in 2002.

His vanquished rival, House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower, 35, reeled off a string of Republican accomplishments this year that had failed to pass under decades of Democratic rule.

“We made strides in helping Tennesseans realize more fully their Second Amendment rights,” he said. “We helped to provide for the protection of the unborn by starting the process” of amending a court-declared right to abortion out of the Tennessee Constitution. “And I think we took a giant step forward for education in allowing an expansion of charter schools here at the last hour.

“Those things definitely would not have happened without more Republicans in the legislature,” Mumpower said.

Voting-rights groups cheered the Senate’s defeat of a bill sought by local governments to delay by two years a mandate that all counties buy voting machines that produce vote-verifying paper trails for the 2010 general election.

Given state finances, it wasn’t a year for major new initiatives for Memphis and Shelby County, whose legislative wish lists were slim.

Most importantly, public schools statewide were protected from 10 percent cuts that hit other programs, and they get a windfall in federal economic recovery funds.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, the Memphis Democrat serving his first year as Shelby County delegation chairman, said the group was able to maintain a $5 million annual state grant for Shelby that Bredesen committed to three years ago when the legislature refused to let the county enact new development taxes.

“If we had been unable to do that, property taxes would have been up another $5 million,” Kyle said.

There also were no major cuts in state aid for the Regional Medical Center.

But Kyle said restoring the governor’s plan for $30 million in federal energy funds to build a 23,000-panel solar-power facility in Haywood County, plus money to buy a 1,500-acre industrial development “megasite” there will help create jobs for Greater Memphis.

In the closing hours, lawmakers also passed two bills adding attempted murder to the list of crimes whose penalties are enhanced if a gun is present. Those bills were sponsored by Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and had been left for dead for most of the session until money was set aside for the longer prison terms.

— Richard Locker: (615) 255-4923

The 2009 Tennessee General Assembly

Here are some of the highlights of the session that ended Thursday.

Judicial selection: Restructured the commission that nominates judges for the Tennessee Supreme Court and two intermediate appeals courts, but maintained for two more years the 1994 system for gubernatorial appointment of the judges followed by “replace” or “retain” retention elections by voters.

Guns: Expanded to parks and places serving alcohol where handgun-carry permit holders may legally carry their firearms.

Abortion: Took the first step in the lengthy, multiyear process of calling a statewide referendum in 2014 to remove from the Tennessee Constitution the state right to abortion declared by the state Supreme Court in 2000.

Charter schools: Substantially expanded authority to create more public charter schools in Tennessee and the students who may attend them, raising from 20 to 35 the number of such schools that may be established in Memphis. In addition to failing students and students from failing schools, students from low-income families may attend.

Solar initiative: Approved a $30 million “solar farm” in one 20-acre corner of a planned 1,500-acre industrial “megasite” in southwestern Haywood County.

Texting while driving: Made texting while driving illegal.

Cyberbullying: Made it a crime to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to others, with malicious intent, by Internet.

Mail-order wine: Allows out-of-state wineries that register with Tennessee to ship up to one case of wine per month and three cases a year to any Tennessean at least 21 years old. But lawmakers killed a bill to let grocery stores sell wine.

Unemployment compensation: Expanded state unemployment benefits for workers who lose their jobs, and raised taxes on employers to keep the Unemployed Insurance Trust Fund solvent.

Elderly Tennesseans: Approved the Adult Care Homes Act, creating a new small-group housing option for people who are ventilator-dependent or brain-damaged to receive long-term care services outside of larger nursing homes. AARP hopes to expand eligibility next year.

Education: Increased inflationary funding for public schools and maintained current funding for public pre-kindergarten, protecting both from budget cuts.

Crime: Expanded the “Crooks with Guns Act” approved last year by adding attempted first-degree murder to the list of crimes in which prison terms are enhanced if a gun is present. Also approved a bill to keep repeat aggravated burglary convicts behind bars longer by counting each felony convicted within a 24-hour period as separate offenses.

Foreclosure protection: Approved legislation making it a violation to engage in unfair or deceptive practices in advertising, marketing, selling or contracting for foreclosure-related services.

Ethics Commission: Merged the Tennessee Ethics Commission, created in 2006 in the wake of the “Tennessee Waltz” corruption arrests of public officials, with the older Registry of Election Finance, which regulates campaign spending, into a new Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

Clean Energy Act: Approved a broad program to improve energy efficiency in government buildings and private homes, including energy-efficient building codes.

Venture capital for small and startup businesses: Authorized tax incentives for private investors, primarily insurance companies, to create a venture capital pool totaling $120 million to invest in small businesses in the state.

Family planning: Approved a measure sought by conservatives to give public health departments in Shelby and Davidson County “preference” over non-profit contractors like Planned Parenthood in providing family planning services using federal funds. Abortion is not funded by the program.

Telephone deregulation: Removed most remaining rate regulation of telephone companies, particularly AT&T.