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HomeNewsCapitol Hill Week: Firearms "carry" law tops agenda

Capitol Hill Week: Firearms “carry” law tops agenda

tn-state-capitolPace quickens on Capitol Hill with approval of wide variety of bills. Second Amendment Rights legislation begins to move in Senate Judiciary’s Firearms and Ammunition Subcommittee

NASHVILLE, TN:  The pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as the State Senate acted on a wide variety of bills, including key environmental legislation and several bills protecting our citizens’ second amendment rights. Meanwhile, the General Assembly awaits details of the governor’s budget, which will be presented to a joint session of the House and Senate on Monday night.

The governor is expected to take a four-year approach to the state budget, which will include his plans for spending over $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money that will flow into Tennessee over the next two years.  The governor plans to cut approximately $1 billion from the budget adopted by the General Assembly last year.  However, his speech Monday will not likely include plans to make the massive layoffs in state employees that were once feared.

On stimulus money, the Senate Finance Committee met this week to hear an expansion request from Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely to begin work on ten bridges in the state to be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The 10 bridge replacement projects are scheduled for construction letting this week, which Nicely said means work could be underway on the projects next month.

Once the budget is delivered to the legislature, State Senators will immediately go to work on reviewing the appropriations request.  The budget address is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on Monday.

Firearms bills advance in Senate Subcommittee

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Firearms and Ammunitions Legislation recommended ten bills for passage this week aimed at revising Tennessee’s gun laws and assuring the Second Amendment rights of citizens “to keep and bear arms.” Earlier this year, Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) referred 47 bills to the Subcommittee chaired by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill) for review.  These bills range from permit confidentiality to a legal permit holder’s right to carry in public places.

Thumbprint – Among the bills passed by the Subcommittee this week was SB 554, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), that would delete the current requirement for a gun buyer to provide a thumbprint as part of the background check process.  Tennessee is the only state in the nation that requires a thumbprint from gun permit applicants.  Since the 1998 enactment of Tennessee’s conceal and carry law, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has only asked for one thumbprint due to a challenge from a person who was denied the right to purchase a firearm and that print was smudged and unusable.  Approximately 2.3 million guns have been sold in Tennessee since 1998.

Privacy of Information / Safety Course
— Legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Murfreesboro) also moved out of the committee with a recommendation.  The bill, SB 32, seeks to clarify that neither the state nor an instructor or employee of a department-approved handgun safety course is authorized to require an applicant for a handgun carry permit to furnish or reveal private identifying information.  This includes information regarding any handgun the applicant owns, possesses, or uses during the safety course, or the serial number of the weapon.  The bill was filed in response to an incident late last year, when the Department of Safety sent letters to all firearms instructors requiring them to complete and return a roster of students and to provide information on each student including the name of the firearm owner, the name of the student using the firearm, and the make, model, and serial number of firearms used.  Gun advocates argued the request was the first step toward universal gun registration, but the Department of Safety claimed it was a clerical error.

Privacy of information / permit holder database — Two bills aiming to protect the confidential information of handgun permit holders were recommended for passage by the Firearms Subcommittee.  One bill, SB 1126 sponsored by Senator Norris, would protect the confidential information by removing the handgun permit holders database from provisions of the state’s open records law.  Many citizens have been offended by the publication of the database by newspapers and media websites.  Permit holders fear criminals will use the information to target their homes to steal weapons, while those who do not own guns are worried about the risk of being identified as a home without a firearm.  The second bill, SB 1932, also sponsored by Senator Norris, would give gun permit holders the same privacy protections provided to driver’s license holders.  This bill takes another approach to protect those with a gun carry license by banning from disclosure any information gathered by the Department of Safety that is used for the purpose of granting the permit.

Law enforcement officers right to carry
— In addition, subcommittee members approved a bill sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) authorizing off-duty law enforcement officers to carry firearms.  The bill, SB 1394, would give officers, who are often targeted by criminals they have arrested, the ability to be secure both on and off the job.  Similarly, legislation was recommended to give commissioned reserve deputy sheriffs the same right to carry firearms as provided to law enforcement officers.  The measure, SB 1912, by Senator Norris, would only apply upon written authorization of the sheriff.

Citizens Right to carry
— Three bills moved out of the committee that expand the places where legal permit holders can carry their guns.  The bills target many remote locations in the state where criminals often prey on victims who are not allowed to carry firearms, even if they have a legal permit.  These bills include SB 1518, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers, which would which would allow licensed handgun carry permit holders to possess a firearm in state and local parks.  Similarly, SB 976 by Senators Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) and Senator Faulk, was recommended that would allow permit holders to carry firearms in state parks.  Senate Bill1519 passed out of the subcommittee and would extend those privileges to carry into wildlife refuges, public hunting areas, wildlife management areas or national forest land. In January, the federal government lifted a regulation that banned guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.  Previously, guns were only allowed if they were unloaded and inaccessible.  The new federal rule applies to legal permit holders in the 48 states that have a process for issuance of licenses to allow law-abiding citizens legally to carry firearms for self-defense, including Tennessee.

Tennessee’s Constitution also guarantees “that the citizens of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms.” Second amendment rights advocates have worked for the past two decades for restoration of their rights as states across the nation have been eliminated or made less restrictive gun laws at the federal, state, and local levels.

“I am pleased to have the opportunity to expand and refine our Second Amendment rights,” said Chairman Faulk.  “I look forward to continuing to work with this legislative panel as we wind up our committee’s work.”

Two Key Environmental bills approved by full Senate

Two key bills aiming to protect the environment were unanimously approved by the full Senate on Monday night.  One bill, SB 2066 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would encourage the development and use of refined and purified methane gas as a renewable green energy source.   Generating electricity from solid waste landfills is a relatively cost-effective way to provide new renewable energy generation capacity to help supply community power needs, while helping to create local jobs.

“This landfill gas-to-energy source would utilize a resource that would have otherwise been wasted,” said Senator Overbey.  “At the same time, it will produce benefits for the landfill, the environment, our community, and consumers.”

The legislation makes it clear that once refined, the extracted methane is a commercial equivalent under Tennessee law to natural gas.  It also says that it would be treated as such under any permits allowing burning or use of natural gas.  In addition, the legislation makes it clear that any prohibitions in permits that bar use of burning of landfill gas refer only to the unrefined gases generated underground at a landfill and not the extracted and refined methane.

Experts maintain landfill gas emitted from decomposing garbage is a reliable and renewable fuel option that remains largely untapped at many landfills across the United States despite its many benefits. Generating energy from landfill methane gas creates a number of environmental benefits, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and improving the air quality of the surrounding community by reducing landfill odors.  The purified extracted methane can be transported by pipeline.

The second bill approved on Monday would prohibit the issuance of permits for the storage of coal fly ash in landfills unless they contain a liner for protection of groundwater and are capped properly.  The legislation, SB 1559 sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) and Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), requires the state’s Department of Conservation and Environment (TDEC) to issue a permit or request for expansion of an existing landfill only if it meets those requirements for the storage of the coal by-product.

“There are a lot of unknowns about the long term effects of coal fly ash,” said Senator Yager, who represents Roane County, the site of a massive coal ash spill on December 22, 2008.  “The long term effect on the public health from fly ash leacheate and airborne particles is unknown.  It is imperative that we take these precautions to protect our community’s health.  This legislation would give TDEC the tools it needs to make sure that coal fly ash is stored properly in the future.”

The Roane County coal ash spill released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into the river from an on-site lagoon, also referred to as a holding pond, at the Kingston Fossil Plant.  Fly ash is a fine, glass-like powder recovered from gases created by coal-fired electric power generation.   The ash contains arsenic, which means it must be treated as a “hazardous substance” as it is moved from the Kingston site to a landfill.  Engineers are working to prepare the comprehensive plan to remove the sludge from the Kingston spill, which is expected to cost TVA between $525 to $825 million.

“We have to look at what we can learn from this incident to prevent a future accident from occurring,” Burchett added.  “This bill is a huge first step.”

Legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would ban open containers of alcohol in vehicles.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation sponsored by Committee Chairman Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) on Wednesday to ban open containers of alcohol in vehicles.  The bill, SB 291, addresses a gaping loophole in Tennessee’s current law that allows drinking drivers to “pass the bottle” to a passenger if they get pulled over by law enforcement.

In addition to the safety issues involved with drunk driving, passage of the bill would also free up approximately $16 million dollars in much needed federal transportation funds that Tennessee could use for road and bridge construction.  Currently, Tennessee’s Department of Transportation is penalized by the federal government and is only allowed to use such funds on safety issues such as DUI commercials.  Those funds are also reduced every year by approximately one to two million dollars.

Tennessee is one of eleven states which does not comply with federal open-container guidelines.   Forbes magazine recently rated Tennessee as the eleventh-worst state when it comes to safety on roads and alcohol-related incidents.  Consequently, the other non-compliant states also stack the Forbes list ahead of Tennessee.

“Too many Tennesseans have died on our highways as a result of drunk driving,” said Sen. Beavers.  “We must reform our laws and this bill is a big step forward.”

Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee hears strategies for improving health in Tennessee

The Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee heard testimony this week from Jeff Ockerman regarding strategies for improving health in Tennessee.  The General Assembly passed legislation in 2004 calling for a State Health Plan to guide state health care programs and policies, as well as the allocation of health care resources in the state.

Tennessee ranks 47th in the nation in overall health status.   Some of the more severe health conditions include obesity, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and infant mortality.  Besides the impact Tennessee’s poor health status has on the quality of life for individual citizens, it also means consumers, health care providers, and governments spend in aggregate more than $32 billion on health care each year.

The Division of Health Planning is now working with healthcare stakeholders in Tennessee to develop strategies to improve health outcomes.  With the development of the State Health Plan, Tennessee can now create a broad-based health planning collaborative, which spans public, private and non-profit sectors, geographic regions and data-sharing entitities.  Some of the partners include the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Policy, the Obesity Task Force, the Tennessee Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalition, and the Tennessee Institute for Public Health, to name a few.

“We are now taking a strategic approach to addressing health care problems in Tennessee,” said General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Chairman Rusty Crow (R-Johnson City).  “It has taken four years to get on track but I am pleased that we are now moving in the right direction in taking a multi-faceted approach to health that includes involvement by healthcare stakeholders.  We have much work ahead of us as we tackle the serious health concerns that we face in our state.  I look forward to working with this group as we find solutions.”

Issues in Brief

Safety Net for mentally ill — The full Senate has approved legislation sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) that would clarify and help protect safety net services for Tennesseans with serious and persistent mental illness who have been disenrolled from TennCare.  The bill, which is endorsed by the Coalition for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, will enable the state to provide safety net services to about 29,000 mentally ill adults who are uninsured and whose income level is at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The legislation, SB 1538, puts language into Tennessee law to clarify the benefits provided to serious and persistently mentally ill citizens and identify the population served with these minimal services to strengthen the program.  Such services include needed medication and follow-up medical care, among other services.

Online Sunshine
– In a week set aside to open a dialogue about the importance of open government, Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) presented legislation to the State and Local Government Committee to expand a pilot program utilized in Knox County that brings sunshine online on the Internet.  The bill, SB 832, uses technology to set up an online forum for elected officials to communicate outside of public meetings but within the bounds of the state’s Sunshine law. Under the bill, elected bodies could set up websites where they can post messages to one another.  These “conversations” would then be available for the public and the media’s viewing. To view the Knox County Commission’s pilot project forum, please visit:  https://knoxgov.net/commission and click on “Commission Forum.”  Debate will continue on the bill next week.

Parental Consent for Mental Health Screening — The Senate Finance Committee approved legislation that places restrictions on universal mental health testing or social emotional screening of juveniles.  The bill, SB 850 by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin) would prevent the screening from being done without the parent’s consent.  It also prohibits a local education agency from using a parent’s refusal for medication or screening as grounds for not allowing the child to participate in class or other school activities.

Water law — Legislation clarifying the definition of a “wet weather conveyance” under Tennessee law was approved by the Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee this week.  The legislation is designed to provide consistency across the state regarding violations of Tennessee’s Water Quality Act.  Farmers, businesses, and landowners received over 231 enforcement orders from the Tennessee Department of Conservation and Environment in 2008 due to disturbance of protected waters.  This leaves many landowners in doubt about what constitutes protected waters, including farmers who might have seasonal ponding.  This bill, SB 632 by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) defines a “wet weather conveyance” as a natural watercourse, due to rainfall runoff, that does not support fish or aquatic life. The conveyance would not be listed among the types of water protected by law.  The bill also calls for training for those who issue violations to make sure they are highly qualified to make determinations based on scientific results.


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