- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

Aug. 10

Knoxville (Tennessee) News Sentinel on state’s “guns in parks” law:

When Gov. Bill Haslam signed the controversial “guns in parks” law in April, he warned of the unintended consequences of removing local control over whether to allow firearms in city or county parks.

Those unintended consequences arrived last week.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, in an advisory opinion, wrote that contractors hosting special events in parks or managing public facilities could not ban people carrying weapons while possessing a handgun carry permit.

In light of the opinion, Haslam has called on the Legislature to revisit the law, a reasonable suggestion for a measure that could have far-ranging ramifications.

The state Legislature approved a bill in April abolishing the authority of municipal and county governments to ban handgun-carry permit-holders from carrying guns in locally owned and operated parks under their control. When Haslam signed the bill into law on April 24, he wrote a letter to legislative leaders saying he was concerned about unanticipated operational challenges for local governments. In his opinion, Slatery determined that the restrictions on local governments extends to nonprofits that operate parks on behalf of cities and counties. It also applies to special events put on by third parties charging admission.

While the opinion does not address any specific situation, it is easy to see how such an interpretation would apply to the Tennessee Valley Fair, which is held in Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park, the Knoxville Zoo, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts at Ijams Nature Center and Volapalooza at World’s Fair Park.

A former attorney for ex-Gov. Phil Bredesen, Junaid Odubeko, told the Tennessean the opinion appears to prevent the Tennessee Titans from enforcing the NFL’s firearms ban at professional football games held in Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. Applying that logic to East Tennessee’s publicly-owned sports venues, the Tennessee Smokies would have to allow handguns in Smokies Stadium, which is owned by the city of Sevierville, and the Knoxville Ice Bears would have to do likewise in the Civic Coliseum.

Slatery’s opinion is not binding, but it is a learned and well-reasoned interpretation of the “guns in parks” statute. Nonprofit contractors and event organizers do not have to change policies, but the opinion certainly lays out a legal argument for any handgun-carry permit-holders to use if turned away from events.

The Legislature should recognize that different localities have different facilities and situations. The residents of a rural area might not have a problem with people carrying weapons at the county fair, while organizers of music festivals in cities might want to ban weapons from public venues.

Lawmakers also need to explore other possible effects of the law. Professional sports teams could face sanctions from their leagues. Nonprofits and other third-party contractors could face difficulties obtaining insurance for special events.

Amending the law to give cities and counties flexibility in managing their own parks and special events would not rob anyone of their Second Amendment rights. Rather, it would allow local governments reasonable authority to administer their parks based on local conditions.




Aug. 4

Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times Free Press on state’s prisons system and Corrections Oversight Committee:

Less government is not always good government.

State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga is thoughtful enough and brave enough to acknowledge that: He said last week that he made a mistake in 2012 by sponsoring a bill that abolished most legislative oversight panels, including the General Assembly’s Corrections Oversight Committee.

Now, in the aftermath of two Tennessee prisons being placed on lockdown because of violence amid a severe shortage of correctional officers, McCormick, a Republican, sees the need to restore some of that oversight responsibility, including corrections oversight.

Minus that 30-year, seasoned oversight, the Department of Correction recently switched correctional officers from a traditional 40-hour work week to a 28-day schedule to save $1.4 million in overtime costs.

“I think we do need to reinstitute some of the oversight committees, including corrections,” McCormick told reporters last week. “It was a mistake for me to carry that bill in the first place. Should never have done it. The Legislature has an oversight responsibility and (has) to have the oversight committee in place and meeting on a regular basis rather than waiting until something goes wrong and then reacting to a situation and holding hearings.”

More than 320 officers have quit since last August as the new prison scheduling changes rolled out. Remaining officers, whose starting wage is $27,070, sometimes had to work double shifts or travel across state to fill vacancies temporarily.

Meanwhile, the department expanded executive positions at higher salaries at its central office under the leadership of Commissioner Derrick Schofield, who started in 2011, according to the Associated Press. The new positions included a chief of staff making $125,352 a year and two additional deputy commissioners making $129,900 a year. The department also has four communications officers - spokespersons - and at least one of them is making more than $86,000. Five years ago, there was only spokesperson making considerably less.

The department has said the increase in executive positions is necessary and reflects “best practices” in the industry. The question, of course, is “best practices” for whom?

Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City was put on lockdown after a July 19 incident that injured an officer. Then on July 24, eight prisoners were injured in stabbings at Tiptonville’s Northwest Correctional Complex, a result of tensions among rival gang members.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, have announced hearings in their respective chambers’ State and Local Government Committees. The speakers didn’t respond to Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher’s questions about reinstating the Corrections Oversight Committee. In 2012, Ramsey trumpeted the abolishing of various oversight panels as saving the state taxpayers more than $700,000.

Schofield and other members of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration deny that requiring the guards to work a 28-day shift before they are eligible for overtime is the root cause of departures, and they say prisons are not understaffed. The department traditionally has had high staff turnover rates, they say, and with an improving economy, workers are leaving for better paying private-sector jobs.

Right. “Best practices.”

Real best practices would not include throwing over a 30-year system that grew out of the inmate riots of 1985 when Tennessee prisons were set ablaze amid an overcrowding crisis that already had landed the state in federal court.

Real best practices would not trade that now-seasoned Corrections Oversight Committee (one that dug the state out of a mess, hired its own prison consultant and held regular meetings for years - keeping a close eye on statistics involving staff-to-inmate ratios, pay, inmate violence, assaults on staff and other indicators of problems), for piggy-backed standing committees which normally don’t meet outside the part-time Legislature’s regular session.

Real best practices would be understanding that the $1.4 million in overtime savings likely will be swamped by legal costs the state will surely incur as a result of litigation by the injured officer and eight stabbed inmates.

Finally, real best practices is exactly what the poor working prison officers did for themselves when they left to find steady pay, saner hours and employers who value order-maintaining guards over paper-pushers and public relations spin.




Aug. 8

Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro, Tennessee on state’s gasoline tax and transportation and infrastructure needs:

Gov. Bill Haslam perhaps appropriately has launched a “road trip” to discuss the state’s transportation and infrastructure needs and a topic of conversation will be an increase in the state’s gasoline tax.

Haslam in Memphis at the first meeting in the 15-city tour that will include Murfreesboro said he is not ready to recommend an increase in the state’s gasoline tax that has not increased in 26 years.

The governor, however, said that he will gather information from the tour to develop a proposal to deal with the state’s transportation and other infrastructure needs.

In his announcement of the tour, Haslam noted: “Right now we have a multi-billion dollar backlog of highway projects across this state that address key access, safety and economic-development issues and that’s only going to grow.”

Complicating the situation for Tennessee and other states is the failure of Congress to provide long-term funding for the Federal Highway Trust Fund that previously shared in the cost of highway projects.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee has introduced a bill to increase the federal gasoline tax.

“We know that we can’t depend on the federal government to be the funding partner that it once was,” Haslam said in the announcement of the multi-city tour.

Also complicating the situation is increased use of fuel-efficient vehicles and alternative-fuel vehicles that reduce revenue generated from the current state gasoline tax of 21.4 cents per gallon.

As a high-growth area, Rutherford County has needs for funding for maintenance and improvements to existing highways as well as construction of new highways and access points to serve existing businesses and attract new businesses.

Rutherford County is among leaders in the state in economic-development efforts that have brought new private investments and payrolls to the state, and the county needs a greater investment in infrastructure.

The governor when he comes to Murfreesboro on this multi-city tour will be able to hear specifics about the county’s current and future transportation needs.

While such a state investment may require an increase in the state gasoline tax, we think it’s a necessary and worthwhile investment. The need for it likely only will become greater.

State officials have to deal with the realities of the transportation needs and economy of the 21st century, and an increase in the gasoline tax should help them do that.



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