- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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Oct. 26

The Commercial Appeal on Gov. Haslam’s enforcement of pollution laws:

With its stunning natural beauty and abundant resources, Tennessee should be among the nation’s leading states in environmental preservation. Sadly, with respect to protection of the quality of the state’s waterways, that’s not the case.

Under the Haslam administration, which is in its sixth year, the state Department of Environment and Conservation has approached the issue in a way that stresses helping companies comply with water quality laws rather than strictly enforcing them.

This may be with the best intentions, but it leaves state regulators vulnerable to manipulation and gives polluters a license to delay cleanup action. And it reinforces the governor’s image of being tone deaf to the public’s concern on matters that involve business, from the outsourcing of public facility management to the marketing of the state as a destination for companies looking for a “low-cost labor force.”

The administration’s decision to become more of a helpful stepdad than a hard-nosed disciplinarian allowed stream pollution to continue for years at such sites as the Memphis Regional Intermodal Facility in Fayette County and an ammunition manufacturing plant in upper East Tennessee, according to reporting by the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.

It may be good policy for short-term economic gains, but it ultimately detracts from one of the qualities that enhance the quality of life in Tennessee and add to the state’s appeal among tourists.

In Gov. Bill Haslam’s first year in office, TDEC Commissioner Robert Martineau merged the three water protection divisions into one, shed a quarter of their positions, and nearly stopped penalizing polluters, the newspaper reported. Formal water pollution enforcement orders dropped from an average of 182 per year to a low of 19 actions in 2015.

That was a function of staff turnover, permit changes and TDEC’s efforts at preventing pollution, Tisha Calabrese Benton, director of water resources, told the newspaper that at the Norfolk Southern site, for example, “We were out there multiple times, providing feedback, building a case, and then coordinating with the Attorney General’s office so the case would have teeth.”

Finally, in August, after five years of such prodding, TDEC and the state attorney general sued the railroad for violating its construction permit. The agency also has begun stepping up its level of water pollution enforcement orders, although at a rate that is still well below pre-Martineau levels.

Meanwhile the list of impaired waterways - those that exceed standards for chemicals, bacteria, human encroachment and other harms - is growing. So, too, is the cleanup project ahead of the state, which it is not too late to start.

Online: https://www.commercialappeal.com/

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Oct. 26

The Johnson City Press on funding for roads:

The (Nashville) Tennessean reported earlier this month that Gov. Bill Haslam will make another pitch to the state General Assembly next year to increase the gas tax. It will be a tough sale.

Haslam has been touring Tennessee during the last two years to drum up support for a hike to the state’s fuel tax. Unless the gas tax is increased, or another funding source is found, Haslam says work on new bridges and highways could come to an abrupt halt.

Tennesseans now pay 21.4 cents in state taxes for every gallon of gas they pump. That’s in addition to the 18.5 cents per gallon they pay to the federal government. Tennessee’s gas tax has not been increased since 1989.

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the state’s current gas tax yields more than $665.7 million per year. While that amount sounds like a lot, it falls far short of that needed to fund road projects.

Haslam says additional revenue is needed to fund $6 billion in needed transportation projects across the state.

Members of the Republican-controlled General Assembly have expressed opposition to raising the gas tax. That’s why Tennessee must think outside the box and explore other funding options to help meet the state’s growing transportation infrastructure needs.

For example, several states are now taxing the miles driven, not the gas used. And other states are levying an annual fee on electric cars to generate revenue for road projects that have traditionally been funded by a gas tax.

Supporters say this is only fair because electric cars use the public highways, contribute to their wear and tear and should be expected to help fund their upkeep.

What do you think about increasing the state gas tax? Is it a good idea, or are there other ways to fund bridge and highway construction?

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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Oct. 26

The Knoxville News Sentinel on the ballot selfie ban:

With the tap of a cellphone, Justin Timberlake has demonstrated the absurdity of Tennessee’s ban on “ballot selfies.”

On Monday, the Memphis-born pop icon returned from California to his home state, where he owns property, to cast a ballot at the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Germantown. While there, he snapped a photo of himself performing that civic duty and posted it to his Instagram account.

“Hey! You! Yeah, YOU! I just flew from LA to Memphis to #rockthevote !!! No excuses, my good people,” he challenged his followers. “There could be early voting in your town too. If not, November 8th! Choose to have a voice! If you don’t, then we can’t HEAR YOU! Get out and VOTE! #excerciseyourrighttovote.”

That’s a no-no, noted Adam Ghassemi, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.

“We’re thrilled Justin can’t stop the feeling when it comes to voting,” Ghassemi said. But, “in Tennessee, using electronic devices inside polling locations to take pictures, videos or make calls is not allowed. . Tennesseans should only use their phones inside polling locations for informational purposes to assist while voting, like our free GoVoteTN mobile app.”

The GoVoteTN app, developed by the secretary of state’s office a couple of years ago for about $26,000, provides information such as polling locations, candidate lists and districts. It has been downloaded some 32,000 times since its launch.

Timberlake, whose latest hit is “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” has about 37.2 million followers on Instagram.

The General Assembly passed and Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill banning ballot selfies last year. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

Many states have similar bans, the ostensible purpose of which is to prevent vote-buying. The theory is that citizens will take bribes from political bosses then use selfies to prove they’ve delivered the goods.

The risk of that actually happening is so minuscule, however, that such laws have been struck down as unconstitutional. Last year in New Hampshire, for instance, U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro found that state’s selfie ban violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free expression.

“The new law is invalid,” he declared, “because it is a content-based restriction on speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny.” In enacting the law, the state presented no evidence of any “actual or imminent problem.”

There is no actual or imminent problem in Tennessee either. In fact, the impetus for the law is baffling. Unlike other voter legislation, selfie bans have not been pushed by one party or the other. In New Hampshire, Republican legislators challenged the law, which was backed by the Democratic secretary of state. In Tennessee, it was the GOP that wanted to suppress selfies.

In any event, Timberlake’s message encouraging fans to vote has shown how counterproductive the law is.

At first, the Shelby County district attorney general’s office said Timberlake’s post would be under review for possible violation of state election law. But the office quickly backtracked. What prosecutor would be so foolish as to do otherwise?

Today, selfies are a nearly universal way of sharing exuberance over life’s bright moments. Banning Tennesseans from such self-expression when voting is unnecessary, unconstitutional and, dare we say, un-American. The law should be changed at the earliest opportunity.

Online: https://www.knoxnews.com/

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