Politics » Politics Feature

Quick Shooting

The guns-in-parking-lots bill passed a compliant Tennessee General Assembly in record time this year.



NASHVILLE — Several major pieces of legislation remain unresolved, at least in their final form, but the Tennessee General Assembly last week made short work of the one issue that tied it in knots last year and resulted in the electoral defeat of a key legislator.

This was the so-called guns-in-parking-lots bill, which passed the state Senate last year but was kept from a vote in the state House, where a stalemate developed between advocates of gun rights and defenders of property rights, who were backed by some of the state's major corporations and, ultimately, by members of the Republican legislative leadership.

That contest of wills was won by the latter in the spring legislative session, but it was different in the summer, when the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association combined efforts to defeat the reelection bid of former Representative Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville), the GOP House caucus chair whom they blamed for keeping the bill from a House vote.

Maggart's defeat clearly became something of an object lesson for Republican legislators. Long before the convening of this year's session, another version of the bill was put together by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), who presides over the state Senate and is beyond doubt the General Assembly's dominant personality.

This year's bill absolves from any criminal penalty employees who have gun-carry permits and choose to conceal their weapons in parked cars on their employers' parking lots. Although Governor Bill Haslam had desired an exemption for colleges and universities, one was not written into the bill.

In that form, the bill passed the Senate two weeks ago and the House last week, in a session in which debate was carefully limited. In a meeting of the GOP House caucus before the vote last Thursday, Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) advised Republican members to vote their "conscience" but to expedite passage with minimal controversy.

In practice, that meant that the 13 amendments that were introduced, 12 of them by Democrats, not only were overwhelmingly voted down but, with the exception of the one amendment introduced by a Republican, who spoke briefly for his proposal, were greeted with no commentary of any kind from GOP members.

Taking note of the dispatch with which the bill was processed, the courtly Democratic House leader, Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, observed: "As I recall, the function of the committee system on this particular bill probably took less time overall than the very capable sponsor took for his opening remarks."

The sponsor in question, Representative Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), had spoken for maybe five minutes.

In a body which has 72 Republicans and 27 Democrats, the final tally in favor of the bill was 72-22.

• A General Assembly measure that proposes a tradeoff of sorts on two types of IDs that were formerly banned for voting purposes has drawn a cautious reaction from opponents of the state's photo ID law.

State senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) will present a bill in the Senate state and local government committee Tuesday that would allow photo IDs issued by state colleges and universities to satisfy the state law but would disallow photo IDs issued by public libraries.

In a press release, Ketron said, "This legislation allows photo IDs issued by state community colleges and state universities as an acceptable form of identification. We allowed the use of photo identification of faculty members of our state colleges and universities under the original Tennessee law which passed in 2011. We believe that this state issued ID has worked as a sufficient form of identification and that students should also be included."

Ketron said one intent of his bill was to "clear up confusion" about the use of library cards at polls. In a pre-election ruling last year on a suit brought by the city of Memphis the state Court of Appeals approved the rule of public library cards as consistent with the state law.

The state has appealed that ruling. "We considered locally issued cards when debating the original bill, but after reviewing the process, decided that the safeguards were not in place to ensure the integrity of the ballot like state and federally issued identification," Ketron said. "We continue to believe that the safeguards are not in place to use these cards as acceptable identification for voting purposes."

City attorney Herman Morris, who, backed by Mayor A C Wharton, vigorously argued for the validity of public library cards in last year's legal action, seemed to regard the Ketron bill as potentially affording "some progress" in widening the compass of acceptable state IDs but emphasized that the city regards the photo ID law itself as unconstitutional and is awaiting a ruling on the measure as a whole from the state Supreme Court.

That opinion was echoed by Van Turner, a lawyer who serves as chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party. "Any advancement is a good thing," Turner said of the bill's intent to license student IDs, "but I'm disappointed that it would take library cards off the table." That aspect of the bill would inconvenience "seniors and others who aren't so mobile as students," Turner said. "They're picking and choosing."

Like Morris, Turner said that the real issue was the fate of the photo ID law itself.


• Although Rich Holden, administrator of elections at the glitch-plagued Shelby County Election Commission, has completed a six-month probation period and received what amounts to a clean bill of health at a meeting two weeks ago, the two Democratic members of the five-member commission remain dissatisfied, and one of them, Norma Lester, calls the procedure a "hoax."

At the February 20th meeting, Lester, along with Democratic colleague George Monger, unsuccessfully called again, as they had at a previous meeting, for a resolution asking Holden to resign. They were out-voted by Chairman Robert Meyers and the two other Republican members of the election commission, Dee Nollner and Steve Stamson.

Lester contends that Holden was allowed to circumvent a three-day suspension without pay that was imposed on him along with the six-month probation period. She describes the combination of penalties, voted by the commission last year in the wake of several election irregularities, as having been a "compromise" but one that was incompletely enforced.

Meyers acknowledged that Holden had not had his pay docked but called that an "oversight" on his part. "There was something specific I had to do beyond our resolution that I didn't realize at the time was necessary, but, when it was called to my attention, I took care of it." Holden's pay will be docked for three days, Meyers said, but, in answer to an additional assertion by Lester that the administrator had taken only two days off, not the three mandated, the chairman said, "We were in crisis mode at the time, and I called [Holden] back to help out with it. I don't think it's necessary to ask him to take another day off, so long as we are docking his pay for three full days," Meyers said.

Holden's penance was ordained by the full commission in the wake of a series of election-related glitches in 2012 that included the distribution of thousands of wrong ballots during the August 2nd county general election — a problem generally attributed to an untimely application of reapportionment guidelines to precinct assignments.

As part of his probation, Holden was required to take a Dale Carnegie course and one in management, to explain work assignments of his staff members in some detail and conduct regular meetings with them, and to complete the process of redistricting to the commission's satisfaction. Holden supplied the commission with an itemized statement as evidence of his compliance with all points.

Lester and Monger have made it clear they remain unsatisfied, with Lester declaring in a memo to her colleagues, "My distrust of the AOE [Holden] has been very open. It is disheartening to think trust of the Republican commissioners has been misplaced."

Another unsatisfied person is Joe Weinberg, who, along with but independently of fellow election watchdog Steve Ross, exposed the wrong-ballot problem last year — one which was confirmed by the Tennessee secretary of state's office.

Weinberg, who has compiled a lengthy list of what he sees as systemic problems in the workings of the administrator's office, charges that most of them have not been dealt with — either by Meyers or the election commission as a whole or state comptroller Justin Wilson, who conducted a review of commission activities at the request of Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

Weinberg has publicized new research of his own, contending that at least 400 city voters, and possibly many more whose precincts were "split" following reapportionment, were deprived of the opportunity in November of voting on a city gas tax referendum.

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