Here are highlights from the past week of March 16 in the Tennessee State Senate
The pace quickened on Capitol Hill last week as the state Senate acted on a wide variety of bills, including key environmental legislation and several bills concerning Second Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the General Assembly awaits details of the governor’s budget, which was to 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 plans for spending more than $¬¬4.5 billion in federal stimulus money that will flow into Tennessee over the next two years. Gov.Bredesen plans to cut approximately $1 billion from the budget adopted by the General Assembly last year.
On stimulus money, the Senate Finance Committee met to hear an expansion request from Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely to begin work on10 bridges in the state to be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The 10-bridge replacement projects were scheduled for construction letting, which, Nicely said, means work could be underway on the projects next month.
Firearm bills advance
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Firearms and Ammunitions Legislation recommended ten bills for passage. Earlier this year, Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers referred 47 bills to the Subcommittee 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 was SB 554 that would delete the current requirement for a gun buyer to provide a thumbprint as part of the background check process
Privacy of Information / Safety Course – Another piece of legislation that was favorably recommended is, SB 32, which 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
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 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 would give gun permit holders the same privacy protections provided to driver’s license holders.
Officer’s right to carry — In addition, subcommittee members approved a bill authorizing off-duty law enforcement officers to carry firearms. Similarly, legislation was recommended to give commissioned reserve deputy sheriffs the same right to carry firearms as provided to law enforcement officers.
Citizens Right to carry — Three bills moved out of the committee that expands 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 which would which would allow licensed handgun carry permit holders to possess a firearm in state and local parks. Similarly, SB 976 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.
Two key bills aiming to protect the environment were unanimously approved by the full Senate. One 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.
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.
The second bill 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 Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation 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.
Online Sunshine – In a week set aside to open a dialogue about the importance of open government, a bill was presented in 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
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, 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.