published Monday, February 8th, 2010

Bill seeks to outlaw 'horse trading'

Local lawmakers seek to lasso colleagues, speeders, ice cream vendors.

Audio clip

Richard Floyd

NASHVILLE -- If Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, has his way, Tennessee legislators and other "public servants" could face misdemeanor bribery charges when they horse-trade votes for special budgetary treatment of their home districts.

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, meanwhile, wants drivers of neighborhood ice cream or snowball trucks to serve up clean criminal records and clean bills of health to authorities before they are authorized to sell treats to children.

The two lawmakers' proposals are among dozens outlined in legislation filed this year by Southeast Tennessee lawmakers as they returned for this year's session of the 106th General Assembly.

Other local lawmakers' bills include a measure by Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, to punish "super speeders" with fines of $200. It would raise an estimated $3.76 million in state fines with the money directed toward hospital trauma centers, according to a legislative analysis. The bill would apply to motorists going 75 mph or greater on two-lane roads and 85 mph or more on other highways.

"Our neighbors in Georgia passed this law," Rep. Brooks said. "It went into effect this year. I have watched its effectiveness and sought to duplicate the same sort of protection of our drivers on Tennessee roads as well as a way to fund the trauma centers."

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, meanwhile, has legislation dealing with nuclear waste.

"You cannot bring in nuclear waste from out of state to store here in Tennessee," Sen. Berke said in describing what the bill does. "I think there's a concern in many communities around Tennessee about how we deal with that issue."

It would not affect federal facilities.

Sen. Bunch's extension of anti-bribery statutes, sponsored in the House by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, is named the "Ben Nelson Act to Ensure Political Integrity," a dubious nod to U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

That's the senator who voted for the U.S. Senate's health care reform bill in exchange for a provision that critics contend protected his home state from having to cough up additional state dollars for a Medicaid expansion. Instead, national taxpayers would have had to pick up the tab.

Efforts to contact Sen. Bunch over the weekend were unsuccessful, but House sponsor Rep. Dunn said the bill is no joke.

It would expand the definition of bribery "to include when basically a legislator or an elected official sells their vote for ... a perk in their district," Rep. Dunn said.

The lawmaker said it is just not right "when you have people who vote for legislation that they don't agree with, that they think is bad and they do it because they're getting some deal someplace else -- but the rest of Tennessee has to live with that bad law, that bad policy."

The bill makes it a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, for a "public servant" who trades a vote for an exemption from budgetary or fiscal measures "that are otherwise of general applicability to all other districts."

It also applies to those voting for budgetary or fiscal benefits that "are not otherwise of general applicability to all other districts ... absent a rational basis."

District attorneys would take cases to local grand juries when presented with a petition of registered voters equal to 10 percent of those who cast ballots in the previous gubernatorial election. Rep. Dunn said city and county commissions as well as the General Assembly would be affected.

He recalled that when he was a state House GOP leader "there was a rather large sum of money, I mean millions of dollars, and it was going to Memphis. I said, 'Why are we doing that when we need to do something else?' They said, 'Well, a deal was made. If we do this, they do that.'"

The lawmaker, who said he couldn't recall who made the statement, said, "I'm not saying a whole lot of this goes on."

The Omaha World-Herald newspaper recently reported Sen. Nelson protesting the flak he has received on the so-called "Cornhusker Kickback" in the Senate health bill, saying his intent was to let states opt out of the bill because of the additional costs of expanding Medicaid. Instead, he said, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., exempted Nebraska from the additional costs.

"They obviously don't have all the facts," Sen. Nelson told his home-state newspaper.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told the Omaha World-Herald of the Tennessee legislation, "We don't have enough prison space in the country to house all the congressmen and state legislators who would be incarcerated. Obviously, it's ridiculous. You don't criminalize politics. That's why we have elections."

Rep. Floyd's bill, meanwhile, would require state certification of ice cream vendors. To get a license, vendors would have to undergo state criminal background checks and provide fingerprints. Sex offenders and violent felons could not receive certification.

"What better venue than for a child molester going into a neighborhood with an ice cream or snowball truck?" Rep. Floyd said. "When you look at the state of Tennessee, they're not regulated so far by background checks, health cards."

He said the bill provides that vendors also would need to "have some kind of a record that they've been to a doctor and they don't have any communicable diseases."

Another Floyd bill would increase the penalties for boating under the influence and bring them largely into compliance with driving under the influence.

For example, drunken boat operators currently face fines of $250 to $2,500 and jail sentences of up to 11 months and 29 days. But the amount of jail time -- if any -- is left to a judge's discretion. Under Rep. Floyd's bill, drunken operators would face a minimum of 48 hours in jail. The minimum fine would rise to $350.

Rep. Floyd said there have been several accidents on Chickamauga Lake stemming from inebriated operators of watercraft.

"It's getting so crowded," he said. "They're just boating under the influence like they're driving."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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KWVeteran said...

The bill would be an unenforceable pipe dream but it makes us feel good to hear it, so something of the sort will likely pass. It's that apple pie and motherhood type of legislation that politicians love to embrace as real progress.

February 8, 2010 at 8:30 a.m.
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