published Monday, January 14th, 2013

Hamilton County's legislative delegation has big agenda

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Intrigue at a hospital, whiskey, criminal gangs and a very crowded cemetery.

Sound like a plot ripped from the pages of some thriller? Maybe so, but in this case they're part of the script of real-life local issues facing Hamilton County's legislative delegation to the Tennessee General Assembly. And that's not even counting statewide issues like health care, education and the budget.

Local lawmakers' to-do list includes:

• Changing the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority Act, which created the Erlanger Health System. Worried by the once-thriving public hospital's recent finances and operations, lawmakers are looking to alter who appoints the board of trustees.

• A request from Hamilton County commissioners to put the county under provisions of a 2009 state law that permits local whiskey distilleries.

• Tweaking the 2012 anti-gang law that lawmakers passed at the behest of Chattanooga officials last year.

• Allowing county officials to start using cremation for indigent burials. Officials say the 80-year-old Ruth Cofer Cemetery rapidly is running out of space for traditional burials.

Erlanger changes?

Delegation members say they still are wrestling with changes to the private act that created Erlanger. One of their concerns is that the current board appears to get mired in detail instead of watching the big picture when it comes to overseeing management.

The 12 trustees include appointments by the county, city, the two chancellors, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and the legislative delegation, plus the chief of the medical staff. There have been discussions about streamlining the appointments, among other considerations, lawmakers say.

"I'll have to hear some more information before I make my decision on how to change the board," said Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, a registered nurse and one-time hospital trustee.

The delegation last year considered a board overhaul but decided to take more time to study the issue.

Local whiskey

The liquor distillery change is sought by Chattanooga Whiskey, which wants to move manufacturing of its product from Indiana to the company's hometown.

Doing so will generate jobs and tax revenue, owners say. That argument was enough to get seven of nine county commissioners to sign a letter to the legislative delegation supporting the move.

The 2009 law allows local officials to OK distillery operations in counties where voters have approved both liquor-by-the-drink and package-store sales.

Hamilton County was left out of the bill after Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, objected. And Floyd, a teetotaler, remains opposed.

"I fought that bill," Floyd said of the law. "I amended Hamilton County out of it. If they want to have a referendum, let them have at it. But I'm going to fight it tooth and toenail."

Favors said she supports it, noting that alcohol is not illegal and Chattanooga Whiskey is a local firm. She said the prospect of jobs and additional local tax revenue appeals to her.

"It's a legal entity. And [disapproval] is not going to prevent people from drinking," Favors said.

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, a former Sessions Court judge and aide to former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, said he hasn't made up his mind.

"It'd be my opinion that if a county commission wants it, it'd be hard not to give them their will on it. But I'll look at it and see."

The chairman of the local legislative delegation, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, noted the law allows the distillery to be located anywhere in the county. Watson prefers to have the change apply solely to cities where voters have approved liquor by the drink and retail package sales.

"The issue for me is that if a municipality has met the two standards through a referendum, the community has pretty much said that alcohol sales and beer sales are pretty much OK."

Gang effort

Watson said Chattanooga officials have asked for adjustments in the anti-gang laws passed last year.

One law expanded the state's existing Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to give criminal gang leaders more prison time. The second boosted sentences for people who know about and participate in criminal gang activity.

Watson said he is seeking additional details on exactly what the city wants changed.

There also are other requests for legislation:

• Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles is renewing his call for the state to adopt an electronic verification process to ensure drivers have auto insurance.

• Sheriff Jim Hammond wants more state funds for jail operations. He also wants authority to send a designee to local 911 board meetings, Watson said.

• Referring to a special trust fund to benefit children of crime victims, Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler wants authority to deduct money from payments to victims if they get into legal trouble and end up owing the court fines or other obligations.

The General Assembly met last week to organize itself and elect officers, then adjourned. They are scheduled to meet again Jan. 28.

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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