NASHVILLE - A Republican-backed proposal aimed at stopping Occupy Nashville protesters from staying overnight at the Capitol complex passed the House on Thursday despite opposition from Democrats who say the legislation's penalty is excessive.
The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Eric Watson, of Cleveland, was approved 70-26 after a lengthy debate Thursday. All 26 votes against the bill came from Democrats. Seven voted for it.
The companion bill was to be heard on the Senate floor, but it adjourned before hearing the legislation. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters later that the measure likely will be heard next Thursday.
Protesters have camped at the plaza since early October. At one time there were as many as 60 tents, but that number is now fewer than half, mainly because of the proposed legislation.
The measure would make it a misdemeanor to lay down "bedding for the purpose of sleeping."
It refers to items associated with camping, "including tents, portable toilets, sleeping bags, tarps, propane heaters, cooking equipment and generators."
Under the legislation, violators would be fined as much as $2,500 and face up to nearly a year in jail.
Supporters say the bill is necessary because of criminal activity and lewd behavior at the encampment. They say since the protesters arrived, there have been hundreds of additional reports of misconduct.
Law enforcement at the local and state level agrees that crime has increased since the protesters began occupying the plaza, but it hasn't been a spike.
Nevertheless, Watson said something needs to be done to "restore the entire public's right to use state property."
"There have been weddings put off because of the protesters," he said.
Added Republican Rep. Barrett Rich, of Somerville: "This bill is for the 99 percent who want to come to the plaza."
Opponents say the penalty is extreme and unnecessary.
"It seems like there was a special effort here to be punitive," said Democratic Rep. Gary Odom, of Nashville.
Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Memphis Democrat and civil rights advocate, said the proposal is unfair to homeless individuals who have attached themselves to the Occupy Nashville movement.
"What about the homeless who have no place to lay their heads?" she asked. "It ... criminalizes the homeless."
Critics also questioned the bill's lack of a fiscal impact, considering individuals could be arrested and placed in local jails. An effort to send the legislation back to the House Finance Committee to discuss the financial issue failed.
"Fiscal impact is something we know we have to be concerned about," Odom said.
Ramsey said he doesn't believe the proposal is excessive and expects it to be used "very sparingly" if it passes.
"But I do think the public is fed up ... and there needs to be some way to enforce this," the Blountville Republican said.
Some protesters acknowledge the legislation is a factor in the reduction of occupiers on the plaza, but it hasn't diminished their resolve.
"They're not going away," protester Bill Howell said. "The problems have not been solved. This is a distraction. We'll get past this and get back on subject."
The legislation comes several months after Gov. Bill Haslam's administration lost a legal battle over a curfew that was used to temporarily dislodge the encampment. The administration is following a judge's orders and promulgating rules for use of the plaza.
Haslam told reporters earlier this week that the administration is continuing with the rulemaking process, regardless of the legislation. If the bill passes, he said he plans to talk to the state's attorney general about "what the state's rights are at that point."
"I don't know when we'll finish that process, but it will be a race to beat the Legislature getting out, probably," said Haslam, adding that he expects to sign the bill into law.