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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, December 15, 2017

Legislators not shy in pushing ‘model’ bills from outsiders




The group that brought Tennessee the voter photo ID law could be on the brink of spawning another kink on the voting process, one that cross-checks jury service with voter rolls.

At the behest of the American Civil Rights Union, legislators across the nation who belong to the American Legislative Exchange Council could be sponsoring bills in the next couple of years requiring local election commissions to take a closer look at people who miss jury duty.

“All we want is honest voting,” says Susan Carleson, chairman and CEO of the American Civil Rights Union, which put on a voter integrity seminar during the ALEC 2017 States & Nation Policy Summit held at Nashville’s Omni Hotel.

As a result, Sen. Bill Ketron, a state chairman for ALEC’s public sector division, plans to ask Secretary of State Tre Hargett to come up with legislation mirroring the law in other states. He says he’ll carry the bill.

The Murfreesboro Republican will have to work quickly because he’s set to leave the Legislature in 2018 to run for Rutherford County mayor. But as chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, he’s pretty good at raising money and getting things done.

People who miss jury duty wouldn’t be removed automatically from voter rolls, Ketron says. Still, county election commissions would be able to ferret out illegal aliens and people who are registered to vote in other states, in addition to those who use multiple names to cast extra ballots, he adds.

“They were talking about all the dead people, all the illegal activity as far as voting integrity in every state, so that needs to be a check between the election office, and that’s another source of data that can be shared,” Ketron says.

As a 16-year member of ALEC and state chairman for 10 years, Ketron makes no bones about backing bills emanating from the group, including the voter photo ID law he sponsored. He points out the state doesn’t pay ALEC dues for lawmakers but foots the bill for legislators to belong to the Council of State Governments and National Conference of State Legislatures.

Taking effect in 2012, the measure requires voters to show a valid state-issued ID such as a driver’s license, U.S. passport, military ID and handgun carry permit before voting.

If someone doesn’t have one of those, they can cast a provisional ballot, go get an acceptable ID and return in three business days to ensure their vote is counted. Otherwise, their vote doesn’t count, something that’s happened to dozens and dozens of people statewide over the last five years.

Asked whether this disenfranchises people, Ketron responds, “Does it disenfranchise you when you try to buy beer and they want to see your ID?”

The idea he infers is to make it just as hard to vote as it is to buy a 12-pack.

Of course, that doesn’t quite float, because I can always go to a store where they don’t ask to see if I’m 21. And they don’t keep a list of beer drinkers at the election commission officer, either.

Besides, a lot of people don’t consider Miller Lite to be a real beer anymore, especially with all these craft beers creating a generation of beer snobs, no matter whether a couple of those make you feel like you’ve eaten a loaf of bread.

Getting back to this beer/voting thing, you have to be 21 to buy beer, but you can be 18 and die while serving our country. So, you can carry a rifle in Afghanistan but not a Bud Lite in America.

What did he say?

State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, who helped lead a downtown rally in opposition to the recent ALEC occupation, says she still believes the voter photo ID law suppresses voting in Tennessee, in part, causing it to have the lowest voter rate in the nation.

“We want everybody to participate in the democratic process. And this should be a source of embarrassment that our state is the worst in the country,” adds Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat running to unseat longtime Sen. Thelma Harper next year.

Gilmore is a little puzzled, though, by Ketron’s comparison between purchasing brew and casting ballots, which has a direct impact on politics and public policy.

“When we put artificial barriers up for poor people and for women and for seniors and for people of color, I think that’s a sad commentary,” she says. “I don’t know why he would make an analogy between beer and voting. One is so insignificant and one is one of the most important acts that we do in society.”

Scott Banbury of the Sierra Club is interested to hear the jury pool-voting idea, too, and considers it a “shot at disenfranchisement.”

“They’re just looking for another way to take people off the rolls, and I can see that as being a huge problem, particularly in low-income communities where your employer might not be as sensitive to your duty,” adds Banbury, who also spoke at the anti-ALEC march.

Nothing new

Banbury is far from surprised a legislator here would come up with ALEC legislation, calling Tennessee one of the most “prolific” states nationwide in passing those model bills.

ALEC’s views can extend into rulemaking, as well, and Banbury says Tennessee’s regulations on fracking for natural gas are based “almost entirely” on an ALEC model.

Likewise, legislation enabling the start of an online school was born of an ALEC idea and became a virtual classroom for K-8 students in Tennessee. It was run by K-12 Inc. through the Union County school district and turned into a real failure.

Virtual education sounds great for people who don’t want their kids going to school with other people. It just doesn’t work. K-12’s performance was so weak, in fact, the state Department of Education forced it to shut down in 2015.

Nevertheless, Gov. Bill Haslam spoke to the ALEC crowd in Nashville, calling it a good place to “exchange ideas.”

Being the good guy, he is, Haslam opted to address the crowd even though an ALEC arm, Americans for Prosperity, helped kill his Insure Tennessee initiative two years and fought his gas-tax plan this year.

Another measure from ALEC, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and expelled former Rep. Jeremy Durham in 2014, removed Haslam’s authority to expand Medicaid without legislative approval.

Haslam, a Republican entering the final year of his second term, acknowledges the group worked against his insurance proposal. But that’s just part the “laboratory of democracy,” he says, noting he agrees with ALEC on some things and disagrees on others. He points out he recently spoke to a group in New York where he was one of the few Republicans in the room.

“People are going to be doing that with legislators, saying here’s an idea, things you could change. I think it’s our job as elected folks to listen and evaluate,” Haslam points out.

To whom are they listening, though?

In a statement in the ALEC event’s media packet, CEO Lisa B. Nelson says, “Today, states are where the action is. Following major 2017 state policy decisions like the right to work in Kentucky and Missouri and Pennsylvania Pension Reform, ALEC members are coming together to chart a course and exchange ideas for 2018.”

ALEC plans to kill the federal “death tax” and the deduction of state taxes from federal taxes, in addition to eliminating free-speech zones set up on college campuses, according to an ALEC consultant.

The group protesting ALEC’s summit contends those ideas and many others come from the world’s largest corporations, ranging from Koch Industries to Pfizer and ExxonMobil. Those private interests merge to unite legislators – almost all of them conservative Republicans – at meetings where they float ideas and vote on model legislation designed to bolster their bottom lines, the progressive group says.

Vonda McDaniel, president of the Central Labor Council in Nashville and another ALEC summit protester, explains those ideas don’t mesh with working families.

For instance, ALEC-born legislation nationwide has targeted public-sector unions such as teachers and state employees in an effort to privatize public education and profit from the prison industrial complex, she says.

Collective bargaining for Tennessee’s teachers’ association fell prey to ALEC-type legislation about six years ago as public unions suddenly found themselves in the cross-hairs of state legislatures.

“We know that unions, whether you are a part of our membership or not, we try to advocate on behalf of working families and whatever those interests might include, and ALEC is trying to silence that, and they feel like the best way to do that is to just legislate us right out of business,” McDaniel says. “But we’re not going out easily.”

Tennessee’s charter schools, most of which operate in Memphis and Nashville, continue to be a point of contention, too, amid rancor about how much students are improving in these privately-run classrooms.

At the same time, private prisons haven’t fared well in Tennessee. The Trousdale County facility recently received a terrible audit from the State Comptroller’s Office, with Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison saying the Department of Correction would have to take a verbal spanking from lawmakers “like a jackass in a hail storm.”

The analysis

As with any seminar, some solid ideas could surface that don’t seem like an attack on people’s senses. State Sen. Ed Jackson, a Jackson Republican, attended the ALEC summit and found an idea that interests him, one designed to stop gang members from using cell phones to run their empire from inside prisons.

“They’re getting things smuggled into the prison by illegal ways. They’re threatening witnesses in court cases. These are things I want to try to address this year,” Jackson says.

He plans to work with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon to come up with solutions.

Based on Jackson’s comments, prison guards and personnel can’t stop people from smuggling these phones into state prisons, which should be something addressed by the Department of Correction, as well. That should be a quick fix.

But one matter that seems a little more complex is dealing with an organization, ALEC, which is registered with the IRS as a nonprofit but engages in lobbying activities by handing lawmakers’ legislation, giving pep talks on why the bills are important and how to pass them, all without having to file as a lobbyist organization, Banbury says.

“They’re getting a tax deduction on who knows how much they just spent on this convention in Nashville,” he adds.

Fortunately for Tennessee taxpayers ALEC opted not to use a $100,000 grant the Legislature so generously decided to appropriate for the summit in 2015. The ALEC board of directors opted not to use the money, Ketron says, and other lawmakers confirmed that decision.

No doubt, Tennesseans appreciate ALEC’s decision to refuse the donation. After all, Tennessee legislators probably have given the group enough gifts already.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.