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Front Page - Friday, April 13, 2018

View from the Hill: Lots of noise but few results in Legislature

Just when you think the Tennessee Legislature is going off the deep end, someone will throw them a bungee cord. Maybe a rope made out of hemp would work better because a bungee cord leaves people bouncing, never quite reeling them in.

That’s sort of where the General Assembly sits when it comes to school safety, guns and cannabis.

For instance, a House bill by disgraced Rep. David (Coach) Byrd to enable more weapons training for teachers died last week. Byrd is caught up in allegations by his former Wayne County girls’ basketball players that he groped and tried to kiss them back in the ’80s.

Whether the accusations against him hurt the bill is hard to measure. But the fact lawmakers considered arming teachers, or at least a handful of teachers who would be identified by administrators, is a little alarming. Most of my high school teachers didn’t want guns or weren’t stable enough to carry one.

Byrd’s motivation, though, was to draw attention to the need for more school resource officers in the state’s rural schools, where funding isn’t always available to pay them.

So even though his bill went down in flames, he might succeed in drawing money to pay for school resource officers, paving the way for another piece of legislation allowing school systems to hire off-duty law enforcement officers to patrol while armed.

Moms Demand Action, the group of folks running around the Cordell Hull Building in red T-shirts this session trying to talk sense into lawmakers on gun legislation, adamantly opposes arming teachers, standing with law enforcement and teacher and safety organizations.

The group is neutral on SROs. “But we absolutely think it’s a better option than others on the table,” says Carol Buckley Frazier, a Nashville organizer for the group.

This isn’t exactly breaking ground, either. Systems statewide have used law officers for years, especially after disastrous days in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland and the sites of other school shootings. The idea is drawing more attention to the need for SROs who will do more than wait outside the building.

Too often, SROs wind up spending their time doing everything but patrolling and making sure the campus is safe. They have to counsel students, put on seminars, deal with parents, coach teams and go to ball games, all of which is good. But are they standing at the front doors as students arrive? Not always.

Even so, a little peace of mind is worth of lot for parents.

Bipartisan legislation by Sen. Mark Green and a host of House members would pay off-duty officers to work school days and extracurricular events. Initially, a House version of the legislation was going to tap a civil asset forfeiture fund and pay them $50 a day, about enough to cover the cost of their bullets, gun and a hamburger.

Green, a Clarksville Republican running for Congress, is jubilant after pushing the measure through the Senate Judiciary Committee recently.

“The law enforcement officers, they’re dying to help. They just don’t have a mechanism where they can go and do it. They’re pumped, because, one, it pays them. Two, it recognizes their desire to do this, so it’s a win all around,” Green adds.

He’s still looking for money, however, and hopes Gov. Bill Haslam will put some dollars into the effort as part of his statewide school safety initiative. He figures it’s going to cost about $28 million to pay for SROs to every school without one.

The governor’s plan calls for reviewing every school in the state for strengths and safety risks, coming up with a state security model, requiring safety drills, prioritizing SROs and checking student behavioral health. SRO funding is not etched into the budget by any means.

Haslam is proposing $30 million for fiscal 2019 to deal mainly with mental and health and technology, and only $5 million of that will be available for the next year’s budget.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally says the Legislature “might try to help out” with the funding for those law officers. But Finance Ways and Means Chairman Sen. Bo Watson says the Senate hasn’t evaluated it yet.

If it becomes a “priority the Senate,” Watson says he and the Finance, Ways and Means vice chairman will “look for ways to provide those resources.” He’s not there yet but expects to be this week.

Rock chalk bump stocks

Legislation banning bump stocks fell by the wayside, failing to receive enough support in a House committee to garner debate, clearly a slap at Democratic sponsors.

Most people would think something as horrible as the Las Vegas massacre would spur legislators to action. But a bump stock ban bill by Rep. Dwayne Thompson and Sen. Lee Harris, both Memphis Democrats, ran into Republican strategy proving quite popular this session: failure to receive a second. For the uninitiated, a legislator has to have someone second a motion for a bill to receive discussion and proceed toward a vote.

As a result, two men who were prepared to testify on the legislation and their experience at the Vegas shooting: an audio engineer for country music star Jason Aldean and a VIP sales director for Live Nation went home for the second time this session without getting a chance to speak.

They declined to talk to media but were prepared to tell legislators how it felt to hear the gunshots when a mass murderer mowed down people at the Vegas concert last summer, killing 58 and injuring hundreds.

Maybe, just maybe, the Republican-controlled committee didn’t want to hear their horrible tale. After all, they had two chances.

Instead, Republican leadership has been saying for more than a month they want to wait on the federal government to take action on the bump stocks, which can be attached to a rifle and let the shooter pump off rounds in rapid-fire.

McNally says the matter could come back, but he notes, “I think that President Trump had indicated this was one of the things he was looking at doing. He had a couple of things related to firearms he was looking at doing. And we’re gonna give him time to do that.”

That strategy begs two questions:

1. Since when did this Legislature decide the federal government has the answers?

2. How do we know President Trump won’t change his mind 20 more times in a series of Twitter tantrums?

With this wait-and-see approach taking hold and the funding uncertain for SROs, we’ll just have to hope Tennessee school students escape the next two months unscathed, because nothing will be done before school recesses for the summer.

Stick with pot

Speaking of waiting for another year, medical cannabis ran afoul of yet more silence in the Senate this session, or at least Republican Sen. Steven Dickerson of Nashville saved the Senate Judiciary Committee the embarrassment of having to tell Tennesseans where they stand.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Faison, may have looked a little wishy-washy when he turned his legislation into a decriminalization measure, meaning people couldn’t be arrested for possession of medical cannabis products such as oils, lotions and tinctures as long as they had some sort of doctor approval.

Faison was running into trouble with legislators who just didn’t like the first version, which involved setting up a state commission.

Some lawmakers weren’t prepared to support a new bureaucracy or an ultra-expensive drug unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration or TennCare.

Dickerson, while saying he was concerned decriminalization would simply put Tennesseans at risk of prosecution if they brought the stuff across state lines, also declined to bring his version of the bill, knowing he just didn’t have the votes.

It was a major disappointment for the medical cannabis lobby.

“We’re sadly disappointed with a Tennessee General Assembly that cannot seem to do the will of the people in this matter. Just so everybody realizes, we’re never gonna give up. We will be back here next year. We will be back here every single year until the sick and suffering patients of Tennessee have rights to medicine. It is unconscionable that this Assembly cannot do the will of 80 percent of the people,” says David Hairston, chairman of Safe Access Tennessee.

Stacie Mathes, whose daughter suffered hundreds of seizures daily until she started taking cannabidiol a couple of years ago, calls the Senate’s lack of action “a true tragedy.”

“It’s really sad that all those who represent us … can sit there and deny what they’re being told, especially about patients. Regardless of whether it’s a decrim or it’s a full bill, anything that can help get what they need and to not be made a criminal is really important at this point. And, I fault them all at this point,” adds Mathes, whose husband testified in a House committee meeting.

“The last three years I’ve heard, ‘Oh, we can do it next year.’ There’s a point that we’re gonna run out of years, and this was the year to do it, and I’m just glad it’s an election year.”

McNally finds opponent

Lenoir City Democrat Stuart Starr is running against Lt. Gov. McNally solely because of the Senate outcome on medical marijuana.

Starr, who opposed U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan in 2016, was prepared to take on some other political task this year until the Senate put out the flame on cannabis. He also notes McNally hasn’t faced opposition since 2002.

The 2nd District Senate seat candidate says he’s “disappointed in the lack of leadership on (McNally’s) part in helping people of Tennessee get access to medical cannabis.”

Starr worked with Republicans and Democrats to push the matter in the Legislature this year and was miffed, to put it lightly, when the Senate refused to even discuss the matter.

“People should have the right to their own self-determination,” he says, accusing the pharmaceutical industry of pulling strings and loading up lawmakers with money to kill the cannabis bill.

McNally, who is outspoken in his opposition to medical marijuana, says it would be a gateway to recreational use, and he points out he promised Dickerson he would reopen the Senate Health Committee to hear the bill if it made it out of the Judiciary Committee. Yet McNally adds it probably faced a tougher road in the Health Committee than in Judiciary, even after he appointed new Sen. Shane Reeves to replace Sen. Art Swann.

“We did not in any way try to structure the committees in a method that would cause it to fail or cause it not to get a fair hearing,” McNally says. He noted the committees were basically the same as former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey appointed, a move no doubt comforting to pro-medical pot forces.

Word in the hallways was that McNally might have gotten riled up about Starr qualifying to run against him and responded by snuffing the cannabis bill.

The lieutenant governor says that’s not the case, calling Starr’s candidacy part of the political process.

“If you don’t like what’s being done, you run against people,” McNally adds.

But while McNally predicts medical cannabis will come before the General Assembly again, don’t look for it to get much further until the lineups change significantly.

Next year, it might have a little better shot with more than 30 lawmakers leaving and Democrats touting candidates in almost every district in the state for this November’s election. But don’t hold your hit, I mean your breath, because while guns remain all the rage, anything sounding like marijuana – well, that’s a tough row to hoe.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger and Memphis Daily News. Reach him at sstockard44@gmail.com.