State lawmakers recently shared their thoughts on legislation dealing with guns, definitions of a stream and the housekeeping challenges of Republicans assuming control in both houses of legislature.
The State Legislative Chamber Coffee, sponsored by the Blount County Chamber of Commerce, took place on March 21. State Sen. Doug Overbey and State Rep. Joe McCord and State Rep. Robert Ramsey spoke with Chamber members and answered questions.
Overbey said every year the General Assembly has a different theme to it. This year’s General Assembly has had three segments of thought that dominated conversations in the halls of the legislature. “When we convened on Jan. 13, we thought everything was worked out as far as the leadership in both the House and the Senate, and we had a surprise in the House of Representatives,” he said.
Rep. Jason Mumpower of Bristol was set to assume Speaker of the House duties until Republican Rep. Kent Williams rallied Democrats and won the speaker seat by one vote.
Overbey said Phase II was how the federal economic stimulus plan would affect the state’s budget, which at the beginning of the session was not announced. “There was lots of discussion about how we would get our projects advanced and funded,” he said. “Then the program was announced and discussion was what strings will be attached.”
Overbey said that on March 23, lawmakers would move into the third phase after Gov. Bredesen presents his budget for dealing with the current year’s revenue shortfall, which is going to be around $1 billion. Lawmakers also were to begin discussing the infusion of about $4.5 billion from the economic recovery plan.
McCord said this session so far in the House has been about change and transition. Democrats had been leaders for 20 years. “They’ve had a firm grip on the leadership the past 10 years,” he said.
Ramsey said that to him as a rookie lawmaker, having the guidance of two veterans has been helpful. “I find it a great pleasure to work with Sen. Overbey and Rep. McCord, who have been a lot of help.”
Dale Huddleston asked McCord to explain a bill he has pending to explain the designation of what a stream is
McCord said lawmakers are trying to get fact and science in place and not emotion. “I have received emails from constituents calling me unchristian for filling these bills. We have an attachment to the land,” he said. “It is such a difficult issue to understand. We have four classes of streams. It’s so overburdensome to define these.”
McCord said the same field officer can tell you two different things on the same stream. “Environmental opponents to this bill say we’re changing structure and allowing for pollution of streams and that’s absolutely not the intention. We are simply trying to clarify,” he said. “At the end of day, it’s not the goal of anyone to do anything harmful to the water of the State of Tennessee.”
Regarding gun control, McCord said several different bills are working through the State House now. One would allow someone with a gun permit to carry a gun into a restaurant and another would allow those with permits to carry weapons in state parks.
“These bills had been held up under previous leadership. These bills were always killed in subcommittee. We had 170-something gun bills filed. There was such a glut because they had never gotten out of subcommittee. We narrowed it to subjects we had been dealing with for years,” he said.
Lawmakers picked state parks legislation for one effort. “The reason we picked that was because federal law allows handgun permits in federal parks,” he said.
Regarding the guns in restaurant legislation, McCord said individuals wouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun into a restaurant, even if they have a gun permit, if alcohol is served or if the property owner has posted they don’t want firearms on premises.
“You can not consume alcohol and have a weapon. We put in the alcohol ban. Regardless of the situation, there’s a total ban, and you cannot have handgun. If at any time it’s age-restricted, you cannot, even if you’re not consuming,” he said.
Any property owner can post their property. “We tried to come up with the most reasonable solution to problem,” he said. “Most of the other versions took away an owners right to post property and had no curfew. The idea was to get it out there and let the bill be voted on.”
Commissioner Bob Proffitt said data has shown over and over again stricter gun laws work. “I can’t imagine moving toward more lenient gun laws,” he said.
McCord said that what is happening is a result of years of no open discussion because the bills were automatically killed. “There was pent up frustration over the years, and this is the result of that,” he said.
Regarding legislation banning mountain top removal mining over 2,000 feet, Overbey said the state hasn’t had mountain top removal since the Office of Surface Mining took over mining in 1977.
“Like you I’m very concerned with what happened prior to 1977 that left 2,000 acres of exposed high wall from Knoxville to Miami if you put it together,” he said.
Overbey said he couldn’t have supported the bill that was considered last year. “The bill last year would’ve eliminated all mining in the state,” he said. “Passage of the bill would have stopped all coal mining in Tennessee and all reclamation efforts in Tennessee. If you’d like to leave exposed highwall and never reclaim it, pass this bill.”
Regarding federal economic stimulus money, Ramsey said federal officials have set guidelines. “They’ve sent the message money will be available and will have to be spent quickly,” he said. “It’s essentially our money, and we don’t want it going to another state.”