Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:
The Johnson City Press on the labeling of GMOs:
A subcommittee of the state House Agriculture Committee has rejected legislation to require genetically engineered food — as well as the seeds and plants that produce it — be labeled in Tennessee. Opponents argued the idea of identifying foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, was unnecessary and costly to producers.
State Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, sponsored two separate bills dealing with labeling of products. The first one (HB1217) would require plants and seeds sold in Tennessee to be labeled to indicate open pollination, genetic modification and hybridization.
The second (HB1218), which is called the "Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act," would require foods from genetically modified plants to be identified as such.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week the sponsor told his colleagues that consumers had a right to know what they were eating.
"We just want people to know what we're putting in our bodies," Towns said at the subcommittee's hearing of his legislation. "That's all this is."
Even so, the Knoxville newspaper reported state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said such legislation was "unfounded and baseless." He also told Towns, "You've eaten this (genetically modified food) every day of your life for the last eight or 10 years."
Holt pointed to a recently-passed law in Vermont that he says will force that state to spend "millions" on labeling. That law is set to go into effect in July and will require products in Vermont that have ingredients with GMOs to display a notice of that fact on their labels, or on the store shelves where they are sold.
Several national companies, including General Mills, Campbell Soup Co. and Mars Inc., have announced they will begin voluntarily labeling GMOs before the Vermont law becomes effective.
Meanwhile, federal legislation to block other states from enacting their own labeling laws for genetically modified foods failed to advance in the U.S. Senate earlier this month.
Tell us what you think. Should Tennessee require genetically modified food to be labeled?
The Knoxville News Sentinel on pregnant women with drug addictions:
A controversial law that turns the mothers of babies born dependent on drugs into criminals will expire later this year after a House subcommittee deadlocked last Tuesday on its renewal.
The vote indicates a growing acknowledgment that pregnant women who are addicted need treatment, not jail.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is a growing problem in Tennessee. According to state figures, the numbers of babies born addicted to drugs has increased ten-fold over the past decade.
Legislators in 2014 made Tennessee the first state in the nation to pass a law allowing authorities to charge the mother of a baby born with neonatal abstinence syndrome with misdemeanor assault. About 100 women have been charged in the past two years. The law has a sunset provision and was up for renewal this year.
The renewal bill, sponsored by state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, sparked a pitched debate in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
Fear of prosecution led some women to react in ways unintended by supporters of the legislation. State Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat who serves on the subcommittee, said the law has discouraged pregnant drug abusers from seeking treatment and caused some to seek abortions, according to the Tennessean. Dr. Charles Harmuth, who practices in Coffee County, backed Stewart's assertion, saying women who are his patients have discussed obtaining abortions rather than risk prosecution.
The six-member panel split the vote, and under legislative rules a tie results in the defeat of a bill. Rep. Andrew Farmer, a Sevierville Republican, joined Democrats Stewart and Raumesh Akbari of Memphis in voting against the measure.
Duane Slone, a Circuit Court judge who oversees drug court programs in Sevier, Cocke and Grainger counties, told lawmakers the experiment has been a failure. His district was home to 28 percent of the neonatal abstinence syndrome births statewide in a recent year, almost all based on abuse of prescription opioid drugs.
Sloane said East Tennessee Children's Hospital has found the number of newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome at the facility has remained stable since passage of the 2014 law, although far fewer of the mothers had sought prenatal care.
Even if women opted for treatment before giving birth, there are not enough slots in treatment programs to accommodate them. Mary-Linden Salter, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug & Other Addiction Services, told the committee that up to 1,000 pregnant women apparently are on waiting lists for drug treatment at any given time.
Providing more money for treatment is a better option than prosecuting these mothers and possibly sending their fragile babies into state custody. Salter said the state should appropriate an additional $30 million for treatment programs. The subcommittee committed to $10 million before the bill died.
Lawmakers should use another bill to increase funds for treatment programs. Jail provides neither treatment nor justice in these cases. Helping pregnant women beat addiction is better for them, for their babies and for the state of Tennessee.
The Bristol Herald Courier on police body camera legislation:
Ten Tennessee lawmakers will consider today a bill that would block public access to police body camera footage, even when the use of force and, or a violation of rules and policies is in question.
One might ask: Isn't shedding light on — and providing credible evidence regarding — questionable police actions the reason so many have rushed to acquire body cameras?
And, isn't the public outcry for accountability and fairness in difficult police encounters one of the reasons given for spending the considerable cash needed to buy and maintain the body camera programs?
Yes and yes. And while those answers alone are reason enough for the 10 members of the House State Government Committee to vote no on House Bill 876, the legislation is troublesome on many levels.
Consider the ill-timed rush to approval. The worrisome provisions are amendments, added just last week during a subcommittee meeting. In its original form, HB 876 merely addressed privacy concerns regarding credit card account and PIN numbers in police records, defining them as "confidential." Now, the bill would keep body camera video confidential until the case is both adjudicated and any resulting actions, disciplinary or judicial, completed — often a time period of months to years.
For lawmakers to add in the waning days of the session a provision so vitally important to governing and justice is to ignore the wishes of the public they are sworn to serve.
In the wake of a string of highly publicized incidents that sparked public outrage and violent protests, communities across the country are raising serious questions regarding the credibility of police officers, what exactly is appropriate conduct, and even the integrity of the justice system. To suddenly legalize government efforts to hide evidence that could prove such encounters appropriate or not, even if only for a limited time, fuels public mistrust.
Consider too that while the video collected by body cameras might be valuable in the courtroom, it also offers the potential to invade the privacy of innocent bystanders. That is why a number of open government advocacy groups, including the Tennessee Open Government Coalition and the Tennessee Press Association, have agreed to a one-year moratorium on access to body camera video - except in cases when the use of force or policy violations are questioned. The moratorium would allow time for the state's Advisory Committee on Open Government to study the issue and make recommendations.
Moving forward now with HB 876 undermines that agreement, but also prevents stakeholders from providing valuable insight, and discounts the purpose of the advisory committee.
Residents of Tennessee have a right to know what their government is doing, both in the halls of the General Assembly and on the streets where officers with badges and guns represent justice, fairness, protection and democracy. All citizens also also have a right to view, read or hear the evidence - and draw their own conclusions.
This bill, as it stands, ignores that right. Instead, it tells the public that the government believes it has better judgment than the people.
We encourage the representatives on the committee — Bill Sanderson of Kenton; Mary Littleton of Dickson; Jeremy Durham of Franklin; Darren Jernigan and Jason Powell, both of Nashville; Curry Todd of Collierville; Bud Hulsey of Kingsport; William Lamberth of Cottontown; and Johnny Shaw of Boivar; and the committee chairman, Bob Ramsey of Maryville — to vote no on HB 876, or at least take no action at all.
Body cameras on police officers and the video footage created can be a valuable tool in law enforcement, but it could too easily could become a cloak for corruption as well, particularly if the evidence collected is buried.