Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:
Knoxville News Sentinel on clarification of the "Guns in Parks" law:
Officials of the Tennessee Valley Fair and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero made the right call on enforcing a ban on firearms at this year's fair, though their legal footing might not be as firm as they assert.
Gov. Bill Haslam, who warned of unintended consequences when he signed the "Guns in Parks" bill into law earlier this year, has wisely recommended the state Legislature clarify the law.
The fair is held every year at Chilhowee Park in East Knoxville. The city of Knoxville has long prohibited firearms possession in city parks, but the "Guns in Parks" bill exempts those who have handgun carry permits.
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, in a recently released advisory opinion, said the law extends to ticketed events held by third parties in public parks. The Tennessee Valley Fair is operated by a nonprofit of the same name in city-owned Chilhowee Park, so at first glance it would seem to be covered under Slatery's opinion. Attorney generals' opinions, however, do not carry the force of law, and the city and fair officials have determined they retain the authority to ban firearms for everyone again this year.
Knoxville Police Department spokesman Darrell DeBusk said Tuesday that "four or five" people had been denied admission to the fair so far because of handgun possession, but police did not check their permit status.
The state law in question bans the unsanctioned possession of firearms "in or on the grounds of any public park, playground, civic center or other building facility, area or property owned, used or operated by any municipal, county or state government . for recreational purposes." The "Guns in Parks" bill amended the law to exempt people who have valid handgun carry permits "while within or on a public park, natural area, historic park, nature trail, campground, forest, greenway, waterway, or other similar public place."
On its face the "Guns in Parks" exemption does not appear to extend to civic centers and other buildings. The city and fair organizers contend that, despite its name, Chilhowee Park is not a park but a venue for public events.
City officials point out that the park is run by the Public Assembly Facilities Department, not the Parks and Recreation Department. That should not matter, however, as the law applies to city-owned properties regardless of a municipality's organizational chart.
The question is whether Chilhowee Park is a stand-alone venue or a park that contains venues. Chilhowee Park is home to several venues, including the Jacob Building, livestock barns, two amphitheaters and a tractor pull area. In addition to the Tennessee Valley Fair, the park hosts events such as car, craft and dog shows and, ironically, gun shows. But the grounds also contain a picnic pavilion, playground and walking paths that residents can use on a daily basis, just like many city parks.
The Legislature's ill-conceived removal of local autonomy led to this type of ambiguity. Lawmakers should clarify the law to give local governments at the very least some measure of control over public parks during special events.
Johnson City (Tennessee) Press on increasing the state's gas tax:
Gov. Bill Haslam has been touring Tennessee over the past few months to drum up support for a possible hike to the state's fuel tax. Unless the state's gas tax is increased, or another funding source is found, Haslam says work on new bridges and highways could come to a grinding halt.
Tennesseans now pay 21.4 cents in state taxes for every gallon of gas they pump. That's in addition to the 18.5 cents per gallon they pay to the federal government.
Tennessee's gas tax has not been increased since 1989.
According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the state's current gas tax yields more than $665.7 million per year. While that amount sounds like a lot, it falls far short of that needed to fund road projects.
Haslam says additional revenue is needed to fund $6 billion in needed transportation projects across the state.
Even so, many leaders of the Republican-controlled state General Assembly have expressed their firm opposition. Among them is the chairman of the state Senate's Transportation Committee. Last month, Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, told reporters he didn't think the governor could put together a transportation funding plan that would find favor with lawmakers.
"I don't think it's doable," Tracy told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Because we've got a lot of work to do to put it together."
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is urging his colleagues to keep an open mind on the idea of a gas tax hike.
Ramsey also says the General Assembly should explore other funding options to help meet the state's growing transportation infrastructure needs.
For example, several states are now taxing the miles driven, not the gas used. And other states are levying an annual fee on electric cars to generate revenue for road projects that have traditionally been funded by a gas tax.
Supporters say this is only fair because electric cars use the public highways, contribute to their wear and tear and should be expected to help fund their upkeep.
The Elizabethton (Tennessee) Star on access to public records in the state:
Technology should make government records more accessible to the public, not less so. But the price of access — long restricted to the actual cost of the materials used to copy documents — may be going up.
The Office of Public Records is conducting public records hearings in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson this week to ask the question: Should the Tennessee Public Records Act permit the government to charge citizens to inspect public records?
It is a serious proposal that Tennessee legislators considered earlier this year because the Tennessee Public Records Act presently prohibits charging Tennesseans for inspecting open public records
Tennessee's open record law has one purpose: to give the public access to the workings of government. Anyone in the state can walk into any public agency, from the local water district to the governor's office, and ask to see copies of everything from meeting minutes to emails on a broad range of subjects. It's up to the agency to grant those requests.
Presently, citizens don't to pay to inspect public documents. The bill introduced in the most recent session of the Legislature, however, would require a fee schedule just to inspect them and that all requests be made in writing. That creates an undue burden on citizens because it will make it too costly for the ordinary Tennessean.
The House bill was taken off the legislative calendar March 25. The companion Senate bill was assigned to the Senate State and Local Government Committee's general subcommittee March 31, but no further action has been taken so far.
On Aug. 12, however, the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury's office sent out a news release stating: "The Office of Open Records Counsel has been asked by the Tennessee General Assembly to review issues surrounding the inspection of public records, and the office is asking Tennesseans to weigh in."
That is an indication that this bill is not dead, and we as citizens need to weigh in on the issue.
Charging citizens to view public records has the strong potential to be a public records barrier, allowing agencies to charge exorbitant fees for sharing what rightfully belongs to the people. It would make it easier also for some government officials to block citizen access to records. Perhaps some citizens would no longer be able to view public records because they could not afford to pay the fees.
The change would roll back Tennessee's legal tradition of favoring government transparency and give officials who wish to limit access a new club to use to hinder access to records they don't want anyone to see.
In essence, it would create a new exemption to the Tennessee Public Records Act: A government record is exempt from the Public Records Act if a citizen can't pay the price set by the government official to see it.
Government officials often find it annoying or time-consuming to fill records requests, sometimes citing staff and budget constraints. But budget problems and inconvenience are no excuse to ignore the foundation of Tennessee's open-government laws: the right of the people to examine records created by public officials (whose salaries are paid by taxpayers).
Why is it bad to block the public's access to government records?
Public records belong to the citizens of Tennessee. They pay for these records through their taxes. Government officials are public servants and should make it a very high priority to honor the right of citizens to information about their government. The right of access to public records long predates the Tennessee Public Records Act. The Act should not become a tool to restrict access to records that clearly ought to be public.
Broad and free access to public records is essential to holding government officials accountable. Government serves citizens, not the other way around. Citizens must know what their public officials and employees are doing, and how they are doing it. If public officials and employees get to choose what citizens get to know about what government is doing, the constitutional power vested in citizens in a democracy is destroyed.
The people shouldn't have to pay to see what is theirs.