According to an open column written by Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Council for Open Government, “... the drumbeat has already begun to remove sunshine meeting and other public notices from newspapers, making city, county and state websites the sole source of notice to the public and the news media.”
Other possible legislation includes closing all records of 911 emergency calls and dispatches and making citizens pay to look at public records. Currently, the government can only charge for copies and per-hour labor charges for any time over one hour that it takes a public employee to provide copies.
State Sen.-elect Mike Bell, a Republican representing the 9th Senatorial District; State Rep. Eric Watson, a Republican representing the 22nd Legislative District; and State Rep. Kevin Brooks, a Republican representing the 24th Legislative District, recently discussed some of the measures that could be bandied about after the next session opens at noon Jan. 11, 2011.
Bell, who represented the 23rd Legislative District in the 105th and 106th General Assemblies, agreed in principal that meetings of any organization receiving public funds should be open to the public, but specifics matter. For instance, how would public meetings affect industrial boards involved with industrial prospects who demand anonymity?
Brooks said even if the meetings were open, it would be difficult to figure out Operation Infinity was Amazon.com. But he also said high school students can unearth a great deal of information through cell phones.
“I think we are moving to a place in our culture where transparency, i.e.; the ability to find out things is really progressing at such a rate — I’m not advocating WikiLeaks — not by any stretch of the imagination, but those of us who serve are going to have to find better ways to be more transparent,” he said.
Brooks said the best way to be transparent is to not have anything to hide.
But, it would be difficult to be more transparent in one link of a process without speeding up all parts of a process where confidentiality agreements apply.
“That speaks to every one of the processes along the way,” Brooks said. “Whether it’s obtaining a permit or how we even get agricultural, engineering and environmental studies without people knowing there is a plant coming. All of that process is going to have to be looked at and changed whether it is TDEC, TDOT or local.”
One way to hasten the speed of government is through consolidation. Bell said Gov.-elect Bill Haslam has already started talking about looking at ways to consolidate some of the 21 state departments.
Brooks said, “The first thing we have to do is keep departments from suing each other. That was one of the most shocking things I learned in Nashville is that those two organizations actually have litigation against one another.”
“And there’s a vicious little circle when money’s awarded,” Bell said. “When TDOT has to award money to TDEC, that money goes into a fund to Tennessee Wildlife and Resources Agency to buy state land.”
The state of Tennessee is exempt from being sued by its citizens because it is a sovereign government. If that’s the case, Brooks said the state’s own departments should not be allowed to sue each other.
Watson said his focus for the next session is to keep the momentum on completing Tennessee’s segment of Corridor K of the Appalachian Development Highway System between Cleveland and Asheville, N.C. The next step for improving the transportation route through the Ocoee River Gorge is the National Environmental Policy Act phase scheduled for completion in 2013.
“We had a meeting with Gov.-elect Bill Haslam a couple of weeks ago and he’s committed to that project and this whole delegation from Southeast Tennessee is committed to that project,” Watson said. “You think we’ve got something with WACKER, Amazon, Whirlpool’s investment and Olin’s investment. Can you imagine what it would do to this whole region if Corridor K was built? We met with Congressman-elect Chuck Fleischmann last week about the study to widen I-75 to three lanes all the way to Lenoir City.”
The study began in 2009, but no work is expected within the next 10 years.
“There is really no reason why, coming from Ooltewah, where it is already widened and beautiful, they couldn’t carry that on over White Oak Mountain. There is already a truck lane and right on up to at least Exit 33,” Brooks said.
Exit 33 is the off-ramp to Charleston, Wacker Chemie, Amazon and the Eastern Lighting Distribution Center on Lauderdale Memorial Highway.
Brooks said if there is anything he has learned, successful economic development is all about access to property and accessibility to rail, ground, air and water transportation.
“That’s what all these companies are looking for,” Brooks said. “Just imagine how much more accessible our region would be from the Carolinas if we were able to get Corridor K.”
They have met with Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and Fleischmann to keep the Appalachian Development Highway on the front burner. Corridor K is the only one of the highways in this region that has not been started.
“What we don’t want to happen is for the federal funds to go away,” Brooks said. “We don’t want the state to lose interest and we don’t want to lose this synergy among all the different players. Local, state and federal players are all in agreement this is a great thing and we are hoping to build on that.”
Bell said opening up Corridor K would be a tremendous boost for Polk County as well as the rest of Southeast Tennessee.
And Brooks, who has earned the moniker of “Mr. Exit 20” in TDOT offices in Nashville, said a completed Corridor K would lead into Exit 20 on Interstate 75. The ramp onto the interstate has outlived its usefulness and is in need of upgrades.
Watson intends to reintroduce English-only legislation in the House in 2011 and expects the bill to advance to the floor since the majority who voted against it in 2010 were not re-elected.
“I’m not saying that’s what got them beat, but it was a contributing factor,” he said. “The people in the district want it. They are tired of paying for services for illegal aliens.”
He said a survey of 5,000 people in his 24th Legislative District showed 94 percent favored English only. Across the state, he said 86 percent were for the legislation.
“We spend millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money providing driver’s license’s in foreign languages and (the bill) does not affect business people at all,” he said. “The bill exempts people with WACKER or Volkswagen who are legally working in the state.“
The Bradley County Sheriff’s Office captain said law enforcement officers sometimes sit on the interstate for two hours waiting for interpreters from Cleveland or a state trooper to drive down from Morristown, and another interpreter has to be called in to book a non-English speaking person into jail.
“Not only that, but EMS,” he said. “A Korean lady was having a heart attack at Exit 33 six or seven months ago. EMS couldn’t communicate with her, they didn’t know what was wrong with her. Thankfully, they found someone who could talk to her and intervene.”
Watson said he has already been asked to sponsor the bill again this year.
One of Bell’s pet peeves is having an appointed state attorney general. Tennessee is one of seven states that does not elect its attorney general. Forty-three states choose the post by direct election, six are appointed by the governor and Tennessee is appointed by the state Supreme Court.
“We are the only state in the nation where the Supreme Court appoints the state attorney general,” Bell said. “The position has no accountability to the people.”
The senator-elect recalled three instances the Senate and House wanted the attorney general to perform a legal action: The first was to defend the state’s Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act, which stated the federal government had no right to regulate a firearm made entirely within the state.
“Several other states passed similar legislation,” Bell said. “The state of Montana sued the federal government. We asked the attorney general to join the suit and he refused.”
Bell said the attorney general was asked to join in the defense of Arizona’s immigration laws and also to join with other states against health care mandates issued by the federal government.
“He won’t do it and we can’t get him to listen to us (and we are) ... the people’s representatives in Nashville,” Bell said. “The majority of people in Tennessee want the federal health care law rolled back. I think since he is not listening to the will of the people, we will attempt to pass a constitutional amendment to directly elect the attorney general.”
The three local legislators are optimistic it will not require an amended constitution to get the attorney general’s attention since the legislative and executive branches are both in Republican hands.
Finally, redistricting will be “fair and legal,” according to Bell. A bill is expected to be filed in 2011 with redistricting the following year in 2012.
“Gov.-elect Haslam has put the word out that he doesn’t want any surprises. He wants a very smooth transition and well-executed transition,” Brooks said. “He’s saying ‘folks, we’ve got a lot of work we have to do.’ It’s all about the budget right now and I believe you are going to see a fair and balanced first session.”