published Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Tennessee Senate defeats House distillery bill

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee state Senate on Wednesday refused to go along with the House version of a liquor distillery bill, with members raising objections to several provisions.

A motion by Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, to concur with the House's actions failed on a 13-10 vote, sending the bill back to the House.

The House can either stand by its actions or accept the Senate bill.

Senate debate turned on the issue of allowing Sunday sales by distilleries of their product and offering free samples to customers who take tours of the distillery.

"In my opinion, the House has taken what was a bad bill and made it worse," said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville.

Ketron unsuccessfully argued that Sunday sales were permitted in the Senate-passed bill.

The bill expands a 2009 distillery law, which among other things took Hamilton County out of the measure. Hamilton County is now in, a goal of Chattanooga Whiskey Co., which despite its name can't manufacture its product in Chattanooga and buys it from an Indiana distillery.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, said later he hoped the Senate would reconsider and approve the House version.

The issue is coming down to the wire with state lawmakers hoping to conclude their annual session as early as today.

Also Wednesday, the Senate gave final approval to a Haslam administration bill that rewrites Tennessee's little-used anti-gang laws by providing clear definitions for what is a criminal gang offense.

Senators voted 31-0 for the bill, which previously passed the House.

But another anti-gang initiative pushed by former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield is in limbo after being slapped with a new legislative analysis projecting it ultimately would cost the state $744,000 a year.

Regarding the administration bill, estimated to cost only about $25,500 annually, Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said there "have not been prosecutions" under the current law in recent years "because the code is vague."

The bill redefines what is a criminal gang offense and broadens the definition of "pattern of criminal gang activity" to include convictions for facilitation of criminal gang offenses. It allows a "criminal gang offense" to be considered in establishing a "pattern of criminal gang activity."

It adds more than 20 crimes that offenders would receive additional prison time for if they are determined to be part of a criminal gang. The list ranges from first- and second-degree murder to kidnapping, robbery, aggravated robbery, child rape, aggravated rape, carjacking, aggravated burglary, assault and aggravated assault.

The Chattanooga bill would add "criminal gang crimes" to the statement of legislative intent in the state's existing Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act of 1989.

It would lengthen the time that can elapse between incidents of racketeering conduct from two years to five years. It would redefine "racketeering activity" to list specifically offenses that are meant to constitute a "criminal gang offense" under state law.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, passed the Senate last week.

Tennessee state senators on Wednesday began the lengthy process of amending the state constitution to put legislators in charge of selecting the state attorney general.

Senate Joint Resolution 196 passed on a 22-9 vote and now goes to the House. It's the first step in putting a referendum on the 2018 ballot for voters to decide.

Tennessee's attorney general is appointed by the state Supreme Court under provisions in Tennessee's 1870 Constitution.

Republican critics say no other state does that and contend it's an inherent conflict. Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, the bill's sponsor, criticized Attorney General Robert Cooper, a Democrat, for refusing to join the lawsuit filed by mostly Republican attorneys general in many states challenging the federal Affordable Care Act.

But other lawmakers said the current system has worked well. The attorney general represents the state in legal matters, renders legal opinions on questions submitted by state officials and has other responsibilities.

The resolution will have to pass the House by a majority either this session or in 2014. After that, it would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the 109th General Assembly before going to voters.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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