NASHVILLE — A Chattanooga-initiated bill targeting criminal gangs found a warm reception in the House Criminal Justice on Wednesday, but the measure could wind up shackled by its estimated $2.3 million annual cost.
The bill, developed by Mayor Ron Littlefield's gang task force coordinator Boyd Patterson with help from an Austin Peay State University professor and others, combines four laws that Patterson said are among the "best of the best."
They come from states like California, Texas and Georgia as well as the city of Chicago.
Among provisions are beefed up penalties on crimes committed by gang bangers within 1,000 feet of a school, recreation center, after-school program and similar "safe havens" for children and youths.
Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, the measure's House sponsor, told committee members that "I think we all want the children to be safe when they're in school and the school to be safe, to be protected."
He said state figures show that over a three-year period, an average of 159 gang-related crimes were committed on school grounds. The bill has three other provisions.
Earlier in the day, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, praised the Chattanooga anti-gang bill, focusing on the school and safe haven provisions.
"These school areas are where these gangs do their recruiting," he noted. It should help "relieve pressure to be involved in gang activity. We know they [gang members] use schools."
Other provisions include creating an additional felony charge for someone who is a gang member engaged in criminal activity.
A third provision says a gang member found in possession of a handgun can be charged with a felony. Another is aimed at increasing law enforcement intelligence about gang members by requiring judges to make determinations about whether someone is a gang member and include it in the uniform judgment. That would allow authorities to track gang members and activity in all 95 counties.
Dean said he will work with lawmakers on costs. He hopes to avoid having to "strip out everything" and turn the measure into something that simply reports gang activity, Dean said.
In other legislative actions:
• Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, of Somerville, threw down the gauntlet on fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's school voucher bill with her own plan that raises both the income levels for families to qualify and the initial number of vouchers.
The Tennessean newspaper reported Gresham's plan allows a family of four earning as much as $74,625 to qualify for a voucher, and make as many as 10,000 vouchers available beginning this fall. Limits on the number would go away in two years.
Haslam's plan is far more limited. He told reporters earlier in the day that "we put a lot of thought into what we thought the right proposal is. We do think that starting with low-income students in the lowest-performing schools makes sense."
• Haslam and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, were run over in the Senate Transportation Committee by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who passed his bill allowing people to ride motorcycles with no helmet on a 6-3 vote.
Bell said 31 states allow the practice, but Haslam and physicians are opposed. Before hopping on a motorcycle with no helmet, however, a person must have $25,000 in additional medical coverage, take a motorcycle riding class and be at least 25 years old.
The Associated Press reported that Gardenhire, donning a motorcycle helmet, testified against the bill, noting that Erlanger and its trauma center would take a financial hit from injured bikers.
"Even with helmets on, there's an enormous cost to the trauma centers that have to pay indigent care," Gardenhire was quoted by AP as saying. "And that's just not fair."
Said Bell: "I understand the governor doesn't like the bill. But this bill has passed the Senate at least on two prior occasions, and I expect it's got a good chance to pass the Senate again."
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, ...