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Legislative notebook: Haslam's meth bill gets amended, passed out of House subcommittee

Tom Humphrey, The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Updated Mar 19, 2014 at 12:57 AM

NASHVILLE (MCT) – Gov. Bill Haslam's bill to limit nonprescription sales of cold medications that be used to make methamphetamine was amended, then approved Tuesday in a House subcommittee where it has been stranded for weeks.

As amended, the House version of the governor's bill (HB1574) now allows purchase of what would amount to two standard-size packages of products per month containing pseudoephedrine or 5.76 grams. For a year, the maximum would be 28.8 grams – roughly half the amount Haslam originally proposed.

The House version of the governor's bill is now in conflict, however, with the way a Senate committee amended the bill last week. As approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the measure has slightly higher limits and exempts "gel cap" versions of cold medications – which officials say cannot be easily used in making meth – from the restrictions. The Senate also has a flat ban on purchases by those under age 18 that is lacking in the House bill.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee also rejected two other meth bills that had been approved by the Senate panel.

One sponsored by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, would have granted local governments the authority to require that pseudoephedrine products be provided by prescription only within their jurisdictions. Another by Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, would have required a pharmacist – but not a doctor – to issue prescriptions.

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who has been active in lobbying for new restrictions on pseudoephedrine with a coalition of law enforcement officers, and Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons, who leads the push for Haslam's bill, both said the developments are positive signs after weeks of argument.

The House subcommittee vote on the governor's bill was 4-2 with Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, supporting it at the panel's final meeting of the year. Shipley had earlier backed instead a bill he sponsored, but that measure was then defeated in Senate committee.

Seat belt fines: A Haslam administration bill to increase the fine for not wearing a seat belt appears to be dead for the year.

"Frankly, we don't have the votes in the Senate Transportation Committee at this point," said Gibbons in an interview Tuesday.

At this point is fairly crucial since the Senate Transportation Committee holds what is scheduled to be its final meeting of the year and the administration bill (HB1497) is not on the list of bills to be considered in the last meeting.

The measure would increase the fine for failure to buckle up from $10 to $25 on first offense and from $20 to $50 on second and subsequent offenses. Proponents say that's still lower than the Southeastern average – $59.60 on first offense and $64.10 on second offense – and contend that higher fines would reduce deaths and injuries in traffic accidents by encouraging more people to use the belts.

Picketing unions: A pending bill in the Legislature that prohibits "mass picketing" by unions is unconstitutional and may violate federal labor law as well, Attorney General Bob Cooper has opined.

The opinion was requested by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner and applies to a bill filed by Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. It was approved by a House subcommittee and is scheduled for a vote in full committee next week.

The opinion says that the bill violates free speech rights by effectively making it a crime for union activity that would not be a crime for others.

"HB1688 presents a content-based restriction upon speech. It would criminalize 'any form of mass picketing activity in the context of a strike, lockout, or other labor dispute' ... labor-dispute-specific proscriptions on conduct that do not apply in nonlabor contexts, the opinion says.

The bill's preamble declares that the state has a "compelling interest" in protecting public safety from violence, intimidation and other "disruptive behavior" that may be caused by mass picketing.

"It is not at all clear that the risk of such harms in the labor-dispute context is sufficiently compelling so as to justify the bill's content-based restrictions on speech," says the opinion.

In a summary, the opinion gave a short answer to Turner's question of whether the bill presented an "invalid" restriction on speech under the First Amendment: "Yes."

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