Vote No on All Four Constitutional Amendments

VOTE NO on all 4 Constitutional Amendments!

Constitutions are fundamental documents that lay out basic principles for our government and its relationship to the people.  Both at the state level and the national level there are constitutions that lay out the responsibilities and duties for the three branches of government – legislative, administrative, and judicial – as well as protections for the rights of individuals.  For this reason, amendments are relatively rare as it is uncommon to change these relationships.  What is allowed under the Constitution of the State of Tennessee does change slowly over time as the administration under the Governor, or the legislature decides that they want to take on new responsibilities or expand their existing powers.  The courts in Tennessee, and ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court, can rule that either the administration or the legislature have overstepped their constitutional authority.  Amendments could then be proposed to change the constitution so that actions that were previously not allowed become allowable.  Of the four amendments proposed, only one arose because of court rulings that limited the legislature.  This is the first time in Tennessee history that four amendments have been proposed at the same time, and the one thing that they have in common is that they all expand the power of the legislature.  All have arisen since the Republicans gained the super majority and all seek to carry forward a Republican agenda and to make that agenda a part of the Tennessee constitution.  Let’s look at each one in turn.

Amendment 1 is about abortion.  It arose because the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down some restrictions on abortion that it felt intruded on the woman’s right to privacy in making her own medical decisions.  The TN Supreme Court, like the US Supreme Court has not ruled that reasonable restrictions cannot be imposed, such as the time period under which abortions can be performed, reasonable waiting periods, giving out information to the woman, and competency of medical professionals.  Anti-abortion activists, both Republican and Democrat, have attempted to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion in TN, but previous efforts were stopped because the US Supreme Court has ruled that such action is not constitutional under the US Constitution.  Previous drafts of legislation, however, have included language allowing for exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.  When this legislation was brought forward after the Republicans gained control of the legislature, Democrats repeatedly offered amendments to include these exceptions but they were repeatedly voted down.  The amendment offered to the public now explicitly grants to the legislature the right to restrict abortion including in the case of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is at stake.  Any such law would be struck down by federal courts, but the Republicans hope that the current US Supreme court, dominated by Republicans that decided that corporations have all the rights of people, including the right to spend unlimited amounts on elections, will reverse the earlier ruling that protected the right to abortion and will then open the door for the restrictions that they would like to see at the state level.  Abortion is an emotionally charged issue that doesn’t have a simple moral answer.  The current status represents a reasonable compromise that the majority of Tennesseans support.  Passing Amendment 1 would destroy the balance and allow a minority point of view to be imposed on the majority.  A No vote protects the right of women to make their own choices about carrying through a pregnancy.

Amendment 2 is about the TN Appeals and Supreme Court judges and how they get there.  The TN constitution calls for direct election of judges, but over the years a system evolved where the Governor appoints judges at this level and the public gets to vote only to retain every eight years.  In order to ensure that the people who are appointed are competent to do their jobs well, a system was put into place where possible candidates were reviewed at one point by a panel of the bar association and at another point by a panel appointed by the legislature.  The governor then selected from this screened list.  A series of lawsuits over many years challenged this system as being in violation of the state constitution since these don’t seem like the same kind of direct elections that we have for other offices.  Some of the appeals courts have agreed.  However, two recent TN Supreme Court decisions have upheld the constitutionality of the present system.  Given these rulings, there is no need to amend the constitution to make the present practice safe from challenge.  However, the amendment includes a change to the current system that suggests the real motivation – the insertion of the TN legislature into the process.  Under the proposed amendment, the governor’s selections would have to be approved by the legislature.  This would give the legislature an effective veto power over both the governor and whatever panel of review has been used to select.  It puts the legislature, in effect, over the judiciary.  The recent attempt by Senator Ron Ramsey to unseat the three Democratic members of the TN Supreme Court illustrates the danger of that approach.  A NO vote keeps the legislature from expanding its authority into an area where it does not belong.  The judiciary should be fair and impartial, not selected because of their political beliefs.

Amendment 3 is about a TN Income Tax.  There are three problems with this amendment.  First, there is no constitutional issue involved.  The current TN constitution neither allows nor prevents an Income Tax.  The legislature in the past imposed an income tax on un-earned income, now referred to as the Halls Income Tax, and the Republicans have been slowly eliminating it and are calling for its complete abolishment.  Nothing prevents them from doing this.  The last time the idea of a general income tax was brought forward (under a Republican governor!), it was soundly defeated and no legislation has advanced since then.  The second problem is institutional.  The current Republican majority knows that the public will eventually get tired of its extremism and will return some balance to the legislature, if not Democratic majorities.  So they want to place their agenda of favoring the interests of the wealthy into the constitution to make it harder to reverse their policies in the future.  They know that people generally don’t like taxes, so while it is easier for them to cut taxes now, it will be harder to increase taxes later.  They are therefore attempting to legislate for the future.  The third problem is that the Republican agenda of cutting taxes and cutting government services and regulation may make the billionaires and corporate funders happy, but it does not serve the majority of Tennesseans.  There is not enough money to maintain the roads, pay for law enforcement, maintain the prisons and jails, care for children in state custody, fully fund public education, including higher education,  pay for environmental enforcement, take care of our veterans and people with disabilities, and all  the other essential functions of state government.   Cutting state taxes increases the burden on local governments, thereby rewarding wealthy areas of the state and punishing poorer and more rural areas.  That’s a lot to think about, but you don’t have to be in favor of an income tax to say that you don’t want to take it off the table.  Otherwise you’re stuck with sales taxes alone, which require low income people to pay a higher percentage of their income in state taxes than the wealthy, or lottery income which also disproportionately comes from lower income people.  Just VOTE NO.

Amendment 4 adds veterans organizations to normal 501(c)(3) organizations which the legislature can allow by a two-thirds majority to conduct a lottery for the benefit of the organization.  The TN constitution was amended a number of years ago to allow the state lottery with the proceeds to go for college scholarships.  The original language allowed the legislature to also allow qualified non-profit social welfare organizations to conduct a lottery if given permission by two-thirds majority of the legislature.  In practice this privilege has been given in only a few instances, for once a year events.  A 501(c)(19) veterans organization is an organization composed of veterans whose benefits can be exclusively for veterans.  While most Tennesseans support veterans and might believe that this is another way to support veterans, things are not that simple.  Many of the long-term veterans organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and others are already covered because they are also registered as 501(c)(3) organizations.  The problem is two-fold.  First, giving the right to decide to the Legislature, is arbitrary and will lead to discriminatory decisions.  TN Right to Life, for example, would likely have its application approved, while Planned Parenthood of Tennessee would not.  An Amendment to this section should set criteria that are standardized and take the Legislature out of the decision-making.  The second problem is the well documented problem of start-up veterans organizations that have collected funds and then put most of the money in the pockets of the staff and founders of the organization.  The criteria for a 501(c)(3) organization are much stricter and protect donors and in this case lottery players from such questionable behavior.  The unanswered question is who wanted this amendment?  VOTE NO.

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