|Occupy Nashville bill headed to governor
|Posted: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 10:00 pm
|By TRAVIS LOLLER
NASHVILLE (AP) — A proposal to evict Occupy Nashville protesters is headed to the governor for his consideration, despite concerns that it could adversely affect the homeless.
The “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012” passed the House 68-21 on Monday evening after lawmakers agreed to changes by the Senate, which approved the bill 20-10 last week.
The measure makes it a crime to camp on any state-owned land that is not specifically designated for camping — not just the War Memorial Plaza near the Capitol where Occupy Nashville protesters have set up tents.
The definition of camping in the bill is very broad. It includes “storing personal belongings, making any fire, doing any digging or earth breaking or carrying on cooking activities.”
Those violating the proposed law could have their belongings seized and be charged with a Class A misdemeanor — the most serious type of misdemeanor, punishable by nearly a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both.
Opponents criticized the penalty.
“The real issue is the severity of the penalty,” said Democratic Rep. Gary Odom of Nashville, who also questioned the bill’s constitutionality. “I think we need more time to see how we can better police public property.”
One of the amendments added a severability clause that states if any part of the legislation is found to be invalid, then “such invalidity shall not affect other provisions or applications” of the proposal.
Bob Tuke, an advocate for homeless veterans with the charity Operation Stand Down Nashville and a former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said earlier Monday that the legislation “will adversely affect the homeless, because it is too broad.”
“Any veteran who happens to be on state-owned property and is arrested because of this, I can’t tell you how deeply that idea offends me as a veteran,” he said.
Sen. Dolores Gresham, who also is a veteran, said the purpose of the bill she co-sponsored was to make the grounds around the Capitol available to everyone by clearing out the permanent encampment of Occupy Nashville protesters.
“Certainly that was never the intent that the homeless would be in any way impacted by this bill,” the Somerville Republican said. “People who want to protest can protest all day long. You just can’t camp on places that are not designated for that.”
The bill comes at the same time Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is seeking to break up the Occupy Nashville encampment by establishing rules for the use of the War Memorial Plaza. A draft of those rules was released on Friday and a public hearing is scheduled for April 16.
Haslam has said once the legislation passed he planned to talk to the state’s attorney general about “what the state’s rights are at that point.”
House sponsor Eric Watson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wants to see the tents gone as soon as possible. In an earlier interview, Watson said he would like to have the encampment cleared before the spring, when school groups from around the state start to visit the Capitol.
Watson said in the previous interview that he did not believe the bill would have any unintended consequences. He did not indicate at the time whether he meant the bill to affect homeless people camped on state-owned land far from the War Memorial Plaza. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
The one House Republican who did not vote for the earlier version of the bill was Rep. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains.
Niceley said after the vote that he was concerned the bill was too broad.
“I’d rather limit it to the plaza out here,” he said.
Nicely was present Monday, but didn’t vote.
Read HB2638 at http://capitol.tn.gov.
Published in The Messenger 2.28.12