Editorial Roundup: Tennessee

Kingsport Times News. April 15, 2022.

Editorial: Legislators should get their facts straight

U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger of Kingsport, along with six other members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, has sent a letter to the Veterans Administration complaining that the state’s national cemeteries for veterans are quickly running out of space.

If most of the state’s congressional delegation is concerned, something must be done. Certainly, our federal lawmakers know what they’re talking about especially in going public with this allegation. Or do they?

Our veterans deserve and have earned the right to be buried in Tennessee’s national cemeteries. How could this be allowed to happen?

Thing is, it hasn’t, says a spokesman for the Veterans Administration.

Please rest assured that our veterans cemeteries are not running out of burial space,” says Gary Kunich of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Harshbarger, along with the other U.S. representatives from Tennessee, forwarded their letter to the VA on March 31 and asked that the VA respond by April 30. Kunich said the VA will be “responding to the seven members of Congress shortly.”

Besides Harshbarger, the other members of Congress who signed the letter are U.S. Rep. Mark Green, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleicschmann, U.S. Rep. David Kustoff and U.S. Rep. John Rose.

In their letter, the congressional members say that Tennessee is “dangerously close” to not having funeral space for veterans. “Of the five national cemeteries located in Tennessee serving our veteran constituents and their families, only two currently have burial space available and even those limited spaces are rapidly running out,” the letter states.

But Kunich said there are more than just five cemeteries across the state available to veterans and another two that are available just across state lines. Two of five national cemeteries in Tennessee are currently open for burials: Chattanooga and the Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City. The other three are cremation only.

There are also four grant-funded state veterans cemeteries with two located in Knoxville. “Every one of Tennessee’s 440,000 veterans live within 75 miles of an open veterans cemetery,” Kunic said.

He said all three of the national cemeteries that are currently not available for burials and are cremation only also have nearby state veterans cemeteries.

It would appear that someone’s confused, and we don’t believe it’s the VA, which “actively monitors the capacity of both VA national cemeteries and VA grant-funded state cemeteries,” Kunich said, “and will continue to fund expansions of these cemeteries.”

We expect our congressional representatives to know what they are talking about before they act. But this is another in a growing number of examples of that not being the case, and not for just Tennessee’s representatives.

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Johnson City Press. April 17, 2022.

Editorial: Don’t be distracted by the noise, Tennessee’s felony sleeping law is inhumane

The General Assembly passed a bill further criminalizing homelessness this week, but we’ve let one senator’s confounding and abhorrent comments distract us from the inhumane contents of the bill.

While lawmakers debated Senate bill 1610 on Wednesday, Strawberry Plains Republican Sen. Frank Niceley stood before the full chamber and splattered out a confusing story about Adolf Hitler that seemed to be either an expression of admiration for the Nazi dictator or an attempt to force a correlation between him and people without homes.

A soundbite of Niceley’s baffling statement was quickly seized upon by national media outlets, and Tennessee’s reputation in the outside world once again received one of the beatings our lawmakers and officials seem to draw with great relish.

Whatever his intention, the senator was wrong, but his comments, no matter how loathsome, should not be the main focus of the discussion on this bill.

Now approved by both the House and Senate and headed to the governor for his signature, this law elevates the crime of sleeping — “camping” in the legal language — on local public land to a felony crime and makes sleeping or panhandling at highway offramps and underpasses a misdemeanor. The law expands the scope of a statute enacted two years ago that made it a felony to sleep without authorization on state-owned land.

The new law will make it illegal for individuals to be homeless nearly everywhere in the state, but it will do nothing to address the causes of homelessness.

Instead, the new onslaught of felony charges and convictions for the crime of illegally sleeping will remove thousands of people’s civil rights and make it even more difficult for them to secure employment and housing.

In Johnson City, we’ve already been down this road.

Four years ago, under the guise of it being only one part of a comprehensive plan to address the complex social problem of homelessness, city leaders made “camping” on public property a local offense.

So far, all we’ve seen from this comprehensive plan are hundreds of tickets written to people who can’t afford them, a worsened relationship between indigent individuals and the police sworn to protect and serve and homeless people in our community pushed further into the shadows and away from the outreach programs that may help them.

The necessary act of sleeping should never be considered a crime, but classifying it as a felony is plainly inhumane.

Instead of pouring resources into the criminal justice system to find, charge and incarcerate people for sleeping in public, essentially punishing them for existing, we should be dedicating our efforts to outreach and aid to help people find and maintain reliable housing and employment.

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