Plainspeak for the Masses, Please

This article appeared in the Wednesday, October 9, 2014 edition of the Lawrence County Advocate. It addresses four Amendments to the Tennessee Constitution that have been pushed forward by our legislature for a November 4, 2014, election.

I appreciated the Lifestyles piece in Sunday’s Advocate entitled “Voters will have 4 opportunities to amend the state constitution in November, Amendments proposed for the November 4 general election ballot address abortion, judiciary, taxes and gambling.” If you tossed your Advocate without reading it, I highly recommend digging it back out of the recycle bin to study the relatively simple explanation of the amendments.

How many times have you entered the voting booth to cast your vote for a judge or county official and have then been confronted with a smallish-print, lengthy ballot initiative to be voted on? The last county election featured the retention votes for the Supreme Court justices but had a slew of others that didn’t quite make the news.

I stood and read each one, scratching my head. I am no legal scholar. Later, when I was helping my mother to navigate the ballot, I realized that she couldn’t even read the screen much less decipher the meaning. I left wondering how many people even tried to tackle the language. I suspect that most folks either voted a straight down yes or no like us or skipped that part altogether.

When folks are campaigning for this or that vote, the message is usually slanted in favor of what people want the outcome to be. They skip the fine print and the real change to laws. I find this practice mostly misleading and oftentimes downright ominous. Time and time again someone hears a message and votes, only later to be a part of a conversation that ends up, “Wait! I didn’t vote for that! Or did I?” The answer is usually “Yes you did. You should’ve read the fine print.”

Because these four amendments are so important, I will attempt to pull out the real changes to the law in common language, with help from a legal expert. Then, readers can understand what the changes to the Tennessee Constitution really mean.

Amendment One: A yes vote would strengthen the State’s ability to regulate abortion. The amendment asserts that the Tennessee Constitution does not protect the right to abortion or the funding for abortion. Elected representatives and senators have the right to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including but not limited to circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape, incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

Amendment Two: The governor now has the discretion to fill vacancies on Tennessee appellate courts, and appointments are confirmed by the State Legislature. This does not apply to local courts and seeks to give constitutional authority to a practice already in place.

Amendment Three: The legislature may never levy any tax on payroll or earned personal income. A yes vote on three would render a state income tax illegal without constitutional amendment.

A yes vote on Amendment Three would be a significant roadblock to progress in the state in my opinion. Should circumstances dictate the need for additional revenue for state projects, there would be no means available to legislate a state income tax on the very rich without the rigorous, years-long constitutional amendment process.

Amendment Four: Empowers the legislature to allow lotteries for events benefitting charitable organizations including 501(c)(3) (charitable) or 501(c)(19) (veterans) organizations.

I consulted attorneys to read the Amendments and explain their meaning before I contemplated voting. Don’t take my word for it; investigate these amendments on your own and make up your own mind! Changing our Constitution has far-reaching affects for future generations, and you owe it to them to vote pragmatically and open-mindedly.


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