(Note: This also appears in Sunday’s News Sentinel)
The readiness of Republican legislators to brush aside critics, already on display at this early point in the 107th General Assembly on key bills, bodes well for almost everything in Gov. Bill Haslam’s 24-bill legislative package.
The Haslam package has three measures that almost certainly would have had no chance of passage in past legislative sessions when Democrats had control or at least substantial influence.
They are bills to put new restrictions on teacher tenure (HB2012), open the doors wider for creating new charter schools statewide (HB1989) and a sweeping overhaul of the state’s tort system to limit the liability of business and health professionals in lawsuits (HB2008).
The rest of the package contains bills of substance that involve relatively little controversy. Examples include measures to allow lottery scholarships to cover summer classes in college, to delay implementation of a new state procurement system and to shrink the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.
Passage of the latter category of Haslam legislation appears almost a foregone conclusion, perhaps with some minor modifications in the process. In contrast to past governors who have had more than 100 bills in their legislative packages, Haslam has narrowed his legislative focus, picking few fights with partisan overtones.
And when juxtaposed with the more aggressive attitude struck by some fellow Republicans in the Legislature, especially on the education issues, Haslam has positioned himself in an excellent bargaining spot to assure passage of the more controversial bills.
Al Mance, executive director of the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association, said last week that the TEA stands ready to work with Haslam on changing teacher tenure and charter schools rules.
That was a stark contrast to TEA’s adamant and outspoken opposition to Republican-led efforts in the Legislature to strip the teachers union of collective bargaining rights and the ability to have its dues deducted from teacher paychecks and to curb its political action committee activity.
Haslam has tactfully declined to take a position either for or against those bills, simply declaring they are not his priorities. As suggested in The Tennessee Journal, that leaves the governor in a position to play “good cop” to the Republican legislators’ “bad cop” role in dealings with TEA – which traditionally has often sided with Democrats politically – in working out a deal to pass the items that are his priorities.
The collective bargaining bill was easily passed on a party-line vote last week in a Republican-controlled Senate committee over objections of a TEA spokesman who declared the move politically motivated and “anti-teacher.”
There have been similar party-line votes on other matters that have come up for a vote in the first weeks of the 107th General Assembly – notably including bills to stall, and perhaps derail, an effort by predominantly black Memphis City Schools to merge with the predominantly white Shelby County system and to require government-issued photo identification for voters.
Republican legislators have thus established their willingness to unite and use their solid majority to roll over Democratic opposition.
“They are large and they are in charge and they know more than the rest of us,” a somewhat sarcastic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said recently. “And you’re going to see that over and over again.”
Moderate Republicans, Kyle said, do not like the positioning of their more conservative colleagues but are “intimidated” into going along, fearful that failure to do so will lead to challenges in their next GOP primary.
Ultimately, Kyle said, that will hurt the Republicans politically, but “it’s going to be awhile” and not during the current legislative session.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, dismissed talk of an overly belligerent Republican attitude, saying the GOP won its majorities because the “overwhelming majority” of Tennesseans share the elected lawmakers’ conservative beliefs.
“It’s amazing when you’ve lost your power that all of a sudden the other person’s abusing power,” a sarcastic Ramsey said. “We think alike. … It’s not like we’re marching in lockstep.”
In political alignment, Haslam’s tort reform proposal is similar to the education proposals in that the primary opposition comes from lawyer organizations that, like TEA, have historically supported more Democrats than Republicans in campaigns. The leading such organization is the Tennessee Association for Justice, formerly known as the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association.
The Haslam tort bill is comprehensive. Besides imposing limits on jury awards for “noneconomic damages” such as pain, suffering and disfigurement, it makes multiple changes in legal rules – including repeal and revision of portions of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.
Haslam has invited comments and suggestions from TAJ, however, again showing a more diplomatic attitude than some legislative Republicans have. TAJ has declared opposition to the general premise of caps on noneconomic and punitive damages, but so far has refrained from directly criticizing the governor – while hiring a lobbying team that includes former Republican senator and presidential candidate Fred Thompson.