Scribblings in the Notebook While Lost in Legislatorland

Sunday’s News Sentinel column, unedited version:
With the House leadership and Gov. Bill Haslam as moderating influences, Republican legislators continue to strive toward a balance between what some Democrats label “crazy, right-wing stuff” and a reasonable conservative consensus.
The process appears to involve some weeding in the GOP garden of ideas as well as pruning and fertilizing selected seedlings.
On the weeding front, for example, House Republicans – with relatively little fanfare – killed a bill that would have required President Obama to provide his birth certificate to Secretary of State Tre Hargett in order to be on the ballot in Tennessee for the 2012 election.
Also tossed aside, with even less fanfare, was a bill that would have set up a legislative committee to review federal laws and regulations and decide which, if any, should be recommended to the full Legislature for nullification.
There remain rooted other examples of the notion that state legislators should be overseeing congressmen and the president. One, the Health Care Freedom Act, has passed, though at maturity it seems little more than a symbolic gesture to declare that Tennesseans can ignore the national health care law.
The more ambitious Health Care Compact, which envisions a state takeover of federal health care programs and the federal money to pay for them is still being pruned and fertilized.
So is the bill that began as a move to ban collective bargaining by teacher associations with the pruning handled in the House – where Speaker Beth Harwell had to cast a tie-breaking vote last week to keep the thing alive – and fertilizing in the Senate. It is unclear what the seedling will look like when, and if, it reaches maturity.
But it is clear that there is a Republican consensus that something should be done. Similar pruning and fertilizing – and the same clear consensus for doing something, if not exactly what that should be – is underway on Haslam’s tort reform bill.
Ditto for the illegal immigration legislation, where normally Republican-leaning business lobbyists are at odds with the perceived populist uprising for action – most notably on a bill that would require businesses to use the federal “E-Verify” system to check the legal status of their employees.

The Republican intraparty turmoil has featured several situations wherein conservative Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is at odds with the moderating Haslam-Harwell alliance – for example, collective bargaining, poplar election of Supreme Court judges.
Ramsey has also thrown cold water on Haslam’s idea of letting his health commissioner decide whether decongestants used in making meth should be sold by prescription only. And last week he launched, with some fanfare, a website declaring war on government “red tape” – a move some saw as a bit of one upmanship on our governor, who has talked a lot about removing red tape without actually doing anything as bold as setting up a website.
Former House Speaker Kent Williams has publicly speculated that Ramsey is planting the seeds for a challenge to Haslam in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. No, says Ramsey, he is not.
“It’s not on my radar screen,” he said. “I cannot see any circumstances where I would run for governor (in 2014).”
He, Haslam and Harwell are all the best of friends, Ramsey says. They’re just looking for consensus – and that’s not always easy.

While Republicans are trying to compromise with one another, Democrats are adjusting to their minority status and, compared to their old majority days, seem to be achieving unity.
House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, now aged 71, has become a point man in the underdog efforts by House Democrats to derail the Republican railroad. He has at least caused some discomfort – notably by positioning Republicans so they have to vote to kill the idea of prohibiting future increases in the state sales tax.
That came with an amendment to a proposal, which has inspired GOP lockstep behavior, to incorporate a ban on a state income tax in the Tennessee constitution. Naifeh’s amendment would add a ban on increasing our highest-in-the-nation sales tax, too.
After initial success in winning a couple of Republican votes, orders have been issued to kill the Naifeh amendment, it seems. But it is uncomfortable for good conservative Republicans to keep open the door for still higher sales taxes at some point.

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