Sunday Column: On Buzz-Word Bills and the Republican Railroad

Some of the buzz-word bills – “guns in cars,” school vouchers, “don’t say gay,” Health Care Compact – were more or less tossed overboard by the Republican majority last week to lighten the load in rush to end to this year’s legislative session.
The measures join other buzz word legislation – wine in grocery stores, birther bills, the nullification bill – in the trash bin of the 2010 session. There are suspicions that still more – “guns on campus,” for example – are soon to meet a similar fate. Of course, they can be recycled next year.
Meanwhile, most of the bills that are aboard the Republican railroad have either been already passed into law or are positioned for approval within the next week or two on party-line votes. Even with some time allotted for Democratic grumbling along the way.

Already enacted, for example, are bills dealing with such diverse topics as teacher tenure, the Memphis school merger, “health care freedom” and the like.
Enactment, as a practical matter, is assured for bills on tort reform, opening the door for corporate money in campaigns, mandating photo IDs for voters, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution, an overhaul of anti-meth laws, charter schools expansion, etc.
Say what you will about the merits of the Republican agenda, but the new majority does appear to have learned how to run a railroad, even with an occasionally raucous, somewhat inexperienced crew and a lot of excess baggage aboard. The GOP leadership may actually meet the target date for adjournment, May 25.
And that, in comparison to recent legislative history, would be a rush job. OK, not in comparison to some other states – Kentucky and Georgia, for example, always finish before our guys.
Some qualifications, however, may be in order.
The budget has yet to be debated. But Gov. Bill Haslam is said to have plans to revise his original proposal, to be unveiled this week, that eliminate some cuts and thus some of the reasons for prolonged posturing and argument.
There are some potentially problematic bills still hanging – the oft-revised proposal to abolish collective bargaining for teachers, for one example. The latest version still abolishes organized negotiations, but declares teachers can offer comments instead for a policy manual – “collaborative conferencing,” to use the nifty new buzz word deployed by House Speaker Beth Harwell last week. This is supposed to achieve Republican unity, thus making the railroad work. We’ll see.
And there is the inherent tendency for legislators to look for something to argue about, even when obvious reasons for argument are not readily apparent. They’ll find something and, when they do, it could gum up the works.
Still, Harwell, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and their lieutenants have prodded and pushed the committee chairs and rank-and-file to make decisions – either put the bills up to a vote or drop them. This runs counter the long-standing tradition of procrastination – put things off and hope, somehow, things will get better later in the last-minute melee.
Last week’s abandoned buzz-word bills may illustrate the proposition and, perhaps, indicate that the House is controlling the flow. The school voucher bill, which sailed through the Senate 18-10, was stopped in a House subcommittee with House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick after a closed-door lecture to members.
The “guns in cars” bill, also known as “guns in parking lots,” died on the House floor when a Democrat-sponsored amendment appeared on the verge of adoption, contrary to a promise made by the Republican sponsor in a deal that had been cut.
The “don’t say gay” bill, which had cleared the Senate committee under sponsorship of Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, will not clear House committee. The sub it must pass through has been closed for the year. House sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who is pilot of several other still-hanging bills, decided not to push it during the late-session rush.
The Health Care Compact bill, which envisions a state takeover of federal health care programs, was similarly dropped for the year in a House sub, at least partly because the closing of the session looms.
And, of course, there’s always next year. The Republican railroad will need some cargo in 2012, an election year.

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