The 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly ended Saturday with bipartisan collaboration on a $30.8 billion state budget that includes money for jobless workers and flood victims but with partisan fighting on other fronts.
The Republican majority won the last-day fights – as true in almost all situations this year – by approving bills to allow private corporations to donate to political campaigns and to operate “virtual schools” in Tennessee.
Those wins came on top of a Friday night GOP victory in passage of legislation to abolish collective bargaining between school boards and teacher unions, perhaps the most contentious issue of the session. The final version calls for “collaborative conferencing,” which Republicans called a compromise though labeled by one Democrat as “collaborative begging.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey gaveled the House and Senate sessions to a close at 10:02 p.m. CDT Saturday after a marathon day of lawmaking. It was the earliest end to a legislative session since May 1, 1998, and five weeks earlier than the 2010 session ended.
Ramsey calculated that cutting five weeks off the session saved taxpayers $450,000 in legislative expenses.
“Adjourning this early in May reflects legislative leadership’s commitment to conducting its business in an efficient and effective manner – something I believe will be a trademark of this leadership,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in prepared statement.
“This is not just Republican feel-good stuff,” he quipped in a joint news conference with Harwell and Ramsey.
There were general good feelings on the budget, passed 32-0 in the Senate Saturday and 96-0 in the House Friday night. Spending in the plan increased considerably over what Haslam had initially proposed in March.
Late additions to spending range from $71 million to help local government with costs associated with damage during flooding and tornadoes this spring to $3.1 million to cover costs associated with distributing at least $60 million in federal money – more by some estimates – to Tennesseans who have lost their unemployment benefits under current law.
A federal law enacted last December allowed states to extend unemployment benefit payments for 20 extra weeks, but Tennessee did not pass the necessary state enabling legislation until Saturday. Under current law, benefits end after 79 weeks and at least 28,000 Tennesseans stand to benefit from the extension.
Haslam, Ramsey and some other Republicans had initially opposed or voiced misgivings about approving the required bill, HB2156, which is sponsored by Democrats. But Haslam wound up agreeing to put the necessary state money into his budget plan and Ramsey decided to back it despite being “philosophically opposed.”
“In the end, we thought it was a great way to help these people,” said Haslam on Saturday.
The Legislature also Saturday approved Haslam-requested bond issues totaling $290 million to give companies locating facilities in the state – the biggest being $150 million for Hemlock Semiconductor.
Beyond the budget, feelings were not always good on the final day of the session. The most contentious issue on Saturday was a bill, HB1030, that clears the way for private and non-profit corporations to open and operate “virtual schools” in Tennessee.
The House approved the bill (HB1030) after killing amendments pushed by Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, including one that would have prohibited corporations from running the schools in Tennessee if a convicted felon owns more than 5 percent interest in the company.
The amendment, Stewart said, was aimed at K-12, Inc., founded by Michael Miliken, who Stewart said was once known as “the junk bond king” and was convicted of six felony counts of fraud. He set up the company after completing his prison term.
Stewart said “highly-paid lobbyists” were pushing the bill. K-12 has three registered lobbyists for the current session.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, said K-12 ‘s stock is held by a limited liability company and thus Stewart’s amendment might not preclude the company from operating. Also, he said adding the amendment at the late hour could jeopardize passage of the bill.
The bill passed the House 61-26. The vote was 20-10 in the Senate. A dispute over an andment attached in the Senate caused the bill to bounce back and forth between the chambers Saturday night before the amendment was finally dropped and the bill passed — the last bill of the session, in fact.
The measure also came under attack in the Senate, where Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said it sets “a dangerous precedent” and could lead to public school money being siphoned off by private corporations. But Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, said the bill gives local school officials full control and they can be trusted to prevent any wrongdoing.
Also approved over Democratic objections Saturday was a bill, SB1915, that authorizes direct corporate contributions to political candidates in Tennessee for the first time. The measure also raises the maximum legal contribution that individuals and political action committees can contribute to Tennessee politicians by about 40 percent.
In the case of corporations and political action committees, the maximum donation will be $10,200 per election, or $20,400 for a primary and general election combined. The old limit for PACs was $7,500, or $15,000 for primary and general election combined.
The final House vote was 65-20 on the political contributions bill. It passed the Senate 19-11 a day earlier.