(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. Edited version HERE.)
The Republican railroad stayed mostly on the tracks during the legislative session that ended last weekend, delivering boxcar loads of conservative agenda items, thanks to the new super majority.
The chief engineers, House Speaker Ron Ramsey and Senate Speaker Beth Harwell, deserve much of the credit – or blame, depending on your perspective. It’s fair to say, though, that Harwell applied the brakes more often than Ramsey.
Contrary to last session, when Democrats still had a substantive presence, the House was clearly the more moderate body in the 107th General Assembly- stopping a Senate-passed bill on school vouchers, for example, and forcing a compromise on Senate efforts to completely abolish collective bargaining between school boards and teacher unions.
Ergo, if designating a legislator of the year and including the speakers, Harwell would be the logical choice.
If the House Republican Caucus had chosen instead rival candidate Rep. Glen Casada as speaker, one suspects, Ramsey would not have been saying at session’s end that 2011 was just “an appetizer” of conservatism to come and that the “main course” will come later. We would have had the main course already.
But speakers get plenty of credit and attention, so they are excluded from the following list of legislative superlative nominations for the 107th Tennessee General Assembly’s 2011 session:
Legislator of the year, Republican: House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who sometimes came across as rather brash and belligerent in earlier legislating days, transformed into a thoughtful, good-natured strategist as Harwell’s right-hand man. He dealt fairly yet firmly with minority Democrats as well as members of his own party, mostly freshmen, who the Democrats called “right-wing crazies.”
Legislator of the year, Democrat: Sen. Andy Berke of Chattanooga, articulate advocate for the minority point of view on matters ranging from teacher tenure and torts to a health care compact and corporate contributions. Over in the House, a reinvigorated Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh of Covington – did you notice the anti-income tax constitutional amendment didn’t make it through the House this year –and Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville deserve at least honorable mention as major annoyances to the majority.
Freshman legislator of the year, Republican: Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, who did not follow the old adage about freshmen being seen and not heard, may illustrate the shape of things to come from the huge class of 22 GOP newcomers to the state House. Though losing on a push to allow “guns on campus” and to criminalize “intimidation” by union members, made his views known – even if clashing with the generally more moderate old GOP guard.
Freshman legislator of the year, Democrat: By default, Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, D-Memphis, who was the ONLY freshman Democrat of the year. Parkinson, however, could have been a contender even with competition. His bill on setting up a “report card for parents” stirred a lot of interest in education circles, even though it got shuttled off to “summer study.” And he did sponsor a bill or two to passage.
Win by Watering Down award: A bunch of bills got amended down to inconsequentiality in the legislative process, but for attention generated and overall plunge from boldness to blandness, nothing surpasses the “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011.” In the beginning, the bill by Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny targeted Shariah Law and gave two men – the governor and attorney general – authority to declare someone a terrorist. The Shariah reference stirred much controversy and was jettisoned fairly early and the special powers portion was eventually ditched, too, to get the thing palatable enough to pass.
Peacemaker Award – To Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons, who served as lead negotiator in a big lobbying war between pharmacists and law enforcement over how to deal with the growing problem of illegal methamphetamine and the prescription drugs used to make it. The resulting compromise was, remarkably, both comprehensive and unanimously approved.
Most Remarkable Lobbying Acrobatic Performance – To the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry for its amazing backflip on HB600, the bill that overrode a Nashville city ordinance prohibiting discrimination by city contractors based on sexual orientation. The chamber backed the bill as business friendly, then – after it had passed – reversed its position and declared its opposition “because (the bill) has turned into a debate on diversity and inclusiveness, principles which we support.”
(More to come next week. Suggestions welcome.)