By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The second session of the 107th General Assembly starting Tuesday will test Gov. Bill Haslam’s increased assertiveness with fellow Republicans accustomed to getting their way in the legislature.
Haslam is set to begin his second year in office by taking a more active role in legislative matters, while the House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are still jockeying for position with each other and with the governor. The speakers are also out to prove that last year’s early conclusion of the session was no fluke.
First on the agenda is redistricting, which could come up for a vote as early as Thursday, despite Democrats’ complaints that the proposal would likely reduce the number of African-Americans serving in the legislature.
Haslam, who is releasing his legislative package soon after the session is gaveled to order Tuesday, has already exerted control over two controversial matters — creating school vouchers and changing teacher evaluation standards — by calling for formal studies that will essentially push off decisions until next year.
Haslam last week announced he will seek legislation seeking to stem violent crime and prescription drug abuse.
The governor has also staked out positions opposing a weakening of open meetings standards for local governments in Tennessee and in favor of allowing local governments to set wage standards for contractors that are higher than the federal minimum.
Haslam’s approach stands in contrast to his first year, when he often declined to get take a strong position on contentious issues unrelated to his own agenda, like stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights and voiding a Nashville ordinance that barred companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city.
The governor has said that because of budget pressures he doesn’t think this will be the year to make cuts in the estate tax or the Hall tax on income from stocks and bonds. That stance has riled some Republican lawmakers who want to be able to campaign on a tax-cutting platform before the November elections.
Ramsey has said the Senate wants to take aim at the Hall tax this year, while Harwell and House Republicans have targeted a reduction in the estate tax.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said he doesn’t believe all Republicans need to march in lockstep on all issues.
“A little creative tension is a good thing. It leads to better policy,” said McCormick, R-Chattanooga.
“I look forward to disagreeing with all kinds of people in the legislature and the legislative branch in making better policy in the process,” he said.
Ramsey espouses a strong friendship with Haslam despite their time as opponents in the sometimes bruising Republican gubernatorial nomination fight of 2010.
“The biggest thing is we’re personal friends,” the Blountville Republican said. “And we can call each other any time and discuss problems.”
Ramsey followed up with an observation about the governor’s greater appreciation of the legislative process that sounded like a backhanded compliment.
“He came in and I don’t think he knew the legislature met from January to the end of May, that you actually have to deal with these legislators to pass a bill,” Ramsey told reporters recently.
“So absolutely he understands it better,” he said. “And I hope I’ve been part of educating him on how the system works.”
Haslam has acknowledged that his first year involved a steep learning curve but didn’t appear amused by the suggestion he didn’t know when the legislature was in session.
“I think Ron was joking,” Haslam said an interview at the Capitol. “I obviously knew when the legislature met.”
The governor said he remains committed to focusing on larger issues affecting state government, not just those emerging from the legislature.
“There’s a focus often times by the media and some others that everything that happens in state government is what happens in this building,” said Haslam.
“The truth is, I didn’t run to be the speaker of the House or to be lieutenant governor,” Haslam said. “I ran because I think I can help run state government better.”
Lawmakers expect to take up some familiar issues, ranging from allowing wine to be sold in supermarkets to a further loosening of gun restrictions in Tennessee to reducing the size of lottery scholarships.
Ramsey has voiced his support for a measure to make it illegal for businesses to ban their employees from storing weapons in vehicles parked on company lots. While Haslam indicated during his run for office that he would support the measure if it reached his desk, the proposal has drawn vocal criticism from business groups who argue it would infringe on their property rights.
That message appears to resonate with House Republicans leadership.
“We’re not interested in doing things that would affect employers in Tennessee,” said McCormick, the House majority leader. “That’s a philosophical problem for a lot of members, trampling the property rights of business owners.”