Outnumbered Democratic legislators say their ideas are being ignored — or sometimes stolen — by majority Republicans who are “rubber-stamping” questionable GOP-generated legislation in a rush toward adjournment of the 107th General Assembly.
Republican leaders say the Democrats are being treated fairly, though some politically-motivated proposals are scrapped quickly. Democrats did the same thing, Republicans say, in the days when they were in power.
Democratic discontent reached a session high point last week when the party’s entire legislative leadership boycotted the traditional weekly bipartisan breakfast hosted by Gov. Bill Haslam for lawmakers of both parties.
The move revolved around what Democrats saw as gubernatorial aides reneging on an agreement with House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh in his efforts to negotiate modest compromises to Haslam’s civil-service reform bill (HB2384).
Fitzhugh withdrew a series of amendments in the belief they would be replaced by compromise versions approved by Mark Cate, senior advisor to the governor, who had voiced a hope for bipartisan action on the bill. But then he was told there was no agreement.
“I got my legs cut out from under me,” said Fitzhugh.
The bill, which would basically abolish the current civil-service system and replace it with one that some Democrats see as giving the governor too much power to bring patronage into the hiring and firing of state workers, is perhaps one of the most hotly-argued policy issues of the current legislative session.
Railroaded, or fairly debated?
Handling of that bill is a sore point with Senate Democrats, who say it has been railroaded through the Senate committee system without consideration of their amendments or any real discussion. At least in the House, they say, Democrats have had a chance to debate.
“In the Senate, we’ve yet to have a line-by-line explanation of the bill,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson.
“It’s just, ‘Let’s vote it out,'” Finney said, snapping his fingers, to illustrate the Republican approach.
The bill has been through three committees in the Senate and awaits a floor vote. It is still pending in the House Finance Committee, where Fitzhugh’s amendments are now expected to be considered next week after another round of talk. Democrats say they are ready to return to breakfast with the governor next week.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said the bill has had a fair hearing in the Senate committees and Democrats will have an opportunity to present proposed changes on the floor and have them debated — and any changes made in the House will be considered as well.
But Ramsey said he opposes some of the Democratic proposals, such as a requirement that the governor consult with the Tennessee State Employees Association on personnel policy issues.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, says the House leadership has “bent over backwards” to allow full discussion of the civil-service bill, though there may have been a “miscommunication” between Fitzhugh and administration officials.
Dems: bills getting canned in committee
Multiple Democrat-sponsored bills have been killed with little discussion in Republican-controlled committees that Democrats say should have been regarded as bipartisan and in the public interest. Some examples:
n A bill that would require legislators to disclose special interest organizations that drafted legislation they introduce (HB2301). The measure was killed in a House subcommittee after Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, told Fitzhugh, the sponsor, that it amounts to an attack on the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts model legislation. Todd is a board member of ALEC.
n A bill by Finney that would have frozen legislators’ expense and mileage payments (SB1372). It was killed on a party-line vote in a Senate committee.
n A proposal by Fitzhugh (HB2785) that called for the General Assembly to hold sessions every other year instead of annually. It was killed in a House subcommittee after McCormick said he had talked to legislators in Texas, which has biennial sessions, and was told it didn’t work well — leading to frequent “special sessions” in off years.
n A bill to make it easier to prosecute retailers, including gas stations, for “price gouging” — raising prices by more than 25 percent in a day — after natural disasters (HB1824). It was killed in the House Commerce Subcommittee on a voice vote.
n A bill to give Tennessee businesses a preference over out-of-state firms in the award of state government contracts (HB2079). Under the bill, a Tennessee business’ bid would be accepted if it was no more than 5 percent higher than the low bid from an out-of-state company.
Fitzhugh, sponsor of the latter measure, noted that, during House floor debate on other legislation, Rep. Linda Elam, R-Lebanon, made a speech calling for giving Tennessee businesses a preference in state contracts. That, he said, illustrates a Republican claiming credit for a Democratic idea, basically acknowledging that it was a good one, but nonetheless killing it under Democratic sponsorship.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville, meanwhile, says Republicans took over an amendment he drafted to the Haslam civil-service bill. As originally introduced, the bill eliminated a preference for veterans and the spouses of deceased or disabled veterans in state hiring.
“They stole my amendment, and that kind of bothers me,” he said.
The amendment, incorporated into the bill by a Republican sponsor, says that veterans will be hired over non-veterans if qualifications are at least equal to non-veteran applicants.
McCormick said the Turner amendment “was not exactly an original idea” and that there are valid policy reasons against a Tennessee business preference that freshman Elam may not have recognized — such as the possibility of other states retaliating against Tennessee businesses with in-state preferences of their own.
“I have to laugh at the thought of them saying we’re stealing their ideas,” McCormick said. “They used to do that all the time when (Democrat) Jimmy Naifeh was speaker.”
boycotting the gov’s breakfast
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Ramsey both said they were somewhat surprised that Democrats boycotted the governor’s bipartisan breakfast for legislative leaders.
Harwell said she spoke to Fitzhugh afterwards and, apparently, she helped smooth over the situation.
“Obviously, I am a partisan Republican, but I am also speaker of the entire House and I believe that means treating everybody fairly,” she said. “I never want to see us fall into the bickering they have in Washington.”
Harwell also said any criticism of Haslam for ignoring Democrats is unwarranted.
“I can’t think of a governor who has been more amenable to having everyone provide input,” she said. “And he doesn’t have to — we have the votes (to override the Democrats at will).”