By Erik Schelzig, Lucas Johnson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers are preparing for what they hope is the last week of the 107th General Assembly, though issues that still need to be worked out include the state’s annual spending plan, proposals to change the way the state selects Supreme Court justices and a resilient effort to ban teaching about gay issues in schools.
Also still pending is a dispute between business groups and gun advocates over a bill seeking to guarantee that employees have a right to store firearms their cars while at work.
Republican leaders nevertheless express confidence that the session can draw to a close by the end of the week.
“There are about 60 or 70 bills that are still there,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “I think we’re right on course to adjourn.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, agreed. He said a series of weekend meetings were scheduled to hash out the budget plan, though he appeared to give little stock to an alternative budget being proposed by House Democrats.
“I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know if it’s serious or political,” McCormick said. “If they can gather 50 votes, they can pass their budget, but I suspect they won’t be able to.”
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and other Democrats say Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is failing to recognize $200 million in better-than-expected revenues. Fitzhugh said the Democratic plan would call for deeper cuts to the sales tax on groceries and other spending measures if revenues continue to improve.
“We’re serious when we propose it,” Fitzhugh said. “And we hope it can at least be considered by the majority.”
A proposal to strip employers of the right to ban firearms on company property is just one step away from a floor vote in both chambers, despite concerns from the governor and other Republican leaders. The National Rifle Association is ratcheting up pressure on lawmakers to pass the bill this year — and to avoid an unaccustomed defeat for the gun lobby in Tennessee.
The NRA sent a letter to lawmakers last week denouncing efforts to block floor votes on the measure as “a perversion of the representative democracy intended to benefit the citizens.” The group threatened that when it comes to election-year grading of incumbents, it will treat any procedural vote to stop the bill as an even more serious demerit than a vote against the final version of the bill.
Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, and the main House sponsor of the bill, delayed a vote in the House Calendar Committee last week, and was coy when asked about his plans for the bill.
“All the excitement has yet to come,” Bass said. “It could come to the floor rather quickly, but I just had a thing or two I wanted to do. A little tweaking.”
Haslam, Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell have all criticized the bill as being too broad because it doesn’t provide for exceptions for large businesses or schools.
Ramsey predicted it won’t be until next year that a revised version of the bill passes.
“I’ve said all along I’d rather not see that come to the floor this year,” he said.
There are two proposals that seek to amend the Tennessee Constitution to change the way Supreme Court and appeals judges are selected.
The measure sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville passed the Senate last week and would provide constitutional cover for three methods of determining the makeup of the state’s highest court: Contested elections, a federal-style plan, or a plan similar to the current one.
The other resolution sponsored by Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown calls for legislative confirmation of gubernatorial appointments to the bench.
Under the current Tennessee judicial selection method, a commission nominates judges, the governor appoints them and voters cast ballots either for or against keeping them on the bench.
The House is still debating the issue, but Ramsey said he expects to reach an agreement with the lower chamber.
“That’s still a little bit up in the air, but I feel comfortable we can reach a compromise with the House,” he said.
Other proposals focus on sex in schools. One seeks to ban the teaching of any type of sexual activity in schools by emphasizing abstinence in “family life education” curricula. Opponents have ridiculed a provision that bars “gateway sexual activity” as potentially including such activities as hugs and holding hands.
The proposal was at one time considered an alternative after Haslam voiced opposition to another proposal, dubbed the Don’t Say Gay bill, to ban classroom discussion of gay issues in elementary and middle schools.
That measure — which passed the Senate last year — had stalled in the House, but was revived in committee last week and is now headed for a floor vote.