Sunday Column: Compromise and Consistency in the Legislature

Recent events illustrate that the art of compromise, historically valued in the world of politics, remains a constant in the new normal of Republican rule in Tennessee government. So does the belief that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Gov. Bill Haslam, in his titular head role as overseer of our state’s Republicans, called last year for a one-third reduction in legislative bill filings in 2012. At the outset of the 2012, the governor thereupon introduced a legislative package of 54 bills, compared to his 24-bill package of 2011 — somewhat shy of a 33 percent reduction.
Having thus established his freedom from the hobgoblin of little-mindedness, the governor proceeded to watch as legislators filed a total of 1,725 new bills for the 2012 session, including those introduced at his behest.
This was also somewhat shy of a one-third reduction and amounts to an increase compared to the typical second year of a two-year General Assembly session. In fact, it wasn’t down even a third from the floodgate first year when 2,162 bills were introduced.

As the 2012 enters its final days, we find the governor has compromised to get some of his bills through the Legislature, including major matters such as the overhaul of the civil service system and restructuring of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.
He’s also had some failures, where no compromise could be reached, such as bills dealing with class size in schools or keeping secret information about companies getting state cash grants.
Though the jury is still out on a few of the governor’s bills as the end approaches, the administration seems positioned to reasonably proclaim general success.
Haslam is also positioned, should he take the notion, to veto any bills passed in the last week and avoid an override vote.
The Republican majority has not scheduled a “veto override” session. This means that, when the gavel slams down to end the 107th General Assembly — probably later this week — the legislators will be gone and would have no opportunity to override any vetoes issued afterwards. The governor has 10 days after a bill reaches his desk to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
Of course, given the governor’s inclination to get along with lawmakers, no vetoes are likely. But strange things sometimes happen.
As a general proposition, it seems that legislators have been somewhat more compromising in this year’s session. An example is HB2459, which would have created a new state law banning people from entering liquor stores if they are between the ages of 12 and 21 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Violators would have been subject to a $50 fine.
Much debate ensured with many “what if” questions. What if a 21-year-old man and his 20-year-old fiancee stopped to pick up wine for their parents? What if a 17-year-old had an accident outside a package store and came in to ask for a phone to call police?
The bill calls for package store owners to put up a sign advising patrons of the new law, but there’s no penalty for those who do not post a sign. This means, some pointed out, that people could be penalized when they know nothing of the law. But an amendment to impose a $50 fine for not posting failed after it was pointed out the retail liquor lobby would then oppose the bill.
Ultimately, House sponsor Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, threw in the towel and agreed to amend the bill so it does close to nothing. As rewritten and passed by the House, the bill now declares that, if a liquor store operator asks a customer to leave and he/she does not, he/she can be charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass.
That’s already the general law for all businesses, including package stores. But that section of the code will now be inserted into the section of the code that deals with package stores, too. The bill hasn’t passed the Senate yet, but sponsor Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, says she’ll go along with the House compromise. Which almost certainly assures passage.
So we now have an old law re-enacted and put into the law books for a second time. There are many other examples of bills that started out boldly but were compromised down to nothing much.
But that’s better than doing nothing, right? Just to be consistent.

Note: This also appears in Sunday’s News Sentinel.

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