By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers have concluded the 107th General Assembly that was dominated by debates over guns, classroom instruction about sex and Gov. Bill Haslam’s efforts to overhaul state government operations.
It wasn’t until the House and Senate speakers banged the gavel to adjourn late Tuesday that it was certain that a measure pitting gun rights advocates against business groups was dead for the year.
The measure backed by the National Rifle Association sought to allow employees to keep firearms in their vehicles on company property, no matter the company’s policy.
Haslam and other Republican leaders said the bill was too broad for not providing exceptions for university and school campuses, or for large employers like FedEx or Volkswagen. Despite heavy pressure throughout the session to shelve the measure, supporters moved the bill to the verge of floor votes in both chambers before finally abandoning the effort.
Haslam similarly expressed deep reservations about a measure seeking to ban the instruction of gay issues to elementary and middle-school students. But again the measure remained alive in the legislature until the waning days of the session.
Another bill heavily ridiculed by opponents would prohibit teachers from promoting or condoning “gateway sexual activity.” That measure passed both chambers and is awaiting the governor’s consideration.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said he couldn’t understand why Republicans spent so much time on sex-related bills this year.
“These guys were obsessed with sex,” he said. “They had it on the brain.”
Haslam’s agenda included making it easier to hire and fire state employees, changing the structure of boards and commissions and reducing the board of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority to part-time status.
Those measures received considerable attention in the Legislature, but didn’t capture the imagination of the public or the media as much as he had hoped.
The governor early last month lamented that media attention wasn’t sufficiently focused on what he called the substantive issues facing the Legislature this year, though he struggled to explain why the heavy Republican majorities in both chambers were unable to squash bills he didn’t consider serious.
Haslam returned to what he called the “sore subject with the media” in a press conference after lawmakers adjourned.
“We reformed the hiring practices, we totally re-did accountability and education,” he said. “That’s real work I think will affect every day Tennesseans.”
The Legislature also approved Haslam’s more than $31 billion spending plan, though Democrats complained that the administration chose to ignore better-than-expected state revenues that could have been used for keeping down tuition hikes or making a bigger reduction in the sales tax on groceries.
Lawmakers approved the elimination of the state’s tax on gifts to relatives worth more than $10,000, and began a phase-out of the inheritance tax. They also OK’d reducing the sales tax on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. Haslam has said he plans to cut that levy to 5 percent next year.
After last year’s session, Haslam called for a one-third reduction in the number of bills filed. Lawmakers got part of the way there, introducing about 20 percent fewer pieces of legislation in 2012. Meanwhile, Haslam’s legislative agenda doubled from last year.
Several perennial bills were once again debated, though most met their usual fate of getting killed in committee. They included efforts to allow supermarkets to sell wine, banning mountaintop removal coal mining and allowing adults to ride motorcycles without helmets on.
Many observers were shocked when a bill to legalize medical marijuana advanced out of a House committee. But the momentum was short-lived and the pot measure soon went up in smoke.
The Legislature will have a different look next year after Republicans redrew the electoral map in the once-a-decade redistricting process. Ten Democrats announced their retirement, while five Republicans are giving up their seats.