On the Clash of Politics and Policy in the 107th General Assembly

In literally the last hour of the 107th General Assembly, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver stood on the House floor to explain some of her recent votes.
“This bill has nothing to do with policy,” she said of SB326, which calls for a state takeover of federal health care programs through a Health Care Compact. Introduced on Feb. 3, 2011, it had been the subject of intense debate from the start to the finish of the two-year session.
“So all the amendments we added, that we tabled, I just want to make it clear the reason I tabled all those amendments is those amendments do not apply to this bill because this bill is not policy,” the Smith County Republican said.
“I want it on the record: I support the unborn. I support seniors. I support our military.”
The record, however, will reflect that Weaver was among 35 Republicans who voted to table, or kill, an amendment that said Tennessee will not participate in a Health Care Compact “if participation includes expanding abortion rights, especially late term abortion.”

Other Republicans, recognizing the potential political ramifications of voting against such a notion, balked at killing the amendment. It passed, followed by similar approval of other Democrat-sponsored amendments to guarantee that military veterans and senior citizens would not be negatively impacted through policies adopted if the state ever takes over Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal health programs.
Another amendment, which House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner acknowledged may sound “a little flippant,” declares state health policy under the compact will not adopt United Nations health care proposals. By that time, Republicans had stopped opposing the amendments, allowing approval on voice vote so no one was on the record against them.
The GOP idea was to have the amendments maneuvered into a House-Senate conference committee and killed there. That worked insofar as stripping the amendments, but when the bill came back to the House, it failed. Forty-five House Republicans voted for it, but the remaining 18 Republican did not vote one way or the other, leaving the measure five votes short of the 50 needed for passage. All 34 Democrats either voted no or did not vote.
“I’m disappointed that people played games down to the end,” said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, who successfully shepherded the compact bill through the Senate, where the bill initially passed last year.
The games were played by Democrats with re-election campaigns in mind, she said, and “apparently it worked with some people” on the Republican side.
Recorded votes are routinely used in campaign brochures, direct mail pieces, radio ads and television commercials to slam incumbents — typically without giving the often-complicated context as Weaver attempted.
It might not be too much of a stretch, for example, to envision an attack ad noting that a given incumbent “voted to allow late term abortions.” Or “against veterans health care rights.”
How well the games worked remains to be seen in the campaigns for the 108th General Assembly that are now underway across the state. And there were many other political games being played amidst the policy decisions of the 107th.
In post-session press releases, incumbents uniformly hailed politically popular accomplishments of the legislative session — anti-crime measures targeting domestic abuse, gang violence and prescription drug abuse, for example, and cutting taxes on inheritances, gifts and the sales tax on grocery food. All were approved on unanimously — or very nearly so.
On the food tax, Democrats proposed to go further — dropping the grocery levy to 5 percent instead of the 5.25 that passed. Republicans said they were playing a political game and the extra cut was fiscally irresponsible at this time. But Republican incumbents can expect to see their no votes noted in campaign brochures. Democrats, meanwhile said Republicans were playing games with an unnecessary constitutional amendment to ban a state income tax.
Indeed, beyond the universally acclaimed accomplishments, much of what the Legislature did — or did not do — ties into re-election politics.
A possible exception was Haslam’s bill to completely overhaul the state’s civil service system, which almost surely will have more long-term impact on the functioning of state government than anything else done by the 107th. The governor went along with several revisions pushed by Democrats and the Tennessee State Employees Association that softened some provisions, but still left fundamental changes in place.
Haslam introduced a 55-bill package at the outset of the session, ranging from the civil service measure to a bill that declares March 1 “Tennessee National Guard Day.” At session’s end, 45 had passed.
The most notable gubernatorial failures were bills to revise the law on teacher-pupil ratios in schools and to keep secret the ownership of companies receiving cash grants of state money for economic development.
The session’s most heralded non-accomplishment was a failure to advance gun rights with bills blocking employers from banning weapons kept in employee cars on company parking lots. The fight pitted Second Amendment advocates against businesses, and legislative leaders devoted an extraordinary amount of effort toward avoiding a vote on the record, which could be used by one side or the other in re-election campaigns.
There were committee votes and one Senate floor vote under somewhat convoluted circumstances, but a full-scale floor vote was avoided, That left gun rights activists upset, but facing some difficulty in turning the non-vote into a political tool.
Perhaps the most controversial social issue, the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” was debated through both years of the 107th only to die rather quietly at the end. The House sponsor, Republican Rep. Joey Hensley, said he decided against a final vote because many members just didn’t want to vote on it. Also, state education officials promised to send a letter to schools saying they shouldn’t be teaching anything about homosexuality in grades K-12 anyway.
Another obvious last-minute example was the decision against bringing to a House floor vote Senate-passed legislation that would have repealed aggregate limits on the amount of money legislative candidates can take from political action committees and corporations. Many Republicans felt that the political risk of being portrayed as money-hungry politicians seeking unlimited cash from special interests outweighed the advantages of being able to take more than $214,400 per election cycle.
Republicans pushed through several nonbinding resolutions, amounting basically to a statement of opinion, that denounced United Nations Agenda 21 and various federal government activities ranging from the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution’s “commerce clause” to proposed U.S. Department of Labor rules. Democrats said they were a waste of time, produced only to give Republicans a means “rallying the base” and declaring they fought the federal government.
While the Health Care Compact failed, legislators in the first year of the 107th did approve the “Health Care Freedom Act,” which says that Tennesseans can ignore the federal Affordable Health Care law. Both bills were rooted in political opposition to what Republicans call “Obamacare.”
Haslam declared — the day after the session adjourned — that he would use his first veto to kill one social issue bill, a measure attacking Vanderbilt University’s policy of requiring campus religious groups to accept members who do not share their faith. While saying he didn’t like the rule either, the governor declared it inappropriate for state government to be involved in private university policy.
One Republican legislator said afterward that the governor had done the party a political favor — leaving legislators on record as opposing the “anti-religion” Vanderbilt policy while keeping a bad policy idea from the Legislature from becoming law.
Twenty incumbent Republican House members face challenges in the Aug. 1 primary and two others, Reps. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald and Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, are running in Senate primaries where their House voting records are likely to be an issue.
Twenty-eight Republican representatives, including Weaver, have Democratic opponents in the general election. Eight have both primary and general election opponents.
Nine Democratic House incumbents have primary opposition. Six of those are the result of Republican-controlled redistricting that left incumbents to run against each other in three districts. Eight Democrats have Republican opponents in the general election.
In the Senate, three Republican incumbents face primary opposition while only one, Knoxville’s Sen. Becky Massey, has a Democrat waiting in November. The only Democratic incumbents facing primaries are Sens. Jim Kyle and Beverly Marrero, thrown into the same district by Republican redistricting. And Sen. Tim Barnes D-Clarksville, is the only Democrat incumbent with a general election opponent.

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