More superlative performances from the 2012 session of the 107th General Assembly (Note: This is an unedited version of a column in Sunday’s News Sentinel. Edited version HERE):
Reelection Resolution of the Year – By remarkable coincidence, it seems the representatives who sponsored the most controversial statement-of-opinion resolutions are facing Republican primary opposition in seeking a new term. There was strong competition the production of the non-binding resolutions, but if the objective was to rally the base with red-meat rhetoric, irritating Democrats in the process, the best was Rep. Kevin Brooks’ HJR588, condemning “nefarious and destructive nature” of United Nations Agenda 21. Gov. Bill Haslam refused to sign the measure, but then he’s not facing a Republican primary opposition this year.
Most Conservative Democrat – Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, who often voted with Republicans on social issue legislation and occasionally brought his gift for oratory into play, as with an impassioned speech in support of the “gateway sexual activity” bill. Honorable mention to Reps. Eddie Bass of Prospect, who reportedly flirted with switching parties at one point during the session, and John Mark Windle of Livingston.
Most Liberal Republican – No nominations.
(Oh, there were isolated cases of Republicans who broke lockstep on individual bills. A sample selection could include Sen. Brian Kelsey, the only member of his party to vote no on the Agenda 21 resolution; Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville, the only GOP no on “Vanderbilt bill” subsequently vetoed by Haslam; Rep. Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, who opposed “Don’t Say Gay” in the Education Committee; and Rick Kenton of Kenton, the only no Republican on a bill changing the date for entry into kindergarten. There were even whispers about House Speaker Beth Harwell’s doings behind the scenes, if not on the voting board. But none showed any consistent willingness to buck the prevailing party line.)
Hijacking of the Year Award – To Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and Sen. Dolores Gresham for seizing a bill that, as it passed the House under sponsorship of Montgomery, called for school boards to conduct evaluations of their school superintendents. In the Senate, sponsor Gresham assented to Norris converting it instead to authorization for suburban Shelby County towns to set up special school districts instead of being part of a countywide school system. The Senate amendment wiped out Montgomery’s superintendent evaluation plans – which, by the way, was itself a transformed “caption bill” – over the House sponsor’s objections. Montgomery initially refused to go along with the hijacking, but ultimately went along with the party after a House-Senate conference committee revived his evaluation measure and stuck it back into the bill along with the Shelby County matter.
Best Legislative Freebie – Of the 67 duly events hosted by employers of lobbyists that were duly reported to the Tennessee Ethics Commission during the 2012 session, the most expensive listing for total cost is the $25,375 spent by Tennessee Development Districts. But that included both a morning breakfast and an evening reception, so it was really two events. On a cost-per-person basis, the most expensive listing was Mountain States Health Alliance at $53.03 – pretty close to the maximum $55 that can be spent per legislator. But that was for a free “heart health screening” and doesn’t sound like much fun. So let’s deem an old favorite, AT&T, as the best with a standard evening reception – with legislators ferried by bus to the corporate headquarters building a few blocks away – and with what the invitation describes as “open bar and heavy hors d’oeuvres.” Even if the cost was only $25.99 per person or $23,538 total.
Craziest Bill of the Year – Gov. Bill Haslam used the phrase “craziest bills” in declaring that the media paid too much attention to same while paying scant heed to what he considers more important legislation. The governor declined an invitation to list those bills, but in a couple or three interviews he did mention three by nickname – “Don’t Say Gay,” “Saggy Pants” and “Guns in Parking Lots.” Only one of those, “Saggy Pants,” got to the governor’s desk and he signed it. So, come on, it’s surely not too crazy. The other two didn’t pass, but were taken seriously enough to provoke hours and hours of debate by our thoughtful lawmakers.
While there was a lot of crazy competition, the edge has to go to the “Bathroom Harassment Act” (HB2279) introduced by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, which would have imposed a $59 fine on anyone entering a restroom designated for the other gender. Floyd explained that he was inspired by reading of a transgender person – formerly male – entering a women’s restroom, a situation that would make him want to “stomp a mudhole” in the offender. This so alarmed the Senate sponsor – Republican Sen. Bo Watson of Hixson, who, you may recall, championed what some called “the creationism bill” and others nicknamed “the monkey Bill” – that he immediately withdrew it, killing the measure dead in its tracks for the session. (Seems Watson hadn’t read the bill when he agreed to sponsor it.) That speaks volumes, it is submitted, and makes the bill a standout in the crazy crowd.
Floyd, by the way, acknowledges the bill was so broadly drafted that it could have had unintended consequences – say, for a plumber – and perhaps difficult to enforce, since a person’s gender would be determined by birth certificate, which most folks don’t carry in their pocket. But Floyd says he’ll be back with a revised version next year.