On the state Senate floor last week, Sen. Brian Kelsey brought up a resolution that he explained as putting senators on record as declaring “if the federal government tries to infringe on our rights as American citizens, then we will intervene and fight for those rights.”
This prompted Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris to ask his fellow Republican how the resolution (SR17) differed from perhaps the most prominent of several bills introduced this year to nullify federal laws and subject federal officers to prosecution should they try to enforce them.
The question was a bit of a gibe at Kelsey because Norris knew the answer. A resolution — especially one that faces a vote only in the Senate and not in the House — amounts only to a rhetorical statement.
And the resolution merely expresses the Senate’s “firm intention and resolve to fully marshal the legal resources of the state” to see that any federal laws violating 2nd Amendment rights are challenged in court.
“Are we going to go out and simply start shooting people? No,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “When we have disputes we do not resort to warfare and shooting.”
That brought Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, to her feet to declare that her bill (SB250) did not call for shooting federal agents, merely their arrest. As originally drafted, federal officers enforcing gun laws would have faced a felony prosecution, though that was amended to a misdemeanor.
Kelsey took a lead role in killing Beavers’ bill, which declared the state Legislature has authority to nullify federal gun laws and, once nullified, make FBI or ATF agents subject to arrest if they tried to enforce them. If failed after lengthy debate before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Kelsey chairs.
The measure is an example of what some Democrats call “the crazy bills.” Without referring to specific bills, House Speaker Beth Harwell has implored Republicans to steer clear of “fringe” legislation. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has lamented bills that are “a distraction.” Gov. Bill Haslam has chided media for focusing its reporting on the “craziest legislation.”
At the outset of the 108th General Assembly, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, among others, voiced fear that the new Republican supermajority would “run amok” enacting “all these right-wing extremist bills.”
With just two weeks remaining until the end of the first supermajority session, that has not been the case. Many legislators credit this to the generally quiet efforts of Harwell and Ramsey or, to a lesser extent, Haslam.
Such legislation has generated much talk, but little enacting. And the talk will continue with the House and Senate speakers approving plans for joint Government Operations committee hearings this fall and summer on the constitutional validity of various federal actions with a report back to the full General Assembly for next year.
Turner said he believes wealthy businesses that donate to Republican causes are responsible for blocking action on “crazy” social issue bills as efforts are focused on GOP bills he sees as “punitive” to “working people” and the poor.
“I think they’ve been told by some of their big donors that these things are embarrassing,” Turner said.
Most of the social issue bills pushed by conservatives have died quiet deaths, often withdrawn by the sponsors or simply never put on notice for a vote and left in committees. Only a few, as with Beavers’ bill, have actually been subject to debate and a vote.
Attacks on the federal government have been a mainstay in Republican speeches and commentary during the session. But Kelsey’s resolution is about the only matter to reach a vote and then only in the Senate, not the House. It passed 27-0.
Introduced anti-federal government bills included three versions of a “Balance of Powers Act” (SB411, SB1158 and SB1371) that called for creation of a special joint House-Senate legislative committee to review federal laws and recommend which should be invalidated to the full House and Senate. Under the proposals, if the recommendations were then approved by both chambers, the designated federal laws would be invalid in Tennessee.
Other failing proposals range from the “Constitutional Enforcement Restraint Act” (HB1239), which says federal officers cannot operate in Tennessee without express permission from a state law enforcement authority, to a bill simply saying no state or federal personnel or funds can be used in enforcing federal gun laws passed after Jan. 1, 2013 (HB10). The restraint act was never brought to a vote; the gun enforcement measure was brought up in a subcommittee, but no member would make a motion for passage.
A “Health Care Compact” bill (HB536), which calls for state government to take over all federal health care programs, failed on a 9-9 tie vote in a House committee as some Republicans joined Democrats in opposing it.
A sample of some other controversial legislation that is apparently dead for the year:
n The “Classroom Protection Act” (HB1332), better known as the “don’t say gay” bill, could not get the necessary seconding motion in a House committee and thus members avoided the need to vote as it died quietly. The measure is a rewritten version of legislation that passed the Senate last session under sponsorship of Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and gained national attention. Among other things, it would prohibit discussion of homosexuality in schools from kindergarten through 8th grade.
n A bill declaring that psychology students can refuse counseling to those who have religious beliefs differing from their own. The measure (SB514) passed the Senate, but then was left stalled in a House subcommittee that has closed for the year.
n A bill declaring that United Nations representatives cannot monitor elections in Tennessee — and would be subject to prosecution for a misdemeanor crime if they do — cleared two House committees before being killed in third. Only two members of the Civil Justice Subcommittee voted for Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss’ bill while six voted against it.
Another Van Huss bill declaring that United Nations officials have no official status in the state (HB588) was left in a committee that has closed for the year.
Meanwhile, a bill (SB549) that declares non-citizens are prohibited from visiting polling places in Tennessee passed the Senate, but has been held back from a House floor vote after an attorney general’s opinion declared it “constitutionally suspect.”
n A bill that could have taken away the authority for Vanderbilt University police to make arrests and enforce laws unless it abandon’s a so-called “all comers” policy was withdrawn by sponsor Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon. Pody acted after an attorney general’s opinion said the bill (HB895) was unconstitutional. Christian conservative activists say the Vanderbilt policy wrongfully forces campus Christian groups to accept “all comers” as members, even those who do not share their beliefs.
A bill prohibiting the state’s public universities from adopting an “all comers” policy (HB534) has been approved. It was not opposed by officials of the University of Tennessee and the Board of Regents, who say they have no such policy now and do not intend to adopt one.
n A bill to strip the state attorney general of most of his duties and give them to a “solicitor general” appointed by the Legislature (HB589) failed in a House subcommittee. Sponsor Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, says he pushed the bill at the urging of tea party activists unhappy with Attorney General Bob Cooper’s refusal to file a lawsuit against “Obamacare.”
n A bill to prohibit Tennessee insurance companies from issuing policies through the health care exchange that is part of “Obamacare” (SB666) was approved with unanimous Republican support in a House committee, but died in a Senate panel because GOP senators abstained. House sponsor Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Somerville, said the bill would exploit “the Achilles’ heel of Obamacare” — state authority to control insurance companies — and destroy the federal program if other states followed the idea. Critics said it would simply lead to all policies under the Affordable Care Act being issued by out-of-state companies, costing them business while otherwise ineffective.
n Legislation requiring women seeking an abortion to first view an ultrasound image of the fetus and have a doctor discuss it (SB632) was dropped by its sponsors, who acknowledged it would likely violate the state constitution as interpreted by the state Supreme Court decisions. Instead Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, said they will work for passage of a constitutional amendment that would effectively invalidate the key Supreme Court ruling.