The 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly ended Friday with a contentious House-Senate clash that left dead Republican-sponsored bills on subjects ranging from charter schools to choosing judges.
The two chambers, both controlled for the first time by a Republican “supermajority,” did reach final-day agreement on imposing a 13-month month moratorium on cities annexing residential or agricultural land.
Gov. Bill Haslam said his two biggest disappointments in the day’s events were the failure of two measures dealing with charter schools, especially a “charter authorizer” bill (HB702) that would have allowed a state board to override local school boards when they turn down a charter school application.
The bill, a top priority of House Speaker Beth Harwell, cleared the House despite criticism that it wrongly let an appointed state board override decisions of local elected officials. But it stalled on the Senate floor until the final day, when it became entangled in what some characterized a “hostage” situation.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s top priority on the last day was passage of a judicial redistricting bill (SB780) that reduced the number of judicial districts statewide from 31 to 29. That had easily passed the Senate, but touched off impassioned criticism when it hit the House floor on Friday.
“This bill was crammed down our throats,” declared Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, whose legislative district encompasses parts of one of the current judicial districts that would be abolished by the bill.
Sanderson and others blamed Ramsey and the Senate for the bill, which would have revised districts where judges, district attorneys general and public defenders serve for the first time since 1984.
“My friends, we are the people’s chamber. They (senators) are the upper chamber… They have been dictating to us how this session was run from the get-go.”
Only 28 representatives voted for the bill while 66 voted against it. With that bill dead, the Senate refused to even call up the charter authorizer bill for a vote, leaving it dead for the year.
Ramsey afterwards disputed reporters’ use of the words “hostage” and “retaliation” but acknowledge the measures were “somewhat” related.
“No, it wasn’t retaliation. I thought the judicial redistricting bill should have passed, and they didn’t. So that’s where we are,” he said.
Also dying in the last-minute melee:
-Legislation that would allow for-profit companies to manage charter schools. The original bill died in the House earlier, but senators had resurrected the measure by attaching it as an amendment to a House-passed bill (HB315) that made relatively minor changes to school operating rules, then sending it back to the House. On Wednesday, the House rejected the for-profit amendment. The Senate ultimately gave up and went along with leaving the amendment off so the underlying bill could pass.
-Legislation extending the life of the Judicial Nominating Commission (HB796), which interviews applicants for vacant judge positions and recommends three nominees to the governor, who selects one for appointment to fill the vacancy.
With the bill failing, the panel will cease to exist on July 1, meaning there is no way to replace a judge who resigns, dies or retires after that date, according to Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association.
Also failing to pass was a bill extending the life of the Judical Performance Evaluation Commission, which reviews the work of Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges and recommended whether they should be given new terms. The evaluation commission, however, will continue to exist until July 1, 2014, which apparently will give the panel time to make evaluations before the August, 2014, election in which all Supreme Court and appeals court judges will be on the ballot for a yes-no retention election vote.
The annexation bill (HB475), as originally introduced, would have required all annexations to be approved by voters in the area being annexed. Sponsors Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Sen. BoWatson, R-Hixson, say Tennessee is one of just three states that do not require some form of referendum now.
The House and Senate had passed conflicting versions of the bill, but the two chambers came together on a compromise fashioned by a House-Senate conference during the final day. The resulting bill still touched off much impassioned opposition from legislators who wanted to exempt their area from the moratorium, saying it cut hurt plans for business development.
As passed in the waning moments and sent to the governor, the bill imposes a moratorium on annexation statewide beginning April 15, 2013, and continuing until May 15, 2014.
The moratorium will not apply to land zoned for commercial or industrial purposes; only to that classified as residential or agricultural. Further, the final version allows a city to petition its county commission for a change in the effective starting date of the moratorium. If the county commission agrees to the change, then a given annexation can proceed.
For example, a city could ask county commission to move the moratorium starting date from April 15 until Sept. 1 to complete annexations in planning stages. If the commission agrees – by a simple majority vote – then the moratorium would not start until Sept. 1.
While the statewide moratorium is in effect, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations will conduct a study of current annexation laws and policy and make recommendations for change to the Legislature in January of next year, when the 2014 session will begin.
The City of Knoxville had joined other members of the Tennessee Municipal League in opposing the original bill. Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero was not available for comment on the proposal, Bill Lyons, deputy to the mayor, sent this email comment:
“The present system is working for Knoxville. We have pursued very few annexations in the past few years and most of them have been voluntary. We are not in favor of the bills under consideration. If any changes are to be made, we favor that the proposals first be sent to TACIR for study.”
The email was sent before the final version of the bill was enacted late Friday afternoon.
“This bill has been amended down to the very bare bones,” said Carter, who said it will at least protect “ma and pa in their home and ma and pa on their farm” from unwanted annexation while TACIR makes its study.
The hope, he said, is that legislators next year will enact stronger restrictions on annexation statewide.
By closing down for the year on Friday, legislators marked the earliest end to an annual legislative session in more than 20 years.
Harwell and Ramsey had set April 18 as the target date for adjournment earlier this year and had rejected criticism from some legislators saying the lawmaking process had become too rushed.
Ramsey said the speed of the session was not a factor in this year’s last minute tensions, which he said were really no different than when Democrats held a majority in both the House and Senate.
“That will go on as long as there’s a Legislature,” he said.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, also downplayed the House-Senate bickering, describing it as “a lot of creative tension.”
Haslam also told reporters after the session that he was content with the overall result, despite some disappointments and the final day disputes.
“It’s the last day. Everybody was tired. But I think when the smoke clears, it will be seen as a great session,” he said.
“Just because we can pass something doesn’t mean we should,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who joined Haslam and McCormick at the post-session news conference.
The session marks the first time Republicans have held more than a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. The GOP now holds 70 seats in the 99-member House and 26 seats in the 33-member Senate.
But division in the Republican ranks had caused several measures to fail earlier in the year, perhaps most notably legislation creating a school voucher system. Haslam proposed a limited voucher program while many legislative Republicans pushed for a broader program. The result was a stalemate with nothing enacted as Haslam yanked his bill rather than risk it being amended to do more than he wanted.
Failing earlier this week was a bill by House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada to dramatically increase political contribution limits for political parties and the legislative caucuses. Twenty-three House Republicans either voted no or refused to vote one way or the other in the bill pushed by their caucus leader.
The session had moved much faster than in most recent years. The $32.7 billion state budget was approved by both chambers on Wednesday, thus fulfilling the only duty assigned the Legislature by the state constitution. The budget bill passed last year on May 2, the same day the session ended.
This year, a host of non-budget bills kept lawmakers working through Friday afternoon.
The last time a legislative session ended before April 19 was in 1990. Traditionally, the first year of a two-year legislative session – as the case this year with the 108th General Assembly – is longer than the second year, which coincides with re-election campaigns in even-numbered years. This year’s end is the earliest close of a first-year session since 1967.