Commenting on one of several pieces of legislation to gain national attention during the 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly, Gov. Bill Haslam blamed the failure of his education reform priority of the year on “infighting among advocates.”
If you consider Republicans as advocates for a standard set of policy principles, the same might be said for many other bill failures in the debut performance of the 108th General Assembly, the first since Reconstruction with the GOP holding a “supermajority” — more than two-thirds of the seats in both the House and Senate.
As it turned out, intraparty infighting often derailed the Republican railroad that some had predicted would roll over all opposition as it moved down a track to new conservative rule of the state.
The railroading went quite well on some matters, mainly when bills could be portrayed as friendly to business — Haslam’s workers’ compensation overhaul legislation, for example. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner called the measure “the worst attack on working people I’ve ever seen in the Legislature.”
Supermajority Republicans crushed the superminority Democrats in every vote from subcommittees to the floors of both chambers, giving the governor an easy victory and fulfilling one GOP lawmaker’s early prediction — caught by a video camera he didn’t realize was turned on — that that the bill would roll through like a “freight train.”
And only a handful of bills sponsored by Democrats were approved, all of them non-controversial. Even some non-controversial bills were killed, apparently simply because they had Democratic sponsors.
An example is a Senate-passed bill by Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, that called for some state government bodies, such as the Tennessee Ethics Commission, to broadcast their meetings on the state’s streaming video system.
Yet Democrats had cause to celebrate on occasion as Republicans fought among themselves. That was true on Friday, the last day of the session, when House-Senate hostility went on public display.
The upshot was defeat of a top priority of Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, an overhaul of the state’s judicial districts for the first time since a 1984 Democratic majority put them in place, on the House floor.
Though he disputed use of the word “retaliation,” Ramsey’s response was to kill a top priority of House Speaker Beth Harwell, a bill that would allow a state board to overrule local school boards when they rejected the application for creation of a charter school.
Some said Harwell’s pet project had been held “hostage” pending passage of Ramsey’s pet project.
The “charter authorizer” bill had been strongly opposed by Democrats, who contended it wrongfully allowed an appointed state board to dominate an elected local board. But the supermajority united to push it through the House over their objections.
“While hostage taking of legislation is not good governance, the result could not have been better for the people of Tennessee,” said Turner in a news release. “House Democrats are grateful to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey for killing this bill.”
The House killed Ramsey’s judicial redistricting bill on a bipartisan basis, the vote mostly falling along rural-versus-urban lines. The bill eliminated two judicial districts in more rural areas.
But there was also much rhetoric from House Republicans denouncing Ramsey and the Senate generally for trying to dictate the flow of legislation during the session.
Perhaps more often, the Republican infighting was based on philosophy, particularly when it came to social issues. The two loose factions might be called conservatives and superconservatives, given that almost all Tennessee Republicans dislike being called moderates.
This came into play on a couple of bills sponsored by superconservative Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, that gained national attention — a measure that would cut welfare benefit payments to a parent whose child failed in school, new this year, and a so-called “don’t say gay” bill, revised and recycled from the last legislative session.
Both failed, along with other superconservative causes such as nullification of federal laws, prohibiting Tennessee insurance companies from participation in “Obamacare” insurance exchanges and outlawing United Nations activities within the state’s borders.
In these situations, the bills were almost uniformly and loudly opposed by Democrats who were joined, more quietly, by the merely conservative members of the majority party, who in private may call themselves “reasonable Republicans.”
Such bills arguably are more symbolic than substantive. But the GOP split carried over into areas that, while perhaps getting less attention, potentially have serious impact on the functioning of state government.
An example is the death of the Judicial Nominating Commission, which will cease to exist on June 30, leaving the state with no means of filling the vacancy when a judge retires, dies or is otherwise removed from the bench.
That could become a real problem, Haslam acnowledged at session’s end, though he voiced hope that something can be worked out early next year.
Maybe the biggest consequence of GOP infighting was the failure of education reform initiatives pushed by national groups such as StudentsFirst and the American Federation for Children, which together poured more than $1 million into legislative campaigns and hired multiple lobbyists.
Failing bills backed by these groups ranged from “parent trigger” legislation, which would allow parents of children in a public school to convert it to a charter school, to a measure that would allow for-profit companies to manage charter schools.
And then there was Haslam’s top education reform priority, which led to his “infighting” remark.
The Wall Street Journal had opined in an editorial that Haslam’s school voucher bill “was so inconsequential that it had the tacit support of unions and other defenders of the education status quo.” Not so, wrote Haslam in a rebuttal letter published by the newspaper last week.
“Your claim that the School Boards Association or teachers unions influenced this decision in any way is just plain wrong,” he wrote. “Both groups oppose vouchers in any form and never supported my bill. In fact, the union ran television ads attacking vouchers. However, at the end of the day, it was infighting among advocates and not the opposition’s efforts that derailed vouchers in Tennessee this year.”
At a post-session news conference, Haslam, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Collierville, all acknowledged there had been Republican infighting, but all declared the first session of supermajority rule a success.
Interestingly, Harwell and Ramsey did not appear at the news conference, a break with tradition.
“I do think there was a lot accomplished,” said Haslam. “For me, there was a disappointment. We had a voucher bill that I really wanted to pass that didn’t. But as people remind me, this is the first year of a two-year session.”
Responding to questions, Haslam said he was also disappointed in failure of the “charter authorizer” bill and the bill allowing for-profit companies to run charter schools.
And he professed indecision on whether to sign a controversial bill that split Republican legislators — a measure that requires anyone making a photograph or video of livestock abuse to turn it over to law enforcement authorities within 48 hours or be charged with a misdemeanor.
Haslam said he has already talked with Republicans on both sides of the issue, including sponsors Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville — both generally considered to be in the superconservative camp — and opponents such as Norris, generally considered a conservative.
It’s widely speculated that Haslam will split the difference and let the bill become law without his signature. Holt, for one, suggested that possibility.
In doing so, Haslam would be expressing disapproval of the measure without endorsing it with his signature or strongly opposing it with a veto.
A veto would set the stage for opening the 2014 session with a floor fight pitting Republicans against Republicans in an override attempt — though Democrats were also somewhat split along rural-versus-urban lines on the measure.
And that is probably not the stage Haslam wants to be set for another effort at passing his voucher bill.