Sunday column: TN Constitution may warrant more attention than TN candidates in November, 2014

A year out, it seems likely that Tennessee’s constitution may be a much bigger issue than Tennessee candidates in our state when voters go to the polls for the general election on Nov. 4, 2014.

Four proposed amendments to the state constitution will be on the ballot at that time, two presenting hot-button topics – namely abortion and a state income tax — that often inspire knee-jerk reactions. The other two involve judicial selection and veterans gambling, topics perhaps more prone to inspire head-scratching.

In contrast, almost all seriously-contested candidate elections will have been resolved in the August primaries when the general election rolls around in November.
Barring events probably bizarre and certainly unforeseen, the outcome in all nine congressional district elections, the U.S. Senate election and all but a small handful of state legislative contests will be decided before election day. The overall results will assure continued Republican rule, yawn, the important distinctions of which GOP faction gains ground – best bet on the establishment at this point, but don’t give points – having been resolved in August.

By conventional wisdom a year out, the results of the abortion and tax amendments should also be a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, at the time both of these amendments were initiated in the Legislature – more than a decade ago, with defeats along the way before ultimate success in getting legislative approval to put them on the ballot – Democrats were still a force to be reckoned with in Tennessee politics. The amendments were seen as a way of enhancing turnout of Republican-oriented voters and thus setting things up for a big GOP sweep year.

As it turns out, of course, the Republicans have already swept. So the strategic goal of GOP gains is no longer a factor, eliminating the motivation for millions of dollars in get-out-the-vote spending by Republicans flush with funding, not to mention the destitute Democrats who will have little money to spend.

One hears talk of GOP leaders wanting to spend the GOTV money anyway. Otherwise, what are they to do with the all the funds flowing to the ruling party? Yes, you can spend $250,000 or more trying to beat Knoxville’s Rep. Gloria Johnson, the last white Democrat in East Tennessee, but then what?

Well, you could have the party engage in the constitutional amendment campaigns. But doing that directly would set a new precedent of sorts, blurring the line between governmental policy on social issues and political party functions in a manner that makes establishment Republicans – including the folks who give to the party causes — uncomfortable. But GOTV, well, that might pass muster.

Otherwise, just maybe, the lack of any serious partisan contests on the ballot could spur widespread disinterest in the entire election. That could mean a low turnout and with low turnout, the chances of bizarre and unforeseen things happening increase.

On the abortion amendment, the knee-jerk reactions pro and con are pretty much on the mark. If you think our Legislature should be free to put new restrictions on abortion, you’re for it. If you think restrictions are adequate now, with the state Supreme Court looking over the Legislature’s shoulders, you’re against it.

On the pro-passage side, a high-dollar fundraiser is scheduled this week with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey as host and with the fear of a low turnout election clearly in mind. The anti-abortion activists want to have enough money to make clear to their supporters what is at stake and get them to the polls despite generic disinterest in the election. The anti-passage side is also tuned into the low turnout possibilities and, at the least, will apparently be having its own GOTV efforts, albeit less well-funded – unless out-of-state people get involved.

The anti-income tax amendment is far more motivated by politics than passion for a policy cause. As a matter of practical politics, the lay of the political landscape assures the enactment of any levy on personal income is dead on arrival during the lifetime of any legislator who voted to put it on the ballot. Here we find political popularity of the moment ready to dictate to generations of the future and, of course, it will probably prevail with no one paying much attention – barring a really bizarre scenario that apparently has floated around in minds of a forlorn few.

The judicial selection amendment arguably presents a clash between the Republican establishment and the tea party branch of the GOP and likely will be the subject of a well-orchestrated pro-passage effort with the outcome in doubt.

The veterans gambling amendment will surely pass if folks understand it, but there’s a good chance voters motivated to come out for other constitutional revisions will not.

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.

Note 2: In response to a couple of inquiries from folks not familiar with it, the veterans’ gambling amendment would basically allow veterans organizations — VFW, American Legion, etc. — to hold annual fundraising events that include some sort of lottery, just as other charities can now under the constitutional amendment passed several years ago that authorized a state lottery. The language of the previous amendment excluded the veterans organizations.

The required resolution passed both the House (91-0) and the Senate (26-6) during the 107th General Assembly. In the 108th, which started this year, it passed the Senate 24-6 on March 28. It still needs official House approval, with a vote expected early in the 2014 session,but given the unanimous approval there during the 107th, that seems almost certain. (It was SJR222 during the 107th; SJR60 in the 108th.)