Sunday column: In TN politics, 2013 a year of living aimlessly

In Tennessee political and governmental doings, 2013 may be an oxymoron year for some obscure history scholar of the future who wades through the remarkable lack of significant accomplishments: It stands out as a forgettable year.

Topping the list of significant indecision, Gov. Bill Haslam did nothing on the billion-dollar question of whether to expand Medicaid eligibility.

It might involve health care coverage for somewhere between 130,000 and 330,000 Tennesseans (the debate on numbers is one of those many unresolved matters in the dithering) and the survival of many hospitals on the brink of bankruptcy. But it has been resolved by Haslam doing nothing — an extraordinary political dodge that actually made The Associated Press’ list of the state’s top 10 stories of the year, in contrast with everything else on the list — things that actually happened.

This non-happening was the only item of the year on the AP statewide list that involved state government or politics. It’s not included, understandably, on today’s News Sentinel list of 2013 news of things that actually happened.

Both lists were topped by the FBI’s raid on Pilot Flying J, which actually occurred and might — kinda, sorta, maybe — have some long-range political ramifications since it involved the governor’s family-owned company. But with Haslam having no announced opponents to his re-election, that fades into the realm of the inconsequential insofar as newsworthy occurrences go.

Elsewhere, there was much ado about doing nothing happening.

There was a big debate in the Legislature, for example, about whether we would launch a school voucher system. Nothing was decided.

The governor, always seeking some indecisive, business-oriented middle ground to avoid a confrontation with his party’s right wing, proposed limited vouchers. That wasn’t good enough for right-wing guys, backed by well-funded national education reform groups, so they stalemated and nothing happened.

For another education issue example, there was a confrontation over whether a state-controlled entity (the State Board of Education) should be authorized to override local school boards when they refuse to permit a charter school to set up operations within their jurisdiction. Nothing was decided.

Stepping outside the education arena into another where the big-bucks lobbyists and public relations firms are focused, there’s the notion of requiring by state law a prescription for medications including ingredients that can be used to produce methamphetamine. Nothing was decided, providing further future employment for many lobbyists and PR people.

The governor, our leader, is undecided on that issue. He can see both sides, you know. (Disclosure note: Me, too.)

Oh, the legislative leadership did finally resolve the great guns-in-parking-lots debate by passage of a great compromise. Except that they didn’t and unhappy gun rights advocates will be pushing for more in 2014.

The Legislature left Nashville back in April, prodded into rapid exit by leadership eager to show that the new Republican supermajority doesn’t waste any time deciding nothing when supermajority members disagree and there’s no need to spend any time debating when they do.

A bill banning “labor peace” agreements — pushed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s lobbyists and promoted as assuring Tennessee never, ever joins some radical, out-of-business-control state and local governments nationwide in having government-involved labor disputes — passed the state Senate with a total of five minutes, 58 seconds of consideration in committee and on the floor. It was a fine, labor-bashing matter where everyone within the supermajority could agree — and a few finger-in-the-political-wind Democrats joined in.

The year 2013, thus, was a follow-up, step-along-the-way year of passage in Tennessee politics from the monumental transition from Democratic rule to Republican rule.
In past years, that actually meant that some things were accomplished, as in instant approval of GOP agenda matters such as “tort reform” and the like.

The “new normal,” to echo phrase used by Haslam in his first inaugural address, is a stalemate in the squabble between the establishment Republicans and their more populist-oriented former allies — tea party people, if you will.

Nothing happened this year. There’s always next year, but the suspicion is that a pattern has been set. And considering some of the things that could have been done, maybe nothing is not so bad.

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a column appearing HERE in Sunday’s News Sentinel.