Looking back at the 108th TN General Assembly

In its two-year reign, Tennessee’s first Republican supermajority legislature since 1869 has moved to assert its independence from a governor of the same party and its power over local governments where some Democrats are still in control.

Still, in dealings with Gov. Bill Haslam and local governments the assertion of legislative authority did not go as far as some members wanted during the 108th General Assembly, leaving open the question of whether the apparent trends have reached their high-water mark or will expand with election of the 109th General Assembly in November.

The supermajority Republicans — 26 of 33 Senate seats and 71 of 99 in the House — also displayed some other possibly developing inclinations, including:

n A tendency to fight among themselves and, in the process, learn the legislative art of compromise — sometimes.

n A willingness to listen to nationally based organizations that are sending an increasing number of lobbyists to influence them — and to accept campaign contributions from their political action committees — while not necessarily enacting the bills they want.

n Social conservative issues, the subject of much controversy and attention in earlier years when Republicans first gained a modest majority, seemed to generally fade in significance this year.

With the notable exception of a $32 billion state budget, legislators altered virtually every significant bill Haslam put before them this year in his legislative agenda. Some were killed.

The budget, shrunken because of a shortfall in state revenue collections, inspired considerable grumbling — especially over Haslam’s elimination of pay raises for teachers and state employees — but eventually got a legislative rubber stamp. Not a single budget amendment proposed by an individual legislator was added for the “first time in institutional memory,” according to House Finance Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin.

The governor’s “Tennessee Promise” plan, encompassing the popular notion of free college tuition for all high school graduates, was revised from Haslam’s original draft, but then won overwhelming approval.

But his proposal for restricting the amount of cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine as a means of combating illegal meth manufacturing underwent more substantial surgery. The bill that was ultimately approved allows twice as much of the medicines to be purchased without prescription as the governor wanted, though Haslam professed that he was still “grateful that a bill got passed” — a matter that seemed in doubt at times.

Dead in Committee

Some Haslam proposals — ranging from a much-discussed plan to implement a limited school voucher program in Tennessee to a less-noticed bill raising the fines for failure to wear a seat belt — were left dead in committees.

Failure of the voucher legislation was a major disappointment to multiple national groups lobbying for passage — most of them favoring a broader voucher system than the version favored by Haslam. Organizations such as StudentsFirst and American Federation for Children also lost in their push for an expanded “parent trigger” law allowing parents to convert a public school into a charter school.

It illustrated the split in Republican ranks with some Republicans siding with minority Democrats who are almost uniformly united against vouchers.

Out-of-state companies that manage charter schools for profit were also spurned in lobbying effort to legalize their business in Tennessee. House Speaker Beth Harwell played a major role in killing their bill.

The Legislature bucked the governor in voting to stall for a year student tests tied to Common Core standards and to require the Department of Education to seek an alternative. Again, Haslam noted at session’s end that things could have been worse for Common Core proponents and said that he would accept the Legislature’s decision.

“I think the biggest thing is we didn’t want to back up on the standards and what passed didn’t back up on the high standards,” he said. “We were going to fight to the wall on that.”

There was also an assault on the governor’s authority to appoint members of various state boards and commissions, ending with mixed results. The speakers of the House and Senate, for example, will now appoint a majority of members to the state Textbook Commission and will for the first time appoint members to the Human Rights Commission, thanks to bills passed this year. But a bill to reduce the governor’s appointments on the State Board of Education died quietly.

There was move to require the governor to get specific legislative approval before the administration could layoff more than 50 state employees. That was defused by a gubernatorial pledge to notify legislators in advance of any such move, which would give the joint Fiscal Review Committee a chance to weigh in on the action.

No Special Session

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey had raised the possibility of holding a veto override session this year for the first time since Republican Don Sundquist was governor and Democrats held a majority in the Legislature. But that didn’t happen and the adjournment on Thursday was “sine die,” meaning the 108th General Assembly will never meet again — barring an extraordinary event that prompts the governor to call a special session between now and November.

One factor in the decision against an override session, Ramsey said, was that legislators don’t think the governor will veto anything of consequence. That situation had changed in the last days of the session.

One veto possibility was a bill, opposed by Haslam, to repeal the state’s Hall tax on investment income in steps over the coming years. The bill was pushed by national organizations including Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Americans for Tax Reform and 92 legislators signed a document backing the idea. AFP ran radio ads attacking the governor for opposing the idea.

Haslam says he, too, doesn’t like the tax, but given the state’s precarious fiscal situation the repeal bill is poorly timed and poorly planned. If enacted, he noted, any revenue growth in the future would first go to offset the loss of revenue from the Hall not for such things as increasing teacher salaries, which he has proclaimed a priority in the future.

The bill was scuttled in the Senate Finance Committee last week.

Two other veto possibilities involved gun legislation. One would have overridden local government ordinances to allow handgun permit holders to carry their weapons in city and county parks. The other would have legalized the open carrying of pistols without a permit, leaving permits required for carrying a concealed handgun.

Haslam opposed both bills. They both passed the Senate by lopsided margins, then were killed in the House Finance Subcommittee late in the session.

The guns-in-parks bill was an example of legislative assertion of authority over local governments that failed. But legislators did pass another bill declaring that they, not local governments, have exclusive rights to regulate firearms in all areas except location of local shooting ranges and discharge of firearms within city limits.

The 108th General Assembly voted last year to override any local ordinances that restricted possession of knives. This year it approved a bill specifically authorizing the carrying of switchblades and knives with blades over four inches long.

Rule over locals

Perhaps the best example of a success in local government dominance was the decision, initiated in a House subcommittee at the urging of lobbyists for national anti-tax groups and the Tennessee Hospitality Association, to kill all bills granting city or county governments permission to impose a hotel-motel tax.

Another was a bill that, as finally passed, assured the Legislature can kill a proposed rapid transit bus system in Nashville known as The Amp. Earlier versions would have stopped the project in its tracks; the bill that passed does not do so now, but mandates legislative oversight and leaves open that possibility in the future.

Yet another measure gives the state Board of Education authority to overrule local school boards when they reject a charter school application.

Legislators also voted to prohibit city governments from annexing areas simply by passing an ordinance, requiring instead that annexation be approved by residents of the impacted area. That move, generally favored by county governments and opposed by city governments, ended a decades-old practice initiated when Democrats controlled the Legislature.

Perhaps the most highly- publicized bill of the year may also illustrate increasing skill of supermajority members in compromise — legislation authoring the sale of wine in grocery stores, an idea repeatedly defeated in past years. And proponents presented it as an example of granting new power to local voters.

The complicated compromise requires approval of wine sales in groceries through a local referendum, then puts off the actual sales for two years until July 1, 2016. In the meantime, existing liquor stores — now exclusive sellers of wine — get the right to sell multiple other products, including beer and cigarettes. There’s also a mandated minimum markup in retail wine prices to 20 percent above wholesale.

Elsewhere in the alcoholic beverage arena, legislators voted to authorize sales of high-alcohol beer outside of liquor stores and to let wineries sell beverages at their home location and up to two satellite locations. Another bill eliminated the long-standing requirement that any establishment had to sell food as a major portion of its business to get a liquor-by-the-drink license.

Alcohol is another source of friction within Republican ranks, pitting social conservatives with a distaste for any liberalization of alcoholic beverage regulations against others — notably including Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and House State Government Committee Chairman Ryan Haynes of Knoxville — who are leading a crusade to revise the laws.

An example of change in social conservative crusades may be the efforts of Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, to change the law on welfare benefits. Last year, they drew national attention with an unsuccessful effort to reduce benefits paid to welfare recipients who had a child failing in school.

This year, they came back with a bill that says the parent of a child with school troubles must include within a “parenting plan” — already part of the law — a promise to take a parenting class, attend a meeting with the child’s teacher or some other step suggested by the Department of Human Services’ staff. The watered-down version passed with relatively little controversy or media attention.

Campfield was also Senate sponsor of a bill calling for the phrase “In God We Trust” to be displayed on the wall behind the speakers’ podiums in the House and Senate where it would be visible on streaming video of House and Senate meetings.

The watered-down version that passed requests that the state Capitol Commission consider putting the phrase in the tunnel that runs between the Legislative Plaza, home of legislator offices and hearing rooms, and the State Capitol building where the House and Senate chambers are located.

Legislators also passed resolutions apologizing for the “Trail of Tears” exile of Indians from Tennessee in the 1830s and expressing “profound regret” for slavery in Tennessee prior to the Civil War and segregation in its aftermath — a system that was perhaps getting underway back in 1869.