Sunday column: The killing of some bills has become an annual ritual

Scribblings from a notebook kept while wondering and wandering through Legislatorland, 2015:

Bundles of bills died last week as several House subcommittees shut down for the year and Senate committees waded through long agendas. In many cases, the bill killings involve something approaching an annual ritual of established legislative procedure for dealing with matters that involve lots of talk and media attention in out-of-session situations.

One category would be Democrat-sponsored bills that align, at least to some extent, with generic party position on an issue while opposed by the generic Republican Party position. Examples on last week’s legislation death list include establishment of a state minimum wage and wage equality between men and women.

There were actually two bills on a state minimum wage this year — one going to $10.10 an hour instantly, the other phasing that in level over a couple of years. House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada grumbled about wasting time when the second came up after the first was defeated on a party-line vote in the House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee. But the panel’s chair, Republican Rep. Susan Lynn of Mount Juliet, let sponsor Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, proceed with a debate while offering her own philosophical objection to the bill — basically that the federal minimum wage is already preventing some unskilled workers from getting any entry-level job and “my heart goes out” to such folks. Turner, naturally, disagreed, but thanked Lynn for the “compassion” shown in her commentary. Despite the civil discourse, that bill, too, was killed on a party-line vote.

The gender pay equity bill was discussed at some length and in generally civil fashion before being killed on a party-line vote by the same subcommittee. It’s just possible that such things indicate progress for the minority Democrats. In the past, similar bills often were simply ditched with virtually no discussion.

There was also some actual discussion last week before the party-line vote, in yet another subcommittee, killing Nashville Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones’ medical marijuana bill. Though things got a bit hostile on occasion, the GOP majority killed it in rather polite fashion — it was sent to “summer study” instead of voted down outright, as it was last session.

Some recurring bills are killed more or less regularly on a bipartisan basis, such as the annual crusade to repeal state law requiring motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. There have been many variations of the proposals over the years, with both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, but the result has always been the same. This year, the crusade ended with a 4-4 tie vote — tie votes mean failure under legislative rules — in the Senate Transportation Committee. Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, the bill’s sponsor, neatly summarized the debate in a widely quoted comment: “I happen to think he’s stupid if he rides a motorcycle without a helmet, but that’s one of our sacred rights: to be stupid.”

It’s safe to predict that the effort will resume next year and it’s probable, though perhaps less safe to predict, that the same result will occur, stupid or otherwise.

In the first years of Republican control of Legislatorland, Democrats seemed somewhat bewildered about how to respond. Increasingly, they have adopted the same tactic used by GOP legislators during days of Democratic rule: Throwing out a floor amendment that puts the majority party members in an awkward position.

Last week’s best example was an amendment by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh offered to a Haslam administration bill that reduces use of student test data in teacher evaluations. His amendment declared that teachers cannot be evaluated on the basis of testing students they did not teach, as they are now in some situations. It was killed, but a handful of Republicans strayed from the party line to vote with the Democrats. Yes, the GOP majority position makes some sense if you get into a long-winded explanation.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey recently declared that, in these days of the Republican supermajority, Democrats are “basically irrelevant to the process.” Maybe so, but sometimes they can make Republicans a little uneasy.