More superlatives from the 2015 session of the 108th General Assembly:
Supermajority Legislator of the Year: Shared by the two majority leaders, Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga in the House and Mark Norris of Collierville in the Senate. At the start of the year, Norris set the tone for defeat of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee initiative by refusing to sponsor it, as is traditional for majority leaders on administration bills. Later, he was point man in derailing the most-debated bill of the year, a House-passed measure to proclaim the Holy Bible as Tennessee’s official state book.
McCormick did sponsor Insure Tennessee, ably arguing for a lost cause, but did not stop the Bible bill in the House (though opposing it). Together, the two adroitly steered the most of Haslam’s legislative package through some troubled waters, compromising and cajoling along the way and generally keeping the somewhat splintered Republican ranks headed in the same direction. And they jointly sponsored a bill requiring all high school students to take a civics test before graduation. There were some questions about whether some legislators could pass such a test, but the two leaders would doubtless get a perfect score.
Superminority Legislator of the Year: Shared by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville. Banker Fitzhugh displayed both passion and strategy in presenting the minority viewpoint, yet always in a rather diplomatic manner. In contrast, Jones is the Democrat most willing to roar against the Republicans as an outspoken champion of medical marijuana, abortion rights and troubled children. Together, they produced several House floor amendments designed to make GOP lawmakers uncomfortable, and in that respect succeeded even as their efforts failed.
Orator of the Year: Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, a preacher, for his impassioned sermon on the Bible bill, which generally triggered the most memorable rhetoric of the session. Runner-up to freshman Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar, R-Springfield, a native of India, for his speech in support of the Bible bill, recounting his mother’s respect for Christianity though reared in another religion.
Freshman Legislator of the Year, Democrat: Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, who sponsored 69 bills, more than any other member of the minority party, and actually got a few passed. His amendment to the guns-in-parks bill, allowing guns at the Legislature as well, surprised most everyone by passing the Senate. Though ultimately rejected, the proposal was an annoyance there for a while.
Freshman Legislator of the Year, Republican: Newcomers to Supermajority membership this year generally abided by the old rule that freshmen should be seen and not heard in their first year, devoting their first year to learning the ropes. An exception was Rep. Jerry Sexton of Bean Station, who starred as sponsor of the Bible bill. Honorable mention to Rep. Martin Daniel of Knoxville, who pushed some worthy measures that turned out not to be all that popular with colleagues — an example being a couple of bills that would have put some new restrictions on legislator use (or abuse?) of taxpayer funds they get for communicating with constituents.
Compassionate Conservative Award: Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, a self-described “blue-collar kind of guy” who eloquently argued in the interest of low-income citizens on matters ranging from the school voucher bill, which he supported as House sponsor, to legislation setting up a strict new system for keeping uninsured motorists off the road. On the latter, Dunn joined some Democrats in arguing that passage would leave thousands who cannot afford insurance to “sit at home and draw welfare because they can’t get to work.”
Persistence Pays Award: Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who had been trying for years to get penalties increased for being a spectator at illegal cockfighting events — and finally succeeded this session. (The maximum fine will increase from $50 to $2,500.) This comes after his success last session in winning passage of wine-in-grocery stores legislation after years of failure.
Creature Discomfort Award: Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, who successfully sponsored bills legalizing the killing of black buzzards and the shooting of other animals in self-defense.