On playing partisan games as legislature winds down

A sequence of partisan bickering events last week led to the apparent death in the House — barring a last-minute change of heart by Republican representatives as the Legislature moves to adjourn this week — of a Senate-passed bill (SB2149) allowing indigent people convicted of driving with a suspended license to pay their court costs and fines through community service rather than cash, subject to local approval.

The bill is sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville, who has played a pivotal role in pushing Democratic amendments to various Republican-sponsored bills that reached the House floor — almost always voted down by the supermajority.

Here’s a rundown on last week’s events, which began with a noncontroversial bill (HB2009) sponsored by Rep. Shelia Butt, R-Columbia, that changes the wording of some education-related statutes:

When Butt’s bill came up for House floor debate Monday night, Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, proposed an amendment calling for members of the Legislature to serve as proctors when students are administered TNReady tests at public schools. Without a legislator overseeing the controversial test, the amendment said, results cannot be used in teacher evaluations or in putting the results on a student’s record without approval of the student’s parents or an individual teacher.

The amendment was seen by many as a reference to a separate proposal by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, for a revision to the state constitution giving the Legislature broader authority over spending on public schools — a resolution that failed in a Republican-controlled Senate committee later in the week.

Dunn led the successful effort to kill Mitchell’s amendment on the House floor, remarking at one point, “Obviously, if people want to play with these kind of amendments, turnabout is fair play.”

Mitchell declared that the amendment was not politically motivated; that he has two children who must take the test and that if legislators are going to mandate the testing, they should at least be on hand to monitor the process and determine if widespread parent complaints are justified. The amendment was killed on a party-line vote.

The next day, Rep. Ken Dunlap, D-Rock Island, came before the House Finance Committee with a bill (HB2477) that, as amended, simply calls for reconstruction and reopening of a bridge that has been closed for 10 years in his district. There are plans in the works to do so, using federal funds.

“Obviously, if somebody wanted to play politics with this bill, the majority party could just kill it and your opponent could say ‘Well, he can’t pass it, send me down there’,” Dunn told Dunlap in the brief debate. “That wouldn’t be a nice thing to do, would it?”

Dunlap, who has Republican opposition to re-election in one of the few House districts statewide where Republican and Democratic voters are somewhat evenly balanced, replied: “Well, Mr. Chairman, I think what we’ve heard earlier is that this is the committee to be nice. I would ask you to be nice.”

Dunn’s response: “Well, there was a vote last night on the floor and I’ve got my list. So maybe in the future, when people are playing politics, you’ll be nice also.” Dunn then declared he would back Dunlap’s bill and did so, helping send it on toward passage. The measure is sponsored by Republican Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma in the Senate, where it had already been approved.

A few minutes later, when Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville, came to the committee with a bill, House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, began the discussion by declaring: “Here’s a man I don’t have to tell to be nice.” Love, who has no Republican opponent to re-election, won quick approval of his bill.

On Thursday, when Stewart brought his bill on community service as an alternative to payment of court costs and fine for the indigent to the House floor, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada had an amendment waiting. The amendment wiped out the entire content of Stewart’s bill, as presented, and instead transformed the measure into a bill that would increase penalties for people convicted of driving while under the influence of methamphetamine when a child is in the vehicle.

The amendment, Casada said, “puts teeth into something that should not be tolerated.”

Stewart protested, saying he had no objection to the higher penalties for people driving under the influence of meth, especially with a child in the car, but did object to wiping out the content of a bill that potentially would benefit “thousands” or poor people trying to clear their obligations for past mistakes and make a living.

Casada’s amendment was nonetheless quickly approved on a generally party-line vote, 68-24. On motion by House Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, the entire bill was then sent back to the House Finance Subcommittee on another generally party-line vote.

The result: Stewart’s bill is dead unless the subcommittee, controlled by Republicans with Johnson as chairman, decides promptly to relent, strip off Casada’s amendment and send the measure back to the House floor for a vote on the merits. There was some discussion among Republicans about following that course, leaving the week’s activity as a lesson to Democrats about the potential consequences of the minority party forcing votes on unwanted amendments.

Stewart’s bill is somewhat similar to a measure sponsored by Dunn and fellow Knox County Republican Sen. Richard Briggs (SB2032) that has already passed both chambers unanimously and been signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.

That bill, drafted at the urging of Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond, sets up a “pilot project” in Knox County, would allow some people convicted of crimes to pay court costs and litigation taxes assessed against them through community service work. As approved, it would appear to cover those convicted of driving on a suspended license — but only in Knox County, only if a judge approves and only for the two-year pilot project. Dunn, in pushing for passage of that legislation, voiced hope it would eventually be a model for statewide adoption to help people who have “gotten on the wrong side of the law” to settle their debts to the court system and become productive citizens.