Sunday column: Some superlative 2016 legislative session performance

A look some superlative performances during the 2016 Tennessee legislative session from an aging observer’s perspective:

Legislator of the year: Sen. Randy McNally, the General Assembly’s most senior member, showed he still has some of the body’s quickest political reflexes by locking up ascension to the Senate speaker’s throne almost immediately after Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s surprise retirement announcement.

As traditional, the Senate Finance Committee chair from Oak Ridge was also in the pivot position for deciding all things involving state money, ranging from repeal of the Hall tax on investment income to both obscure and prominent provisions of a $34 billion state budget, all the while doing legislative yeoman’s work on local bills, ranging from giving Loudon County a new general sessions judge to rewriting the Rocky Top city charter. He successfully sponsored other endeavors, too — most notably a measure that reduces penalties for misdemeanor drug offenses while raising them for repeat DUI offenders. That one caused much controversy and debate spread over two days in the House while zipping through the Senate 32-0 under McNally’s guidance.

Historic contrast curiosity of the session: Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, successfully sponsored a bill allowing handgun carry permit holders employed by state colleges and universities to take their guns on campus. The bill passed, with the governor declining to sign it, after addition of some restrictions on “campus carry” following negotiations that eased, but did not eliminate, objections from University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro, whose presidential predecessors include the legendary Andy Holt, who served from 1959 until 1970 and who Rep. Holt says is not related. The legislator’s namesake (who got his start lobbying the Legislature as head of the state teachers’ union) would almost certainly have opposed the move — and probably would have killed it quickly had it arisen in his day.

Part of UT Holt’s legacy, though likely not intentional, was the creation of the Board of Regents system and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission not long after he left office. The higher education restructuring was widely seen then as a way for institutions not part of the UT system to counter UT’s lobbying clout at the Legislature. At Gov. Bill Haslam’s behest, legislators this year dismantled a part of that 1970s revision by authorizing independent boards at six Regents universities, setting the stage for a return to direct competition for money in Legislatorland. Rep. Holt was one of just 20 legislators (of 132 total) to vote against the restructuring of higher education. The late Andy Holt would probably have gone with the governor on that one. DiPietro was officially neutral.

Lobbyist of the year: Anthony Haynes, officially known as UT’s vice president for government relations and advocacy, based on the premise that the session could have been worse for the institution. The supermajority’s social conservatives viewed UT with about the same fondness as they hold for a war on Christmas, gender-neutral pronouns or the University of Alabama’s football team. Yes, legislators voted to slash the UT Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s funding by $400,000 or so. Yes, they voted to allow guns on campuses over adamant UT opposition. But in both cases the bills were watered down in the lobbying arena to do far less than originally proposed. And the UT lobbying team beat off other attacks while helping ease legislative approval of a Haslam budget that tends to reverse, at least slightly, the longtime trend toward cuts in state support for higher education.

Runner-up honors in lobbying go to the Tennessee Education Association’s team, headed by Jim Wrye, for killing a bill to outlaw payroll deductions of TEA (aka teachers’ union) dues from teacher paychecks.

The Sen. Frank S. Hall Memorial Award: Reps. Bill Dunn of Knoxville and Steve McDaniel of Parkers Crossroads, the only Republicans to vote against repealing in 2022 the state tax on investment income named after the Democratic senator from Dickson who successfully sponsored it in 1929. Honorable mention goes to the 16 Democrats (of a total 31 in the General Assembly) who joined them.