Category Archives: opinion

Sunday column: Bible bill faithful to history

Back in January, Tennessee’s Office of the Repealer – an entity created by the Legislature’s Republican Supermajority in 2013 to recommend stupid laws on the books that should be repealed – pointed out a statute enacted in 1828 that provides the following commandment for operation of state prisons:

“Each inmate shall be provided with a Bible, which the inmate may be permitted to peruse in the inmate’s cell at such times as the inmate is not required to perform prison labor.”

The Department of Corrections has ignored the law for decades, of course, since it’s almost certainly unconstitutional. Officials told the repealer office that, as a matter of policy, inmates can request a Bible and one will be provided – the same treatment as for other “religious material,” perhaps including a copy of the Quran. But prison wardens don’t issue a Bible to every prisoner as the statute dictates.

The repealer recommended trashing only one other law this year – a 1951 statute that sets specifications for marketing “fancy fresh eggs.” Seems the law predates the federal government mandate setting up egg classifications many years ago through the Food and Drug Administration. It has been ignored by the state Department of Agriculture, just as the biblical commandment was ignored by state prison overseers. Continue reading

Sunday column: TN Democrats master the art of grandstanding

Democrats in Tennessee’s Legislature seem to have increased their sniping at the Republican supermajority in the current session, as best illustrated last week when Nashville’s Rep. Mike Stewart came to a subcommittee meeting with an assault rifle and a tale to tell.

The tale the House Democratic Caucus chairman told the Civil Justice Subcommittee was about how he contacted a fellow willing to sell the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle similar to the fully-automatic AR-16 used by American military forces, for $750 on the Internet, then met him the night before the meeting in a restaurant parking lot to make the purchase.

This, Stewart explained, showed the need for passage of his bill to require background checks on person-to-person gun buys, just as now required for purchases from a licensed dealer. He went through no check, Stewart said, adding, “Luckily I am not a member of a drug cartel … not on a terrorist watch list … not a longtime criminal with a big record of felony convictions and violence.”

The panel’s Republicans were not impressed. Subcommittee Chairman Jon Lundberg of Bristol grumbled about Stewart “putting on a show.” Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah fretted that the gun might be loaded (it was not, having passed a state trooper inspection). And then they shot down Stewart’s bill on a party-line vote.

Democrats and gun control advocacy groups promptly fired off a round of press releases and statements denouncing the Republicans. The gun was an especially good prop for attracting TV folk.

Say what you will about the merits of the legislation, this was a fine example of a political grandstanding gimmick, reminiscent of the bygone days of Democratic dominance when Republican legislators would do things like wave a pound of bacon in the air while denouncing “pork” in the state budget during a House floor speech.

It might have been a nice added touch if Stewart had bought instead a Barrett Model M82/M107, designated the official Tennessee state rifle via Republican-sponsored legislation that Stewart opposed — but that would probably have cost a lot more than $750.

It took legislative Democrats two or three years after Republicans achieved control of the General Assembly to master the minority party art of throwing political bombs at the majority. But they’ve got the hang of it now and reached a new high-water mark this session.

Stewart may well top the list of a Republican watch list as a Rhetorical political terrorist in Legislatorland. Indeed, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said after Stewart’s gun show that he puts the performance at the top of Democrats’ stunt list for the year.

But he has considerable competition from fellow Democrats. Suggested runner-up honors would go to a dynamic Democratic women’s duo, Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville and Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis.

Perhaps their best performance was the so-called “tampon tax bill,” which would have lowered the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, baby diapers, non-prescription drugs and some other stuff. The bill got the cold shoulder from Republicans on a Senate subcommittee, which, happily for Democrats’ talking points in the press releases, gave its blessing on the same day to completely exempting sales of gold and silver from the sales tax and voting for most every Republican-sponsored bill in sight — and there are a bunch of them — to repeal or reduce the state tax on investment income.

Jones and Kyle also jointly sponsored the “Viagra bill,” which would have imposed multiple restrictions on treatments for erectile dysfunction. Perhaps not really intended to be taken seriously, the measure encountered stiff opposition from Republicans — all men — on the subcommittee that killed it.

Honorable mention in the political bomb-throwing competition among Democrats could go to several other legislators and, for that matter, to state party Chair Mary Mancini, who issues regular critiques of supermajority doings.

The list could go on at some length. It’s fair to say such performances really haven’t accomplished much in the short term — except for annoying Republicans. But from the partisan perspective, that’s perhaps better than nothing — just as it was for minority Republicans in bygone days, who are now prone in old age to reminisce fondly about fighting the good fight against the odds.

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.

More ramblings on Ramsey: cheers and jeers

Right-wing legacy
Excerpt from an Otis Sanford column in the Commercial Appeal:

Ramsey’s retirement announcement last week was followed by effusive bipartisan accolades for a guy who was the key to turning a legislature long dominated by Democrats into a Republican supermajority.

It’s no secret that Ramsey never had any love for Memphis, and the feeling was always mutual. Yet, Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis, the Senate minority leader and one of only five Democrats left in the upper chamber, called Ramsey “a true statesman and, really, a role model on authenticity in public life.”

High praise for sure, and politically expedient as well.

The truth is, Ramsey has been a powerful and effective leader for the causes in which he believes, from anti-abortion to pro-guns. To his credit, he opposed the effort to allow people to go armed in public even without a handgun-carry permit. But once the straight shooter from Blountville in upper East Tennessee brings down the gavel on his last session, he will leave a legislature that is arguably more conservative and less compromising than even he imagined.

It is also a legislature that often is out of control. That creates a challenge for Ramsey’s successor, particularly if it’s Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

For the moment, Norris is not talking about his interest in the job. But he has to be considered a leading candidate. The problem is, I don’t believe that Norris, deep down, is nearly as conservative as many of his legislative colleagues. Plus, he lives in Shelby County and, as far as I know, has not sworn a blood oath to hate Memphis.

That alone may disqualify him for the job. But that’s a topic for another day. Right now, it’s appropriate to pay homage to Speaker Ramsey, who more than anyone set the tone for right-wing conservative politics to thrive in Tennessee for years to come.
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Sunday column: On Ramsey’s retirement

Tennessee’s lieutenant governors, who under our state constitution hold the position by virtue of being elected as speaker of the state Senate, have always been addressed simply as “governor” — certainly not “lieutenant” and generally not even “speaker” — except when formally presiding over Senate debate.

Ron Ramsey has not been as adamant about the label as his predecessor, the late John Wilder, but has embraced the inherent concept incorporated within the labeling — that the person holding that office is equal to the state’s chief executive in Tennessee’s power structure.

Ramsey, who announced his political retirement last week, did more to make that concept reality than anyone since the 1960s senatorial rebellion against the then-established tradition of letting the governor dictate who would be elected lieutenant governor.
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Sunday column: In lobbying, business trumps politics

As illustrated recently on matters including pet skunks and limits on liquor store ownership, the pervasive influence of the Tennessee legislative lobbying community often explains how votes go one way, then the other on issues before the General Assembly. But not always.

A bill making Tennessee the 18th state to legalize skunks as pets sailed through the Senate with barely a whiff of opposition. The vote was 27-3. By the time it reached the House floor, however, the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association, which employs a couple of astute lobbyists and maintains a modestly-funded political action committee, had raised a stink.

The animal doctors declared that there’s no effective rabies vaccination for skunks and — despite contentions from House sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, that there really is a skunk shot for rabies — the bill flopped. There is no skunk lobby in Tennessee, so the vets, having presented what seems a valid public safety concern, prevailed.
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Sunday column: Splits in the Supermajority

As an aging politician remarked recently, Tennessee is arguably no longer a two-party state in its politics — it’s a two-and-a-half-party state.

Under this view, two of the parties call themselves Republicans and, jointly under that label, they hold a supermajority in the state Legislature, all offices elected on a statewide basis and seven of nine congressional seats. Democrats constitute the half party.

This is a close to a mirror image of bygone days when politicians who called themselves Democrats ruled the Tennessee political roost and often split into two competing factions, sometimes with sub-factions. Every now and then, the half-a-party Republicans got to weigh in and decide disputes between the factions.

Perhaps more than today’s two main Republican factions, the old Democratic differences tended to involve personalities, for example, Ed “Boss” Crump of Memphis versus Estes Kefauver, to go back a few decades. But the current intra-GOP rivalry also seems to increasingly have prominent personalities on display when there are differences of opinion.

For purposes of discussion, if not exaggeration, consider some developments in the past few days that suggest that Gov. Bill Haslam is the leader of one GOP party while Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey leads the other. House Speaker Beth Harwell, meanwhile, floats back and forth, sometimes resolving a dispute.

Some recent situations:

–In what some called a gunfight at the state Capitol corral, Ramsey launched an effort to allow handgun permit holders to pack their pistols in the buildings where legislators meet and other officials, including the governor, have their offices. Haslam said no. Harwell, after initially backing Ramsey, shifted to the Haslam side. Result: a victory for the governor’s faction and, maybe, for the half-party Democrats, who had loudly raged against the proposition.

–Ramsey spearheaded a resolution directing the attorney general to file a lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement within Tennessee borders. With one exception each, the supermajority Republican senators all quickly voted to approve the idea, while superminority Democrats voted no. Haslam demurred, saying, among other things, that the feds were providing ample information on refugees — something that Senate Republicans repeatedly said during debate they were not doing. That situation may indicate that the two factions sometimes don’t even talk to each other these days.

Harwell, meanwhile, got caught in a curious sideshow. Breitbart News, an online political news service with a generally ultra-conservative viewpoint, reported that Harwell was “surreptitiously” collaborating with Haslam to derail the resolution in the House — linking this to Haslam’s support, at the time unannounced, for Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential campaign. The report, mostly quoting anonymous sources and perhaps indicating a lack of knowledge of House procedural rules, was debunked by a spokeswoman for the House speaker: Harwell actually supports the resolution and has never spoken to Haslam about it. This may be another indication of failure in GOP leadership communication.

–Speaking of the presidential campaign, Haslam’s belated blessing of Rubio — after withdrawal from the race of Jeb Bush, openly supported by others in the Haslam family — shows the Tennessee GOP factions reflect national divisions. Ramsey says Donald Trump will win the race, perhaps reflecting his personal preference, though he coyly declines to say so. Harwell just keeps quiet, declining to confirm or deny anonymous sources contending she’s a surreptitious Rubio backer.

The Republican divisions have been on display otherwise this year in situations too numerous to list here. The most attention-getting example was the school voucher bill, approved by Senate Republicans in lock-step fashion with Ramsey, but failing in the House where one faction of supermajority Republicans aligned with opposing superminority Democrats. Some voucher advocates complain that Harwell and Haslam were only lukewarm in backing the proposal.

Ergo, the two-party system is alive and well in Tennessee as long as you don’t pay attention to the labels they use, and maybe is even evolving into a three-party system.

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Sunday column: Supreme contrast between TN and DC

While a great national political dither developed last week over replacing the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, our Legislature was moving methodically — with virtually no controversy whatsoever — to fill a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Barring the bizarre, Roger Page, now a Court of Criminal Appeals judge from West Tennessee, will be formally confirmed Monday evening in a joint House-Senate session as a Tennessee Supreme Court justice, succeeding former Justice Gary Wade, who resigned last September.

Confirmation will probably be unanimous, or nearly so. In contrast, Republicans in Washington gave advance notice that they would reject anyone appointed to succeed Scalia by Democratic President Barack Obama, assuring the conservative justice’s seat will remain empty for a year as a political uproar continues.

Oh, there had been some Tennessee legislator dithering previously. But that year-long and rather arcane dispute was between the House and Senate over the procedural aspects of judicial confirmation. It was resolved a couple of weeks ago with a House-Senate compromise on circumstances that would cause rejection of a gubernatorial nominee – a situation that virtually all legislators agreed did not apply in the case of Page, but which many fretted could develop at some point in the future if a governor goes wild and makes a controversial appointment.
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Sunday column: Voucher vibes shake supermajority

The apparent failure of school voucher legislation in the House last week shows, again, the differences in political thinking of Republican supermajority members in the lower chamber with those in the upper chamber. And maybe that relates to the way House and Senate districts were drawn following the 2010 census by the supermajority asserting itself in 2012.

In the Senate, any voucher bill is a good bill and assured of passage by a solid GOP majority nowadays. Three or four years ago, the big Senate squabble was between the lords and ladies of Legislatorland’s supermajority who thought most every student should have an “opportunity scholarship” and those who thought the state ought to go with a limited “pilot project” version — the notion embraced by compromising Gov. Bill Haslam.

When the current compromising version came up in the Senate last year, it got a quick 23-8-1 rubber stamp with very little discussion. By then, the clear majority of Senate Republicans had realized that there was no clear majority of House Republicans who embrace vouchers generally.
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Columnist: ‘Durham Affair’ shows ‘institutional malfeasance’

Tennessean columnist Keel Hunt opines that the “Durham Affair” is no longer just about allegations of the misbehavior of one legislator and instead has become “a broader tale of institutional malfeasance, the reaches of the buddy system, and the failure of leaders to lead with speed.”

The circle widened last Monday to touch the top three Republican leaders. Word now is these leaders knew of harassment complaints months ago.

That is a specific echo of Watergate — of Sen. Howard Baker’s simple but devastating question in 1973: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Today, what did the House leadership know about this current trouble, and when did they first know it?

This legislature is a labyrinth with many layers. The place can be confusing to the outsider, baffling to the visitor who is unschooled in its mysterious ways. Its proprietors claim they are open for inspection, but they are not. Insiders claim the sun shines there, but it doesn’t.

To the mere citizen’s eye, the General Assembly is a bewilderment of back stairs and subcommittees, overlaid with a mossy structure of revered seniority and pecking order.

Forget what you learned in high school about “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” This place is about politics, pure and simple, and some days of the meanest sort.

Granted, the state Capitol and Legislative Plaza have always been shaped by politics — that much is fair game — but today they are characterized more by anger, envy and fog.

…The Durham mess is creepy and alarming — allegations that young women were subjected to shabby and shameful treatment by one or more men feeling entitled, abusing their power. On top of that, it appears the leaders of the House failed to take charge of it all, at the proper time, possibly hoping the ugly stain would fade away.

That is how this labyrinth works — plenty of procedures and traditions to hide behind to escape responsibility. Plenty of hallways to private offices where the door can be closed and nobody can find you.

…House leaders are not powerless. What about censure? What about ouster or expulsion? How about, tomorrow morning, you set the record straight about what you were told and when?

Sunday column: On what the governor does

Gov. Bill Haslam’s sixth State of the State address, delivered to the General Assembly last week, was a mighty fine political campaign speech that also displayed his knack for compromise on policy issues — at least on the big deal this year on divvying up a $750 million surplus of state money.

It was his most overtly boastful State of the State speech, with an official theme, very suitable for a re-election campaign and repeated a dozen times during his remarks: “This is what we do.”

Sample quote: “Smart investments. Conservative budgeting. Holding in the reins during good economic conditions. This is what we do.”

The way the governor does things, you see, has generated that big surplus that can now be spent — a great reason to re-elect him, except he can’t run for re-election in two years. It’s widely rumored, however, that he would like to go to the U.S. Senate at some point.
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