Some superlative legislative performances during the first supermajority session of Tennessee’s 108th General Assembly:
Best Oratory: Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, is generally a fairly mild-mannered and quiet fellow. But on the final day of the session, the bespectacled appliance salesman rose on the House floor to lead the rhetoric in rebellion against what he depicted as dictatorial state senators trying to cram a judicial redistricting bill down the throat of the “people’s chamber.” Gesturing with arms and hands, spinning this direction and that, the impassioned Sanderson’s sizzling speech left jaws dropping — and red “no” lights bright on the vote tally display board.
Best Loser: Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, House sponsor of the failing wine-in-groceries bill, the failing bill to increase penalties for cockfighting and the failing judicial redistricting legislation savaged by Sanderson. The Lundberg losers were bipartisan bills with logical and reasonable policy arguments behind them and entrenched interests opposing them. Just like in the years before the supermajority.
Freshman of the Year, Republican: Rep. William Lamberth of Cottontown introduced the maximum 15 bills permitted under new rules and proceeded to violate the old, unwritten rule that calls for freshmen to keep quiet, listen and learn in their first term. Lamberth saw 10 of his bills enacted, more than any other freshman — perhaps most notably one that makes secret the Department of Safety’s list of 400,000 handgun permit holders. A gregarious sort, the former prosecutor was an aggressive questioner in committees, particularly on crime bills, and rarely was on the losing side of a vote.
Commenting on one of several pieces of legislation to gain national attention during the 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly, Gov. Bill Haslam blamed the failure of his education reform priority of the year on “infighting among advocates.”
If you consider Republicans as advocates for a standard set of policy principles, the same might be said for many other bill failures in the debut performance of the 108th General Assembly, the first since Reconstruction with the GOP holding a “supermajority” — more than two-thirds of the seats in both the House and Senate.
As it turned out, intraparty infighting often derailed the Republican railroad that some had predicted would roll over all opposition as it moved down a track to new conservative rule of the state.
The railroading went quite well on some matters, mainly when bills could be portrayed as friendly to business — Haslam’s workers’ compensation overhaul legislation, for example. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner called the measure “the worst attack on working people I’ve ever seen in the Legislature.”
News release from StudentsFirst:
Nashville, Tennessee – On behalf of StudentsFirst’s more than 37,000 members in Tennessee, State Director Brent Easley today issued the following statement after the General Assembly placed on hold SB830/HB702, which would have strengthened the state’s current charter approval process.
“Tennessee missed a grand opportunity to pass common sense legislation to strengthen the state’s current charter approval process. Unfortunately, students will have to wait another year,” said Brent Easley, StudentsFirst Tennessee State Director. “We need this policy in place to help attract high-quality charter schools and we aim to help the sponsors see this through. As we move forward, I urge the leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly to consider and pass charter school authorization early in the next session.”
StudentsFirst has consistently called on states to strengthen charter accountability by creating clear, strong mechanisms for closing low-performing schools and holding authorizers accountable. For more information, please read StudentsFirst’s State Policy Report Card rubric on charter accountability.
News release from Tennessee Charter Schools Association:
Nashville, Tn. — The Tennessee Charter Schools Association (TCSA) released the following statement upon the Senate’s refusal to hear HB 702/SB 830, the charter school authorizer reform bill:
“Along with our partners in education reform, TCSA is disappointed that the Senate refused to vote on SB 830 (HB 702) today. Unfortunately, the concept of broadening educational options for Tennessee students has once again become the victim of politics, despite thoughtful consideration over the bill through ten committees and passage in the House yesterday with a vote of 62 to 30. This legislation, which earlier in April received funding in the Governor’s budget, has been championed throughout the legislative session by education reform stakeholders including the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, Students First – Tennessee, Stand for Children – Tennessee, and Democrats for Education Reform – Tennessee.
“Strong public charter schools are leading successful education reform in our state, with many delivering the best results of all Tennessee public schools. This bill sought to strengthen the charter school authorization process, drawing the focus of decisions toward merit and expanding the possibility of excellent public charter schools throughout the state.
“TCSA is grateful for the strong leadership of House Speaker Beth Harwell, Representative Mark White, Representative Harry Brooks and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in supporting this bill and working tirelessly to improve educational options in Tennessee. We will continue to work with community and state leadership toward improvements in the law that will make great public charter schools a possibility for Tennessee families in need of options.”
News release from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey
(April 19, 2013, NASHVILLE) – The 108th General Assembly today adjourned for the year after completing one of the most efficient legislative sessions in recent history. The April 19 adjournment marks the earliest the legislature has adjourned since 1990 using the least amount of legislative days since 1976.
“I’m extremely proud of the work accomplished by the General Assembly this session,” said Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville). “In contrast to the irresponsible spendthrifts who reside inside Washington’s beltway, Tennessee’s Republican Majority came together with members of the opposition to pass a balance budget that reduces taxes and returns much-needed dollars to the state’s rainy day fund.”
“Not only have we instituted job creating workers compensation and unemployment reforms, we also stood firm against a federal takeover of our health-care system,” Ramsey continued. “I’m proud to stand with Governor Haslam and Speaker Harwell at the helm of a state that consistently leads the nation in small government and low tax fiscal responsibility.”
“I’m especially pleased that we have restored the traditional pace of our legislative sessions. The longer a legislature is in session the longer the average taxpayer has to watch his wallet,” Ramsey concluded. “I have always maintained that an efficient and focused General Assembly can finish the people’s business on time and save taxpayer dollars in the process. This year we have firmly established that the days of legislative sessions creeping into late May and June are over.”
The 2013-2014 budget passed by the General Assembly includes $43 million in tax cuts comprised of reductions in the Hall, death and food taxes. In addition, the General Assembly placed $100 million additional dollars in the state rainy day fund for a total of 456 million.
Among the many highlights of the legislative session was the administration’s workers compensation reform which takes claims out of the court system creating fairness and predictability for job creators.
Also crucial to the General Assembly’s job creation agenda was the continuing reform of Tennessee’s unemployment system. This year, in addition to strengthening the definition of workplace misconduct, the General Assembly refused to fund Obama’s stimulus expansion of the system creating a saving of over $62 million for the unemployment trust fund.
Tennessee is currently ranked among the lowest states in the nation in per capita in debt and per capital tax burden. The General Assembly’s continued pro-jobs, fiscally responsible, small government agenda has resulted in a triple-A rated bond rating for the state.
News release from House Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner released the following statement in response to the failure of HB702/SB830, the “state charter authorizer”:
“Earlier today the Tennessee State Senate refused to hear a bill that would have stripped away local control of charter school authorization for five counties in Tennessee.
“The Tennessee Charter Schools Association claimed in a release that “the concept of broadening educational options for Tennessee students has once again become the victim of politics, despite thoughtful consideration over the bill through ten committees and passage in the House yesterday with a vote of 62 to 30.”
“This is absolutely false.
“While hostage taking of legislation is not good governance, the result could not have been better for the people of Tennessee.
“HB702/SB830 was one of the most haphazard and poorly executed legislative packages in recent memory. The bill was significantly altered on at least five different occasions – not to make the bill ‘better’- but simply to gain the support of whatever particular committee was hearing it at the time.
“The House bill was passed on the floor after Republicans called the question and cut-off debate without a single person being allowed to speak on the bill. The legislation itself was brought in a last minute amendment that was not heard in a single House committee.
“House Democrats are grateful to Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey for killing this bill this year.
“The highest performing charter schools in this state have been authorized and supported by their local boards of education. This legislation was brought out of spite because one charter school operator was not given a blank check to operate in Nashville.
“We hope that legislators on both sides of the aisle will come back next year with clear heads and realize that this was an unnecessary and damaging proposal for our education system in Tennessee.”
The 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly ended Friday with a contentious House-Senate clash that left dead Republican-sponsored bills on subjects ranging from charter schools to choosing judges.
The two chambers, both controlled for the first time by a Republican “supermajority,” did reach final-day agreement on imposing a 13-month month moratorium on cities annexing residential or agricultural land.
Gov. Bill Haslam said his two biggest disappointments in the day’s events were the failure of two measures dealing with charter schools, especially a “charter authorizer” bill (HB702) that would have allowed a state board to override local school boards when they turn down a charter school application.
The bill, a top priority of House Speaker Beth Harwell, cleared the House despite criticism that it wrongly let an appointed state board override decisions of local elected officials. But it stalled on the Senate floor until the final day, when it became entangled in what some characterized a “hostage” situation.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will address a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly on Wednesday about his decision on whether to expand Medicaid to cover more uninsured people under the federal health care overhaul, according to a person familiar with the plans.
Lawmakers plan to authorize the gathering during regular floor sessions Wednesday morning, the official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the joint assembly hadn’t yet been publicly announced.
The governor’s office did not immediately return messages seeking comment, though Haslam’s spokesman recommended reporters attend the House floor session at 9:30 a.m. CDT.
Haslam hasn’t indicated whether he’ll recommend expanding TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, with the federal government paying the entire cost for the first three years and at least 90 percent thereafter.
“This is an incredibly complex issue,” Haslam told reporters earlier this week. “Every day I learn something new about the law, about its impact on Tennessee, about its impact on local governments, about its impact on businesses.”
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
KNOXVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he doesn’t believe Democratic lawmakers’ request for a special session to discuss using surplus state revenues to halt tuition increases is “wise planning for the state.”
The legislators told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that lawmakers would like a session to be held in August, possibly before students return to school.
They also want to uses the state surplus to drop the sales tax on groceries below 5.25 percent. Haslam included funding in his budget to reduce the sales tax from 5.5 percent.
But the governor told The Associated Press before a meeting of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees on Thursday that there are many other issues to be addressed, such as dealing with uncertain costs associated with federal health care, which he said could be more than $200 million.
“I’m not sure I see the wisdom in having a knee-jerk special session right now when there a so many things on the board for us to consider when it comes to the budget,” said Haslam, who also serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees. “I don’t think that would be wise planning for the state.”
News release from Senate Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE – Senate and House Democrats called on Governor Bill Haslam Wednesday to convene a special legislative session to freeze tuition rates and cut the food tax, using part of the $225 million in excess revenues the state has collected.
“Now is the time to provide tax relief for all Tennesseans, especially those who are training for new jobs that require a college degree,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney. “If we’re serious about growing jobs and putting people back to work, then we shouldn’t be raising fees on people who want to work.”
Caucus leaders calculated that, based on numbers provided by the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee, $78 million of the excess revenues would cover all proposed tuition increases at state colleges and universities. Democrats made the announcement as UT trustees met to discuss an average 6 percent tuition increase.
The Board of Regents, which oversees six state universities as well as community colleges and technology centers, proposed similar tuition increases last week.
“It is wrong to tax people who are going into debt to improve their lives,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle. “A tuition increase is simply a tax on students. The money is there. The question is whether the political courage on the other side is also there.”
Democrats also pushed for an additional 1 percent decrease to the sales tax on groceries, which would provide $85 million in tax relief for all Tennesseans. Lawmakers reduced the sales tax by .25 percent during the regular session, meaning Tennesseans would save only 25 cents per $100 of groceries.
“We can provide Tennesseans four times the amount of tax relief in a matter of days,” said Senator Tim Barnes of Clarksville. “It would mean a lot to people in my district who are barely making ends meet as it is.”
The remaining $62 million in excess revenues would go into state reserves.
“This is about providing real results to every Tennessean and telling college students of all ages that we support them,” Finney said. “That’s the message that should be coming from every lawmaker’s office, regardless of political party.”
Note: Asked for comment on the Democrats’ proposal, Haslam spokesman David Smith emailed this: We want to be sure we have a complete picture of what our budget commitments will look like before we interrupt the budget process and start spending funds in an ad hoc way. There are still unknown expenses out there that a comprehensive budgeting process accounts for – such as TennCare inflation or fully funding the BEP. Also, providers have been saying they can’t pay the hospital assessment fee forever. Regarding higher education, the governor has said and continues to believe we need to focus on higher education in Tennessee, and examining the cost structure is certainly part of that process. That shouldn’t be done from a quick-fix perspective.
-The operating budget for state higher education was not reduced in the upcoming fiscal year for the first time in recent memory
-the budget includes $342.6 million in campus improvements and maintenance