By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
N ASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam began the year by dismissing what he called misguided predictions that the new Republican supermajority in state government would devolve into infighting.
Haslam went so far as to announce in his annual State of the State address in January that that narrative “makes caricatures out of us and sells all of us short.” But GOP relations soon turned turbulent, and by the end of the session key legislative proposals had gone off the rails.
Haslam had to torpedo his own limited school voucher bill for fear it would be hijacked by fellow Republicans seeking a more expansive program, and the leaders of the state House and Senate were no longer on speaking terms their respective chambers killed off each other’s bills on campaign finance, judicial redistricting and charter schools.
A usually celebratory post-session press conference by the governor wasn’t attended by either speaker, and the GOP caucus soon later announced they severing joint fundraising efforts.
Some of the findings in this month’s Vanderbilt University poll suggest that the Republican supermajority Legislature may be a bit out of sync with the overall Tennessee electorate — at least in comparison with Gov. Bill Haslam.
In general approval ratings, Haslam came in with 63 percent; the General Assembly at 51. Both a lot better than President Barack Obama at 40 percent, much less the U.S. Congress at 21 percent.
The multi-question Vandy poll results from surveying 813 registered voters earlier this month raises the possibility the differences could actually be in tune with issues on occasion.
Consider, for example:
n On Medicaid expansion, the polling indicated 60 percent of Tennesseans support the notion, up 9 points from six months earlier, though they don’t like the Affordable Care Act.
From Richard Locker, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ After voting in lockstep during the previous two-year term, when their majorities were not yet “super,” Republican lawmakers finally became willing to kill or delay some of their colleagues’ most extreme proposals — or at least compromise them sufficiently to appear respectable in public.
Trace Sharp, Placate, Litigate, Agitate This year we have become a national laughingstock more than usual. Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced Don’t Say Gay, Starve The Kids and went as far to put up a pressure cooker photo this week less than a week after the Boston Marathon Bombing to attack the gun debate. Rep. Andy Holt and Sen. Delores Gresham introduced ALEC based model legislation that is in a direct violation of the first amendment and is designed to slow down whistleblowers. Did I mention that they both own farming operation so the Ag-Gag bill will benefit both of them? Did I mention that Holt insulted Carrie Underwood in such a condescending way earlier this week when she asked the Governor to veto this horrible festering bill?
Let’s not forget that Sen. Frank Niceley introduced legislation that would have ended Senate primaries. Or that local authority is being whittled away at to give the state government more control.
Robert Houk: It’s good Tinfoil Hat Caucus wrapped things up quickly A priest, a rabbi and a state legislator walk into a bar. The bartender says to them: “Is this a joke?”
I know, it’s not very funny and it’s actually quite insulting to priests and rabbis to be linked to state lawmakers — particularly if they serve in the Tennessee General Assembly. Those vaudevillians in Nashville have really put on a show this year, but not everyone is laughing.
Drew Johnson, writing as part of the Chattanooga Free Press ‘Right Side Round Table’ Tennesseans who support a smaller, more accountable government and greater individual liberty expected big things from state lawmakers this year.
While the 2013 edition of the legislative session didn’t exactly deliver on all counts, notably failing to lift the ban on wine sales in grocery stores, enact school voucher proposals and expand opportunities for charter schools in Tennessee, there were a number of highlights for Volunteer State residents.
And there was this earlier, well-written Free Press diatribe: Tennessee’s Republican state lawmakers must think we’re stupid.
Otherwise, they wouldn’t have bragged about passing a “balanced budget,” as state Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman; state Rep. Kevin Brooks, of Cleveland; and a number of other GOP lawmakers did last week.
And they never would’ve implied that new state budget was “thoughtful and strategic” like Gov. Bill Haslam did last Friday. And they certainly would never have called th budget “fiscally responsible” as House Speaker Beth Harwell did with a straight face in a guest op-ed in The Tennessean.
Jeff Woods, ‘Only the Tennessee GOP could accomplish legislative gridlock wielding a supermajority‘ The legislature has become less representative democracy than bizarre spectacle — an annual horror show with Tennesseans gasping and shrieking as lawmakers debate and vote on one extreme measure after another.
To the relief of the emotionally spent audience, few of these bills made it all the way to the governor’s desk this year. Nearly 1,500 bills were introduced, and the list of noteworthy new laws is remarkably short.
In defending this session last week as lawmakers debated the last of their bills, Gov. Bill Haslam damned it with faint praise.
“I certainly wouldn’t call it a waste of time,” he said.
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.”
Concerned with the prospect of a local government setting up what one leader called a “little people’s republic,” the Legislature’s Republican supermajority is moving on several fronts to assert state authority over cities and counties.
Some Democrats and local government officials decry the trend as an assault on local control and incongruous with Republican criticisms of the federal government for dictating to state governments.
“The level of contempt that this Republican majority has for local governments and working people is simply disgusting,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory.
Turner’s remarks came after House approval Thursday of a bill (HB501) that declares local governments cannot put conditions on their contracts with businesses that require the businesses to pay more than minimum wages set by state or federal law, provide insurance or family leave. It also prohibits local governments from enforcing any ordinance on “wage theft,” wherein a company fails to live up to promises to pay a given wage or provide benefits.
The bill was approved 66-27 on a mostly party-line vote — Republicans for it, Democrats against — after a sometimes heated debate. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, may have best summed up the GOP view of such legislation.
By standards of legislative speed of the not-too-distant past, the so-called “guns in parking lots” bill roared through the General Assembly at a breakneck pace, crossing the finish line at just one month after starting.
The bill (SB142) was introduced Jan. 28 and sent to the governor Feb. 28. If you subtract the days legislators were not working during that period, just 18 days were involved. That, folks, is warp speed in Legislatorland, especially on a matter of some controversy. It may be an indication of things to come.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner says the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby, spent 11 minutes in his speech in support of the measure on the House floor Thursday, while one committee approved the bill after just six minutes discussion.
Indeed, the only lengthy discussion — one hour and 20 minutes, including Faison’s speech — came on the House floor. That was because 13 amendments were proposed and it took awhile to kill them all in a methodical manner.
Now, this was something of a special situation. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell both pushed for rapid action, deeming that legislators had spent entirely too much time last year in inconclusive arguing over the issue, which pits gun-owner rights against property-owner rights. Once the leadership had decided what should be done — the “compromise” was crafted by Ramsey — they wanted no time wasted in doing it.
With a new GOP supermajority in place for the dawn of the 108th General Assembly this week, Democrats find themselves facing irrelevancy except in cases where the ruling Republicans are divided.
But there are already issues — some old, some new — where Republican divisions are apparent at the outset. There are others, especially on social policy, where intraparty tension between the most conservative lawmakers and their less ardent colleagues — few like to be called moderates — probably makes clashes inevitable.
The session formally convenes at noon on Tuesday. Republicans have 70 seats in the 99-member House and 26 in the 33-member Senate, marking the first time since the Reconstruction era of the late 1860s when the GOP had such ironclad control.
You have to go back to the 1960s to find a time when Democrats, who controlled the state for decades, had equivalent power in the Legislature and one of their own as governor.
The session also features an unusually high number of freshmen — eight in the Senate, not counting Knoxville’s Sen. Becky Massey, who served a partial term previously — and 24 in the House.
The first week will be devoted largely to filing bills and to organizational matters, notably including a sweeping overhaul of House rules and committees developed by Speaker Beth Harwell, that will set the stage for things to come. That will be followed by a two-week recess with work to begin in earnest on Jan. 28, when Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to deliver his annual “state of the state” speech.
Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are hoping for adjournment by the end of April.
Tennessee Republicans have reached another high-water mark for dominance of state government by gaining a 70-28 majority over Democrats in the state House and 26-7 advantage in the state Senate – a six-seat GOP gain in both chambers.
With Republicans already controlling the governor’s office, two U.S. Senate seats and seven of nine U.S. House seats, there is some speculation that the “new normal” — a phrase favored by Gov. Bill Haslam — will mean more quarreling within party ranks than with diminished Democrats.
When a reporter asked House Speaker Beth Harwell at a Wednesday news conference if 70 House Republicans would be “a lot of cats to herd at times,” she nodded her head affirmatively and replied, “Yes!”
The speaker went on to say, however, that “I think our Republican caucus is as united as I’ve ever seen it” and voters had effectively approved of the party’s legislators continuing on the course begun with smaller GOP majorities in the past two years.