NASHVILLE — When Mike Dougher of Chattanooga heard Tennessee lawmakers wanted to let handgun-carry permit holders go armed in establishments selling alcohol, the manager of the Rhythm & Brews entertainment hall was a little puzzled.
“No offense to those fine gentlemen up there,” Mr. Dougher said before alluding to the economy and the state’s $1.2 billion revenue shortfall and pending budget cuts. “It seems we got bigger fish to fry.”
Mr. Dougher is not alone in his thinking. With the budget crumbling, the state and national economy in a tailspin and state unemployment at its highest levels since 1984, a number of Democratic lawmakers are questioning what the General Assembly has been doing.
“When I go home for the weekend, Republicans and Democrats alike come up to me, amazed ... about what’s going on up here,” Sen. Andy Burke, D-Chattanooga, told colleagues recently. “They have a simple question. What are y’all going to do that helps us? When are you going to do something for the tens of thousands of our citizens who are out of work?”
After months of bickering, lawmakers just this week got around to passing a bill aimed at preventing Tennessee’s Unemployment Trust Fund from going bust.
The measure uses federal funds to extend benefits up to 20 weeks more for unemployed Tennesseans. It also included a tax increase on employers to replenish the fund.
Republicans, who are enjoying their first majorities in the state House and Senate since 1869, have devoted time all year to previously blocked legislation on guns, social issues such as abortion, and having competitive state Supreme Court elections.
Those are important issues, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, noting that, “I guess if you’re not for an issue they’ll say that there are far more important things to be dealing with.”
But lawmakers are not ignoring other matters, Lt. Gov. Ramsey said, pointing to major legislative achievements such as a plan to largely deregulate AT&T’s basic telephone services and this week’s passage of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s energy efficiency proposal.
Lawmakers also are looking to promote job creation while “working to make sure we balance the budget,” he said. “The budget itself has dictated what we do this year.”
Gov. Phil Bredesen didn’t present the budget until March 23 because he wanted a better picture of how moving parts such as flagging state revenues and federal stimulus funds would affect each other.
Lawmakers are waiting for Gov. Bredesen to present them today with a total budget rewrite.
House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said he thinks the National Rifle Association has dominated the legislative agenda.
“If we’d spent that time working on helping the lives of children and the elderly we would have accomplished something, but no, in fact, the NRA has been the prominent force in the legislature,” he said.
On Wednesday, the House voted 69-27 to override Gov. Phil Bredesen’s veto of a bill allowing handgun-carry permit holders to bring loaded weapons into restaurants selling alcohol. Senators expect to override the veto today.
Lawmakers, legislative records show, have introduced dozens of gun-related bills. Five so far have become law, including one prohibiting the state from confiscating guns during “martial rule.” The governor still has before him a bill allowing permit holders to go armed in federal, state and local parks.
House and state library and archive records show nine major guns bills accounted for 6.6 percent of the 74 hours and 25 minutes that House members have spent on the floor from Feb. 9 through May 28. That comes to four hours and 55 minutes.
House records also show, however, that House Finance Committee members have spent 28 hours in budget hearings. Senate committees conduct their own individual hearings, and no records were available immediately on how much time they have spent.
Records also show the Senate spent 46 hours and 41 minutes on the Senate floor through May 28. Major gun bills accounted for 58 minutes, or 2 percent.
After Republicans won a 50-49 majority in the House last November, they wanted major changes in the state’s agenda. But then Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, seized the speakership with the help of all 49 Democrats.
He pledged, however, to back long-blocked efforts to pass handgun-carry permit legislation and a proposed constitutional amendment to make the Tennessee Constitution neutral on the topic of abortion.
“There has been a lot of time spent on social issues, but evidently the majority of the people (members) were interested in those issues because most of them — if not all of them — passed,” Speaker Williams said.
The anti-abortion resolution finally emerged this year from a House subcommittee. After 37 minutes of discussion, it passed the House on May 18 on a 76-27 vote.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...