NASHVILLE -- Republicans may have only "semi-control" of the General Assembly, but they say they nonetheless made major strides this year in areas such as gun rights, social issues such as abortion and charter school expansion.
"There were lots of things we accomplished this year that I'm very very proud of, things we'd been working on for years," Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, said as lawmakers ended their annual session last week. "We were able to advance those whether it's pro-life issues, Second Amendment issues."
He and other Republicans also pointed to the $29.6 billion budget lawmakers passed, which begins making large cuts in services including mental health and anticipates laying off as many as 717 state workers.
"We took what the governor provided and made some improvements, reduced the burden on the taxpayers from what was originally prescribed," said House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol.
Democrats conceded Republicans got their way in a number of areas. But when it came to the budget, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, and other Democratic leaders last week contended they and Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen largely prevailed.
He pointed out that Senate Republicans largely backed away from an amendment that would have made cuts in economic development spending such as $13 million for an industrial development "megasite" in West Tennessee. Democrats also prevailed on issues such as finding recurring funds for a $22 million hole in prekindergarten funding, he said.
"If you live in West Tennessee and you like a decent job, you won," Sen. Kyle said. "If you got a small child that you think prekindergarten will help, this caucus made sure that that pre-k funding will be consistent."
Gov. Bredesen said in a statement that he was "pleased the General Assembly has passed a budget that largely reflects the plan I outlined in March."
Lawmakers concluded their annual session Thursday after spending 23 weeks fighting over issues ranging from allowing handgun-carry permit holders to go armed in restaurants selling alcohol, provided they do not drink, to initiating a process they hope will lead to voters approving an amendment in 2014 to make the Tennessee Constitution silent on the issue of abortion protections.
When Tennessee Republicans in November won their first majority in both House and Senate since Civil War Reconstruction, GOP leaders vowed things would be different as they pushed a more conservative agenda.
And so they were -- but not always in the way anyone anticipated.
Senate Republicans increased their control in the Senate to 19-14. But Republicans won only a razor-thin 50-49 majority in the House.
When Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, was elected to the top post, it happened because he joined with all 49 Democrats to elect himself speaker in a 50-49 victory over Rep. Mumpower, R-Bristol.
The result was a "switch to semi-Republican control" in the House, said Middle Tennessee State University political scientist John Vile, calling it a "fascinating" development.
Rep. Williams evenly divided most committee membership and chairmanships between Democrats and Republicans. And legislation that had been previously blocked by former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, such as the handgun permit bills came roaring out.
But lawmakers also found themselves having serious debates over bills to ban Tennesseans from wearing saggy pants and making it easier to slaughter horses for their meat.
"I think every bad bill I've seen in my 10 years got resurrected this year and had a chance of passing," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, said, noting Democrats sought to "kill them where we could."
But he said while it "was pretty frustrating, I think it could have been worse. I think if Mumpower would have got control it would have been a hard-right agenda."
Rep. Williams sided with Republicans on issues such as charter schools, guns and abortion but with Democrats on several matters including the budget.
"I think they've gone extremely well," Rep. Williams said of how things went. "I'm very proud of what this General Assembly has done. We're in tough times. ... I think we put together the best possible budget we could."
He said "we've gotten more controversial legislation to the floor. And we've passed a lot more legislation -- whether it's good or bad, we'll wait and see."
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, who is black, said that after 17 years in the House, "I was a minority within the minority party."
"Thank God they (Republicans) were not able to succeed in killing things like prekindergarten," she said.
Republicans said that was not their intention.
Lawmakers on both sides acknowledged times were far more partisan this year.
Republicans pushed and passed a resolution criticizing federal efforts to change how union elections occur. Republicans also blocked passage of a resolution by Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, urging the state Capitol Commission to allow statues honoring Nobel Peace Prize winners Al Gore, the Democratic former vice president, and the late Cordell Hull, also a Democrat.
"Unfortunately, I think people will look at this year as a year that we talked about guns when the real issue was unemployment," Sen. Berke said. "It occupied a lot of the public conversations in a world in which we've gone now to 10.7 percent unemployment in our state."
Rep. Mumpower said he disagrees.
"I think the thing that drove the year more than anything was the delay in the presentation of the budget," he said. "Looking back that's nobody's fault."
He said that "for people who say there was too much focus in one area or another, they should recognize these issues had been bottled up for many years (in the House) and they just kind of burst forth this year."
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he was satisfied with the budget process.
"I think we did as good as we could get considering the difference between the House and the Senate," he said. "We put together as good a budget as we could."
He noted that it still provides funding for a $47.5 million UTC library.
Sen. Watson called the charter schools bill a "successful piece of legislation." The bill expands student eligibility to attend a charter school in the largest school districts, including Hamilton County, to anyone who qualifies for the free and reduced-price lunch program.
He said conservative Republicans also were able to get changes in who is appointed to a panel that makes recommendations to governors on state Supreme Court appointments. He acknowledged the effort to make them face contested elections instead of retention elections fizzled.
"I believe what the Constitution says (on direct elections), but the legislature made the decision they thought was best and that's OK," Sen. Watson said.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Here are some of the bills that passed in the first session of the 106th General Assembly, which ended Thursday:
* Abortion: Senate Joint Resolution 127, which seeks to put before voters a constitutional amendment that would nullify a 2000 state Supreme Court ruling. The amendment would remove any right to an abortion from the Tennessee Constitution. It must be passed by the next General Assembly as well.
* Economic development: Authorized bonds for the state to meet infrastructure commitments to the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Passed new Bredesen administration economic incentives designed to encourage companies using polycrystalline silicon manufactured by Wacker Chemical Corp. in Cleveland, Tenn., to locate near the plant. Retained $5.1 million to training employees of Volkswagen suppliers locating in Tennessee.
* Education: Substantially expanded the number of children eligible to attend charter schools to include all "at risk" students on free-and-reduced price lunch program. Increased the number of allowable charter schools in Tennessee from 50 to 90. Allowed shifting of $22 million in funding for pre-kindergarten programs from the lottery to recurring general fund revenues in budget deal.
* Energy: Approved Gov. Bredesen's legislation requiring the state to increase energy efficiency in state building and vehicles. Created a statewide building code aimed at requiring home builders to make new housing more energy-efficient.
* Ethics: Voted to do away with a stand-alone State Ethics Commission, merging the panel with the Registry of Election Finance into a new Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.
* Guns: Passed legislation allowing handgun-carry permit holders to bring their weapons into establishments selling alcohol, provided they do not drink and the business does not post signs against guns. Passed legislation allowing permit holders to bring their guns into federal, state and local parks. City and county governments may ban guns in local parks.
* Home schools: Passed legislation requiring state and local governments to recognize all home-school diplomas as valid.
* Judges: Changed the Tennessee Plan used to select and retain state Supreme Court justices and appellate judges. House and Senate speakers are not bound to accept recommendations from legal special interests on appointments to a screening panel that forwards recommendations on to the governor.
* Planned Parenthood: Required the state to offer Davidson and Shelby county health departments the opportunity to accept state family planning funds and responsibilities before allowing Planned Parenthood the opportunity.
* Taxes: Increased the state's HMO premium tax from 2 percent to 5.5 percent to raise $136.5 million. Closed a "loophole" for certain family owned businesses that will net about $25 million in new revenue. Approved the transfer of business gross receipts tax collections from county clerks to the state Revenue Department to generate $21 million more for the state and $25 million for counties due to increased efficiencies.
* Unemployment/trust fund: Increased taxes paid by employers into the trust fund. Allowed the state to accept $141 million in federal stimulus funds and increased benefits in three areas including more money for dependent children of laid-off workers.
* UTC library: Included $47.5 million for a new library under a budget deal.
* Wine shipping: Allowed Tennessee consumers to have wine shipped directly to their homes.
Source: Tennessee General Assembly
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, ...