published Friday, June 11th, 2010

General Assembly finally adjourns

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Phil Bredesen

NASHVILLE -- Enacting far-reaching education reforms, wrestling a recession-battered state budget into shape and making strides in economic development were among the top achievements in the 2010 legislative session that finally ended early Thursday.

Other major initiatives passed this year included passage of a $310 million "fee" or tax on hospitals, requiring armed robbers to serve longer sentences and re-passing a law allowing the state's 290,000 handgun-carry-permit holders to go armed in restaurants selling alcohol.

But a Republican effort to let Tennesseans opt out of federal health care reform insurance mandates collapsed at the last minute in the House when Senate majority Republicans refused to compromise. Nine House Republicans either didn't vote, and the bill died on a 44-39 vote.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats' efforts to resurrect a bill banning "mountain-top removal" coal mining died in a rock slide of "no" votes when Republicans refused to back their effort to pull the bill out of a committee onto the Senate floor.

All of it came to a halt about 1:20 a.m. Thursday when the 106th General Assembly officially adjourned for the year, more than five weeks after top leaders' original adjournment hopes.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, told members of a Nashville-area Rotary Club on Thursday afternoon that he especially was pleased by lawmakers' work in a January special session to tie teacher tenure and certification to student achievement in the future as well as revamp a higher education funding formula to stress graduation of students.

"The special session (on education) ... I would argue it has to be the most productive two weeks the General Assembly has spent in a half century," Gov. Bredesen said, noting it "represents huge changes" that have reaped both federal funds and a blitz of favorable national publicity.

The teacher accountability provisions were passed as part of the state's effort to win the federal government's Race to the Top competition that encouraged states to reform education.

Tennessee's efforts paid off when it was one of just two states deemed winners. The federal government now is giving the state a half-billion dollars to implement its comprehensive school reforms over the next four years.

House Speaker Kent Williams, an Elizabethton independent, said the special session "was probably the high point" of this year's business.

Gov. Bredesen told reporters one thing he didn't like was the continued increase in legislative squabbling over "wedge" issues he considers distractions.

"I've never had a lot of tolerance for what I consider posturing issues," the governor said. "The whole thing about we don't have to obey 'Obamacare,' I just think of more as things done for political advantage, to try to drive wedges in rather than representing an ideology that you want to push forward about the way to govern."

Dealing with the state's revenue shortfalls also had the governor and lawmakers beaming by session's end, although for weeks Senate majority Republicans, the governor, House Democrats and moderate House Republicans had bickered and fought over details.

"In a very difficult time we passed a budget that had no tax increases in it," said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

He, like many other lawmakers, rejected the notion the 3.25 percent assessment on hospital gross revenues was a "tax" because hospitals urged lawmakers to pass it. Moreover, they argue, the money is going toward a specific purpose -- attracting federal matching funds to offset projected TennCare cuts -- and hospital executives have promised not to fund it by increasing patient charges.

"That's a tough argument to oppose when they come to you and say, 'Hey, we want to do this,'" Sen. Watson said. "I think we passed a good budget. But there's a tall mountain to climb next year."

Gov. Bredesen noted Tennessee is in far better shape than many states, some of which are coping with multibillion-dollar shortfalls.

The $29.9 billion spending plan that takes effect July 1 includes $12.8 billion in state dollars. It cut an estimated $450 million in spending, projects laying off 853 employees and slashing another 500 positions. It also draws down $245 million from the state's Rainy Day reserve fund.

In other action, lawmakers last week overrode Gov. Bredesen's veto of the bill allowing handgun permit holders to go armed in any establishment selling alcohol for on-premises consumption, provided they did not drink and the business or institution did not post signs banning guns.

The legislation came after a similar law was declared unconstitutionally vague last year by a Nashville judge.

In other action, lawmakers approved an $80 million expansion of TNInvestco, a state program that uses tax credits from insurance companies to create venture-capital pools for Tennessee startup companies.

Lawmakers also provided $22.3 million to continue building a West Tennessee industrial megasite.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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