NASHVILLE — Republicans will usher in a new era in Tennessee history come Tuesday when they control both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in nearly 142 years.
GOP leaders say their emphasis in the 107th General Assembly is on balancing the state's 2011-12 budget — which is experiencing the loss of federal stimulus funds — as well as boosting job creation and pushing for more reform in K-12 education.
With an incoming Republican governor, Bill Haslam, set to take office Saturday, GOP lawmakers say they are in position to push an agenda that also includes expanding charter schools, cutting business regulations, capping jury awards in lawsuits, cracking down on illegal immigrants and other measures.
"Tennesseans chose overwhelmingly to give Republicans the responsibility to govern," said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. "Our goals of job creation, low taxes and less regulation resonated with voters, and we will work very hard to make those goals a reality."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said the top priority is passing a balanced budget. Republicans will let Haslam "take the lead" on that, McCormick said.
"I think we're going to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially in the early months of his governorship," he said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, said his party is willing to cooperate with the GOP in areas such as promoting education and job growth.
He warned, however, if Republicans "start getting on these crazy, right-wing things, we'll fight them tooth and nail."
Republicans in 2010 elections gained 14 seats in the House, giving them a commanding 64 seats to Democrats' 34 and the one independent in the 99-member chamber. The 33-member Senate, which has been under Republican control since 2007, went from 19 to 20 Republicans.
The GOP won a 50-49 House majority two years ago, and Republicans thought they would elect their own candidate for speaker. But all 49 Democrats turned the tables on them in January 2009 when they voted for Republican Kent Williams, R-Elizabethtown. Williams voted for himself and became speaker. Republicans booted him from the party.
This time, Democrats acknowledge such tactics won't succeed given the GOP's numbers. Thus Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is expected to make history Tuesday by becoming the first female House speaker in Tennessee history.
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, despairs that Democrats may face an invincible Republican juggernaut if GOP leaders are successful in keeping their sometimes fractious moderate and conservative wings from clashing on areas such as guns and immigration.
"Do I feel like I will have any influence or impact? Of course not," she said. "But sometimes, sometimes, you have to let the oppressors have their day, and then the subjects will rise up and they will throw them off and out."
According to information provided by legislative librarian Eddie Weeks, the last time Republicans — or affiliated groups such as Unionists and Whigs — controlled both chambers was Aug. 5, 1869.
Tort reform, immigration
A coalition of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and groups representing hospitals, doctors and nursing homes is talking to lawmakers and the Haslam administration about capping lawsuit awards for non-economic damage such as pain and suffering.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that while "progress" was made a few years ago in dealing with medical malpractice lawsuits, "we certainly have a legislative environment now that would allow us to look again at tort reform and see if there's more improvements we can make."
But Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, questioned the need, saying "the truth of the matter is that lawsuits are not a huge problem in Tennessee. We have not seen runaway juries."
Businesses that make an unsafe product that "extensively harms someone ... should be responsible," argued Berke, an attorney.
Many Republicans also want to get tough with illegal immigrants, but that could provoke angst from the GOP's business-oriented wing.
Among legislation Republicans will push is an Arizona-style law that would let police check the immigration status of people they stop and enforce federal law. Other ideas include denying issuing birth certificates to babies whose mothers and fathers are illegal immigrants. Under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, people born in the U.S. are citizens.
"We're at the point we can't afford to be the welfare department for Mexico anymore," Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said.
A renewed push is expected on requiring regular elections for state Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges. Under the Tennessee Plan, such judges first are appointed. Voters later can vote on whether to retain them.
"I just think our Supreme Court, especially in the way they are retained through this retention process, [is] not accountable to the people," said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville.
Bell also said he intends to push a constitutional amendment requiring the state attorney general to be elected. The attorney general now is appointed by the Supreme Court.
The burden of governing
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she hopes Republicans don't lose sight of the fact that the "needs of the citizens" should be "put first. That's my only concern."
She said she realizes Republicans are "anxious to create jobs and all, but you have to be extremely careful that you create a balance between supporting businesses, when it comes to not providing for citizens."
Republicans such as Rep. Jim Cobb, of Spring City, are conscious that with control of the legislature and executive branch, they have a great deal of responsibility resting on them. That goes particularly for the state budget, he said.
"That's the biggest pressure point that's going to be on all of us, especially the Republicans having taken over both houses and the governor. We own it now. Whatever we do, right or wrong, we're going to be held accountable."
Tennessee cut state spending by $1.5 billion out of its overall $29.9 billion budget, and $900 million more in cuts will kick in July 1. There's a $185 million budget shortfall, and lawmakers must decide whether to renew and possibly expand a hospital assessment that raises federal matching money for TennCare to avoid more than $1 billion in cuts to that program.
Incoming Republican Gov. Bill Haslam wants more charter schools, and some Republicans want to look at changing teacher tenure laws. The Tennessee Education Association is expected to resist the changes.
Republicans want to enact an Arizona-style law that allows police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants. They want to require businesses to use the federal E-Verify system in hiring and deny state birth certificates to illegal immigrants' babies.
Business and health care interests will work with Republicans to cap payments to plaintiffs for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.
The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business want to narrow definitions of workplace injury and have cases heard by panels instead of courts.
Republicans are expected to push for an end to handgun permits, which require background checks, for someone to carry a weapon in public. Training would still be required.
Senate Joint Resolution 127, which would strip the Tennessee Constitution of any language construed to protect the right to an abortion, passed the last General Assembly and requires a two-thirds majority vote in the 107th before it can go to voters in 2014.
Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, expects to push a bill regulating local governments' use of red-light and speed cameras. Others want to go further.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey wants laws changed to allow corporations to make direct donations to political campaigns.
Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, will again press legislation challenging cities' ability to annex property against the will of residents.
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, ...