NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers wrapped up their annual session Wednesday after a year in which members of the House GOP supermajority warred amongst themselves and with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam over his proposed gas tax hike, which despite the split ultimately passed.
Senators and representatives adjourned the first session of the 110th General Assembly's two-year run with both Haslam and GOP leaders pointing to a string of successes this year.
Those ranged from passage of the state's $37.1 billion annual budget to the governor's Reconnect Tennessee bill that extends to adults tuition-free scholarships for community colleges and technical schools.
The program builds on the success of the existing Tennessee Promise program that provides similar lottery-funded, last-dollar scholarships to more recent high school graduates.
"We're the first state ever to say you can go have two years of community college or technical school tuition free, and I think you'll see dramatic dividends," Haslam predicted during a post-session news conference with top GOP leaders.
Haslam and lawmakers also stressed the $300 million in tax cuts contained in the IMPROVE Act, which was a vehicle for gas and diesel tax increases to fund improvements to Tennessee roads.
The fuel tax increases badly split the 73-member House GOP. Arch-conservative Republicans, many of them already on the outs with their top leaders, last week successfully staged a floor rebellion with equally disgruntled Democrats on the budget.
Differences were patched up the next day by all sides, and the budget was easily passed.
Haslam declared "these are the results," but also acknowledged "the process isn't always the easiest."
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the new Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, said Tennessee is "doing all the right things" and declared 2017 a "very successful session."
"There were a few bumps in the road," allowed McNally, whose own GOP Caucus was largely united, both on the IMPROVE Act and the budget. "There always will be We get over them."
House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, who joined with Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville earlier in the session in an unsuccessful effort to avoid the gas tax and divert existing sales tax revenues toward roads instead, told reporters that "if we all get along, something's not right."
Alluding to the floor rebellion over the budget — neither Casada nor Harwell participated in it — the majority leader said that "sometimes it gets really heated we come together and pass good legislation."
Harwell acknowledged "there's no doubt about it, it was a difficult session. But, again, I would agree with what Glen said."
The governor, meanwhile, played up the tax cuts he said will amount to $500 million in five years. In addition to cutting the sales tax on food by 20 percent and continuing a phase-out of the Hall Tax on dividend and investment income, the IMPROVE Act cuts corporate franchise and excise taxes on manufacturers.
The latter is already paying dividends, Haslam declared, citing the corporate tax change as a major reason for Finnish manufacturer Nokian Tyres announcing it will build a plant in Dayton employing some 400 local workers.
More will follow, Haslam predicted.
For Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, this was the first session he hasn't served as majority leader since the GOP took complete control of the House in 2010 elections. Instead, he became House Finance Subcommittee chairman.
"I think the most important good thing we did was pass the transportation bill, which I think will have immediate effects in Chattanooga this year," McCormick said. "And we'll be able to work on some projects that have been on hold and speed some up."
The day before, Haslam announced that in the upcoming budget year, the state will begin planning to address the Interstate 75 and I-24 junction.
Legislative minority Democrats, meanwhile, had their own take on this year's session, citing successful efforts to create a new trust fund — albeit one not yet funded — to provide grants to local schools for their needs.
Moreover, declared House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville, Democrats have had an impact killing some "really bad bills."
"Another school voucher bill is dead another [transgender] bathroom bill is dead," Stewart said.
Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, said Democrats on occasion were able to work with Republicans to get things done. He cited passage of a bill requiring Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probes into police officer-involved shooting deaths as a major success.
But Stewart and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville also criticized passage of a bill banning abortions of a viable fetus after 20 weeks. They urged Haslam to veto it.
After receiving legislation, Haslam has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign or veto it, or it automatically becomes law without his signature.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.