State lawmakers pass fireworks bill as session adjourns

State lawmakers pass fireworks bill as session adjourns

May 22nd, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE - State lawmakers on Saturday gave final approval to a $30.78 billion annual budget that restores extended unemployment benefits to thousands of jobless Tennesseans, then raced through dozens of other bills before they adjourned their 2011 session.

Last-minute fights included a largely partisan donnybrook over a Republican-sponsored bill allowing local school boards to contract with for-profit companies to operate online "virtual" schools.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, warned that K-12 Inc., one of the for-profit companies pushing the bill, was founded and remains partially owned by Michael Milken. Once a high-flying junk bond king, Milken's 1980s Wall Street shenanigans led him to federal prison.

Republicans passed the bill and pooh-poohed concerns raised by Democrats. They did the same on other controversial bills, including Friday night's repeal of collective bargaining powers for teachers.

It was one of the most fiercely fought issues in years as Republicans sought to break the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association, which represents teachers.

For the GOP, the 2011 session was historic, with Republicans firmly in control of the House, Senate and governorship for the first time in 142 years.

Ending his first legislative session as governor, Republican Bill Haslam said Saturday he was pleased by victories for his agenda, which included toughening teacher tenure requirements, expanding charter schools and capping awards for pain and suffering in personal injury lawsuits.

He lavished praise on Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.

"There's been a lot of government - good government - happen in the last barely four months," Haslam said.

The governor said he pursued a limited "but we thought very important and critical legislative agenda."

Ramsey said "everything was targeted on two things - job creation, putting people back to work, and making sure there is a quality teacher in each and every classroom."

But Democrats, decimated in the 2010 elections, had a different take.

"Instead of attacking unemployment, what we've ended up with for the past few months is an attack on teachers," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.

Democrats managed to wrest some victories. They claimed credit but thanked Haslam for helping restore money to TennCare that avoided many planned cuts.

They also succeeded in restoring 20 extra weeks of federally funded unemployment benefits to anywhere from 15,000 to 28,000 Tennesseans unable to find jobs after 79 weeks of other state and federal benefits.

The program ended in Tennessee on April 16. Though House Democrats and then Republicans clamored for a fix, Senate Republicans said no, and Haslam at first said it was not a "top priority" for him. Then he jumped in to help broker a deal.

"You know, the reality of government is this: The answers aren't easy," Haslam said Saturday.

The state's cost will be about $3.1 million to draw down from $60 million to $126 million in federal funds.

Other budget provisions include $34.6 million for infrastructure improvements in the Wacker Chemical plant under construction in Bradley County.

After beginning their session in January, exhausted lawmakers slogged through final bills into Saturday night. Final action included:

• A bill by Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, to tighten local governments' use of traffic-enforcement cameras cleared the House 82-2 and is headed to Haslam's desk.

"It doesn't do all the things that a lot of people wanted, but it does do a lot of things everybody can agree on," Dean told colleagues.

The bill seeks to dismantle speed traps and requires cities to have professional studies done to establish a safety need for cameras.

• After a quarter-century effort, East Ridge merchants are expected finally to be able to sell fireworks. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, persuaded senators in a 17-7 vote to legalize sales of bottle rockets, firecrackers and other assorted fireworks in the town.

"East Ridge has been requesting this since the middle 1980s," Watson said. "It had become a very big bill here, even to the point that we had members of Congress calling members of the [state] Senate asking them to vote against the bill."

• Tennessee corporations will be able to contribute directly to political campaigns under another bill going to Haslam.

The House voted 65-20 for the measure, brought by Republican leaders, that allows companies to contribute the same amounts as political action committees. Republicans called it a free speech issue while Democrats said it injected yet more money into state political races.

The bill also raises contribution limits for all by retroactively adjusting limits for inflation going back to 1996. That is expected to raise the ceiling by some 40 percent.

For example, contributions by PACs would increase from $7,500 to $10,700 in statewide and Senate contests and continue to be adjusted upward for inflation in the future. Corporations would be treated the same.