Ron Ramsey's test today

Ron Ramsey's test today

June 9th, 2010 in Opinion Times

Tennessee's Legislature proved unusually inept this year in passing a 2010-11 budget and trying to reach adjournment. Lawmakers have run five weeks past their own proposed deadline for ending the annual legislative session. And even then, the budget they finally passed last week failed to close the corporate tax loopholes or make any of the revenue adjustments recommended by Gov. Phil Bredesen.

As a result, the Legislature had to approve the lay-off another 853 state employees, bringing to 3,500 the total of state jobs lost in the current and pending fiscal years due to the recession and 22 straight months of declining tax revenue. It also had to dip deeper into the state's vital contingency funds, even as they agreed to whack services and education budgets across the state. Tennessee's School of Medical Sciences alone, for example, will suffer another $30 million in cuts next year -- further crimping its ability to provide for Tennesseans' health-care needs -- and state employees will again go without a pay increase.

The reason legislators refused to debate even the most restrained revenue measures, of course, was that some lawmakers face daunting election battles later this year and don't want to be accused by anyone of raising fees or taxes, even by ending corporate tax loopholes.

Chief among these risk-adverse lawmakers is Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who is running against Congressman Zach Wamp and Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Yet today, on the last day of the Senate's session, Mr. Ramsey will be required, however briefly, to rule on a request related to a mountain-top-removal coal-mining bill that will again expose just how inextricably linked he is to the coal-mining industry, which has showered him and his political action committee with $195,000 in campaign contributions since last year.

The slim hope he has of showing even an ounce of concern for the environmental costs to Tennessee of mountain-top-removal mining should compel him to allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote before he gavels the senate's legislative session to a close.

The bill would ban blowing off the tops of Tennessee mountains above 2,000 feet in elevation to mine coal. Its intent is to keep Tennessee's mountain ridge lines intact and to preserve the integrity of the environment, which is otherwise devastated by destruction of mountains and the vast tonnage of trees, boulders and dirt blown off or pushed into the mountain valleys below, choking streams and rivers and poisoning critical watersheds with toxic coal chemicals.

To allow a vote on the bill, to be sure, would force Mr. Ramsey to reverse his actions all during this session to bottle the bill up in a committee to prevent it from ever coming to the floor. We urge Mr. Ramsey to allow the bill to come to the floor.

State Sen. Andy Berke, a champion of the bill (SB 1398) had the bill on four different Senate Environment Committee calendars this year, but the Republican-controlled committee repeatedly deferred the bill, and then arbitrarily closed down on March 23. It did so, quite transparently, to accommodate Mr. Ramsey's political agenda of blocking a vote on the bill so as to minimize his obvious connections to the coal industry, which he has touted elsewhere as a boon to Tennessee.

In fact, the coal industry presently employees fewer than 400 workers in Tennessee, and our mountains are far more valuable to our $14.2 billion recreation and tourism industries. But Appalachian coal companies have Tennessee's mountains in their sights, and may legally apply for mountain-top-removal permits when their mountain mines in West Virginia and Kentucky are exhausted if such mining techniques are not banned.

Mr. Ramsey, moreover, now has no standing to prevent a bill that has not passed through the committee system from being brought up for a vote. He breached that barrier, for the first time in Tennessee's legislative history, when he permitted two Republican senators last week to call up a bill, which also had not passed through a committee, to allow a floor vote on a bill that purports to let Tennesseans opt out of a new federal health insurance mandate. The ploy was simply a slap at the Obama administration's health care bill.

If Sen. Ramsey is willing to use his power to allow a vote on such bill, which the state attorney general has already ruled unconstitutional, he also should be willing to allow a vote on whether to protect Tennessee's mountains from environmental sacrilege, and to preserve their vast economic value for public use. That's the least he could do before ending a session that has taken so long to accomplish so little.