NASHVILLE -- Already weeks behind on their anticipated adjournment, members of the 106th General Assembly return to the state Capitol this week in hopes of finishing their annual legislative session.
Senators met in a rare session Saturday, whittling away at a backlog of bills for nearly two hours before deciding to return Wednesday.
House members, who have substantially more bills to deal with, spent almost 11 hours Friday on legislation, including giving final approval to the state's budget and sending it to Gov. Phil Bredesen. They later bogged down in bitter disputes late Friday night before finally agreeing to bail out for the weekend and return Tuesday.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, on Saturday said House leaders violated an agreement to complete work over the weekend. He charged they were being "irresponsible."
He also accused House Democrats of trying to "sneak" through funding provisions on budget-related bills for a Jackson, Tenn., ballfield as well a section dealing with minority-owned businesses, which he dubbed a "quota."
"Sometimes I try to assume incompetence over connivance, but I think this one was definitely conniving to get that in there," fumed Lt. Gov. Ramsey, who is running for governor.
The "quota" reference was to language codifying an executive order by Gov. Phil Bredesen that created the Governor's Office of Diversity Business Enterprise. It works to push "optimal" participation in contracts by small business and minority- and women-owned businesses.
House Speaker Kent Williams, an Elizabethton independent, said there was no agreement to conclude work over the weekend but rather a commitment to strive to do so. With lawmakers tired and quick to anger, he noted, it became difficult to continue working Friday night. House members were sharply divided over whether to return Saturday or Tuesday, he said.
"Everybody's tired, emotional, hard to get anything done," Rep. Williams said. "You know, just nerves are on edge and we get some issues that shouldn't even be controversial."
On their sixth attempt Friday night, the House voted 49-41 to return Tuesday.
As for the impact on the Senate, a weary Rep. Williams said Friday night, "I haven't thought about that. I hope we didn't mess up the Senate. We probably did. But it was the majority of the body."
Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, offered this observation on House members' ability to continue operating responsibly at the time: "You know, sometimes when you stay up there long enough (on the House floor), you just go brain dead. It just happened that all 99 went brain dead at the same time this time."
Lawmakers began their work on Jan. 12, convening first in a special session on K-12 and higher education that helped set the stage for Tennessee's winning $500 million in the first round of the federal government's Race to the Top competition to encourage education reform. Since then they have been meeting every week except for the Senate, which took off one week.
WORKING FOR FREE
Tennessee law allots lawmakers no more than 90 days over a two-year period for their legislative session. Lawmakers don't include committee days in the total. Senators have run through their allotted days and on Friday and Saturday did not receive their normal $185 in daily expenses. After Tuesday, when the House hits its 90th day, representatives will be working for free.
This week, plenty of potential fireworks remain for lawmakers, including an expected showdown over the "Health Freedom Act," a measure that purports to let Tennesseans opt out of the new federal health care law's insurance mandates.
The bill, passed earlier by the Senate, died last week in a House panel when Rep. Williams, who previously supported it, voted no, citing its potential litigation costs.
But Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, who was a sponsor of the now-dead legislation, joined with Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, a congressional candidate who has a similar measure. The two persuaded colleagues to pull Sen. Black's bill out of a closed Senate committee and bring it to the Senate floor where they will amend Sen. Beavers' version into it. Democrats complained pulling the bill out of committee flouted Senate traditions.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said that because Republicans did that, he will try to pull a measure banning mountain-top mining of coal out of the Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee, which refused to act on it.
"The issue deserves a vote," he said. "I will remind that last night we brought a bill out of committee for the first time that I know of in Tennessee history ... to put an amendment on it that the attorney general has said unconstitutional (Health Freedom Act)."
He said if lawmakers can do that on a bill that Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper calls unconstitutional, "we can certainly consider an issue as important as mountaintop removal."
Meanwhile, Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, are headed for a showdown with the House over their efforts to strip out language requiring governors to accept recommendations by certain designated groups for appointments to certain boards and commissions.
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