Tennessee legislative politics veer right

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee legislators made a series of political right turns on public policy during the 106th General Assembly that ended the second half of its two-year run last week, lawmakers and observers say.

With Republicans gaining majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time since the post-Civil War era in the 2008 elections, conservatives' impact was felt in areas ranging from abortion to immigrants to charter school expansion.

Handgun-carry permit holders soon will be able to go armed in establishments serving alcohol. Trial lawyers and public defenders have less say so on state Supreme Court nominations forwarded by a judicial commission to governors.

"It's obviously tilted in a more conservative direction," said Dr. John Vile, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

After weeks of delay, lawmakers finally adjourned about 1:20 a.m. Thursday.

House Republican Assistant Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, agreed the legislature took a rightward turn.

"And personally I'm glad it did," he said.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said while lawmakers did well with Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, "driving the agenda" on a special session on education this year, when it came to "the rest of the session, however, we spent time on issues that didn't concentrate on big things like jobs."

"Instead," he said, "we spent days on a bill the attorney general of our state has said is unconstitutional."

That was a reference to the Republican-driven Health Care Freedom Act, which tried to block insurance mandates of the federal health care law from taking effect in Tennessee. It also sought to order state Attorney General Attorney Bob Cooper to challenge the federal legislation's constitutionality.

The bill failed spectacularly in the House on Wednesday night, leaving the bill's House and Senate Republican sponsors, who are running against each other in the Aug. 5 primary for a state Senate seat, pointing fingers at each other.

Less than ironclad control

The 2008 national elections in Tennessee defied national trends with voters rejecting Democrat Barack Obama and backing Republican John McCain by 57 percent to 42 percent margin.

That helped Senate Republicans, who had achieved a shaky form of control in 2006, to win a solid 19-14 majority.

In the House, however, things were far often less clear. Republicans won a 50-49 House majority, providing both chambers their first majorities since Civil War Reconstruction.

But on the first day of the 2009 session, Democrats including then-House Speaker Jimmy Nafeih, D-Covington, threw a curve ball. They joined with Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, voted for himself and became speaker over a Republican candidate, leaving most Republicans raging.

Rep. Williams was cast out of the state party for what Republicans called his betrayal. But he evenly divided most committees as well as subcommittees between the parties where previously for years Democratic leaders blocked Republican initiatives as well as those pushed by the substantial bloc of Democratic conservatives.

"I think it made a difference and, depending on your perspective, it was a mixed bag," said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "Obviously some positions that Republicans had, whether you agree or disagree with them, that didn't make it out of committee before were at least heard on the floor and passed -- or didn't."

He noted conservative Democrats often joined the GOP on social issues.

Rep. McCormick said that in the past, Rep. Naifeh "bottled up some issues such as Second Amendment rights and some others that would never have seen the light of day."

Abortion and immigration

Last year's House committee changes resulted in the chamber passing a proposed ballot initiative that would amend the Tennessee Constitution and make it neutral on abortion rights. It must pass the next General Assembly before it can go on the 2012 ballot.

This year lawmakers passed legislation requiring abortion clinics to post signs informing women that it is against the law to seek to coerce them to have an abortion. Another bill bans abortion coverage by any insurance plan through health exchanges envisioned under the federal health care law.

Abortion foes were jubilant.

"Pro-life citizens around the state are grateful to our new House Speaker, Kent Williams, for making the protection of life a priority, just as he said he would," said Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, who also praised Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker now running for governor.

Others had a different take.

Joe Sweat, a volunteer lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, called the 106th General Assembly "a very conservative legisature with almost no regard for the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights" with decreasing sympathy for the "little guy."

Mr. Sweat was critical of two bills that "clamped down" on immigrants. One requires local jailers to check the immigration status of prisoners and forward the information on to federal immigration officials. The other gives employers more legal authority to require their workers speak English.

"I'm not trying to defend illegal immigrants, but when you just swoop people off the street for having their (vehicle) light out and then want them to prove their citizenship, there's an awful lot of citizens who can't immediately prove their citizenship," Mr. Sweat said.

He noted any number of Democrats also backed such measures. For example, the lead Senate sponsor of much of the handgun-carry permit legislation was Sen. Doug Jackson, a Dickson Democrat.

Over the past two years, lawmakers voted to let holders go armed in public parks and in establishments serving alcohol received large numbers of Democratic votes. They re-passed the so-called "guns in bars" bill again this year after a judge declared last year's effort unconstitutionally vague.

But efforts by Republican and Democratic gun-rights opponents ran into a buzz saw in a show down over businesses having to let employees store guns in vehicles parked on company parking lots. Also failing were attempts to let higher education workers go armed on campus, restrict the issuance of written driver's-license exams in other languages and a Senate GOP effort to require new voters prove they are U.S. citizens if asked to do so.

Budget fight

Former House Speaker Naifeh acknowledged Republicans were able to push a number of issues dear to social conservatives of both parties.

But he claimed victory with regard to the budget, saying "19 Republicans in the Senate tried to rule" but failed when Democrats, Rep. Williams and some Republicans successfully opposed Republicans' proposed cuts to a teacher supplemental pay program and other initiatives including elimination of a program combating infant mortality.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, had his own take on what happened, noting Republicans beat back efforts by Gov. Bredesen to increase taxes and fees by about $120 million.

With the exception of a "voluntarily imposed tax" of 3.25 percent that hospitals requested lawmakers impose on them to offset TennCare cuts, Sen. Watson said, "we passed a budget with no real tax increases."

He said the "key thing is we've been able to keep working in tandem with the administration. We've kept Tennessee a low-tax state in good positions for recovery when the economic recovery begins."

Send 'em a message

It was clear things were going to be different in the 106th General Assembly last year.

Freshman Republican Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, for example, drew attention after acknowledging he warned a lobbyist that when it comes to same-sex couples adopting children, "if we misbehave as a people God could place calamity on us. I did say, you know, God could punish California or anybody else, he could slide it off into the sea."

As the grass-roots tea party movement took wing, a constant refrain for Republicans this session was the need to "send a message" to Washington" on any number of issues. Republicans and Democrats fought over various urging resolutions, including one honoring Arizona for its tough stance on illegal immigrants. The resolution passed.

But a major focus became the Health Care Freedom Act, which initially zipped through the Senate on a 26-1 vote with only Sen. Berke voting no.

Opposition was fiercer in the House. There Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, the sponsor, found himself arguing the federal law would interfere with the ability of Mennonites in his community to continue to pay cash or "work out other arrangements" to reimburse expenses rather than use insurance.

"I know someone in the medical field who has been paid with vegetables from the Mennonite community," Rep. Bell said at one point.

Countered Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, "that's an anomaly. ... We can't run the country on vegetables and horse trading."

Rep. Bell's bill was ultimately blocked in the House. Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, sought to rescue the measure by placing it on a somewhat similar House bill, sponsored by her arch-rival, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, who is challenging Sen. Beavers in the Aug. 5 Senate primary.

The bill went to conference but ultimately failed in the House.

Bredesen: 'Feeling their oats'

In an impromptu news conference with reporters Thursday, Gov. Bredesen, a conservative who has sometimes been at odds with fellow Democrats, said "there's starting to be more party-line orientation in the legislature. ... But we don't have anything like the hardnosed party discipline that the Congress has."

He acknowledged "the strong Republican control of the Senate has its own dynamic with it, but they have learned as Democrats did when they controlled that means you also have to govern, you actually have to pass budgets."

Citing the "guns-in-bars stuff had broad support on both sides of the aisle," he said it "was much more of a cultural thing" than partisan.