Republicans watch supermajority revolt on last day

photo The Tennessee Capitol
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

Winners and losersThe Associated PressHere is a look at some of the top pieces of legislation that passed or failed during the first session of the 108th Tennessee General Assembly.WinnersAnnexation. Imposes 13-month moratorium on cities' annexation of residential and farm property unless local county commissions agree. Requires state study of annexation issues. HB0475Liquor distilleries. Revamps 2009 law and allows distilleries in Chattanooga and unincorporated areas of Hamilton County unless city council or county commission opts out. HB 0102Guns in parking lots. Allows people with handgun carry permits to store firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked. SB0142.Virtual schools. Tightens enrollment requirements at privately run online schools. SB0157.Worker's comp. Changes the way the state considers injured workers' claims. HB0194.Memphis schools. Clears the way for cities to begin forming municipal school systems. HB1288.School security. Allows school districts to let people with police training to be armed in schools. SB0570.College-religious groups. Bars public universities and colleges from implementing nondiscrimination policies for student groups. SB0802.Retired teachers-education. Allows retired teachers' children who are under 24 years of age to receive a 25 percent discount at any public higher education institution. SB0543.Epinephrine injections. Authorizes at least two epinephrine auto-injectors be placed in all public and private schools in Tennessee. HB0866.Handgun carry records. Blocks public access to database of handgun carry permits. SB0108.Animal abuse videos. Requires anyone recording or taking photos of livestock abuse to turn images over to law enforcement within 48 hours. SB1248.DUI interlock. Applies Tennessee's ignition interlock law to more drunken drivers. HB0353.LosersSchool vouchers. Bill to create school vouchers in Tennessee. SB0196.Wine in supermarkets. Bill to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets. SB0837.Charter schools. Measure to change the way certain charter schools are authorized. SB0830.Judicial redistricting. Bill to redraw Tennessee's judicial districts for the first time since 1984. HB0636Helmet law. Proposal to do away with the state's motorcycle helmet law. SB0548.Hiring preference. Measure to ban basing government hiring preferences on race, gender or ethnicity. SB0114.Ending affirmative action. Proposal to eliminate affirmative action initiatives from higher education institutions. SB0008.Parent trigger. Bill to allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school. HB0077Welfare-education. Proposal to dock the welfare payments of parents whose children fail school. SB0132.Cockfighting. Bill to make cockfighting a felony. SB0285Senate nominations. Bill to give Tennessee lawmakers the power to decide the nominees for the state's U.S. Senate.Seat belt fine. Measure to increase the fine for not wearing a seat belt. HB0613.

NASHVILLE - Delivering his State of the State address in January, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam quickly brought up what he called the "elephant in the room."

"There is a narrative already being written for us this legislative session. Republicans will be fighting internally," Haslam said. He was talking about the GOP's "supermajority" -- 70 of the 99 House seats and 26 of the 33 Senate chairs, well more than a two-thirds majority in both chambers and enough strength to completely negate anything put forward by Democrats.

Haslam noted the narrative also included minority Democrats making trouble, but he brushed aside such talk, saying it "makes caricatures out of us and sells all of us short."

Fast-forward to Friday, as lawmakers struggled to adjourn at their earliest date since 1990. Frustration that had built all session finally boiled over on the House floor, but it was fraternal rather than partisan.

The immediate issue was a judicial redistricting plan pushed by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville. But underlying that was House resentment at what some members saw as high-handed treatment by senators and Ramsey's insistence both chambers finish their work by April 19.

"They have been dictating to us from the get-go how this session runs, and let me tell you something, this [redistricting] bill was crammed down our throat," thundered Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kent, as he and Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, launched a rebellion against the bill.

He noted the original proposal was crafted by the Senate in secret with no House input.

"They said you can like it or you can love it. Now friends, let's draw a line in the sand today and say we stand united," Sanderson urged.

And 40 members of the House supermajority bolted. They voted no, along with 25 Democrats and one independent, and Ramsey's bill sank, 66-28.

Two hours later, one of House Speaker Beth Harwell top priorities died for the year because the Senate refused to bring it up.

The controversial measure would have given the State Board of Education firmer authority to overrule five school systems if they reject groups seeking to start public charter schools. Hamilton County was one of the systems.

The bill also would have allowed the state to oversee those charter schools, which are privately run but receive public tax dollars.

Left bemoaning the failure was the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

"Unfortunately, the concept of broadening educational options for Tennessee students has once again become the victim of politics," the group said in a statement.

Ramsey later told reporters the no-go on the charter bill was "somewhat" linked to the failure of his measure, though he denied any retaliation.

"I thought the judicial redistricting should pass and it didn't. And that's where we are," Ramsey said.

Harwell said she was "very disappointed" the charter bill failed. She voted for Ramsey's judicial redistricting bill, but said she was unable to block the stampede. She said she plans to talk to Ramsey later.

"There'll always be legislative differences. That's what makes this an interesting body to serve in," Harwell said.

Neither speaker was there when Haslam held his post-session news conference.

But Friday wasn't the only day of GOP dissension this session. Republicans faced the same hard lesson Democrats did when they ruled supreme: Sometimes it's harder to handle your friends than your enemies.

GOP leaders in both chambers this year often moved to quash or soften controversial measures offered by tea party-influenced Republicans.

Among them :

• Several bills purporting to authorize the state to arrest federal officials trying to enforce national gun restrictions in Tennessee;

• A plan to slash welfare payments to parents whose children do poorly in school;

• A measure allowing the General Assembly, rather than voters, to choose nominees for U.S. Senate;

• A push to seek federal permission for Tennessee to take over and run various federal health care programs, including Medicare, in the state.

Haslam ran into trouble when he introduced a school voucher bill that targeted low-income students attending failing public schools.

Many Senate Republicans, including Ramsey, wanted higher income limits so middle-class families could get taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools.

Haslam repeatedly warned he would pull his bill if it was expanded. When that didn't slow the GOP charge, he pulled the bill for the year.

"We had a voucher bill I really wanted to pass," Haslam told reporters Friday, saying the bill will come back up next year.

The governor touted what he consider this year's victories: a worker's compensation overhaul; moves to control higher education costs; cutting several taxes and adding $100 million to the state's Rainy Day Fund for economic downturns.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, acknowledged that Republican red comes in different shades.

"It's not bad, just because we have a supermajority, that we don't unite and pass bills one after another. We still have differences among ourselves. We have a lot of creative tension between the bodies sometimes. But that's good, and I think it brings us better policies in the end," McCormick said.

"There's nothing wrong with disagreeing. It's hard to pass legislation -- and it ought to be hard."

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, of Jackson, said this year's session "was sometimes complicated by the administration sending mixed signals."

"Be it with Medicaid expansion, teachers with guns, or withholding assistance from needy families based on a child's grades, the administration's contradictory positions often left our state at the mercy of his party's most extreme elements," Finney said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree or 615-255-0550.