Right Side Round Table: Stewardship, efficiency hallmarks of General Assembly

Question: Last Friday, the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned for the year after the Republican supermajority succeeded in passing a number of bills. What should be remembered as the legislature's most important accomplishments this year?

Drew Johnson

Editor of the Free Press opinion page

photo Drew Johnson, Editor of the Free Press opinion page at the Chattanooga Times Free Press

The first year of the 108th Tennessee General Assembly began with the installation of a Republican supermajority in both houses. GOP lawmakers seemed intent on using their newfound clout to enact school choice reforms, reduce onerous regulations and unnecessary red tape on businesses, and make state government more fiscally responsible. As a result, Tennesseans who support a smaller, more accountable government and greater individual liberty expected big things from state lawmakers this year.

While the 2013 edition of the legislative session didn't exactly deliver on all counts, notably failing to lift the ban on wine sales in grocery stores, enact school voucher proposals and expand opportunities for charter schools in Tennessee, there were a number of highlights for Volunteer State residents.

The Free Press editorial page was particularly impressed by the following five achievements accomplished this year by the recently-adjourned state legislature:

1) Early adjournment. It is common for the state legislature to wrap-up early in election years so that lawmakers can get an early start on campaigning. In odd-numbered years, however, sessions often last beyond Memorial Day. House Speaker Beth Harwell's push to limit the number of bills each member could sponsor and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's adjournment goal of April 18 shortened the legislative session significantly. The early recess saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and prevented scores of unnecessary bills from passing.

2) Tax reductions. State lawmakers voted to continue their slow but steady march towards eliminating the state's regressive sales tax on groceries and unconscionable death tax, while reducing the Hall tax on interest and dividend income. Additionally, property tax relief was extended for veterans, seniors and the disabled, and all Tennesseans can look forward to another sales tax holiday this August. In total, the tax cuts amount to only $43 million -- less than $7 per Tennessean. Still, that's $43 million that the government won't be spending.

3) Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform. This legislation curbs the troubling practice of "policing for profit," in which police officers seize Tennesseans' property even without proof of a crime. Money-hungry police forces previously exploited the state's poor civil asset forfeiture laws to unfairly seize cash, cars and other property.

4) The repealer. Aware of the mountain of outdated state laws on the books, lawmakers created a position known as the state "repealer." The repealer will scour state codes to find archaic laws for state legislators to repeal. The position will also recommend ways to cut wasteful spending in state government.

5) No annexation without representation. Freshman Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah made a name for himself by championing one of the finest pieces of legislation in recent memory. Unfortunately, Cater's bill was emasculated by a frustrating number of amendments during the legislative process. Still, his legislation largely prevents municipalities from annexing residential or farm land until 2015 and lays the groundwork to require the approval of property owners before being annexed.

Honorable mentions: Streamlining the state's outdated workers' comp system; enacting pension reform that promises a more fiscally sustainable retirement system for new state workers; allowing all counties to determine whether to allow local alcohol distilleries; making it easier for home-school students to become eligible for state HOPE scholarships; overhauling the state's unfair beer tax; reducing per diem payments to lawmakers living within 50 miles of the state Capitol Building; and allowing voters the opportunity to constitutionally ban a state income tax.

Gerald McCormick

House Majority Leader, R-Chattanooga

photo Gerald McCormick

The 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly boasts an impressive array of accomplishments. Tennessee is more competitive for job creation with the passage of worker's compensation reform, and the repeal of outdated utility regulations. Law enforcement has new tools to combat human trafficking, gang violence and prescription drug fraud. Tennesseans will pay less in taxes, particularly through a sales tax reduction on groceries and Hall tax relief for seniors.

I'm particularly proud of a bill I sponsored which provides those with advanced scientific degrees greater latitude to conduct testing and research in biomedical laboratories. This will allow our graduates and professionals in the life sciences more opportunities to stay in-state, while attracting cutting-edge companies. This will result in hundreds, if not thousands, of high-paying jobs in Tennessee.

All this was done while passing a responsible balanced budget that keeps education funding intact, and adds $100 million to the Rainy Day Fund.

Sen. Mike Bell


photo Sen. Mike Bell R-Riceville

Two key bills stand out from the 2013 Legislative Session -- not just because of the changes they will make but, more importantly, what they stand for.

Legislation proposed by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, requires the consent of the citizens before annexation, ensuring that government does not overstep its boundaries. Although the bill was amended, it remains a big victory for property owners.

The second bill revises the process for government seizure of private property, protecting the personal property rights of the innocent. This legislation establishes the legal rules relating to issuance of a legal warrant, the hearing process for property seizure, and the requirements of an affidavit supporting the warrant, as well as an appeals procedure.

The founding fathers recognized that certain "unalienable rights" were from God. They also believed that "to secure these rights, Governments should be instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." These bills protect those rights in keeping with these principles upon which our nation was founded.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire


photo Sen. Todd Gardenhire R-Chattanooga

I was very pleased to co-sponsor several bills that protected our Second Amendment rights. One was keeping private handgun carry permits issued by the state. Another was the legislation referred to as the "guns in parking lots" bill. This protected the right for those of us who have permits and need to respectively carry our guns onto private property. Tennesseans can now do so without the fear of being terminated from our jobs or denied our rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

School security was an important item passed. This allowed, in certain circumstances, school districts to let people with police training be armed in schools.

The one bill I am most proud of helps stop animal abuse early. This was an early intervention measure that required people who "intentionally" take photos or recordings of livestock abuse to turn the images over the appropriate law enforcement agencies within 48 hours.

Rep. John Forgety


photo Rep. John Forgety R-Athens

This was one of our most successful sessions yet! We accomplished some great things for the people of Tennessee. We balanced the budget, we kept our promise to reform government, we cut taxes and we saved money for a rainy day.

House lawmakers limited themselves to 15 bills each, finishing the session on April 19, the earliest session has ended in approximately 20 years. Every week the legislature is in session it costs the taxpayers of Tennessee more than $200,000. We completed our business efficiently and adjourned early, saving taxpayer money.

We committed resources to seeing that more Tennesseans are able to get a college degree. The state's Basic Education Program is fully funded. We increased funding for technology upgrades in K-12 schools and for equipment upgrades at community and technical colleges.

We implemented a number of tax cuts that will save Tennesseans approximately $43 million, while giving a 1.5 percent salary increase to state employees.

All of these things together will ensure the stability of the State of Tennessee and will help attract job creators and inspire entrepreneurs and put Tennesseans back to work.