Chattanooga-area lawmakers stood out at Capitol this year

Sen. Bo Watson listens to Rep. Mike Carter during the Times Free Press sponsored Legislative Roundtable at the newspaper in this file photo.

NASHVILLE -- You just couldn't escape Chattanooga-area lawmakers and erupting local controversies in this year's session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Take Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, who publicly berated Volkswagen over its labor-neutral policies during discussion of $165.8 million in proposed incentives for the German automaker's Chattanooga plant.

And Sen. Todd Gardenhire, whose testiness was on full display during and after two debates on Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan.

Just check out the YouTube video of the Chattanooga Republican cussing out an East Ridge resident who was heckling him. That came after Gardenhire's second vote to kill Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to provide health insurance for low-income Tennesseans.

It was that kind of a year, with local Republican lawmakers and local institutions and issues sometimes front and center in the session, which ended Wednesday.

For example, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick slapped at school boards in Hamilton County and six nearby counties after they filed a lawsuit contending the state is not putting enough money into public education.

McCormick's solution? He got a bill passed that prevents the boards from using Basic Education Program funds to help pay for the lawsuit. Democratic lawmakers charged McCormick wanted to intimidate other systems from joining the suit. Meanwhile, the attorney who filed the suit said the money to pay for it comes strictly from local funds.

McCormick was still fuming when questions about underfunded schools popped up in a post-session news conference.

"I bit my tongue when the question was asked -- it really wasn't a question, it was a statement -- about this 'chronic underfunding' of education in Chattanooga," McCormick said. "I think what you got in Chattanooga is one lawyer who's collected some clients and talked them into suing the taxpayers for a massive tax increase."

Several other local institutions and issues didn't escape the legislative klieg lights.

* Gardenhire and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, tried to punish Erlanger Health System for violating the state's Open Meetings Act after hospital board members last year secretly greased the skids for a vote granting bonuses to top executives.

The lawmakers' idea was to abolish a 2008 loophole in the Open Meetings Act that allows public hospitals to hold closed meetings to consider "marketing strategies" and "strategic plans."

Alarmed, other public hospitals that would have lost the privilege as well threw Erlanger under the bus, arguing that the exemption clearly disallows compensation discussions and that it was unfair to punish them for Erlanger's transgressions. A House subcommittee agreed, refusing to let Carter amend his bill to close off the loophole.

"They voted on the amendment. They killed the amendment. The amendment was the bill," Carter said.

* Chattanooga-based EPB and other municipally owned power distributors again crusaded in vain for the right to extend their high-speed broadband to what they say are underserved rural areas outside their defined service boundaries.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, fell to a lobbying blitz by AT&T and cable giants Comcast and Time Warner, who argued it is unfair to make them compete with governments. Knowing the bill wouldn't pass, supporters didn't push for a vote, in hopes of trying again in 2016.

* Carter rattled the chains of cities such as Chattanooga in a follow-up to his and Watson's successful 2014 law that ended annexation by ordinance and substituted public votes.

This year's bill would have let residents in a section of a city vote to "de-annex" themselves. Many cities across the state, including Chattanooga, dug in their heels, and the House Finance Committee last week pushed the bill off until next year.

photo State Sen. Todd Gardenhire is pictured in this file photo.

* Gardenhire's bill to grant in-state public college tuition rates to undocumented students brought here as children stirred statewide interest, pro and con.

Out-of-state rates are three times what in-state tuition costs. Gardenhire said the bill, which passed the Senate passed overwhelmingly, is needed so the students will be able to earn more and use fewer taxpayer services.

But when the bill came to the House floor on the last day, Republican critics used the debate to slam illegal immigration generally and President Barack Obama specifically. Supporters needed 50 votes to pass the bill, but the final vote was 49-47.

Gardenhire vowed to "work the House members over the summer" and try again next year.

* The senator had better luck on a bill to ban automated traffic cameras, and got to count coup on a House member who tried to sabotage his tuition bill.

He and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, had shepherded the Senate and House camera bills. The Senate passed an amended bill allowing red-light cameras but mostly banning automated speed camera except on twisting roads like Chattanooga's deadly "S" curves on Hixson Pike and cameras used in school zones.

But then Holt voted against the in-state tuition bill. Before the House could vote on the camera bill, Gardenhire tried to get the Senate to recall its version. Holt was hoping House amendments would force the legislation to a House-Senate conference committee where the original ban on all cameras would be restored.

Instead, Holt accepted the Senate version, which passed the House.

"Either way, I won," Gardenhire said.

* Cities including Chattanooga lost their ability to regulate popular Web-based ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, thanks to a Watson bill.

The ridesharing companies will be allowed to regulate themselves but must conduct criminal background checks on their drivers. Cities opposed it -- as did traditional taxi companies, who complained they didn't have a level playing field, but the bill passed both houses. Watson says the agreements reached make it a national model.

* The $165.8 million incentive package for Volkswagen passed as part of Haslam's proposed $33.8 billion budget. Money will be used to add a planned SUV line of production at the plant.

Among those voting for the budget was Watson, who has said his purpose in grilling a top Volkswagen official in committee was to let GOP colleagues know they shouldn't be surprised if the company eventually recognizes the United Auto Workers union.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550.