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Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs into law his Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement legislation reshaping public K-12 funding during a May 2, 2022, ceremony at his alma mater, Franklin High School, near Nashville. Also pictured are, second from left, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville; Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, fourth from left, and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, far right.

NASHVILLE — While Gov. Bill Lee is in many respects at the top of his game, the Republican governor first elected in 2018 as a political outsider faces mounting challenges from the GOP supermajority, which has dominated the Tennessee legislature since 2011.

The latest evidence of that came last week when Lee refused to sign a "truth in sentencing" law championed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

But because he didn't veto it, it became law anyway, requiring people convicted of eight violent felonies, including attempted first-degree murder and carjacking, to serve 100% of their court-imposed sentences before becoming eligible for parole.

Those convicted of 20 other violent offenses, such as aggravated assault and reckless homicide, would only become eligible for parole after serving 85% of their sentences.

Lee, a businessman who prior to becoming governor was involved with the faith-based group Men of Valor, which focuses on encouraging prisoners to find a more spiritual life and reform themselves, said the data does not support the basic premise of the legislation. Similarly enacted legislation has resulted in significant operational and financial strain with no reduction in crime, Lee added in his letter last week to the two speakers.

That drew this rejoinder from Sexton: "You can protect criminals or you can protect victims. I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys and criminal judges across Tennessee."

The political dustup is one of the latest policy and operational differences the governor and his fellow Republicans have had this year. And it also underscores the challenges any governor faces in Tennessee. Its constitution is on a list of six states, including Alabama, where all it takes to override a governor's veto is the same simple majority it took to pass the measure in the first place.

"The Tennessee governor is handicapped by a very weak veto, which only takes a majority override, which practically means that somebody who voted for the bill the first time votes to override," said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, in a Chattanooga Times Free Press telephone interview. "It fosters compromise. It means as governor, you're probably not going to get everything you want and have to compromise."

Syler said he thinks Lee has "effectively navigated over all."

"For much of Tennessee history, we had a very strong governor and a very weak legislature. Then in the late '60s and early '70s, they kind of redrew the rules and increased [the legislature's] power substantially," Syler said. "But I think it's a pretty evenly divided system. And the governor is handicapped by a very weak veto.

"Some think that's good."

Here's how the the political math plays out in Tennessee: The state constitution requires 50 votes to pass a bill on the House floor. And it also requires just 50 votes to override a governor's veto. In the 33-member Senate, the calculus is 17 votes to pass the original bill and the same number to override a veto.

Most states have a two-thirds requirement to override a veto, according the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lee has yet to veto any bill. In the case of the Sexton/McNally truth-in-sentencing bill, the speakers made several changes to the original bill, shifting some of the crimes calling for serving 100% of the sentence imposed to the 85% category.

Lee's communications chief, Laine Arnold, declined to discuss the challenges Lee faces with the legislature and on vetoes.

"Our letters on these topics expressed our position," she wrote in a text. "As for work with the legislature this year, we passed the largest budget in state history as well as our entire America at Its Best Agenda. And, of course, that included a historic overhaul of school funding that hadn't been successfully reformed in years."

While Lee hasn't vetoed any bills, there were several other measures he refused to sign, which thus became law. Among them was a bill stripping the governor of two of his five appointments to the nine-member State Board of Education, the result being that Lee, Sexton and McNally now get three appointments each. Without a veto, it became law.

Veto tally

Aside from Lee, every other Tennessee governor since 1971 has vetoed legislation, according to data provided to the Times Free Press by Eddie Weeks, the General Assembly's librarian.

Lee's immediate predecessor, Republican Bill Haslam, vetoed five would-be laws during his eight-year tenure at a time when Republicans controlled both House and Senate. None was overridden. Lawmakers are sometimes hesitant to vote to override a governor's veto.

Among them was a perennial favorite sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, who wanted to designate the Holy Bible as Tennessee government's official state book.

Haslam vetoed the bill, as had Democrat Phil Bredesen, both of whom said they didn't think the Bible should be sullied by getting listed in the state's Blue Book along with other symbols such as Tennessee's official turtle (the Eastern box turtle) and one of its many official songs, including the murder ballad "Rocky Top," which tells a tale of revenue agents seeking to raid a moonshine operation and never being seen again.

Governors usually work behind the scenes to convince enough legislators not to override. Or at least enough members in one chamber.

Sexton, who is not seeking re-election this year, sought to override the veto both times but failed. The bill passed the House this year but didn't emerge from the Senate.

Bredesen vetoed eight bills and was overriden three times, according to Weeks' figures. One of the successful override bills involved the "guns-in-bars" law, which allowed gun owners to go armed in restaurants and bars. In pushing the override effort on that measure, bill sponsor and then-Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, boasted he was going to shove the veto "where the sun don't shine."

Todd later was arrested and later pleaded guilty to drunk driving and a gun charge.

Republican Gov. Don Sundquist vetoed 24 bills, with lawmakers overriding him on three, among them his effort to scuttle a legislative compromise aimed at averting the governor's proposed state income tax.

The only governor, besides Lee, to avoid a successful veto override in the past 52 years was Democrat Ned McWherter, a former House speaker. McWherter only vetoed one bill while he was in office.

Republican Lamar Alexander, who served from 1979 to 1987, vetoed 61 bills. Democrats, who controlled the legislature in those days, overrode him 14 times, according to Weeks' records.

Better equipped

As governor, Lee faces a legislature that in recent years has increasingly been willing to flex its muscle.

The tussle between governors and legislatures has waxed and waned over the years. Back in the 1920s, for example, then-Gov. Austin Peay, a Democrat, successfully moved to abolish dozens of independent state boards and commissions, consolidating many government functions in eight departments. After Peay was gone, the number of entities crept back up.

Legislators began mounting a comeback in 1967 with establishment of the Fiscal Review Committee in statute with powers to review revenue collections, budget requests, the governor's budget, spending, work programs, state debt and more. The committee, now-co-chaired by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has added more staff over the years.

The House and Senate Finance committees as well as the House and Senate offices of budget analysis, have also bulked up with more staff and expertise.

"We're just better equipped today than 20 years ago," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said in a state Capitol interview as the General Assembly adjourned May 7. "That just helps us make better decisions."

"I also think that members who come here now, there is a higher expectation in each of the two bodies that those members really be engaged in the process," said Watson, adding the legislature now is exercising its independence.

"We are doing our job, and when we believe it's appropriate to push back on the executive branch or the judicial branch, we push back," he said. "When we think there's an idea that's germinating in the legislative branch that is important to the state of Tennessee, we're going to push it forward."

Governors do have at least one advantage not enumerated in the state Constitution. As the statewide-elected head of the executive branch, his voice more easily reaches Tennesseans statewide, and at times, has enabled governors to rally support for their plans, an advantage often exercised by Alexander in the 1970s and 1980s in areas such as education, much to the consternation of many majority Democrats at the time.

Power move

Last year, Lee spurned requests by Sexton and McNally to call lawmakers back into special session, where Sexton wanted GOP lawmakers to take aim at many COVID-19 restrictions, curbing the ability of the governor to issue emergency declarations. The legislation also restricted state, local government, health, school officials and even private employers' ability to impose some restrictions.

Normally, a governor's refusal is a show stopper. But Republicans succeeded in calling themselves into special session for only the third time in Tennessee history.

In what could be a sign of things to come, not only for Lee but for his successors going forward, proponents easily overcame what had been the 200-year plus obstacle to their ability to call themselves into special session: the gathering of the necessary two-thirds of signatures from both the House and Senate. A requirement had necessitated the call document be physically signed, usually requiring a trip to the Capitol.

Thanks to a bill sponsored by Watson and House Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, they can and did exercise that last year. It enabled the 99 representatives and 33 senators to sign the call for a special session via electronic signature.

The end result? The Republican super majority easily met the required two-thirds signature requirement in the House and Senate with GOP lawmakers eliminating a number of state and local powers as well as putting appointments of county health boards in the governor's hands.

"That came from several discussions either last year or the year before on both just how ridiculously difficult it is in this day and age and ridiculously bad policy it is to say that you have to have a physical signature on a piece of paper to call ourselves into special session," House Majority Leader Williams Lamberth, a Portland Republican, told the Times Free Press in October as lawmakers prepared to come in for their specially called COVID-19 session.

Some Capitol Hill observers see Sexton as positioning himself for a potential 2026 bid to succeed Lee, who is running this year for his second and final term.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said he believes Sexton and Lee have a "great relationship," noting that's what he sees during weekly meetings during the legislative session.

"And I don't see a problem with [differences] at all. I think we believe in diversity and independent thought in the Republican Party."

Faison said Sexton views things differently.

"And Gov. Lee has got a great heart," Faison added. "I guess the Republican legislature as a whole views it differently than he does. I don't think that's bad at all. I think that's a beautiful thing."

Senate Minority Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said in a telephone interview Friday "there was a significant disagreement between the legislature and the executive branch to put it mildly. The right hand didn't know what the far right hand was doing. That has been the trend and has been for a number of years."

He pointed to Republicans' refusal to allow Haslam to negotiate with federal officials on his effort to expand the state's Medicaid program, called Tenncare, under the federal Affordable Care Act with the Obama administration. Under a directive from the legislature, Lee's administration later successfully negotiated a block grant program with the Trump administration as Trump left office.

There's been no word on that effort after President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office in January 2021.

"The executive branch in Tennessee was weaker today than it was in the beginning of this session," Yarbro said, citing the passage of measures including truth in sentencing legislation and Lee's loss of majority appointments to the State Board of Education.

Another long-time Tennessee political observer, Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer, dean of the College of Arts and Science and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, said in a phone interview Friday he sees several things behind GOP lawmakes' drive.

"I think what you're seeing here is broadly the consequences in not having competition between the two parties," Geer said. "That basically the Republicans are creating these districts that mean you're vulnerable only from somebody on the right side of the spectrum. You're not going to face serious challenge in the general, and so people are playing to that minority, so to speak, not the majority."

It's different for a governor whose constituency is statewide, he said.

Republicans control 27 seats in the 33-member Senate and 73 seats in the 99-member House. They can can meet quorum requirements and operate without a single Democrat being present.

When top Tennessee House and Senate GOP leaders held their traditional post-legislative session news conference April 28, one customary and prominent participant was noticeably absent.

That was Lee, who was more than a 100 miles away attending events in Cleveland and Athens. Legislative leaders said that was because the governor had agreed to the events previously and lawmakers' session ran later than expected.

As for where things go in the future, Democrat Yarbro offered this observation.

"It can get worse. Imagine if a Democrat won."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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