Internal divisions plagued Tennessee lawmakers, Haslam in governor's last legislative session

Internal divisions plagued Tennessee lawmakers, Haslam in governor's last legislative session

April 27th, 2018 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam addresses state lawmakers at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Haslam spoke to a joint assembly of the General Assembly to promote his Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income residents. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Photo by Erik Schelzig

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and GOP legislative leaders are lauding lawmakers' accomplishments and downplaying internal divisions that often dogged this year's General Assembly session all the way up to adjournment.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Erin O. Smith

"The investments in this budget and our legislative priorities this session will impact Tennesseans for years to come," Haslam said Wednesday night as the 110th General Assembly clattered to a close.

Among other things, Haslam cited passage of legislation aimed at attacking opioid abuse, something he said is a key issue facing the state.

The governor, who leaves office in January, also pointed to a juvenile justice reform bill and the UT Focus Act, which slashed the size of the University of Tennessee system's governing board of trustees.

The governor was joined by the Senate Republican speaker from Oak Ridge, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, in speaking of the passage of the state's $37.7 billion Fiscal Year 2019 budget with its additional $247 million in spending for K-12 education.

The annual spending plan also includes $119 million more for higher education, $15 million to pay for opioid addiction treatment and $30 million to improve school safety.

McNally, a retired pharmacist completing his first two years as the Senate's top leader, focused on the TN Together initiative, Haslam's opioid legislation.

"We do a lot to stem the flow of drugs into the pipeline," he said.

For the term-limited Haslam, the 2018 legislative session was his last hurrah and he devoted considerable attention to state strides during his tenure. This was also Harwell's last session as speaker. She's running for governor in hopes of succeeding Haslam.

But there was little discussion by anyone initially about what a difficult session it had been.

Haslam had problems from the start with his UT board reorganization bill, which initially got hung up in the House. Then, Republican senators effectively said no to five of his 10 proposed nominees. Only on the final day were the five remaining nominees and two last-minute additions finally confirmed.

And fellow Republicans in the House, joined by Democrats, on Monday torpedoed the governor's proposed Complete College Act. It would have required students on lottery-funded scholarships to take 30 credit hours a year in an effort to prod them to finish up their education in four years.

In a floor speech rallying opposition, Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, cited his own experience as a student who switched majors, saying a lot of people finish college in five years. "I would have been penalized" under the governor's proposal.

The opioid legislation had its problems, too. Saying they were too harsh, the Tennessee Medical Association opposed the initial limitations on narcotic painkillers by physicians. It held up the legislation for weeks before compromises were made.

Moreover, a furor ignited in the House over the state's TNReady online student assessments, which officials say had been hacked. It resulted in a coalition of House Republicans and Democrats demanding changes, ultimately seizing the state's $37.7 billion budget hostage not once but twice.

The second time occurred Wednesday as increasingly suspicious representatives revolting over a legislative fix passed earlier in the week to protect teachers on their annual evaluations. Rebels angrily demanded stronger language to hold teachers harmless.

It snarled proceedings for seven hours as House and Senate leaders met among themselves and with Haslam. Irritated senators said it was a non-issue and the initial language made it clear teachers would not be hurt by unfinished tests.

Both chambers retaliated by refusing to act on some of the other chamber's preferred bills, leaving some by the wayside and generating more ill will.

In one of the lighter moments, Senate Finance Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, walked into the House chamber to check up on the latest proceedings. Representatives lustily booed him. Watson cheerfully booed back.

Finally, new language seeking to hold teachers harmless was agreed on and adopted by both chambers. But Senate Republicans groused over the mayhem and delays it caused as the session ended.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, sought to be diplomatic during the governor and top leaders' post-session news conference about 11 p.m. on Wednesday night.

"I think it's mostly just a function of the time it takes, given the numbers of people involved to understand exactly where we are," Norris said. "There was a lag time, uncertainty, of about a week there. But the Senate had already taken that initiative on the testing situation, protecting our teachers and holding them harmless."

Asked by a reporter whether the House had unnecessarily delayed proceedings and adjournment for hours, McNally simply replied, "Yep."

As Wednesday night's news conference began, Haslam delivered a statement that briefly mentioned this year's achievements but largely focused on state legislative achievements during his nearly eight years in office.

"Since we've been in office, we have proposed — the governor's office or departments — 329 pieces of legislation, and 311 of them were passed. So 94, 95 percent," the governor said.

Asked about the just-completed session, the governor said: "We've had some great success, and things that folks didn't think we'd ever get done."

Shortly before that, when the House was finally ready to adjourn, there was yet another last-second twist that prompted a bit more delay and growing fears the chamber might not be able to.

At issue: Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Gray, was passionately pushing colleagues to pass his proposed constitutional amendment to the Tennessee Constitution, which inserts a higher power into the document.

His proposed House Joint Resolution 37 would say :"We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God." It needed to be read on three separate days with a vote on the third day. Then it would go on to the next General Assembly for approval.

Van Huss, who is passionate about the issue, wanted the House to remain in session another two days. But there was resistance from others who wanted to leave. Sixty-six votes in the 99-member chamber were needed to suspend the rules and act on the adjournment resolution.

But a number of representatives over the course of the day had already split. House Majority Leader Glen Casada's initial try to adjourn flopped with some members evidently misunderstanding what position to take.

With a little coaching from Casada as to what the resolution meant, Assistant Chief Clerk and Parliamentarian Daniel Hicks offered this: "If everyone wants to go home, 66 people need to hit the green button."

Sixty-six representatives did just that and the House adjourned.

"Been an unusual day," Haslam observed later to reporters.

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