NASHVILLE — GOP hardliners’ social agenda will be on full display in the General Assembly this week, with serious moves toward changing state policy mixed with mostly symbolic protests against what sponsors see as either federal lassitude or overreaching.
Nearing the back stretch of a session dominated by Republicans, the beleaguered House Democratic Caucus chairman said he feels like he’s in “Alice in Wonderland.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville. “It’s kind of like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.”
Republicans swept the House, the Senate and the governor’s office in November’s elections, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, is unperturbed by the criticism.
“They’ve been calling us right-wing kooks for the last decade, and it is now 64-34 [GOP majority] in the House and 20-13 in the Senate,” he said, chuckling.
“Baby, keep pouring it on, because the people of the state of Tennessee are with us on most of these issues.”
SYMBOLISM AND SUBSTANCE
One bill coming up in the House Health and Human Resources Committee on Wednesday is aimed at demonstrating state sovereignty.
The “Health Care Compact” bill would let states band together to spend federal health care funds without federal interference. If it becomes state law and is accepted by Congress, the bill could put state lawmakers in control of $11 billion in federal spending for the elderly, according to a fiscal analysis.
“I don’t think it’s a real issue. It’s not going to happen,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. “The federal government’s not going to turn Medicare over to the states.”
Ramsey, asked if the bill actually could become law, said, “Maybe not.”
“Is there a little bit of making statements about this, that the federal government has overstepped their boundaries in pushing unfunded mandates and using the [Interstate] Commerce clause where it should never be used? That’s what the Health Care Compact is all about, in making that statement,” Ramsey said.
Asked by reporters why House and Senate Republicans are spending time on the bill, then, McCormick replied, “Well, I’m not. But we got 99 members and anyone who wants to bring a bill about any subject can bring it.”
He added, “You just can’t tell our people you can’t bring a bill because you consider it to be far out there.”
POINT BY POINT
The first Republican majority since 1869 has generated an explosion of legislation from social conservatives and tea party sympathizers. Some bills have created problems for not only for Gov. Bill Haslam, less conservative than some lawmakers, but for other Republican lawmakers and state businesses.
• Tonight, the House is scheduled to consider a bill that would overturn a Nashville Metro Council ordinance that bans discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people by city contractors.
The bill has been promoted by Tennessee Family Action Council head David Fowler, a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain. Fowler could not be reached for comment late last week.
• A bill coming up Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee would let higher education employees from janitors to professors carry guns on campus if they have permits and take a special course.
• Last week, the Senate voted 24-8 for a Joint Resolution 127, which would ask voters in 2014 to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to say that it does not protect a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.
The measure is intended to overturn a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court decision. The House companion bill has yet to start moving. The amendment has the support of most if not all Republicans and many Democrats.
Also last week, the Senate voted 18-10 for a bill mandating a voucher program for low-income students in the state’s four largest counties, including Hamilton.
Republicans also are pushing an Arizona-style measure that would let state and local police enforce federal immigration laws. It comes up in House and Senate committees this week.
Haslam and the business owners have voiced reservations about a bill that mandates all businesses use the federal E-Verify system to ensure people they hire are in the U.S. legally.
And a Ramsey-backed bill to end collective bargaining for teachers is still alive.
AT THE EDGES
Turner said some GOP leaders are “embarrassed” over some of the bills introduced.
He cited a “birther” bill, later pulled, that would have required presidential candidates to show proof of citizenship before they could be on the ballot.
The bill was aimed at President Barack Obama, who some critics don’t believe is a U.S. citizen despite his having released his Hawaii-issued birth certificate.
Republicans are “not putting anything forward on jobs,” Turner charged. “They’re not putting forward anything on trying to make the lives of Tennesseans better.”
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, questioned “why we are spending so much energy and time on issues that would probably be constitutionally invalid.”
Some conservative-backed social-agenda bills already have been pulled.
Last week, for example, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, took off notice his “Academic Freedom Act” which would have allowed educators to discuss “controversies” about scientific theories including evolution and global warming.
Ramsey is not supporting the effort by some Republicans to let public university employees go armed.
“I’m discouraging the [Senate] sponsor from bringing it up this year,” Ramsey said. “That’s something that doesn’t need to be brought up.”
But he supports a bill allowing gun owners with carry permits to keep weapons in vehicles parked on employers’ parking lots.
Both Ramsey and McCormick said they see no problem with the Legislature stepping into the domain of local governments in areas like the anti-gay bias ordinance and efforts to block cities from enacting “living wage” ordinances.
“I’d say the states created the federal government,” McCormick said. “The state also created the local governments. So we do have a role. When they can’t come to some kind of logical conclusion at the local level, it is legitimate for us to step in.”
He said it is “also legitimate for us to step in to create a consistent business environment across the state.”
GOP leaders argue that legislation such Haslam’s effort to curb jury awards in personal injury lawsuits creates a business-friendly atmosphere that will promote job growth.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...