published Monday, February 14th, 2011

Tennessee Republicans 'large and in charge' of Legislature

NASHVILLE — Democrats have known since November elections a new day was coming in the General Assembly with Republicans in firm control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1869.

But the reality nonetheless hit them hard last week. That came when the new Republican majority's first order of business involved ramrodding through legislation that derailed Memphis' attempts to force a quick merger of the city's schools with Shelby County's.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, charged last week the Shelby County legislation set a tone for the 107th General Assembly.

"They are large and they are in charge and they 'know more' than the rest of us," Kyle said in remarks to the Tennessee Press Association and The Associated Press. "And you're going to see that over and over again."

Kyle predicted GOP lawmakers, who now hold a 20-13 majority in the Senate and 64-34-1 control in the House, will focus this year on what he called "social engineering" measures.

Those range from how elections are held for Supreme Court justices to cracking down on illegal immigrants, said Kyle, who contends that more-moderate Republicans will be intimidated into going along.

Social conservatives "are going to win out ultimately because folks, regardless of how conservative you are, want to be known as very conservative if you're running in the Republican primary," Kyle said.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, dismissed Kyle's remarks, calling it "amazing when you've lost your power that all of a sudden the other person's abusing power."

Ramsey said an "overwhelming majority" of Tennesseans side with Republicans on issues of school choice, tenure reform and limited government. That's why they won in 2010, he said.

"We think alike," Ramsey said. "It's not like we're marching in lockstep."

The Memphis school bill postponed for 21/2 years an attempt by the majority-black Memphis school system to go out of business and make the majority-white Shelby County responsible for educating its students.

Despite reservations over the delay, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed it into law Friday.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said not everything will be decided along straight partisan lines as the Memphis legislation was.

"I think that was a special situation that was precipitated by the Memphis city school system," McCormick said. "There are a lot of issues, as you know, that are not partisan."

But McCormick said Republicans do intend to press forward with an agenda that includes changing teacher tenure laws to make it easier to weed out bad teachers.

When they were in control, Democrats tended to block such measures — although last year they did approve Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's push to let student test scores count in teacher evaluations and tenure.

McCormick said the GOP may not unite on a proposal to strip the Tennessee Education Association of its power to bargain collectively with school districts.

Urban and suburban Republicans may support the bill, which has the backing of the Tennessee School Boards Association, McCormick said, but some rural Republican lawmakers could disagree.

Ramsey said the teachers' union for decades "had a lock on the Democratic Party" and no one complained. The bill comes up Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee.

DEMOCRATS STYMIED

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said some House Republicans were unhappy about the Memphis bill because it meddled in local governments' affairs.

"This may be the start of something if they keep trying to force their people to vote against their interests," Turner said. "They held together on the first one. I have to give them credit for that. But a whole lot of them thought it was wrong."

But he acknowledged if Republicans hold together, Democrats can do little.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said no Republican was required to support the Memphis bill. Unlike Democrats, the Republican Caucus has no "unit rule" that can be invoked to require a party-line vote, she said.

Harwell said she intends to treat House members with respect and abide by the rules.

But House Republican leaders already are trying to enact a new rule that would make it much harder to offer last-minute amendments to bills on the House floor.

The change would require that any amendment not proposed the day before floor action would require a two-thirds vote of the members to be considered.

When they were the minority, any number of Republicans often offered such last-minute amendments that sometimes put Democrats on the spot.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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