NASHVILLE — A bill repealing Tennessee’s controversial new voter ID law unexpectedly passed a Republican-controlled House panel Wednesday.
Republican officials later predicted the bill won’t get much further.
The measure would eliminate a Republican-backed requirement passed last year that mandates registered voters have state or federally issued photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot.
It was approved on a 5-3 vote by members of the House State and Local Government Committee.
Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, and Rep. Kent Williams, an independent from Elizabethton, sided with the panel’s three Democrats, including Rep. Tommie Brown, of Chattanooga, in favor of the repeal bill.
“If we’d had everyone here, we could have stopped it,” McCormick later said. “We’ll try next week [in full committee to kill the bill].”
The panel, which met off and on throughout the day to deal with a huge roster of bills, was missing one member, Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City. That wouldn’t have stopped the bill.
But Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, who rushed in at one point to help torpedo another photo-ID bill, was not there. Nor was House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, who also can vote on any panel. Matheny later said he was refereeing a dispute over a prescription drug bill and unaware his vote was needed.
The repeal bill was sponsored by Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville. Turner later said he can’t say how far the bill will progress.
“I don’t know, but it’s moving in the right direction,” Turner said. “There’s people on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about this. I hope we can fix it. We didn’t need to do it in the first place.”
Earlier, the panel killed three bills sponsored by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, that altered the current law. One would have exempted anyone over 65 from having to show photo ID.
Of the bill excluding seniors, Favors said, “I brought it because of my mother’s situation and many others throughout Hamilton County ... who told me they were not going to vote” because of the new law.
She said her mother was among voters who have no birth certificate. They’re not interested in voting absentee because “it was too much trouble,” Favors said.
Subcommittee Chairman Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, and a Safety Department official said they could provide Favors’ mother a photo ID based on Social Security, school or U.S. census records.
But Favors questioned what good that would have for elderly voters “who don’t have a JoAnne” to make their case with bureaucrats.
State Election Coordinator Mark Goins, a Republican, said the bill advancing is “going to hurt our education efforts. The other thing is it’s clearly the law until it’s not the law.,”
“For it to be repealed, it just has a long way to go and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
In other action Wednesday: Tennessee Regulatory Authority Chairman Kenneth Hill, a GOP appointee, charged that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed overhaul of the agency “politicizes the agency rather than depoliticizes” it.
“The TRA succeeds because of its independence,” Hill told State and Local Subcommittee members of the quasi-judicial agency, which hears rate-increase cases and other matters for regulated utilities.
Haslam wants to turn the four-member full-time board into a five-member board that serves part time. The governor also wants to appoint an executive director.
Hill said only two of the 50 state public service commissions, which regulate utilities, have part-time boards. One is considering changing back to a full-time board.
Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, the bill’s sponsor, argued the current setup is “costing the citizens money,” noting the TRA doesn’t cover most electric utilities because of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal utility. Moreover, most AT&T functions are no longer regulated, they argued.
But Hill said any savings would be about a nickel a month for consumers. Hill, meanwhile, warned that instead of four independent full-time directors, the five part-time directors would in effect be controlled by the governor’s hand-picked, full-time executive director.
McCormick responded to criticisms, saying “You got a government agency that does not want to see change. ... It comes down to a few people who have good jobs and want to continue having those jobs.”
The bill passed on a 5-3 vote.
Utilities regulated by the TRA include monopoly companies like Tennessee American Water and Chattanooga Gas.
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, ...