The Republican leaders stood proudly before the media in the state Capitol’s ornate old Supreme Court chambers at the end of the whirlwind week that climaxed Tennessee’s first legislative session as one of the nation’s brightest red states. Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell — the state’s new triumvirate of incontestable political might — called this news conference to make their case that the past five months were full of major accomplishments.
The session was “focused like a laser” — as Ramsey is fond of saying — on the economy and education. As an added bonus, it was efficient, they said. When the first year of the 107th General Assembly adjourned on May 21 after several grueling days and nights of marathon lawmaking, it was the earliest end to any session in 13 years.
Republicans are making the trains run on time, Ramsey boasted when it was his turn to address reporters. He pointed out that last year’s session dragged on five weeks longer, costing taxpayers an additional $450,000 in legislative expenses.
“If you look at what we’ve been able to do in this short session, it’s really unbelievable,” Ramsey said in his high-pitched East Tennessee twang. “Everything was targeted on two things — job creation, putting people back to work, and making sure we have a quality teacher in each and every classroom in this state. I think we were able to do that.”
To the skeptical crowd of reporters, the governor insisted, “This is not just Republican feel-good stuff.”
In the days since the legislature decamped, Democrats have been sharpening their own spin, to wit: Instead of concentrating on jobs as promised, Republicans pandered to the imprudent hardliners in their base this session; that is, when they weren’t ruthlessly punishing their political enemies and changing laws to consolidate their hold on power.
In short, according to Democrats, the GOP flunked the test of responsible governance and proved it’s incapable of setting aside petty partisanship for the public good.
“Show me one piece of their legislation that was serious about job creation,” Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester said. “This was clearly one of the most disastrous legislative sessions in the history of the state.”
Forrester is selling the notion that Haslam is a weak, poll-driven leader whose mind changes with the political winds, while Ramsey is a wingnut bully who has muscled his way into the role of that man behind the curtain. To illustrate his line of attack, Forrester now refers to the governor and Ramsey with nicknames.
“Power abhors a vacuum, and Waffle House Bill Haslam has not stepped up to lead this state, and that vacuum has been filled by Tea Party cowboy Ron Ramsey,” he said.
“Write that down. I’m saying this for quotation,” Forrester added, as if there were any doubt.
Forrester may be guilty of exaggeration, but the conflict within the Tennessee Republican Party between its rowdy right wing (led by Ramsey) and its more orthodox business-oriented conservatives (as represented by Haslam and Harwell) was real and on full display this year on Capitol Hill.
From the beginning, in accordance with the wishes of the public as shown in polling and to the outrage of much of their right-wing base, Republicans played down volatile, publicity-hogging social issues like guns and immigration that might agitate fence-sitting voters in the next elections.
Instead, taking their lead from the new governor, they emphasized job creation and education as their almost-exclusive concerns. To that end, Haslam offered only a few pieces of legislation, but all were top Republican policy goals of long standing. Their enactment was all but unthinkable only a year ago, before Republicans won complete control of state government for the first time in history with near super majorities in both the House and Senate.
On education, Haslam expanded charter schools, lifting the cap on their number and opening enrollment to students of all incomes, and he weakened the state’s tenure law, requiring teachers to be on the job five years rather than three to become eligible.
Sweeping tort reform was another of the governor’s major initiatives. With the backing of an army of influential business interests, he capped jury awards and imposed other new restrictions on lawsuits for injuries and deaths caused by negligence or wrongful actions, from medical malpractice to wrecks on the highway.
It’s debatable whether what Haslam did will make any difference to the economy. Democrats spent the entire session complaining that he was failing to keep his campaign promise to create jobs.
The governor helped them make their case by refusing to consider any of a slew of Democratic proposals to boost the economy, including a sales tax holiday for business purchases, and by initially opposing extending unemployment benefits for 28,000 Tennesseans. At the eleventh hour, the governor finally agreed to pony up $3 million to draw up to $80 million in federal money to fund the 20-week extension.
It was one of the few victories for Democrats this session, and it came over the objections of many Republicans who stated philosophical opposition to unemployment benefits.
“We got people who can’t find jobs, but we got more people who don’t look for jobs because we keep handing them money,” Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Paris, said on the House floor.
Apparently hoping to tone down public expectations, Haslam repeatedly insisted before the session began that he couldn’t create jobs by enacting new laws — a belief he never articulated during last year’s election campaign. Rather, he said his goal was to make the state more welcoming to new businesses. He said tort reform was his main accomplishment on that front, arguing that it would
foster growth by curtailing frivolous lawsuits and creating a more predictable business climate.
Ramsey elaborated on this point in a Facebook posting last week.
“Something Democrats will never understand is that the government cannot ‘create’ economic growth,” Ramsey wrote. “They say we have no jobs agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. We simply have a different philosophy. Our entire agenda, everything we do, is about jobs. Our agenda is about removing barriers and creating an environment where business owners and entrepreneurs flourish.”
As much as Republican leaders wanted to appear centered on jobs and education, though, they couldn’t stop their party’s most conservative lawmakers from pushing ahead with their own agendas.
That produced comical moments, with Republicans twisting themselves into pretzels trying to re-cast social-conservative legislation as economic stimulants. So the bill to nullify Nashville’s anti-gay bias ordinance — which Haslam signed into law last week — transformed into a way to eliminate a new business burden, not a heavy-handed attempt to stifle gay rights. Cracking down on illegal immigrants became an effort to open up jobs for U.S. citizens.
While grabbing headlines and attracting the national ridicule that seems to accompany almost every Tennessee legislative session, many of these bills didn’t pass or were amended into irrelevance.
• Sen. Mae Beavers withdrew her bill to force presidential candidates to produce long-form birth certificates to have their names on the Tennessee ballot.
• Sen. Stacey Campfield’s “don’t say gay” bill to make it illegal to mention homosexuality in schools before the ninth grade eventually passed the Senate in a meaningless, watered-down form, and it never went anywhere in the House.
• Sen. Bill Ketron’s anti-terrorism bill, which originally outlawed some practices of Islam and sparked demonstrations by Muslims, was amended twice — once to delete any references to religion and then again to merely restate what’s already in federal law.
• Rep. Bill Dunn’s creationism bill, which he insisted was aimed only at promoting “critical thinking” in science classes, was unceremoniously dropped by its Senate sponsor.
Social conservatives were outraged by their rough treatment on some issues. After the legislature failed to expand Second Amendment rights, John Harris of the Tennessee Firearms Association threatened in a blog post to retaliate against certain “spineless” Republicans in the next elections. Anti-immigration activists couldn’t believe that their slate of bills — including an Arizona-style crackdown — failed to pass the Republican-run legislature.
Businesses beat back legislation to force employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the status of job applicants. Under the compromise that became law, companies can accept driver’s licenses from workers as proof of citizenship.
Rep. Joe Carr, R-Murfreesboro, said the legislature showed “we are serious about honoring our pledge to voters to make a difference when it comes to combating illegal immigration.” But a leading activist on the issue, Donna Locke, scoffed at that claim in one of a series of scathing emails on the issue. She said the law would be effective only “if a driver’s license or a fake birth certificate or green card one can buy on the street for $10 is proof a person is authorized to work in this country.”
On another front, though, the GOP was united: changing state laws to make it easier for Republicans to stay in power. The most glaring examples: forcing voters to produce photo identifications, thereby making it harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies like the poor to vote; and lifting the ban on corporate campaign contributions in Tennessee, thereby opening a whole new source of Republican cash.
The session’s most contentious legislation — repealing the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers — was touted as education reform. It was the way to remove obstacles to change erected by the Tennessee Education Association, Republicans said.
But that case was weak, since the teachers’ union has been a key partner with state government in Tennessee’s educational advances of late, including winning $500 million in last year’s Race to the Top competition.
Democrats contended Republicans were bent on busting the TEA because the union is a traditional Democratic ally. There were GOP bills to punish the TEA in other ways, including ousting its representatives from the state pension board.
“Last year we had Race to the Top,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. “This year we have dive to the bottom.”
Jerry Winters, the TEA’s lead lobbyist, said Republicans were angry because the union rebuffed their demands for more campaign cash in the last elections.
“Three months later, we see these bills,” Winters said. “I think any thinking person would see the connection. What I resent most is they’re coming down here now and saying this is education reform. It’s just hardball politics. They’re trying to take us out.”
Under pressure from angry teachers in their home districts, some House Republicans tried to balk at an outright repeal of collective bargaining, but eventually knuckled under to the demands of Senate hardliners. They dressed up the bill’s final version as mandating some kind of collaboration between teachers and school boards, but the result still was the end of meaningful contract negotiations for teachers.
“It matters who governs,” Ramsey said. “For years upon years, one union has thwarted the progress of education in Tennessee. The barrier that has prevented us from putting the best possible teacher in every classroom will soon be removed.”
Democrats contend the session, with its obvious partisanship and out-of-the-mainstream proposals, will hurt Republicans in the 2012 elections when they try to persuade voters to return their party to power.
“All across this state as I’ve traveled,” Forrester said, “I’ve heard comment after comment, ‘This is what I voted for?’ Teachers, union members and others now have a crystal-clear picture of what Republican dominance means in our state. I think that 2012 will bode well for Democrats.”
Asked to respond to the Democratic criticism, state GOP chairman Chris Devaney seemed unconcerned. After all, Tennessee is virtually a one-party state now. A Democratic comeback in the foreseeable future seems out of the question.
“Democrats are a lot like these cicadas,” he said. “They make a lot of noise, but pretty soon they’re going to be gone.”
The party’s internal difficulties may be more troubling in the long term. A Republican implosion, with the party splintering into bickering factions, probably is the Democrats’ best hope for a resurrection. Devaney suggested social conservatives like gun lovers have little choice but to stick with the GOP. Give Republicans time, he said to the party’s dissidents, pointing out it’s only the first year of GOP ascendancy.
“I know this is a cliché, but it really is a big-tent party,” he said. “We have a variety of different constituencies, and they know they have strong advocates in Republicans in the legislature. Did everybody get everything they wanted? No, but it was a very successful session that conservatives and all Tennesseans can be proud of.”