The noise is mostly gone now from the legislative halls after the closing gavel dropped on Tennessee’s 107th General Assembly earlier this month.
But the state political lull won’t last long.
Before general election races start in earnest, many legislators face primary challenges in newly drawn districts. While many Republicans across the state will face opposition from their political right, Republican-led redistricting has resulted in four Democratic primaries in which incumbents face each other. The primary election is Aug. 2, after which candidates will turn their attentions to opponents on the other side.
With the presidential election front and center, state Republican candidates are likely to focus on President Barack Obama’s record. A top GOP staffer told The City Paper that their candidates will try to make this a statement election by contrasting Obama’s policies and the apparent political dysfunction in Washington, D.C., with what the Republican-led General Assembly has accomplished.
That effort started at the top last week, when state party chairman Chris Devaney issued a statement ahead of Vice President Joe Biden’s fundraising stop in Nashville, touting what he called “real leadership” in Tennessee. Since the session’s end, Republicans have made much of the fact that they passed tax cuts and a balanced budget — even though the latter is required by the state constitution.
“Instead of Joe Biden coming here to ask hard-working taxpayers to fill the pockets of Obama’s re-election campaign,” Devaney said, “Biden and Obama should be in Tennessee to learn how real leadership can balance a budget, cut taxes and encourage job growth — something our Republican leadership understands.”
Republicans have indicated that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — otherwise branded “Obamacare” — could be a major talking point this fall, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the law this summer. Since the act passed Congress in 2009, Republicans at the state level have made it a primary issue, arguing it’s an “unfunded mandate” that would spell financial disaster for states. However, in a study reported last month by the Commercial Appeal, University of Memphis researchers concluded that the law would actually make billions of dollars for Tennessee, as a result of new jobs and less charity care, among other factors.
The final political battle of this year’s session focused on legislation that would have allowed Tennessee to join the Health Care Compact, an interstate compact challenging Obama’s health care law. If approved by Congress, the legislation would have allowed each member state to create its own health care system. After Democrats — looking to force Republicans between primary elections and a hard place — mucked up the process by successfully tacking on a number of politically sensitive amendments, the measure eventually failed for the year.
After signing the TEAM Act into law, Gov. Bill Haslam said that the measure’s sweeping civil service changes might be the most important thing he’s done as governor. Republican candidates seem likely to include that as part of their argument that Republican leadership is changing the way state government works, for the better.
At a bill-signing event last week, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that while the debate over guns in company parking lots got “completely out of hand” during the session, he wanted to make sure that a compromise could be reached on the matter. His comments aimed to cool what was perhaps the most heated issue this year, which left gun-rights organizations calling for political retribution.
Ramsey also mentioned the new teacher evaluation system as an issue that could come up in the interim, since a report including feedback and data on the new system is due to the governor in June.
Democrats in the House ended the session by focusing on higher-than-expected state revenues that went unappropriated in the governor’s budget. Democrats in the Senate did not latch onto the argument because, staffers said, they didn’t believe it would gain any real traction in the legislature. They were ultimately right.
Still, in an alternative budget, House Democrats proposed using $150 million of around $200 million in extra revenue to, among other things, restore some of the cuts in Haslam’s budget and deepen his cut to the sales tax on food.
New revenue numbers would only seem to embolden Democrats on that front. Last week the state’s finance department announced that April revenues were up 9.67 percent over last year, $82.8 million more than the state had budgeted.
“After April, we have $412 million in undeclared revenue,” House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said in a Twitter post linking to the news, “yet we’re making cuts to core services. This makes no sense!”
Republicans have hailed the decision to leave the extra revenue untouched as the fiscally responsible decision in times of economic uncertainty. Again, they point to the federal health care law as a possible storm for which the state needs to be bracing.
But Democrats are looking to make political hay by arguing that more could have been done now to help all Tennesseans, primarily by cutting the sales tax on food further. There is little disagreement, if any, on whether the tax should be cut, meaning the battle will be over who can claim the issue as their own. Democrats have portrayed the small cut pushed by the majority — a 25-cent savings on $100 of groceries — as a missed opportunity.
Though message discussions are still in the early stages for both parties, one Democratic operative said party candidates would likely try to push back against the GOP message that Republicans trust people, while Democrats trust the government. Their argument goes that Republicans are not placing trust in the average Tennessean, but rather with large corporations, and points to the majority party siding with business interests on a number of legislative matters, as well as efforts to remove limitations on corporate political contributions.
Additionally, Democrats accused Republican legislators of focusing on certain social issues — “Don’t Say Gay,” “gateway sexual activity,” evolution — at the expense of job creation, a critique they seem likely to continue.
After a brief respite following the November elections, legislators will return to the Hill, where new issues will undoubtedly await them. Also on the docket will be several work-in-progress proposals for constitutional amendments, regarding judicial selection and banning the arguably already-banned income tax. And the noise will rise anew.