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VOL. 40 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 6, 2016

Legislative losers: All who disagree with legislators

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The 109th General Assembly is done – almost – for the year. Here’s a look at the winners and losers.

Winner: State budget

Buoyed by $400 million in surplus revenue from fiscal 2015 and $450 million in projected surpluses for the coming fiscal year, Gov. Bill Haslam spread the wealth in a $34.9 billion budget.

Without tacking on debt or increasing taxes, it provides $258 for K-12 education, including more than $100 million for teacher pay and picking up the 12th month for teacher insurance premiums.

It also adds $100 million to the Rainy Day Fund, building it to $668 million. A questionable, but minor part of the budget is a $100,000 amendment to help fund a Nashville convention for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that proposes model conservative bills nationwide.

Loser: Insure Tennessee

Proponents of the governor’s market-based health care plan designed to catch about 280,000 people in a coverage gap raised a ruckus outside the House chamber on the first day of the session. They also called out House Speaker Beth Harwell with a billboard campaign demanding she lead the measure to the floor. But the plan went nowhere.

A proposal by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh to put the question to Tennessee voters failed in committee. Toward the end of the session, Harwell appointed a committee to study what she called a Three-Star Healthy Project to study insurance alternatives.

Some items discussed so far, such as health savings accounts, sound strikingly similar to Insure Tennessee provisions. But whatever the panel comes up with, it’ll still require money and approval by the federal government. Insure Tennessee would use about $1.2 billion annually in state taxes collected through the Affordable Care Act.

The fact it was connected to the dratted Obamacare, though, apparently led to its politicization and demise in the Republican-controlled supermajority. Some of the Legislature’s top leaders admit as much.

Winner: FOCUS Act

Gov. Haslam’s higher education restructuring plan sailed through the Legislature with little opposition from lawmakers and its only real questions coming from Tennessee State University. TSU President Glenda Glover said splitting six state universities away from the Board of Regents and placing them under their own boards could create inequity by pitting each of them against the University of Tennessee system.

Other university presidents say they favor the new structure, which has long been sought by the University of Memphis, which wants more independence. Haslam’s plan makes community colleges and technology schools the primary responsibility of the Board of Regents, and considering they are a major part of his Drive to 55 initiative for increasing the number of Tennesseans with a degree or certificate, it’s probably a good administrative move.

But former TBR Chancellor John Morgan didn’t think it was too wise and stepped down in protest. Republican leaders shed no tears over his early retirement. At the same time, the new structure, while it may give universities more autonomy, adds a new layer of bureaucracy to higher education.

Loser: University of Tennessee

It was a tough year for the state’s flagship university. Amid a lawsuit dealing with sexual assault involving UT athletes, the university ran afoul of Republican lawmakers when staffers in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion sent out suggestions for using gender-neutral pronouns for students and de-emphasizing Christmas during holiday parties.

You’d have thought Rocky Top opened and Neyland Stadium sank into a great abyss. The Legislature huffed and puffed and diverted $440,000 from the diversity office to minority engineering scholarships. If there was any saving grace for this bill, the final version didn’t shift $100,000 to print stickers saying “In God We Trust.”

They also zapped Sex Week at UT, though it is not part of Diversity and Inclusion.

Winner: School voucher opponents

The Tennessee Education Association, largely with the backing of rural House members, turned back a limited voucher bill that would have allowed a small number of low-income students in struggling schools to use public dollars to attend private schools.

Backers call it school choice, while some opponents say it would start a slippery slide toward the end of public education. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, labeled its opponents as “liars” after he declined to bring it to a vote.

Loser: Rep. Jeremy Durham

Early in 2016, Durham kept his leadership post as House Majority Caucus whip amid revelations he avoided a prescription fraud charge and wrote a character reference letter for a former youth minister convicted of child porn possession and statutory rape.

But days after the Republican Caucus held a closed meeting and allowed him to stay in the post, he resigned the position amid allegations he sexually harassed legislative interns and had improper contact. Predictably, Durham blamed the liberal media for his plight.

But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey later pointed out the press didn’t force him to send text messages after midnight asking women for pictures, nor did the media make him have an affair that caused another representative to resign.

After much wrangling, Speaker Harwell finally started moving on the matter and put together a panel that called for an attorney general investigation.

Then she kicked Durham out of the Legislative Plaza after the AG’s initial report showed the maligned rep remained a danger to women. The investigation continues as Durham runs for re-election in his Franklin district, showing only minimal contrition.

Winner: Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey

After nearly a quarter-century in the Legislature and engineering the Republican supermajority in the Senate and House, Ramsey is going out on top. Ramsey rocked the Legislature in mid-March when he announced he would not seek another term in office, giving up the reins as Senate speaker and lieutenant governor, positions he holds dearly.

As much as he loves being lieutenant governor, though, Ramsey says he loves his family more and wants to be stay home in Blountville and watch his grandchildren grow up. He hinted last summer he was tired of the drive to Nashville every Monday morning and said, in fact, he never liked leaving Upper East Tennessee each week.

Longtime legislative Sen. Randy McNally is expected to replace Ramsey, but whether he can keep the Republican machine running remains to be seen. No doubt, it will be difficult, especially if voters irritated by the Legislature’s refusal to pass Insure Tennessee start turning the pendulum back toward Democrats.

Loser: Holy Bible as the state book

It doesn’t happen often, but the governor vetoed a bill making the Bible Tennessee’s official state book. It would have been featured in the Blue Book beside the raccoon, tulip poplar and soon the Barrett .50-caliber rifle for its historic and financial impact on the state. But Haslam said no.

And after a fairly historic debate in the House, 12 lawmakers switched their votes from 2015 when they passed the bill and voted against overriding the governor’s veto.

It was a shocking reversal of fortunes in a Legislature whose members too often worry more about their fortunes in election primaries than they do about passing good legislation.

Split decision: GBLT community

Two of the most controversial measures of the year, the transgender bathroom bill and gay counseling bill, were largely lumped together during the session but went in different directions.

Rep. Susan Lynn dropped her legislation, which would have required students to use restrooms and locker rooms based on their sex at birth, just when it was to go to the House floor, saying she suddenly found out schools were taking care of the situation.

It had failed in an education committee on an initial vote but then came back and passed as members said they wanted to protect schools from lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The counseling bill, which passed both chambers and was signed by the governor, would allow therapists to refer patients to someone else if the person’s lifestyle violated strongly held principles.

The American Counseling Association adamantly opposed the bill, along with gay rights groups.

But Haslam and its backers more or less said a counselor shouldn’t have to provide therapy if they disagree with someone’s sexual identity or preference.

During the debate on both of these bills, major companies criticized them, calling it bad for business in Tennessee. Organizations are also saying they’ll boycott Tennessee and avoid holding conferences here.

Considering Nashville spent a fortune building the Music City Center, these types of legislation won’t help pay the bills. Then again, the Legislature doesn’t like to be held hostage.

Toward the end of the session, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick went off on the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce after it sent a letter stating its opposition to the bathroom bill.

McCormick didn’t think it was good legislation, either, but he really got hacked off about the letter, saying the Chamber seemed more worried about taking a stand on allowing men in girls’ restrooms than about a gang war in Chattanooga.

By the way, the Legislature also passed bills strengthening DUI laws and toughening sentences and fines for violent crimes.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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