Republicans push amendments to reshape constitution

Friday, May 3, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 18
By Robert Sherborne

The Tennessee Constitution is designed to be difficult to change.

But that doesn’t stop legislators from trying.

More than a dozen constitutional amendments were introduced by lawmakers at the just-completed session of the state legislature.

Only two of them passed both houses: a prohibition of a state income tax, and a new way of naming judges to the state Supreme Court and appellate courts.

Those amendments, which had also passed an earlier session of the General Assembly, will now go to voters next year. If approved, the Constitution will be changed.

Among other amendments introduced:

One, by Rep. Art Swann, (R-Maryville) proposed term-limiting House members to 12 years.

Another, by Rep. Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville), specified state spending cannot grow faster than the state’s economy – unless two-thirds of legislators agree.

Despite a Republican “supermajority” in both the House and Senate, neither of these proposals made it out of committee.

Four other amendments dealt with the state attorney general.As Republicans have taken control of the levers of state power, the attorney general has proven one office beyond their control. The constitution calls for his appointment to an 8-year term by the state Supreme Court. There is no legislative input.

And while the current attorney general, Robert Cooper, is publicly lauded by many legislators, it is clear some Republicans would like to change this situation.

Swann introduced an amendment calling for the popular election of the attorney general, but from only two candidates, one selected by the governor and the other selected by the legislature.

State Sens. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) each introduced an amendment calling for the popular election of the attorney general for a four-year term.

The amendments differed slightly in setting the qualifications of candidates. Beavers, for instance, said candidates must be a resident of the state for at least seven years; Kelsey five years. Kelsey also provided an expanded description of the attorney general’s duties.

None of the amendments went anywhere, however. They failed to emerge from committee.

But a fourth amendment by Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville) did pass the Senate by a vote of 22-9. It calls for the legislature, not the Supreme Court, to name the attorney general.

Because no companion amendment passed the House, the Senate action has little weight – unless the House next year adopts the proposal. That would trigger the constitutional amendment process.

If the General Assembly that convenes in 2015 also approves the amendment by a two-thirds vote, it would go to the people for a vote.

Another amendment by Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) is in the same situation. It specifies that if the governor becomes disabled, his powers shall pass to the deputy governor – with a two-thirds approval of the legislature.

This amendment passed the Senate 30-0. But there was no companion bill in the House, so it’s in limbo until next year.