Exultant Republicans took control of the state House Tuesday on the opening day of the 107th General Assembly and made history by installing Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville as Tennessee’s first woman speaker.
In contrast to the usual partisanship in the legislature, Harwell was elected unanimously. The entire chamber stood to applaud her, and Democrats and Republicans alike hugged her. Two Republican luminaries whom Harwell called her political mentors — former Gov. Winfield Dunn and former Sen. Fred Thompson — cheered from the House floor.
“In this chamber we are not kings and queens,” Harwell said in remarks after her election. “We are servants. This is the people’s House and Tennesseans expect us to serve them well and serve them honorably.”
Harwell, who has represented Green Hills in the legislature for 22 years, noted the first-of-a-kind nature of the day, calling it “the beginning of a new chapter in our great state.” She called for fiscal conservatism and political cooperation to solve the state’s problems.
“Citizens sent us a very clear message this last election day. They are frustrated with the out-of-control spending they see in Washington, D.C., and they do not want to see it here. They expect us to exercise fiscal restraint and make the necessary cuts to balance our budget without raising taxes, and that is just what we will do.
“They are also tired of politics as usual. The bickering and the stalemate that exists in Congress is not acceptable. … Over the years, I have observed this body set aside partisanship and regional differences to do the right thing for Tennessee because this body is made of statesmen and the taxpayers expect and deserve nothing less.”
She said lawmakers should ask themselves three questions before voting on any bill: “Does it increase the size of government or not?; Second, does it make it easier to start a business and operate in Tennessee or not?; And finally, does it keep us moving forward in reforming our educational system to best meet the needs of the next generation or not?”
Across the Capitol’s marble hallway, the Senate voted along party lines to elect Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, to a third term as its speaker, a position that carries with it the title of lieutenant governor.
“We stand together at the beginning of a new decade and a new era in Tennessee,” Ramsey told senators. He pledged to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our sister states to make the federal government protect our jobs and protect our border” and turn Tennessee into “that oasis in a nation that seems to have lost its way.”
Once Bill Haslam is inaugurated Saturday as governor, succeeding Democrat Phil Bredesen, it will mark the first time since 1869 that Republicans have held both chambers of the legislature and the office of the state’s chief executive.
Two years ago at the start of the last legislature, Republicans held a one-vote edge in the House and expected to install Rep. Jason Mumpower as speaker.
Instead, they watched in anger as Democrats elected Rep. Kent Williams, an obscure Republican restaurateur from Elizabethton with whom they'd cut a secret deal. All 49 Democrats voted for Williams, and he voted for himself to put his nomination over the top.
The ensuing pandemonium brought state troopers into the House as a precaution to protect the new speaker. Williams said he was surprised to hear warm applause Tuesday after he spoke for the last time as presiding officer.
“Thank goodness. I was afraid I’d hear at least one boo,” he joked.
Williams said House members could “hold their heads high” for their accomplishments during his two-year tenure, citing the enactment of balanced state budgets as one achievement.
“It’s a new day. It’s a beautiful day,” he said. “We’ll roll up our sleeves. We’ll continue to do the things we’ve been doing and Tennessee will grow and prosper.”
As speaker, Williams instituted a power-sharing arrangement, splitting committees evenly between the parties and giving chairmanships to both Republicans and Democrats.
Tuesday, there were no theatrics or questions about who is in charge. Democrats didn’t even bother to make the symbolic gesture of nominating one of their own to oppose Harwell.
It was a recognition of Tennessee’s new political reality. In November’s elections — a rout for Republicans across the country — Tennessee’s GOP gained an astonishing 14 seats in the House to grab a 64-34 advantage. That puts Republicans only two votes short of a super majority. If they stick together, they essentially can do anything they please. The GOP also holds a commanding advantage in the Senate with a 20-13 majority, having gained one seat in November’s elections.
Opening day was largely ceremonial. Family members sat next to legislators in the ornate chambers of the House and Senate as they took their oaths of office. The freshman class in the House is all Republican and 22 members strong.
Plans call for the session to recess after this week until early February while lawmakers reorganize their staffs, committees and offices.
The legislature is expected to deal this session with the usual array of social issues, including immigration, guns and abortion. But Haslam and legislative leaders are promising to focus primarily on improving the economy and on balancing the roughly $30 billion state budget.
Federal economic stimulus cash that propped up the recession-battered state government for the past two years is vanishing. New taxes are not under consideration, so Haslam and lawmakers must decide whether to implement nearly $1 billion in spending reductions recommended by Bredesen or make new cuts to close the revenue gap.
Steep cuts are possible in higher education and health care for the poor. Haslam is expected to present his budget blueprint on March 1. In the past two years, Tennessee’s revenue has dropped $1.2 billion. The legislature already cut $770 million in fiscal 2009-10 and $420 million in fiscal 2010-11, which began July 1.