State's top three Republicans revel in major legislative victories

Monday, May 30, 2011 at 10:05pm
Illustration by Jon Stich 

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.”  

27 Comments on this post:

By: Loner on 5/31/11 at 4:27

What's next? Secession? Or the Rapture?

By: Loner on 5/31/11 at 4:48

Maybe consensual annexation of Tennessee into the Jewish State? It's already Israeli occupied territory; why not make it official? That could expedite Armageddon - the Tea Party's primary objective.

TN is giving the rest of the USA a glimpse of what Tea Party rule actually looks's Squidbilly in the Statehouse....and Cornholio in the Governor's mansion. Very funny.

By: tpaine on 5/31/11 at 4:53

Could there be any more biased reporting? NYT maybe? Just shows how out-of-touch our local media is with everyday Tennesseans.
I'm establishing a new store in Tennessee (from Kentucky) because of the pro-business legislation passed by this last session, but I guess that doesn't count because it won't help Obama.

By: Loner on 5/31/11 at 4:55

Please, what store is that, Tpaine? Human rights activists may wish to boycott it. Thanks.

By: Loner on 5/31/11 at 5:10

TN may become a Mecca for hate. God, Guns, Gays and Guvmint - they're all in the theocratic mix. The smart money will be buying up and hoarding the coonskin know, buy low, sell high....the bigots are coming! The bigots are coming!

By: Loner on 5/31/11 at 5:18

Tpaine asks, "Could there be any more biased reporting? NYT maybe?"

Few media rags are as biased as the NYT. Ethan Bronner, the NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief, is a Zionist Jew whose son recently joined the IDF...the Bronner's are dual citizenship-dual allegiance types. naturally, their contempt for the Arabs of Palestine is embedded in their reports.

The Wall Street Journal is also controlled by apartheid-loving Jewish interests.

AIPAC polices the US media, violators are harassed.

By: amyinsparta on 5/31/11 at 6:35

The fundamentalists Muslims would feel right at home with the fundamentalist Christians, eh? The 'Christians' pols are:
making God and politics the same-their version of Shariah
demeaning those who wish to promote critical thinking
taking away from those who have little to start with
demeaning and trying to disinfranchise those who don't have the 'right' lifestyle
demeaning those who want to help the helpless
drooling all over the corporate thugs who wish to hire native born workers for the same salary they pay the immigrants, which is around seven dollars less than minimum salary
blaming the entire mess this country is in on the immigrant, the so-called lazy, gays, lesbians, blacks, and any other non white they can throw into the mix
and on and on

People,it's time to wake up; these pols are not your friends; they would take the last scrap of bread and last penny from you if they thought it would further enrich their corporate gods.

By: amyinsparta on 5/31/11 at 6:43

"Just shows how out-of-touch our local media is with everyday Tennesseans."

On the contrary, it shows just how out of touch the 'christian shariah' wingers are with everyday Tennesseans. We want jobs at a good salary and some benefits. They want jobs at less than minimum wage and no benefits, and working overtime for no money. It's time you woke from your 1885 slumber. We will go back to that time at our own peril.

By: treehugger7 on 5/31/11 at 6:43

By the time elections roll around, people will be disgusted by these yahoo legislators. I look for some reasonable people to run in the next election. Unfortunately, we have to wait awhile. The longer the republicans act like this, the sooner the time will come. Of course since we cannot trust our voting machines, it may never come. If we dig a little bit, we might get some of them out sooner, a la Torrance...but by all means, make sure Grandma has a photo ID to vote. That'll take care of everything....

By: house_of_pain on 5/31/11 at 6:45

Our state needs a political enema.

By: Moonglow1 on 5/31/11 at 7:00

Moonglow1: Haslam, Ramsey, and Harwell are the holy trinity of the ALEC\tea nuts. They are puppets for the broader national agenda to re-make the USA into a theocracy and corporate-ocracy. I want Haslam to demonstrate to the people of Tennessee the statistical correlation between job growth and tort reform. Exactly how many jobs will this legislation create. Actually tort reform is a jobs killer. As an example, if you slip and fall in a Pilot (owned by Haslam) and break your hip and then develop medical complications you may be out of work for months and a lawsuit will be of limited benefit to you. So if your fall was due to negligence of the owners of Pilot they will continue earning a profit but your life has been disrupted and your income lost and possibly your job. Another example: your are in a severe traffic accident and now paralyzed. You will be unable to work ever. However thanks to your tea party owned legislature you are limited to $750K. You will be relegated to poverty. And perhaps the person that hit you on the road was waving his gun (remember these tea nuts want guns in cars). Worse yet if you are a senior your life is really over and you may as well pick out your gravestone. This is because Haslam and his groupies love the Paul Ryan plan. So in this brave new world you are paralyzed, lost your job, capped at $750K, and receive $8K for your lifetime medical care. Well at an HCA hospital that sum may purchase a few bandages & some medication and 2 days in a hospital bed. Life is good for the tea party Republicans. Bad for Tennesseans!! A major catastrophe.

By: govskeptic on 5/31/11 at 7:08

It would appear that Mr. Forrester and Loner along with Nashville's press
are all United in giving this session of the legislature a rousing A- for a
job well done!
Whether the far left can influence enough voters to accept
their never ending agenda within a state of 6 million plus citizens
in 2012 will be an interesting observation for us all!

By: Moonglow1 on 5/31/11 at 7:26

Moonglow1: treehugger has a good point. These republican legislators are ensuring that democrats have no voice. How? Busting unions, enacting photo identification legislation, and championing electronic voting even when proven that the machines are not reliable. And Republicans take heed. You think the dems have no chance to take the state blue. Well keep on taking away the rights of the citizens of Tennessee. When people are backed into a corner they finally wake up. Get away from your televisions and from the propaganda spewing from the global multinational controlled news media and think for yourselves. Vote your interests for a change. Does tort reform help you? Does busting unions help you? Will busting Medicare help you? Does Haslam's legislative "success" help you? Are you working? How many companies are relocating to Tennessee because of tort reform? Because of overturning Metro's antibias law? Is your salary in line with your peers in other states in the same profession? Has your job been outsourced? Is Tennessee an innovative state? Do we have mass transit? Or are the roads clogged up? How is our air quality? How does poor air quality impact medical costs? Wake up people!!! And this legislature rammed their agenda through in 5 months because of minimal serious protest or opposition. Even the unions in Tennessee are weak. Stand up to these Scopes Monkeys and stop their monkey business.

By: budlight on 5/31/11 at 7:29

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.

"traditionally Democratic constituencies like the poor to vote" - as if only democrats are poor. What does this mean? I think she means the poorly misled democrats who continue to think that the government is their mama and sole provider.

Everyone should be able to produce a photo id or else how does someone looking at their id know who they really are? Oh yeah, dishonest people don't want us to know who they are. Liars don't want us to know who they are. Illegals don't want us to know who they are. Terrorists dont' want us to know who they are.

house_of_pain on 5/31/11 at 7:45
Our state needs a political enema.

You and Loner need to move in with each other in another state. Why don't you move to NY with Loner? You'd be oh so happy there. Hmmmmmmm?

By: joe41 on 5/31/11 at 7:40

My biggest concern has been the lack of leadership exhibited at the state level. Bring back the days of Alexander and Bredesen.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/31/11 at 8:35

The Tea Party may still prove to be the undoing for the GOP.

By: 4gold on 5/31/11 at 8:59

A native Nashvilleian, I am more embarrassed every day by the redneck, religious, gun toteing, cowboy, right wing politics that set this state back 50 years in this session. In my view the right wing evangelicals are every bit as dangerous as the radical muslims. I just want down the middle common sense government. Trash both parties. Neither one represents me.
Nashville a great place to live!

By: budlight on 5/31/11 at 9:40

4gold on 5/31/11 at 9:59
A native Nashvilleian, I am more embarrassed every day by the redneck, religious, gun toteing, cowboy, right wing politics that set this state back 50 years in this session. In my view the right wing evangelicals are every bit as dangerous as the radical muslims. I just want down the middle common sense government. Trash both parties. Neither one represents me.
Nashville a great place to live!

4Gold, I agree with you - Nashville a great place to live!

However, I disagree that we are redneck, religious, gun toting, cowboys as dangerous ass the radical muslims. Guns not only kill people when in the wrong hands; when in the right hands they save lives as was evidenced by a man who defended himself recent against two home invaders. What would you do if 2 thugs broke into your home? Give 'em the red carpet welcome mat? I think not.

Also, the Koran directs Muslims to kill infidels and Christians are considered infidels to them. Their current modern religious mantra is to kill us if they can. Where in the Bible does it tell us to seek and kill those who do not believe in Jesus and God? No where.

"Religious" is different than spiritual God respecting and loving people. So before you judge all Chrisitans think about it. If I were stranded on a deserted island with a Muslim, a redneck with a gun or a religious person, I'd pick the redneck with the gun. He would defend me against the Muslim, straighten out the religious person and kill some meat for us to eat (and he'd probably know how to fish without a modern hook, line and sinker. ha, ha, ha.

By: GUARDIAN on 5/31/11 at 9:52

GUARDIAN -To the skeptical crowd of reporters...LMAOWROF ..of course they are skeptical at the very least because they are like Jeff Woods , all are progressive liberal democrat socialist like most that comment here. full of "HALF TRUTH" spin or out and out lies. Loner don't short out your keyboard and Capt. Kirk you said " The Tea Party may still prove to be the undoing for the GOP." you are right but they are coming after the democrats too so you to are in their sights. NO, I'm not a Tea Party member and I'll never be a republican. I was once a conservative democrat very close to the Clement family and Bobby is my friend and should be your Mayor. BUT when the communist took over my "Party of Jackson" I walked away and that makes me more dangerous than a AA Member at a bar full of drunks. :)

By: revo-lou on 5/31/11 at 11:02

{house_of_pain on 5/31/11 at 7:45

Our state needs a political enema.}

House, I think our state IS a political enema!

By: JeffF on 5/31/11 at 11:27

Antisemitism: It's not just for the "enlightened" of Western Europe anymore eh Loner?

By: pswindle on 5/31/11 at 1:17

Poor Tennessee, Poor Tennesee what has thou done? All you have done is take away our righrs and protected the corporations. There has not been one job created by this whole session. We have a bunch of jokes making laws for us without a voice or rights. We sure have protected our governor and his businesses. Every law that he signed is a protection for his family's businesses.

By: caluttc on 5/31/11 at 1:25

Its times and legislative years like this I am thankful I am an independent. I wish the press were like so. Failing to do so possibly explains the reduced circulation and readership.
.. I {we} need the press of yore. I miss it. Give me good reporting. Place the editorals and opinions seperate.

By: Donna Locke on 5/31/11 at 4:54

Ha! Devaney said, as quoted: “ 'Democrats are a lot like these cicadas. They make a lot of noise, but pretty soon they’re going to be gone.' ”

This shows how out of touch the GOP is with what's going on. Given the demographic trends and projections, I expect 2012 will be the Republicans' last chance at the presidency in my baby-boomer lifetime. Tennessee will hold out a bit longer than will some other states, but its eventual Democratic direction is already sealed as well.

I don't consider the Republicans controlling this state to be truly conservative -- I'm more libertarian in that respect, particularly on social issues, and I'm certainly more fiscally conservative than they are -- so they don't speak for me most of the time. If I don't see anything useful in the GOP tent -- and right now I don't -- I feel no impulsion or compulsion to tarry there.

The Democrats are no prize either. Both major parties are engines of destruction. So, we need new options.

"In a world of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -- George Orwell

By: Loner on 6/1/11 at 3:07

Hey Jeff, drop dead!

By: Loner on 6/1/11 at 7:40

My 4:07 post was directed at JeffF, not Jeff Woods....of course, I didn't imply a death wish...just using an old New York expression of exasperation. Truth is, I pity JeffF.

By: JeffF on 5/31/11 at 12:27

Antisemitism: It's not just for the "enlightened" of Western Europe anymore eh Loner?

Sadly, JeffF has been thoroughly brainwashed by AIPAC propaganda; he feels that any criticism of apartheid Israel is "anti-Semitic" by nature. JeffF is not alone in that inverted view; it is the generally accepted view of the US Congress, the WH and the general view, across the nation.

Contrary to popular belief, common acceptance of injustice does not constitute justice.

I'm still searching for an answer, as to why support for white-black apartheid in South Africa was considered to be racist bigotry; but condemning and speaking out against Jewish-Arab apartheid in the Occupied Territories, E J'lem and Gaza is considered to be racist bigotry. This is a moral inversion.

Apparently the long-oppressed Jews are permitted to engage in race and faith based apartheid schemes, illegal colonizations, population "transfers", Jews-Only state-subsidized housing etc. with impunity; all critics of these abhorrent policies are branded as being "anti-Semitic".

Sorry, I don't buy that crap.

The ugly truth is that Israel is a nuclear-armed pariah state with "endless enemies" and it claims to be a "victim" of perpetual "existential threats".

What's good for the Jewish State is not usually good for the United States, despite the "conventional wisdom".

Israel is not our ally, they viciously attacked us on June 8, 1967; they have never fought alongside US troops...the "greatest ally" tag is unearned.

Congress should be cutting off aid to Israel, instead of giving its racist Prime Minister non-stop standing ovations.

Since AIPAC, JACPAC, COPOMAJO and related Israeli interests have effectively purchased the US Congress and the White House, I expect that this madness will continue unabated.

The USA is, in effect, a vassal state of the Jewish State in Palestine. The facts speak for themselves.

By: EquinsuOcha on 6/1/11 at 10:19

To the left wing loons that post here....If your poopy is soupy that means that the State GOP is doing a fine job.......