Year in Review: Republicans use new numbers to flex political, policy muscles

Monday, December 31, 2012 at 3:02pm

Between the governor’s first veto and wild political backlash against Republican leaders, this was a year of firsts on Capitol Hill.

It all started in January when Republicans took control over legislative redistricting for the first time. State lawmakers are charged with redrawing district lines every decade following the U.S. Census, and with Republicans in full control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, they had little problem approving maps that lumped eight Democrats into four districts and drew others in the minority party into Republican-heavy districts.

Also for the first time after months of misfires, state officials found a way to legally evict Occupy Nashville protesters from their camping grounds on the plaza outside the War Memorial Building.

Lawmakers quickly approved legislation this year that banned tents or the laying down of bedding on state property not expressly for camping.

As lawmakers continued their business on Capitol Hill, the Republican-led legislature for the first time sent Gov. Bill Haslam bills he would refuse to sign.

The governor exercised his first-ever veto to reject legislation forcing Vanderbilt University to drop its anti-discrimination policy that requires student clubs accept “all comers” wanting to be members or leaders. Although religious organizations complained about the potential for people to lead organizations regardless whether they philosophically agree with the group’s mission, Haslam said the state shouldn’t make those decisions for a private institution.

Haslam, also for the first time, opted to let a bill become law without his signature. The legislation would have tried to cap the number of foreign nationals charter schools could hire at 3.5 percent, a provision opponents said put up barriers for nonimmigrant foreign workers with H-1B or J-1 visas. Haslam said he wouldn’t sign the bill for fear the bill wasn’t constitutionally sound. This fall, the attorney general confirmed the governor’s suspicions and found the law “constitutionally suspect,” although it is still on the books.   

In another first, a high-ranking Republican leader went down as retribution for a controversial gun expansion bill stalling on the Hill. Gun rights advocates spent much of the year trying to pressure the GOP majority to take seriously legislation that would have allowed gun owners to legally stow their guns in their vehicles parked on work property. Pinned between core constituencies of gun advocates and business owners, Republicans shelved the bill for the year. Gun rights advocates, including a huge push by the NRA, fired back by putting House GOP Caucus Leader Debra Maggart in their crosshairs in the August primary election, ultimately getting voters in Sumner County to boot her out of office.

The governor also made his first official move to readying the state for implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The decision came this month after waiting out the U.S. Supreme Court’s summer decision to ultimately uphold the so-called “Obamacare” law, then the presidential election where President Obama won reelection and squashed hopes the new law would go away.

Saddled with whether to take ownership of the online marketplaces for people to shop for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Haslam for months said he’d probably want the state to run the health insurance exchanges itself. But he ultimately sided with Republicans and the conservative wing of the party who urged him to let the federal government run its own program. Haslam has yet to decide whether to expand the TennCare rolls as requested under Obamacare but said he’ll likely put off that decision until next spring or so.