In light of the Tennessee General Assembly's recent reopening on Tuesday, here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.
It is difficult to predict much that won't have already been written by the time this goes to press, so I will share a somewhat more personal perspective written between attending to clients' needs at the law office and packing for what may essentially be three months away from home.
Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind — "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... " While we are eager to discharge our public duties, none are looking forward to the inevitable disruption of our private lives.
We are proud of what we have accomplished for the people of Tennessee over the past three years since Governor Haslam took office, and we look forward to maintaining the momentum, making Tennessee tops in at least 10 important ways:
Tennessee is 10th in the nation in personal income growth. The state has the ninth-highest high school graduation rate, eighth-best individual tax rate, and seventh-best destination ranking for jobs. It is rated the sixth-best state for business and careers. We are fifth in overall job growth and are the fourth-best state for business. We have the third-lowest tax burden and second-lowest cost of living, and we are first in the automotive manufacturing market.
Tennessee is also first in the Southeast in overall job growth and personal income growth. And we have the lowest debt per capita. All of this makes us the number one state in the nation for retirement.
How have we done it? We've made the budget "job one," utilizing conservative management with lower taxes and less government. Unlike our counterparts in Congress, we have a balanced budget every year in Tennessee, and we have more than 140,000 new private-sector jobs to show for it.
Despite this success, or perhaps because of it, we have even more work to do if we are to maintain and improve our standing in the top 10 of so many categories.
Revenues for the current fiscal year are lagging. Increasing education costs under the Basic Education Plan (BEP) are increasing. The number of TennCare recipients has jumped by more than 50,000 — all but eliminating any new revenue which might otherwise be allocated elsewhere.
We have been here before. What's different now is the composition of state government — a Republican governor with Republican super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. And I have to look at what lies ahead through a unique prism — that of Senate majority leader.
My job as the leader is to represent the Senate Republican Caucus as well as to carry the governor's legislation under my oath to "in all appointments, vote without favor, affection, partiality or prejudice ... "
I spend much time studying the issues and listening to members of the Senate and House, Democrats as well as Republicans, whose interests and perspectives are as varied as Charles Dickens' characters and the 95 counties from whence my colleagues come.
As critical as the budget is, we cannot ignore other diverse subjects: restrictions on the length of knife blades; regulations for hunting hogs; whether pseudoephedrine should be sold by prescription; or even the definition of Tennessee Whiskey. As I write, emails are streaming in urging me to support legislation for "sensible marijuana," to ban "hysterectomies without signed informed consent," and, at the behest of one of my Senate colleagues, to see to the legalization of agricultural hemp.
Thus, while the budget is job one, an array of other issues necessarily emerges. One matter of local interest will be legislation I am introducing that addresses the taking, testing, storage and use of forensic evidence in rape kits.
Other issues include pension reform for local governments that are not making actuarially required contributions; recidivism and criminal justice reform; workforce development; and questions of federalism. One of the latter is whether, in light of the dysfunction in D.C., it is time for a state-initiated national constitutional convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution to consider a balanced budget amendment and other necessary changes.
Once again from Dickens: "(I)t was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
It is a rare privilege to serve with so many who care so much at such an important time in Tennessee.
Mark Norris (R-Collierville) is majority leader of the state Senate, where he represents District 32.