There came a moment in the state Senate on Saturday, some three hours before final adjournment of the 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly when Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, in his role as speaker of the state Senate, was ruling on one of the many motions to table this or that bill getting last-minute treatment, and he asked clerk Russell Humphrey for an electronic vote-count on one such. Told it was 15-aye, 13-nay, or something suchlike, Ramsey did not so much strike his gavel as let it fall and then said, "The motion fails."
A second or two later, he looked perplexed and seemed to refocus on what he'd said: "Wait ... let's rethink that." And then, as the fractured math reassembled itself in his mind his gavel sounded again, this time more firmly, and he corrected himself: "The motion prevails."
It was one of the few times a verdict by Ramsey, the dominant figure in this legislative session, had been reversed — appropriately enough, in this case, by himself.
Not long thereafter, in the pell-mell processing of leftover measures, a seemingly innocuous bill to establish an official Fibromyalgia Day came to the fore. This one was on its way to passage by acclamation when state senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Senate Democratic leader, raised an objection.
"This is what fibromyalgia looks like," Kyle informed his Senate peers — whereupon he stood poker-faced in place for a few seconds. "And this is what raising your arm looks like on fibromyalgia," he said, proceeding to stretch one arm matter-of-factly above his head.
Kyle came to his point: "There is no such thing as fibromyalgia," he proclaimed. "It doesn't exist!" The senator briefly spoke to — and for — an enduring skepticism in some quarters, lay and medical, where fibromyalgia, whose pain symptoms have proved difficult to locate in distinct bodily locations, is considered essentially a form of hychondria.
Then Kyle delivered his coup de grace. Noting that the bill in question called for Fibromyalgia Day to be observed on May 11th and that the calendar had already gotten to May 21st, he said, "And there's no such thing as May 11th, either — not anymore."
In the end, Kyle, in this case a minority of one, was out-voted — and not for the first time in a session in which his 13 Democrats were consistently voted down by the 20 Senate Republicans, headed by Ramsey and the GOP's majority leader, state senator Mark Norris of Collierville.
But parliamentary form held, and later Saturday, only minutes away from Ramsey's final gavel, Kyle and Norris took a moment to exchange compliments regarding the courtesies each had extended the other in the course of an often confrontational session.
A few hours earlier on Saturday, Kyle's Democratic counterparts in an even more imbalanced House (64 Republicans to 34 Democrats) — minority leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Democratic caucus leader Mike Turner of Nashville — had delivered their own assessment.
Speaking to reporters in Nashville during an end-of-session press conference, Fitzhugh and Turner did their best to tote up some positives to go with the negatives. Most of the former pertained to the efforts of Republican governor Bill Haslam.
After Fitzhugh enumerated a list of programs which he said Haslam had been instrumental in funding or restoring — public TV, extended unemployment benefits, disaster relief, TennCare services, among them — Turner said, "The governor worked with us. He went out of his way to try to listen to us. He tried to accommodate us on everything we asked. Some things he couldn't get there on, but he bent over backwards."
Both Turner and Fitzhugh referred to Haslam as "a good person" — Turner going so far as to say, "Maybe he's above partisan politics a little bit." The Democratic caucus leader said, "His problem is not with us, but with Ramsey and the Senate." That was a none-too-subtle reference to a belief among many on Capitol Hill that there is an undeclared power struggle between the Republican governor and the Republican lieutenant governor, both of whom publicly deny such a thing.
The two House Democratic leaders had no grace notes to offer the lieutenant governor. Indirectly referencing an image from last year's TV commercials for Ramsey, then a GOP candidate for governor, Turner called the ranking Republican parliamentary leader "the cowboy down the hall," contrasting him with Republican House speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and GOP House majority leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, both "good people."
Turner repeated an evaluation of the session he had made a day earlier: "Ramsey wins. He got most of what he wanted, to the detriment of the state." He said the Republicans offered no jobs legislation and suppressed attempts by the Democrats to provide such bills.
Both Democratic leaders lamented what Fitzhugh called "the attack upon teachers, certainly not a good way to end the session."
The reference was to a Conference Report bill, close to Ramsey's own original version of a bill to ban collective bargaining by public school teachers, that was passed late Friday. The bill eliminates the collective bargaining role long held by the Tennessee Education Association and substitutes a "collaborative conferencing" arrangement involving multiple organizations, with school boards having the final say in disputed matters.
Fitzhugh repeated an observation made earlier by "one of my Senate colleagues" [state senator Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga] that Tennessee had gone from "Race to the Top" last year to "Dive to the Bottom" this year.
Earlier in the week, the House had already had vigorous debate over HB 130 — in retrospect a kinder, gentler version of what eventually passed, one which would have preserved a modicum of collective bargaining for teachers over pay and benefits but proscribed any union control over such matters as merit pay and teacher assignments. When the harsher Conference Report version, which had sailed through the Senate, arrived in the House on Friday, it generated hours of often vitriolic debate — most of it redundant.
A few Republicans crossed over and voted with the House Democrats in opposition, but the end was inevitable. By a vote of 55 to 40, an era of teacher solidarity, one in which the TEA or its affiliates had bargained with school boards across a wide range of matters in most of the state's school districts, was formally ended.
The House galleries on Friday night were filled by members of the TEA, which happened to be holding its annual state conference that very weekend in Nashville. As the final tally was announced, the galleries erupted with choruses of "Shame!"
The abolition of collective bargaining had not been sought by Haslam, but its accomplishment at Ramsey's behest all but completed a package of educational change — "reform," as the Republican majority would have it — which included an expansion of charter schools, a toughening of tenure requirements, and an overall centralizing of educational control within the state Department of Education.
The education overhaul was one of two key accomplishments for the state's new Republican order in the legislature's last week. The other was the passage, long deferred, of what the GOP calls "tort reform," the limitation of non-economic (qualify-of-life) awards in medical malpractice and workplace injury cases. The new ceiling is $750,000, with an additional $500,000 allowed for punitive damages. In extreme negligence cases — injuries leading to quadriplegia, for example — the non-economic ceiling could rise to $1 million ($29 a day for the lifetime of a 20-year-old girl who had suffered just such an injury, Democratic state senator Roy Herron pointed out).
The final state budget of $30 billion was some $2 billion less than that of the year before, and it, along with the several pieces of keystone legislation passed this year, afforded "an example [of] what unified Republican government can be," pronounced an exultant Ramsey, who wanted — and got — the last word.