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Crunch Time in Tennessee!

GOP legislators have the numbers and a radical agenda. Is there any force that can block them?



NASHVILLE — To start with the good news: So far there is no discernible move, in the 107th General Assembly of the state of Tennessee, to enact newer and more radical gun bills than were already passed in the previous two sessions (though almost certainly something of the sort must have made the legislature's self-imposed February 17th deadline for new legislation).

But there is enough eccentric stuff in the hopper that The Tennessee Journal, the venerable weekly newsletter published in Nashville, may have trouble establishing reasonable new standards to decide what the "Wacky Bill of the Week," a traditional Journal feature, might be.

Among the candidates this past week:

• A bill to require all political candidates to furnish certificates of live birth. This one obviously derives its DNA from the still-raging national "birther" movement, whose partisans allege that President Obama was foreign-born and, hence, ineligible to serve as president.

• A bill to create an ad hoc legislative committee whose function would be to decide which federal laws could safely be flouted. Laugh not. The legislature has already passed one measure, the "Health Care Freedom Act," which declares the 2010 federal health-care bill invalid in Tennessee.

• A bill, reminiscent of the now-defunct law prohibiting the teaching of evolution that resulted in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, featuring as rival attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. The 2011 version seems to its critics to require equal time in the classroom for creationist theories of mankind's development (although the murkiness of the bill's language makes its specific intent hard to discern).

• A bill making it a prosecutable crime to practice Sharia law, the form of justice — including amputation of limbs for theft — which Islamic militants contend is ordained by the Koran. Critics allege that the bill is so broadly written as to make illegitimate any form of Islam, however humble and observant of civil law.

• A bill creating a special joint committee to study the feasibility of an independent Tennessee state currency, to serve as emergency back-up, or potential replacement, to the traditional U.S. paper currency featuring such visages as those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Jackson (the last a Tennessean, it should be noted). The bill posits "a major breakdown by the Federal Reserve System."

As it happened, The Tennessee Journal awarded its "Wacky Bill of the Week" honor to the funny-money measure, which, like the anti-Sharia bill, was the brainchild of state senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). Ketron, mind you, is no bull-in-a-china-shop first-termer. He is a 10-year veteran and no less than the caucus chair for the state Senate's majority Republicans.

On the plus side, he was named co-recipient in Tennessee this year of the U.S. Humane Society's "Legislator of the Year" award for his sponsorship of bills increasing the penalties for sponsoring cockfighting and for indulging in other forms of animal cruelty. From 2001, he has been national president of the Foundation for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

In some alternate universe that may, mutatis mutandis, shortly become everybody's real world, Ketron, owner of a Murfreesboro-based insurance agency, is, in fact, something of a Paul Revere, sounding out alarms for perils to come, lest society cease to be vigilant.

He is also the author of a bill this year that would require each voter in an election to furnish a photo ID — a measure that might be regarded as necessary or even progressive, on the one hand, or repressive and regressive, on the other — depending on one's place in the existing social order. Republicans, especially those representing the established middle class, believe that such screening detects potential fraud. Democrats, especially those representing minority districts, see photo-ID requirements as screening out working-class or indigent voters.

And, for whatever reason, the Tennessee electorate has been shifting ever more in recent years to the former, not the latter, perspective. Ketron's anti-Sharia legislation is part and parcel to his general opposition, along with numerous other Middle Tennesseans, to the building of a proposed new mosque in his hometown Murfreesboro. "This is a Christian bill," he has said of his measure, and he surely sees himself as representing the mainstream. These days, perhaps, he does.

Consider the actions and perspectives of the two GOP colleagues who outrank Ketron in the Senate, which possesses a 20-13 Republican majority over the once-dominant Democrats. The majority leader is Mark Norris of Collierville, a lawyer and gentleman farmer, a polished, amiable figure famous for his ability to build bridges with the political opposition — even if, in practice, those may turn out to be one-way bridges.

Norris' opposite number is state senator Jim Kyle, a Memphian who is leader of the Senate Democrats and, having long served as an understudy to the late John Wilder of Somerville, the longtime Senate speaker and state lieutenant governor, would no doubt be serving in that role himself had not the political tides in Tennessee begun to turn, some years ago, against his party.

Kyle is long used to working out ad hoc arrangements with Norris, often resulting in legitimate compromises. He regards Norris as personally reliable, even honorable: "Once he gives his word, he keeps it." But Kyle agrees that on ideological issues, Norris is, in the Democrat's word, "unrelenting."

In the beginning of the post-election showdown between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools over the dual issue of special-school-district legislation pursued by SCS board chairman David Pickler and surrender of the MSC charter, a self-defense stratagem ultimately pursued by the city school board, Norris was looked to by both contending sides as a possible agent of compromise. And, indeed, he apparently tried to broker a solution based on a three-year delay that would ultimately give outer-county residents an equal say with Memphians in resolving the dispute.

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When the MSC board majority balked at accepting the arrangement and voted in favor of a charter surrender that would cause a de facto merger with SCS, and after Chancellor Walter Evans ordered a citywide referendum on charter transfer, Norris shifted ground and co-authored with his fellow Colliervillian, state representative Curry Todd, Senate Bill 25/House Bill 51 — the so-called Norris-Todd bill.

Fast-tracked during the first week of the current legislative session, the bill received impressive party-line majorities in both the Senate and the House, where the odds were even longer for Democrats, at 64-34 (65-34, counting independent Republican Kent Williams of Elizabethton). What Norris-Todd famously did was grudgingly accept the court-ordered fait accompli of the city referendum, impose a two-and-a-half-year delay on school-system merger, create a 21-member "planning commission" that was skimpy on Memphis representation, and, as the kicker, enable the Memphis suburbs, after all, to pursue special-school-district legislation as of August 2013.

That first GOP action of the current legislative session, which redefined defeat so as to convert it to victory, may have set the tone for much that is to follow. Tort reform, in the form of serious caps upon medical malpractice judgments, is one of Norris' hobby horses, and he and his Republican colleagues in both houses, with acquiescence in this case from GOP governor Bill Haslam, are sure to ride it to a success that in previous years was always denied them.

Democratic resistance is bound to be a futile affair, alternatingly feckless and gallant but, in any case, unheeded, as it was during pro forma debate over Norris-Todd, during which ameliorating amendments from Democratic legislators — sometimes stoutly offered by the likes of Representatives Lois DeBerry of Memphis, Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, and Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley in the House — were, politely or otherwise, brushed aside, like the pleadings of so many small children. In fairness, a generation ago, when the political odds were reversed, Republican legislators often received the same treatment from the ruling Democrats.

And, just as was the case when Democrats governed, the tendency will surely develop for members of the minority party to make their peace with reality and move in the direction of the majority. In the time of Democratic dominance, one sign of this was the six or seven Republicans in the House who could always be counted on to vote with the Democrats on behalf of Naifeh's regular biennial installations as speaker of the House.

Slippage in the other direction may already have begun. Democrats in the state Senate tried but failed last week to amend a bill reflecting the first plank of Governor Haslam's educational reform package — to extend the tenure probation period of Tennessee public school teachers from three years to five years. As was the case with Norris-Todd, the amendments, chiefly one that would postpone implementation of the new rules for a year so as to permit teachers to adjust to them, were routinely rejected on party-line votes.

When the bill itself was up for passage, the venerable Doug Henry of Nashville, dean of the Democratic Senate contingent, voted aye, causing an exultant Norris, sponsor of the bill, to make a detour from the floor in the direction of the press gallery, where he declared, in a stage whisper, "I got one!"

He may get more, as Democrats are faced with the temptation to peel off from party loyalty in deference to the times and to the relatively benign conservatism of Haslam, whose State of the State address on Monday was carefully crafted in budget-conscious, bipartisan terms.

But much of the current Republican legislative agenda appears to be neither wacky nor moderate but radical in the direction of serious revision of long-standing political verities. Though new House speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville has moved a considerable distance from her once-moderate brand of Republicanism, the real mover and shaker among GOP luminaries is neither Harwell nor, arguably, the governor but the state's lieutenant governor, speaker of the Senate and the Republicans' reigning eminence, Ron Ramsey.

Ramsey, who hails from Blountville in the extreme northeast corner of the state, is a conservative's conservative, and that may be an understatement. When he ran for governor in last year's Republican primary, ultimately finishing third in the GOP field, Ramsey habitually repeated an unusual mantra for an office-seeker: "What do I want from government? Absolutely nothing!"

In practice, this means an extreme ideological position of the sort that used to be called "laissez-faire" and is consistent with the well-known government-bashing precepts of Tea Partiers, who in the 2010 election cycle won enough legislative races to swell the current ranks of the GOP in the General Assembly.

The aforesaid Tennessee Journal describes Ramsey this way in its current issue: "He is ... assuming the unofficial role of state conservative leader, carrying the banner of Tea Party activists and the Republican Party's right wing. Ramsey has positioned himself, largely through brash comments, to the right of Tennessee's governor, U.S. senators, and state House speaker, all of whom are Republicans. He has not fought or undermined Gov. Bill Haslam ... but neither has he confined himself to serving as the governor's foot soldier."

Accurate as that portrait is, it may not fully describe the extent to which Ramsey seems on his way to becoming an alternate source of leadership to Haslam, who defeated him last August. Ramsey is fully behind a series of bills now making their way through the legislature that go far beyond Haslam's educational reform package in the changes they would impose on public education.

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Ramsey has been actively backing measures that would abolish altogether the collective-bargaining rights of teachers' unions, deprive the Tennessee Education Association of its appointive rights to the state Consolidated Retirement System board, outlaw dues check-offs for public-service union members, and prohibit political campaign contributions from such unions. Parts of this package have already passed through the Senate on the way to the House, and the rest of it will likely follow shortly. (The collective-bargaining bill was kept off the House Education Committee calendar last week at the express request of Haslam, whose tenure legislation was up for a committee vote, but it is due to be dealt with this week.)

The lieutenant governor's thinking on the matter of public-service unions was aptly distilled for the Capitol press corps during the course of Ramsey's regular end-of-week press conference with reporters last Thursday. Addressing the effect of the Tennessee Education Association and its supporter on what he sees as necessary educational change, Ramsey put it this way:

"I believe that if we keep to the status quo the unions will continue to fight any kind of reform legislation we have. ... As long as the unions are there, there will be a filter between the teachers and the administration. ... The unions exist to promote mediocrity. They don't exist to support excellence. They exist in most cases to protect the lowest common denominator."

Ramsey took that occasion to fling yet another bombshell onto the already littered Memphis educational landscape, proposing that, rather than accept the verdict of Memphis voters in approving the merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, the state should itself take over the Memphis City Schools system.

"We have a school system that, I think, by anybody's measure, is failing. ... I think that if we just allow the Memphis City Schools system to merge with the county school systems [sic], redraw the lines for a school board, reelect seven or nine more school board members, a majority of those that come from the system that is failing, that we have not accomplished anything for the students, not accomplished anything for the parents, not accomplished anything for the state of Tennessee."

Ramsey went on to suggest that a state takeover could be achieved through the auspices of state Achievement District legislation passed last year as part of the state's ultimately successful application for federal Race to the Top funds.

What made Ramsey's remarks all the more telling is that they came one day after Haslam had publicly welcomed the results of the Memphis referendum and expressed his satisfaction that, in view of the provisions of the Norris-Todd bill, things in Memphis were moving on track.

So far, there are no signs, as the Journal indicated, of an outright schism between Ramsey and Haslam, though Ramsey acknowledged, in that same session with reporters, that the governor had expressed concern about over-the-top rhetoric by legislative leaders in his meeting with them earlier last week.

Regardless of who is to speak henceforth for the political future in Tennessee, the debate on Capitol Hill, such as it is, will be between one set of Republicans and another. In addition to various attempted rearguard actions by the House triumvirate of DeBerry, Naifeh, and Fitzhugh, augmented by Democratic caucus leader Mike Turner of Nashville and Knoxville representative Harry Tindall, among others, there are Democratic voices in the state Senate that have been raised in protest: Kyle, Beverly Marrero, and Andy Berke of Chattanooga have been especially vocal and prominent.

But all of these worthies can do the math. As far as votes in either chamber are concerned, they are voices crying in the wilderness so long as Republican unanimity holds.

There remains, for what it is worth, direct action of the type now under way in Wisconsin, where throngs of demonstrators gather outside the councils of state government on a daily basis to protest legislation — particularly of the union-busting sort — like that which is moving ahead in Tennessee.

This week saw the third in a series of such demonstrations in Nashville, the second of which, held in the course of an all-day downpour two weeks ago in the mall of Legislative Plaza, numbered some 3,000 TEA members and supporters, including representatives of sympathetic unions from throughout the state.

Various Democratic legislators addressed that throng, including state representative Joe Towns of Memphis, who rose to particular eloquence: "This is a day that I have been waiting for, to see the teachers galvanized as we have seen them today. When you look at the Tea Party and you look at the teachers' party, this is the true America, right here. ... Collective bargaining gave us the weekend. Collective bargaining gave us safety laws for the daily workplace. Collective bargaining gave us the ability [to prevent] children from being worked like grown people."

During their long period of dominance, Democrats had always been able to block legislation of the sort now moving in the General Assembly, Towns said, and he concluded by leading the crowd in a hopeful chant, "If we don't retreat, we can't be beat!"

For all that, the Republican legislative juggernaut moved ahead unimpeded as the next week began, and, as the current week got started, more of the same was expected — including probable passage of the collective-bargaining bill. Tort reform was surely on its way, and serious immigration legislation, and who knows what else.

Some of the outright wacky legislation mentioned earlier may not make it, but in the current environment it would be foolish to make book on what, at this point, is only a hope.

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