NASHVILLE — Sometime this week, the gavel will come down in both chambers of the Tennessee legislature, and the 2010 session of the 106th General Assembly will mercifully come to a close.
When there are causes célèbres to deal with — the great income tax battles of a decade ago, for example, or the gun-toting bills of more recent times — people in the rest of the state snap to and pay attention. The rest of the time, unless a home-town legislator happens to fall off a bar stool — which has been known to happen — the general populace doesn't pay much notice.
The exceptions to this rule come when particular causes or interests are at stake. A great many people in Shelby County were concerned, for good and obvious reasons, over the fate of infant mortality legislation, which in recent weeks had been held hostage in budget negotiations between the two houses, the two parties, and, in fact, the two speakers.
Ostensibly, House speaker Kent Williams, a de facto independent from Carter County in East Tennessee, was insisting on allocating $16 million for a long-promised fish hatchery in his district. And his opposite number, Senate speaker a.k.a. Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, was determined to resist that expenditure, as well as some $5 million in funding for improvements at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and money for the Governor's Office of Child Care Coordination, the agency charged with overseeing the aforesaid projects to reduce the rate of infant mortality.
Inasmuch as the rate of infant mortality is notoriously high in Tennessee — and sky-high in Memphis — the standoff tended to make both speakers look petty. How could Williams — who was expelled by the state Republican Party after becoming speaker in 2009 via Democratic votes — insist on his coveted fish hatchery when to do so seemed to endanger funding for children at risk? And how could Ramsey — whose legislative parsimony doubled as campaign strategy for his current gubernatorial campaign — turn a deaf ear to such manifest social needs?
In reality, the apparent sticking points were at all times merely fronts for negotiations going on behind the scenes. As state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, would say later on, "The longer time went on, the more important that fish hatchery became." That was a way of saying that the Democrats, who had formed a solid bloc behind Williams, employed it as a bargaining counter to be traded off for other programs.
Even as tension mounted over budget negotiations, Ramsey flew to Memphis last Wednesday for the express purpose of appearing with his two Republican gubernatorial rivals, Congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga and Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, at a luncheon of the Republican Women of Purpose in Collierville. After speaking his turn, he confided that the budget impasse would likely last "another week and maybe two," and he boarded a plane back to the state capitol.
The fact is that, almost as soon as Ramsey was wheels down in Nashville, the deal got done. Things happened so fast that I got word via telephone from a source on the Hill as I was driving to Nashville from the same luncheon that Ramsey had left.
It all boiled down to this: Williams yielded on the fish hatchery this time around — though authorization for it in the next legislative session was written into the compact. Ramsey got to take credit for a takedown on the hatchery (giving rise on the Hill to a slew of puns involving fish and pork), and the endangered infant mortality prevention programs got back into the budget, as did several million dollars for the National Civil Rights Museum, conditional upon federal matching funds. Also salvaged were funds for demolition of buildings on the University of Tennessee Health Science Center campus.
A well-worn metaphor compares the making of laws to the making of sausage, and that particular trope applied particularly well to the 2010 session of the 106th General Assembly. To be sure, the House and Senate, thanks significantly to the mediation efforts of Kyle, agreed by the end of last week on a $28 billion budget package.
One indication of the general satisfaction with the agreement was the fact that even State senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), a persistent foe of state spending who was in a minority that voted against several of the bills that closed out budget arrangements in the Senate, took to the floor Thursday night to approve the inclusion of the infant mortality funds in the final budget version.
Said Kelsey: "I think we're making the right decision in funding these programs, in addressing the infant mortality issue that affects our state." Kelsey also announced that he and state representative John DeBerry (D-Memphis) would be presiding over a breakfast at the Urban Child Institute in Memphis on Wednesday of the current week, and he promised, "We're going to get to the bottom of this issue."
• In keeping with the sausage-making metaphor, however, a good deal of mess was left over from putting the package together. Consider some of the leftover legislation that prevented immediate adjournment and made it into this week:
There was HB 3413, for example, seemingly a routine re-authorization of state-supported scholarships for prospective African-American teachers.
But state representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) proposed an amendment that would eliminate the racially specific aspects of the grants. Said Dunn in part: "I don't know how this program exists where you can use state tax dollars to openly discriminate and say if you're white you can't apply for these. I can understand if you're a private organization or you're the Negro College Fund — but tax dollars? And I think the whole purpose of the civil rights amendment was to say we will not discriminate, and currently this program does that.
"And so I'm just moving to ease a way to where the funds go to those who would like, who need the money, as opposed to just based on race."
That prompted state representative Ulysses Jones (D-Memphis) to object: "This is an amendment that this gentleman has presented every, every year. ... [The bill] says 'minority fellowship teacher program.' ... That's the reason the program started. This program has been passed for 22 years. And every year you get up and talk against this program that assists African-American teachers where we have an extreme shortage. I mean, it's obvious he doesn't like the program. That's fine, but don't get up and make innuendoes."
In the end, the amendment was tabled, and it, and the bill itself, and the potential racial controversy that was at the heart of the disagreement continued over into this week.
So did SB 0273, brought by state senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). The bill was presented as a means of guaranteeing that "bad actors" in the insurance field would receive appropriate punishment, but state senator Roy Herron (D-Dresden) saw it as something else entirely.
Pointing out that the bill limited to two years the period of allowable investigation of suspect insurance agents by the state Department of Commerce and Insurance and that it tipped investigated agents to the witnesses against them, among other provisions, Herron said that the true beneficiaries of the bill were "those few insurance agents who are corrupt and who commit crimes and who would defraud people ... the crooks, the thieves, those who would commit fraud, those who would lie and cheat and steal."
Herron dubbed the measure the "CIA bill," because, he said, it came in stealth at the end of the session, and it could be termed the "Corrupt Insurance Agent Act."
Needless to say, Ketron, an insurance agent himself, disagreed, saying that the bill merely imposed "a level playing field" and prevented insurance agents, empowered at present to publicize investigations into their competitors, from taking unfair advantage.
Those two bills were symptomatic of a score or more of others that could turn problematic again this week. Yet there were moments of harmony as well — the heartfelt applause that greeted the presentation of five veterans of the 1944 Normandy invasion by state representative Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett) and the excitement stemming from a surprise appearance on the House floor of ex-L.A. Dodger great Tommy Lasorda, in town apparently to do some scouting.