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VOL. 122 | NO. 111 | Friday, June 15, 2007

Senate Democratic Leader Basks in Role of 'Head Cowboy'

By ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE (AP) - State Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis was in a celebratory mood as the legislative session drew to a close last week.

Democrats had lost control of the Senate earlier in the year with the election of Republican Speaker Ron Ramsey, but still managed to shepherd most of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's agenda toward passage.

"This was a very good session for Democrats," said Kyle.

Much of Kyle's success in driving the Democratic agenda may have something to do with the fact that he's no longer second-in-command to former Speaker John Wilder. Wilder, D-Mason, had served as speaker from 1971 until January.

"My ranch is smaller, but I'm the head cowboy," Kyle said. "I'm not the sidekick anymore."

Kyle was able to corral the sometimes divergent priorities of his fellow Democrats - and take advantage of Sen. Mike Williams' decision to shed his Republican affiliation to become an independent.

That was never more evident than on the vote to raise the cigarette tax, in which Williams joined all 16 Democrats to pass the measure 17-16.

Most of the new revenue from the cigarette tax hike is slated for K-12 schools and to keep state college tuition increases below 6 percent.

Williams criticized his former colleagues for supporting the education plans but not the new revenue stream.

"They can say what they want about me, but I had the backbone and the fortitude to say that if we're going to have these education programs for our children, you need to vote for that rather than do the political rhetoric," he said.

Ramsey acknowledged that Republicans had wanted to see a lower tax increase - or no tax hike at all - during a string of strong budget years.

"It passed over our objections, but that's the way it works," he said. "Whoever gets 17 votes wins."

Yet Ramsey, of Blountville, wasn't willing to concede that Republicans had allowed Democrats to dictate the Legislature's priorities. Republicans paved the way for a reduction in the state's sales tax on groceries, he said.

Ramsey originally had pushed for a one-time sales tax holiday on food, but later agreed with a plan by House Democrats to reduce permanently the tax from 6 percent to 5.5 percent.

The Legislature also put property tax relief in place for senior citizens and extended relief to veterans who are disabled because of service-connected injuries.

"This is by far the most tax relief that's been in a budget before and there's no doubt in my mind that would have happened without Senate Republicans having control," Ramsey said.

Republicans also pushed for greater accountability standards for failing schools and helped shape a less restrictive indoor smoking ban than the one proposed by Bredesen, said House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol.

Mumpower cited a close working relationship with Senate Republicans in his efforts to gain leverage in the Democrat-controlled lower chamber. But House Majority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, was less charitable about GOP efforts.

"I think the House Republicans have struggled for identity, they've struggled for a purpose and a mission," he said.

Democrats have a 53-46 edge in the House.

Several debates on major bills in the House deteriorated into back-and-forth arguments over hot-button topics. Odom charged Republicans with grandstanding, while Mumpower responded that Democrats were whining and trying to "cover their tails."

Bredesen said he was surprised to see some of the partisan squabbles in the Legislature this year.

"I've always tried to do things with a bipartisan approach," he said. "It was more difficult this year than it's been in the past. But all's well that ends well."

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