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VOL. 129 | NO. 44 | Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Norris Finds Legislative Leadership Has its Price

JOE MORRIS | Special to The Daily News

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Many people who like problem solving usually tackle a tough crossword, or maybe Sudoku.


Collierville’s Mark Norris opted for politics.

“I like serving people as well as finding solutions to problems, so that led me to the legal profession,” said Norris, who currently serves as state Senate majority leader, and represents District 32 in West Tennessee.

“Once I became a lawyer, I found that there are certain issues in this life that lawyers can’t effectively address. I’d been involved in volunteerism in a fairly significant way, and had seen a lot of issues up close and personal, and so when I had the opportunity to serve on the Shelby County Commission, I took it.”

He served two terms on the commission, then ran for state Sen. Tom Leatherwood’s seat when it came open in 2000.

During his first term he was in the minority party, but even so was given the opportunity to chair the Senate’s Transportation Committee. That gave him grounding in committee work, as well as putting together legislation that addressed multiple concerns.

This would come in handy just a few years later when Republicans took a majority, then a supermajority, in the Senate and eventually he became majority leader.

He also chairs the Senate Rules Committee and serves on the Finance, Ways and Means Committee, Ethics Committee, and State and Local Government Committee.

“The lessons I learned as chairman have served me well both in the majority and even with a supermajority,” Norris said. “One major difference is the magnitude of issues that need to be dealt with – a lot more crosses my desk now, and I rely on my colleagues in the Senate much more now. I’ve also learned an awful lot about the workings of state government along the way.”

Since protocol demands he carry the administration’s legislation, Norris is the prime sponsor of the state budget and other bills in addition to his own. That makes for a busy session.

“Balancing the budget is job No. 1 here in Tennessee, as it is in all states, but it falls to me to work with the membership to get it through,” he said. “If we did nothing but the budget in a session, that would be plenty.”

Headline-grabbing money arguments at the federal level often cloud the work that gets done in statehouses, he adds.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we operate state government differently,” Norris said. “I carry that forward, as well as a lot of other important bills that I call the ‘meat and potatoes’ legislation that doesn’t generate much media interest because they are somewhat boring, but over the long haul they affect the taxpayer’s pocketbook.”

Among those, he says, are efforts focusing on pension reform for local governments, workforce development and education, as well as more specific efforts such as modernizing of the state’s 911 emergency system.

“I want to make sure that the infrastructure is there when my constituents are in dire need of emergency assistance,” he said. “And we want to make sure that happens without them getting nickeled and dimed to death with cost increases over the years.”

In addition to his legislative duties, Norris also is chairing The Council of State Governments, a region-based organization that represents all 50 states and three branches of state government. There, he says, he has made the 2014 agenda all about focusing on what he refers to as “state pathways to prosperity.’’

“There are a lot of interesting programs, webinars and projects underway that focus on workforce, education and more,” he said. “It’s a crowded time with a lot going on, but I’m honored to be doing it.”

Norris is in the second year of his current four-year term, and when it comes to how much longer he’ll roam the halls of the Capitol, he says he honestly can’t be specific.

“I have so much on my plate right now that I really can’t see over that horizon,” he said. “I love public service, and I’m interested in good public policy. Like I said, I like problem solving and serving people, and I still have a few things to get done, so only time will tell.”

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