VOL. 130 | NO. 84 | Thursday, April 30, 2015
View From the Hill
Will Tennessee Republicans Ever Be Truly Happy?
SAM STOCKARD | Nashville Correspondent
Why aren’t Tennessee Republicans happier?
With the GOP so dominate in the Tennessee General Assembly and losses so rare – on the Hill or in elections – the party’s lawmakers should be jubilant with this year’s session. But it’s never enough.
Here are a handful of reasons that the supermajority isn’t super happy:
They want it all: The new chairman of the state GOP wants all “99 members of the House and 33 members in the Senate’’ to be Republicans.
Obama: Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says only a new president – a Republican president – can “fix’’ the state’s health care issues. It’s a sit-tight, wait-it-out policy, a game the party can play as Obama’s term winds down.
Hillary who? Ramsey and others say they are certain Hillary Clinton won’t be elected president, nor will any other Democrat. It’s a situation they can’t control, which is irritating. Her presidency has already been declared “continued failed leadership,” says Ryan Haynes, the new state GOP chair.
Shut up and get on board: Party members knocked heads over education, including school vouchers and conservatives vs. ultra conservatives in the debate over Common Core – a plan that has been proven to work for schools but has the lingering odor of Obama.
Nothing’s worth a primary fight: Party members didn’t have the stomach to back a tuition equality bill, even when some with right-of-right credentials embraced it. There are still too many well-organized groups that can wreck a career over just one ‘off-agenda’ vote. All that’s needed is funding and a candidate willing to out-conservative the incumbent conservative.
Don’t be weak on guns: Legislators voted in guns-in-parks but were ridiculed for not allowing guns in the State Capital.
Don’t be weak on the Bible: Was making the Bible the state’s official book respectful or disrespectful? Is parading the conservative colors worth the cost of the legal challenge Republican Attorney General Herb Slatery said couldn’t be won. In the end, quiet defeat.
Haslam doesn’t get it: The governor, who caved on guns-in-parks, gets no respect on Insure Tennessee. So much for the united front Republicans want in order to bring their collective world view to Tennessee voters.
The Obama factor
If it has a hint of Obama, the Tennessee General Assembly is likely to shoot it down.
With the National Rifle Association visiting and guns dominating much of this year’s talk, Gov. Bill Haslam’s main initiative, Insure Tennessee, fell to the wayside in special and regular sessions. Republican legislators couldn’t stomach Obamacare and barely debated the measure.
State lawmakers “rebranded” Common Core, a set of education standards some people started calling “ObamaCore,” even though it was born from a national governors’ initiative accompanied by federal dollars legislators gladly took from President Obama’s Race to the Top.
Likewise, the Legislature narrowly turned back a plan to give students without legal immigration status the opportunity to pay in-state tuition, which is about a third of out-of-state tuition.
Legislation to remove the financial hurdle fell one vote short of 50 needed in the House with some lawmakers saying Tennessee would be agreeing with Obama’s executive order on illegal immigration if the General Assembly passed it.
Haslam started the year with high hopes for Insure Tennessee, rounding up Republican sponsors in Sen. Doug Overbey and House Majority Leader Rep. Gerald McCormick. But the measure barely saw daylight, even though it was designed to return more than $1 billion in taxes to Tennessee for Medicaid expansion and insure some 280,000 people caught in an insurance gap.
It fell in special session and, despite singing, praying and Bible distribution by pro-Insure Tennessee forces, died again in the Senate Commerce Committee. House members never debated the matter, much less voted on it.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey hints it could take two more years before anything akin to Insure Tennessee passes the Legislature – after Obama leaves office.
“We’re going to have a new president, and I hope we have a Republican president in 2016, and I think most of those (Republican) presidential candidates are saying that if they get elected, then we’ll get the money back in block grants,” Ramsey says in a wrap-up press conference.
“Several billion dollars that we send to Washington, D.C., will be sent back to us and then we get to decide a plan for everyone who’s on TennCare, not just those up to 133 percent.”
Lawmakers gave the governor the task of finding a plan to bring Affordable Care Act funds back to Tennessee. He did so with Insure Tennessee, a market-based plan designed to help low-income residents get health-care insurance, paying small premiums or setting up health savings plans.
But facing Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, most of whom rode to office on red waves after Obama took office, Haslam couldn’t come close to getting Insure Tennessee to the House and Senate floors for a full vote.
He was hamstrung by a limited amount of time to sell the plan to the public and Republican legislators, since he didn’t receive approval for a federal waiver of the Affordable Care Act until December.
Skepticism didn’t help either.
Lawmakers such as Rep. Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican and chairman of the House Republican Caucus, say the decision not to pass Insure Tennessee was one of the key decisions of the session.
Haslam tried to sell the plan by saying Tennessee hospitals would help fund it and no new taxes would be needed to help 280,000 people draw coverage. Casada doesn’t even agree with that figure, saying 25 states that set up a marketplace underestimated how many people would enroll.
“There’s going to be more than 400,000 if not 450,000 people on the expansion. That, in turn, would cost on year three about $200 million a year. We just don’t have it. We’d have to raise taxes or cut services,” Casada says.
The governor promised ideas for opting out if Insure Tennessee cost more than anticipated. Those didn’t wash, either. But then, again, there wasn’t much time for a real discussion.
Republicans are overwhelmingly in control of the Legislature, but they still don’t agree on everything. Some are clearly more conservative than others, and as the session started, they were at odds on whether to revamp Common Core or replace it.
Haslam favored efforts to improve Common Core and set up a website on which teachers, parents and others could go to make suggestions. But many lawmakers – and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity – felt Common Core had become a four-letter word.
Legislators such as Rep. Billy Spivey “worked tirelessly” for nine weeks “to repeal and replace Common Core in Tennessee with Tennessee unique standards written by Tennesseans,” says House Speaker Beth Harwell, who headed a press conference in the session’s final days to laud the achievement.
Calling Common Core a “political quagmire” nationwide, Spivey, a Lewisburg Republican, said the bill didn’t “betray” other efforts to change education in Tennessee with student testing and teacher and school system accountability.
A good deal of attention was given to an “epiphany” Spivey had on the House floor when he had an idea to work with the governor and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.
Ultimately, the legislation adds a recommendation committee to the governor’s process in which standards can be tweaked before going through a review, then back to the state Board of Education for the final say.
“We aren’t going to use the current process and just re-implement Common Core,” says Sen. Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
New standards are to be set by 2017. Meanwhile, Spivey says this measure gives teachers, principals and schools leaders comfort to set their schedules and move forward.
No doubt about it, teachers have been pulled from their comfort zone the last few years. Most of it, though, had less to do with standards and more to do with over-testing, teacher evaluations tied to test scores, more classroom observation and paperwork, rules for obtaining and keeping tenure and efforts to undermine the Tennessee Education Association.
Tuition stumbling block remains
In-state tuition remains just out of reach for thousands of students who moved here years ago when their parents migrated to the United States under the radar of federal authorities.
Students hoping to avoid the higher cost of out-of-state tuition thought they’d gotten momentum to pass a “tuition equality” bill this session when one of the Legislature’s most hardcore conservatives, Rep. Rick Womick, sided with them in a House Education Committee vote.
“Your choice is to let them go to school at the discounted rate or they won’t go to school,” Womick told House members before the final vote.
It wasn’t quite enough. Rep. David Alexander contended a vote for “tuition equality” would signal an endorsement of Obama’s 2014 amnesty plan for some 5,000 illegal immigrants.
Alexander, a Winchester Republican, reminded his colleagues the state of Tennessee filed suit against the federal government to stop the amnesty plan. He also said that a “lawful presence” rule for students is part of the order.
Never mind that Attorney General Herb Slatery told lawmakers the in-state tuition bill wouldn’t violate rules against providing benefits for illegal immigrants. Also, lawmakers apparently didn’t realize most of these students came here more than a decade ago when President George W. Bush led the nation.
Whatever the case, the bill received a 49-47 vote, one short of the 50 needed, in part because two Democratic lawmakers were absent on the second to last day of the session.
On the bright side for these students and Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who guided the bill to the House floor, it will return to the Calendar & Rules Committee in 2016 when it can be scheduled for another floor vote. And, it won’t have to go through the Senate again.
White, who terms himself a “conservative Republican,” reminded House members he was pushing a bipartisan bill. Yet he must have felt uneasy surrounded by liberal Democrats as he stood on the dais that day.
Some groups are probably lining up Republican votes against him right now.
Voucher debate will rage
Legislation allowing a limited number of low-income students from struggling schools to attend private institutions with state funding is likely to come roaring back next year.
House Majority Leader McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican who graduated from Memphis schools, predicts it will be back after failing to make its way through the House Finance Committee.
“We’ve been working on it for a number of years now, and there are a lot of people who used to be against it who are now for it,” says McCormick, who thought its time had come during this year’s session.
Count Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Memphis Democrat, among those who hope it never returns.
“I’m glad it’s being delayed because I feel very strongly that the voucher program just is another means to dismantle public education,” Turner says.
She says she hopes the delay will give the bill’s sponsors time to think about objections and see how vouchers undermine public education, including potential problems with school transportation, uprooting children from their neighborhoods and placing them with teachers who don’t understand their circumstances.
There’s also the concept of public funds for religious schools.
Turner also is concerned about who’s holding the purse strings, not only for lobbying but for private school boards of trustees.
If only pro-voucher forces could have found a way to link the issue to President Obama.
Despite the fall of the voucher bill, all was not lost for conservatives this session.
Even though several pro-gun carrying measures failed, the perennial guns-in-parks measure passed, stripping authority from local governments, and the governor signed it after lawmakers added language creating possibly some of the most confusing guidelines in the history of state statutes.
Consider this: If a conceal-carry permit holder mistakenly carries a gun into a park in “the immediate vicinity” of a school-affiliated event such as a baseball game, then he must leave.
He can stay, though, if it is a non-school game such as a travel-team tournament. If a law enforcement officer questions whether he is packing a weapon, he’ll be able to escape arrest if he leaves “the immediate vicinity.”
“Immediate vicinity” is not defined for fear of creating a “gun-free zone,” according to lawmakers.
In the aftermath, Haslam wrote legislative leaders letting them know the legislation is “a vast improvement” from its initial form.
“However, I am concerned that an unintended consequence may be operational challenges for local leaders in managing their parks in a safe, effective and consistent manner, due to events and situations that could not have been anticipated in drafting this law,” he writes.
On the heels of Amendment 1’s passage last fall, the House and Senate easily passed two abortion bills, one requiring abortion clinics to be licensed by the state as ambulatory medical clinics and another forcing women to wait 48 hours before having an abortion after their initial clinic visit.
The measures will renew state law in effect 14 years ago before Sundquist v. Planned Parenthood and have the governor’s support.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, put up most opposition in the House, arguing such requirements will make it more difficult and expensive for a woman to undergo an abortion.
In floor debate, most attention went to comments made by Rep. Sheila Butt, a Columbia Republican, who during discussion on an amendment to exempt rape and incest victims, said it appeared to be a move to kill the bill because in most cases they aren’t “verifiable.”
The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Nashville Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones, who called it “insulting” to the women who went through such “horrors.”
According to reports, Butt later said she made a mistake on the House floor and should have used the word “verified,” meaning abortion clinics don’t verify whether a pregnancy is caused by rape or incest.
Butt apparently has a penchant for odd comments. She reportedly posted a comment on a Facebook page typically critical of Muslims in January saying, “It’s time for a Council of Christian Relations and a NAAWP in this Country.”
When asked by reporters to explain what could be construed as a racial remark, she finally admitted the “W” in NAAWP stood for “Western” not “White.” What?
Of course, those are some of the most contentious issues of 2015. The Legislature passed a budget, as constitutionally required, that included $100 million for teacher pay increases. They also raised fines for seat-belt violations while putting off any thought of a gas-tax increase to build more roads.
Republican leaders, including the governor, hailed it as a fine session. But Democrats contend the General Assembly is missing the point.
“This session we’ve debated guns in parks and making the Bible the state book more than we did Insure Tennessee,” says Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat and Democratic Caucus chairman.
“There are certainly some good things that happened this year. But we need to refocus our efforts on the issues that really matter to the people of Tennessee.”
That could happen in two more years when President Obama leaves office.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.