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VOL. 131 | NO. 55 | Thursday, March 17, 2016

‘I’m the Steak’ Norris Carries Haslam’s Agenda, Except...

SAM STOCKARD | Nashville Correspondent

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Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris refers to himself as a “meat and potatoes” legislator. The four-term Republican senator from Collierville, a self-described policy wonk, is considering a run for governor in 2018. But if the race boils down to charisma, he says the media will have to determine if he has enough to win the top office.

“I’m the steak. Whether there’s enough sizzle is for other people to decide,” says Norris, 60, an attorney and farmer.

In fact, at a recent public event in West Tennessee, Rep. Steve McDaniel introduced him to the crowd and used an old metaphor, saying he’s not a “show horse” but a “workhorse.”

It’s a persona Norris doesn’t take lightly.

As leader of the Senate Republican Caucus, he carries Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed budget – this year a $35 billion spending plan – and the governor’s legislative agenda, including the FOCUS Act to restructure higher education and the Public Safety Act designed to reform prison sentencing. He also is sponsoring several bills this year to change sentencing measures for juveniles.

State Sen. Mark Norris, R, District 32, Collierville

Age: 60

Family: Wife, Chris, two sons, two grandchildren

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Colorado College, law degree from University of Denver

Career: Attorney with Adams and Reese LLP, farmer

Politics: Shelby County Commission 1994-2000, chairman; elected to state Senate 2000

Committees: Rules Committee chairman, Calendar Committee, Ethics Committee, Finance, Ways and Means, State and Local Government, Joint Pensions and Insurance

“I love public policy,” explains Norris, who represents Senate District 32 in Shelby and Tipton counties. “I like solving problems for people any way I can. So as an attorney, that’s what I do from a professional standpoint. But there are other ways to help people solve their problems, and we do a lot of that here.”

Norris’ mantra is “the three E’s” – employment, education and economic opportunity – and he shapes most of his legislation along those lines.

A member of numerous boards, including the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and Tennessee Workforce Development Board, Norris says his latest “labor of love” is the Labor Education Alignment Program he enacted in 2013.

Through it, he obtained $10 million in funding for 12 programs statewide enabling some 13,000 students to earn money while receiving on-the-job training at companies such as Toyota Bodine Aluminum in Jackson.

Another $10 million is set aside in the fiscal 2017 budget to expand LEAP, which also helps state government make sure departments are aligned to ensure economic recruiting fits the state’s workforce.

“Oftentimes, too often, in fact, the state has recruited business that come here and has no employees to fill the new jobs because of the skills gap,” Norris says. “This makes sure that the gaps are filled.”

Responding to TSU
Norris was caught off guard by recent protest from Tennessee State University students and President Glenda Glover over the FOCUS Act, the governor’s plan to create local boards to oversee six state universities and remove them from control of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Glover voiced concerns the bill would create a situation in which the University of Tennessee system would become the dominant player in higher education, creating an unbalanced field for funding, which could hurt TSU.

“It’s unbelievable. I don’t know how she comes up with that,” Norris says. He points out nothing about the state’s funding mechanism for higher education will change.

“You would think that any of those institutions would relish the opportunity to stand up on their own, and … competition in this sense is a good thing. But there’s nothing about the bill that would indicate they’re going to receive less funding. … It’s incomprehensible to me, quite frankly,” he says.

Some students even mentioned they were worried TSU would be changed to UT-Nashville and would lose its status as a Historically Black College and University.

“It’s pitiful,” Norris says. “They’re signaling they can’t cut it somehow, and we feel just the opposite.”

Cutting room floor
Norris gives Haslam high marks, the highest possible. But they don’t always agree. For instance, Norris refused to back any sort of gas-tax increase this year and declined to carry the governor’s Insure Tennessee proposal in 2015 when it failed to reach the Senate or House floor in special and regular sessions.

Norris says he declined to sponsor Insure Tennessee for numerous reasons and never could draw enough support within the Senate Republican Caucus to push the measure, even though legislators had asked Haslam to offer a plan.

His method would have used funding from the Affordable Care Act to provide market-based health insurance for 290,000 Tennesseans caught in a coverage gap.

As for a potential gas tax increase with Tennessee committed to, but not funding, $6 billion worth of road projects, Norris says people should be able to take advantage of low gas prices as long as possible. Regular unleaded dropped recently to about $1.40 a gallon but is back up to $1.70.

“We’re still crawling out of that recession. I know things are looking much better now, but it’s a very slow recovery, and there are a lot of people that this $100 to $500 can make a big difference,” he adds.

Norris says OPEC is manipulating the United States by flooding the market with low-cost oil to keep the country from developing alternative oil production such as fracking but will reverse course as soon as that type of exploration ceases.

He also points out the governor and Tennessee Department of Transportation officials say the state’s roads are in good shape and “will be in the foreseeable future.”

Meanwhile, he says, TDOT needs to do a better job of “articulating” the need for road projects.

Refugee debate
Norris came under fire by refugee advocates this year for pushing a resolution calling for the state attorney general or outside counsel to take legal action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from the federal government’s mandated appropriation of state revenue and non-compliance with the Refugee Act.

Based on testimony by Bill Gibbons, Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Committee, Norris says the refugee resettlement program run by Catholic Charities, which began running the program after Tennessee backed out in 2007, is not consulting or collaborating with the state government.

Some senators said during a hearing on the matter they weren’t receiving information from Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program, even though coordinator Holly Johnson said she had been sending it to them by email.

Testimony was mixed during a hearing held before the legislative session, only a month after terrorist attacks in France raised concerns terrorists could be slipping into Europe through the flow of Syrian refugees.

Some experts testified terrorist attacks committed in the United States by refugees are rare, but others said the vetting process in Syria is riddled with problems because it starts in a chaotic country without government controls.

Norris contends he is seeking a “technical, friendly lawsuit” and isn’t trying to stop Syrians from relocating to Tennessee.

The group of refugees who filled the Senate hearing, however, felt he was targeting them. Tennessee Immigrant Rights and Refugee Coalition Executive Director Stephanie Teatro argues Norris’ resolution is not about keeping Tennesseans safe.

“It’s really about creating an unwelcome and hostile environment,” she points out. Besides suing the federal government over a program in place for years, it would create a “real climate of fear and cast suspicion across refugee families who are in Tennessee.”

Norris remains unmoved and points toward recent comments by a NATO commander about terrorists embedding in the refugee flow into Europe and the United States. He argues he couldn’t ignore the situation.

“People will think I’m mean-spirited, that I’m unwelcoming. Well too bad, so sad,” he says.

Even Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville disagreed with Norris during a Finance Committee debate, saying he believes Tennessee needs to welcome refugees.

At one point, he asked Norris for a short explanation of the resolution, and after a lengthy response, Dickerson said, “I think that would qualify as a run-on sentence.”

Asked if he was calling Norris out, Dickerson says he was only teasing.

“He is an advocate for his position. He’s very articulate. He’s formidable,” says Dickerson, a physician. “But I have nothing but the utmost respect for that guy. He’s a solid fellow.”

Norris returned the jab in that meeting and afterward, saying the relationship between him and Dickerson is akin to that of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I’ve had a lot of doctors as clients and they’re hardheaded and have trouble understanding, even concepts as basic as what it takes to comply with federal law,” Norris notes.

Political beginnings
Norris, a partner with the law firm of Adams and Reese LLP and a West Tennessee farmer, earned his degree in political science at Colorado College in 1977 and law degree at the University of Denver in 1980.

He served on Shelby County Commission for six years, becoming the chairman of the group before he decided it had “diminishing returns” and ran for state Senate. He and his wife, Chris, have two adult sons and two grandchildren.

He entered the General Assembly in 2000 at the height of the income tax battle, a measure he opposed, bringing “a lawyer’s perspective” to the debate by pointing out such a tax was “unconstitutional in Tennessee.”

Rather than adopt an income tax during the Don Sundquist administration, the General Assembly passed a sales tax increase considered one of the biggest tax increases in state history. Norris says that move wasn’t necessary, nor was a move to raid the tobacco tax for recurring revenues.

Since then, he has sponsored legislation to repeal the inheritance tax and the gift tax and has his eyes next on the Hall tax on interest and dividends, which he says was “carved out” when Tennessee passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting an income tax.

Norris and several other lawmakers are sponsoring bills this session to eliminate the Hall tax, even though it’s not reflected in the governor’s budget plan. But Norris’ measure would allow local governments to enact a 2.25 percent tax on interest and dividends.

In addition to making $300 million worth of tax cuts, including a reduction in food taxes, over the last five years, the Legislature has cut $500 million in state expenditure, notes Norris. Those moves earned him the designation as the biggest tax-cutter in state Senate history.

With those credentials and with his leadership position, Norris was a target of sorts when Congressman Stephen Fincher announced this year he would not serve another term. Norris says he told media he would “think about it, and then I forgot about it.”

He is interested, however, in serving as Tennessee’s governor but wants to win another four-year Senate term this fall before making a decision for the 2018 election.

Asked whether he would entertain ideas of seeking the powerful position of lieutenant governor, Norris says, “Not as long as Ron Ramsey’s there. … It’s hard to improve on the team we’ve got.”

With a 28-5 edge on Democrats in the Senate, Norris and Ramsey get their way on nearly every vote. And he doesn’t have to be brimming with charisma to win.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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