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Only the Tennessee GOP could accomplish legislative gridlock wielding a supermajority

Jam Session

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Tennessee Republicans love to hate the federal government for failing to solve problems, but their supermajority suffered from their own version of Washington gridlock this legislative session. 

At least in Washington they talk about problems. This session, which wrapped last Friday, there never was even a mention of this state's glaring inadequacies — the nation's 10th most regressive tax system, the 48th lowest school funding, and the 40th worst poverty rate, just to name three — much less remedies offered for them. 

The legislature has become less representative democracy than bizarre spectacle — an annual horror show with Tennesseans gasping and shrieking as lawmakers debate and vote on one extreme measure after another.

To the relief of the emotionally spent audience, few of these bills made it all the way to the governor's desk this year. Nearly 1,500 bills were introduced, and the list of noteworthy new laws is remarkably short.

In defending this session last week as lawmakers debated the last of their bills, Gov. Bill Haslam damned it with faint praise.

"I certainly wouldn't call it a waste of time," he said. 

Haslam's only real accomplishment was overhauling the workers' compensation law. He said he was streamlining the system to make Tennessee more business-friendly. But critics countered that he rigged it in favor of businesses and against employees injured on the job.

Haslam punted the most important decision he probably ever will have to make — whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In doing so, he turned his back on billions of dollars in federal cash that could have created tens of thousands of jobs in the health care industry, and he risked the financial solvency of hospitals across the state.

The governor insisted he was driving a hard bargain with the Obama administration, holding out for more flexibility in Medicaid rules to bring "real health care reform" to Tennessee. But Democrats said he was tap-dancing for time — dodging responsibility out of fear of arousing the wrath of the tea party wing of his party.

Haslam was forced to yank his school voucher bill rather than watch helplessly as right-wingers expanded his program to cover most children in the state. He wanted to limit it to low-income kids in failing schools.

Also on the list of failed bills was the popular measure to legalize the sale of wine in supermarkets. It managed to escape a couple of committees for the first time in its seven-year history, but then fell again to that lobbying dynamic duo — Christian conservatives and liquor stores.

The Republican leadership has so little control over its members that on the session's last day, bills personally brought by the speakers went down. The House killed Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's judicial redistricting plan, so in retaliation Ramsey refused to let the Senate even consider House Speaker Beth Harwell's bill to establish a state authorizer for charter schools, which would clear the way for Great Hearts Academies to set up shop in West Nashville. Ramsey had been holding Harwell's bill like a hostage all day to try to force adoption of his.

Democrats, who have been relegated to bystander status, delighted in the supermajority's dysfunction. It was all that stopped what they see as bad public policy. Democrats said Harwell's bill, for instance, would have resegregated schools by allowing charter schools to pop up all over the state's wealthier white suburbs.

"While hostage-taking of legislation is not good governance, the result could not have been better for the people of Tennessee," said Nashville Rep. Mike Turner, the House's No. 2 Democrat.

Republicans did patch up relations with the NRA by ramming through the guns-in-cars law. That was Priority No. 1 for this session, since the NRA ousted the House's No. 3 Republican, Debra Maggart, in the last election over her opposition to that bill. No one wanted to become the next Maggart. That new law, passed despite business resistance, lets handgun carry permit owners keep their firearms in their cars just about anywhere they go.

Wingnuts dominate the supermajority, and more moderate Republicans frequently behave like wingnuts to fend off potential wingnut challengers in their next primary elections. Media mockery might have helped defeat the most notorious of their bills this session. A sampling:

• Two bills from Sen. Stacey Campfield: His new "Don't Say Gay" bill featuring a tattletale provision forcing school counselors to out gay students to their parents, and his "Starve Our Children" proposal to cut welfare benefits to the families of kids who screw up in school.

• The Christian Right's unconstitutional bill to yank authority from the Vanderbilt's police force, in retaliation for the university's policy banning discrimination against gay people by conservative church clubs on campus.

• Sen. Mae Beavers' unconstitutional legislation making it a crime for federal agents to enforce any new gun laws in Tennessee and ordering state law officers to arrest them if they try.

• Sen. Frank Niceley's tea party-backed bill to end the right of the people to vote in party primaries for the U.S. Senate and give the legislature the power to choose nominees.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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