Special Interest Target: Bellwether Race May Impact the Ability of Committee Chairs to Make Hard Choices

I'm reminded of an old story about a veteran Republican House member advising a new member. "Just remember, son," he said. "The Democrats are your opponents. The Senate is your enemy."

I think state Rep. Charles Sargent, in a tough primary fight down in Williamson County, can probably relate. The state Senate this year passed irresponsible bill after irresponsible bill, leaving it to Sargent, as House Finance Committee chair, to save Gov. Bill Haslam, Speaker Beth Harwell, and, yes, even Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey from embarrassment—by killing them off.

You've heard the expression "drinking from a fire hose?" Sargent has been excoriated on Nashville talk radio and by gun groups and anti-tax groups. As chair of the Finance Committee, he certainly has a war chest to fend off an opponent, but the campaign will be pretty ugly.

If you are wondering why you should care about a race in the Nashville suburbs, it's because the outcome of the race will have an impact on committee chairs and their ability and willingness to stand up to special-interest groups. If the well-funded, long-time incumbent chair of the Finance Committee can get knocked off by the gun groups and the anti-tax groups, it will have a chilling effect on other committee chairs faced with hard decisions.

The election will also reveal whether talk radio is a potent force or whether it's merely a distraction entertaining a small group of extremists.

Ramsey himself admitted he was surprised when state Sen. Mae Beavers' "open carry" law jumped to the floor for a vote. But it didn't stop him and his colleagues, many of whom didn't want to have to vote on the issue, from passing it 25-2. God forbid they send it back to committee. This bill allows anyone who is not a felon or otherwise ineligible to get a carry permit to just strap on a pistol and go armed—no firing-range proficiency required, no permit.

Sargent's committee killed it with a 10-1 vote.

Haslam and legislative leaders were opposed to cutting the Hall income tax this year, given that the Republicans had cut or abolished various taxes three years in a row and the budget figures for this year are iffy. But that didn't stop the Senate from gearing up for passage. It was held up over a disagreement about the impact on local governments. But that didn't stop anti-tax groups from attacking Sargent for not passing it in the House. (It's ironic, since Sargent has been carrying that bill for years, trying to get it passed.)

The Senate is all for for-profit charter schools, which Speaker Harwell had to personally kill in the House. Same with vouchers, which were set for a huge vote in the Senate, but that bill, too, was killed in House Finance. The Senate voted to forbid locals from regulating guns in parks, but that bill died in the House.

Over and over, and especially on the open-carry gun bill, it appeared that senators were earning brownie points with special-interest groups and counting on the House to kill the bills.

George Washington, in describing the structure of the new American government, called the Senate the saucer that cools the hot passions emanating from the House. (For you confused youngsters who don't remember a time before K-Cups, my grandmother would throw coffee in a tin pot full of water and boil it. If you are sitting at the breakfast table and you need your daily injection of caffeine, you don't want to sit and wait for it to cool in the cup. I remember my grandfather's ability to splash coffee in the saucer and pinch it between two fingers, supported by his thumb, blow on it and sip it from the cooling saucer. I was always amazed that he didn't spill any.)

The state Senate these days is not a deliberative body cooling passions. It's a boiling cauldron.