editorial (2006-22)

A Sour Session Ends on a Sour Note

On balance, the Legislature accomplished little, save for itself

A Sour Session Ends on a Sour Note

The 104th General Assembly wound its way to a close last week with a few late shenanigans, but on the whole, it seemed the legislators put in a lot of hard work for a fairly modest list of accomplishments.

When the whole Legislature convened in special session to develop ethics legislation in the wake of the “Tennessee Waltz” indictments of the year before, expectations were pretty high. What evolved from the debate was a bill that was a step in the right direction, but passing it was a small step, limiting cash contributions from lobbyists and setting up an independent state Ethics Commission to review lobbying practices, but little else. The lawmakers declined the opportunity to further limit PAC contributions to legislative campaigns and decided not to establish an independent office with real prosecutorial powers to oversee their ethics.

Maybe next time a bunch of legislators gets indicted, we’ll see more progress toward bringing them and their lobbyist cronies under rein. Note: Even as they were discussing the ethics bill, some legislators were accepting cash contributions that would have been prevented if they were meeting in regular session. And the wining and dining of some key lawmakers by lobbying forces continued as usual.

Then came the regular session, in which the expectations were lower, and were generally met. Perhaps the most startling of the Legislature’s new laws limiting its own behavior was the passage of a bill prohibiting smoking in state buildings, including the Capitol and the legislative offices, and excluding only some rooms in state park hotels. Overdue, the prohibition stands as testimony to the shrinking clout of the state’s tobacco lobby, which has been driven downward by the state’s shrinking tobacco crop.

Yet the lawmakers left the state’s cigarette tax, among the lowest in the United States, at its disappointing level and declined the opportunity to swap any part of the wholly regressive state sales tax on food for a revenue-neutralizing tax increase on tobacco products. So much for progressive thinking on taxes this year.

Reform of the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws was also put off, at least until next year, when legislators rejected a proposed amendment to existing law that would have established fines for public officials who knowingly violate current rules mandating that meetings be open to the public. Instead, the Legislature formed a committee to study the issues and recommend changes to the next General Assembly.

With help from Gov. Phil Bredesen, the lawmakers did the best they could to prop up the state’s programs to provide health care services to the uninsured, but their best wasn’t good enough to offset the cuts in TennCare that have left thousands of Tennesseans with no coverage and little recourse.

A $26 billion budget was adopted for the next fiscal year among a flurry of proposals for spending the revenue surplus that has materialized through economic gains. To its credit, the Legislature marked up most of the surplus to education, but there was no movement toward revisions in the state’s K-12 education-funding formula that continually shortchanges school districts in metropolitan areas, including Knox County schools. The governor has promised to put together a package to rectify that disparity in the Basic Education Program formula, and take it to the General Assembly next year. OK, but Knox and other populous counties will have to suffer the consequences of the state’s over-subsidy of rural school districts for yet another school year.

Then, in what amounts to a crowning blow to the hopes and desires of progressive-minded Tennesseans, legislators on the Senate side, led by a Republican majority, doused a House passed increase in the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour, which has gone unchanged through 11 years of inflation and, virtually in the same breath, adopted changes in legislative pensions that will give themselves a slight increase in retirement benefits.

On the same day, as the General Assembly drew to a close and it was too late to raise hell over the lawmakers’ self-serving gestures, they passed a law making it more difficult for write-in candidates to succeed in primary elections, which was labeled an “incumbent protection” measure. Led by Democrats, the bill ended up getting broad bipartisan support and was adopted shortly before the “incumbents” adjourned for the year.

If you think this year’s edition of the Legislature went to all that work to promote odd bits and pieces of legislation that sometimes ended up producing backward or contradictory effects, you were paying too close attention. Good legislation that was passed seemed outweighed by good legislative initiatives that were turned back or deferred. It was, by and large, a sour year in the Capitol. And, absent a voter uprising, the advantages of incumbency promise that there won’t be much change when the 105th General Assembly snuggles up to its favorite lobbyists in Nashville come next January.