Our Gang: Will Those Little Rascals of the Tennessee Legislature Finally Get Serious?

Cari Wade Gervin previews the second session of the 107th General Assembly

It's early January. A chilly evening, but inside Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, it's warm and cozy. Days before the legislative session is to start, state Sen. Stacey Campfield is hosting a fund-raiser.

I've driven all the way out to Turkey Creek to try to get a read on what people care about this session. I assume the type of people who care about Campfield's re-election two years early (suggested donation: $250) are the type of people who will have strong opinions on what they want the Legislature to accomplish this year.

I stop Eric Fox, who's on his way into the fund-raiser. Fox says he is a buddy both of Campfield and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett. I ask him if there's any pending legislation he's particularly excited about. Fox says there isn't. I ask him what he thinks of Campfield's proposal to drug-test welfare recipients.

"I'm definitely for that," Fox says. "I think that if I'm drug-tested to receive money, then they should be."

Of course Fox is a student in medical school, so he's not actually being drug-tested to keep his job. But there's no doubt about it—Campfield's bill has finally gained traction this year (although Gov. Bill Haslam has been chary about any potential support).

Yet while the drug-testing proposal has garnered perhaps more press to date than any other bill, is that really what people care about more than any other issue? What about education? Or the environment? Gay rights—or the lack thereof—is a perennially popular topic, but what about legislation that will affect the mentally ill, like the proposed closing of the Lakeshore Mental Health Institute?

As talking with Fox reveals, outside of a core group of advocates, it's hard to find people who pay attention to anything the Legislature does. He's one of the people who does care, but even he isn't paying close attention, and he's not alone.

At a local legislative meet-and-greet last Saturday at Calhoun's, sponsored by the East Tennessee chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, Rep. Ryan Haynes of Farragut took the press to task for "covering silly issues" and not reporting on the Legislature enough.

"Go back to your newsroom and ask for more coverage," he suggested.

What Haynes terms "silly issues" are the pieces of legislation that turned into national news last session—Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill and Rep. Bill Dunn's anti-evolution "critical thinking" bill, for example. And it's true on some level that the budget is much more important than any one bill, or that the "education reform" overwhelmingly passed last session will have more lasting effects than some nonsense bills that never make it out of committee. Haynes has a point. There's not enough coverage.

But while I can't be in Nashville (and the budget hasn't even been announced yet), here's my take on what's likely to happen in this second session of the 107th General Assembly—and why you should care about it, issues silly and serious.

The Gov

Over 400 people are attending a breakfast on Monday at the Knoxville Convention Center, sponsored by the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce. Gov. Haslam speaks for 45 minutes about his proposed legislative package: He wants to get tough on prescription drug abuse and gangs; he proposes mandatory jail sentences for repeat domestic violence offenders—"Something we should have done a long time ago," he comments. There's more education reform, sweeping civil servant reform, and minor tax cuts. He gets a standing ovation.

But while he glosses over the education reform, saying "K-12 education literally—we are becoming known around the country as a state that is making progress," Haslam's proposal to remove limits on class sizes at the local level and tie teacher pay to an evaluation system is not without controversy.

"I am disappointed Governor Haslam chose to begin the 2012 session with such a blatant attack on Tennessee's public schools," said Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford in a press release.

I ask Haslam if reform is possible without bitter attacks from the TEA.

"We do meet with them," he says. "Let's sit down and talk about what's best for the child in the classroom. We don't see teachers as the bad guys."

Haslam's proposal to reform, in his office's words, "the state's antiquated employment system through the TEAM Act (Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management) by simplifying the hiring process, providing flexibility to retain and reward outstanding employees and streamlining the appeals process for employees," is also likely to be controversial. In effect, it would mean more state employees would be at-will employees, able to be fired without the lengthy grievance process that now exists.

But the tax cuts, to reduce the sales tax on food items from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent this year and to 5 percent within three years, and to raise the estate-tax exemption from $1 million to $1.25 million this year and to $5 million within five years, are likely to draw broad support.

That is, except possibly from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has been pushing for a cut to the state's Hall tax on income from interest and dividends. Ramsey's unlikely to derail Haslam's agenda, but he has seemed annoyed at the proposed tax breaks. Meanwhile, Ramsey's been busy promoting Campfield's plan (SB 2580/HB 2725) to drug-test recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), co-sponsored by Roane County's Julia Hurley.

(Campfield has also proposed a bill—SB 2583/HB 2807—that would tie TANF payments to children's progress in school: If your kid fails a class, then you get 30 percent less money. Ramsey has been less talkative about that.)

We never heard back about our request for an interview with Ramsey, so we can't tell you if he cares about something else more than making life harder for poor people when state employees aren't even drug-tested. But we can tell you Haslam's package seems likely to garner wide support, so there's still the question of whether his relationship with Ramsey will get even frostier as the session wears on.

Back at Calhoun's, last Saturday, Oak Ridge's Sen. Randy McNally said it won't matter to the Legislature how much the governor and lieutenant governor disagree.

"I'd rather Gov. Haslam be the governor and Speaker Ramsey be the speaker," McNally said. "I think them having different views is beneficial to us."

District 6 state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey chimed in. "We need a balance of powers. We need differing opinions."

The Local Legislators

McNally and Massey and Haynes are on an all-Republican, all-white panel of local legislators at Calhoun's, along with state Sen. Doug Overbey and state Reps. Harry Brooks and Bill Dunn. They take turns taking questions from the press.

Afterward, I ask them, "What do you care about this session?"

Haynes says his top priority is making sure the inheritance-tax exemption passes.

"It's good for small businesses and family farms," he says. "It's a simple fix that needs to be done."

Haynes also notes his support for Haslam's proposed cuts to the grocery tax. Massey's list is more prosaic.

"My number-one priority is to learn how the system works and get my office set up," she says. As a newbie legislator, Massey isn't jumping in with her own legislative agenda this year. But she says she supports the majority of Haslam's legislative package.

"But that doesn't mean some of it doesn't need to be tweaked a little bit," Massey adds. Any bills in particular? No, she says.

Massey also said she is getting tips from her Nashville roommate, former state Sen. Jamie Woodson. Yes, the same Woodson that Massey replaced in District 6.

"Late at night when we both get home, I ask her about how to do things," Massey says.

Massey says she is also focused on Lakeshore, to make sure the same amount of money stays invested in mental-health services in East Tennessee, "not just this year, not just next year, but for the years to come."

And talking to local legislators makes the closing of Lakeshore seem like a forgone conclusion.

"The more I've studied, the more I'm in favor of it. We have to do more with less," Haynes says.

Dunn suggests getting rid of state-mandated pre-K classes is near the top of his list. But those who only know Dunn for his "critical thinking" legislation of last session (which could still pass the state Senate this year) might be surprised to find he's one of the sponsors of SB 577/HB 291, aka the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a partial ban of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

Proponents of the legislation, which went nowhere last session, are in the middle of 40 days of prayer to attempt to bring more recognition to the issue. Dunn's support for getting rid of MTR mining at heights over 2,000 feet seems more pragmatic.

"We'd still be able to harvest the coal, but through other processes," Dunn says. "In fact, when we're all talking about jobs, jobs, jobs—there's a lot more jobs in the (other) way of going to get the coal as opposed to blowing up the mountains."

The Homophobes

It's difficult to write about the Tennessee Legislature a lot of the time, mostly because it's so hard to take it seriously. For every relatively sane person on either side of the political fence, there are half-a-dozen folks who come across as nut jobs—or, at least, who submit insane pieces of legislation.

Take the now-notorious bathroom bill, proposed by Rep. Richard Floyd of Chattanooga. In case you missed the national furor that ended with Floyd being accused of hate speech by the Transgender Law Center, the bill would have required "where a restroom or dressing room in a public building is designated for use by members of one particular sex, only members of that particular sex shall be permitted to use that restroom or dressing room," where "‘Sex' means and refers only to the designation of an individual person as male or female as indicated on the individual's birth certificate."

Floyd told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he was inspired to introduce the legislation after reading about a Macy's employee who was fired when she wouldn't let a transgender biological male use the women's dressing room.

"It could happen here," Floyd told the newspaper. "I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there—I don't care if he thinks he's a woman and tries on clothes with them in there—I'd just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry."

So, yeah, you'd be forgiven for thinking the state Legislature is specifically targeting the civil rights of the LGBT community. There's also Campfield's infamous "Don't Say Gay" bill, now scheduled to come before the House Education Committee in three weeks or so after a delay last week, and the Family Action Council of Tennessee's so-called "anti-bullying" bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Vance Dennis and Sen. Jim Tracy.

Opponents of "Don't Say Gay"—SB 49/HB 229—claimed victory last year because the bill wasn't taken up by the House, but with a new sponsor, Rep. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, the legislation is back on. Hensley told the News Sentinel that "he believes the bill will win approval of the panel and the full House."

The somewhat less negative news is that the bill's wording has been amended from legislating that "no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality" to "Any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science." Problematic? Yes. But slightly less hateful.

The FACT bill, however, is all about hate, although you'd never know it from listening to the organization's head, David Fowler. He told CNN, "Bullying is wrong, period. Any student and all students deserve to be protected from bullying." But what the bill does is create a giant loophole that would allow bullies to be protected for religious reasons and would prevent any anti-bullying curriculum from including "materials or training that explicitly or implicitly promote a political agenda, make the characteristics of the victim the focus rather than the conduct of the person engaged in harassment, intimidation, or bullying, or teach or suggest that certain beliefs or viewpoints are discriminatory." Which is to say, if a gay student were to kill himself after being bullied, as happened just last week across the state in Gordonsville and in December in Ashland City, the school could not then host anti-bullying awareness classes that focused on anti-gay bullying.

The wording of the entire bill is equally pernicious, such as when it states, "‘Creating a hostile educational environment' shall not be construed to include discomfort and unpleasantness that can accompany the expression of a viewpoint or belief that is unpopular, not shared by other students, or not shared by teachers or school officials." An anti-bullying bill that excludes protection from those most likely to be bullied? Brilliant.

But would Haslam even sign either bill into law, if passed? Especially given the overwhelmingly negative national press the two bills have received?

"My thought is there's other things we need to focus on in Tennessee," Haslam says, noting that he never says he will sign legislation until he's read the final version.

I asked Haynes if there was anything the Legislature could do to counteract that press and show the LGBT folk of Tennessee that they're appreciated. He sidestepped the question, saying the bad national press about a homophobic Legislature is offset by a lot of good press about how business-friendly Tennessee is.

"The press is the one exacerbating this. Not us," Haynes says.

He echoed Haslam and says he is convinced these issues will not dominate the session the way they've dominated the media.

"I think that's what you're going to see this General Assembly," Haynes says. "I think you will see the General Assembly attempt to sideline issues that are not jobs issues or economic issues."

***

So will Haynes and Haslam be right? Will this be a tame, relatively noncontroversial legislative session focused on things voters like, such as cutting taxes, getting tough on crime, and boosting Tennessee's economic viability?

Don't count on it.

In early December, state Sen. Bill Ketron told the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce that he wants the Legislature to wrap up by April 30. Ramsey and Speaker Beth Harwell have echoed this, saying they hope to end the session in April. But do we really want a repeat of last year, when, in the rush to get out of session by Memorial Day, legislators passed bills they hadn't even read? (We're sure that never happens otherwise.)

It's true, the less time the Legislature is in session, the less damage it can do, and as the first three weeks of January have proved, legislation doesn't need to go anywhere to permanently damage the state's reputation—Floyd's bill, now withdrawn in the Senate, had Canadians making fun of us. Canadians! But there's something to be said for taking the time to go through all 4,000 or so pieces of legislation thoughtfully, so some well-intentioned but poorly worded bills, like last year's unconstitutional cyberbullying law, get cleaned up before they become law.

Campfield posted on his blog Jan. 8, "There is a lot of talk going around about the desire to get out of session by as early as April. It is getting to sound like that the only goal some people have and that getting out of session is all that matters. [sic] While some of the benefits of getting out early are beneficial (like savings of per diem dollars), that alone should not over rule all other considerations.… I don't recall a single legislator running on the issue of ‘Elect me and we will finish session by date X.'"

Dare I say it? Campfield might be right.