NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republicans, positioned to make major changes to state law with the governorship and a supermajority in the General Assembly, ended the session with some high-profile measures derailed by infighting.
Leaders say it was to be expected, and they had been warning of it since winning more than two-thirds of the legislative seats in November.
“Does it mean we’ll get everything we want, I don’t necessarily assume that,” Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said at the time.
Proposals that failed this session ranged from Haslam’s initiative to create a school voucher program in Tennessee to Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s plan to redraw Tennessee’s judicial districts for the first time since 1984.
The latter probably caused the most tension on the final day of the 108th Tennessee General Assembly last Friday when House members defeated it 66-28.
Most of those opposing the plan — which would have affected 22 counties in eight districts and reduced the number of judicial districts from 31 to 29 — said they felt they were being dictated to by the Senate, particularly Ramsey.
“This bill came from the Senate, plain and simple,” Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, said before the House floor vote. “They have been dictating from the get-go how this session should run. Let’s draw a line in the sand.”
After that bill was defeated, the Senate killed its version of a House bill that sought to change the approval process for charter schools in Tennessee and was strongly supported by House Speaker Beth Harwell. The bill had passed the lower chamber 62-30 after being changed at least three times throughout its legislative process.
When asked by a reporter at the end of session if the bill’s demise was connected to judicial redistricting getting axed, Ramsey replied: “Somewhat.”
The Blountville Republican added that the behavior is not unusual for a party that has a supermajority in the House and Senate.
“Now that you have a supermajority on both sides, that’s the way it’s going to work from here on out,” he said. “There are going to be times we don’t agree.”
Harwell told reporters earlier this week that she had not yet spoken to Ramsey since the session ended, but stressed that she doesn’t expect long-term discord between the two chambers.
“We’ll be good,” said the Nashville Republican. “We’ll be right where we need to be. We’ve got too many great things going on in this state to let us hold anything back.”
For most of the session, however, Republicans seemed to work cohesively. They came together on somewhat contentious proposals that included allowing people with handgun carry permits to store firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked, and one that changed the way the state considers injured workers’ claims.
But there were times they just couldn’t seem to find a middle ground, like with Haslam’s voucher plan.
The administration proposed to limit vouchers to 5,000 students in failing schools next term; that figure would grow to 20,000 students by 2016.
However, there were attempts to broaden the measure, as special interest groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads promoting an expansion that was heavily supported by members of Haslam’s own party.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville — who carried the bill — eventually asked the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee to hold the measure in the committee, saying he was tired of the “gamesmanship.”
Republicans also disagreed on a measure that would require anyone recording or taking photos of livestock abuse to turn the images over to law enforcement within 48 hours.
Critics called the GOP-sponsored bill an attempt to prevent animal welfare groups and the media from exposing illegal cruelty against animals.
“Ladies and gentleman what’s wrong with this bill is you’re criminalizing the filming, not the abuse,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said during Senate floor debate of the bill, which eventually passed the Senate 22-9 and is being considered by the governor.
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said fractions are common in supermajorities.
“It’s easier to hold your party together when your majority is small,” he said. “When it’s small, people understand their need to … be cohesive to get things done. As it gets larger, it gets harder to control because the members, instead of seeing their differences with their own party, start seeing their differences among each other.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said the infighting was just a matter of time.
“Been waiting on it all year long,” he told reporters earlier this week. “I think as long as they stay in office, you’ll see more of those fractions come.”
Nevertheless, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said he believes tension among fellow party members breeds “better policies in the end.”
“There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing,” said the Chattanooga Republican. “It’s hard to pass legislation; it ought to be hard to pass legislation. We’ll come back next year and finish what we didn’t this year. And I think we’ll do it right.”