The Tennessee General Assembly uses up its days in session the way the rest of us use up the hours in a day. No matter how many days the lawmakers have, they always manage to use them up, whether they need them or not.
During the opening of the 100th General Assembly this week, the forecasters were calling for a light agenda mixed with heavy politicking. Everyone seems to agree that relatively few topics will really be debated during the next five months, except for what the governor characterizes as an incredible imbalance between state revenues and status-quo operating costs. Nevertheless, even though the workload looks light, nobody seems to think legislators will leave the Capitol any sooner than they have to.
So, the Legislature’s paucity of issues will leave them plenty of time to posture and ponder the state of politics in Tennessee. Gov. Sundquist will have plenty of leisure to start thinking about next year’s re-election bid. And Democratic leaders will be able to begin the tough task of finding a viable opponent to challenge the reform-oriented governor. All the while, instead of fighting over real issues, legislators will simply invent controversies to scramble over.
The reality is this: Tennessee’s Legislature is basically a reactive body. Our lawmakers act on the bills that are presented to them by the governor and by various lobbyists. This year, however, the governor already has some major policy issues, including welfare reform and two crime packages, under his belt, and the business and labor lobbies have exhausted their energies on recent workers’ compensation reforms. As a result, almost everyone is coming to this legislative session with relatively empty hands.
“The governor’s initiatives won’t be the kind of big, sweeping reforms we saw during the first two years of his term,” says Sundquist press secretary Beth Fortune. “We’ve done so much in the past two years that we want to concentrate on implementation. The huge issue is going to be the budget.”
Most of the wrangling during the next few months will result from the governor’s insistence that the state must drastically reduce its work force to achieve a balance between how much money it is taking in and how much it is spending.
Sundquist’s new state finance commissioner, John Ferguson, is a gentle, soft-spoken man who could be in for the hardest few months of his professional life. Undoubtedly, he and the governor will emerge as the bad guys, at least as far as the state-employee-union-lovin’ legislators are concerned.
Despite the dire budget situation, teachers and rank-and-file bureaucratic workers are being shamelessly bold in their demands for pay increases. And they are emboldened by the news that many on the governor’s staff are receiving pay raises. In the end, though, the state employees’ union may find its membership rolls much, much shorter as a result of layoffs. On the other hand, Sundquist gave his first hint of optimism this week when he announced that December revenue figures are looking modestly healthy, at least in comparison to recent months. Still, the governor declined to apologize for predicting massive employee layoffs, which, according to some estimates, could number in the thousands.
“We’re sensitive to the career state employees, but at the same time, we have an obligation to spend taxpayer money the best way we see fit,” Sundquist said.
The governor will take some hits for tactics that Democratic leaders are describing as hard-hearted, since he’s approved extravagant pay raises for his own staff while denying significant raises to state workers en masse.
“What we’re looking at is total cost,” Sundquist said this week. “You may recall in the past that we have reduced some people and paid some people a little more.” What matters, the governor said, is “net decreases.”
Sounding like his own worst enemy, Sundquist went on to say, “My office will spend more for the rest of this year and next year than we have in the past.” Then he caught his blooper. “Let me start over,” he said. “My office will spend less for the rest of this year and next year than we have in the past.”
Representatives of state employees, along with some Democratic state legislators, are questioning whether Sundquist is telling the truth about the revenue shortfalls. The governor’s critics suspect that he is determined to lay off workers in hopes of getting some good sound bites for use in an upcoming cut-the-fat election year.
Many legislators agree with state Sen. Joe Haynes, the beloved local Democrat from Goodlettsville, who told the Nashville Banner recently: “If the Republicans think they can come in and cut state government very much after Ned McWherter got through with it, they’ve been smoking some of that stuff voters approved using in California and Arizona. Ned was tight.”
Sundquist’s budget is due to go to the legislators Feb. 1. That gives him and his staff just two weeks to find ways to cut something like $300 million from a budget of approximately $14 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Consolidate and conquer
The rest of Sundquist’s legislative agenda includes about 30 departmental bills, many of which, the governor says, are necessary to bring Tennessee into “compliance with the federal government.”
Sundquist is also expected to introduce the third crime package of his administration, this one dealing with juvenile and gang-related crimes. “It may not be the Cadillac crime package be-cause of the budget,” Fortune says, but it will include elements that address criminal prevention and harsher punishments for juveniles.” The administration has not yet worked out the details of the juvenile crime package.
The final focus of the governor’s legislative agenda is the consolidation of various offices of state government. He’s already announced plans to merge the existing Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation with the Department of Health, and Fortune says the governor’s staff is “also looking at the departments of employment security and labor and the possibility of merging them.”
If the political climate seems right, the governor may also seek legislative approval for consolidating all the state’s various departmental legal staffs into one office that would act as state government’s law firm. Although that will likely come in some future session, Capitol Hill lawyers are already making the physical move. In recent weeks, boxes have filled departmental legal offices as attorneys have prepared to move to the dingy sixth and seventh floors of the Tennessee Tower building behind Legislative Plaza that one lawyer has already nicknamed “the gulag.” Sundquist still must obtain the Legislature’s official approval if he is to create a new statewide legal department.
The consolidation of the state’s lawyers has been met with a decidedly negative reaction from Sundquist’s cabinet, and Democratic lawmakersmany of them lawyers themselvesaren’t too thrilled with the concept either.
At the request of state Sen. Bob Rochelle, a Democrat from Lebanon, outgoing state Attorney General Charles Burson has released an opinion stating that Sundquist’s consolidation of the attorneys will require legislative action, provided the governor intends to create a separate department of law. Simply moving them to one place does not require legislative approval.
There may be a glimmer of hope for those who want Tennessee to have an elected state attorney general rather than one who is appointed, as the current system mandates, by the state Supreme Court.
A proposal for legislation to change the controversial system of selection seems to be garnering some support, even beyond the herd of maverick Republicans who have been championing the issue in recent years.
If a bill is introduced, most likely by Republican Rep. Randy Stamps of Hendersonville or conservative Democratic Rep. Wayne Ritchie of Knoxville, the traditionally Democratic-leaning Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association will probably support it.
“I think [the bill] has a chance,” says Trial Lawyers executive director John Summers. “If the AG is supposed to be the people’s attorney, then the people should have some say about who should be their attorney general.”
A proposal by Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe would circumvent the need for a constitutional amendment to change the procedure for selecting Tennessee’s attorney general. Ashe’s plan would simply strip away all the powers of the office of attorney general and create a new position to handle all the work the attorney general does now. That office would be filled by a popular election.
The consumer group Citizen Action should also be making some headlines this session. Citizen Action will be busy trying to get rid of unwanted cabinet members such as Commerce and Insurance commissioner Doug Sizemore, who, in the group’s collective opinion, is a clear example of what’s wrong with state government. Sizemore has gotten into some trouble of late because he apparently has retained ownership of an insurance agency, even though he heads the state department responsible for overseeing the insurance business in Tennessee.
Citizen Action is also expected to introduce legislation that would mandate that certain judicial elections in Tennessee be financed, at least in part, with public monies. The powerful Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association supports the proposal. Although the legislation is unlikely to garner much support from lawmakers, it should create some interesting dialogue.
The real fireworks, though, will result when sparks fly between the governor and Demo-cratic leaders such as House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, who was targeted by the Republicans for defeat in 1996.
“I look forward to a good session,” Sundquist says, girding for the fight. “I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans alike. The Tennessee Legislature gets high marks.” We’ll see if his scorecard looks the same five months down the road.
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