It's amazing what a little negative publicity can do. The legislature would love to help out Murfreesboro arms merchant Ronnie Barrett--a big political contributor, NRA hotshot and boyfriend of Republican Rep. Donna Rowland. All he wants is a state law just for him to force the Transportation Department to knuckle under to his demands for a new road to his ammo factory. But after a few pesky newspaper stories raised questions about this very special legislation, it's suddenly running into trouble. As it turns out, lawmakers will go only so far to help a political pal no matter how much money he's giving their campaigns.
At the urging of Speaker Kent Williams, who made a surprise appearance to oppose Barrett's bill, a House subcommittee has just delayed voting on it. The sponsor, Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, acknowledged "there's been a lot of name calling on this," but he defended the bill as an economic boost.
It would force TDOT to allow the extension of a county road along Interstate 24 to give Barrett better access to his factory. The subtext of Sargent's remarks: No matter what a few silly reporters are claiming, this has nothing at all to do with the fact that Barrett's our dear friend and ATM machine.
"You have to look at this one basically as an economic and community development bill," Sargent offered helpfully. "This is going to be good for Rutherford County, and it's going to be good for the state of Tennessee."
Barrett came to the meeting to make an impassioned plea for himself. "It's unbelievable for me and my county to have to try to negotiate with TDOT when they've been so difficult on this issue here," he said, describing himself as "under siege."
"Folks, I need this," he said. "Rutherford County needs this. We've suffered long and hard. I beg for you to put this on out and show that there are checks and balances in our system, that we own this government."
But Williams said: "I think it's extremely difficult for this body to pass legislation that requires the Department of Transportation to do any kind of project. I feel that opens a can of worms. Mr. Barrett is a tremendous asset, not only to the state of Tennessee, but to the United States of America. I just don't feel this is the way to get it done. That's my opinion. It's up to this committee as to what it wants to do. I don't know what the answer is, but I will go on record to say that I am firmly opposed to forcing the Department of Transportation."
Williams previously wrote a letter to TDOT on behalf of Barrett. We guess he's changed his mind on this one.
Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely urged the subcommittee to reject the bill as an unprecedented interference by the legislature into his business. He pointed out the state's fighting Barrett in court over this. "There are two lawsuits out there and I guess it's your decision whether you want to solve somebody's legal problems for them," Nicely said.
In the Senate, where the bill is sponsored by Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, there's rough sledding too. To the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, TDOT officials testified the legislation would jeopardize $134 million in federal highway money if the state gives up interstate right-of-way without federal approval. In addition, they pointed out, the Barrett road could complicate any future improvements to the interstate at that interchange, where development is increasing.
After this testimony, Sen. Diane Black, R-Hendersonville, expressed the committee's general uneasiness with voting on the bill while the political repercussions are uncertain. "I think there's still some additional information that all of us could use to understand this complete situation," she said. "I would sure like to get a little bit more information."
The committee amended the bill to require TDOT to allow the road but only if the federal government approves first. Then senators put off any final committee vote for at least another week.
Update: Hat tip to the commenter "Just Saying" for pointing out that Black's running against Jim Tracy for Congress, and Barrett's a big supporter of Tracy. What a coincidence that Black's not so willing to vote for Barrett's bill! We suspect one bit of "additional information" she seeks is the answer to this question: Will Barrett give to my campaign too?