The entire session—the first for the state’s new Republican supermajority—was marked by dysfunction and feuding, and the last day was no different. House Speaker Beth Harwell’s signature bill of the year—her proposal to create a state charter school authorizer—went down in a petty quarrel with Senate speaker Ron Ramsey.
The Senate refused even to consider her bill after the House overwhelmingly voted down Ramsey’s judicial redistricting plan.
Nearly 1,500 bills were introduced this session, and the list of noteworthy new laws is remarkably short.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s only real accomplishment was overhauling the workers’ compensation law. He said he was streamlining the system to make Tennessee more business friendly. But according to critics, he rigged it in favor of businesses and against employees injured on the job.
Haslam punted the most important decision he probably ever will have to make—whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In bowing to the demands of his party’s right wing, he turned his back on billions of dollars in federal cash that could have created tens of thousands of jobs in the health care industry, and he risked the financial solvency of hospitals across the state.
The governor insisted he was driving a hard bargain with the Obama administration, holding out for more flexibility in Medicaid rules to bring “real health care reform” to Tennessee. But Democrats said he was tap-dancing for time—dodging responsibility out of fear of arousing the wrath of the tea party wing of his party.
Haslam also was forced to yank his school voucher bill rather than watch helplessly as right wingers expanded his program to cover most children in the state. He wanted to limit it to low-income kids in failing schools.
Also on the list of failed bills was the popular measure to legalize the sale of wine in supermarkets.
The session’s most notorious bills made Tennessee a national laughingstock, but nearly all of them died. Those included two from Sen. Stacey Campfield: His new “Don’t Say Gay” bill featuring a tattletale provision forcing school counselors to out gay students to their parents, and his “Starve Our Children” proposal to cut welfare benefits to the families of kids who screw up in school.
Republicans did patch up relations with the NRA by ramming through the guns-in-cars law. That was Priority No. 1 for this session since the NRA ousted the House’s No. 3 Republican, Debra Maggart, in the last election over her opposition to that bill, and no one wanted to become the next Maggart. That new law, passed despite business resistance, lets handgun carry permit owners keep their firearms in their cars just about anywhere they go.
In defending this session this week as lawmakers debated the last of their bills, the governor damned it with faint praise.
“We think some good legislation passed,” he said. “I don’t think the measure of a good session necessarily is how many bills passed. We think some significant things happened. I certainly wouldn’t call it a waste of time.”