NASHVILLE – As the clock ticks down to the adjournment of the 110th General Assembly of the Tennessee General Assembly, April 11 was set to be just an ordinary day of business.
NASHVILLE – As the clock ticks down to the adjournment of the 110th General Assembly of the Tennessee state legislature, April 11 was set to be just an ordinary day of business.
But instead, history stepped through the great doors of the state House and interrupted all business.
It was on that day last week, the state’s first female Speaker of the House was given her official goodbye, and the legislators in both Houses posed for a final class photograph.
This year’s session was not like last year when the agenda was packed with hot button issues such as broadband access and Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE act which raised the gas tax, but funded hundreds of needed road projects throughout the state.
“We don’t have the major initiative of the IMPROVE act this year,” noted state Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville). “When you are in the last year of a governor’s term, the legislative package is smaller than normal because he is on his way out.”
Bell said the issue which has caused the most controversy in Nashville has been the governor’s new format for the University of Tennessee’ Board of Trustees.
Four of Haslam’s nominees were turned down the next day during confirmation hearings.
“Thinking back over the last seven years, there was major tort reform, education reform — there was just nothing big like that on the docket this year,” Bell said. “We got pretty much every thing we wanted this year, but still the biggest thing is to get a budget passed. We’re working to get that done. That will be the main thing over the next two weeks.
Bell noted Haslam’s addition of $30 million for school safety, a move the senator has some question about.
“If you look at the actual school shooting statistics, we are way down from the mid 1990s,” he said. “We are at the 1950 level of homicides with guns. We’ve dropped by half since the 1970s. “
Bell said attributes it to a 24-hour news cycle, “Every time someone reads, listens or watches the news there is another story about it.”
“Of course, one death is one death too many,” he adds. “But, you are dealing with reality versus perception.”
Bell said there needs to be caution on overreaction.
As far as the next session goes, Bell said the next governor would set the direction.
“I do believe we have four great people running,” he said. “It will be who the people choose that sets the direction.”
All four of the legislators’ offices are piled with the certificates which are presented to all of the area graduates.
As Bell shows off the skull of a bear he killed, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) joined the conversation.
Gardenhire had two major bills he was pushing: allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college and defining the word “teacher” in state law.
He said the “teacher” bill “ran into a tremendous amount of opposition from the Tennessee Education Association and the county leaders.”
“There is no definition of ‘teacher’ in the code, so if you have a teaching certificate and have gone into a position outside of a classroom, you get the raises that should be going toward those who stand in front of a room full of kids every day,” Gardenhire said. “That is the bulk of TEA members. I wanted to say let’s reward these teachers enough to where they will stay in the classrooms.”
“You really have to have five to start with in the committee,” Gardenhire said. “By the time it gets to the floor, it’s done.”
“My biggest disappointment, and it sounds like a ‘small, nobody cares bill,’ was to give utility workers the same protection under the law to where if they are doing there job and coming on your property, you could not attack them physically or threaten them,” he said.
Gardenhire praised Bell for “sticking with me” on that one.
Bell thanked Gardenhire for sticking with him as he tried to pass legislation that would prevent county employees from serving as a county commissioner.
“We have counties in this state where 40 percent of the county commissioners are county employees,” Bell said. “You can’t tell me that does not set up a conflict of interest.”
“You have school boards where eight out of nine are teachers,” Gardenhire said.
“If 40 percent of the state legislature were state employees, every paper in the state would be writing editorials against it. We’d be up here passing bills against it,” Bell said. “But, we can’t do it for county commissions when we should.”
State Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown) said he supported the bill when it came up.
Howell noted a county which had nine out of 14 commissioners as county employees and the road superintendent was the chairman of the Finance committee.
“You talk about a conflict,” Howell said.
Bell and Gardenhire noted that bill was killed in committee, which prompted Howell to reflect on what legislators need to learn first thing.
‘The first thing a freshman learns up here is about building relationships,” Howell said. “If you don’t build relationships and earn people’s trust, you don’t get anything done.”
Howell said he has noticed “every session takes on its own personality.”
“Much of it is driven by the budget because the budget is the road map for the state,” Howell said. “Whatever we place as a priority in the budget, that becomes the priority for policy.”
“Last year the priority was roads,. We are seeing the fruits of that in District 22 with Highway 60 and 15 bridges in Bradley County on the list,” he said.
He said this year the priority “seems to be dealing with the opioid crisis.”
“And education is always at the top,” Howell adds. “It has to be. That should be one of our greatest priorities to educate our kids because that’s what our future hinges on.”
Howell carried a major bill, expected to pass, which will require “some kind of buy in from able-bodied people” who are enrollees in TennCare.
“The whole idea is to move people into the workforce,” he said.
Howell also passes legislation that has the state join a multi-state clearing house which enables Tennessee to check for “double dippers” – people who use fraudulent means to draw welfare checks from more than one state.
“It costs $100,000 to set up the program,” he said. “Mississippi saved $2 million in the first few months.”
The senators and representatives left their offices to go to their respective floors where the state Senate posed for one last photo.
It was in the state House where the emotions ran the highest.
Speaker Beth Harwell, the first female to hold that position, was surprised by her colleagues as she was presented with a patchwork rocking chair.
Harwell thanked her colleagues with a tearful speech in which she talked about the honor they all shared being a part of Tennessee’s history.
Then, the surprise,
Harwell knew there was a resolution in her honor to be passed.
Members of the state House, no longer seated and circled around Harwell, were being urged to pass an amendment to the resolution.
Even state Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland) said he wasn’t aware of exactly what it was about.
But the resolution passed, and Harwell was told it was naming the plaza outside of the Cordell Hull Building in her honor.
In that moment, even the men wept.
Harwell struggled to hold back emotions.
With that, the idea of continuing regular business for the day was an impossible thought.
The state House adjourned and went outside to take their class picture.
And, the state of Tennessee kept operating, anxiously awaiting a new governor and a new legislature.
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