Sadly, the casual observer would be mistaken.
This session, which convened tumultuously in January with a shocking House speaker election that blunted the Republicans' majority clout, will not be remembered for agreeing on a tough state budget or expanding charter schools. Instead, it was the assembly that robbed Tennesseans of their sense of safety in public places.
And, though it would be easy to point the finger at newly empowered Republican legislators, one cannot let off the hook Democrats, most of whom joined in to allow guns in bars, restaurants and state and local parks. The state has only begun to feel the negative repercussions of these new laws. Those legislators who voted to allow loaded guns where adults drink and children play should have a heavy conscience, especially if they voted only to ensure their re-election.
However, a conscience appears lacking in this General Assembly, which also found a way to hamstring the watchdog agency against legislative misbehavior. The Tennessee Ethics Commission will now be rolled in to the state Registry of Election Finance. The excuse is that the merger will save the state money. Actually, preventing improper influence between lobbyists and legislators saves a lot of money, too. State ethics officials will now have diminished authority to do their job.
Previous legislatures have been criticized for ineffectiveness, but this assembly is remarkable for ignoring real problems Tennesseans face - unemployment, low wages, crime, insufficient health-care access, threats to clean water - while pursuing a social agenda of gun rights and limiting a pregnant woman's right to choose.
Still, there were some successes, even if they occurred as a reaction to bad legislation. The aforementioned $29.6 billion budget represents a sound compromise in a tough economic year. Republicans' version of the budget would have slashed spending for HIV treatment and family programs, among other needed services, and damaged pre-kindergarten by shifting funding to lottery reserves. But word got out that Gov. Phil Bredesen thought the plan amp"stupid,amp" which woke up House Democrats and a handful of Republicans to take a stand for common sense.
The final version, hammered out in two days of intense negotiations, demonstrates reasonable compromises on spending; for example, Republicans won staggered bond issues for higher education and bridge projects rather than a lot of bonds all at once.
Other victories by way of defeat: A majority bill failed that would have delayed much-needed new voting machines with a paper trail. Even the very solid bill to expand charter schools was left for dead at the hands of House Democrats, until it was learned that its failure could cost the state $100 million in federal funds.
How would this session have unfolded if state Republican leaders got the House speaker they wanted, Jason Mumpower, instead of the one Democrats helped install, Republican Kent Williams? It is hard to say. But the rancor resulting from that maneuver undoubtedly will carry over into the 2010 session - unless lawmakers can learn from what went right last week, and stop trying to impose their personal agenda on 6 million Tennesseans.
- The Nashville Tennnessean