One Down, One to GoAfter being present for the final week of the first session of the 106th General Assembly, there are some things worth noting about this year's legislative session that I would not have said six months ago.
The first and most obvious is the general state of affairs in the House. Those who read this space in January know that I expected the business of the House to grind to a halt. No one trusted Kent Williams then, and I believed that this lack of trust would cost everyone in terms of what the Legislature was able to accomplish this year. I will be the first to admit that what I predicted is not exactly what happened. Many Republicans still look to Williams with a wary eye-how can we not after the way in which he gained power? However, when it came to committee appointments Williams kept his word, for the most part, about appointing conservatives to some of the most important committees. Further, Williams allowed the major pieces of the Republicans' non-fiscal agenda, from SJR 127 to all of the gun bills to make it to the floor. When these bills did see the light of day, they were approved in the House with large bipartisan majorities-just as we believed they would be in this conservative State. Jimmy Naifeh understood that reality as well, which is why he did everything in his power to keep those bills from reaching a floor vote.
Kent Williams' biggest fault is that he does have a tendency to play politics with his own vote and which policies he pushes. It is hard to pin him down and get him to take a firm stand on anything. While this seems like a good thing to those folks who clamor for the Legislature to "be more bipartisan," the problem is that whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the Speaker of the House does move policy. In practical terms he (or potentially she) is more powerful in our Tennessee system than the Governor. Hence, it is often important to know where the Speaker stands on important bills and not have to play guessing games about where the Speaker is going to fall on this bill or that one. Overall, however, I would say that Kent Williams has thus far done a yeoman's job as Speaker of the House.
One of the biggest difficulties with this session has been the reality of the constant political jockeying which seems to be occuring in advance of the 2010 gubernatorial election. It isn't a secret that I support Ron Ramsey for that office, but I believe the attempt to steer through a bill during the last week of session that would allow Ramsey to raise money during next year's session had the appearance of a blatant political manuver on Ramsey's part (Note that I support the bill itself, as our system is blatantly unfair to any legislator who wishes to run for Governor-either everyone seeking a Statewide office must be allowed to raise money during the legislative session, or no one should. See Jim Bryson and Jim Kyle) designed to equalize his chances of being elected. The fact that we are still over a year away from the gubernatorial primary, yet real campaigning began months ago is a symptom of a larger problem not exclusive to Tennessee, but entirely evident during the proceedings of the first session of this General Assembly. We ought not have been too concerned with a Governor's race that is still many months from fruition, and should instead have been concerned with dealing with the issues facing Tennessee right now.
Whether it was Ron Ramsey trying to push through a bill which benefits his campaign, or Zach Wamp apparently trying to take advantage of the disarray over the House Speakership row by conveniently showing up to visit Kent Williams in Elizabethton, everyone seemed to use this session for purposes of political posturing for an election over a year away.
Democrats are equally as guilty of the crime of jumping the political gun. Many liberal activists are declaring victory after last week's passage of the State budget. In doing so, one has to wonder how many of them have read any portion of the omnibus budget amendment which made the budget before it passed the House. I will admit that I didn't read the whole thing (I will leave that to staff on Capitol Hill), but what of it I did read didn't seem like much of a victory either for the Left or the Right. There wasn't much to cheer for in this budget for either side-remember the final version was not the House version presented on Tuesday last. I'd be willing to bet that within six months, liberals will be running from the results of this budget like the plague.
Overall Grade this session: B