Now that both Houses of the Tennessee General Assembly have passed the budget, they now must deal with a slew of bills behind the budget, revisions of bills from the other chamber ("messages," or message calendars). Last night, the House of Representatives chose, over the objections of many members (and at first by way of a straw poll), to recess until Tuesday, June 8th at 1:00pm. Representatives could have potentially finished all of their business today since the Senate did meet this morning and both houses could have remained in session for as long as it might have taken to complete all remaining calendars. At most, this might have meant a long recess on Sunday and sine die adjournment on Monday. It is very possible that the Legislature could have concluded all of its business today.
The reality that the General Assembly will be meeting next week may create another problem for those members who show up in Nashville with the intent to do their jobs. A few hotels which are not terribly far from the Capitol in Nashville offer steep discounts to legislators to stay there during the legislative session, and many members take them up on it. This helps keep the hotels full during a time when there are fewer tourists in the Nashville area, and allows those members who tend to pinch pennies and who prefer to keep their living arrangements to themselves to be accommodated. Next week, however, the normal pace of business at the lodging establishments that many legislators frequent could change dramatically because of the arrival of the annual CMA Music Festival, formerly and more popularly known to the country music fan world as "FanFare."
Hotels and motels that have been offering members of the General Assembly rooms at a discount during session (something that usually happens every year) will be far more keen to rent those rooms to out-of-State tourists who come to town for the biggest country music draw of the year. After all, people may know that Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, but it isn't known for that-its nickname is not "Legislative City USA." Given the choice between a steady legislative customer predisposed to minor forms of penury and tourists dropping loads of money, the hotels will take the tourists, and no one can blame them. At a time when Nashville needs the investment and the economic boost as it recovers from the recent floods, local hotels and merchants want a crowd beyond Capitol Hill and that means that those coming for the music festival may get first priority and rooms at places which members of the General Assembly normally stay may be at a premium.
After such a contentious fight over the budget, the final bill passed the House 94-0 in what can only be viewed as a show of unity. In the end, it is probably likely that House Speaker Kent Williams was coming to understand that in holding up the passage of the budget he was weakening his position in the House, where he had made it clear in last year's session that he wants to try and run for Speaker of the House again (increased Republican numbers in the House would make Williams' re-election as Speaker far less likely, but history has shown those who follow the Tennessee Legislature that not only is it not impossible, but that much stranger things have happened during opening week of a Tennessee General Assembly).
For Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, it is in his interest for the General Assembly to adjourn quickly because Ramsey, who is running for Governor, is losing valuable time on the campaign trail.
What I suspect happened was a shakedown to political reality for both men. Nearly everyone who understands the present East Tennessee political dynamic believes that Kent Williams stands a good chance of being re-elected in Carter County. However, even those who support building a fish hatchery on the Watauga River (of which I would count myself as one) acknowledge that the hatchery is not something that is so pressing that the government of this State must risk being shut down by the first of next month if it stymies budget agreement, neither is the fish hatchery something that can't wait until next year.
Just because both Houses seem to have come to an oral agreement doesn't mean that the Legislature is ready to adjourn sine die. Both the House and the Senate have yet to formally agree on the final budget and pass conference committee reports on a myriad of issues. Several Hill sources have said that it is expected that today will not be the last day the General Assembly will convene, and that the final budget and bills behind the budget may not be heard and passed by both Houses until Friday and/or Saturday. However, as will everything near the end of a legislative session, all of that is subject to change.
The talk in Nashville on Capitol Hill is now that the General Assembly could be in session for two to three more weeks. That could complicate matters for Senators who have one legislative day remaining on their constitutional 90-day mandate (each House of the General Assembly is only allowed to meet in full session for 90 days in a two-year cycle). The House of Representatives has three legislative days left and will be using one of those today. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to meet at 2:00pm Central time this afternoon. Senators will almost certainly have to meet in session after today since the budget is going to a conference committee of the two houses. The House could spread each of their remaining legislative days into one session a week for the next three weeks.
"They're saying we could be here 2 or 3 more weeks, that's the talk," Rep. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) told The Examiner this morning, "it's getting ridiculous. We won't have session every day, but we'll have [finance and budget sub] committees."
Ron Ramsey also must be very careful that the lock-down over this budget does not drag on incessantly deep into the month of June. Tennesseans are but 46 days away from the beginning of early voting in the August State primaries. At this point, every hour that Ramsey spends haggling over the final details of the budget is one less hour he could spend campaigning, and if he is to have a chance at victory, every second is one of value. Ramsey must ask, as must House and Senate leadership in both parties, what is most important both for them and for Tennessee.
Because of spilled blood and the making of the supreme sacrifice by countless thousands of Tennesseans from the Overmountain Men to those who landed on Omaha and Utah beaches, and those who presently serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Legislature is free to have a budget fight. In no small part because of the efforts of these noble souls we are able to enjoy a freely elected government in this State and throughout the United States.
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