The kind of walkout staged by Democratic state lawmakers to deprive the Wisconsin Legislature of a budget quorum is technically a possibility here. However, minority party leaders in both chambers say it’s not part of any plans they currently have.
“It is a legitimate parliamentary procedure, but it is one that is not very productive,” said Jim Kyle, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
Senate Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state Capitol last week, sending their 14 members across state lines, out of the reach of local law enforcement sent by the Senate speaker to escort them back to the Capitol.
The move was part of a plan to delay a vote on legislation that would strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights and increase the amounts employees must contribute to their pension and health care costs by 8 percent. A similar situation is unfolding in Indiana.
Republicans here in Tennessee are pushing legislation as well to strip down the influence unionized public employees, namely teachers, wield in the state.
But Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, downplayed the likelihood of a walkout. “I can’t imagine us being in a situation to do something like that,” he said.
A walkout is “completely off the table” right now, Fitzhugh continued, adding that he doesn’t think it’s likely in the future, either, and his caucus would rather try to work out any disagreements with Republicans face-to-face.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney said members of his party are talking about staying engaged in the legislative process and working “to fix some of these issues,” not running away from them.
Gov. Bill Haslam so far has steered clear of offering his opinion on eliminating teachers’ ability to collectively bargain. But he said today he doubts the Volunteer State will see the same type of drama going on in Wisconsin regardless of what union-related issues the Legislature takes up.
“I think we’ll have a very different discussion in Tennessee.” he said. “Our pension plan is very different from theirs. Our budget situation is very different from theirs. I don’t think you’ll see anything like that here.”
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a first for Tennessee.
In 1866, opponents of the 14th Amendment refused to show up for the ratification vote.
“To overcome this difficulty, amendment supporters had two Tennessee legislators forcibly seized and held in an anteroom as the vote proceeded. In vain did the speaker attempt to proclaim the two men absent (they refused to answer the roll); the vote in favor of the amendment went ahead anyway,” wrote one historian.
Longtime Capitol watchers say there were rumors of a walkout during contentious political battles over a proposed state income tax in 2000.
Because Republicans so thoroughly defeated Democrats across the state in last year’s election — voters sent only 13 senators and 34 representatives with a D after their name to Capitol Hill — GOP lawmakers have enough muscle to approve just about any legislation they want.
That leaves only three real parliamentary options for the minority party, said Russell Humphrey, the chief Senate clerk.
“One is the option provided to be heard, voice their concerns in a reasonable manner whether it be in committee or on the floor,” Humphrey said. “Two is to try to effectuate delay, which they can do through a couple different rules.
“And the third is to absent themselves, to leave. Aside from those three opportunities, that’s the only opportunity the minority group has to effectuate any kind of change on legislation.”
According to the Tennessee Constitution, both chambers need a minimum of two-thirds of the legislative body present to conduct business.
In the House, where Republicans number 64, the threshold is 66 members.
In the Senate, where there are 20 GOP members, the threshold is 22.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said a Democratic walkout would be “a disaster.”
“Let me assure you the Republicans were in a minority for 140 years, that never happened. Let’s hope that (with) the Democrats in the minority — and just because they’re being outvoted on an issue — that they don’t decide to shirk their responsibility to the voters and the citizens of the state of Tennessee and leave the state,” he said.
Both the lieutenant governor and the House speaker have the power to send out the sergeant at arms or state troopers to arrest lawmakers and drag them back to the Capitol building.
In Wisconsin’s case, lawmakers crossed over state lines, out of reach of state law enforcement. The Speaker sent two state troopers to the Democratic leader’s home to convey the “seriousness” of the situation, according to local reports, but they have yet to come back to the Capitol.
As the battle brews in Wisconsin, Fitzhugh said he is adamant Democrats can make change without a high-profile legislative boycott.
“I don’t think we’d ever do anything like that,” he said.