The Tennessee General Assembly has adjourned for the year after the shortest session in recent memory, sending lawmakers home to begin raising money and wooing voters in their newly drawn districts ahead of the primary elections in August.
Republican speakers from both the House and the Senate, Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, joined Gov. Bill Haslam immediately following the close of the session Tuesday evening to boast of the GOP-led Legislature’s achievements over the past four months.
Haslam praised the Legislature for a “terrific” session that included “some incredibly substantive work.”
Haslam said that when the Legislature began back in January the speakers asked the administration to work quickly and efficiently to produce a legislative package so as to enable early adjournment. The governor said he’s “impressed” that the General Assembly was able to call it quits for the year by May 1.
“I honestly believe the state of Tennessee will be a better state because of the work that they have done this year,” Haslam said.
Highlights of the 2012 legislative session included passage of the administration’s state government workforce hiring-and-retention overhaul, lowering the tax on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, revamping the state’s boards and commissions and passing changes to the FastTrack subsidy program for businesses.
“I think maybe the piece that got underemphasized throughout the session was some of the significant work on public safety that was done — prescription drug abuse, tougher sentencing for gang-related crime and mandatory jail time for domestic violence offenders,” said Gov. Haslam.
On the education front, Haslam cited the Legislature approving the state’s request for a waiver from federal “No Child Left Behind” guidelines. “That really drastically redefined how we do accountability for education in Tennessee,” he said.
On Monday the Legislature gave final approval to a $31.5 million budget, a $400 million reduction over last year that includes $50 million in tax cuts.
“It’s a budget that allowed us to have the tax cuts we talked about, but also allowed us to have a two-and-a-half percent pay raise (for state workers and teachers), the biggest raise in the past five years,” said Haslam. “It also put $30 million aside to address salary issues going forward for state employees to make sure we can attract the brightest and best.”
Harwell, who last year became Tennessee’s first woman elected House speaker, said she’s proud the state’s GOP-dominated Legislature has for the most part avoided intractable partisan strife and deadlock.
“Unlike the federal government and Congress, where constant bickering and stalemate leads to complete dysfunction, I think you saw that members of the General Assembly work well together,” said the Nashville Republican. “Ultimately, we bicker every now and then, but we set aside partisanship and regional differences to do the right thing for the state.”
Harwell said she thinks people in Tennessee “sometimes take for granted the fact that we have a balanced budget” as required by the state Constitution.
“It comes with a great deal of effort on a lot of people’s parts,” she said.
Harwell said elimination of the death tax and the gift tax were especially important pieces of legislation passed in the General Assembly this year. Overall the body “did a lot of good things in a lot of areas,” she said.
Ramsey reiterated his oft-used phrase that “it matters who governs,” indicating that for Tennessee conservatives Republican supremacy carries with it considerable rewards and advantages.
“Not only is the budget smaller than it was last year, but it had tax cuts,” said the lieutenant governor.
Among the laws and policy directives Ramsey believes were noteworthy and beneficial to Tennessee, the Blountville Republican cited passage of stricter enforcement against banned “synthetic drugs,” tightening of unemployment benefit-eligibility monitoring, “loser pays” tort reform and holding the line on education reforms passed in 2011.
“When you look back at what we were able to accomplish in the 107th General Assembly it is really amazing,” he said. “I think we will look back years from now and say this is the year we turned the corner in K-12 education reform, and turned the corner in making Tennessee the place to own and operate a business.”
Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic Leader, told TNReport on Tuesday that while the minority party took some lumps in 2012, like last year, they stayed relevant and can build going forward.
Democrats can take credit for resurrecting discussions about cutting Tennessee’s food tax, working with Gov. Haslam on his government workforce hiring-and-retention reforms and doggedly trying to keep the focus on job creation at the Capitol.
“I thought we had a pretty successful session this time,” said Fitzhugh. “It is always the budget that is paramount in my mind, and I think we passed a good one.”
Fitzhugh reiterated a theme Democrats have been consistently hitting lately — that the state has a big chunk of additional revenues on hand beyond last year’s budget projections, and that going forward that figure will rise to at least $200 million and perhaps as high as $400 million more than what the Legislature formally anticipates.
That money could be used to restore cuts to government spending on education, job training and health care for the poor in addition to reducing the state’s grocery tax beyond the quarter-of-a-percentage-point cut the General Assembly passed, he said.