Legislative Session a Mixed Bag for Most

Despite passing a few historic, broadly supported pieces of legislation this year, the second half of the 108th General Assembly may be remembered — especially during the coming election season — not so much for what did happen as what didn’t.

A number of bills died as the session waned that were backed by vocal interest groups and policy advocates, or that seemingly enjoyed solid support among key majority-party lawmakers.

Some of the more noteworthy measures that couldn’t get over the hump in the Legislature’s last days were a school-vouchers agreement, loosening gun-carry restrictions and phasing out the state’s “Hall income tax” on investment profits.

Democrats, particularly in the House, took pride and assumed a share of credit for the demise of bills they deemed particularly repellant. The minority leader in the lower chamber, Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, sent this message out to his Twitter followers Tuesday: “Guns in Parks? Dead. Open Carry? Dead. Vouchers? Dead. Not bad two days work.”

All the same, from a Democratic standpoint plenty of injudicious inaction and ignoring of needy constituencies occurred this year under Republican rule. Attempts to establish a state minimum wage and sign Tennessee up for Medicaid expansion under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act sank without a bubble.

Given the ideological lay of the land in the GOP-run General Assembly, those initiatives had little realistic chance of success from the get-go. But what really came as an unexpected and unwelcome shock to Democrats was the announcement by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam just a couple weeks ago that sagging state revenue collections were forcing him to abandon plans he’d announced earlier in the year to bump up pay for teachers and state workers.

Democrats in the House were so put off by what they regarded as the governor’s last-minute “broken promise” they even mulled joining forces with a band of conservative Republicans to try and figure out a way to reinstall the raises.

Ultimately, the cuts stayed and the raises went. Minority-party dissatisfaction with the $32.4 billion state budget was such that only four Democrats in the Legislature — three in the Senate and one in the House — voted for it.

So in short, plenty happened — or didn’t happen — to peeve a wide diversity of Tennessee’s politically tuned-in during the 2014 General Assembly.

However, at least three of the bills approved by state lawmakers mark a shift in longstanding policies that will likely produce results that a lot of ordinary Tennesseans may notice — and that are designed to expand consumer choice, bolster property-rights protection and give greater freedom to farm.

And all three were initiatives that in previous years that likely wouldn’t have passed — or were in fact attempted and failed.

By large bipartisan margins in both chambers, members of the Legislature approved measures legalizing the sale of wine in grocery stores, banning cities from annexing property without real owner-input and planting the regulatory seeds for Tennessee farmers to once again grow hemp, which has been illegal in the Volunteer State for roughly three-quarters of a century.

Back in February when it was becoming apparent that 2014 might bear fruit for wine-in-groceries enthusiasts, longtime liquor-law lobbyists Dan Haskell recalled that it wasn’t too long ago the legislation was “having trouble getting a second” in committee hearings. This year, in addition to sponsors getting craftier at manipulating those committee votes, sponsors made it tougher for teetotalers and liquor-store-friendly lawmakers to vote “no.” Key among the legislation’s provisions was establishing referendums to empower local voters themselves with the authority to approve or reject widening wine-sale locations in their communities.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, passed 23-4 in the Senate and 71-15 in the House.

The measure prohibiting “forced annexations” by Tennessee municipalities without a local vote of the people or permission from the property owners was sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah and Bo Watson of Hixon, both Republicans. It passed 85-4 in the House and 21-1 in the Senate. As the House was putting the finishing touches on the bill April 2, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, noted that such a shift in law would have been unthinkable in the General Assembly until recently.

“When Rep. Carter brought this bill in the beginning, a lot of people told him that it was just laughable, that it couldn’t be done, that it has never been done in decades and that a certain group just wouldn’t let it happen,” he said. “And I think he has proved that things have changed around here and has brought some legislation that is going to put some power in the hands of the people.”

The bill to legalize hemp was sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. Bolstered by some language in this year’s federal farm bill that encourages hemp-farming and research, House Bill 2445 directs the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to establish a licensing system for farmers to raise non-psychoactive varieties of cannabis that can be used for paper, fiber, fuel, textiles and food for animals and humans. Even just a few months ago, Tennessee GOP leaders like Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Gov. Bill Haslam were admittedly clueless about industrial hemp and efforts to legalize it.

Haslam has yet to sign the hemp legislation, which passed the Senate 28-0 and 88-5 in the lower chamber. The wine-in-groceries bill was inked by the governor during a special ceremony last month. Haslam signed the annexation bill earlier this week.