Republicans are primed for historic control of state government, looking at the potential of a GOP governor and control of both the House and Senate, so what might that mean in real-world impact on legislation?
That question was put Friday night to the three Republican candidates trying to replace Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, as well as to a current GOP House leader and one candidate trying to sit in the legislature for the first time, as party activists gathered for the annual GOP Statesmen’s Dinner in Nashville.
And a former governor had thoughts of his own about the rare chance to influence the course of state history.
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a gubernatorial candidate, said a clean sweep for the Republicans means everybody will be coming from the same direction in tackling a massive budget problem. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp said it means both opportunity and a responsibility not to mess up the chance to govern. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey foresees a path toward drastic cuts in state government. Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, Republican caucus chair, sees practical changes in the make-up of committees, and House candidate Jim Gotto is hopeful for an honest-to-goodness working majority.
“It means we set the agenda completely,” Wamp said. “We don’t have a fight like they had this year, where everything gets held up while there’s conflict. We have to work this out on the front end. Leadership from the executive branch will set the agenda. The legislature will work with the governor.”
Early this year in the 106th General Assembly, there was talk of dealing with a difficult budget process and going home in short order for the election season. Late in the game, Republicans recoiled from tax proposals from Bredesen, and a debate ensued. Snags, like a fish hatchery proposed for the House speaker’s district, prevented swift passage of a budget.
Disagreements were set in motion as far back as the first day of the 106th in 2009, when Democrats sided with Republican House member Kent Williams to make Williams speaker, much to the dismay of some GOP lawmakers who felt robbed of the momentum of their new-found majority status in the House from the 2008 elections.
The 106th was comprised of a 19-14 Republican advantage in the Senate and a 51-48 majority in the House, which quickly became 50-48-1 when Williams was stripped of his Republican status and was given the status of Carter County Republican. Republicans got a seat back when Republican Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, was elected to replace Democrat Rep. Curt Cobb last October.
A clearer majority victory in 2010 would presumably make things smoother for Republicans. But state Democrats are waging a fierce battle not to allow GOP control of the House. Control of the Senate is expected to remain in the hands of Republicans.
While Republicans clearly want the reins, the task before lawmakers is not envious.
“I do think you will see drastic cuts in state governemnt,” Ramsey said. “Government is going to have to make tough, tough decisions. We’ve nipped around the edges, made 2-percent and 3-percent cuts, but we have to restructure state government as we know it. A Republican majority in the House and Senate make that easier.
“I don’t look for the economy to turn around a lot. That’s the reason we need somebody to hit the ground running on day one.”
The budget, which will suffer from the loss of federal stimulus funding in January 2011, is very much on the mind of candidate Haslam.
“It helps if you have people coming from the same perspective,” Haslam said. “That’s the biggest thing. Very quickly were going to have to deal with a very difficult budget situation.”
Casada, considered a potential candidate for House speaker, is ready for clear Republican majorities on committees.
“You’ll see a Republican chairing every committee,” Casada said. “You’ll see a Republican majority on those committees and subcommittees. Things like tort reform and addressing illegal immigration will get through and pass.”
Gotto, considered a strong contender to shift a Democratic seat into the Republican column as he runs to replace Rep. Ben West Jr., D-Hermitage, who is retiring, likes the idea of a strong majority.
“Right now we don’t have a working majority in the House,” Gotto said. “If we can get four or five more seats, we can do things I think the majority of people of Tennessee would like.”
Gotto said a stronger majority would have helped push through the Health Care Freedom Act, which would have allowed Tennesseans to ignore the federal health care law. The bill died in a House subcommittee this year.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who was elected governor of Tennessee in 1978 and 1982, sees the historic nature of this year’s election and the clout of a Republican majority in handling redistricing, drawing from the 2010 census.
“We have a chance to elect a terrific Republican governor. We have a chance to have an unprecedented number of Republicans in the General Assembly to help that governor,” Alexander said. “Third, we have a chance to draw district lines in a fair way so they properly reflect the Republican and independent conservative votes in Tennessee.
“If we do that, we have two or three more Republican congressmen in Washington. That would have been enough to have a different health care bill or no health care bill. This is one of the most important elections we’ve had in a long time. We have more than 80 candidates running for the legislature. We’ve never had an opportunity like this before.”
Wamp, who saw Republicans squander their advantage in Washington, is warning his colleagues about the pitfalls that might come with the added responsibility.
“I tell my party all the time we haven’t been in this position in Tennessee but I’ve seen this picture in Washington, with a Republican president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate,” Wamp said.
“When you have the executive branch and both houses, you have to set a positive agenda that is based on what you said when you were campaigning for that office. Then you follow it through consistently. When our party lost, we weren’t consistent, and people knew it.”