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Tea Party Marshaling Anti-Obamacare Muster

Members of the Nashville Tea Party are planning a rally outside the state Capitol at noon Wednesday. Their hope is to put GOP lawmakers and Gov. Bill Haslam on clear notice that grassroots conservatives want Tennessee to disavow state-level cooperation and support for the federal health insurance exchanges outlined in President Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

“We’re calling it the ‘Just Say No’ rally, and we’re trying to send a message to the governor,” said Ben Cunningham, leader of the Nashville Tea Party. “We’re encouraging him to just say no to a state-run exchange and let the federal government own this disaster.”

Cunningham said he expects people from all three of Tennessee’s Grand Divisions to attend.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandates that states choose between creating a state-run exchange where individuals may purchase health insurance eligible for federal subsidies or allowing the government to create a federally run insurance exchange.

Either way, those exchanges are supposed to be up and running by Jan. 1, 2014.

Haslam continues to say he has not made a decision on what course his administration will formally set — even after the federal government extended the deadline to make a decision to Dec. 14. Haslam and other state officials have complained that the federal government has failed to answer key questions as to how state-run exchanges would work.

Many governors, such as Rick Perry in Texas and Jan Brewer in Arizona, have said they will not set up a state-run exchange.

Tennessee tea partiers “would like Gov. Haslam to join with those governors and say, ‘No, we’re not going to be a branch office of the federal government,’” said Cunningham. He said a petition to that effect is circulating and “is getting a very good response.”

“If they (the federal government) want to implement this program, have at it, but our experience in the past with Medicaid, with education funding, is always a bait-and-switch situation where they fund much of the expenditures on the front end, and then the states are left with huge expenses on the back end,” Cunningham said. “There is some indication now that the phone calls and the emails that the governor is getting are overwhelmingly against a state exchange.”

The governor has indicated that while he opposes Obamacare in general, and he thinks the health exchanges are a bad idea overall, he’d prefer it if the state run them rather than the feds. However, high-ranking Republicans in both houses of the state’s General Assembly have indicated that support is lacking among the majority party for the state taking on that responsibility.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at@trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Tennessee’s Founding Documents on Display for First Time

Tennesseans will get an opportunity for a rare glimpse of the original handwritten copy of Tennessee’s constitution this week.

In fact, all can get a look at all three of the state’s constitutions: The original, penned in 1796, which set the groundwork for the state’s creation. The second, from 1834, that allowed those who weren’t property owners to vote for the first time — but took away the right to vote from free African Americans. And the constitution signed and voted on in 1870 in the aftermath of the Civil War.

That latest revision of the constitution abolished slavery and is the document that we live under today.

“Those are probably the most important documents that we keep,” Assistant Tennessee State Archivist Wayne Moore told TNReport.com. “They’re obviously the founding documents of Tennessee state government.”

On Monday the documents will be taken from a temperature-controlled locked vault, where they have not been available for the public to see, and digitized.

“It’s the first time these have been digitized to be available in a widely available form for the people in Tennessee,” Moore said. “One of the things that makes this kind of special is because those constitutions have always been stored away … and not available for anybody to see.”

After the documents are digitized — carefully, as some of the pages are so brittle they must be handled with cotton gloves and turned with a special spatula — they will be put on display as part of a week-long celebration that includes the opening of the Tennessee Judiciary Museum at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Supreme Court Building.

In addition to the opening, the museum will host the original constitutions on display on the following dates:

  • Thursday, Dec. 6 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Friday, Dec. 7 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Monday, Dec. 10 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

 

“The museum provides a great opportunity for the people of Tennessee to actually see the original founding documents of our state, which established our three branches of government and our fundamental constitutional rights,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade said in a statement. “I believe that it will be a treasure for the people of Tennessee for generations to come.”

The display marks the 75th anniversary of the Supreme Court Building and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Tennessee’s founding documents are going on display as a debate is brewing in the state of Texas over similar important historical documents.

Every school child in Texas knows the famous “victory or death” letter — the plea for reinforcements written by Lt. Col. William Barret Travis on Feb. 24, 1836, as he and his outnumbered men hunkered down at the Alamo and faced Santa Anna’s Mexican Army.

But few have ever seen the original — even Texas’ official state historian — because of fears of what might happen to the document.

Moore said that kind of risk is worth it to show Tennessee’s history.

“It’s kind of a balancing act for us between preservation, which is our first priority, and access, which we also think is important,” Moore said. “These documents don’t mean as much in my view if the public never has an opportunity to see the landmark documents that govern their government. In their state, their government.”

In addition to the original constitutions, visitors to the museum will see a diorama of a judge’s chambers as it would have been when the building opened in 1937, a display of artifacts and documents from the appeal of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, and a display of court records from the 1820s involving a land dispute with Andrew Jackson.

The Supreme Court building is at Charlotte Avenue and 7th Street, next to the Tennessee state Capitol.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Ramsey Indicates Possible Committee-Assignment Shakeups

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters last week that he expects Senate leadership to stay the same, but indicated there might be some committee-level shakeups.

In his role as Senate speaker, Ramsey has final say on which senators get placed on which committees.

“I’m not starting afresh, but just because you’re on a committee right now doesn’t mean you’re going to stay on that committee,” the Blountville Republican said.

When it comes to committee chairs he said: “Possibly there may be some changes there, too. I just have to figure out how it works out and make sure, again, that we have the most qualified people in the right spots.”

For example, when asked by reporters if he would retain Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, he declined to answer.

“I’ve not gotten that far down the road on who’s where,” Ramsey said. “There may be some changes different places.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Ramsey: ‘Day of Reckoning’ Coming

The idea that any American state would seriously consider secession is “silly,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters in Nashville Tuesday afternoon.

Clearly, however, for many people in the country, political frustration runs deep, he said. “You watch what is going on in Washington, D.C…it’s past a ‘train wreck’.”

“But secession is not a legitimate way” of addressing disagreements among the states and federal government, said Ramsey. “That didn’t work out too good the first time, and I don’t think it would work out too good the second time.”

The plain-spoken East Tennessee Republican said he does foresee a time when politicians in Washington may come looking to taxpayers in conservative-run states like Tennessee and Texas to bail out heavily indebted state governments run by Democrats.

“There’s going to come a day, I suppose, when Barack Obama or somebody’s going to say, ‘Tennessee, you’re going to need to help us bail out Illinois, you need to help us bail out California.’ And that’s the day that there’s going to be some kind of reckoning,” said Ramsey. “There’s going to be a day when I think governors say, ‘That’s it. We’re not doing that anymore.’”

“I think there’s going to be a day of reckoning for this country, I do believe that,” he added.

Ramsey’s comments about secession and America’s political divisions came in response to questions about an online petition submitted to the White House this month calling for Tennessee to be allowed to withdraw from the United States of America.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner this week criticized that petition and warned state elected officials against signing it. “As state representatives we owe it to the men and women who died fighting to protect and preserve our union to speak out against this destructive movement,” the Old Hickory Democrat said in a statement. “If any representatives join or have joined the call for secession, I intend to seek their removal from office.”

Ramsey reacted with amusement at the prospect of a Tennessee statehouse Democrat initiating impeachment proceedings against a Republican. “Well, let me think — how many votes does it take to impeach somebody? And how many Democrats are there in the House? OK, good luck on that one,” said Ramsey.

Democrats in the Tennessee Legislature have been reduced to “superminority” status in both chambers. They are entering the 2013-14 session of the General Assembly at their lowest point of political influence since the Reconstruction years following the Civil War.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Slight Reshuffling Among House Republican Leadership

House Speaker Beth Harwell on Monday won unanimous backing to be the GOP’s nominee for Speaker for a second term. But the party tossed Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny from his post in a Republican caucus meeting, replacing him with Rep. Curtis Johnson.

“As far as our caucus is concerned, one of my big roles is to bring our caucus together,” said Johnson, of Clarksville. “We’re going to have differences, we’re going to have constructive criticism … but I think we need to all work together to move our caucus forward.”

Matheny, R-Tullahoma, a Tea Party favorite, was at times critical of other House Republican leaders, and had for a time considered challenging Harwell for speaker.

GOP lawmakers also chose Glen Casada of Franklin to serve as the caucus chairman, a position he held previously before running against Harwell for the speaker’s post in 2010. Casada will take over for Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, who was defeated in the August primary by Courtney Rogers.

“In the 107th General Assembly, we did a lot to change how the Capitol operates internally and created a better environment for job creation throughout the state. Now, it’s time to take the next step,” Casada said in a statement. “Over the next two years, I look forward to leading a solutions-based Caucus that answers the needs of our citizens, creates more opportunity for economic growth, and enhances the educational landscape for our children.”

The caucus also dumped Rep. Curry Todd, of Collierville, from his seat on the powerful Fiscal Review Committee.

Todd, sponsor of Tennessee’s guns-in-bars law, resigned as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee last year after he was jailed and charged with drunken driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence. He pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Nov. 30.

A list of those winning GOP leadership offices can be found by clicking here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Republicans Pledge to Resist Abuse-of-Power Temptations

The Tennessee Waltz bribery sting.

Cronyism at the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Deep-seated ethics problems at the state legislature.

These fits and starts of scandal marked the last years of Democratic control of the governor’s mansion and state legislature.

Now Republicans have a stranglehold on state government, complete with supermajorities in the House and Senate — the GOP doesn’t need a single Democratic vote to pass legislation.

Will this new supermajority keep their members from falling into a similar sewer of scandal and ignominy?

They say they can.

“You gotta stay focused on what you got to do, and you need to have good people elected,” said Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “You’ve got to stay focused on what you’re here for. You’re here as a public servant.”

Not being distracted from the issues, such as smaller government and keeping taxes low, is also key, said Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin.

“Number one, stay in tune with what the voter wants,” he said.

That may be easier said than done. Two House members resigned their committee chairmanships recently after brushes with the law.

Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, stepped down as chairman of the House Conservation and Environment Committee after his arrest in March on a domestic assault charge. He maintains his innocence, and the Greene County Criminal Court Grand Jury is scheduled to consider the case within weeks.

Rep. Curry Todd, sponsor of Tennessee’s guns-in-bars law, resigned as chairman of the powerful House State and Local Government Committee last year after he was jailed and charged with drunken driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence. The Collierville Republican pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Nov. 30.

Beth HarwellHarwell

“I think we need to adhere to the highest ethical behavior that we can at the body,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes and that it’s not composed of human beings — it is. But it will be my job as speaker to make sure that we have the most ethical standards that we can.”

“There is caution that should occur in all states where there is a supermajority,” warns Peggy Kerns, the director of the Center for Ethics in Government for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There need to be strong values in play of fairness and consistency, treating everyone the same and also, fair representation for the public.”

Having a supermajority doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more or less corruption, “but it doesn’t help,” says Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University.

He says, though, that the public must be vigilant to make sure that the supermajority doesn’t use its power to dismantle ethics safeguards — such as open records laws and civil service rules — that are already in place.

“That’s the key,” Oppenheimer said. “ When a party has a large majority what do they do about the safeguards against corruption that are already in place?”

It’s not just Tennessee that may face ethics problems that come with supermajorities.

From Salon.com:

Democrats in California gained their first supermajorities since 1883 in both the Assembly and Senate. Republicans captured total control of the North Carolina Capitol for the first time in more than a century. The GOP… won two-thirds majorities in the Missouri Legislature for the first time since the Civil War.

Republicans also gained or expanded supermajorities in places such as Indiana, Oklahoma and — if one independent caucuses with the GOP —Georgia. Democrats gained a supermajority in Illinois and built upon their dominance in places such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

This is a growing trend at the state level, unlike in Washington, D.C., where control is split between Republicans and Democrats: In the wake of Election Day, one party will hold the governor’s office and majorities in both legislative chambers in at least 37 states, the largest number in 60 years.

Of course, Tennessee doesn’t have a monopoly on ethics problems that stewed during one-party rule.

Republicans were able to make gains in the North Carolina legislature after continuous waves of ethics problems under Democratic rule. North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black, for example, resigned in 2007 and pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge.

And there appears to be almost constant corruption in Illinois, for example, with the recent jailing of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, as an exhibit.

And problems with one-party control may be seen at the national level, too.

From Slate, in 2004, when the GOP controlled both Congress and the White House:

The speed with which Republicans have forgotten their “core values,” as David Brooks put it after the vote on the (House Majority Leader Tom) DeLay rule, has been shocking. Earlier this year, a Boston Globe article made a few comparisons between the 1993-94 Congress that Newt Gingrich ousted and the one now ending. The Republican Congress added 3,407 pork barrel projects to appropriation bills in conference committee, compared to 47 for 1994, the last year Democrats held both houses. The Republican Congress allowed only 28 percent of the bills on the floor to be amended, “barely more than half of what Democrats allowed in their last session in power in 1993-94.” The number of nonappropriations bills “open to revision has dropped to 15 percent.”

And, of course, DeLay was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally plotting to funnel corporate contributions to Texas legislative candidates.

“I think we have to be humble,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney. “I think all of us in any kind of leadership position need to be humble and know that we’re here … as servants of the people. They have to remember that.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Devaney: TNGOP a ‘Shining Light’ to Nation

A top Republican strategist says his party won big in Tennessee because voters are “gravitating to the message” Volunteer State GOP politicians communicate.

Now, Republicans in Tennessee couldn’t really ask to be in a better position to execute the policy measures they say will propel the state along a path of economic prosperity, fiscal responsibility and social conservatism.

“Tennessee, I think, is a shining light and an example across the country for what we can do,” Chris Devaney, chairman of Tennessee’s Republican Party, told TNReport.com.

In fact, Devaney said he sees no reason his party’s historic supermajorities in the House and Senate won’t continue to grow in 2014.

“It’s about job-creation and education … tax reform, legal reform, all of that, and people just keep gravitating to that message,” said Devaney, who added: “The Democrats, really, in this state have no message.”

Democrats certainly disagree with Devaney on the message issue, but Republican Party dominance at the polls speaks for itself. Bob Corker handily won re-election to the U.S. Senate, the GOP continues to hold seven of nine Congressional seats and in the statehouse have secured walkout proof majorities in both chambers.

Devaney said he did encounter one unpleasant surprise on Election Night. Mitt Romney may have won Tennessee by 20 percentage points, but nationally his Republican message didn’t resonate like it did here.

“I thought Romney would win and that we might pick up a couple of more seats in the House,” he said.

It’s likely that Devaney will be around for at least another two years. He is running for a third term as Tennessee Republican Party chairman. The party’s executive committee will make its decision at a Dec. 1 meeting, and party officials say they are not aware of any challenges to Devaney’s re-election.

That means that those who want to run under the Republican banner will continue to face a strict litmus test.

“We’ve got to make sure… that we have people who are sticking by the core principles,” Devaney said. “One thing I ask people when they walk in here is, ‘Are you for a state income tax?’”

If they are, Deveaney said, they won’t get a dime of state GOP campaign money.

“Second amendment, same thing, pro-life, same thing,” he said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

State: New Voter ID Law Proving a Success

Tennessee’s 2011 law requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot had little apparent statistical effect on citizen access to the polls in the general election, records from the Secretary of State’s Office show.

Of the 2.45 million votes cast during the election, 674 provisional ballots related to the new photo ID law were filled out. Of that total, 178 voters returned with proper photo identification and had their ballots counted, according to records.

The new law states that voters who come to the polls without a photo ID may still vote using a provisional ballot. Voters can then return to the polls within two days with a valid ID, such as a driver’s license, and their vote will be counted.

“It’s not even 1 percent of the vote,” Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay said.

The share of voters who did not have their provisional ballot counted because they lacked photo ID comes to roughly .02 percent of all votes cast.

The Nov. 6 election was the broadest test to date of the voter ID law, and lawmakers who supported it say it is proving a success.

“From the moment this law was introduced opponents have been screaming that the sky was falling in ways that would shame Chicken Little,” Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement. “The numbers have shown otherwise. Photo ID provides voter protection, and now we have proof.”

View county breakdown in a larger map

Shelby County had the most voters casting provisional ballots due to the voter ID law, with 134 cast. Records show 15 of those voters returned with the required identification. Davidson County came in second with 41 voters casting provisional ballots.

“When I see these numbers and then open the paper and see obvious examples of voter fraud in Philadelphia and Cleveland, I rest comfortably knowing that Tennessee has done the right thing in protecting the franchise,” Ramsey said. “What these numbers reveal is that the only thing Tennessee’s voter ID law suppresses is voter fraud.”

When the Republican-controlled Tennessee Legislature passed the photo ID bill, opponents argued the measure was not designed to protect voter integrity, but rather was a deliberate move to discourage groups that tend to vote Democratic, such as the elderly and minority voters.

They say the real takeaway from the recent election is not that the vast majority appear unaffected by the voter ID law, but that potentially hundreds of otherwise eligible voters may have been turned away.

“Those numbers, they may seem low to you, but they’re not,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a voter advocacy group.“That’s a good chunk of people who don’t have a voter ID.”

Mancini has opposed Tennessee’s voter ID laws. This week, for example, she said that the Davidson County Election Commission “utterly failed,” citing hundreds of voters experiencing problems at the polls on Election Day, including not being able to access provisional ballots.

“If one voter is kept from casting their vote because of this law then it’s one vote too many,” she said. “The other thing is that we’ll never really know many people showed up at their polling place, saw the sign about having a photo ID and just left.”

The Secretary of State’s Office maintains there were few problems at the polls, and that there’s another side to those arguments.

According to Fontenay, “Even one person impersonating a voter is one too many in our eyes. Their argument is that they have no way of knowing how many people might not have had an ID and might have stayed home. Our argument is that we have no way of knowing how many people might have, in the past, cast fraudulent ballots.”

While those are open questions, what seems clear is that public opinion is on the side of photo ID.

A poll conducted before Election Day by the Middle Tennessee State University Survey Group showed that 81 percent of Tennesseans approve of the law requiring people to show a photo ID before voting.

Tennessee is not alone in the debate over requiring an ID to vote.

Ten states in addition to Tennessee require a photo ID to vote. Twenty states, such as Massachusetts, California, Nevada and West Virginia, do not require some kind of identification to vote.

In all, 30 states have laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And that number could rise, according to the NCSL, because a total of 33 states have passed voter ID laws.

Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are among them, but those measures are tied up in court battles or, in the case of Mississippi, require both legislative approval and federal sign-off via the Voting Rights Act.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Tennesseans Liberalizing on Liquor

Local citizens across the Volunteer State overwhelmingly voted to flip their towns from dry to wet this past election, with more than two dozen communities saying ‘yes’ to liquor stores or the sale of liquor in restaurants.

Of 32 local referendums held last week to allow either package stores or liquor by the drink — or both — 25 passed.


View Tennessee Liquor Public Votes 2012 in a larger map

In some counties, the ‘yes’ votes were overwhelming. In Robertson County, for example, four cities approved alcohol sales: Coopertown, Cross Plains, Greenbrier and Orlinda. And in Hawkins County, Church Hill, Mt. Carmel and Rogersville approved liquor by the drink.

From Pigeon Forge to McKenzie, liquor sales won over the voters.

See the complete list by clicking here.

The support sets the table for a push in the 2013 legislative session to allow grocery stores to sell wine, according to the former assistant director and general counsel of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission who now serves as a lobbyist for state grocery stores.

“We’re going to make a much stronger effort this year to pass it in the House and the Senate,” said Dan Haskell. “Both the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor are openly in favor of this. This is going to be a different kind of year.”

“I think we’re going to win,” Haskell said. “The vast majority of Tennesseans want us to win.”Thirty-three states allow grocery stores to sell wine, but big-gun lobbying by Tennessee’s liquor wholesalers and retailers have for years blocked legislation to legalize wine sales in grocery stores.

As far as Tennessee’s cities that have approved liquor-by-the-drink measures, Haskell says there will be little change in those cities — only that folks going to local restaurants will now be able to raise a glass.

Those getting liquor licenses “are mostly restaurants that are there already and decided to upgrade their activity because it means more money for the merchant, more taxes are paid to the city and the citizens don’t have to drive as far when they go out for dinner,” he said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Forrester Touts Dems’ TN Victories

He concedes the Democratic party in Tennessee is in a superminority at the state legislature, but state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester says he put in place a plan to march the legislature back to Democratic control.

Even so, Forrester, the longtime leader of the state Democratic Party, says that won’t happen overnight.

“We’re very, very excited about the four victories we had in the House,” Forrester said. “To defend all of our incumbents, which we did … we’re very excited about those victories.”

Indeed, Forrester counts Democratic Reps. Charles CurtissMark WindleDavid ShepardSherry Jones and Craig Fitzhugh and others among key wins.

“These are the people that represent our future,” Forrester said. “Even though we’re in the minority, we’ve moved the ball down field.”

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He also pointed to the victory of Metro Councilman Darren Jernigan, the Democrat running against GOP incumbent Jim Gotto in the Davidson County House District 60 race.

“We took Jim Gotto, a right-wing Tea Party nut job, out of office,” Forrester said.

Both the Senate and House Republicans hold supermajorities, which means Republicans can pass any law without a single Democratic voice.

Forrester will be stepping down from his post in January.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.