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.
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.