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Republicans Scheduled to Vote on House Speaker Nominee

Sweeping Republican gains in the Tennessee House of Representatives resulted from GOP candidates campaigning on conservative principles. And voters deserve someone overseeing the chamber who believes conservative priorities are now the people’s priorities, Rep. Glen Casada said Wednesday afternoon.

Under his direction, the House could be expected to approve or advance only that legislation rooted in core conservative values: reducing government size and spending, keeping state regulators out of the business community’s hair and stopping any new tax increases.

That kind of leadership isn’t for a moderate, Casada told TNReport on the eve of his party’s selection of a nominee for House speaker.

“Some people think that agreement is a greater good than getting your principles passed,” said Casada. “And I feel like getting my principles passed…is of greater value than getting agreement.”

Key party constituencies, like gun-rights advocates and Tea Party activists, have argued, too, that Rep. Beth Harwell, who is running against Casada, would be more likely to settle for compromise on issues of importance to them. Some conservative activists have also called for the caucus House speaker vote to be public, although the chamber’s party members have resisted that suggestion thus far.

But despite her moderate image, Harwell, a a two-decade House incumbent who led the TNGOP for four years, has herself advertised that she has no problem cutting Democrats out of the lawmaking mix for the next two years.

“Certainly in times past, we’ve had this mentality of a Democrat-Republican coalition, understandably so,” she told TNReport last week. “That day is over.”

Casada and Harwell say they would marginalize Democrats on legislative committees to reflect the heavy Republican majority in the chamber. And both pledge to support whomever the caucus nominates for the post — which in Harwell’s case seemingly constitutes an assurance that she won’t seek to leapfrog the party’s more conservative elements and reach out to Democrats for support on the House floor in January.

The new speaker will replace Rep. Kent Williams, a former Republican turned Independent who was elected into the leadership post with the help of Democrats in 2009. Both Casada and Harwell say that kind of backdoor surprise is not in the cards in 2011.

Thirty-three votes are required to win the caucus’ approval. The nominee is expected win election before the whole chamber in January with the entire party’s backing.

The GOP won a 64-34-1 majority at the general election earlier this month, essentially giving the party control of two-thirds of the chamber.

The nomination process was originally scheduled for the second week of December, but was moved up in an attempt to bond the party together sooner behind one central leader, Casada said.

Caucus members seem to know who they want to vote for, “so they might as well get it out of the way,” he said.

“Many, many in the caucus basically felt they had already made their mind up,” Casada said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner says Republicans have their work cut out for them.

The party will soon realize they can’t keep all the groups that helped them into office happy, he said.

“I think you’ll see a lot of those groups complaining about a lot of things as we go forward, and it just tickles me to death,” Turner said Wednesday.

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Health Care Liberty and Justice News

Fight to Finish Over Federal Health Care Reform

The state-level war over the national health-care package is going down to the wire in the 2010 Tennessee Legislature.

The House on Tuesday passed the “Health Care Freedom Act” — not to be confused with the “Health Freedom Act” the Senate approved earlier this session. However, there’s talk the two might in some way be merged or their language reconciled with one another before the Legislature adjourns for the year.

Both pieces of legislation state generally that government can’t require citizens to purchase health insurance. But the Senate’s version is broader in scope — for example, directing the state attorney general to defend Tennesseans who choose to ignore the federal mandate.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the acts and issues surrounding them again today, on what leaders in both chambers have said is likely to be the last day of the session.

“We’re going to have discussion on the bill in the Senate on the floor, and we’ll just have to see what comes out of that,” said Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, whose SB2560 is the companion bill to HB2622 passed by the House.

Last week the Senate voted to pull SB2560 out of a closed committee to ready it for floor action, including possible alteration and amendment. That move was precipitated by the House killing the original “Health Freedom Act” in the Budget Subcommittee, which is controlled by Democrats and House Speaker Kent Williams.

Further complicating the issue is that Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper has stated that the “Health Freedom Act” is unconstitutional. On the other hand, the “Health Care Freedom Act,” wrote Cooper, probably does not run afoul of  either the United States or Tennessee constitutions.

The “Health Care Freedom Act,” sponsored by Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, states: “The people of Tennessee have a right to enter into private contracts with health care providers for health care services and to purchase private health care coverage. The legislature shall not require any person to participate in any health care system or plan, nor shall it impose a penalty or fine, of any type, for choosing to obtain or decline health care coverage or for participation in any particular health care system or plan.”

Black wouldn’t say what she anticipates happening or exactly what she’ll be proposing as far as amendment or adoption of SB2560. Adding to the uncertainty is the ongoing political feud in the GOP between Rep. Susan Lynn and Sen. Mae Beavers, two Mt. Juliet Republicans who are running for the same Senate seat this year. Beavers was the sponsor of the “Health Freedom Act,” Lynn of the language passed by the House Tuesday.

“The only thing that I can say is the Senate will be the Senate, and they will give the bill debate just like they do on any other bill,” Black said.

Debate in the House on Tuesday over Lynn’s bill was mostly a rehashing of well-worn positions staked out by conservatives and progressives in the Legislature. The measure ultimately passed, 53-32.

Republicans generally argued the federal government has no legitimate power to demand that individuals purchase health insurance or any other product. Democrats maintain that the states have no constitutional authority to resist the demands of the federal government.

Andrea Zelinski contributed video interviews for this story.

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News Tax and Budget

Budget Talks Stall Over Hatchery Project

Negotiations came to a sputtering halt Thursday after lawmakers from both parties walked away from the table unable to hash out an agreement on one spending plan sticking point: whether to fund a $16.1 million fish hatchery during the tight fiscal year.

Calling it “the most political budget” he’s ever seen, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner blames much of the strife on Senate Republicans. GOP lawmakers, said Turner, are seeking “political payback” against House Speaker Kent Williams, a former Republican, and readying their election campaigns for higher elected offices.

“They’ve got nine people running for Congress, 150 of them running for governor. This is all about politics,” said Turner, who is from Old Hickory. “They’re using this fish hatchery because they think they can gain political points about that and there’s more to this than the fish hatchery.”

Proposals from the House and Senate were seemingly just beginning to come together on several fronts until members of leadership met Thursday afternoon. When that meeting was over, Lt. Gov. Ramsey, R-Blountville, and his GOP leadership crew had walked away from the bargaining table.

Ramsey, in the thick of a three-way race for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, said there’s no way he could support funding the “pork barrel” fish hatchery project in Speaker Williams’ Northeast Tennessee district. Opposing that project is an example of “running things the Tennessee way and not the Washington way,” said Ramsey, who has taken to using that phrase in commercials and on the campaign trail.

On one point Ramsey and Turner do share agreement: The impasse at the statehouse is about “more than just a fish hatchery.”

“It’s a symbol of out of control spending,” said Ramsey. He said that is the one issue he and his caucus will not budge on — all other issues are negotiable.

Ramsey said blocking the fish hatchery has nothing to do with political retribution against Williams, a former Republican who was voted Speaker of the House by the Democratic Party last year. In a tough budget year when legislators are considering cuts to mental health, children’s services and other social programs, Ramsey said there’s no way to justify spending any money on a fish hatchery.

The hatchery isn’t the only issue Democrats and Republicans are disagreeing on at this point in the budget process that promises to drag into June. But it’s one that both parties aren’t budging on, Ramsey said.

Other issues being debated include whether to give state employees a cash bonus, help with health care payments or something else of value. Also on the table is a plan to offer flood victims a sales tax holiday on items they purchase to fix up their homes.

“Things like that can be worked through, but when it comes to projects that are pork-barrel projects, we just cannot,” said House Republican Caucus Leader Glen Casada of Franklin. “Let’s cut the pork and make government smaller with no tax increase.”

Lawmakers expect to adjourn for the holiday weekend and pick up on budget talks next week.

Ramsey said he and his caucus will stay “as long as it takes” to pass a budget without Williams’ fish hatchery. House Democrats say they expect to spend at least another two weeks at the Capitol hammering out a budget.

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Business and Economy Health Care Liberty and Justice News

Health Care War in TN Going Nuclear

Tennessee Republicans demanded Tuesday that House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner apologize for implying that opposition to federal health care legislation may be driven by racist disdain for President Obama.

They could be waiting a while, however, because later in the afternoon Turner said he has “nothing to apologize for.” And House Democratic Leader Gary Odom issued a press release afterward accusing Republicans of “hypocrisy” and “intentionally (taking Turner’s comments)…out of context for the purpose of political grandstanding.”

The spat arose from Turner’s comments during a press conference at the state Capitol Monday, when, standing with Odom, Turner rebuked Republicans for pushing bills advocating “state sovereignty and all that.”

“They’ve done that on a lot of issues,” Turner told reporters. “All of the sudden, we have a black man elected president, and everybody wants to start acting like something’s wrong with our country. I think we need to go back and take a good, hard look at this. I didn’t agree with a lot of the things George Bush did, but I didn’t want to secede from the Union.”

Republicans took umbrage with Turner’s assessments of opposition to Obama and his health care agenda. Three House Republicans — Reps. Jason Mumpower, Glen Casada and Mike Bell — declared to reporters during a press conference they called at noon Tuesday that the Old Hickory Democrat’s comments were inaccurate and inappropriate, and called on other Democrats to denounce him.

“When someone disagrees with the president, all that Chairman Turner and Tennessee Democrats know to do is name-call — in this case, to call people racist,” said Mumpower, R-Bristol. “Democrats don’t have any substance to their discussions or their arguments, all they like to do is name-call and point fingers.”

Bell, R-Riceville, is the chief House sponsor of the “Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” which passed last month in the Senate 26-1. Bell said state residents “from Mountain City to Memphis” have contacted his office to tell him they oppose the federal health care legislation.

“They oppose (it) not because our president is an African American,” said Bell. They oppose it “because they are angry at an oppressive federal government that is overreaching its bounds.”

“We’re a free a country — at least I hope we still are a free country,” Bell added. “And people want to be free to choose to participate in a federal program, or to keep their private insurance. That is what the anger is about.”

Casada found Turner’s implication “offensive,” too, and said he’s getting calls and emails from Tennesseans angry that an elected public servant “would raise and wag his finger and call you racist and call me racist just because you don’t agree with his big government policies.”

“Chairman Turner needs to apologize,” said Casada. “This type of demeaning people to try to put them down has got to stop.”

TNGOP Chairman Chris Devaney on Tuesday also joined the chorus, sending a letter to state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester to “immediately ask Rep. Turner to apologize for his personal attacks on the vast number of Tennesseans who do not agree with his Democratic Party’s agenda for our country.”

Responding to Republican calls for him to express remorse, Turner told TNReport he has no plans to retract his comments. Regarding those angered by his sentiments, Turner said “maybe they got a guilty conscience.”

“Anybody who would honestly say that some people are not against (Obama) because he is an African American, I think they’re living on a different planet,” said Turner.

In a press release that outlined a six-point list of what he called “examples of Republican political activities in our state (that) should never be forgotten,” Odom declared, “I find it remarkable that House Republicans would condemn the use of racial overtones in political debate, when you consider recent Republican activities in our state and our country.”

The list went on to point out instances of alleged racism within Tennessee’s Republican party, including a former GOP Party Chairman “sending out Christmas music entitled “Barack the Magic Negro'” and a Republican Senate staffer sending out a “photo composite that pictured all of the U.S. presidents but depicted President Obama in a black background with only two white eyes.”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report. She can be reached at andreazelinski@tnreport.com. Mark Todd Engler can be reached at markengler@tnreport.com.