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Senate Dems Considered Walkout to Protest Budget Vote

Senate Republicans appeared to be barreling toward a vote to approve a $30.8 billion budget Thursday night — until Senate Democrats caucused.

The result: no budget vote in the Senate on Thursday.

Democrats simply weren’t in the mood to be rushed on the matter, as could be heard in the hallway outside the third-floor conference room at Legislative Plaza where they were meeting.

At one point, Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, said the Republicans couldn’t pass the budget without the Democrats present on the Senate floor.

“They can’t convene the session without us,” Haynes was heard telling his colleagues. “They can’t get a quorum.”

There was audible disagreement between Haynes and Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, on such a suggestion. But Haynes was forceful.

“We’ve got to be unanimous,” Haynes said. “You’ve got to use the ammunition you’ve got. If you don’t do that, then you give up.”

Again Henry disagreed.

The Finance Ways and Means Committee passed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal with Democratic support Thursday afternoon. The Republican plan appeared to be to move back to business on the Senate floor, where the Senate could hand the House an approved budget bill overnight. Both Democrats and Republicans announced they would caucus before heading to the Senate floor.

But while the notion of refusing Republicans a quorum was quashed in the Democratic caucus, there was broad agreement among the Democrats that they did not want to act so swiftly after the committee vote.

There was talk that the right approach was simply to tell the Republican leadership that the Democrats wanted more time to digest the budget proposal. Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, the Democratic caucus chairman, had that conversation with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, according to a Democratic aide.

The biggest hangup appears to be the Democrats’ desire for an extension of unemployment benefits, an item that accounts for about $3.1 million for state and local government, a small figure considering the size of the bill. From most accounts, Haslam is agreeable to the extension if the Legislature wants to cover it.

But the item is not in the Senate plan, and Senate Republicans do not appear to be willing to go along with the extension. Approximately 28,000 Tennesseans would be eligible for the extensions of 20 weeks of benefits if it were approved.

The purpose of the caucus meeting was to have Bill Bradley, budget director from the Department of Finance and Administration, brief members who are not on the finance committee about Haslam’s amended budget proposal. Mark Cate, special assistant to Haslam, was in the meeting to represent the governor.

Bradley gave the caucus members much of the same outline he had given committee members earlier in the day. The finance committee proceedings were marked by numerous stops and starts on the budget, while the committee considered other items on the calendar along the way.

After Bradley and Cate left the caucus conference room, a question could be heard in the Democrats’ discussion: “Why are we rushing?”

“This is a $30 billion bill,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, making the point that the bill didn’t need such a quick vote.

At one point, Berke cautioned his colleagues that a member of the media was outside the door. That didn’t stop the discussion.

There were comings and goings. Bradley returned at one point for further conversation with the members. Haynes left the room momentarily for a cell-phone conversation. Finney left the room at one point and upon return mentioned to the reporter that the proceedings had him hungry for jelly beans, showing two handfuls. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, sat and chatted with the reporter. The door to the conference room was open during the whole meeting.

The chain of events underscored what has become a common circumstance in the Legislature and its overwhelmingly Republican majority after last fall’s elections. Republicans hold a 20-13 majority in the Senate and a 64-34-1 majority in the House.

Democrats’ frustration with their distinct minority status has been noticeable in many ways, including Haynes’ passion about using whatever ammunition the Democrats can claim.

The long day of discussion had all the appearances that the Senate was headed toward a budget vote Thursday night. As Democrats finally made their way to the Senate floor, where Republicans were already gathered, Ramsey made the announcement that there would be no budget vote Thursday.

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Chief Justice No Fan of Electing Judges

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark on Friday criticized efforts to have members of the court chosen through popular elections, but she acknowledged that she has participated in the political process by making political campaign contributions.

Clark addressed a luncheon meeting of the Tennessee Press Association in downtown Nashville and expressed concerns about legislative efforts to elect judges.

“We are worried about these issues,” Clark said. “Partisan election of judges puts them in a very precarious position, even if we don’t want it to.

“There’s not enough money you could pay me, or pay on my behalf, to have me change my mind about an opinion in a case. But I can understand why, if somebody who had given enough money to my campaign, you might worry about that. You might question my sincerity.”

The issue of elections of appellate judges has become a contentious issue, with a push in the Tennessee General Assembly to move the state away from the merit selection process currently in place.

The debate is between those who see an inherent danger in politicizing judicial seats and those who believe in a constitutional requirement of allowing elections.

According to the Tennessee Constitution, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.”

The state currently operates under what is known as the Tennessee Plan, which allows the governor to appoint judges from a select list of candidates from a nominating commission. The public can then keep or remove judges through retention elections, which rely on a yes/no vote. The system has been found to pass constitutional muster.

The argument for the current system is that it insulates the judiciary from partisan politics. The argument against it is that the current system is elitist and ignores the right of the people to choose who sits on the bench.

Along the way, issues have risen as to whether judges themselves should be contributing to political campaigns. Speaking to TNReport after her speech Friday, Chief Justice Clark said she could not recall contributing to anyone in the last year, but she said she has contributed to a number of legislative candidates in the past.

She listed Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, as those she has contributed to, as well as U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a former state senator, and former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon.

“I have contributed to political campaigns because our current ethics rules allow that,” Clark said. “Those rules have been changed off and on over the years, and I understand some concern has risen about that recently.

“So in the coming year as we are going to consider complete revisions to our rules of ethics, that’s going to be one of the topics we talk about significantly. Judges should not give up their rights. But if there is any concern that our giving to a campaign may suggest a certain outcome in a case then we need to look at that very closely.”

Clark said there has been dialogue between the court and legislature about the election of judges.

“We, and I personally, have had a number of conversations with legislators, and we’ll continue to do that,” Clark said. “We are engaging in a good dialogue, and there are some good-faith differences of opinion about what the right answer is.

“We also understand there are a number of business leaders and others who want to participate in that dialogue and to sort of give their perspective, so we expect that dialogue to continue.”

Clark said she had met just this week with 10 to 12 legislators on the issue and expects those discussions to continue.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, has sponsored a bill requiring that Supreme Court justices be elected. His bill would have one Supreme Court justice elected from each of five districts in the state, to be drawn by the General Assembly. It would prohibit judicial candidates from personally seeking or accepting campaign contributions and would prohibit the campaign treasurer from divulging to the candidate the names of donors or the individual amounts of their donations.

Clark used a sports analogy to make her point about politicizing judicial seats. First, she asked the audience if they could identify the names Phil Luckett or Jim Joyce. She explained that Luckett was the instant replay official on the famed Music City Miracle in 1999 when the Tennessee Titans defeated the Buffalo Bills on a last-play lateral pass. She informed the group that Joyce was the baseball umpire who made the call that cost Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians last season. Joyce later admitted he blew the call.

“Here’s what I want you to remember,” Clark said told her audience. “What would it be like if we elected the officials in our sporting events?

“What if the Titans could run a slate of referees and the Colts could run a slate of referees?”

Then, she said, somebody got to vote, and the outcome was determined by whoever put up the most money and ran the most “great-looking, Super Bowl-like commercials” to elect the referees.

“Let’s say the Titans won,” Clark said. “Their referees would show up on the field. Titans fans might be happy, but I’m not sure the Colts fans would be very happy. I’m sure the referees could say, ‘I take my oath. I’m hired just to administer the rules, and it doesn’t matter if this team spent $5 million or that team spent $4 million. I’m going to call it the right way.’

“I’m not sure the perception would be great.”