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Committee Pushes Back on Voter ID

A slow day on the Hill ended with a late surprise, as a bill to repeal the state’s new voter ID law passed the House State and Local Government Subcommittee.

The measure, HB2176, brought by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, passed by a vote of 5-3, with Reps. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, and Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, voting aye with the Democrats. Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, was absent. Even with his vote, though, Republicans would have had to call in the speaker or speaker pro tempore, as they did earlier in the day, to even up the tally.

“People have to show up and vote, and plus we didn’t have the votes, anyway,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick. “I think Rep. Williams has consistently said he wasn’t for voter ID, and I think Chairman (Bob) Ramsey has been consistent in his opposition to it, too. If we’d had [everyone here] we could have stopped it.”

Still, the Chattanooga Republican wasn’t too concerned about the bill going forward.

“I just think the majority of our members think we did the right thing last year, and I think they’ll back us up,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to take care of it in full committee, if everyone shows up.”

Naturally, Turner was more optimistic after the unexpected initial victory.

“It’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “There’s people, I think, on both sides of the aisle that are concerned about this, and I hope we fix it. We didn’t need to do it in the first place. I hope it doesn’t become a partisan thing. I just hope we fix this thing.”

The state’s coordinator of elections, Mark Goins, immediately tried to quell the stir outside the committee meeting room. He expressed concern that news of the subcommittee vote would harm the state’s “education efforts.”

“It’s still the law until it’s not the law,” he said. “I want to make sure everyone understands that they still have to have a photo ID in November, until the Legislature says otherwise. That’s what I’m concerned about right now.

“This just passed the subcommittee. For it to be repealed, it has a long way to go, and I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Fmr. Speaker Williams Eyes Unicoi Co. in Redistricting

It wasn’t clear if Rep. Kent Williams was spilling the beans on something he knew or whether he was speculating, but he introduced himself at an East Tennessee business roundtable this week by saying he would pick up Unicoi County as part of his district next year.

That would be, of course, if Williams wins re-election.

Gov. Bill Haslam went around the room having members of the General Assembly introduce themselves to business leaders from the region at a roundtable in Kingsport Tuesday.

Lawmakers took turns giving their names and the districts they represent by generally saying which counties their districts include. Heretofore, Williams, from Elizabethton, has represented Carter County, and his page on the official website of the General Assembly lists him as a “Carter County Republican” as opposed to being simply a Republican.

The “CCR” designation dates to when Williams was disowned by the Republican Party for his deal that made him Speaker of the House in the 2009-2010 General Assembly. Williams, a recognized Republican at the time, struck a deal with the Democrats where he won the speakership by getting every Democrat to support him and by voting for himself, upsetting many Republicans.

When it came Williams’ turn to introduce himself on Tuesday, he said, “I used to say Carter County, but with redistricting coming up, I say ‘4th District’ now, because I think the 4th District is probably going to incorporate Unicoi County.

“I would be proud to serve Unicoi County if I get the opportunity.”

Unicoi County is currently in the 5th District, represented by Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville.

Williams added that he is a former Speaker of the House, although most of the people in the room clearly would know that.

“I enjoy doing what I’m doing and enjoy working with my colleagues,” Williams said.

Other legislators in the meeting were Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, and Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport.

Republicans are drawing the lines for redistricting, power won by virtue of their strong majority status attained in the 2010 elections. Speculation has been rampant over what the designers of districts would do, both in terms of legislative districts and congressional districts based on the 2010 census.

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Featured

The Winding Political Path of Gerald McCormick

The first powerful person to help Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick in a political campaign was the governor at the time — Ned McWherter, a Democrat.

That’s because McCormick was a Democrat, which might surprise many followers of the Republican lawmaker, who has emerged as one of the key voices on Capitol Hill.

It was 1992, and McCormick, a Chattanoogan, a University of Tennessee graduate and a Gulf War veteran, was running for the first time. He lost. After his defeat, Republican organizers in Chattanooga, including Zach Wamp, told McCormick a lot of the positions in McCormick’s message sounded like they belonged in the Republican Party. Wamp should know. He had once been a Democrat, a Jimmy Carter supporter.

“It was true. I was a very conservative Democrat,” McCormick said.

So McCormick became a Republican.

“They invited me in. I did it and have not regretted it since. They opened their arms up. The Republican Party in Hamilton County in particular has been really good to me,” McCormick said.

“I saw Governor McWherter several years ago when I was elected to the Legislature. I reminded him who I was. He said, ‘It’s really good to see you. Glad to see you made it to the Legislature finally.’ I said, ‘Governor McWherter, I just want you to know I did make it to the Legislature, but I was elected as a Republican instead of a Democrat.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s all right. Everybody has to be something.'”

McCormick said he felt more comfortable with a limited-government philosophy, and he notes Ronald Reagan, also once a Democrat, is another example of switching to the Republican side. McCormick said he believes former Democratic Gov. Buford Ellington — elected to the office twice, serving from 1959-63 and 1967-71 — would probably have had a hard time today being a Democrat.

McCormick had been campaign chairman for Republican Rep. Bobby Wood of Harrison, and when Wood retired from his seat after 28 years, McCormick ran for it and was elected in 2004. He has since climbed to one of the most powerful positions in the state.

He began to see trends turn Republican in the Legislature after the 2006 election. He had been the assistant majority leader and wanted to run for speaker this year, but after gauging his level of support and recognizing that others, like eventual Speaker Beth Harwell, had more seniority, McCormick went for the majority leader’s position successfully. At 49, he now guides a Republican contingent that includes moderates and conservatives, not an easy mix to control.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation with TNReport.com, McCormick talked about the collective bargaining issue that became so prominent in the General Assembly this year, the changing roles of the majority and minority parties in the Legislature, his personal background and his thoughts on Gov. Bill Haslam.

Repeatedly in the interview, McCormick spoke of the heavy responsibility of being the majority party in governing and said the voters could “pitch us out” as fast as they threw the Democrats out of power.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, in a separate interview with TNReport, said, “I think Gerald did a really good job this year. It was his first term, as my first term as minority leader, we were sort of muddling through together.”

Fitzhugh said he particularly appreciated the way McCormick handled the contentious issue of extending unemployment benefits, an issue Democrats felt strongly about.

Fitzhugh did refer to McCormick as “mercurial” and even compared him to temperamental House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. McCormick readily admits he will mix it up with the best of them.

“Rather than ‘mercurial’ I would say ‘passionate,'” McCormick said. “Mike Turner is the same way. He’s a very honest person. If he’s mad at you, he’ll let you know. I’m the same way. I feel like people need to know. If you’re upset with them, it’s better just to tell them and have the discussion right away rather than letting it fester.

“That’s been my approach to life. It usually works. Sometimes it backfires a little, and sometimes maybe I should count to 10 before I say something.”

McCormick was one of the most notably irritated Republicans on the tumultuous day in 2009 when Rep. Kent Williams, a Republican from Carter County, made a deal with Democrats that resulted in Williams being elected speaker of the House.

“I shared my feelings with Speaker Williams at the time,” McCormick said. “It’s not personal. It’s really not. He broke his word, and he affected a lot of people’s lives.

“We had people who had literally rented apartments on the idea that he was going to vote with the majority and elect Jason Mumpower speaker. We had people who had quit jobs and moved up here, and he didn’t tell us the truth. I thought he needed to hear it very soon and very decisively that I disagreed with what he had done.”

McCormick said he and Williams are on good terms now. He even messaged Williams a happy birthday last month.

McCormick said while he and Fitzhugh have policy differences that Fitzhugh has been very effective for the Democrats, particularly on budget issues.

McCormick admitted he did not foresee the collective bargaining bill — which diminished the Tennessee Education Association’s power to negotiate for the state’s teachers — as becoming the dominant issue it was this year.

“In a broad philosophical sense, I don’t think government employee unions ought to be negotiating with other government employees with the taxpayers’ money,” McCormick said.

“Having said that, I’ve never said that on the campaign trail before and have never been elected on that basis, so I tried to take it slow and analyze it as we went along. In the end, we probably did the right thing, in that we lessened the influence of the teachers’ union over education policy while still keeping the teachers involved.”

The Legislature wound up with a “collaborative conferencing” law that watered down the TEA’s power.

The bill on collective bargaining was resented by teachers who crowded the halls of the Capitol and marched on Legislative Plaza this year.

“I’m surprised at how the volume has turned down so soon after we passed the legislation,” McCormick said. “We had a lot of noise in the beginning. As more people understand it, I think they have become accustomed to it and are more comfortable with it.

“Really the only people who are bitter about it are the union activists, who quite frankly did a better job of taking care of themselves than they did the average teacher out there in Tennessee.”

McCormick said the teachers union had become “virtually a financial arm of the state Democratic Party.”

Times have changed substantially since 2004 in terms of Republican strength in the General Assembly.

“It’s a lot different being in the majority,” McCormick said. “Now, you have the responsibility of actually governing. When you’re in the minority, you don’t, and you can pretty much throw grenades and see where they land and not have to worry about implementing the policy. Now, if we come out for a policy, we actually have the votes to pass it, and we have to make sure it’s a responsible policy and one that we can implement.”

He understands the Democrats’ predicament.

“You have to remember they were in the majority for a century or more. They’re not used to not getting their way,” he said.

“Most of the time we could ignore them. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, on a number of levels. They got elected by the people of Tennessee, too. From a practical standpoint, if they get up and walk out, we won’t have a quorum. I don’t think they’re going to do that, as long as we treat them fairly.”

He remembers quite well another time and another political landscape at the Capitol.

“When I started out, Jimmy Naifeh was the speaker of the House. Quite honestly, I couldn’t imagine a situation where anybody else was the speaker of the House,” McCormick said. “He was so dominant, and so effective, not necessarily doing what I wanted him to do, but the trains ran on time when he wanted them to.”

McCormick was a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist in the Gulf War. A sergeant, he was sent to the war soon after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Because of his area of training, which came at Fort McClellan in Alabama, McCormick saw some of the planning for the war and was in one of the first units to go, spending about six months there.

A native of Jackson, McCormick grew up in Memphis, went to Germantown High School and attended the University of Tennessee, where he met his future wife, Kim, a Chattanoogan. Upon graduation they moved to Chattanooga. McCormick admits he got homesick for Memphis in college and wanted to go to Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, but his mother insisted he stick it out at UT, where he took a lot of political science and history courses.

He has worked a lot of jobs, including roofing and fast food. He picked up garbage on the side of the road while with a temporary employment agency. He eventually worked for the Hamilton County assessor of property, where he was trained to be a commercial real estate appraiser, and he transitioned into being a real estate broker and developer, his current profession.

When he’s not working on real estate projects, McCormick is in a position now in Nashville that puts him on the front line of government power, including leadership meetings with the governor.

“I’m very impressed by a number of aspects of Governor Haslam’s style of operating. No. 1, I think he is absolutely completely honest. I don’t think we will ever see any kind of a personal scandal or a political scandal surrounding Bill Haslam,” said McCormick, who had supported Wamp in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.

“He acts in a small group exactly how he acts in a big group. He’s a very nice, decent person.”

He cited an example of Haslam’s style, where McCormick was making points about the political aspects of a specific issue.

“He cut me off. There were about four of us in the room,” McCormick said. “He pointed to each one of us, and he said, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right thing to do? Don’t worry about the politics of it.’ I think he really believes that.”

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Education Featured News

House Approves Collective Bargaining Limitations

The Tennessee House and Senate have approved competing plans overhauling the state’s collective bargaining laws.

But both chambers’ leaders believe they’ll ultimately end up banning unions from negotiating teachers’ labor contracts once everything is said and done.

“I think the vote today indicated that we can get it passed if it’s reasonably drawn and reasonably written. I think we have the opportunity to pass it here,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters after she presided over a grueling four-hour debate on her chamber’s floor.

On a 59-39 vote, majority Republicans moved to scale back teachers’ collective bargaining powers.

Opponents included all the House Democrats, one independent and five Republicans. They pitched more than two dozen alternatives to weaken or derail the bill, but only a few tinkering with technicalities passed — the rest were either tabled or later withdrawn.

One opponent to SB113/HB13o, Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland, wheeled out an easel and poster boards to help illustrate what he thinks collective bargaining has accomplished to aide teachers beyond helping them get better contracts. The system has allowed them to pressure school boards into purchasing additional “instructional supplies” and other educational materials for their classrooms, he said.

A band of Republicans railed against the bill, too. The GOP caucus members who voted against SB113/HB130 included Reps. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Mike Harrison of Rogersville, Dennis “Coach Roach of Rutledge, Dale Ford of Jonesborough and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Independent Kent Williams also voted against the anti-collective bargaining legislation. The former state House speaker from Elizabethton hinted during the floor debate that the bill was no more than “political payback” because the Tennessee Education Association gives dramatically more money in campaign contributions to the Democratic Party than they do the GOP.

Republicans maintained that their efforts were solely about improving education in Tennessee, and that ultimately everyone — teachers, students and taxpayers — would benefit from loosening the union’s grip on policy and personnel discussions.

GOP lawmakers said they believe the TEA has become a force of obstructionism in education reform discussions over the years, and that the process of collective bargaining between a school board and a single employee organization to the exclusion of all others thwarts input and exchange of new ideas.

“We have allowed a professional organization to hijack education in our state for their own agenda,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican.

Far from being an “attack on teachers,” as opponents of the legislation have painted GOP efforts for months this session, SB113/HB130 represents “the most empowering legislation I’ve seen in a long time for teachers,”said Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

Eliminating collective bargaining and allowing school boards to consider other viewpoints and voices when drafting new contracts for education professionals “will help (teachers) succeed,” said Lundberg.

Under the House proposal, teachers unions would no longer be able to negotiate salaries, merit pay, use of grant funding, teacher evaluations, personnel decisions along with policies relating to special education programs like virtual school districts.

Unions would, however, still be able to hammer out issues like benefits and staffing decisions.

Powerful Senate Republicans though have said all along they will accept nothing less than a complete repeal of the 1978 Education Professionals Negotiations Act, which mandates that school districts negotiate with a recognized teachers union.

Not only would the Senate prefer no mandate to collective bargaining, but they’d rather teachers and unions “collaborate” with school districts on issues they want to debate on — but ultimately leave those policy decisions entirely up to the school board.

The rest, they say, they’re happy to compromise on.

So what happens now?

The two chambers will likely play a short game of legislative ping-pong where the Senate rejects the House version of the collective bargaining overhaul then the House turns down the Senate version.

Then speakers from both chambers will name three lawmakers to represent the chamber in a conference committee, essentially a compromise group meant to hash out the differences between the two bills.

Harwell said she’d consider naming Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, bill sponsor Debra Maggart of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville to the committee. Although she will make the committee assignments later in the week, it’s unclear whether she’ll swap any of those members for a Democrat as conference committees traditionally included a member of the minority party.

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Education News

House GOP Support Weak for Outright Ban on Collective Bargaining: Fmr. Speaker Williams

A recognizable spokesman may have emerged at the Capitol on Wednesday for moderate Republicans — RINOs, if you prefer — who support Tennessee teachers’ unions.

And he says the push to eliminate teachers’ collective bargaining leverage in local school districts may not be a done deal in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

“I don’t think the legislation will pass in the House,” Elizabethton Rep. Kent Williams said. He added that he believes there are “enough commonsense Republicans in the House, as myself, to kill this piece of legislation.”

Of course, Williams isn’t actually a Republican anymore — although he considers himself one. He was officially ousted from the party and became an independent after cutting a deal with House Democrats in January 2009 to assume the role of speaker.

But the ranking Republican on the House floor, Gerald McCormick, said Wednesday evening that Williams’ instincts on the collective bargaining issue probably aren’t far from the truth.

“He may be close to right on that,” the House majority leader told TNReport. Some members of the House GOP caucus may not want to do away with collective bargaining, the Chattanooga Republican said.

Williams has signaled in the past few months that he’s interested in trying to win his way back into the good graces of his former party — though now he seems to be taking an unorthodox approach to doing that.

“We’re infringing on people’s rights, on our citizens’ rights. And it’s just not right,” Williams said of bills in the House and Senate that seek to prohibit local school boards from negotiating “with a professional employees’ organization or teachers’ union concerning the terms or conditions of professional service.”

The House version of the bill is sponsored by GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart. The Senate version, spearheaded by Sen. Jack Johnson, is expected to be put to a floor vote after Gov. Bill Haslam’s Mar. 14 budget address. Jackson said Thursday he doesn’t want to weaken the bill with compromises, but said he might be willing to write some limited changes in.

With regards to some GOP lawmakers’ focus on collective bargaining, Williams said he just doesn’t get it. “I’m trying to comprehend why we even have this legislation, with the important issues that we are facing today,” he said.

“I’d like to ask the sponsors — and I will when it comes to committee — I will ask them if they would have gotten the political contributions that they demanded from the TEA, would we have this legislation today? I doubt it.”

The former House speaker was responding to questions as he watched a Democratic lawmakers’ press conference called Wednesday to accused Republicans of “continuous attacks on teachers, students and working families.”

“Everybody here knows this is a slap in the face to the teachers in the state of Tennessee,” Williams said to cheers from the Tennessee Education Association supporters on hand.

Williams sounded just as passionate in his defense of unionized teachers as Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland and Sen. Eric Stewart of Belvidere, who led the midday press conference at Legislative Plaza. Together they demanded Republicans call off their education reform bills.

College Grove Republican Rep. Glen Casada, a sponsor of a bill the TEA dislikes, said Williams and Democrats are wrong when they say the GOP is motivated to confront the teachers’ union merely over money.

Frustration with the TEA has been brewing in GOP circles for a long time, and more than anything it is rooted in the TEA’s penchant for stopping or watering down Republican-favored education reform legislation, said Casada, the former House Republican Caucus chairman.

Casada, who is pushing a bill to end automatic payroll deduction of government employees’ union dues, is the GOP lawmaker at the center of the TEA’s allegation that Republicans are out for union blood primarily because the TEA refused to fork over more campaign funding for GOP candidates.

In an interview with TNReport, Casada acknowledged that last year he did indeed attempt to secure a more “equitable” share of the TEA’s political spending, which the union rebuffed.

But Casada said such fundraising activities are a common aspect of the caucus chairman’s job description, and that Democrats and Republicans alike often call on groups and individuals and suggest they give more money to the party. It is also standard, he said, to point out when a group seems to be “favoring the other side” — at which point the next question that usually gets asked is, “Can you balance it out?”

“When I first called (TEA), the reports showed that they had given $180,000 to Democrats and $6,000 to Republicans,” said Casada. “I called the TEA and said, ‘Fellas, is this equitable, is this fair?’ That was pretty much the word I used. And then I said it is not fair.”

Casada said the TEA then upped their giving to Republicans a tad, but “it wasn’t that much.” He said contribution reports indicated later that TEA had given $194,000 to Democrats and somewhere between $10,000 and $14,000 to Republicans.

“That’s when I called the second time and said, ‘Here’s what the numbers show. Can you not be equitable in your giving?’ And they said ‘no,’ and that’s the way it is,” said Casada.

He maintains, though, that whatever annoyance Republicans felt over the contribution issue had nothing to do with the raft of GOP-sponsored legislation targeting the union. Many Republicans simply regard “collective bargaining (as) a harmful process,” he said.

“It creates a level of bureaucracy between the employee and the school board, in this case,” Casada said.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the leading Republican in the Senate, said the outrage expressed by Democratic lawmakers and TEA leadership over the political contribution issue rings a little hollow, given that the minority party appears “bought and paid for by the unions.” TEA and Democrats have colluded to “defy even the most commonsense reforms to education,” Ramsey told reporters Wednesday.

Asked to respond to the suggestion that teachers’ union money buys a lot of Democratic influence and votes, Stewart said, “I only answer to my God and my wife.” He added that TEA tends to favor Democrats over Republicans “because we show appreciation, dedication and determination to help (teachers).”

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News Tax and Budget

Casada’s Local Employment Policy Measure Falters in Committee

Not all Republican measures will be a slam dunk this year, apparently.

The former favorite for the Tennessee House speakership watched on as a subcommittee loaded with fellow GOP House lawmakers rejected his attempt to blanket the state with uniform regulations on discrimination, “living wage” and family-leave policies.

Casada blamed the HB598’s setback on “special interests,” but he stopped short of pointing fingers at any one group or another.

“I’m concerned special interest might have gotten the attention of some folks, and they didn’t listen to the majority of voters in the district. That’s purely opinion on my part,” said last legislative session’s House Republican caucus chairman.

Casada is proposing to ban local governments from imposing any anti-discrimination practice or employment policies mandating health insurance, a minimum wage or family-leave requirements more restrictive on businesses than state or federal law.

The bill fell, 7-6. Republican Rep. Steve McManus, the Commerce Committee chairman from Cordova, and GOP Rep. Dennis Roach of Rutledge voted against the measure, along with Independent Rep. Kent Williams, Elizabethton, and four Democrats. Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, voted in favor of the legislation with five Republicans.

Gay and lesbian advocates say the bill would have erased any locally enforced discrimination policy or other local rules protecting them based on their sexual preference.

“I think the bill was aimed at our community, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community,” said Chris Sanders, a spokesman for the Tennessee Equality Project who added that the bill meddles in local government’s ability to govern.

Both sides of the issue say the fight is far from over.

“This bill is actually about limiting the growth of big government at a local level,” said former state senator David Fowler, now president of Family Action Council of Tennessee. “Just because you can’t win at the state or the federal level doesn’t mean you should run to the local governments and create 348 different sets of laws businesses have to figure out to comply with.”

The issue caught momentum this year when Metro Nashville officials began discussing adding special protections for the GLBT community in its ordinances, an issue FACT believes is bad for both business and taxpayers.

Casada, who has two other versions of the bill sitting in committee, said he plans to talk to the subcommittee’s no-voters to find out what they took issue with and what, if anything, he can change in the bill to win their approval, he said.

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NewsTracker

Trading Spaces

As state legislators and their staffs buzz around Capitol Hill swapping offices, former House Speaker Kent Williams is already settled in his new pad.

He ended up in the mail room.

“I moved up in there in that little hole, that’s what I call it,” said Williams, an independent from Carter County.

Granted, the mail is no longer being delivered to that ground floor office in the War Memorial Building, which is attached to Legislative Plaza where most public meetings take place. Postal services have moved to the basement of the plaza during the legislative off-season.

But Williams’ new digs are pretty lonely. His closest neighbor is a fellow former House speaker, Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, and the rest of the floor is mainly occupied by staff offices.

Williams, a former Republican, became persona non grata within the GOP two years ago when he won the speakership with the help of the Democratic Caucus.

Most legislators are on the first, second and third floors of the War Memorial Building. The vast  majority of caucus leaders are stationed in Legislative Plaza steps away from committee rooms, other party officers and various meeting spaces.

This year, 22 freshman Republican House members are in need of office space. The Senate is making room for four new legislators, also from the GOP.

But moving offices isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Rep. Charles Sargent, a Franklin Republican and chairman of the powerful Finance, Ways and Means Committee, packed up almost his entire office in preparation for his move only to find out Thursday that he didn’t have to relocate at all.

Senators also have their new office assignments, which have already been updated to the state’s legislative website.

The House assignments are still in flux, though. Only a handful of the new office locations have been updated online as of this posting, and Democrats are still solidifying their own room assignments.

Lawmakers are on a three-week break to take care of office changes and other housekeeping matters. They are expected back in session Feb. 7.

Williams said no one forced him into the windowless mail room office. Instead, he said he sought it out early enough to move his belongings in there before Speaker Beth Harwell was elected the new House leader.

He said he could have angled for an office with a view, but said he knew those spaces are prime pieces of real estate in the Capitol, and he didn’t want to fight for it.

“It’s quiet up there,” he told TNReport. “I wanted to be in up in the War Memorial Building with the other Republicans.”

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Business and Economy News NewsTracker

Haslam Being Like Bredesen is a Good Thing: Williams

Despite being neither a Democrat nor a Republican — caught somewhere in a political no-man’s land, it would seem — former Tennessee House Speaker Kent Williams doesn’t seem particularly frustrated or worried.

Or at least he didn’t seem so on Saturday. In fact, he’s “pretty excited” about the future and a lot of what he heard in Gov. Bill Haslam’s remarks immediately after taking the oath of office on the steps of the State Capitol.

“My general impression would be that I like what he said about investing in our workforce and education,” said last session’s House gavel-handler, who was replaced by Nashville Republican Beth Harwell earlier in the week. “It’s pretty much along the same lines as Gov. Bredesen.”

Williams said he expects Haslam “will bring to the table his experience in developing business.” The independent from Carter County added that going forward he doesn’t expect a lot of extreme divergence out of the new administration from the previous administration’s core philosophies and front-burner concerns.

“I look for us to follow the path that we are on now with our education system and the strides we have made in education and health care over the last four years,” said Williams.

He also said he hears in Haslam’s economic development pledges a commitment to boosting job growth through employment training in rural areas — an idea that Williams said is likely going to go over well among his Northeast Tennessee constituents.

In Williams’ view, Haslam could do a whole lot worse — indeed, perhaps not much better — than following the cues of his predecessor on the whole gamut of policies, problems and issues that might come across the governor’s desk in the next four years.

“I think the Bredesen administration will go down in history as being one of the greatest administrations ever in the state of Tennessee,” said Williams. “I think he has put us on a path which we could follow for many years to come.”

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NewsTracker

Turner Wants Temporary Halt to State ‘Earmarks’

Rep. Mike Turner, the state House Democratic Caucus chairman who won a slim victory in his District 51 re-election bid last month, says he received one message voters were sending, loud and clear: Wasteful government spending must stop.

The firefighter from Old Hickory has a plan designed to make Republicans put legislative walk to their campaign talk, and place a statutory lid on district-level pork-barrel spending.

Turner told reporters Monday he’ll file a bill in the 2011 session that would institute a two-year halt on legislative earmarks, the projects carved out by lawmakers for their home districts and sometimes added to unrelated bills.

“Their people said no mandates, so we’re going to probably put legislation forward that says you can’t have a budget amendment, you’re not going to be able to amend your fish hatchery in,” said Turner, referring to a controversial trout-rearing facility in Independent House Speaker Kent Williams’ district that was included in Democratic budget proposals, but was eventually removed.

While hashing out the state budget back in June, lawmakers haggled into the wee hours of the last legislative day over special projects, community improvements, property-upgrades and other tax-financed goodies and giveaways that incumbents could later take credit for hand-delivering to the folks back home.

Turner has yet to introduce the bill. He made the his comments Monday after leaving a Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill. The Legislature will convene after lawmakers are sworn in Jan. 11, 2011.

(CORRECTION: The video caption to the clip originally posted misidentified Turner’s caucus membership; He is the Democratic Caucus chairman. TNReport apologizes for the error.)

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News Transparency and Elections

Harwell Promises No-Compromise GOP-Driven House Agenda

Rep. Beth Harwell sees more than just a Republican majority in the House of Representatives — she sees it as a license for the GOP to do what it wants.

And what Harwell wants is be in the driver’s seat.

The Nashville Republican is running for Speaker of the House, a highly coveted leadership post Harwell says she’s earned after a four-year stint running the Tennessee Republican Party and heading up high-profile legislative committees.

But before she can take the wheel, she’ll have to beat out another well-connected contender in House Majority Leader Glen Casada as well as overcome concerns about her commitment to the conservative agenda and her friendliness to Democrats.

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

Since Republicans scooped up 14 extra seats in the House of Representatives for a 64-34-1 majority, Harwell has has been positioning herself as a House GOP lawmaker who is strong, experienced and patient enough to handle a massive freshman class of Republicans.

But some say her past legislative votes and actions cast doubt on whether she’ll consistently adhere to conservative interpretations of constitutional principles in the future.

The Tennessee Firearms Association shot off an e-mail to members Wednesday questioning Harwell’s stance on the 2nd Amendment, and beyond that the depth of her understanding of, and commitment to defending, other essential tenets of the Bill of Rights.

Case in point, said TFA Executive Director John Harris, was that Harwell had voted against two major bills expanding gun rights in the last two years.

She was one of only two Republicans in the House who voted not to overturn Gov. Phil Bredesen’s veto of a bill that would allow guns in places of business that serve alcohol. The override ultimately passed 61-30. The other Republican, Rep. Joe McCord, did not seek reelection this year.

“Many see an elected official’s voting history on these Second Amendment issues as a litmus test of the depth of that individual’s core, constitutional foundations,” Harris wrote in the TFA e-mail. “A demonstrated unwillingness to stand by core constitutional principles cannot be lightly ignored as a predictor of what might occur when other constitutional rights are in the balance.”

Harwell, a 53-year-old 12-term legislator, insists her record on gun rights is actually quite strong. She was given a ‘B’ by the NRA.

“In all the years I have been there, I have voted 100 percent with them, except for that one last bill, which was guns in bars,” Harwell said, adding that “alcohol and guns do not mix.”

At any rate, any legislation dealing with guns that is of importance to members of the GOP caucus would make its way to the House floor under her leadership, Harwell said.

As if she weren’t facing enough obstacles, her Speaker Kent Williams gave her an extra one when he endorsed her shortly after the election.

Williams said his backing was an attempt to help in her reach for the speaker’s gavel. However, given that the party is still ticked at him for using Democratic votes in 2008 to steal the speakership away from then-Rep. Jason Mumpower, his vocal support may do more harm than good, said Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

“I think, clearly, that that endorsement was not helpful in any stretch of the imagination. I think he did it thinking it would genuinely help, so I don’t think he realizes some of the feelings that exist for him on the Republican caucus,” said Lundberg, who declined to comment on who he would vote for, although he is angling for a seat as House Republican Leader.

Even though Republicans now make up two-thirds of the House, members of the Memphis Tea Party believe it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Harwell could rally the same troops that won Williams his speakership.

In a recent e-mail, the group called Harwell “damaged goods” and questioned her GOP loyalties to a conservative agenda.

But Harwell says none of conservatives’ worries are warranted. Not only is she ignoring Democrats as she counts up votes in her bid for speaker, but Harwell promises to load up legislative committees in ways reflective of Republicans’ robust numerical strength in the House.

“We have the majority, the vast majority. We are ready to govern in that mindset. As far as I’m concerned, there will be no Democrat-Republican coalition,” she said. “This will be a Republican decision who the next speaker is.”