Hundreds of bills are filed when the Tennessee legislature revs up at the first of the year. And dozens of them attract attention — sometimes from around the country. But this year, most of those headline-grabbing proposals quietly fizzled out. WPLN’s statehouse reporter Chas Sisk joins Blake Farmer to walk through what happened to some of them.
FARMER: I want to start with a perennial issue — getting rid of Tennessee’s so-called pass-the-bottle law, effectively allowing open containers of alcohol in a car. A few dedicated lawmakers always try to overturn that. This year, Governor Bill Haslam added his weight. But it looks like the proposal will fail again. What happened?
SISK: Still not enough support for it.
So, what the governor had done was add the open container law to his transportation-funding plan, the IMPROVE Act. This would have freed up $18 million in federal money that could be spent on roads.
But in the negotiations over road funding, that provision was stripped out of the bill. It’s not much money, in the grand scheme of things. And road-funding is such a difficult issue, politically, there didn’t seem to be much willingness to fight for this.
FARMER: Another measure where the Republican-led legislature appeared to be bucking the governor was this proposal to ban outsourcing at state parks. There seemed to be considerable energy around the idea. Why did it fail?
SISK: Republicans are still reluctant to totally defy the governor on this. Some of that is political, but some of it is probably philosophical. They generally support the idea that the private sector can do things better than government.
The biggest thing working against this bill is probably that it came from Democratic Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. Had it been a Republican-sponsored measure, it might have passed.
But just by showing a little bit of support for Fitzhugh’s measure, they signaled that they’re not on board with outsourcing at state parks. They’ve tabled the debate until 2018, but depending on what the Haslam administration does, I could see it coming back next year.
FARMER: And let’s talk about two bills that involve immigration. One was a proposal to ban sanctuary cities in Tennessee, barring municipalities from intentionally being uncooperative with immigration authorities. This attracted lots of attention, given President Trump’s focus on the same theme, isn’t this already the law in Tennessee?
SISK: Well it is. In 2009, the state legislature passed a measure banning cities from ignoring federal immigration law. That kind of raises the question of whether another ban was necessary.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has cited that law as the legal rationale for her city not becoming a sanctuary city.
But as a practical matter, no city in Tennessee is really talking about becoming a “sanctuary city.” And a lot of mayors around the country are questioning the wisdom of doing so. They argue they’ll have more flexibility on immigration if they don’t pick a fight with federal authorities.
FARMER: So what happened to this year’s bill?
SISK: They pushed the debate off to 2018. We’ll see if it comes back then.
FARMER: And what about requiring non-citizens to have “Alien” stamped on their driver’s licenses? You had the sponsor citing 9/11 as justification and it seemed like many lawmakers were nodding along?
SISK: Many were.
They all said they were surprise that writing “ALIEN” on non-citizens driver’s licenses would be controversial. That green card holders and other legal residents would find that offensive.
And that matters because the state is trying to get foreign companies to invest in Tennessee, companies that will necessarily want to send workers from their home offices. It doesn’t pay to antagonize those companies.
And in the end, it was pointed out that non-citizens’ licenses already say “temporary” and are timed to expire when their immigration visas do. That seemed to be enough to satisfy everyone.