Capitol Hill Conversation: What Budget Sniping Says About The Political Mood In Tennessee

May 7, 2017

Tennessee lawmakers are trying to finish up their business for the year, but the close vote over hiking the gas tax a few weeks ago seems to be getting in the way. Democrats and some rank-and-file Republicans felt steamrolled and forced to approve the governor’s infrastructure spending plan. So last week they took pot shots while trying to finalize the state’s $37 billion budget. State capitol reporter Chas Sisk joins WPLN’s Blake Farmer to explain what this says about the political mood at the legislature.

TRANSCRIPT

Farmer: There seems to always be some last-minute sniping in the legislature. How was this budget debate any different?

Sisk: Usually the sniping is between Republicans and Democrats, or between the House and Senate. This was among Republicans themselves.

So what you had was a group of Republicans rebelling against the House leadership. Their complaint, essentially, is that they were left out of budget discussions — and in some cases, punished for voting against Haslam’s infrastructure plan, the IMPROVE Act.

What’s even more interesting is they reached out and got Democrats to join them. The lawmakers who opposed the gas tax increase are generally among the most conservative members of the legislature. So for them to reach across the aisle on anything is surprising.

In a way, what you had last week was three parties in the House of Representatives, not just two.

Farmer: What does this say about the power dynamics in the General Assembly?

It suggests the leadership of the House still doesn’t have a firm hand on rank-and-file Republicans. This is kind of surprising, because Republicans have been in charge since 2011, and usually this far in, someone has emerged as the clear leader who can line up the votes.

For the past six years, you’ve kind of had this alliance between Glen Casada, who’s now the majority leader, and Beth Harwell, the speaker. They’re seen as very different ideologically, and the question for a while has been whether this partnership would eventually give out.

But what happened on the budget is both Casada and Harwell came under attack. So if that continues, you might have a third person emerge as a potential leader in the House.

Farmer: Obviously, the Republican Party is so dominant in the legislature, you would expect that there’s going to be some infighting. But does this last week suggest something more than a squabble that will pass?

Sisk: I don’t think this just blows over. For one thing, Speaker Harwell is going announce soon whether she’s running for governor. If she does, that’s going to start the jockeying to be the next speaker. If she doesn’t, you might see a concerted effort to undermine her. Politicians are ambitious.

Also, Republicans are at a real crossroads. Across the country, they’re trying to figure out what they stand for. That’s going to contribute to infighting.

Farmer: After the budget passes, it always seems like it’s a race for the exits. Do we expect any substantive debates on remaining bills this year?

There’s still quite a bit for them to do.

There’s legislation on short-term rental units, like Airbnbs. Nashville has been debating whether to phase out investor-owned unit. State lawmakers say that would be unfair to property owners. The problem is, many suburban cities have banned Airbnbs outright. What a lot of Republican lawmakers would like to say is Nashville and the other big cities can’t ban them, but their constituencies in the suburbs and rural areas can. That tough to defend from a political point of view — like they’re setting a double standard. And it might also violate the Tennessee constitution.

There’s also a proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that says our rights come from “Almighty God.” That’s could set up a church-versus-state argument.

And you’ve got that bill that would make it easier for gun owners and organizations like the National Rifle Association to sue over no-gun zones. It’s still before the state Senate.