Thursday, May 27, 2004

Players

Local legislators earned bragging rights.

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Not unexpectedly, Shelby County had some players in the late legislative session. They ranged from perennial outsiders to relative (and actual) newcomers. These were some (more to come next week) of the moments from the 2004 session of the Tennessee General Assembly:

Ps and Qs: On the day in mid-May that the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a TennCare reform bill that trimmed the state health care system's budget, limited its benefits and beneficiaries, and established fraud-and-abuse controls, state Rep. Brenda Turner (D-Chattanooga) could not refrain from gloating that Democrat Bredesen had achieved this result, whereas TennCare costs had spiraled out of control during the administration of his Republican predecessor, Don Sundquist.

That brought the GOP's House leader, Tre Hargett of Bartlett, normally almost courtly in debate, out of his seat and into Rep. Turner's face. Standing directly in front of her seat at the front of the chamber, Hargett jawboned with her for some time.

At the end of a conversation that seemed largely one-way, Rep. Turner signaled House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh for permission to make "a point of personal privilege." Normally, this request signals a determination to plead one's case against a perceived affront from a colleague or a misrepresentation of one's position in debate.

In this case, Rep. Turner used the privilege to take a mea culpa, explaining that she hadn't meant to suggest that former Governor Sundquist hadn't also tried to reform TennCare and pare down its costs.

Hargett thanked his colleague for the admission. The irony here is that Hargett, like many of his House Republican colleagues, was often on the other side from the governor in a protracted struggle that focused on Sundquist's unsuccessful attempts to enact a state income tax.

It's an will wind ...

... that doesn't blow somebody some good. And when alarms arose this month about shortfalls in state lottery revenues, state Sen. Steve Cohen, universally regarded as the father of the program (one could almost say grandfather, since it took the senator 17 years to get a state lottery enacted) saw an opportunity.

"It gave me a chance to try to improve the scholarship program and make it less of an entitlement," said Cohen this week, reviewing his successful sponsorship, in the session's last days, of an amendment that raised scholarship requirements from last year's ACT-test standard of 19 (along with a grade-point average of 3.0) to the higher standard of 21 (also with 3.0 GPA).

"That brings us to slightly higher than the state average for our scholarship students, and it allows us both to award all the scholarships that students qualify for and to provide money for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs," said Cohen. Cohen estimated that leftover funds would translate to $20 million for pre-K programs and $5 million for after-school programs.

In an oblique comparison of his efforts this year to those of last year, when he and Governor Phil Bredesen butted heads on how to establish a control mechanism for the lottery (with the governor prevailing), Cohen said, "It was almost like the years of working without a lobbyist for the lottery amendment itself. It was a case of passing something without anybody on your side. The governor pretty much stayed out of this."

Stepping Up: One Shelby County legislator who consolidated his growing reputation as a serious player was state Senator Jim Kyle, who was already regarded as "the governor's man" in the Senate and did nothing to diminish that clout by moving, in the last days of the session, to sponsor an amended version of Bredesen's controversial workers' compensation reform, one that preserved the essentials that the governor wanted -- notably, a reduced "multiplier," the number establishing the maximum benefits for a workers' comp claim.

In effect, Kyle took over supervision of the legislation from Goodlettsville Democrat Joe Haynes, whose reservations about some of the provisions desired by the governor had grown in the course of debate. From Bredesen's point of view, it amounted to a rescue mission -- saving him from what could have been his first serious legislative defeat.

Making a Mark: Another local senator whose stature was enhanced during the session was Mark Norris of Collierville. Though Republican Norris was stymied in his perennial efforts to achieve malpractice legislation and other tort reforms, he played a significant liaison role in helping to barter a workers' comp bill that was satisfactory to Bredesen and various legislative factions.

Norris and state Rep. Bubba Pleasant (R-Bartlett) also succeeded in passing a bill -- ridiculed last year but suddenly in vogue -- prohibiting vehicles from playing pornographic videos that might be visible to others in traffic. But his foremost accomplishment was in taking the lead in beginning the constitutional-amendment process for a tax freeze on property owners 65 or over. The program would be subject to approval by city and county governments.

(More winners and spinners next week as space allows.) n

One Out, One In

Out: Carol Coletta, the entrepreneur/activist whose well-received WKNO Smart City public-affairs program is syndicated nationwide, is not repeat, not entertaining the idea of starring in her own political act.

"I couldn't be elected dogcatcher! And I have no desire to run for anything," she said with a modesty and conviction which seemed unfeigned while categorically dissociating herself from an associate's sounding that was reported in this space last week concerning a potential 2005 city mayor's race by her. (The associate later acknowledged having acted without prior consultation or permission.)

Coletta said she had supported Mayor Willie Herenton in his last reelection bid, "and I expect to do so again."

In: A familiar name in local politics will be heard from again. Former county squire Joe Cooper, who has run for an abundance of offices and has served in a variety of appointed positions in county government, plans to make another run in 2006 for the District 5 county commission seat now occupied by Bruce Thompson, who, running as a Republican, beat Democrat Cooper in 2002.

Cooper, who has spent much of the last year recovering from a serious illness, insists that his candidacy is serious and that he is unlikely to make controversial proposals like his ill-fated call in his previous race for massive redevelopment on the grounds of Shelby Farms.

"I intend to listen to the people," he said. n

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