Norris, Haslam Back in Harness 

The majority leader and the governor come to the aid of FedEx and team up against making the Bible an official state book.

State Senator Mark Norris

Jackson Baker

State Senator Mark Norris

Remember a few short weeks ago when state Senate majority leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Governor Bill Haslam were conspicuously in disagreement on the Governor's Insure Tennessee proposal for Medicaid expansion?

Norris, who normally introduces major legislation for the governor, a fellow Republican who is the titular leader of his party, was hands-off on that matter — a fact that was instrumental in stalling Insure Tennessee, both in February's special session and in a more recent and ultimately unsuccessful bipartisan effort to revive it.

Well, that was then. This is now, when Norris and the governor are very much on the same page with regard to a couple of key matters before the legislature.

One issue on which the two state officials are definitely in harness is essentially symbolic. That is on the matter of legislation (SB 1108/HB 615) that would make the Bible the official state book. As the General Assembly entered what is likely to be its penultimate week of the current session, the bill — whose primary sponsors are state Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) in the Senate and Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) in the House — had a full head of steam.

It was scheduled for a floor vote in the House and, having passed several committee gauntlets, was being routed through the Senate's calendar committee, the last step preceding a floor vote. All of this was apparently notwithstanding a fresh opinion from state Attorney General Herbert Slatery that the bill would be a violation of both the state and the federal constitutions.

"The Bible is undeniably a sacred text of the Christian faith. Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book ... must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion," wrote Slatery.

His opinion further notes that the state constitution, which states that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religion establishment or mode of worship" is arguably even stronger than the federal constitution's well-known prohibition of an official religion.

That should be that, but it isn't. While the state attorney general's opinion in almost all cases is heeded by legislators, it lacks constitutional sanction to impose obedience and has the force merely of considered advice. Senate sponsor Southerland promptly underscored that constitutional fact when he dismissed Slatery's statement by saying, "That's his opinion. I've got a different one."

The bottom line is that Slatery, as the state's chief legal officer, would not be defending the bill in the course of any subsequent litigation. There are impediments to the legislation short of that process of course, and that is where Norris and Haslam come in.

The governor didn't directly threaten a veto of the measure on a visit to Memphis last week (at Smith & Nephew, to tout his Tennessee Reconnect program of free tech education to adults). But, when asked about the matter by the Flyer at an impromptu press conference, he clearly left that option open.

"I have a real concern with that ... in this sense: There's nothing more important to me than my faith. I had time with the Bible this morning," Haslam said. "But I don't think it should be relegated to ... like the salamander as the official lizard or whatever we call the different things we have official in our state. 

"I'll say this thing, too, from the church's standpoint. Whenever the church has become part of the official government, it hasn't worked out well for the church. We look around the world, and where the church is strong and where it's not, and historically where it's gotten to be a close part of the government, it hasn't ended well for the church."

And Norris, who was an attendee at the Smith & Nephew affair, made his feelings clear as well. The Senate majority leader has been widely quoted as calling for the bill "to die," saying that it is  not only "dumb" in itself, but amounts to a "dumbing down" of the Bible, which, according to Norris, would be effectively demoted from a sacred text to a secular one. "It will get to the floor, and it may pass, but at the end of the day it won't stand," he said at Smith & Nephew.

That's one matter coming to a head in Nashville on which the governor and the majority leader are taking a common position. Another is of direct economic consequence to Shelby County's (and the state's) largest employer, FedEx.

A surprise proposal to cut the aviation fuel tax for FedEx was rushed through the transportation committees of both the House and the Senate last week as an amendment to a catch-all measure (SB 982/HB 1147), which relates very generally to aviation. Norris is the Senate sponsor, and Mark White (R-Memphis) is the House sponsor.

The bill would establish a cap of $21.37 million in fuel taxes for FedEx in the 2015-16 fiscal year, then drop to $17.75 million in 2016-17 and $14.12 million in 2017-18 before reaching a final cap figure of $10.5 million. 

As Norris and White argued in committee, the current sales tax of 4.5 percent on aviation fuel hits FedEx to the tune of $32 to $38 million annually, compared to the roughly $1 million paid out by FedEx's chief competitor, UPS, in Kentucky, where UPS maintains a hub.

During his impromptu press conference at Smith & Nephew, Haslam gave the tax-reduction proposal a full-barreled endorsement. 

"[FedEx is] paying 2/3 of the tax statewide. And so they rightfully came and said, 'We don't mind carrying our load, but we don't want to carry everybody's load.' It's a fair argument. They also have a choice to land those airplanes somewhere else, and we definitely don't want that happening," said Haslam. 

He went on: "They're paying more in Tennessee than they would be paying in other states. We don't want to be where they say, 'We'll land that plane in Indianapolis or Dallas or Louisville. We want to keep them in Memphis. ... Right now, there's a fairly good balance for the funding that's needed. We're going to have to live like other states have, with less money going into it than has historically gone into it. I still think we can have a first-class aviation program in our big cities as well as in our small towns on the lesser amount."

The legislation was due to pass through the finance committees of both chambers on its way to floor votes this week.

 

• As candidates for city office reached a financial-disclosure deadline last week and looked forward to Friday's first opportunity to secure a petition of candidacy at the Election Commission, a rash of criminal activity, notably involving the collateral-damage deaths of two innocent children from pass-by shootings, made it clear that public safety, which became the focus of public attention last fall with several riot situations, is back as a major concern.

In a statement last Saturday, Mayor  A C Wharton called the children's deaths "a heart-crushing tragedy for the families involved and for this entire city, and called for a renewed emphasis on what he called "thug control." 

The mayor asserted, "...[W]e are working with Director [Toney] Armstrong and the District Attorney General's Office to ensure that we do everything possible to enforce to the maximum those laws already on the books that call for high bail and stiff penalties for these shameful personalities who seek to bring terror and mayhem to our communities."

The issue will certainly be fodder for several of Wharton's competitors in the mayoral race. Councilman Harold Collins, whose long-awaited formal announcement last week made him the latest candidate for mayor, included in his remarks at his Southland Mall announcement ceremony a call for maintaining a police force of at least 2,500 officers. 

Collins has repeatedly called for strong and severe punishment for street criminals. Councilman Jim Strickland repeated previous assertions that crime control is the "number one" issue in the mayor's race. And candidate Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, summed up things last week with the simple statement on his Facebook page, "This has to stop!"

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