There was a feeling of something like anti-climax last week, as the Tennessee General Assembly called it quits. The customary post-session press conference involving Governor Bill Haslam and the legislature's Republican leaders was a relatively perfunctory affair compared to those of previous years.
What dominated that occasion was not so much commentary on the events of the late session, as the imminent leave-taking of state Senate Speaker/Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who will be retiring this year, and who received hearty send-offs from his fellow leaders.
Missing from the press conference was House Speaker Beth Harwell, who was substituted for by House Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville), who kept his silence. Other attendees were House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), a likely future candidate for governor who, as a prelude, may attempt to succeed Ramsey as Senate speaker.
Late in the session, Norris had played a key role at several key points. Though formally one of the Senate's co-sponsors of a de-annexation bill that was rushed through the House, Norris was a subtle force in making sure the bill received line-item vetting in the Senate's State and Local Committee and that opponents of the measure from Memphis got a fair — and, as it turned out, successful — shot at derailing it.
Norris was also a vocal opponent of a bill to make the Holy Bible the official state book. Though the bill passed both chambers, it was vetoed by Haslam, whose opposition survived a veto-override vote in the House.
The scuttling of the Bible bill and of the so-called "bathroom bill," which would have forced transgendered people to use the public lavatories of their birth gender, were among the terminal acts of this year's General Assembly. Other dramatic late actions included the passage of legislation starting the clock on eventual abolition of the Hall Income Tax on interest and dividends and passage of yet another gun bill, this one allowing full-time employees to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
Haslam, who has previously disapproved gun bills extending carry rights into various public spaces but has not yet vetoed one, is said to be considering a veto of this one.
At the session-ending press conference, Haslam touched briefly on his two major successes — passage of comprehensive public-safety act and a major increase in funding for public education.
• More is Less: There's a catch of sorts to the education increases, however — one that got a bit of exposure on committee day of the Shelby County Commission last Wednesday. During an audio feed from Nashville, Chip Smith, a member of the lobbying team employed by the county, was grilled by commissioners about the level of spending routed toward public schools in Shelby County.
Commission education committee chair David Reaves, in particular, asked Smith about a change in the funding formula that reduced by a factor of 75 percent what had been a Cost Differential Factor (CDF) applied to state funding allocations to counties with large urban populations. The result, said Reaves, was that while Shelby County Schools and the county's six suburban school districts would be receiving more money in the coming year, it would be proportionally less than the amount of increase for school districts in more rural areas of the state.
Reaves charged that the state not only was continuing to short Shelby County in funding due to it under the terms of the BEP (Basic Education Program) but, under the formula adopted by the state Education Department this year, was playing "Robin Hood," skimming off the top of allocations for urban districts in order to properly fund more rural ones.
Germantown Schools Superintendent Jason Manuel, who was present for the commission's discussion on Wednesday, confirmed that the decrease in the CDF factor meant that his city's school district would be receiving an increase of some $900,000 in state funds, as compared to the $2 million increase it would have received with full application of the CDF.
Meanwhile, SCS is asking the commission for $40 million in additional funding for the coming school year to stave off potentially drastic cuts in employees and curricula.
• At its regular public meeting on Monday, the commission voted to refer back to committee the matter of funding District Attorney General Amy Weirich's office for expenses relating to the processing of footage from car cameras and body-worn cameras to be used by local law enforcement. Commissioner Heidi Shafer led the referral move, contending that city government had put the county on the hook for the matter without proper advance consultation, and that policies for the use of body cams by law enforcement deserved more discussion.
The commission voted for the deferral by a 10-1 vote, Commissioner Walter Bailey being the lone dissenter.
• Ross Dyer will continue to function as county attorney through April, though the General Assembly last week confirmed his appointment by Governor Haslam as a Judge of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, West Tennessee division, to replace Judge Roger Page, who has moved on to the state Supreme Court.
Serving in Dyer's stead for the time being will be deputy County Attorneys Kim Koratsky and Marcy Ingram. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, now a candidate for Congress in the 8th District, said Monday he will withhold appointing a permanent successor to Dyer until September, when the Republican primary election will have been concluded.
Though considered one of the front-runners in the GOP primary, Luttrell ranks third in fundraising, with $144,570, behind state Senator Brian Kelsey ($433,605) and former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff ($319,682). Memphis radiologist/broadcast executive George Flinn has much more cash on hand, having lent his campaign $2.7 million.