Thursday, May 6, 2004



Posted By on Thu, May 6, 2004 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- He may have public approval ratings upwards of 70 percent, but Governor Phil Bredesen continues to pick up flak from partymates. He might even -- though it’s a longshot -- be headed for a surprise legislative rebuff of sorts. When Lebanon attorney William Farmer encountered fellow Democrat Bredesen on the grounds of The Hermitage last weekend at the state party’s annual Jackson Day dinner, he buttonholed him thusly: “Governor, I wish I had voted for Van Hilleary two years ago instead of working to get you elected. He couldn’t have done the damage to us that you’ve done.” (This is the G-rated version of that part of the conversation.) Perhaps understandably, Bredesen, who has been known to hold grudges, considered the approach “rude;” Farmer, the immediate past chairman of the state Democratic party, shrugged that off. “I wasn’t trying to offend him. I was just trying to be honest and get him to understand. We don’t have any business acting like the Democratic wing of the Republican Party.” What Farmer meant was that Republican Hilleary would have been unable to get bipartisan support for legislation pushed by Bredesen -- ranging from some reasonably Draconian budget cuts to the item that really sticks in trial lawyer Farmer’s craw, a bill that would redesign state workmen’s compensation procedures and trim existing benefits. That bill is ready for House action Thursday morning -- one day after Bredesen’s TennCare reform bill, another potential hot potato, passed the House handily, with only eight Nay votes. The workmen’s comp bill won’t do that well, but the governor probably has enough Democrats lined up in the House -- notably including Speaker Jimmy Naifeh -- to go with the body’s receptive Republicans and ensure passage. That’s if a vote takes place -- and even if it does, there’s no guarantee that the Senate will follow suit. In point of fact, Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-Morrison), chairman of the senate’s Commerce Committee and an opponent of the legislation, declined to convene his committee to consider the administration bill Wednesday after Cooper, other Commerce members, and members of a special workmen’s comp oversight tommittee had sat through an afternoon session in which various amendments to the bill were, one after another, voted down. Technically, the Commerce Committee, charged with reporting the bill to the Senate floor, was “adjourned until the call of the chairman” -- a formulation normally used when a committee closes down for good at the end of a session. It would take a two-thirds vote of the entire Senate membership to force a Senate vote without the committee’s referral. The membership of the Commerce Committee could overrule chairman Cooper, for that matter, but that course, too, is considered problematical. Opponents of the administration bill are not optimistic about halting it in the House, where Democrats are by no means unified on the matter. As one example, State representative Mike Turner (D- Nashville), a labor official and severe critic of the workmen’s comp measure, took some shots in an afternoon party caucus Wednesday from fellow Democrats who chastised him for his public anti-abortion positions. But there could be further surprises on the Senate side. There was serious speculation late Wednesday that House passage of Bredesen’s workmen’s comp bill, should it occur on Thursday, would be met not only with Cooper’s passive resistance but with a rival bill, based on a formula more congenial to organized labor and the trial lawyers’ lobby -- one which might raise the Bredesen bill’s “multiplier” cap of 1.5 (the ratio beyond which doctors’ estimates of compensation could not be raised legally). Such a strategy could in theory derail any bill at all for the remainder of this session, scheduled to end within a calendar week or two. (Republican Sen. Mark Norris of Colliervill was meanwhile floating a compromise whereby a raised multiplier would be coupled with a stricter definition of injuries.) On the score of late-breaking legislation, Memphis Democrat John DeBerry, a state representative who has opposed both measures, remarked bitterly, “It isn’t fair, keeping the two most important bills of the session [TennCare reform and workmen’s comp reform]until the very end like this!” Naifeh and other allies of the governor may have their way in the House. But, in the words of a no doubt apochryphal saying attributed toYogi Berra, It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over. One member of the lobbying team opposed to the Bredesen bill offered a local variant of that when he draped an arm around the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. John Wilder, on Wednesday, and cajoled him with one of Wilder’s own favorite sayings. “Governor,” he said, “let the Senate be the Senate!”

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