Friday, May 20, 2011

Legislature in Mad Dash to Go Up or Down on Key Bills as Session Nears End

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:30 PM

UPDATE: House passes conference report that substitutes "collaborative conferencing" (whatever that is) for teachers' right to collectively bargain. Details to follow in separate post.

State Senator Herron inveighing against tort reform measure
  • State Senator Herron inveighing against "tort reform" measure
The Tennessee General Assembly has entered, groggy and feeling over-burdened, into what is certain to be its last few days of the 2011 legislative session. Members’ original hope was to finish up with business by at least Saturday, but last-minute actions on bills and appropriations may continue through Monday or Tuesday.

As a measure of the fatigue induced in members of the House of Representatives by a marathon session Thursday, devoted largely to debate on a bill concerning the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers, there was this inadvertent double entendre by the House Finance chairman, Rep. Charles Sargent (R-Franklin), as he urged members to remain accessible during a blizzard of late-night committee meetings:

““So, please make yourselves very liquid tonight, and bear with us timewise.”

(Or maybe, in a legislative environment famous for late-night tippling, the double entendre was intended, after all.)

The teachers’ collective bargaining bill (HB130 in the House version, SB113 in the Senate version) remained up for grabs as debate began Friday morning in the House. At issue was whether the “compromise” House version passed late Thursday, providing for a modicum of collective bargaining, would prevail, or whether the harsher Senate version, abolishing all collective bargaining, would.

Meeting on Thursday evening, the Senate, on party-line votes, rejected the milder House amendments, returning the sterner bill to the House, which had to decide on a version to accept. A conference-committee version was looking more likely.

Needing only the formal House ratification of a modest Senate amendment, a “tort reform” bill to establish caps on jury awards in medical-malpractice and personal-injury cases, seemed certain to achieve final passage Friday.

The bill, pushed as a “jobs” measure by proponents (on the theory of removing disincentives for small businesses and new industry) provides a ceiling of $750,000 on “non-economic” or quality-of-life awards, and one of $500,000 on punitive damages. In “catastrophic “ cases, such as injuries leading to quadriplegia, third-degree burns over much of the body, or loss of two limbs, the maximum non-economic limit would be raised to $1 million.

In vain did state Senator Roy Herron (D-Dresden) point out during debate in his chamber that the maximum cap would allot, assuming a full life-span, only $29 dollars a day in the actual case of a young women whose injuries resulted in her becoming a quadriplegic. The bill was also opposed from afar by Tennessee's former Republican U.S. Senator, FredThompson.

Surprisingly, the Senate, which had been putting off action on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill of state Senator Stacey Campfield, passed a modified version of the measure Friday morning so that it no longer makes reference to homosexuality per se but bans any “teaching in grades kindergarten through eight of anything involving sexuality unless it relates to natural human reproduction science."

In reality, Campfield’s bill, modified or otherwise, is dead for the session, since the House Education subcommittee, which long ago concluded its business for the year, shelved the bill in February. (See also Bianca Phillips' take.)

As the legislature heads into its Last Roundup, other notorious bills have either been seriously modified or knocked off track altogetgher.

• The “Sharia Bill,” SB 1028 (Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro), shorn of references to Islam or any other religion and now called the Material Support to Designated Entities Act, was up for votes Friday in both Senate and House. As written it would regulate proven “security threats” as determined by the state Attrorney General’s office.

• The “Creationist Bill,” HB 368 (Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville), which presumes to guarantee “critical thinking” in the classroom on issues like evolution and climate, passed the House some weeks ago but was taken off notice in the Senate.

• The Voucher or “Equal Educational Opportunity” Bill, SB0485 (Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown), which would provide public funds for designated low-income students to attend private schools, passed the Senate but was relegated to “summer study” by the House Education Suibcommittee, in one of its last acts.

• Likely to pass the Senate on Friday, after passage by the House, was the controversial “Innovative School District Bill, “ (SB0252, Senator Jamie Woodson) which would fix the boundaries of any school district gaining such status, thereby potentially providing Shelby County’s suburbs, nervous about the pending merger of Shelby Country Schools with Memphis City Schools, with one more — and a decidedly quicker — way to dodge that bullet.

• And the bill to ban the passage of anti-discrimination workplace measures by local jurisdiction (HB600, Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin) has already passed both chambers and awaits action by Governor Bill Haslam.

(Expect UPDATEs as legislative situation clarifies over the weekend.)

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