January 13, 2009

1st day of Session

Here's what I'm dealing with today, courtesy of the Tennessean:

January 13, 2009

GOP ready to remake legislature in its image New House speaker expected

By Theo Emery


As the 106th General Assembly convenes at noon today, there will be the customary backslaps and handshakes, as well as the stories and pranks, that accompany the giddy start of every legislative session.

But one thing will be different this year: Republicans will be in charge of both chambers, a historic shift that will bring many changes to the legislature, particularly in the House, where everything from committee chairmanships to lawmakers' offices is likely to turn over.

Probably the biggest, and most closely watched, transformation will be the expected switch in who holds the speaker's gavel, which Jimmy Naifeh of Covington has held tightly since 1991, making him the longest-serving House speaker in Tennessee.

Barring a last-minute upset, such as an unlikely scenario in which a Republican defects and votes for Naifeh or a Republican is absent, Majority Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol is expected to be elected speaker. The only other time in the past 140 years that the House had a GOP speaker was in the late 1960s.

Mumpower predicted that, while he's taking nothing for granted, the speaker's gavel would be in Republican hands today.

"This is really the first time in history that this has happened. It is the people of Tennessee who decided that it should be this way, and we will honor our commitment to them by reorganizing the House of Representatives under Republican control," he said.

Despite the long odds, Naifeh recently said he hopes to remain as speaker.

"I am running for speaker. I plan to be successful on Tuesday," he said. "We need effective leadership at this time, and I can provide that."

Will some cross over?

Some Republicans relish the prospect of a GOP speaker, citing what some call Naifeh's heavy-handed tactics of steering bills he doesn't like into dead-end committees and preventing floor votes on bills popular with conservatives, such as a constitutional amendment on abortion.

The major question is how unified the parties are. Mumpower said Republicans were committed to electing GOP leadership; after the election all 50 members signed pledges to vote for a GOP speaker and speaker pro tem.

Asked if Democrats would cross party lines to vote for him, Mumpower said cryptically, "We'll see."

Naifeh said that Democratic Party ranks would hold and that all members of his caucus would vote for him. He, too, was evasive about whether Republicans might vote for him, as up to 13 have done in the past.

"I'm still working on it. Still talking to them," he said late last week.

Gov. Phil Bredesen said he would be happy to work with the GOP leadership and has a good relationship with them.

"Getting through these budget times and getting our state safely through some very rough waters here — I think they're on board, I think they're willing to work with us," he said. "That doesn't mean that we'll agree on every little thing, but I feel good about where we are right now."

Most leaders on both sides agree the budget will be the centerpiece of the General Assembly's actions.

With estimates suggesting state revenue may face a $1 billion shortfall this year and next, lawmakers predict a sobering year, with no leeway to fund new projects or expand existing ones.

Senate will see changes

Changes won't be limited to the House — on the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that there will be no more Democratic committee chairmen in the Senate and that he will strip Sen. Thelma Harper of her chairmanship of the Government Operations Committee.

Ramsey said he was doing so because Republicans had a mandate to lead but also because of the committee's problems in getting its work done. The committee reviews state agencies and recommends whether to extend their lives.

He expressed displeasure with Harper for her support of Democrat Tim Barnes, who is replacing Rosalind Kurita in the Senate seat representing Clarksville.

"I think she would realize that she's not going to be a committee chairman. She spent a lot of time up in Clarksville," he said.

That spurred some partisan sniping: Harper accused Ramsey of disrespecting her, and Minority Leader Jim Kyle said Ramsey was giving her an undignified exit from her chairmanship.

On Wednesday, the General Assembly will elect constitutional officers in a joint session, choosing between the Republican and Democratic nominees. Because the GOP has a 69-63 majority between the two chambers, its candidates will probably prevail.

At the end of the week, the General Assembly will adjourn for three weeks to allow lawmakers to reshuffle their offices and give the governor extra time to hammer out his budget. They will come back when the governor delivers his State of the State speech and the budget, sometime after the first week of February.

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