TN Republicans push social issues

Posted on March 25, 2012

The Tennessean, March 25, 2012 by Chas Sisk

(scroll down to see bolded area regarding The Life Defense Act of 2012)

Abortion. Evolution. Guns.

As Tennessee lawmakers rush to the finish of the two-year legislative session, Republican leaders say they want their first term in control of the state Capitol to be remembered for their efforts to create jobs and reform schools. But social issues are making their way to the top of the agenda, forcing debates that have garnered national attention and opened the GOP to renewed attacks from Democrats.

The flurry of activity reflects the power of socially conservative voters in Tennessee and the pressure Republicans are under to deliver for them before they go home for the year.

Bills dealing with sex, religion and guns may spark controversy. But they also give Republican lawmakers a chance to show where they stand and could help them head off the biggest challenge they face to re-election this year — a primary opponent who accuses them of having done too little to advance conservative causes.

In recent days, Republican lawmakers have moved ahead with bills that would place new restrictions on abortion providers and tighten rules for teaching sex education, and they opened the door for local governments to post the Ten Commandments in courthouses and on town squares.

They have skirmished with Democrats and science educators over a bill that would encourage classroom debates about evolution, and they have sparred with business groups over the limits of where they can ban guns.

Democrats say these issues have become a distraction for the legislature. Republicans shrug off the suggestion.

“That’s how democracy works,” Gov. Bill Haslam said last week. “People run, they get elected, and they have the right to bring up bills that are important to them. We obviously stress the things that are important to us.”

The pace of socially conservative bills has accelerated, as a deadline approaches for candidates to declare their candidacy this fall. Democrats are using the attention paid to those issues as a chance to attack Republicans as being more concerned with policing morality than managing the state’s economy.

“They’re preoccupied with sex up here,” Nashville Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said last week. “We’re about ready to put the turbans on and put the women in burkas, if we keep going at this rate.”

But Republicans are more likely to face a political reward than pay a price for their stances. Newly redrawn district maps mean most of them are safe from Democratic challengers, and they probably will be able to ride the coattails of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and the Republican presidential nominee at the top of the November ticket.

A recent poll released by the Tennessee Republican Party also shows the legislature’s approval rating as 63 percent, with a majority of Tennesseans saying they believe the state is headed in the right direction. A similar poll by Vanderbilt University also found more Tennesseans approve of the legislature than disapprove.

For many Republicans, the biggest threat they face is the emergence of a primary opponent who attacks them for not being conservative enough. Republican lawmakers who can cinch the nomination in August face few obstacles to another term in November.

The deadline to enter the primary is April 5, and it may be no accident that legislators have turned to social issues at the same time they — and their potential opponents — are gathering signatures to appear on the ballot in the fall.

“Not all of them are looking for trouble,” said Pat Nolan, a Nashville political commentator and longtime analyst of the state legislature. “A lot of them might be looking to shore up some support.”

Republicans will run again

Republicans swept to a nearly two-thirds majority in 2010, and most GOP lawmakers plan to stand again for re-election in November.

So far, only four Republican members of the legislature have declared they do not plan to run for their seat again. Two of those are representatives who plan to run for open seats in the state Senate.

By contrast, 10 of the legislature’s 47 Democrats have announced they will not run for re-election. Only one seeks a higher office, state Sen. Eric Stewart, who is running for Congress.

Social issues can help many of those Republicans running for re-election define themselves to voters as conservatives. That task is especially important to the 21 Republican legislators who will be defending their seats for the first time.

But it also will be a necessity for long-serving Republicans. The once-in-a-decade process of reapportionment has redrawn many of their districts, forcing them to introduce themselves to voters who were previously represented by someone else.

As the filing deadline has neared, lawmakers have taken up several social issues that had appeared to be dormant.

The Life Defense Act of 2012, an abortion bill that was filed in January, received its first hearings in the state House of Representatives earlier this month.

The measure quickly drew the ire of medical and abortion rights groups, who objected to provisions that would have required more public reporting about the doctors and patients involved in abortions. But the bill is a high priority for Tennessee Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.

After the bill began to draw national attention, it was amended last week to strip out the reporting provisions, leaving only a requirement that doctors have hospital admitting privileges in the county where they perform an abortion or a neighboring county. Even that would be a partial victory for pro-life advocates at a time when a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling limits how much the state can regulate abortion.

Lawmakers also dusted off a bill that would encourage teachers and students to debate controversial scientific theories, such as evolution. The measure had drawn scorn from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and local members of the National Academy of Sciences, but it also had the backing of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a prominent socially conservative group.

Other groups have overtly pressured lawmakers. According to legislators, the National Rifle Association has told lawmakers that it will grade them this fall based on their support for a bill that would require businesses to let gun owners keep their weapons in locked cars in parking lots.

Businesses have argued such legislation would violate their property rights. Many Republican lawmakers agree.

But their efforts to work out a compromise on the guns-in-parking-lots bill has intensified the rhetoric. The Tennessee Firearms Association, another gun rights group, has referred to House Speaker Beth Harwell and other leaders as an “axis of evil” and accused Republicans of “appeasement to the Golden Goose of corporate money.”

Democrats try to capitalize

Democrats have tried to capitalize on social issues by portraying themselves as the party of moderation.

“We’re making national news on all these crazy things. It’s just not good for the state of Tennessee,” said Turner, the Democratic Caucus chairman. “The social conservatives have control of the Republican Party. The conservative party used to be the party of the establishment. They’ve now become the anti-establishment party.

“It seems like they’re against everything, but when you win elections you have to stop playing politics. … They’re not governing.”

Republicans bristle at such comments. In the same week lawmakers debated abortion, evolution and sex education, they noted that they also worked out a plan to abolish the state’s estate tax by 2016, which they say will create jobs by encouraging wealthy retirees to remain in the state.

The House also advanced a Haslam administration bill to expand the state’s incentives for job creation, and they proceeded with legislation sought by business that calls for random audits of unemployment claims to make sure people are still looking for work. That bill also would bar inmates and people who fail a workplace drug test from receiving unemployment benefits.

“They’re not a distraction to me,” Harwell said of social issue legislation.

Republicans also pointed to several bills that have not grabbed much attention — mainly because they have been stymied by the House’s Republican-dominated committee — as evidence that Democrats are just as likely to cater to interest groups.

“As usual, Chairman Turner and the Democrats are overcompensating for something. Perhaps it’s their limited legislative agenda?” House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart responded in a statement. “Turner and his crew should help us with this instead of filing bills for transvestites (HB 187), legalizing pot (HB 294), and raising the gas tax (HB 2277). That’s a reckless agenda that hurts Tennessee.”

Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or Follow him on Twitter

Posted in: Tenneesee