3 Reasons Why The End Of This Year's Legislative Session Was Crazier Than Usual

May 1, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 3:01 pm

Wednesday's final day of the 2018 legislative session was chaotic, even by the usual frenetic standards of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Before lawmakers adjourned at about 11 p.m., the day featured a standoff between the House and the Senate over standardized testing, an attempt to hold the state budget hostage and plenty of last-minute legislative stratagems.

Here are three reasons why the final hours of the 110th General Assembly were so hectic:

1. Election Year Politics

The biggest issue of the day was how to respond to disruptions in this year's TNReady testing.

Legislators say they've heard from teachers that a measure they passed last week to hold students, educators and districts "harmless" if the exams produced flawed results was insufficient. The reason: The data could still be fed into calculations of TVAAS scores, which measure teacher effectiveness.

Unhappy teachers are a major problem for state lawmakers facing reelection. In many legislative districts, schools are the biggest employer. What's more, teachers have been in revolt against political leaders in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. No politician wants to face a large bloc of angry, motivated voters.

So members of the House, all of whom are on the ballot this year, demanded additional protections for teachers. But state senators, most of whom aren't facing the same political pressure, feared legislation drawn up hastily on the last day of session would do more harm than good.

This divide between the two chambers made every other dispute that arose during the day harder to resolve.

2. No One To Broker Deals

But it's not unusual for the House and the Senate to bicker on the final days of session. In fact, it's often a sign that the end is near.

What was unusual this year was the absence of legislative leaders who could force lawmakers into compromises.

Gov. Bill Haslam has less than nine months left in office. Gone was his ability to offer lawmakers future concessions or threaten consequences if they didn't work with his administration.

Also on the way out the door were House Speaker Beth Harwell and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. Both are giving up their seats to run for governor. Unless they win in November, their political careers are likely coming to an end.

The same goes for a couple of lesser known legislative figures: House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent and Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, who shares the title of longest-serving House member with Harwell. In years past, they've been people who could smooth over differences and act as enforcers for legislative leaders.

3. Jockeying For Next Year

The flip side to these departures is the vacancies they'll create. The race to succeed Harwell as House speaker is already well under way, and Wednesday was a day in which the candidates had a chance to make their case for the position.

Winning the speakership is a matter of mastering a delicate balance. On the one hand, candidates for the job need to have shown they can wrangle unruly lawmakers, through threats if necessary. On the other hand, threats might backfire, since those same lawmakers will be casting the votes for speaker next January.

No one was in a tougher spot as the legislature wound down than House Majority Leader Glen Casada. In ordinary circumstances, he'd be the one cracking the whip on legislators who refused to compromise. But with the speaker's election coming up, he had more incentive to make friends than force House members into deals.

And Casada wasn’t the only legislator with the 111th General Assembly in mind. Every legislator sees himself or herself as a potential legislative leader. An impassioned speech or a clever legislative maneuver is the kind of thing that can make a backbencher stand out — and possibly start them down the path to becoming speaker.

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