Lawmakers wrapped up a fast — and often fractious — session on Thursday, returning home to their districts for good after three months at the state Capitol.
For Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, adjournment does not come too soon. It brings to a close a session in which their leadership was challenged frequently, especially on education. But on the whole, they emerge from the session with the most important parts of the governor's agenda intact, with Harwell performing the thankless task of keeping lawmakers in line.
Some of the losses for Haslam this year were jarring. The legislature passed a one-year delay for Common Core-related testing the Haslam administration had planned to roll out this fall. The state now faces using the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program for at least one more year while his administration puts the testing contract up for bid.
A look back: 2014 TN legislative session
His push to hold teachers accountable for their students' test scores also was dealt a blow. Lawmakers passed a bill that would keep teachers from losing their licenses solely on the basis of student scores, a change in state law critics say will make it harder to remove the worst performers from the classroom.
But the governor was able to head off an effort to eviscerate Common Core after it gained traction in the House, and he is unlikely to lose much sleep over the defeat of his plan for school vouchers. The governor has embraced a voucher program reluctantly. After being criticized for not proposing a voucher plan during his first year in office in 2011, he put together a task force that spent nearly a year studying the idea.
The result was a plan for a relatively small number of vouchers that he presented before the 2013 session. His administration subsequently yanked that plan off the table when lawmakers tried to expand it, and his team held the line again this year as it passed the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives.
Haslam gave no sign of being torn up about it at a post-session news conference on Thursday.
"In terms of the big picture of what we're doing educationally in Tennessee, that's not a piece that's at the heart of it," he said.
Meanwhile, Haslam's top priority, a plan for free community college called Tennessee Promise, won passage, despite some misgivings about its effect on four-year universities and their students. If the governor wanted to draw national attention, he succeeded.
Harwell, however, did not come away from the session's losses quite so unscathed.
The floor fight in March over Common Core — in which a group of conservative lawmakers joined with Democrats to secure a two-year "freeze" on the standards by amending an unrelated education bill — served as a serious test of the Nashville Republican's hold on the reins. After the vote, the best spin Harwell could muster was that she had lived up to a promise to let the issue be debated.
Harwell and her allies were able to contain the damage by cutting the freeze on Common Core testing to one year. They also managed to water down restrictions on the development of new education standards.
The final bill on Common Core also includes lengthy and detailed limits on the ability of schools to collect "biometric information," including data on students' pulse rates, facial expressions, eye movements, skin responses and "EEG brain wave patterns" — provisions that spoke to the fears of many Common Core opponents.
Harwell may have succeeded last year in checking the rank and file's most conspiratorial impulses when she limited the number of bills they could introduce and worked with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to shorten the legislative session. But not even the speaker could keep them at bay this year.
On the rise
Americans for Prosperity
The conservative group founded by the Koch brothers ramped up activity at the Tennessee Capitol this year, pushing the debate on the Amp, TennCare expansion and Common Core. Radio spots also forced lawmakers to consider a plan to phase out the Hall tax on investments, over the objections of Gov. Bill Haslam.
Gov. Bill Haslam
The House wouldn't approve his voucher bill, and his proposal to combat methamphetamine production was watered down. But the biggest idea he proposed this year, free community college, won overwhelmingly, giving him a boost heading into his re-election campaign, a race in which he faces mild competition.
Teachers didn't get the raises Haslam had promised, but otherwise they had the ear of legislators. Teacher groups were instrumental in getting lawmakers to force a one-year delay in implementing Common Core-related testing, not to pass a school voucher bill and to approve legislation that would keep teachers from losing their licenses based solely on their students' test scores.
The March floor revolt in the House over Common Core, in which a coalition succeeded in attaching a freeze on the education standards and testing to an unrelated bill, is the best example of the dissension House Speaker Beth Harwell and other legislative leaders dealt with. Democrats also were more aggressive, though they emerged with few tangible victories.
Two-year colleges and students
Haslam hopes his plan for free community college closes the economic gap between Tennesseans who have a college degree and those with a high school diploma only. At the very least, Tennessee Promise should lead many students to give the state's community colleges and technology centers a look.
Americans for Tax Reform
Activist Grover Norquist came to Tennessee to call for repealing the Hall tax and for workers at Volkswagen to reject unionization. The latter happened, but probably not because of Norquist.
Haslam promised teachers a 2 percent raise and other state workers a 1 percent increase in February, but he walked away from that pledge in April, citing poor tax collections.
Groups representing sheriffs and police chiefs wanted tough limits on pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in some cold and allergy medicines that also is needed to make meth. In the end, legislators approved much higher limits.
Gun rights advocates
The legislature refused advocates' request to amend the guns-in-trunks bill, and an effort to lift restrictions on guns in public parks came up short. An open-carry bill surprisingly passed the Senate, only to be quashed in the House.
Four-year universities and students
What's good for the two-year schools could be bad for universities, which depend on large freshmen and sophomore classes to cover the costs of educating juniors and seniors. Plus, Tennessee Promise cuts freshmen and sophomore's Hope scholarships by $500.
Things to watch between now and January:
Rep. Charles Sargent's re-election bid
It didn't escape notice that the House Finance Committee chairman did not take part in a vote on controversial open-carry legislation, despite saying he'd back it. Gun rights groups may try to get revenge in the August primary, just as they did with state Rep. Debra Maggart two years ago.
Haslam says he really is trying to work out a plan to offer Medicaid to an estimated 175,000 more Tennesseans. With legislators out of town, new leadership at the federal level and a re-election campaign on the horizon, Haslam might have better luck.
The law letting grocery stores sell wine calls for local voters to approve the idea. Supermarkets and other backers will collect signatures this summer to get on the ballot, then there will be a push to make sure voters say yes.
Tennesseans will vote this fall on a proposal to remove abortion protections from the state constitution. There also will be campaigns to set how the state chooses judges, to ban a state income tax explicitly and to let veterans groups conduct charitable gaming.
While Haslam appears to have little chance of losing in November, investigations into the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain his family owns and the unionization vote at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant could impact his political future. Democrats also want hearings on state contracts with Jones Lang LaSalle.