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VOL. 42 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 4, 2018

East meets west as 2 legislators run out of time

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It wasn’t quite a constitutional crisis, but when Reps. Micah Van Huss and Joe Towns start teaming up, something is amiss.

Van Huss, a Republican from East Tennessee near Johnson City, and Towns, a Democrat from Memphis, are typically like water and oil. But on the final day of the 110th General Assembly, when they felt the Senate slow-walked and spiked their constitutional amendments, they suddenly became bosom buddies, forgetting they were on opposite sides of the argument over Memphis and removal of Confederate monuments.

The constitutional amendment by Van Huss would recognize that our liberties don’t come from governments but instead from Almighty God, while Towns’ amendment would remove the Constitution’s criminal punishment exception from slavery and involuntary servitude prohibition.

Fittingly, their names are right beside each other on the House tally as voting against a motion to suspend the rules so the body could adjourn for the year (sine die). The House garnered the bare minimum 66 votes enabling it to take yet another vote to get the heck out of Dodge.

Van Huss had earlier caused a good deal of heartburn when he asked his colleagues to vote against suspending the rules. Van Huss and Towns both wanted their resolutions to receive the necessary three readings in each chamber so they could take steps toward being placed on ballots statewide in 2020.

Because they didn’t return from the Senate with the required approval, the entire Legislature would have needed to return for at least two days, possibly more, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars. Van Huss wanted the Legislature to stay in town another 25 hours and 40 minutes.

“I’ve stood with many of you on many issues,” Van Huss told the body. “God said in his word, when you’ve done all that you can do, to stand. I will not look at the votes. I’m asking you to vote no on sine die.”

Clearly worried about salvation as the clock ticked toward 10, even though they’d been in the House chamber since 9 that morning, they voted to stay. Or maybe some didn’t know what they were voting for, which caused House leaders to go running hither and thither, trying to figure out a way to go home for the year.

Finally, they got another resolution to adjourn from the Senate and took the final votes.

One representative even speculated House members who weren’t even in the chamber voted to suspend the rules so they could sine die.

Burr under the saddle

Towns was openly “peeved” about the matter in the waning hours of the General Assembly because he’d made the measure one of his priorities for the session. It hadn’t passed the full House, though, until Monday (April 23), by a 95-0 vote no less, making it to the Senate, where it was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

Things are a little murky after that. Towns says Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey told him he would reopen the committee. Towns also had asked Sen. Lee Harris, another Memphis Democrat, to help ferry the resolution through the Senate. Apparently, neither of those happened.

Then, Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee, in a trip to the House chamber to deliver the news, told Towns it was too late to get it done.

House members gave Watson a round of boos when he entered, because at the time both chambers also were mired in disagreement over how to handle the aftermath of the botched TNReady testing and its impact on schools, students and teachers.

“I really walked in to tell him, I’m sorry, that committee’s closed and they’re not going to open for that,” says Watson, a Hixson Republican.

“I turned to walk away, and he started on me about you having the power to open it up. I said I don’t have the power to open it up. I’m not even a member of that committee. He kept on me, and I finally said, ‘Joe, they’re not going to open the committee for that.’”

Towns, who isn’t exactly slow to anger, took offense at Watson’s message.

“Now, I don’t know what the hell he means about hear a bill like that. But he must be out of his damn mind or he must be supporting slavery,” Towns said, further calling the Senate’s failure to act “an insult and a display of bigotry and ignorance.”

“That’s what you’re up here to do is work, and this is critical legislation, because slavery, as it states in the 13th Amendment, exists in this country under certain circumstances, under certain conditions,” Towns says. “If you’re incarcerated, you’re considered an indentured servant or slave or however you want to term it. The resolution simply seeks to remove that.”

Towns and Van Huss could be seen plotting strategy during breaks in the action.

Van Huss had taken his measure further, passing it in 2017 by a 69-17 vote and turning it over to the Senate this year, where it was amended but not until very late in the session.

“The Senate delayed and delayed and delayed, I think intentionally, so it couldn’t pass. So here we are,” Van Huss said late that Wednesday (April 25).

The “most egregious testament,” he says, is that the Senate passed the amended resolution the evening before the Legislature adjourned but failed to send it back to the House for another reading until 60 seconds after the House ended its work for the night.

The former Marine, who also has put a great deal of energy into stopping abortion in Tennessee, sounds sincere in his belief that this constitutional amendment is needed.

“Let me give you a really good example of what happens when our liberties don’t come from God: Slavery becomes legal,” Van Huss said. “So, I believe this constitutional amendment is a good … the fact slavery is legal to begin with is a good reason to recognize our liberties don’t come from Barack Obama, they don’t come from Donald Trump. They come from God, because let me tell you, if your liberties come from government we’re all in trouble.”

Most people would agree liberty shouldn’t come from the Tennessee General Assembly, but if you’re rich enough, you can twist enough arms to liberate yourself from its taxes.

Tennesseans also would likely agree we need to rid the Constitution of all vestiges of slavery. But reaching that point isn’t easy, especially when the House and Senate are caught up in power politics.

Also, playing a role in this macabre theatre was a constitutional amendment by Sen. Becky Duncan Massey dealing with the exercise of powers and duties when the governor is disabled.

It took a sudden exit stage left in the House when Rep. Gerald McCormick, he of the iron gavel, called to “lay it on the desk,” leaving it floating in the netherworld for leverage purposes.

“This is something the Senate sent and wanted us to pass,” McCormick said, urging delay to a roar of approval from the House floor.

McCormick might have been irritated by the Senate’s early April decision to hold up his resolution urging placement of a Davy Crocket statue atop the Motlow Tunnel on the State Capitol grounds, replacing an obscure Nashville politician.

The analysis

Amid the jockeying between House and Senate, the gap was clear on the last day of the 110th. In fact, one House member told the story of walking through a graveyard and seeing a tombstone that read, “A good man and a senator,” an epitaph that raised the question of whether two men could be buried in one grave.

Indeed, the casual observer would see the Senate chamber as a group of 33 aspiring to debate as the nation’s Founding Fathers and the House’s 99 as a more raucous bunch gearing up for a street fight.

So, when Sen. Watson says he appreciated the chorus of boos as he entered the House chamber in its final hours, he probably wasn’t kidding.

Not only were the two chambers stuck over how to hold teachers “harmless” in the TNReady debacle, neither one wanted to bow on measures dealing with consular identifications (which most people don’t even understand), utility funds going toward Chambers of Commerce (which makes no sense at all), and these constitutional amendments, which have to run a legislative gauntlet before they can find their way on a statewide ballot.

(Remember, it took U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a former state senator, more than a decade to pass the lottery amendment, and now people act like we’ve had it forever.)

So, if Towns and Van Huss win re-election to the 111th General Assembly in 2019, they better start working immediately, because the Legislature doesn’t take constitutional amendments lightly. More pointedly, when Senate eyeballs start rolling, you have to wonder whether they’re taking these things seriously.

But if you see Towns and Van Huss working together again, head for the hills because the world is out of order. For all we know, the Earth might have started spinning backwards.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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