Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tenn. lawmakers adjourn without passing health bill

Legislative chambers divided over stance on federal law

By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • June 10, 2010

Struggling to wrap up their business, the two houses of the General Assembly failed to find common ground Wednesday on a bill that would have taken a stand against federal health-care reform.

Using an unusual parliamentary maneuver, the Senate approved a measure instructing the state attorney general to sue the federal government if it penalizes any person for failing to buy health insurance.

But the House put up so much resistance that the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet, finally moved for the chamber to "non-concur" with key language in the Senate bill.

The House voted 44-43 to send the legislation to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers, which will try to work out differences. Speaker Kent Williams appointed Lynn and two other Republicans to the committee, drawing an objection from Rep. Gary Odom of Nashville, the House's top Democrat.

The attempted compromise failed 44-39 in the House.

Fifty votes were needed for passage.

The Senate actually approved a similar bill earlier this year, but it failed in the House last week. Republican senators successfully moved Wednesday to rewrite another proposal so it would do what the earlier bill would have done: reject the federal health-care reform measure that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law in March.

The Senate vote was 22-9, with some Democrats joining Republicans in favor. But later in the day, a typographical error in the Senate bill created an opening for House Democrats to attack.

Lynn tried to send her bill back to the Senate so it could correct the mistake. House Democrats, led by Odom, the minority leader, said they weren't sure what else the Senate might do with it.

"I don't want to see it go back to the Senate," Odom said. "We ought to vote it up or down."

Democrats were able to table Lynn's motion on a 44-43 vote, then narrowly lost a battle to refer it to a committee.

After that series of skirmishes, Lynn dropped a motion to concur with the amendment that had rewritten the Senate bill.

However it shakes out, the new law could prove meaningless as anything more than a political statement. Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper has said federal law would trump any state law on health care.

"The public policy expressed . . . is directly opposed to the expressly stated Congressional intent," Cooper's office wrote in April.

State law gives the attorney general broad discretion to decide whom to sue on behalf of the state.

But Republicans in both chambers said it was important to express their concerns with what they see as an overly intrusive federal government.

Mining, alcohol matters

Trying to finish the two-year session, the legislature also:

• Killed an attempt to revive a bill that would ban "mountaintop removal" coal mining.

The recall motion by Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat, failed by a 14-12 Senate vote that fell mostly along party lines.

The bill would have prohibited surface coal mining more than 2,000 feet above sea level. The Senate Environment Committee did not vote on it during the legislative session.

Berke tried to revive the proposal after Senate Republicans vowed last week to make a similar move with health-care legislation. Berke said a vote against the mountaintop removal ban would put the Senate "in the hands of a few people in the coal lobby."

Sen. Doug Jackson, the Dickson Democrat who sponsored the ban, cited the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an environmental disaster that happened "because regulators turned a blind eye."

Sen. Ken Yager, a Republican from Harriman, said the Environment Committee didn't get to hear both sides of the issue. Berke said the matter had been debated for years.

• Both houses passed a bill that makes it easier for bars to sell wine and liquor by the drink. That right had been limited to "restaurants," which were defined as places open at least three days a week with a primary purpose of serving food, seating at least 75 people.

Under the new law, bars seating just 40 people and making less than 50 percent of their revenue from the sale of prepared food will be able to get liquor by the drink licenses. The law also will make it easier for existing venues to keep their licenses.

They can make as little as 15 percent of their revenue from the sale of food, a big change from the previous requirement of 50 percent, which has been difficult for many establishments to meet.

"That's a step in the right direction," said Will Cheek, an attorney for some bars and restaurants. "It'll be a huge relief for hundreds of businesses across Tennessee that are worried about losing their liquor licenses and going out of business."

Sen. Joe Haynes, a sponsor of the bill, said the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Karl Dean's administration supported the legislation.

"I think it will assist some of our small businesses in Davidson County that could be in violation of current law," Haynes said.

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