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GOP lawmakers in Tennessee seek to back away from 'fringe' groups

March 3rd, 2013 5:38 pm by ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press

NASHVILLE -- Before a House vote to give final approval to a contentious firearms bill last week, Speaker Beth Harwell implored her Republican colleagues to ignore demands from what she deemed "fringe" groups to make major changes to the measure.


The chamber took Harwell's advice and passed the guns-in-parking-lots bill without any changes. Lawmakers have also in recent weeks drawn the line at proposals to bypass the federal government by allowing the creation of an independent health care network and stopped a proposal to ban the enforcement of federal firearms laws in Tennessee.


The failure of those two bills in House and Senate committees indicates a new willingness among leaders of the GOP supermajority to reel in some of the more extreme -- and likely unconstitutional -- measures before they reach a floor vote, where lawmakers might have a harder time voting against them for ideological reasons.


Last year Gov. Bill Haslam decried the attention being paid to what he called the "craziest" measures, although he blamed the news media and not the lawmakers for that. It was a signal, nevertheless, that Republican leaders have worried about how some of the bills reflected on Tennessee's image.


Polls of state voters also have shown lower approval ratings for the General Assembly than for Haslam. In December, the Vanderbilt Poll showed 68 percent of voters approved of Haslam's performance, compared with the Legislature's rating of 52 percent, which was up from an April approval rate of just under 50 percent.


The gun bill sent for the governor's approval last week would allow the state's nearly 400,000 handgun carry permit holders to store weapons in vehicles in parking lots -- even if it goes against the wishes of property owners.


Gun advocates emboldened by the electoral defeat of a top GOP leader after the failure of a similar measure last year demanded a broader bill -- and written guarantees that employees couldn't be fired for storing firearms in their cars while at work.


Harwell, R-Nashville, has tried to strike a delicate balance between the competing interests of gun advocates and the business lobby. She noted that neither side was entirely happy about the bill and urged members to quickly put the matter behind them.


"This caucus has been through a tremendous amount with regards to this piece of legislation -- much more than you deserve to have gone through," she said. "And for that, I'm sorry and I regret it."


"My goal is always to protect you," she said.


Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who had previously raised property rights and school security concerns about the measure, appears to be on board with dispatching the controversy over the measure. A spokesman said the governor is "likely" to sign the bill into law.


Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee last week put a halt to a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, to make it a crime for federal agents to enforce unconstitutional gun control measures in Tennessee.


Much of the debate centered on who would determine which laws are unconstitutional, with Beavers and her supporters arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court does not hold that authority.


Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who's one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly, spent a large portion of the hearing recounting the history of U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court, at one point challenging a witness to "point to one shred of evidence post 1865 that nullification is legal?"


Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, is a prominent states' rights advocate whose campaign slogan in the 2010 governor's race was "Give Washington the boot." And yet he told reporters the week before the vote that the Beavers bill would have gone too far.


"Who defines what's unconstitutional? The last thing you want is some rogue sheriff out there deciding that it's unconstitutional and then starting enforcing it," he said.


In the end, the panel's four attorneys voted against sending the measure to a full floor vote, while four non-attorneys voted in favor. Bills need to gain a majority vote to advance.


Another measure seeking to allow Tennessee to challenge President Barack Obama's health care law by joining other states to create their own system failed in the House Insurance and Banking Committee. Last year's version made it to floor votes in both chambers, only to fail in the House when 28 members were either absent or abstained.


Republican Rep. Charles Sargent of Franklin was one of nine members to vote against the latest measure to petition Congress about creating a health care compact. He argued that it was a largely symbolic and unnecessary move.


"This doesn't make sense, when we can do this without putting it into law," he said.

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