Chris Peck: Norris knows state government

On July 17, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

Chris Peck, Commercial Appeal
July 17, 2011

Sen. Mark Norris, Collierville farmer, Memphis lawyer and the Republican Majority Leader of the Tennessee State Senate, may never be a big name on Fox News, CNN or Huffington Post.

He’s not one who screams and yells and isn’t into name-calling.

Not to worry. For Norris, a bigger thrill than becoming a regular on the nightly news probably would go something like this:

Gather up dozens of state legislators. Get them in a hotel. Then talk for days about debt management in local government or transportation logistics to help small business or maybe a real zinger — like how to create animal IDs so we all can know where our hamburger patties and chicken wings originate.

Such wonky talk floats the Mark Norris’ boat. And guess what? He’s riding high this next few days. Sen. Norris is hosting the Southern Legislative Conference in Memphis this week.

Here’s the mission of the 64-year-old SLC: to foster intergovernmental cooperation among 15 state legislatures and state governments.

No, you won’t confuse their meetings with the NBA playoffs in terms of excitement.

For example, tomorrow morning the legislators will be take up such nitty-gritty local and state government issues as how to manage pension costs for public employees; whether to tax Internet sales and a session on rural food deserts to try to figure out how people living in the country can get better groceries.

It’s important that somebody does this work because it helps make sure cities and states run smoothly — on roads that are paved, with power grids that work, supported by an infrastructure of public offices and public services that we mostly take for granted.

Managing these behind-the-curtain issues is something Norris does very well. In the last four months, Norris shepherded a $30 billion state budget through the state Senate. Lots of details. Night meetings. Hallway jawboning. Compromising. Balancing divergent interests.

”I’m kind of the chief cook and bottle washer,” Norris laughed a few days before the convening of the SLC. ”When the governor says get something done, I go and try to do it.”

In the end, the Tennessee state budget passed without a single ‘no’ vote. The legislature ended its session earlier than it has in more than a decade. Fewer bills got introduced. But more got done, at least in Norris’ mind.

”Revisions to allow more charter schools,” he began, ticking off his list of accomplishments. ”A better state law to show that teacher’s are effective before they get tenure. Tort reform. A slight pay raise for state employees even as the budget is down 3.8 percent …”

He could go on about his Memphis-oriented work.

It was Norris, after all, who pulled the city of Memphis’s economic fat out of fire by cajoling his fellow legislators to pass a supplemental appropriations bill to honor an unfunded state commitment last year of about $100 million to the Memphis Electrolux plant that wasn’t originally in the governor’s budget.

And it was Norris, again, who guided the legislature to approve $10 million for the Memphis Research Consortium that will be a huge help to St Judge Children’s Research Hospital as it tries to take the next step in mapping the human genome and curing more cancer in kids.

Norris’ fingerprints touched the Overton Park preservation effort, funding to fight urban blight in Memphis and a get-tough law adding more jail time for crooks who use guns.

Not everyone would agree with every legislative move made by Norris. That’s the nature of politics.

His public service is commendable. He’s devoted to his job. He likes digging into the details of government. He isn’t overwhelmed by some of the issues that get the headlines but aren’t really central to keeping government running smoothly.

You see the Norris focus on nuts-and-bolts concerns all through the agenda of the Southern Legislative Conference, which Norris chairs this year:

The session for legislators in farming communities to help them better understand the ups and downs of commodity food prices worldwide.

A session on research about school choice and whether having charter schools helps kids achieve more.

Another exploring the future of nuclear power in the wake of the meltdown of a nuclear plant in Japan.

These down-to-earth topics are exactly what legislatures need to know about to keep their states functioning and focused.

Some topics are notable for their absence on the SLCMemphis agenda this week.

No panels on Sharia Law and whether Muslims are taking over America. No panels on whether it’s a good idea to let people carry guns into bars. No panels on whether the states should outlaw gay marriage or abortion.

Not that issues aren’t hot, or often taken up by legislators, and reported.

It’s just that for Norris and a great majority of his state legislative colleagues who will be in Memphis this week, the purpose of the Southern Legislative Conference will be to dig deep into the everyday business of state governance.

That’s refreshing — even if not as exciting as the NBA playoffs.

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