Tennessee lawmakers head into session with elections looming
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers return Tuesday for a session colored by upcoming elections and Gov. Bill Haslam’s final lap before he hits his term limits.
This year, the Republican-led General Assembly likely won’t face a monthslong fight over one topic, like the roads-funding package with gas tax hikes and other tax breaks that Haslam ushered into law in 2017.
Instead, opioid abuse will be a main focus, legislative leaders and Haslam have said, a less divisive topic before state elections for governor, all 99 House seats and 17 of 33 Senate seats.
Lawmakers can’t raise campaign cash during the session, an incentive to finish quickly with the primary looming on Aug. 2. The candidate filing deadline is April 5, and session could conclude in the first or second week in April, said Senate Speaker Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican.
“It saves the taxpayers a tremendous amount of money when we come in and conduct our business in an efficient and effective manner,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican. “I think we’ll try to do that this session. In the same token, though, I think we want to thoroughly vet every piece of legislation that we vote on.”
Four Democrats and 13 Republicans in the House aren’t seeking re-election, including Harwell, who is running to succeed Haslam alongside four other leading Republicans and two Democrats.
Three Senate Republicans have already left. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris will be gone once the U.S. Senate confirms him as a federal judge, and another Republican and Democrat won’t seek re-election.
Though Haslam hasn’t released his agenda yet, the Republican is expected to further his higher education portfolio. Haslam’s administration began offering free state community college and technical school tuition to new high school graduates and adults without a college degree or certificate, programs nicknamed Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect.
“While more Tennesseans are attending college than ever before through Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, the governor is committed to helping those students complete college and be prepared to enter the workforce with degrees or certificates,” said Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals.
Some topics are ripe for an election-year fight, potentially through the budget that lawmakers are constitutionally required to balance and pass.
Several Republican lawmakers are incensed that the city of Memphis found a workaround to a state law that makes it difficult to remove Confederate monuments from public places. City officials sold two public parks last month to a newly formed nonprofit for $1,000 apiece and the group removed the statues.
“If Memphis can afford to practically give away taxpayer property, then obviously they do not need state funds for their pet projects in the 2018 budget,” House Majority Leader Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican, said in a statement.
A proposal by Haslam to shrink the University of Tennessee’s board is also expected, McNally said.
Other longstanding bills, including the school voucher idea, might face tough odds this year.
Uphill battles await proposals to offer in-state tuition to children whose parents brought or kept them in the U.S. illegally and to legalize medical marijuana, the House and Senate speaker said.
Congress hasn’t acted yet to maintain protection from deportation for those young immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to allow more federal crackdown on legal marijuana states might leave their medical marijuana policies at risk as well.
And a push to equip new school buses with seat belts, inspired by a deadly November 2016 Chattanooga school bus crash that killed six children, remains complicated by how to cover the costs, McNally said.
Additionally, Harwell said she doesn’t expect much movement on major expansions of gun rights or abortion restrictions, with new laws on both passed in recent years.
The opioid workload, she said, might include securing more money for rehabilitation and drug court programs and state investigators; expansion of partial fill of prescriptions; and tougher penalties for drug dealers who lace their products with dangerous substances, including fentanyl.
Harwell also is advocating for changes to lighten the burden on Tennessee’s juvenile justice system.