published Monday, January 7th, 2013

Tennessee's GOP ready at the wheel

NASHVILLE — Tennessee's 108th General Assembly opens for business Tuesday with a Republican supermajority in the driver's seat on issues ranging from gun policy to school vouchers and a possible expansion of the Medicaid health care program.

Beleaguered Democrats will take the proverbial back seat unless Republican squabbling over several issues allows them to steer the car of state.

The 99 House members and 33 senators convene at noon for their annual session. Republicans hold 70 seats in the House and 26 in the Senate, their largest majority since the late 1860s.

"I think it's going to be different," said Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, on what Democrats face. "There are fewer of us. However, I think we're going to work a lot more effectively."

Both chambers will spend months debating state policy and the proposed budget Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to present later this month.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he hopes for a short session.

"I shouldn't make this prediction, but I'd love to get out of here by the end of April," McCormick said. "Hopefully, we'll take care of the budget and the issues we have to take care of ... and not get sidelined by too many issues that really aren't necessary to spend a lot of time on."

But thorny tangles over guns, schools and health care lie ahead.

Gun advocates and business interests are at odds over lawmakers' push to let employees store guns in their cars on company, school and college parking lots.

Last month's school massacre in Newtown, Conn., has generated competing plans to put police officers in more schools or allow teachers or school staffers to go armed.

Controversies are bubbling over whether to create vouchers that would allow families to use tax dollars to attend religious and other private schools. Some Republicans are wary. Haslam has so far avoided taking a position.

Another proposal would weaken local school boards' control over approval of charter schools, which use public money but are free of many restrictions under which public schools operate.

And Haslam is going to have to get off the fence on whether to expand TennCare, the state's version of the Medicaid health care program for the poor. The federal Affordable Care Act included expanding Medicaid, but the U.S. Supreme Court made it optional instead of mandatory.

The federal government would pay 100 percent of the increased cost for the first three years and 90 percent thereafter.

TennCare officials estimate an expansion could provide health care coverage for as many as 300,000 Tennesseans.

Haslam has said he recognizes the benefits of enhanced coverage but worries about future costs.

But Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville, has introduced legislation to block any expansion.

"I feel like keeping our budget in balance is an important thing," Kelsey said, noting that Congress can always cut promised funds.

Still, the lawmaker said, "I certainly want to know his [Haslam's] viewpoint before I move forward."

Democrats such as Favors support the Medicaid expansion.

"It's important because we're one of the states that has a high poverty rate," Favors said. "We have a lot of poor, sick people, many of whom are not able to afford insurance."

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, remains skeptical.

"I still believe at this point it would have a significantly negative impact on the state and affect other aspects of things the government does," he said.

Other issues coming before lawmakers include a years-long battle over legalizing the sale of wine in grocery and convenience stores.

Haslam plans to cut the sales tax on groceries another quarter of a percent, bringing it down to 5 percent.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, plans to push for higher exemptions to the state's Hall income tax on stock dividends and interest.

Comptroller Justin Wilson will renew his effort to repeal a property tax break on solar power equipment.

Lawmakers also will consider final action on two constitutional amendments that could be on the ballot in 2014. One would ban state and local income taxes in Tennessee. The other calls for Senate confirmation of appellate court appointments made by the governor.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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