Tennessee Legislators begin new session at state Capitol

Tennessee Legislators begin new session at state Capitol

January 10th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

The Tennessee State Capitol stands apart from newer buildings in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

The Tennessee General Assembly

99 House members: 64 Republicans, 34 Democrats and one independent

33 Senate members: 20 Republicans and 13 Democrats

Pay: $19,009 annually

Daily expense reimbursements: $173 a day when the legislature or committees meet in Nashville, down from $176 last year.

Source: Tennessee Legislature

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Republicans are roaring back to the state Capitol today, where they will kick off the General Assembly's annual session with a partisan bang.

One of the first orders of business this week is acting on controversial redistricting plans that heavily favor majority Republicans as state House, state Senate and congressional districts are redrawn.

The maps are drawn every 10 years to reflect population growth based on the latest U.S. census figures. House Republicans hope to bolster their current 64-38-1 majority while the Senate GOP plans to boost its 20-13 edge over Democrats.

Republicans hope to finish redistricting by week's end. In fact, they'd like to get in and out of Nashville as quickly as possible in preparation for 2012 elections later in the year. Some leaders say they want to keep time-consuming controversies to a minimum and bolt for the door sometime in May.

Lawmakers should "stick to the issues and try to get finished early and go home -- and the people will be safe," joked House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, one of the more cautious legislators when it comes to offering a time frame for adjournment, said the first order of business is "to get the redistricting issue settled and behind us and then get into the regular kind of business."

Watson, chairman of the Hamilton County legislative delegation, said he expects "a very efficient session and, obviously for [Gov. Bill Haslam], this will really be his first year to bring his own legislative package to us."

Besides redistricting, top priorities include the state budget, which is still recovering from revenue losses incurred during the Great Recession, and cutting lottery-funded college scholarships in half for high school students who don't have both a 3.0 GPA and 21 on their ACT.

Haslam, who offered few bills last year, is taking a more assertive stance after legislative Republicans, especially in the Senate led by Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, Haslam's 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary foe, often danced circles around him last year.

"I think what you'll see is we've had the chance to do our homework better," Haslam recently said. "And ... because of that, and because you've been around the track one time, I think it's a little bit easier to be engaged in more things than we were last year."

The governor intends to keep lawmakers busy. Last week he announced a $7 million anti-crime package, and he plans to hold a news conference this afternoon to announce his legislative package -- 21/2 hours after lawmakers convene their annual session at noon.

Haslam already appears to have put off one controversial legislative proposal -- mandating school vouchers for low-income students in Hamilton County and the state's three other large public school systems.

But a smooth legislative ride might not be in the works for the GOP, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville.

"I think the cooler heads kind of want to get this session over with and march on toward total victory or something in November," he said. "But I think some of the tea party side of their party, their more radical right, would like to finish social engineering in the state. ... They might have an internal problem with that. I don't know."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.