A change in Hamilton County's legislative delegation

-RR 042700 B May Day Metro---Tennessee State Capitol downtown Nashville. For Issues centerpiece illustration. Photo by Ricky Rogers (The Tennessean) 4/27/2000
photo The Tennessee State Capitol stands apart from newer buildings in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009. The Capitol, celebrating its 150th birthday, has a history unmatched by any of the other historic locations in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - It's a new year and a new Tennessee General Assembly. So it's probably fitting there's also a new look to Hamilton County's seven-member legislative delegation.

As a result of 2018 elections, there are almost as many women as men in the delegation. Three of the seven senators and representatives are female, the largest number ever, as freshmen Reps. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, join incumbent Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain.

Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman and businesswoman, and Helton, an East Ridge city council member, are joined by another freshman and the delegation's lone Democrat, Yusuf Hakeem, who is a former Chattanooga city council member and also the group's only black member.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, the delegation's chairman, likes the idea of having three women in the delegation. And he called the additions of Smith, Helton and Hakeem "healthy and good. All three of them are strong, opinionated individuals and very sound in what they believe."

The other incumbent delegation members are Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

Gardenhire said while state revenues are running a surplus, he worries that could cause "a real problem, because everyone in the world shows up trying to help you spend it."

Watson, the delegation's senior member, is chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He said he hopes Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, keeps him in that post.

Tennessee is "by and large in good financial shape," Watson said. But he said he and others want to put more in the state's Rainy Day reserve fund in light of recent reports, including one by the nonpartisan Tennessee Sycamore Institute. It suggests the state doesn't have enough money put back for a significant recession.

"I think it's in our best interest to continue to try to do as much as we can so that we can be as recession proof as anybody can," Watson said, noting that would have to come after funding main priorities such as K-12 education and TennCare.

The Rainy Day and TennCare reserve funds are expected to top $1 billion by June 30.

Watson and Carter expect to push their "de-annexation" bill that seeks to let some residents of cities vote to secede from municipalities under certain conditions.

And both lawmakers are keeping their eyes on state progress toward their 2018 legislation that requires Tennessee to end vehicle emissions testing in five counties, including Hamilton County, if federal regulators sign off on the move.

Gardenhire, a vice chairman of the Education Committee, said his priorities include pushing a limited, taxpayer-funded education voucher program. It would let parents with children in failing public schools pay for private school education.

Similar efforts have failed, but Republican Gov.-elect Bill Lee has voiced openness to a limited, pilot program.

Hazlewood said the state has made "great strides" over the past eight years under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and legislative leaders. "I'm just hoping we can stay the course," she said.

But the state still has a "lot of work to do" on the opioid epidemic, Hazlewood said. She also intends to work on "trying to get the mentally ill out of the penal system," an issue that also has the attention of other local lawmakers.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond has often said the county jail has become as much mental health hospital and homeless shelter as it is a place of correction.

Several Hamilton County lawmakers said they are interested in trying to address health care costs with Smith and Helton, both trained nurses, wanting to look at making hospital pricing more transparent to the public.

Smith said being able to "shop for care helps," especially for Tennesseans who have high-deductible health plans. Her goal is to "drive down costs of health care." Helton described the goal as "trying to increase access and decreasing costs."

But Republicans, who battered down Haslam's proposed Medicaid expansion in 2015, showed little interest in revisiting that.

Smith, who has spent years in politics and works as a business and political consultant, wryly noted that she had helped many Republicans win election to the Legislature before deciding to run herself when longtime Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, dropped out of his re-election race.

"The commitment has to be to constituents' needs," Smith said. She noted her approach has been "to listen a lot. I ask a ton of questions on constituent needs and try to understand the issues."

While House Democrats have only 26 members in the House.

Hakeem said, "I think I have a history and a track record of working with people from all walks of life. I believe where we have issues of concerns, that both Democrats and Republicans have that kind of interest in, we can work toward that together."

He said he hopes one area might be expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. But he acknowledges sharp differences over the issue. Nonetheless, he said, he would like to see "rural America and urban America get together" and seek common ground.

Helton said she doesn't have "pre-conceived ideas" heading into the legislature. She noted that "anything I vote on, my district is always going to be my priority" along with "good things to benefit the county and the state."

While she's served in local government, Helton added, "this is a completely different ball game. I just want to be really choosy on things that I decide to do."

Helton said she also intends to follow expected new Republican House Speaker Glen Casada's advice given during freshman orientation: "Which is to watch, listen, learn that first session. Learn the process, and if you feel really passionate then consider carrying it. But not just to be carrying a bill to be carrying a bill."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.