Issues, bills, hopes and controversies as Tennessee General Assembly returns

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam addresses state lawmakers at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Haslam spoke to a joint assembly of the General Assembly to promote his Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income residents. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Here are some of the issues, bills and controversies expected to come before the Tennessee General Assembly this year as lawmakers start their annual session on Tuesday:


Tennessee's GOP-led House and Senate stalemated last year on abortion restrictions. The House passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill, while Senate Republicans pushed their own measure to restore all or parts of the state's pre-Roe v. Wade abortion laws should the U.S. Supreme Court revisit the landmark 1973 decision, overturn it or make revisions. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, says he believes Republicans will find a compromise this year.


- Criminal Justice Investment: Gov. Bill Lee plans to bring legislation based on recommendations from a task force he created to provide increased support for nonviolent offenders' reentry into society, with goals to reduce recidivism and make communities safer. Details won't be known until later. Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, a former state parole board member, intends to engage on the issue.

- "Truth in Sentencing": The new House speaker, Republican Cameron Sexton of Crossville, has his own ideas about criminal justice. He plans to introduce a "Truth in Sentencing" bill that would eliminate early release-eligibility dates for felons convicted of some yet-to-be-determined categories to serve their full sentences. Like Lee's initiative, it remains a work in progress.

- The state Correction Department would like funding to extend an alternative program for nonviolent felons to Chattanooga. It would establish a Day Reporting/Community Resource Center for felons sentenced locally or under parole supervision by the state with substance abuse or mental health issues. Participants undergo drug and alcohol abuse counseling and are taught anger management as well as life and job skills and adult education.

- Chemical castration: Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, has introduced a bill that would require anyone convicted of sexual offenses against minors under 13 to undergo "chemical castration."


- Education Savings Accounts: Minority Democrats want to scuttle Lee's signature education legislation in 2019 that created a voucher-like program providing tax dollars to lower-income families to pay for private-school tuition and education expenses. While a number of members in the House Republican majority opposed last year's bill, it remains unclear how many will support repeal. And proponents are expected to face an uphill climb in the Senate.

- School funding/teacher pay: Gov. Lee is expected to include full state school formula funding in his budget. It's anticipated that Lee and/or lawmakers will seek to increase teacher pay beyond that. Meanwhile, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, will push to define the term "teacher" to mean classroom instructors and exclude certificated personnel in central office posts.

- With Tennessee expected to have about $732 million in one-time budget surplus funds, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, hopes to discuss using some of that for the decades-old Volunteer Public Education Trust for K-12 which he and Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, sought to revitalize last year with legislation.

- Early childhood reading: Speaker Sexton wants a new focus on K-3 reading and targeted investments to retain or draw the best educators to teach younger students. He also wants to fully fund the state's Response To Intervention reading program.


Sexton wants bold steps on health care, including more transparency in pricing agreements between insurers and health providers. He's also plans a push to shake up the certificate of need process in which a state planning panel decides on whether to allow new health care facilities and services in a given area. CONs are intended to control health care costs by restricting duplicative services and determining whether new capital expenditures meet a community need. Sexton says it hasn't worked.


Last year there was a political struggle between Tennessee homeowner associations and absentee corporate landlords over long-term rentals. Several lawmakers want to rein in efforts by some HOAs - nonprofit organizations in subdivisions and planned communities that set and enforce rules for properties and residents - to alter rules involving large corporations buying up homes to rent. HOAs say corporations are harming their communities by buying up homes and condos. Sen. Bell believes he's been able to forge a compromise.


Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, has introduced a bill to require transgender student athletes to play on sports teams matching their gender at birth. The head of the Tennessee Equality Project has denounced it as an "attack" on trans students who already face marginalization.


Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, and other advocates are restarting their push to legalize medical cannabis in 2020 after the effort stalled last year in the Senate.


Some GOP lawmakers are irate over Lee's decision to accept some federally approved refugees into the state. While the governor has sole authority over the issue, that's not likely to stop some legislative critics from railing against it.


Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has introduced a resolution seeking to enshrine Tennessee's "right to work" law in the state Constitution. The 1940s-era law forbids employers from denying employment to a worker because of their affiliation with or refusal to join a labor union.


Lee has announced a first-of-its-kind paid family and medical leave policy offering up to 12 weeks off for Tennessee state executive branch workers facing major events. It would allow employees across most state departments to take off in order to care for a new baby after birth or adoption, start foster care or provide care to a sick family member. Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, is carrying the administration's bill to include the legislative and judicial branches.


- Sales taxes: Amid several years of state budget surpluses, several lawmakers, among them House Finance Committee Vice Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, are looking at sales tax holidays or other means of returning some of the money to Tennessee consumers. Hazlewood would like a "holiday" in June and July on the state's 4% sales taxes on food sold in groceries.

- Business taxes: Hazlewood also is looking at reductions in state corporate franchise and excise tax reductions.

- Professional privilege tax: A powerful coalition including business advocacy groups and others is pushing to eliminate the state's professional privilege tax, which now requires lawyers, lobbyists, physicans and four other occupations to pay an annual $400 levy to conduct business. The bill would reduce state revenues by $71 million annually. It's a follow-through to a 2019 law that eliminated the tax for members of 15 groups at an annual cost of $22 million.


House Insurance Committee Chairwoman Robin Smith, R-Hixson, is looking at ways of beefing up state enforcement of a new federal law barring sales of vaping devices and vaping fluid to anyone under age 21.


After a controversy over huge reserves in the state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, Gov. Lee is looking at using some of the funds to provide additional services to low-income families to help ease their path to work.