Tennessee lawmakers' 2020 agenda: Tax cuts, abortion restrictions, criminal justice and more

Tennesse State Capitol tennessee senate state government building / Getty Images

NASHVILLE - One hundred and thirty two members of the General Assembly will sweep into Tennessee's Capitol at high noon Tuesday like a force of nature to convene their annual legislative session.

Over the the next three to four months, 99 House representatives and 33 senators will go virtually nonstop Mondays through Thursdays with morning to evening committee hearings and House and Senate floor sessions.

Tennesseans can expect plenty of debating, posturing, fussing and sometimes cursing as members consider, kill or pass hundreds of policies, programs and spending proposals that everyone from the governor on down thinks ought to become law.

Issues here can range from literal matters of life, freedom and death down to official designation of state symbols and the like. For the record, Tennessee now has nine official state songs, which may provide the public some insight into how things sometimes work around here.

[Read more: Issues, bills, hopes and controversies as Tennessee General Assembly returns]

With Republican Gov. Bill Lee entering his second year and the House with its second speaker in a year, Cameron Sexton of Crossville, the GOP-dominated legislature returns with a huge $750 million surplus in the state's current $39.1 billion budget.

Meanwhile, with 2020 elections looming, members hope to skedaddle as early as they can.

Major issues include what to do with a budget surplus, as well as recurring dollars, which are soaring. A good part of the one-time money will be socked away in the state's "Rainy Day" emergency reserve fund, but there are various proposals dealing with business tax cuts and sales tax holidays.

At the same time, Lee will unveil a criminal justice package aimed at lowering costs of prisons in a system in which half of convicted felons released later return. It's expected to focus initially on those convicted of nonviolent felonies and provide new support services, such as substance abuse counseling and other measures, to put them on a different path leading them away from trouble.

"I hope we have a good session, and it's not contentious," said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge. Still, McNally wryly noted, "we'll try to hold down the noise, but you know how that goes. There's always the issue that's on none of our radar and it pops up."

In light of burgeoning tax collections, McNally said, "there'll be additional money, of course, for education, TennCare, health care and in a number of areas. I think with new programs, we need to be careful."

McNally favors reducing business franchise and excise taxes. Various groups are pushing to eliminate the rest of a $400 annual "professional privilege tax" that lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, lobbyists and three other professional groups still pay. Eliminating the tax on professionals would cost $71 million in existing revenue annually.

And McNally also is looking forward to working with Sexton, who helped cut his political teeth working for McNally in a tough 1994 re-election bid the now-lieutenant governor won.

"I think he'll do a good job [for the House] and with the governor," McNally said.

With regard to one-time money surpluses, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, wants what he calls "a good conversation about investing in infrastructure - roads, bridges, deferred maintenance, water, broadband - while we have an opportunity with some revenues available to us."

Noting he's serving on a Lee task force on health care, Watson said he is "very interested again at looking at innovative ways ... to reduce costs."

Sexton: A different approach

Sexton last August replaced first-term Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin. Casada was forced to step down in the midst of the most spectacular public implosion of a speaker in recent Tennessee political history.

Casada's woes began when sexually explicit text messages exchanged with a top aide surfaced publicly, then got tangled up with GOP members' ire over a school voucher bill he narrowly shoved through the chamber on behalf of Lee, as well as other issues. Vulnerable Republicans in rural areas thought Casada was more concerned about helping Lee than ensuring their survival.

Sexton said he's "looking forward to a good session. We've traveled the state trying to listen to a lot of individuals about their unique needs." Unlike Casada, he's open to allowing lawmakers of both parties more leeway in being able to speak in both committees and on the floor.

He said he wants to support Tennessee businesses, "promote families" and look at the state's welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which Lee wants to revamp with new support for low-income families after an embarrassing audit that showed his predecessor had allowed a $732 million surplus in the program.

Last week, Sexton also served notice that he's unhappy with health insurers and he plans to continue taking on the state's Certificate of Need planning process in which a state panel approves whether new hospitals, clinics and health service practices suit a community.

And he's taking several steps to remove some of the secrecy in the legislative process on behalf of the public. But while Casada was willing to press Republicans hard in support of Lee, Sexton seems less inclined to do so.

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, is a big fan of Sexton, whom she met years ago in political campaigns. Smith said she expects that as House Insurance Committee chairwoman she'll be heavily involved in the certificate of need bill, as well as another Sexton-backed measure involving third-party pharmacy benefits managers in health plans.

"Any savings on [drug] manufacturers should be going to the patients," she said.

On another health care-related front, Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, is playing the lead role in the House as sponsor of Lee's first-of-its-kind paid family and medical leave policy. It offers up to 12 weeks off for Tennessee state executive branch workers facing major events.

It would allow employees across most state departments to take time off to care for a new baby after birth or adoption, start foster care or provide care to a sick family member. While Lee is doing that through executive order, Helton is carrying the bill to extend it to independent state agencies, as well as the legislative and judicial branches of government.

"As a working mother, I know how it feels to have to choose work sometimes over my family," Helton said. "It's a very difficult decision. But to know if you have a baby or if you have an adoption, you can have 12 weeks off with pay, it could make all the difference in the world."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, a former state parole board member, said he's fully in support of Lee's criminal justice initiative.

"I think there is a great concern on both sides of the aisle and [with] the public to get something done," said Hakeem, who served on the governor's criminal justice reform task force. "It is something that needs to be done," he said, adding he doesn't "want to see it become just another study that sits on the shelf."

Abortion, Medicaid block grant, Medicaid expansion

Controversies this year will include abortion, an issue on which Senate and House Republicans deadlocked last year over restrictions. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he believes a compromise can be reached on a measure that would nearly ban the procedure in Tennessee.

Minority Democrats are opposed, but with only 26 Democrats in the 99-member House and just five in the 33-member Senate, the political math is bleak.

Democrats also will press to expand Medicaid to an estimated 300,000 adult Tennesseans through the federal Affordable Care Act. If the past is any guide, it won't draw GOP support.

Lawmakers and Lee are awaiting a federal decision on the state's pending waiver of Medicaid rules that would convert much of the federal share of the state's TennCare Medicaid program into a modified block grant. If approved, Tennessee would become the first state to do so.

But that's not likely to come before they leave this year. Democrats and health care activists vehemently oppose it.

Fire over refugees and a 'Right to Work' amendment

Lee, meanwhile, is receiving fire from the right from critics of his announcement that Tennessee will participate in President Donald Trump's revamped refugee resettlement program. While Trump's executive order puts the responsibility squarely with governors, Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, is seeking to block it.

Last week, Lee, who has worked as a volunteer for faith-based groups on refugees, staunchly defended his decision before a group of GOP conservative stalwarts and activists.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the General Assembly, including Watson and Smith, want to make Tennessee's Right to Work law part of the state constitution and make it impossible for a future legislature to change labor union membership requirements.

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