Effort to amend Tennessee abortion ban, transportation, school vouchers among 2023 legislative issues

FILE - Tennessee lawmakers gather for a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly, Oct. 18, 2021, at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. As Tennessee lawmakers head into an annual legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, some fights are already underway — over whether the state's strict abortion ban needs exceptions, if express toll lanes and electric vehicle fee hikes can help solve roadwork needs, and how restrictive Republicans want the law to be regarding transgender youth health treatment. (Stephanie Amador/The Tennessean via AP, File)

NASHVILLE — Efforts to relax some provisions in Tennessee's near-total ban on abortions, a transportation recommendation by Gov. Bill Lee that includes relieving urban traffic congestion by creating special interstate toll lanes and a likely push to expand the state's private school voucher program to Hamilton County schools are among issues expected to keep state lawmakers busy when they return to the state Capitol this week to start their annual session.

Other issues in the 113th General Assembly include an effort sponsored by top Republican leaders to ban permanent gender-reassignment medical procedures for transgender minors that change their hormonal balance.

Also on the list: A ban on surgery when done "for the purpose of enabling a minor to identify with or live as a purported identity inconsistent with the minor's sex or treating purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between the minor's sex and asserted identity."

The session begins noon Tuesday when the Republican-dominated legislature -- GOP members account for 75 of the 99 House seats and 27 in the 33-member Senate -- convenes.

During the course of the next five or more months, lawmakers will debate issues and bills in areas ranging from state spending to social issues, crime, education and, occasionally, their pet peeves.

If history is any guide, the federal government will likely be denounced for its spendthrift ways, although Tennessee government's $54.65 billion budget gets 39%, or $21.3 billion, of its funding courtesy of Uncle Sam, according to legislative figures.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, the Republican Senate speaker, said during an interview in his office that transportation and abortion and some of the social issues -- particularly abortion -- will likely be the big issues for lawmakers this year -- and in some cases, a distraction.


Road needs

Lee, a Republican elected last year to a second term, told reporters road needs are a top issue for him this year. There are, the governor said, $30 billion in needs and state gas and diesel taxes can't get the job done.

The governor isn't seeking fuel-tax increases. Instead, he wants to off-load some costs to public-private partnerships, with companies building and operating new interstate lanes in urban areas such as Chattanooga, freeing the state up to use tax dollars in rural areas.

The governor points to states like Georgia as an example where a number of interstates now have special congestion pricing lanes allowing motorists an option to avoid traffic jams in and around Atlanta. Lee shirks the use of "tolls" and has sought to rebrand them with a friendlier designation of "choice lanes."

The governor pitched the proposal, which was fashioned by his transportation commissioner, Butch Eley, last week while in Chattanooga.

"I think some of the ideas of Commissioner Eley are good," McNally said, but he noted, "We need, I think, to work a little bit more on exactly what high-speed lanes are."

After a reporter described them as toll lanes, McNally said, "Don't say toll lanes. Toll's a bad word. In a toll, you don't have a choice. If you want to cross the bridge, you pay a toll."

McNally also said he hopes to hold the line on changes to Tennessee's 2019 abortion law, which bans all abortions and subjects physicians to felony charges for performing the procedure -- although doctors are offered an opportunity to defend themselves if they can prove the abortion was performed to save the life of the mother.

The law took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down Roe v. Wade, which since 1973 had protected a woman's right to an abortion.

A Vanderbilt University poll released in December found 75% of Tennessee voters surveyed supported some exceptions to the law. State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, has introduced a bill specifying the offense of a criminal abortion would not include a "medical emergency" that affects the physical or mental health of a woman.

His bill also eliminates provisions allowing the prosecution of doctors who perform abortions for victims of rape or incest.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a phone interview he believes Hakeem's bill goes too far. But he said "depending on the language, I could be for something like that" with regard to changing the law to recognize issues involving the life or health of a mother, rape and incest.

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager of Kingston has a bill to change the "affirmative defense" provision, which puts the burden of proof on doctors -- instead of prosecutors -- in the case of an abortion performed to save the life of the mother. The law has caused great concern in the physicians' lobby.

Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, an East Ridge Republican and a nurse, said in a phone interview that she has discussed the issue with Yager.

"We met, and I will probably carry it," said Helton-Haynes, who supports other abortion restrictions.

Asked about changes to the abortion law, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said in a phone interview last month he would prefer to give the law two or three years before considering amendments.

"Let's not rush," he said.

Sexton said he is also looking at reducing business franchise and excise taxes, calling them high. The taxes in the budget account for 17.8 cents of every tax dollar collected by state government, a percentage exceeded only by the sales tax, which accounts for 56.6 cents of each dollar of state revenue.

After clashing with Lee last year over criminal sentencing -- Sexton wanted and got a law cracking down on categories of violent crime ranging from second-degree murder to aggravated rape -- the speaker this year is looking at providing housing for some felons leaving prisons to give them a more stable base to start over.

But the speaker said he's hearing from judges, sheriffs and police chiefs who want tougher sentences for juveniles who are committing violent crimes.


Gardenhire bills

Gardenhire got an early start filing bills. Among them is one that would allow some low-income Hamilton County families to participate in the state's Education Savings Account program, which provides vouchers for students to attend private schools.

The 2019 law applies only to Shelby and Metro Nashville after Gardenhire, a longtime voucher proponent, stripped Hamilton County from the bill.

The senator said he pulled Hamilton from the bill for several reasons at the time. One was that lawmakers from several other counties stripped their systems from the bill, and he thought the selective application was unconstitutional. Despite that, the Tennessee Supreme Court this year ruled the law was constitutional.

Another factor at the time, Gardenhire said, was a "unique situation" because of the Hamilton County system's "opportunity zone" approach that he, other local lawmakers and the prior Haslam administration had worked out.

"The question of being legally suspect is now removed," he said, adding he also sees what he believes is a "continued failure of the Hamilton County system to fix these problems ... I'd wanted Hamilton County to have an opportunity to better themselves."

He said it doesn't have a big impact on the system given the program is limited in scope to 5,000 students statewide.

Another bill Gardenhire is sponsoring would repeal his 2016 provision to an existing law. It allows patrons of bars and nightclubs in Chattanooga's Station Street entertainment district to bring their alcoholic drinks onto the street just as they do on Beale Street in Memphis.

"We can't get the city or the proprietors of those businesses to protect the citizens and establishments down there," Gardenhire said. "So the easiest way is to get rid of the law we did granting them the ability to do it and see if that doesn't help."

Hakeem said given the state's billions of dollars in surpluses, he would like to see increases in public K-12 funding, especially when it comes to boosting public education and pay for teachers. Tennessee in 2021 ranked 42nd in spending on K-12, according to the National Education Association, a teachers' group. The 2021 rankings are the most recent available.

"We do have the funding to do it," Hakeem said by phone last week. "Unfortunately, it seems like we wait until a crisis develops until we make some positive changes. In my view, what is happening now is teachers question their value, their value to the state."

He pointed to promotion by Lee and others of publicly funded, privately run charter schools.

"We have people wanting to take over what the teachers are doing, and the dollars are not there to retain our quality teachers, and they feel they have had enough of not being supported by the state, and they're looking at other directions," he said.

Hakeem, meanwhile, said he is supporting Lee's proposal to boost state appropriations by $156 million to boost staffing at Tennessee's troubled Department of Children's Services, where lack of staff and other issues have led to children sleeping on state office floors or effectively being housed in hospitals.

Rep. Greg Martin, R-Hixson, said in a statement he is looking forward this year "to protect our Tennessee values and promote our shared economy."

"I am committed to stopping the spread of fentanyl, giving parents choice in education for their children and bringing economic development to Hamilton County," Martin said.


Local priorities

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's office at this juncture isn't asking Hamilton County's seven-member delegation for anything after the city got little traction last year with the delegation on Chattanooga's $20.8 million request for state assistance to aid construction of a new Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball stadium and environmental remediation.

Gardenhire, Watson and House Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and most of the other delegation members balked, saying the city and the project were benefiting from $35 million for an interchange and additional work on U.S. Highway 27, which runs through downtown along the Southside area site.

Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, who assumed office in September, plans to meet with the delegation later this month. In a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Wamp praised the "outstanding leadership at the state Capitol," calling the economy "red hot" with "incredible opportunities ahead of us in Southeast Tennessee.

"But in order to seize those opportunities, we have to meet new challenges in education and workforce development, and I will be asking our legislative delegation to explore how we can partner together to better prepare our citizens for the jobs of the future," Wamp said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.