NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers began their annual legislative session Tuesday with a partisan squabble in the GOP-dominated House over Democrats' call for Medicaid expansion while opening day went more smoothly in the Republican-controlled Senate as two new members were sworn into office.
The second session of the 110th General Assembly got underway about noon. The 33 senators and 99 representatives will spend 3 to 3 1/2 months debating hundreds of bills in an election-year session.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, hope this year will be largely free of huge, divisive issues like last year's successful IMPROVE Act from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam which raised gas taxes for road building and split House Republicans.
McNally is hoping to wrap up business at the latest by the second week of April, with 2018 elections on many legislators' minds. A large number of veteran lawmakers already have announced plans not to seek re-election, with some already departing after receiving Trump administration appointments.
Harwell, who herself is running to succeed the term-limited Haslam, and the governor both have initiatives to address the state's opioid crisis. Harwell said she sees both as complementary and not as competitors.
The governor, meanwhile, has been unhappy with the University of Tennessee system's Board of Trustees and may bring legislation to pare down the 27-member board. A number of Republicans are on board.
As lawmakers flowed into the Capitol from their new home in the renovated Cordell Hull State Building Tuesday, they were greeted outside the House and Senate chambers by protesters who chanted "affordable health care now" and called on lawmakers to revive Haslam's 2015 Insure Tennessee plan to extend Medicaid health coverage to an estimated 280,000 lower-income Tennesseans.
The 110th General Assembly
› The 110th General Assembly Senate is composed of 28 Republicans and five Democrats elected to four-year terms.
› The 110th General Assembly House of Representatives is composed of 73 Republicans and 26 Democrats elected in even-numbered years to two-year terms.
Inside the House chamber, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and a candidate for governor, took up the call, saying he wanted to "set the tone" and urged GOP colleagues to back Medicaid expansion.
"Those political reasons are gone now," Fitzhugh argued, alluding to Republican members' aversion to the expansion largely underwritten by the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, charged Fitzhugh with making a "gubernatorial speech," although the minority leader has pushed expansion under the ACA for several years.
Fitzhugh noted that the 10th rural Tennessee hospital is closing, a development he attributes to the failure to expand Medicaid.
Added Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville: "How many more people will have to die and how many people will have to go to emergency rooms? Again, I'm asking us to reach across the aisle."
But Health Committee Chairman Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, sharply disagreed, saying, "If we want to have affordable health care it does not mean it has to be government health care."
He said low patient censuses and other issues, including what he called "financial mismanagement" at Nashville General Hospital, are to blame.
That prompted yet more discussion until one Democrat, Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis, borrowing the desk microphone of Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, with McCormick's concurrence, to make a bipartisan call to praise the General Assembly's nurse who had come to work despite a broken leg.
This marks the seventh year since the GOP assumed total control over the House, Senate and governorship for the first time since the 19th Century. Both chambers are looking at a massive turnover in 2019, with many lawmakers retiring to seek higher office, among other reasons.
Three senators have left after being appointed by President Donald Trump's administration to posts. A fourth, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, awaits U.S. Senate confirmation to a federal judgeship.
Two representatives were appointed to fill Senate vacancies.
All told, those departures and pending ones add up to at least 16 House Republicans and five Democrats. In the Senate, the departures include seven incumbents, including the four Trump appointees, and one Republican running for Congress, a Democrat running for Shelby County mayor and a second Democrat simply retiring.
But more House members may decide to step down. It's shaping up as one of the biggest turnovers in years before a single vote is cast in the party primaries, let alone the general election.
Nashville Bureau writer Andy Sher can be reached at (615) 255-0550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was updated Jan. 9, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. with more information.