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-The Capitol Building.
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Tennessee General Assembly

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NASHVILLE — Tennessee's 111th General Assembly convenes Tuesday with new leadership in the House and Senate amid the greatest influx of freshmen in years where the House alone is bracing for its largest freshmen class in nearly a half-century.

The Republican-dominated House is also getting a new speaker. GOP representatives have nominated Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin, who is virtually guaranteed to be elected.

Add to that a new governor being sworn in on Jan. 19 — political newcomer and businessman Bill Lee — who is succeeding fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Lee will be finding his political sea legs while pushing an agenda expected to include an emphasis on technical and vocational education in middle and high schools as well as new efforts to combat the tendency of convicted criminals to commit new offenses after leaving prison.

At the same time, there's a large turnover of committee chairmanships in both chambers.

Put them all together and it could provide for a sometimes-rollicking ride for the public as 132 lawmakers debate, argue, pass or kill hundreds of bills ranging from legalizing liquor sales in unincorporated areas to approving the state's $38 billion budget.

One thing remains certain, however. Tennessee Republicans maintain their grip over the House and Senate, holding super majorities of 73 members in the 99-member House and 18 of the 33 Senate seats.

MAJOR ISSUES

* New emphasis on vocational/technical education in middle, high school: Gov.-elect Bill Lee is expected to put forward a plan to boost learning in trades for students who may not be interested in college.

* School vouchers: Lee has also shown interest in a pilot program that would create taxpayer-funded vouchers to let students attend private schools.

* Sports betting: Rep. Rick Staples, D-Knoxville, has introduced the “Tennessee Sports Gaming Act” which would allow counties to hold a referendum if approved by local government or a grassroots petition signed by 10 percent of local voters.

* Medical marijuana: Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, plans to restart his push to legalize use of medical marijuana with a number of restrictions.

* Medicaid expansion: Minority Democrats plan to push for expanding Medicaid to an estimated 300,000 low-income adult Tennesseans under the Affordable Care Act. Lee and majority Republicans are opposed.

* Health care costs: While providing few details, Lee has said he wants to address health care costs. Meanwhile, several Hamilton County Republicans are hoping to tackle some aspects through price transparency for some health providers.

* De-annexation: Republicans Sen. Bo Watson and Rep. Mike Carter, both of Hamilton County, intend to renew their push for a law that would allow some residents of cities to vote to leave municipalities under certain conditions.

* Mental health funding: With jails ill-equipped to deal with increasing numbers of mentally ill prisoners, Hamilton County lawmakers as well as expected new House speaker, Glen Casada, hope to free up new dollars to deal with problems.

* Guns: Second Amendment advocates are expected to renew their push to allow adults with no criminal backgrounds to carry firearms without having to pay for a state-issued handgun carry permit which also requires training.

* The budget: Passing the state’s annual spending plan, now at $38 billion, is the only constitutionally required action state lawmakers are required to take.

 

New faces in the House and Senate

The House has a jaw-dropping 28 freshmen representatives, the largest freshman class since 1973, according to figures compiled by legislative historian Eddie Weeks.

Similar figures weren't available for the Senate, but the chamber has four new members as well as two vacancies to be filled by special elections. That's not including several senators who won special elections in 2017 and 2018 to fill unexpired terms.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who's served in the legislature since 2004, said he's never seen anything like the turnover in membership.

"Three of the four representatives I serve with are brand new," said Bell, whose district includes parts of Bradley and McMinn counties. "We've got all new people coming in. A new governor — first governor since Winfield Dunn with no prior governing experience. Not that that's bad, it's just the way it is."

Bell said it will be interesting to see what Lee's priorities will be.

House Speaker-designate Casada called the changes "historic."

"A third new legislature and a new governor and nearly [new] office leadership in the House and Senate ," he said. "It's going to be very good."

Casada, who succeeds Republican Beth Harwell as speaker, said he is still finalizing committee assignments and committee and subcommittee chairmanships. Many longtime members retired.

Change is also coming to the Senate, but it's hardly as dramatic as in the House. Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge remains the speaker.

"I think it'll be a good session," said McNally, the longest serving legislator. "And I think what we'll do what we're required to do. There'll be a number of issues that we can focus on."

There are two budding controversies in the new year.

McNally and Casada aren't happy that Shelby County's sheriff says he isn't following a 2018 state law aimed at so-called "sanctuary cities" because the county attorneys says it's constitutionally suspect.

The law prohibits local authorities from requiring a warrant or probable cause before complying with federal immigration details. Citing the county attorney's office, the sheriff says his office won't detain anyone being released from jail without a warrant or probable cause. But officials say they will continue notifying federal authorities when noncitizens are booked.

Another issue involves Metro Nashville's new police oversight board with Casada saying he wants to take a look at the situation.

TENNESSEE HOUSE TURNOVER

The 111th General Assembly that convenes Tuesday will have the highest number of new House members in decades. Here’s how that stacks up:*

2019: 28 freshmen

1995: 25 freshmen

1975: 26 freshmen

1973: 34 freshmen

1971: 31 freshmen

1969: 49 freshmen

Source: Tennessee Legislative Librarian Eddie Weeks

Education and jails could be top issues

McNally noted Lee has shown "great interest" in elevating career and technical education in grades K-12 and also has pledged to work on reducing recidivism rates.

"Those are some things we'll be glad to help him on," said McNally, who noted that he would like to see more work done on combating the state's opioid epidemic.

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, plan to push sports betting, an issue likely to face push back from Senate Republicans. And a number of Hamilton County lawmakers as well as Casada are talking about new funding for mental health with some citing problems due to the influx of mentally ill people in jails.

While McNally will remain in place, there are new leaders below him. Republicans' new majority leader is Jack Johnson of Franklin — he beat out Bell — and Sen. Ken Yager of Kingston is the new GOP Caucus chairman.

And McNally does have some top slots to fill following the departure of several Republicans as well as last month's caucus elections.

Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he hopes to remain as chairman.

Watson says he sees a session "maybe where we're kind of feeling our way out with all the new members in the House and Senate and the executive branch." He said while Lee has made tackling recidivism rates a priority, "I don't know what that looks like."

He said the new governor will find that by and large, Lee will find the state's finances "are in good shape." Watson said if enough money is available, he'd like to plow more into the state's Rainy Day fund.

In 2018 elections, state House Democrats increased their membership by one representative, the first advance in decades. Senate Democrats remain at five members. But three of them are new.

"This caucus will fight for every Tennessean to have a shot, a shot at a good education and a good job, not one where you just make a living, but can build a life," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said last month after the group met. "Our caucus will bring new energy, new ideas, and be united to meet the challenges of the coming session."

Democrats are expected to advocate yet again for the state to expand Medicaid, operated here as TennCare, under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Republicans have rejected that repeatedly and Haslam sustained a rare defeat from fellow Republicans in the legislature when he sought to expand the program to an estimated 300,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Lee opposes the expansion, saying the issue is high health care costs, which he hopes to address but has not offered great detail.

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

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