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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speak during a press conference at the Hamilton County Courthouse Thursday, September 5, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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Tennessee House speaker

Tennessee's new House speaker Cameron Sexton made his first stop in Hamilton County to meet with local elected officials and lawmakers Thursday.

It was part of a multicity tour as the 48-year-old, who has been in office less than a month, works to rebuild trust among residents across the state after the resignation of former speaker Glen Casada.

In a special session called by Gov. Bill Lee on Aug. 23, Sexton was elected speaker with no opponent and overwhelming bipartisan support. That followed weeks of controversy that saw Casada caught in a series of scandals that drew backlash from fellow Republicans. His own caucus ultimately voted to approve a no-confidence motion, and he resigned on Aug. 2.

Sexton said Thursday his primary goal is to build unity and work cooperatively with the rest of the General Assembly.

"We have a great delegation of members from all over the state," he said. "We want to empower the members to be able to take their passions and use it for the state of Tennessee and allow members to have their voices heard even if we disagree or our ideologies differ and allow us to work together when we can and when we can't to understand that we aren't going to agree on everything."

Sexton, a Crossville business development executive with a Putnam County-based bank, told the House after he was elected that he would ensure each lawmaker's voice matters.

"My promise as speaker is simple," he said. "We won't always agree on every issue, but I will always make sure that every voice is heard."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Sexton's meeting with the county's constitutional officers Thursday was a preliminary discussion and hinted that it was the first of many before next year's legislative session. The speaker was very receptive to the discussion, Coppinger said.

"We had the opportunity with numerous stakeholders from across Hamilton County and our local government to sit down with him to discuss issues [here]," Coppinger said. "We talked about really important things such as public education, our infrastructure and workforce development."

From his visit Thursday, Sexton said his impressions of the needs in Hamilton County were similar to needs across the state.

"It was great to meet with the local elected officials and really hear from them and get down deep into the issues. We talked about a lot of the things, infrastructure, roads and economic and community development."

He also alluded to the community's public education needs — a hot topic in Hamilton County for the past several months.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson was invited to the meeting and discussed with Sexton the state's Basic Education Program funding formula as well as teacher pay and innovative curriculum.

Sexton also alluded to the possibility of another teacher pay raise at the state level next year.

"I think there's talk right now going on about potentially doing another pay raise for teachers, educators in the state of Tennessee," Sexton said.

He added that if the state dedicates money to teacher pay raises, it wants to see it go to teacher pay raises, something that was debated while Hamilton County Schools and its collaborative conferencing team ironed out the district's new pay scale and a one-time teacher bonus in this year's budget.

Leaders did not talk about the governor's school voucher program Thursday, Sexton said. Last month, Lee said he was sticking with a new plan to implement his controversial voucher program in the fall of 2020, a year earlier than expected by lawmakers.

"I voiced my opinion of it a couple weeks ago," said Sexton, who voted against the bill. "I understand what he's wanting to do. So we'll continue what were doing to work with the governor, and he's doing whatever he can according to the law."

Overall, Sexton will continue to work on rebuilding trust with the public and local elected officials after Casada's fall, he said.

"One person, or one item, or one thing shouldn't be representative of the entire body," he said. "In every county we have in Tennessee, things that the state does affects them a little differently ... so it's nice to have an better understanding of what will make Chattanooga even more successful."

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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