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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell said he expects Senate and House Republicans to agree on a new abortion-restriction bill and pass it into law this year.

"We're still working at it," the Riceville Republican said. "We're still looking at the strategy other states have taken. It varies everywhere from a straight-out, relatively simple heartbeat bill to the approach Sen. [Mark] Pody has taken with his bill, which combines the heartbeat provision with essentially the presence of a hormone that shows up in pregnancy."

Or, Bell said, it may be similar to the multi-provision approach Missouri took with its law, which has a severance clause between each provision in case any are stricken down by federal courts.

"I'm not sure which direction the committee and Legislature will go, but I am confident we will get something passed in the coming year," the chairman said.

Bell's comments came as state legislators prepare to begin their annual session Tuesday.

The chairman was one of several area legislators who spoke with the Times Free Press last week about their plans for the General Assembly's 2020 session.

Last year, senators and representatives split on their approach, with the House passing a bill that bans abortions when a fetus' heartbeat is detected, about six weeks into pregnancy. Similar approaches have been taken by a number of other GOP-led states but have been struck down by federal courts.

Proponents' goal in that approach was to push the issue up to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to force justices to revisit the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion on demand.

Tennessee Republican senators, however, had legislation that would have set Tennessee law back to what it was before Roe v. Wade. Leaders in the upper chamber argued it made more sense to let other states spend money on litigation. Both chambers ultimately passed it.

Pody's approach would include banning abortion upon detection of a hormone indicating pregnancy. With that occurring as early as 11 days, it would effectively seek to ban abortions in Tennessee. It's opposed by Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and Northern Mississippi, the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee and others.

Meanwhile local lawmakers are looking at pressing a variety of issues, including these:

* Fed up over issues surrounding the definition of a public school teacher when it comes to state pay increases, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, plan to team up yet again this year to push a definition.

"There's nowhere in the [state] code that defines a teacher," Gardenhire said. "And we're going to try to define that so that when the governor or anybody gives 'teachers' a pay raise, there's actually money going to classroom teachers and not to everybody else. Not that everybody else is not important, but if we're going to emphasize teachers, let's reward teachers."

Gardenhire also intends to introduce legislation removing a state requirement that state legislators be ex-officio members of local Business Improvement Districts. That came after he and Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, were named to Chattanooga's new and controversial district.

The bill would give legislators "a choice of whether or not they want to serve on it and not just make us serve on it," Gardenhire said. "It's been a local issue."

* Smith and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, have joined an effort to put Tennessee's 1940s-era "Right to Work" law on the ballot as a state constitutional amendment.

"We are currently a 'right to work' state, but as the demographics of Tennessee are changing, and as we have become a destination that is highly sought after by other large corporate interests, we want to ensure that the things that make Tennessee great remain and that we don't compel union membership, nor do we penalize it," Smith said.

The Tennessee AFL-CIO charged that "instead of focusing on addressing the real issues that matter to Tennesseans," primary sponsor Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, "and his Republican colleagues are choosing to play games and file a meaningless resolution that does nothing to improve the lives of working families and instead caters to the will of businesses looking to exploit the rights of their employees."

* Watson, meanwhile, would like to secure at least some state funds for the decades-old Volunteer Public Education Trust Fund he and Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, sought to revitalize in a revamp they passed last year.

"I'm very much interested at looking at more innovative ways of supplementing some of the stuff we do, particularly K-12 education and infrastructure," Watson said.

Given huge state surpluses amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time money, Watson said he is "really advocating for the Volunteer Education Trust and making an investment in that. I think when we have an opportunity to make a one-time investment in a fund like that, we can then use the earnings from that over time."

The trust fund has long allowed funding from private sources and allows organizations or individuals to designate a specific school district or even an individual school. Money is put into the trust and invested, much like Tennessee higher education's Chair of Excellence program.

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

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