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NASHVILLE — After spending a record-breaking $841,000 last year on receptions and events for Tennessee lawmakers, state business, advocacy and nonprofit groups are ready for Tuesday's start of the General Assembly's 2020 session.

It begins late Tuesday afternoon with AT&T, joined by Vanderbilt University, Bristol Motorway and Southwest Airlines, hosting a reception for the 33 senators and 99 representatives at the Tennessee State Museum.

Unlike past years in which AT&T hosted the event alone — the telecommunications and entertainment goliath spent $78,977 on its 2019 reception, making it the top event spender according to state Ethics Commission filings — the corporation is now evidently splitting costs with its three partners.

The events are customary among businesses, associations and nonprofit groups lobbying lawmakers both before, during and after the annual session. But the number of receptions has proliferated over the decades. Last year there were 86 such events, according to the Ethics Commission's website.

Such expenditures are par for the course for businesses and groups interacting with lawmakers. In fact, the receptions in some respects have replaced old-style, wining and dining action in which lobbyists and special interests invited lawmakers individually or in smaller groups. State ethics laws now generally prohibit the lower-profile practices unless there's an open invitation to all lawmakers.

Businesses and groups also hire lobbyists. And for the record, 426 people had registered with the Ethics Commission as of early Monday to lobby lawmakers this year. They outnumber the 132 legislators by a better than-three-to-one advantage.

After the reception Tuesday, events resume Wednesday afternoon when the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and its three Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis counterparts get into the act with their annual "Tennessee on Tap" event at the DoubleTree hotel downtown. Last year the chambers collectively spent $18,105.94, according to their 2019 filing with the state Ethics Commission.

The chambers this year are competing with two other events around the same time. One is sponsored by the Tennessee Installment Lenders Association and Tennessee Consumer Finance Association at the downtown Hermitage Hotel's grand ballroom. Last year the group shelled out $19,441.31 for its event.

Also on Tuesday's reception party circuit is a Uniting for Equality reception sponsored by Nashville CARES, the Tennessee Equality Project and the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

And that's that for Week One. But five other groups or associations have filed notifications as of Monday with Tennessee ethics' officials of their intent to hold events.

But beating everyone to the punch this year was the conservative Susan B. Anthony List. On Monday afternoon, the group sponsored a "Pro-Life Networking Reception" at the Hermitage featuring former U.S. Rep. Diane Black, an unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor in 2018.

First day controversy

What is the start of a Tennessee legislative session without a controversy? Well, one appears to be looming in the Senate as lawmakers convene at noon.

The upper chamber is scheduled to take up a House-passed measure passed last year that LGBTQ advocates charge seeks to let faith-based adoption agencies reject placing children with same-sex couples.

As amended and passed in the House by Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, in 2019, HB836 says "to the extent allowed by federal law, no private licensed child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency's written religious or moral convictions or policies."

Sponsored in the Senate by freshman Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, the bill also says an adoption agency would be protected from lawsuits for such a refusal.

The Tennessean reported the bill has been quietly promoted by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The newspaper quoted commission spokesman Daniel Darling as saying, "Tennessee has a long tradition of protecting religious freedom and advancing conscience protection rights, and that's the case here.

"We support this bill because it ensures that no one is kept from helping children in need, while ensuring nothing prevents religious organizations from doing their work consistent with their convictions," Darling told the newspaper.

In November, the Trump administration proposed a federal rule that would allow faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to continue receiving taxpayer funding even if they exclude LGBTQ families and others from their services based on religious beliefs.

Adam Kleinheider, a spokesman for Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, told The Tennessean his boss "has consistently expressed concerns about the necessity of this legislation. Tennessee already has broad protection for religious freedom written into our code that covers many areas, including adoption. Lt. Governor McNally is concerned passing specific legislation on adoption could have the unintended consequence of putting that blanket protection at risk."

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project that advocates on LGBTQ issues, charged the Rose/Rudd adoption bill is one of the leftovers from what he called a "Slate of Hate" bills pushed by religious conservatives last year.

"Starting the 2020 legislative session with a discriminatory bill is an ominous sign," Sanders said in a statement. "If this bill passes, it will send a clear signal across the country that Tennessee is not welcoming to diverse communities and not open for business, all while accomplishing nothing to help children find a home."

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

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