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Tennessee State Capitol downtown Nashville. Photo by Ricky Rogers (The Tennessean) 4/27/2000
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NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers head to the state Capitol this week to begin annual work in an election-year session expected to be relatively short and, legislative leaders hope, sweeter than usual with fewer anticipated controversies awaiting them.

Expected issues include new legislation aimed at addressing the state's opioid crisis, with 6,000 Tennesseans' deaths over the last five years attributed to legal and illegal painkillers.

That has been a big issue for House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, who is running for governor, one of 21 or more lawmakers departing the General Assembly after this year.

Also on the agenda are recommendations by a legislative juvenile justice task force convened over the summer aimed at focusing on the most at-risk youths while safely reducing the estimated 1,000 kids in Department of Children's Services' custody by 36 percent.

Projected savings would be plowed into community-based or in-home programs.

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State House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, speaks at a gubernatorial forum hosted by the Tennessee Business Roundtable in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
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Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the Chattanooga Rotary Club meeting Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Haslam will address a Senate health committee next month looking into health care reform.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, beginning his last year as governor, is expected to put forth his own recommendations on both opioids and troubled youth in state custody, and press, as well, an overhaul of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees.

The annual legislative show officially kicks off Tuesday at noon (CST) when the 33 senators and 99 representatives in the 110th General Assembly are gaveled into session in the state's historic, 159-year-old Capitol, one of the nation's oldest working statehouses.

There are a few new wrinkles this year.

Lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and the general public all will be adjusting to the Legislature's move from its 1970s-era home in Legislative Plaza to the just-renovated, 11-story, 479,000-square-foot Cordell Hull State Building constructed in 1954.

There's another change afoot. This will be the last year for a number of lawmakers. At least 21 members have announced retirements or actually departed before a single vote occurs in 2018 elections.

More are expected.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, said he believes "the big thing" this year, as always, "will be the budget, and also in the governor's package, he's going to have some additional measures to address opioid abuse in terms of prosecution and treatment of people abusing opiates."

McNally is hoping lawmakers get out in the second week of April. That's a week after the April 5 filing deadline for candidates.

Another thing on Haslam's mind is the University of Tennessee system board. Unhappy with several developments, including the stinging rejection by campuses of his facilities-management outsourcing contract, the governor thinks the 27-trustee board he himself has appointed over the years is simply too big to function as it should.

"I think everybody agrees it ought to be downsized, but the difficulty will come down to how to do that," McNally said of potential plans to pare the largely Haslam-appointed board down to just nine members.

It remains to be seen if this session will remain as calm as some hope. Last year, GOP lawmakers, especially in the House, fought for months before passing the governor's proposed gas tax increase for roads while cutting corporate levies and the state's sales tax on food amid a billion-dollar general fund surplus.

While nothing like that appears to be coming from Haslam this year, other controversial bills have a way of exploding. As one long-time legislative staffer quipped, "there's always something."

Right now, for example, members of the Republican-dominated General Assembly are irate over the night-time spiriting away of a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest astride a horse from a Memphis park by city officials.

That was done through a legal maneuver perhaps worthy of the controversial cavalry general himself, a one-time slave trader seen by many experts as a military tactical genius, but whose later role as the original Ku Klux Klan's grand wizard remains troubling to many blacks and others.

While Tennessee law protects state and local government historic sites and statutes, Memphis officials transferred the park to a nonprofit entity for a nominal sum.

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Any number of Republicans are demanding something be done. Among them is House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, who is working on legislation. Ideas getting bandied about range from new rules restricting future transfers down to stripping Memphis of some grant funds. But the Memphis statue of the cavalry general is gone nonetheless.

"If they do, we're going to fight and we're going to take their —— to court," retorted Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, who is black. He charged GOP lawmakers tried to be too "smart and cute" with a law that tries to tie cities' hands.

Efforts to reach Casada last week were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, badly outnumbered Democrats intend to again press their effort to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Haslam himself tried that back in 2015 but fellow Republicans in the Legislature refused in a major defeat for the governor.

"One big question all Tennesseans should be asking after our 10th hospital closure is whether it's finally time to actually do something about Medicaid expansion, the governor's plan," said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

Yarbro said "a lot of people are talking about battling the opiate epidemic, but if Medicaid expansion is not Step 1 of your plan, you need a new plan."

Hamilton County lawmakers, meanwhile, have bills likely to get both conversations, various interests and lobbyists stirred up.

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, among the army of lawmakers retiring after this year, intends to renew her push for mandatory safety restraints on school buses. It was spurred by the fatal Nov. 21, 2016, crash of a Hamilton County school bus. The crash claimed the lives of six Woodmore Elementary School children and injured more than two dozen others.

"I plan to revive that," said Favors, who parked her bill that requires new buses purchased for public school use come equipped with the three-point safety-restraint systems. "I'm hoping we have enough [support] now."

The bill is in the House Finance Subcommittee. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has the companion bill.

Gardenhire, meanwhile, and Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, have introduced two bills dealing with public tax support of professional sports teams' ball parks and stadiums. One requires a public nonbinding referendum before local governments can use public money for those. The other bill defines what types of public infrastructure money can be spent on.

The second bill makes no provision for tax funds to go toward actual stadium construction. Both lawmakers acknowledge the legislation could affect a proposed new stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball team, but point out it affects all such projects across Tennessee.

Another bill coming up in the House would allow disgruntled residents in some sections of Tennessee cities the ability to vote to secede from the municipality. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, passed a watered-down version in the Senate last year following objections from towns and cities and their allies.

"De-annexation is ready to go," declared Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, the House sponsor. Carter isn't saying whether he'll accept the watered-down Senate version or stick to the original bill that drew concerns from Chattanooga officials, among others.

On another front, it remains to be seen what happens on the years-long unsuccessful quest by some Republicans to pass a school voucher program that allows parents to use public tax dollars to send their kids to private schools.

A main Senate proponent, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, announced in December he is giving up his effort after discovering parents of students in largely white smaller towns that created new school districts to avoid Shelby County schools didn't like the idea.

But Gardenhire, who sponsored another version of the legislation backed by Haslam, said he will sound out colleagues about whether there's sufficient support to push it again.

Another piece of proposed legislation, the "seven-day sales" bill sponsored by McCormick, would allow grocery stores to sell wine on Sundays and liquor stores to sell wine and liquor, too.

Also on tap for this session, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, hopes to bring legislation to legalize medical marijuana with cannabis only available in capsule or oil forms through a physician's direction. Smoking cannabis would not be permitted under the bill's current form.

Among those for whom this will be their last session is Harwell, who made Tennessee history by becoming the state's first female speaker in 2011. Harwell has her eyes on occupying the Capitol's first floor as governor, as do many others.

"I feel really good about it because I think in my seven years, eight years being speaker, the House has really initiated some of our strongest, boldest efforts at reform," said Harwell, adding she believes she'll be leaving the state "in excellent condition" and hopes to lead it as governor.

Regarding this year, Harwell is looking, among other things, at enacting recommendations from her appointed House opioid task force. But she's also welcoming Haslam's ideas, as well.

"I am working with the governor," she said. "There'll be no competition at all."

Meanwhile, Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals indicated her boss isn't accepting lame-duck status yet.

"Gov. Haslam plans to finish strong in his final year in office, continuing his focus on creating high-quality jobs, investing in education, and implementing conservative fiscal policies," Donnals said.

That includes working with lawmakers "to end the opioid crisis in our state. And while more Tennesseans are attending college than ever before through Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, the governor is committed to helping those students complete college and be prepared to enter the workforce with degrees or certificates," Donnals said.

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

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