With a new GOP supermajority in place for the dawn of the 108th General Assembly this week, Democrats find themselves facing irrelevancy except in cases where the ruling Republicans are divided.
But there are already issues — some old, some new — where Republican divisions are apparent at the outset. There are others, especially on social policy, where intraparty tension between the most conservative lawmakers and their less ardent colleagues — few like to be called moderates — probably makes clashes inevitable.
The session formally convenes at noon on Tuesday. Republicans have 70 seats in the 99-member House and 26 in the 33-member Senate, marking the first time since the Reconstruction era of the late 1860s when the GOP had such ironclad control.
You have to go back to the 1960s to find a time when Democrats, who controlled the state for decades, had equivalent power in the Legislature and one of their own as governor.
The session also features an unusually high number of freshmen — eight in the Senate, not counting Knoxville’s Sen. Becky Massey, who served a partial term previously — and 24 in the House.
The first week will be devoted largely to filing bills and to organizational matters, notably including a sweeping overhaul of House rules and committees developed by Speaker Beth Harwell, that will set the stage for things to come. That will be followed by a two-week recess with work to begin in earnest on Jan. 28, when Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to deliver his annual “state of the state” speech.
Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are hoping for adjournment by the end of April.
The most controversial of Harwell’s rule changes is a 10-bill limit on filing of legislation, with some exceptions — including bills that are introduced at the behest of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
There has been some grumbling about the limit, which is in accord with a Haslam call for a reduction in legislator bill filings, but Harwell said last week she is confident that the full House will approve. She consulted with lawmakers before making the proposals, the speaker said.
Haslam, who proposed 55 administration bills last year and secured passage of 45, says his 2013 package will be “more of the same” with a focus on the state budget, public safety, the state’s business environment and education.
He has promised to propose reducing the state sales tax on groceries from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, an idea popular with virtually all legislators, and to propose a substantial reform of the state’s workers compensation system. He has not revealed details of the latter, though it is widely expected to end most of the court system’s involvement in deciding payments due to workers injured on the job.
The governor determinedly avoided taking a stance on some of the more controversial issues to be considered by the General Assembly, including two hot topics in education — creating a school voucher system in Tennessee and making it easier for the state to override local boards of education that reject a charter school’s application.
The Senate passed a bill to create a voucher system in the state’s four largest counties, including Knox, in 2011. But the bill was then shelved at Haslam’s request for a lengthy task force study of the issue. The study resulted in no recommended legislation, and Haslam said recently he still hasn’t decided whether to propose a voucher bill himself or to just react to whatever Republican legislators propose.
That is among the issues causing some disagreement within Republican ranks, with rural legislators expressing the most unease as school boards across the state declare opposition to vouchers and to a “state authorizer” for charter schools.
Other areas where there is a decided lack of consensus as the session gets underway:
n The first bill pre-filed for the legislative session — by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown — would block Haslam from implementing an expansion of Medicare coverage to more Tennesseans, as authorized but not required under the federal Affordable Care Act and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Haslam is officially undecided on whether to seek an expansion, saying he sees the benefits but worries about the potential costs.
The federal government is supposed to cover all costs of expansion for the first three years and no less than 90 percent in the years after that. Federal officials also say a state can accept expansion now, then roll back again in later years with no penalty.
If Haslam pursues expansion, as the state’s hospitals are strongly urging, he is certain to face opposition from some fellow Republicans. The issue is one where Democrats — who seem united in favoring expansion — could ally with Haslam-supporting Republicans to create a majority.
n The failure in 2012 of a bill to allow a company’s employees to keep their firearms in locked cars, even if the company prohibits guns on its premises, will be revisited. In the session’s opening week, a task force appointed by Harwell will be looking at a proposal by Sen. Stacey Campfield as a possible compromise.
The senator calls it “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Basically, it would allow employers to prohibit guns, but prohibit them from searching cars for weapons and ban criminal prosecution of those otherwise found to have a weapon in a locked car.
Ramsey, meanwhile, has proposed to allow handgun permit holders to keep guns in their cars — even if an employer prohibits guns on its property — but would allow companies to ban others from keeping guns.
n After the horrific mass murders at a Connecticut elementary school, legislators including Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Campfield proposed legislation with the goal of having more people with guns watching over school children. The proposals differ somewhat in details, with Niceley focusing on training school employees in law enforcement and Campfield on allowing handgun permit holders to be the armed overseers.
n Unless the Legislature acts before June 30, the state’s present system for selecting appeals courts judges will be dismantled on that date because two commissions that run the process will cease to exist. Haslam has talked of extending the commissions for another year or two while an amendment to put new judicial selection provisions into the state constitution goes through the process.
An amendment that cleared the first round of hurdles last session would set up a system allowing the governor to appoint the judges, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.
An overhaul of the state’s trial court districts, which have not been through redistricting since 1984, has been discussed by Ramsey and others. But it is unclear whether tentative plans for judicial redistricting will move ahead, apparently because of the prospect of potential political ramifications for locally-elected judges.
n The perennial battle over legalizing the sale of wine in grocery stores will be renewed, with proponents offering some variations in hopes of improving chances — requiring a local referendum, for example — and with Ramsey and Harwell both publicly proclaiming their support. But the state’s politically potent alcohol industry lobbies, which make substantial donations to legislator campaigns, remain adamantly opposed.
n Beyond the consensus on an incremental cut in the sales tax on groceries, there are some other tax issues brewing. Ramsey says he wants to exempt more people from paying the Hall income tax on stock dividends and interest while Comptroller Justin Wilson is pushing for repeal of a property tax break for the solar equipment industry.
There’s also a push to revise local hotel-motel taxes in a manner supported by some large hotel chains but opposed by online companies that book motel rooms for their customers.
Haslam’s administration last year proposed a rewrite of the state’s business tax laws, said to be revenue-neutral, but then withdrew it after businesses and some legislators said it came too late in the session to be appropriately studied. Haslam hasn’t said publicly whether there will be a new attempt this year.
n House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada says he will file legislation to repeal limits on contributions to state political campaigns while providing for faster public disclosure of donations when they are made.