AP’s here-comes-the-legislature story

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With election season looming, Tennessee Republicans are looking to keep infighting to a minimum and wrap up the legislative session as quickly as possible.

While the GOP holds vast majorities in both chambers, incumbents are eager to avoid giving a potential primary challenger material to use against them in the campaign. All 99 House seats are up for re-election this year, along with 17 of 33 seats in the Senate.

When they reconvene Tuesday, lawmakers will take up a host of key issues, including whether to allow wine sales in supermarkets and whether to require prescriptions for over-the-counter cold medicines to prevent their illegal production into methamphetamines.

Lawmakers also will try to come to some agreement on creating a school voucher program and must approve a $30 billion-plus annual spending plan amid flagging revenue collections.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is also up for re-election this fall, but has yet to draw serious opponent.

Last year’s session ended with breakdown in relations between the two chambers over an attempt by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, to redraw some judicial districts. The House’s refusal to go along with that plan led the Senate to kill off a bill seeking to give the state more power to approve charter schools.

The ill will generated by that contretemps had Ramsey and fellow Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville skipping the normally self-congratulatory post-session press conference with Haslam, and the two Republican caucuses decided to stop raising campaign cash together.

“At the end of the session last year, I kind of became the bad guy,” Ramsey told reporters recently. “And that made it real simple for me: I have given a contribution to my state representative, Timothy Hill, and I am done. They can finance their own campaigns now.”

Ramsey, Harwell and Haslam now maintain that all is forgiven and that they are ready to engage in a new spirit of cooperation on a series of issues. However, that spirit is likely to be tested when the issue of school vouchers comes up.

Haslam last year supported an effort to introduce a voucher program limited to students from poor families attending failing schools. Republican senators led a rival effort to include a wider range of students. The governor ultimately had his bill withdrawn, effectively killing the measure for the year.

The governor has refused so far to say whether he will pursue a voucher bill this year, though Ramsey and Harwell have said there have been efforts to reach a compromise before the session begins.

Ramsey turned back questions about whether it was helpful for the governor to be coy about his aims until so soon before the session.

“Coy would imply that he knows what he wants to do but he’s not doing it,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think that he wants some guidance from us in the Legislature, what we think will pass.”

Meanwhile, a recent Vanderbilt poll showed about two out of three respondents supported a change in the law to require a doctor’s prescription for cold medicines that contain ingredients used to make illegal methamphetamine. Lawmakers in both chambers expressed surprise in those figures, and said the result has caused them to reconsider whether prescriptions should be necessary.

“I’m not going to commit right now that I would be for making it a prescription, but I will say I have gone from being against it to being very, very open to it,” Ramsey said.

Members of the pharmaceutical industry say the Vanderbilt poll question didn’t give respondents enough information about what the change would entail, and argue that public opinion is still very much opposed to requiring prescriptions for medicines like Sudafed.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he’s open to a suggestion that pharmacists be allowed to write prescriptions for people seeking the cold medicines.

“I think that’s something to consider, so long as we get at the problem, which is people addicted to meth,” McCormick said. “I know they’re going to make it somewhere, somehow. But if we can make it less convenient maybe we save some lives.”

Harwell is hoping this is the year she can bring wine to Tennessee grocery stores, an issue she has campaigned on for several cycles. The measure was advancing steadily last year, before surprisingly failing in a House committee.

The latest version of the bill would call for cities or counties to hold a referendum on whether they want to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.

“I have a certain confidence level,” Harwell said. “I can’t always predict what the General Assembly will do, but I feel the people want the right to vote on this issue.”

Here are some of the issues lawmakers are expected to tackle in the upcoming legislative session.

BUDGET: Tennessee’s more than $30 billion budget is growing at a sluggish pace, and most of that growth is eaten up by increases in Medicaid spending. Lawmakers are required by the state constitution to pass a balanced budget.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: A bill to create a statewide authorizer for charter schools failed in the closing days of last year’s legislative session, but proponents hope for a quick passage this year. Another proposal called the “parent trigger” would allow for a vote among parents at public schools to convert schools into charters.

COMMON CORE: An effort to back away from a common set of standards for reading and math could pitch members of the GOP against each other. Gov. Bill Haslam has argued that Tennessee’s Common Core standards make the state more competitive in attracting businesses to the state.

GUNS IN PARKING LOTS: Republican leaders appear hesitant about revising a bill to allow people with handgun carry permits to store weapons in vehicles parked at work. An attorney general’s opinion last year said that the law doesn’t prevent employers from firing workers who violate their parking lot gun bans.

METHAMPHETAMINES: Calls for requiring prescriptions for cold medicines used to make methamphetamines were bolstered by a recent Vanderbilt poll indicating wide support for the change. But pharmaceutical industry groups claim the poll results are misleading and that public opinion is still against requiring doctor’s prescriptions for medicines like Sudafed.

SCHOOL VOUCHERS: The governor last year supported a limited school voucher program for the state, while Senate Republicans pushed for a more expansive program.

TEXTBOOKS: Critics of the state’s textbook commission say the panel doesn’t do enough to keep bias out of school books, and are calling for an overhaul.

WINE IN SUPERMARKETS: A bill to allow supermarkets to sell wine failed in a House committee last year. The speakers of the House and Senate are strong proponents of giving the voters of cities and counties to decide whether to allow wine sales in grocery and convenience stores.