Tennessee’s legislative leaders talk top issues for 2019
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers are set to tussle for months over how to change the state’s criminal justice and education systems, whether they should legalize sports betting or medical marijuana, and how much they’re willing to wade into hot-button topics like guns, abortion, and immigration.
The Republican-supermajority General Assembly is finally digging into its workload after new Republican Gov. Bill Lee has taken the oath of office and begun getting acclimated.
Lee will work alongside a new House speaker, Glen Casada, while Senate Speaker Randy McNally is keeping his post. They’ll lead a Legislature with 28 new House members and five — but soon to be six — freshman senators.
Their main task is crafting a state budget expected to be about $37.8 billion, with a slower increase in revenue projected than in recent years, at a rate of 2.7 to 3.2 percent during the budget year that starts in July.
But the biggest fights are likely to come on other fronts. Here’s a look at some.
Two bills seeking to legalize sports betting in Tennessee have already been introduced this year. It’s unknown if the odds will play out in their favor.
Supporters argue the revenue can help local districts, particularly border municipalities, compete with nearby states that have already legalized several forms of betting.
However, Lee came out against gambling on the campaign trail, sending a warning among the Republican-dominant Legislature that any movement on the issue might require going up against the new governor.
“If I were a lobbyist or government representative, I certainly would tell our people that it would be an uphill battle if the governor were opposed to it,” said McNally.
Casada, meanwhile, said he’s still making up his mind on the issue, adding that if it’s important to constituents then they should contact their representatives.
Education tends to always takes center stage in state government, and this year’s focus is on vouchers. What that voucher policy might look like, however, is still being discussed.
One possibility is an “education savings account,” a voucher-like-program that typically allows families to get public dollars to pay for private school expenses.
No bill has been drafted yet, but Casada has already thrown his support behind the idea.
“For most Tennessee students, public school is the best route … everything in life, we take a strong pride in choice and selections and what’s best for me and competition, and that’s lacking in education, and I just feel like the educational savings accounts would add that,” Casada said.
Lee has said he supports more school choice in Tennessee, but he has yet to offer any specific policy proposal on the issue.
Former Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision to grant clemency to a woman who killed a man when she was 16 did more than attract national headlines. It also sparked a statewide discussion on reforming Tennessee’s juvenile sentencing laws that let certain young people remain locked up for 51 years before they can get parole.
Casada says he’s open to having the debate, adding he’s already met with advocates for such change but held off from disclosing how he supports the measure.
Meanwhile, the Legislature is also considering preventing local police oversight boards from having subpoena power. This is in response to Nashville’s oversight panel, where voters approved the measure that allows it to issue subpoenas.
“I’m reluctant to give subpoena power to every oversight body that comes along,” McNally said.
Abortion, guns, immigration
Fetal heartbeat abortion bans — at about six weeks into a pregnancy — have been struck down as unconstitutional in other states. But support from Lee, McNally and Casada have brought the issue to the forefront this year in Tennessee.
Casada, like some abortion opponents nationwide, said the policy is a fight worth having in the U.S. Supreme Court with its conservative tilt. McNally was a little more cautious, saying the Senate will move slowly and craft something constitutional, or not proceed with it.
There’s a more lukewarm response to the often-floated idea to let people carry handguns without permits in Tennessee. McNally said the current permit system works well. Lee has been at times receptive, but noncommittal to the change. And Casada said he leans toward supporting it, but predicted only that it will be considered.
The reception has also been mixed over a “red flag” bill, which would let family members and law enforcement seek court orders to remove guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others.
The Republican leaders are also focused on a policy by Shelby County’s sheriff that they believe conflicts with a 2018 law prohibiting local authorities from requiring a warrant or probable cause before complying with federal immigration detainers.
McNally and Casada said they want to meet with the sheriff before committing to other actions. Lee, meanwhile, has said his legal counsel will look into the situation. McNally said lawmakers would tighten the law, if necessary.