Tennessee lawmakers enter session with election in sight


FILE – In this Aug. 23, 2019 file photo, Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, addresses the House members after being sworn in as House Speaker during a special session of the Tennessee House in Nashville, Tenn. In the election-year legislative session beginning Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 the Republican-supermajority House and Senate will debate bills and set the budget, while keeping in mind that every House seat and about half the Senate are on the ballot.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With an eye toward their campaigns, Tennessee lawmakers will spend the next few months deciding whether they want to overturn the governor on accepting refugees, help deliver his promise of criminal justice reform, and join other states in passing abortion limits destined for court.

In the election-year legislative session beginning Tuesday, the Republican-supermajority House and Senate will debate bills and set the budget, while keeping in mind that every House seat and about half the Senate are on the ballot.

GOP Gov. Bill Lee is focused on criminal justice reform for his second legislative session in office. He has yet to unveil the specific bills he’ll push.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton will oversee his first annual session, hoping to keep House drama low after controversies drummed former House Speaker Glen Casada out of the post last year.

This year, lawmakers appear antsy to address refugees. Lee rejected President Donald Trump’s offer for states and local governments to stop resettling them. Lee has defended his choice, citing his faith and service with refugees, and saying there’s a big difference between legally resettled refugees fleeing oppression and “illegal immigrants.”

The move irked some Republican state lawmakers, who have sued the federal government over the refugee program without success so far.

At least one bill has been filed seeking to undo Lee’s decision. Several more on the topic are expected to pop up, Sexton said.

“Even though they may be legal as they go through the refugee process, you still have to be very cautious,” Sexton told the AP.

On criminal justice, Senate Speaker Randy McNally said he expects Lee will pursue reforms to help nonviolent offenders, improve recidivism rates and offer opportunities for reentering society. Sexton, meanwhile, said he’ll push a proposal to better line up court-imposed sentences with actual prison time served.

McNally and Sexton said they expect an attempt to retool a law they approved last year that would penalize paid voter registration groups with fines for submitting too many incomplete forms and misdemeanors for not following new administrative requirements. A federal judge concluded the law could have a chilling effect and blocked it, likely past the November elections.

Last year, lawmakers fought over a bill that would have banned abortion once a fetal heartbeat was detected — as early as six weeks into pregnancy. But after multiple legal concerns were raised, handful of Republicans agreed to study the issue more and bring it back in 2020.

McNally is again cautioning lawmakers to pursue changes that aren’t at risk of being blocked in court, like other heartbeat bills have been, saying it could mean spending tax dollars for abortion supporters’ legal fees. Instead, McNally wants legislation to pass on how to dispose of fetal remains, which the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld elsewhere.

“While I feel strongly that is a human life, I think we also have to be careful as to how we proceed and make sure we don’t end up doing something that causes the courts to reverse some of the progress we’ve made because the whole question is opened up again,” McNally told the AP.

Sexton will likely hear more protests over GOP Rep. David Byrd, who is accused of sexual misconduct by three women when he was their high school basketball coach decades ago, before he was elected. Sexton has decided against trying to expel Byrd, citing the attorney general’s legal opinion that acknowledges the move isn’t prohibited, but cautions against it.

Sexton said he’s still unsure if Byrd, who has a primary opponent, will run again.

“It’s always been an undecided approach I guess from when I’ve talked to him,” Sexton said.

Lawmakers also could address school vouchers over the coming weeks after passing legislation last year to allow some parents to use state-issued debit cards to pay for private school expenses.

Since signing the bill into law, Lee has said he would prefer implementation to begin in the 2020-21 school year. Some lawmakers, however, remain noncommittal on whether that will happen.

Another hot-button bill, which would allow teachers to carry guns at school, would have McNally’s support this year with extra safeguards, including stricter training requirements and mandated notification to local authorities, he said.

And on the budget front, Sexton said $15 million to $20 million could go toward eliminating the professional privilege tax for more types of workers, after the tax was chopped for many categories last year.

McNally also had words of caution for lawmakers as they aim to bolster their case for reelection.

“There’s a lot of proposals that are made, a lot of times they cost a lot of money and a lot of times there are unintended consequences,” McNally said. “And an election year is certainly a good time to think about some of that.”


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