Tennessee Legislature faces diet of leftovers, heated up by politics
By ERIK SCHELZIG
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — The General Assembly returns to session Tuesday with a few fresh issues and several leftovers from last year on lawmakers’ plates. They can count on it being warmed up by the heat of election year politics.
Political maneuvering and hot-button issues are almost certain, not least because tight budget projections mean lawmakers likely won’t be distracted by spending any windfalls.
All 99 House seats and 16 of 33 Senate seats are up for election in November. Democrats hold a 53-46 advantage in the House, while the two parties are tied at 16 each in the Senate, with one independent.
House Speaker Jimmy Nai-feh, a Covington Democrat who is entering his 18th year in charge of the lower chamber, said he expects to see the rhetoric cranked up by a handful of members from both parties.
Republicans are bound to renew their efforts to amend the state constitution to remove its protections for abortion rights that are greater than those provided by U.S. Constitution.
“They do normally wait until an election year to do that, so if they’re true to form they’ll do it again this year,” Naifeh said.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said not all politically sensitive topics amount to rhetoric.
“What some of us on our side of the aisle consider deep-felt convictions — such as the (abortion amendment) that we’ve passed several times — the other side considers that political positioning,” he said.
“We don’t feel that way at all.”
Republicans also plan to renew their push for legislation to limit medical malpractice lawsuits and to clamp down on illegal immigration.
Democrats are certain to counter with hot-button legislation of their own, like a proposal to create a state minimum wage higher than the federal minimum, Ramsey said.
Naifeh said he disagrees with expected GOP proposals to outlaw adoption by gay couples. Judges currently have the discretion over who can adopt children, and state officials have told him that it’s better for children to be in a home than to be wards of the state, Naifeh said.
The ends of the last two legislative sessions have been characterized by lawmakers squabbling over how to spend surplus revenues. This year, legislators looking for extra money to spend likely will set their sights on the more than $400 million parked in the reserves of the state lottery.
Democrats want to loosen the grade requirements for keeping lottery-funded scholarships. Republicans say some of those proposals for the $4,000 scholarships go too far.
Naifeh said a 2.75 grade point average should be enough to maintain a lottery scholarship, down from the current 3.0 requirement.
Ramsey said Republicans would instead like to find ways to give students a way to regain their scholarships if they lose them after a poor semester and change the GPA requirements to apply on a semester-by-semester basis rather than the current cumulative standard.
The two parties are also likely to resume a fight over whether to divide $100 million in lottery reserves between each of the state’s 136 school districts for construction projects. Naifeh says the sum each district would get under that plan would be too small to make a significant difference.
Most Democrats support Gov. Phil Bredesen’s push to add more pre-kindergarten classrooms as part of a drive toward offering universal access, but Ramsey said he isn’t convinced that the program needs to be offered beyond children who qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Bredesen, a Democrat, said the educational value of pre-K makes it worth putting more money into the program even in a tight budget year. He said he doesn’t understand the argument that the program should be limited to lower-income families.
“Everybody in the state is paying the taxes to support this,” he said. “I don’t know why everybody in the state shouldn’t have the option of sending their child if they want to the pre-K that they’re paying for.”
There were 148 pilot pre-K classrooms in Tennessee when Bredesen came into office in 2003. That number now stands at 934.
The state currently spends about $80 million a year on pre-K. Education experts project that about 60 percent of eligible children would be sent to public pre-K programs. That would require about 2,300 pre-K classrooms at an estimated annual cost of about $196 million.
Another area likely to draw lawmakers’ attention is a proposal championed by AT&T Inc. to create statewide franchising rules so it can offer cable television service without negotiating separate agreements with the more than 300 municipalities around the state.
Cable companies and local governments opposed the measure last session and it was withdrawn from consideration in the House. This year Naifeh has asked the sides to hold regular meetings and negotiate a compromise so the session doesn’t get bogged down by the proposal again.
Published in The Messenger 1.07.08