TN lawmakers to take on full slate in 2013

12:49 PM, Dec 30, 2012   |    comments
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By: Chas Sisk

Pass a budget. Resolve debates on guns, charter schools and wine. Get out of Nashville quickly.

Tennessee lawmakers do not reconvene until Jan. 8, but already their list of resolutions for the 108th General Assembly is becoming clear.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is putting together a legislative package that he says will focus on the topics that have dominated his tenure: education, loosening restrictions on business, producing a budget. The Republican leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives - Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell - have said they would like to dispatch with the controversies over guns-in-trunks and charter schools.

But the agenda will be shaped by national events as well, with the shooting in Connecticut, budget negotiations in Washington and the gradual rollout of the Affordable Care Act already having an impact.

Legislative leaders have set a goal of wrapping up business before last year's May 1 adjournment date. That timetable creates the prospect of a whirlwind legislative session - one in which most of the big decisions (and hot air) could be dispensed before the Capitol's new air-conditioning system kicks in this spring.

Intraparty squabbles could come to the fore. Republicans will hold the most clout they have had since their abolitionist predecessors dominated the Capitol in the years immediately after the Civil War.

But with two-thirds of the seats in the state Senate and the state House of Representatives, the GOP's numbers may be too great for their own good. Some backbench Republicans already have floated ideas, such as arming teachers and refusing to expand Medicaid, that could divide conservative lawmakers into rival camps.

The state raised $563.8 million more in tax revenue than it budgeted during the previous fiscal year, pumped up by an improving economy.

But an undercurrent that could run throughout the session will be how to spend that money within Tennessee's $30 billion annual budget, as departments compete for a slice of the pie after years of cost-cutting brought on by the 2007-09 recession.

Haslam says much of the surplus has been spoken for. The Affordable Care Act is expected to increase enrollment in TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, by more than 60,000 Tennesseans - whether Haslam and GOP lawmakers want to expand it or not.

The governor also has committed to increasing the budgets for the Department of Correction to address overcrowding and to the Department of Children's Services to increase the number of and pay for case workers, lawyers and outside providers.

He also hopes to expand the budgets for public and higher education.

"This is actually our hardest budget year," Haslam said in a recent interview. "The requests always swamp the ability to meet those requests ... but I think this year, it's even more true."

Social issues also are expected to draw lawmakers' attention.

Haslam and other Republican leaders frequently complain that bills dealing with guns and religion receive more headlines than they deserve based on the amount of time the legislature spends on them.

But measures that deal with hot-button topics - such as where guns should be carried and what children should be exposed to in schools - shape public perceptions of the legislature, both within Tennessee and nationwide.

Already, a bill with that volatile mix has drawn national attention: the idea, floated by State Sen. Frank Niceley, of arming teachers to discourage school violence.

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