Tennessee lawmakers have put the state budget behind them. Now they'll turn to what really worries them: getting re-elected.
Members of the legislature will return to Nashville on Monday for what many of them (and perhaps many Tennesseans) hope will be the last time this year. But they're facing a long list of issues that have been pushed to the session's final days — many of which could have serious ramifications to their chances of returning to the Capitol in 2015.
After resisting the urge last week to load up Gov. Bill Haslam's $32.4 billion budget proposal with special projects for their districts or raises for state employees, lawmakers now could face crucial votes on guns, education, drugs and taxes.
Lawmakers' votes on these issues could prove to be as important as, if not more than, the dozens they have cast in the months leading up to the 108th General Assembly's final hours.
The unfinished business includes:
• Guns. Legislative leaders have kept gun bills at bay for most of the year, but this week is almost certain to see debate on firearms. Atop the agenda is the Open Carry Firearms Freedom Act, which would let gun owners carry their weapons openly without having to get a permit first.
The Senate approved the bill 25-2 last week in a gamble that the state House would not follow its lead, but the vote instead has increased pressure to take up open-carry legislation in the House. State Rep. Micah Van Huss, the Jonesborough Republican sponsoring the measure in the House, has told leaders he plans to try to force a vote on the floor if it doesn't come out of committee early this week.
Activists have seized the moment. The Tennessee Firearms Association put out a statement accusing House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, of keeping the open-carry bill from a vote on the floor. Sargent hotly disputed the charge, but it could be a precursor to an effort to unseat him in the August primary.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron said the open-carry bill shows Republicans have abandoned moderation.
"There are two groups of Republicans now in the General Assembly: There are the hateful and the fearful," he said. "The reasonable Republicans are fearful of the hateful Republicans."
A long-delayed bill that would let gun owners carry in parks also could produce heated debate. But lawmakers may have quietly dispatched that issue late last week, when the House and the Senate both passed legislation that limits local governments' ability to regulate firearms.
• Education. Many Republican lawmakers have complained that Haslam's decision to abandon pay raises for teachers has put them in a difficult spot politically. They may try to make up for that vote this week, especially by delaying a plan to launch new standardized tests this fall.
Many teachers and educators are opposed to the new exams developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, coming as they do on the heels of education reforms that have tied teacher pay and school funding to students' performance on tests. Republican leaders say they plan to call for a one-year delay on new tests and for putting the testing contract out to bid.
Legislation on school vouchers also remains up in the air. The state Senate passed a bill last week establishing a small program that would grant as many as 5,000 vouchers for private school tuition to children from low-income families who are assigned to poorly performing schools in five districts, including Metro Nashville.
The measure was developed by the Haslam administration, but it's unclear whether it has enough support to make to the floor of the House.
• Drugs. The House approved legislation last week that caps the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be bought in Tennessee without a prescription at 48 tablets a month and 240 tablets a year. After initially pushing for even lower limits, the Haslam administration and Senate leaders appear to have accepted the House's plan.
Pseudoephedrine limits are meant to combat meth production, a winning issue politically. But drug companies have been running ads emphasizing that the new law would make it harder to buy some cold and allergy medicine. The meth bill hangs in the balance between those competing interests.
• Taxes. Lawmakers put together a plan to phase out the Hall tax, the state's levy on investments. Haslam opposes the idea, but outside interest groups, led by Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform, have pressed the issue. Radio spots already have been aired hitting and praising state leaders for their stances.
Few Republicans would want to take on those groups, especially on a tax cut many senior citizens favor. That could give repeal of the Hall tax some momentum as lawmakers wrap up for the year.
Haslam could hold the final card, though. The end of session historically has been a time when governors have been willing to exercise their veto power.
With that in mind, legislative leaders have played with the notion of bringing lawmakers back in mid-May for one final day to weigh overrides. But because legislators are barred by law from raising money while the General Assembly is in session, an override session next month would take a toll on their re-election campaigns.
All the more reason for the final gavel to sound this week.
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 and on Twitter @chassisk.
Seven more issues to watch
• Tennessee Promise. Neither chamber has approved Gov. Bill Haslam's plan for free community college.
• Electrocution. The House has not yet voted on a bill that would let the state use the electric chair for executions if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.
• The Amp. The Senate and House have passed different versions of a bill meant to slow the bus rapid transit project.
• Marijuana. The Senate has called for a study of cannabis oil, a marijuana extract, for medical purposes. The House hasn't taken it up.
• Charter schools. Speaker Beth Harwell wants to give the state the final word on charters. A vote could come Monday.
• Textbooks. Legislation that would restructure the State Textbook Commission is still pending in the House.
• Cursive. The General Assembly has called for teaching cursive, but the bill has not reached Haslam's desk for signature. We'll be checking his handwriting.