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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, January 3, 2020

Health care, education & the usual hot buttons


Business as usual for GOP-led Legislature, plus how to spend an extra $700M?



After a raucous, partisan 2019 session that delivered historic health and education measures, Tennessee lawmakers return to Nashville on Jan. 14 for the second half of the 111th General Assembly.

Health and education will continue to occupy lawmakers. Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has applied to the federal government to receive TennCare funding through a block grant.

It’s also pushing to implement the voucher-like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in time for the 2020-21 school year, a full year before the deadline in the statute. ESAs give income-qualified parents in Nashville and Memphis about $7,400 in state educational funds to use to send their children to private schools.

Other issues include what the state will do with a reserve of more than $700 million in unspent federal funds for the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Immigration drew comments from state Republicans when Lee announced the state would accept refugees, despite an anti-immigration resolution the legislature passed in 2016.

Also on the administration’s legislative to-do list are criminal justice reform and health care modernization.

A task force on criminal justice reform just issued its first, interim report calling, among other things, for more mental health and substance abuse treatment for offenders and for fine-tuning which offenders receive the most restrictive incarceration. Appointments to a health care modernization task force were made in October, and the group is just getting started.

What’s more, this year is an election year and that “will play a big part in the next session,” says Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Kent Syler.

Those running for state legislative seats must qualify to run by April 2, Syler adds, and the primary election is set for Aug. 6, a Thursday. It will be the last time candidates run in the districts that were drawn following the 2010 U.S. Census.

Voters in 2020 will elect lawmakers to all of the seats in the state House and to half of the seats in the Senate, namely, those in even-numbered districts.

Most districts are either safe Democratic or safe Republican seats, Syler says. Both parties are focused on candidates winning their primary election, in which candidates often face their only real competition.

Incumbent Republican lawmakers are likely to offer more bills on hot-button issues such as abortion and firearms, he notes, adding that political posturing will continue from all quarters.

If history is any indication, the 2020 session will be quieter and, perhaps, shorter, than 2019. Traditionally, the second year of each two-year General Assembly is shorter and less contentious, says Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville. In an election year, lawmakers want to wrap things up as quickly as possible in the legislature so they can go home and campaign, he and others point out.

That means fewer bills filed. As of Dec. 27, fewer than 100 new bills had been filed in both chambers. The tentative due date for filing is Feb. 6, with the legislators themselves having the final say on the deadline. An adjournment date will be set during the session.

The House also has a new speaker, Rep. Cameron Sexton, 49, of Crossville. The Republican served as his party’s caucus chairman in last year’s legislative session and was elected speaker in a special legislative session in August.

He succeeds Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, 60, who resigned the speakership in August amid controversy over sexist texts exchanged with an aide, questions about his leadership style and questions over his role in a one-vote House victory for ESAs in May after the House had rejected a similar school-choice plan in previous sessions. The measure had passed handily in the state Senate.

Casada remains in the House, where he represents part of Williamson County and has served since 2001.

Sexton says he has met with House committee chairs and has encouraged them to look at the broader picture as lawmakers. He wants to “empower (them) to be bigger voices in setting policy for the state,” examining where they’d like to see state government working five years from now along with the shorter-term goal of moving bills forward.

“On the House floor,” he says, “every voice is going to be heard.” He pledged to be fair and consistent with all.

Under Casada, the atmosphere was “very partisan,” adds Nashville Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell, who voted against the ESAs. Also voting against ESAs was Hawk who says he had concerns about how the bill was passed. Hawk has been a legislator since 2003.

The partisanship wasn’t unusual, but the drama – mostly within the Republican caucus – was, notes MTSU’s Syler. “I would not expect that in 2020,” he adds.

Intraparty drama is unusual, he says, and part of that comes with having a supermajority. Members of the majority feel less need to band together in solidarity.

That tendency exists with lopsided majorities, regardless of party, Syler continues. “It just sort of goes with the territory.”

Mitchell says his bottom line is to support what he considers good legislation, regardless of the sponsor’s party, and that should be the approach for both Democrats and Republicans. “I thought we’re here to make the state better,” he adds.

Mitchell and most of his fellow House Democrats want to repeal ESAs. He introduced a bill in August that states simply that the ESA chapter enacted in 2019 is deleted from the Tennessee Code Annotated. Only one Democrat, Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, voted in favor of ESAs.

Meanwhile, Lee will be unveiling the specifics of his legislative agenda in his state of the state message, which usually is delivered in late January or early February.

Administration spokesman Chris Walker says Lee is finalizing his budget proposal and his general priorities include education, criminal justice reform and improving and modernizing health care. Other interests of the Republican first-term governor include vocational education and helping rural areas, especially economically distressed counties.

“Gov. Lee has had an entire year to prepare a legislative agenda,” unlike 2019, in which he had only a few months after winning the 2018 governor’s race to craft an agenda, Syler points out.

The governor has set criminal justice reform as a priority, and Syler sees continuing efforts to help rural areas share some of the benefits that urban and suburban areas enjoy. Health care will continue to be a priority, along with vocational education and ensuring that students in the early grades are learning as they should.

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers respond to Gov. Lee’s calls for innovation in education and criminal justice, Syler says.

“Many times innovation and doing things differently is what is required but change is hard. It will be interesting to see whether there is pushback” on Lee’s proposals, he adds.