Members of both the Tennessee House and Senate have been administered their oaths of office as state elected officeholders, and the 109th General Assembly is officially underway.
One of the first orders of business for the upper and lower chambers was to elect speakers to wield parliamentary control over the bodies. And there were no surprises in that regard. The House and the Senate each re-elected their previous presiding lawmakers, Rep. Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Both are Republicans and both will lead bodies that are dominated by the GOP.
Harwell was elected unanimously and Ramsey won the support of all 28 of the 33-member Senate’s Republicans, as well as two of the five Democrats, Thelma Harper of Nashville and Reginald Tate of Memphis. Democrats Sara Kyle and Lee Harris of Memphis, and Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, all in their first terms, abstained from the Ramsey-for-speaker vote.
Tuesday’s legislative goings-on were for the most part formalities. There’s little serious debate expected on any issues of contention until February, when the General Assembly will go into special session to discuss Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to expand Medicaid as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Lawmakers later this week will elect constitutional officers and undergo ethics training.
However, Tuesday’s ceremonial atmosphere was punctured somewhat by dozens of noisy protesters beating drums and chanting slogans in support of abortion rights. In November, Tennessee voters approved a state constitutional amendment that grants the Legislature sweeping new powers to regulate abortion — and the issue is likely to be a contentious one in the months ahead.
Other key matters besides Obamacare and abortion regulation that lawmakers are expected to take up once they begin legislative deliberations in earnest include a rollback of Common Core education standards, discussions about taxes — both an increase in the gas tax and elimination of the state’s levy on stock dividends — and tinkering with Tennessee’s gun laws.