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Leftovers on Menu for New Legislative Year

Republicans cleaned a lot of bills off their plate in their first year controlling the General Assembly and the governor’s office, but they built up a pile of bills they were saving for later.

Lawmakers say they plan to get down to business right away after returning to Nashville Jan. 10 in hopes of adjourning in late April to begin campaign season. But until then, they’ll have a roughly $30 billion budget to haggle over, new bills to debate and old ones to decide whether they’re worth passing before the election.

Guns on Campus, In Employee Parking Lots

Lawmakers talked about but never passed a number of gun bills proposed last year, including letting handgun carry permit holders lock their weapons inside their car while at work, HB2021, which made it to the House floor but never came up for a vote. Another bill, HB2016, would let college faculty and staff carry guns on campus, although that measure never made it out of committee. Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle say they expect to see those issues introduced but probably sidelined this year. “Being an election year, I don’t see leadership letting that come to the surface,” said Sen. Bill Ketron, the Senate Republican Caucus Chairman from Murfreesboro.

Drug-Testing Unemployed, Welfare Recipients 

There’s a movement afoot to drug-test Tennesseans collecting public assistance. Two versions of the proposal were introduced early last year, SB48 and SB652, that would have focused on people collecting welfare. Both bills were immediately shelved in 2011, but Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is breathing new life into the idea with an eye on people collecting unemployment benefits and worker’s compensation. “I don’t think, again, that we need to be supporting that lifestyle with government money. I’m very much for that and I think you’ll see that passed this session.”

Income Tax Ban

This bill may have been left behind last Spring, but it’s expected to pass come 2012. The Senate OK’d a resolution, SJR221, asking voters to clearly ban an income tax by rewriting a portion of the Constitution. The legislation was held back in the House on the last few days of session. Lawmakers expect it will be one of the first they take up come January, but tax reform advocates plan to continue fighting for an income tax in exchange for lower food taxes. Debate over this bill is far from over — it would need a two-thirds vote in the 2013-14 General Assembly to get on the ballot.

Illegal Immigration

Republican lawmakers rallied to copycat Arizona’s illegal immigration bill and require drivers license exams be taken in English, but those bills never moved. In the midst of debate, another immigration bill filed that session fell just under the radar. HB1379 would require that governments check for proof of citizenship before issuing entitlements like TennCare, food stamps or unemployment benefits. GOP leaders say they’ll pick up this one and run with it and probably leave the others behind. “We’ve always wanted to ensure Tennessee wasn’t a magnet for illegal aliens,” said Rep. Debra Maggart, House Republican Caucus Chairwoman.

Picking Judges

Lawmakers kicked around the idea of changing how judges are selected, contending the current practice of the governor selecting judges who are later subject to retention elections is not in line with the state Constitution. “I think almost everyone agrees that’s a bad idea. I just don’t think everyone’s agreed on what is a good idea, yet,” said House GOP Leader Gerald McCormick. Democrats generally side with the Supreme Court, which has upheld the current system. One bill that remains from last year, SJR183, would ask voters to constitutionalize merit-based appointments. Other proposals have since popped up, like SJR475 which would require changing the Constitution to require the Senate OK the governor’s appointees.

Democrat’s Job Bills

Although they’re outnumbered, Democrats plan to take another stab at passing a stack of jobs bills that never got out of committee last year, such as calling for a small business tax holiday and giving tax credits to new entreprenuers. “We’re going to try again,” said House Democrat Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “None of the jobs bills passed and none of them got out of committee but we’re going to have another go at it.” The same goes for Senate Democrats, said the chamber’s Democratic vice chairman, Andy Berke. “That’s really where we should begin 2012 in the legislature rather than most of the issues that have been named as priorities so far”

Wine in Supermarkets

This perennial bill doesn’t fall into any of the caucus’ priority lists but has become a staple piece of legislation to expect every year. SB316 seeks to allow certain retail food stores to sell wine instead of just beer. It would also let liquor stores sell items like cork screws and mixers. Last session, the bill never got out of committee. Advocates for wine in grocery stores say their new strategy is to convince the Legislature to let locals decide if they want wine in grocery stores through voter referendums, although legislative leaders say they haven’t heard any serious talk that the bill has momentum to pass this time around.