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VOL. 128 | NO. 8 | Friday, January 11, 2013

Back to Work

Tennessee legislative session sees smaller Shelby delegation

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County legislative delegation to Nashville returned to the capital Tuesday, Jan. 8, with three fewer members – one state senator and two state representatives – all Democrats – but with no new faces.

The Tennessee House of Representatives got back to business this week for the Jan. 8 opening of the 108th General Assembly. The Shelby County delegation went to Nashville with three fewer members.

(Photo: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

After 2012 redistricting that eliminated the three seats and a turbulent 2012 primary election season last August, incumbents Mike Kernell and Jeanne Richardson in the House and Beverly Marrero in the Senate did not return as the House and Senate were gaveled to order for the new session.

Each was defeated in the August primaries by fellow Democratic incumbents paired with them in the same districts as a result of the once-a-decade redrawing of district lines.

The delegation now numbers 19 – 14 House members and five senators. Of those, 12 are Democrats and seven are Republicans.

Democratic state Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis was elected chairman of the Shelby County delegation and Democratic state Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis was elected vice chairman. Republican state Rep. Jim Coley is secretary of the delegation.

Memphian David Lillard was re-elected by both chambers as state treasurer and Tre Hargett of Bartlett returns as secretary of state.

In the House, the highest-ranking Shelby County legislator in a leadership position is Memphis Democrat Joe Towns, who is assistant Democratic leader. Barbara Cooper is Democratic caucus secretary and Lois DeBerry is Democratic floor leader.

In the Senate, Collierville Republican Mark Norris remains majority leader and Memphis Democrat Jim Kyle is minority leader.

After he was re-elected lieutenant governor and speaker of the senate on opening day, Ron Ramsey vowed to continue the practice of the last two legislative sessions of ending on time.

“We plan to continue that tradition,” Ramsey said. “The days of legislative sessions dragging into May and beyond are over.”

The legislature is restricted by its own rules to 90 legislative days per session. Each session is two years in length. The organizational session at the start of each two-year session can be up to 15 days and does not count toward the 90 day total. The legislative days are scheduled for three days of the week.

Theoretically a longer first year of the two-year session would mean a shorter second year or election year session.

Going over the 90-day limit doesn’t affect the base pay of $19,000 legislators receive but it does mean an end to expense payments at a per diem of $171 per legislative day.

Norris carries legislation in the Senate for the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam and much of that legislation in the coming session will involve education policy.

Meanwhile, lobbyists for the countywide school board have told the board to expect “comprehensive legislation” in Nashville on charter schools this year.

The bill that is to deal with such complex issues as administrative fees, access to surplus or underutilized schools and multiple authorizers of the charters won’t be offered by the Haslam administration, according to lobbyist Tony Thompson.

“My understanding is some people in leadership positions have asked others to take a look at all issues surrounding charter schools,” he told school board members.

“Why would they want to take that power away from hundreds of local elected officials across the state like yourself and the accountability that goes with that?” Thompson asked the Shelby County school board members. “It’s clearly an issue we’ll have to deal with this session.”

Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey is likely to be the Senate sponsor of school voucher legislation that Haslam has indicated will be a priority this year although he probably won’t be sending the bill to Capitol Hill.

For several years, Kelsey has sponsored a variety of school voucher bills.

A task force appointed by Haslam in 2011 that included Kelsey and former Memphis Catholic Schools superintendent Mary McDonald recommended in November that private schools be required to accept the vouchers as payment in full for tuition with no option to charge for additional tuition.

The task force also raised the possibility of permitting public and private schools to accept vouchers across public school district lines.

But the group made no recommendation on whether the funding that follows a child with a voucher should be the state share of Basic Education Program funding only or the state share and the local funding match.

Haslam has said he believes there should be income qualifications for the vouchers to make them available to children from low-income families and that the state should move into the use of vouchers in a broader way than a pilot program.

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