Tennessee Lawmakers Convene for 108th General Assembly

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) – State lawmakers convened Tuesday for the 108th Tennessee General Assembly that is expected to take up measures ranging from allowing wine in supermarkets to permitting teachers to be armed in school.

For this session, Republicans have added to their already substantial advantages in both the Senate and House, gaining supermajorities in both chambers after the November election.

New members in both chambers were sworn in Tuesday, as were the Senate and House speakers. Sen. Ron Ramsey of Blountville was re-elected on a 29-4 vote, and Rep. Beth Harwell was unopposed for a second term and re-elected unanimously.

"I challenge this chamber to live up to your God-given potential," Harwell said in a speech to the House. "I ask you to work hard, read the legislation before you, ask questions and debate the issues with an open mind."

In his speech, Ramsey touted the efficiency of Republican governorship, even alluding that lawmakers may finish in April for the first time in years.

"The days of going into May are gone forever," he said.

In an attempt to limit bill filing, Harwell has proposed setting a cap on how many bills are filed each year. Under the measure, each lawmaker would be limited to 10 bills.

Lawmakers on Tuesday were still evaluating her proposal, but approved other measures to reshuffle the lower chamber's committee system, prohibit "ghost voting" and to limit each lawmaker to two ceremonial presentations in the well of the chamber per two-year General Assembly.

Nevertheless, the bill limit proposal has had lobbyists scrambling to nail down sponsors for their clients' key legislative initiatives.

One of those measures is a piece of compromise legislation that would allow local referendums to determine if wine could be sold alongside beer in grocery and convenience stores.

In exchange, sponsors say liquor stores could branch out to sell such items as beer, mixers, ice and snacks. The measure could also end the current law that allows owners to operate only one liquor store in the state.

Other proposals were spawned after last month's massacre in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 young children and six adults at an elementary school before killing himself.

Like most of the country, Tennessee has joined the debate about whether teachers should be allowed to carry a weapon at school.

Several Tennessee lawmakers have drafted legislation that would encourage school districts to place at least one armed police officer in every school and would allow teachers who have undergone special training to bring their personal handguns into schools.

The Tennessee Education Association has said it's against arming teachers, and Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, both Republicans, also have expressed skepticism.

Haslam has said changes to Tennessee's gun laws should be done using a "holistic approach" that also could include increased funding for mental health services and more school resource officers.

"What if the teacher doesn't want to be armed?" he said. "I've never seen a survey, but I bet if you went out and polled elementary school teachers, I bet you wouldn't get an overwhelming number of them who carry."

Lawmakers are also expected to take up a slate of education-related proposals, including a measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school.

Under the proposal, if 51 percent of parents at a school in the bottom 20 percent of failing schools believe that a drastic change is needed, they can then select from several "turnaround models." For instance, they may want to convert it to a charter school, change the administrators or just close the school.

Another issue up for debate is a school voucher program, which backers are calling the "opportunity scholarship program." The program would use state and local education funds to allow students to transfer to better private or public schools.

Haslam appointed a task force to study how to start such a program. He told reporters last month that he has yet to decide if his administration will take the lead on the bill.

Others measures expected to come up include statewide authorization of charter schools, reshaping online schools and boosting community colleges.

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