Tennessee State House. Photo by Eric England

 Committees take shape

The biggest story coming out of this brief organizing period may be committee structure and committee leadership. The speakers control which committees get created, who leads the committees, and which members will serve on those panels for the upcoming two-year General Assembly. 

Committee chairs can wield heavy influence over proposed legislation; so, the people who sit in those chairs matter. Though some chairmanships will remain the same, elections and retirements ensure there will be new faces too.

Regardless, it’s a safe bet that women and minority groups will once again be underrepresented in legislative leadership appointed by Republicans. (Context: In December, Senate Democrats elected Black women to all three caucus officer positions.)

 Legislation

Though members are allowed to file legislation during this organizational period, legislation will not be debated until after the first legislative day — Saturday, Jan. 21 — which also includes the Governor’s Inauguration.

That said, the governor and lawmakers have begun discussing some priorities for the 2023 legislative session. Here are just some of the issues will be tracked:

 Tennessee’s abortion ban

Under Republicans, Tennessee has one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the nation.

There are no exceptions for an abortion in the state law — not even to save a woman’s life, which has generated pushback from medical professionals.  

Democrats will push to codify protections formerly guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, while Republicans may only consider a much less ambitious change.

Roads, bridges and regional transportation 

The governor says the state needs $26 billion of upgrades to reduce traffic congestion and begin replacing aging roads and bridges across the state.

But Lee’s multi-billion plan offers few details so far.

We know $14 billion worth of projects are in the four largest cities… but Gov. Lee says he’s looking to reduce spending in the urban areas by inviting private companies to build toll lanes to complement existing roads.

We also know that President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure and Jobs Act will pay for a hefty chunk of the first down payment. 

Children in crisis at DCS

The Department of Children’s Services is failing children across the state due to a staffing crisis borne out of low pay and hostile working conditions. 

Kids are dying and sleeping on the floor of state office buildings. Abuse and neglect tips are going unanswered. 

State auditors ripped the agency in December for a variety of shortcomings and failures. 

The governor did hire a new commissioner, but progress, if any, has been limited. 

Budget and taxes

$2.5 billion tax surplus. Tennessee finished FY21-22, which ended in June, with more than $1.7 billion in surplus tax revenue. Since then, the state has eclipsed tax collection forecasts by $861 million. This means the supermajority has $2.5 billion of one-time dollars for their spending priorities this session.

But, if recent history suggests future behavior, some funds will go unspent. The state comptroller says Tennessee now has $15.8 BILLION sitting in state reserves “available for spending at the government’s discretion.” [Annual Comprehensive Financial Report, 12/2022]

Republican culture war against LGBTQ people continues

Rather than prepping plans to solve real problems, the supermajority is priming legislation aimed at the rights of LGBTQ Tennesseans, including bills targeting access to health care and even criminalizing drag shows.

Tennessee Republicans have garnered national attention for their extreme actions against LGBTQ people. 

GOP third-grade retention law kicking in

Fuming over poor test scores, the Republican supermajority passed a law that will force third graders who score below proficient on the state reading assessment to repeat the grade.

Based on last year’s testing numbers, 65% of students across Tennessee would be required to be retained or to participate in summer reading programs this year. 

School leaders, teachers and parents say the test scores aren’t so black and white. They are pushing for the law to be amended before it takes effect. 

More Republican attacks on Nashville

The ever-angry GOP supermajority will introduce legislation attacking Nashville city council members. 

The bill, which would reduce the size of the council by half from 40 to 20, appears to be retaliation after city council members failed to advance an application to host the 2024 Republican National Convention. 

This latest spectacle follows a history of GOP actions aimed at undercutting local governance and the Democratic-leaning people of Nashville, specifically. 

300,000 people could lose health coverage

Estimates show that as many as 800,000 Tennesseans do not have health coverage. 

That number could explode this year after the federal public health emergency ends — a decision that will restart TennCare’s termination process. 

With 1.4 million enrollees, TennCare officials estimate as many as 300,000 people could lose health coverage.

Of course, there’s a solution to provide affordable healthcare to low-income families: Medicaid expansion. 

Under Medicare expansion, the federal government would mostly pay for Tennessee to provide health coverage to low-income workers who earn too much to qualify for TennCare, but not enough to afford private insurance. 

Rape kit backlog

This fall we learned that it takes TBI up to 11 months to process some DNA tests used in sexual assault investigations.

In at least one high-profile incident, a DNA test — sitting untested on a shelf for nearly a year — could have helped police take a predator off the streets.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle will introduce legislation to reduce and end the rape kit backlog.

Brandon Puttbrese
Press Secretary
Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus