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Regional & National

First up for Tennessee lawmakers: 'Divisive' redistricting

January 10th, 2012 2:32 pm by ERIK SCHELZIG, LUCAS L. JOHNSON II, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican leaders on their first day back to work Tuesday called for the quick passage of legislative and congressional redistricting plans.

House Speaker Beth Harwell in a brief address said she understands that not all members will be happy with the new district lines, but argued that the new maps need to be approved so potential candidates can firm up their plans before the April 5 filing deadline.

"I hate starting the year in such a rush with a divisive topic, but I would like to remind you that we have responsibilities," the Nashville Republican said. "And one of those responsibilities every decade is to process these bills and get them out to the citizens."

Other issues facing lawmakers include grappling with a proposal to change eligibility requirements for lottery scholarships to halt a drawn on the program's cash reserves and passing a balanced spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

"We're looking forward to getting back to work," said Rep. Linda Elam, R-Mt. Juliet. "We're going to delve right into the legislative agenda, have a good session, get our business done and get back out to our districts."

Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, called their halls to order for the second session of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly shortly after noon CST.

The Republican proposal for redistricting is expected to be come up for a vote soon, possibly as early as Thursday. The GOP seems likely to pass the plan, despite complaints from Democrats that it is likely to reduce the number of African-Americans serving in the Legislature.

Democrats signaled their unhappiness with the process by blocking a GOP motion to waive a requirement for copies of hundreds of pages of proposed changes to the redistricting bills to be delivered to all 99 members.

Harwell called the Democrats' move "silly" and designed to slow down the process. She said the documents could easily be viewed on lawmakers' state-issued laptop computers.

Members of Occupy Nashville, a Wall Street protest group that has been encamped in tents on the plaza across the street from Capitol since October, lined the hallway outside both chambers before the session, calling for an end to the sales tax on food as members filed in.

After the singing of the National Anthem, someone threw pieces of green paper resembling checks onto the House floor from the gallery. They were titled "The People's Bribe" and made out the Tennessee General Assembly for $99.99.

"What they did of course violates House rules," Harwell told reporters afterward. "But it was so insignificant, I let it go."

Gov. Bill Haslam was scheduled to present his legislative package later in the day.

Haslam has already exerted control over two controversial matters — creating school vouchers and changing teacher evaluation standards — by calling for formal studies that will essentially push off decisions until next year. He also has said that because of budget pressures he doesn't think this will be the year to make cuts in the estate tax or the Hall tax on income from stocks and bonds.

Many Republican lawmakers are still hoping they can take the action that allows them to run for re-election on a tax-cutting record. Ramsey has said the Senate wants to take aim at the Hall tax this year, while Harwell and House Republicans have targeted a reduction in the estate tax.

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