Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, speaks to reporters after the first Senate floor session of the year on Tuesday. AP photo.
NASHVILLE (AP) — State lawmakers on Tuesday reconvened the 108th Tennessee General Assembly in a legislative session that is expected to feature debates over creating a school voucher program and whether to allow supermarkets to sell wine.
House and Senate speakers gaveled in around noon for a session they are hoping to wrap up as quickly as possible so lawmakers can focus on their re-election bids. All 99 House seats are up for re-election this year, along with 17 of 33 seats in the Senate.
But lawmakers will first have to approve the state’s $33 billion annual spending plan amid flagging state revenues. Through the first five months of the current budget year, general fund revenues were running $175 million below expectations.
The state constitution requires lawmakers to pass a balanced budget.
State Senate Finance Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said he expects quite a bit of debate because of the tight budget.
“I think there will be ... legitimate concerns about where cuts are being made,” he said. “It’s much harder to debate cutting things than adding things back in.”
As for vouchers — or opportunity scholarships — Gov. Bill Haslam proposed a measure last year that sought to limit them. He ended up withdrawing the measure after special interest groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads promoting an expanded proposal.
The Republican governor has not said whether he will pursue a voucher bill this year. But Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who carried the governor’s proposal, said he expects Haslam to propose similar legislation, even though he didn’t say exactly how it will look.
“We’re going to work on it,” said the Collierville Republican.
Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell believes this is the year she can bring wine to Tennessee grocery stores, an issue she has campaigned on for several cycles. The measure was advancing steadily last year, before surprisingly failing in a House committee.
The latest version of the bill would call for cities or counties to hold a referendum on whether they want to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.
“I can’t always predict what the General Assembly will do, but I feel the people want the right to vote on this issue,” she said.
Another issue lawmakers are expected to tackle is whether to require prescriptions for over-the-counter cold medicines to prevent their illegal production into methamphetamines.
A recent Vanderbilt poll showed about two out of three respondents supported a change in the law to require a doctor’s prescription.
However, members of the pharmaceutical industry say the poll question didn’t give respondents enough information about what the change would entail, and argue that public opinion is still very much opposed to requiring prescriptions for medicines like Sudafed.
Also Tuesday, members of the House of Representatives paid tribute to Rep. Lois DeBerry who died in July, at the age of 68, after a nearly five-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
The Memphis Democrat was the longest-serving member of the state House of Representatives. She also was the second African-American woman to serve in the General Assembly and the first female speaker pro tempore in the House.
“The impact that Lois had will last a lifetime,” said Rep. Curtis Johnson, a Clarksville Republican and current speaker pro tempore.
Raumesh A. Akbari, a Democratic Memphis attorney, won a special election to fill the District 91 seat that DeBerry had held since 1972.
She said she plans to continue DeBerry’s legacy, as well as step into her own by being committed to issues like education, health care and workforce development.
“The seat ... was held by Rep. DeBerry for 41 years,” Akbari said. “She made sure that our community was taken care of, and that’s what I intend to do.”