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With a load of issues and a multibillion-dollar budget looming, the legislature's short session is very full

Beat the Clock

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The Tennessee legislature has 10 weeks.

Ten weeks to review, debate and pass a more than $30 billion budget that builds in pay raises but cuts jobs; that slashes the state's Medicaid program while signing more people up; that adds money for education that locals argue is never enough.

Ten weeks to tackle the monumental task of creating the state's first free community-college program for high school seniors, an idea lauded by many yet unable to gain traction in the past, a plan troubled by worries from four-year schools that it will take money away from freshmen and sophomores trying to afford universities.

Ten weeks for a volatile Republican majority to negotiate, debate and pass a politically touchy plan paying for children trapped at failing schools in specific areas in the state to attend private schools using dollars pulled from the public school district's pocket.

Ten weeks.

With self-imposed goals to adjourn by Easter Sunday — if not sooner — officials with the power to approve laws have nearly 2,600 bills in the kitty to debate this year after passing 500 last time around.

Some bills are pressing, like the state budget. Haslam's $32.6 billion proposal includes cuts due largely to inflating costs in both TennCare (the state's Medicaid program) and K-12 education, plus sluggish state revenues.

Exactly what's in that spending plan is a debate the legislature has yet to touch. The governor wants to include 2 percent raises for teachers (almost a $1,000 annual bump for the average teacher). His budget also includes cutting $70 million dollars from TennCare by reducing payments and programs, although it makes room to sign up 53,000 of the state's poorest children, pregnant women and elderly who never realized they were eligible for coverage.

Haslam has yet to decide whether he wants to take up a federal offer to pay for an expansion of the TennCare program, an idea he has resisted over the past year while trying to come up with a plan that the federal government will approve and the anti-Obamacare crowd in the Republican-dominated legislature will pass.

Other issues the legislature is taking up are less pressing. For instance, the House of Representatives passed an official resolution calling on conservative talk show host Sean Hannity and "all other like-minded New Yorkers" to move to Tennessee.

When the legislature isn't passing invitations for celebrities to relocate, it will likely spend most of its time tackling education and fighting amongst itself.

The most high-profile education issue this year is Common Core, a set of education standards the state began rolling out three years ago. Some tea party-friendly members of the legislature have railed against the standards and a new test the state plans to use, an idea some liberals are also fighting. Meanwhile, many Republicans — with support from the business community, which has begun an ad campaign — are hoping to stave off those efforts.

Gov. Haslam is also pitching a plan to offer free community college to graduating high school seniors. Gov. Phil Bredesen made a similar pitch during his tenure, but the idea never got off the ground, raising questions as to whether this year's legislature has the time or ability to hammer out problems with the bill, such as concerns it would lower incentives to attend four-year schools.

The governor said he's open to negotiations on his community college idea, unlike the stance he's taken on school vouchers. Pressured to offer a program providing "opportunity scholarships" for students to attend private schools, the governor last year pulled his limited proposal focusing on low-income kids at failing schools when Republican senators got hungry for a bigger program.

With special-interest groups pouring money and time into campaigns to make vouchers happen, the Senate still wants a more aggressive program. But the House is less convinced it's necessary. Seeing the issue as one that could again pit Republicans from the two chambers against each other, Speaker Beth Harwell secretly surveyed members earlier this month about where they sit.

"I think we're coming to something that pleases a lot of groups that are interested in this," says Harwell, adding that negotiations within her chamber are "very close" and could begin moving in the House within days.

Whether the Senate will like what the House has to offer is another story.

"Who is that now? The Senate?" jokes Harwell, who last year found herself in an embarrassing clash with her Republican counterpart, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, that sent ripples through the Republican supermajority. "Nah, I don't know anything about that. That's the other body. I just worry about the good folks over in the House."

But those are just a few of the thousands of bills on their agenda: What should the state to do about allowing guns in all parks? Should grocery stores sell wine and high-gravity beers? Will ballot access to political third parties be eased? Can the state approve charter schools in school districts that don't want them? And how much pseudoephedrine people can buy without a prescription?

All of these issues will take time to work out.

And the legislature has 10 weeks, if that.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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