Tennessee lawmakers reconvened Tuesday in Nashville for the second session of the 111th General Assembly. While 2019 was notable for the number of new faces in the Capitol — a new governor in Bill Lee and over 30 legislators were sworn-in for the first time last year — 2020 will be marked by at least one significant change of its own. Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) gaveled-in the House of Representatives as its new Speaker on Tuesday. Sexton, whom the House elected to its top leadership position in an August special session, replaces former Speaker Glen Casada.

Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland) will continue to serve as House Majority Leader, the same position he occupied in 2019. House Republicans elected Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) as their new Caucus Chairman, Sexton’s previous post.

While Sexton opted to leave most of the committee assignments intact from Casada’s tenure, he did make one significant change. Rep. Robin Smith, a freshman Republican from Hixson, replaced Rep. Ron Travis (R-Dayton) as Chairman of the House Insurance Committee. Travis was named Chairman of the House Business Subcommittee and will continue to serve as Chairman of the Joint Fiscal Review Committee. Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville), a former House Republican Caucus Chairman, replaces Smith as Chairman of the Life and Health Insurance Subcommittee.

Senate leadership remains unchanged from a year ago, with Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) continuing to lead the chamber as Lieutenant Governor and Speaker, Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) serving as Speaker Pro Tempore, Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) as Majority Leader, and Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) as Republican Caucus Chairman.

The top Democratic leadership positions remain unchanged in both chambers.

Lee Administration Priorities

With one year under his belt, Governor Lee made headlines last week when he signed an executive order directing the Tennessee Department of Human Services to issue a new policy to provide executive branch employees with 12 weeks of paid family leave. The new policy is effective as of March 1. While the executive order applies to all executive branch employees subject to the TEAM Act, legislation is necessary to expand the policy to employees of the judicial and legislative branches. Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and Rep. Esther Helton (R-East Ridge) will carry a bill to expand the program to those state employees. The initiative does not impact private employers.

While the governor will formally outline his 2020 priorities in his “State of the State” address on February 3, criminal justice reform is expected to be a feature. In March, Lee signed an executive order creating a criminal justice task force with the goal of improving the state’s justice system. The task force released 23 policy recommendations in December, some of which the governor is expected to try to codify, including the provision of increased support for reentry of nonviolent offenders, increased attention to addressing behavioral health needs of offenders, and comprehensive sentencing reform.

The governor will also be expected to devote considerable effort in defending his Education Savings Account (ESA) initiative, which narrowly passed last year, as Democrats (and some Republicans) make a concerted push to roll back the program.

House and Senate Initiatives

Sexton has already signaled some priorities of his own dealing with healthcare, criminal justice, and education. He is expected to push for reforms aimed at health insurers and further changes to the state’s certificate of need program, something he has advanced in the past. Media outlets have reported that Sexton plans to introduce a “truth in sentencing” bill to eliminate early release eligibility and a renewed focus on public education, including teacher recruitment and retention, as well as enhancing K-3 reading programs.

With all 99 House seats and 16 Senate seats up for election this fall, some legislators will be looking to utilize this session to score points in their home districts. Additionally, expect some spirited debate amongst legislators on how best to spend — or save — a budget surplus anticipated to be in the neighborhood of more than $730 million.

Other issues expected to gain considerable attention both inside and outside the State Capitol are a “right to work” constitutional amendment; legalization of medical cannabis; unspent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reserves; further reductions or exemptions to the professional privilege tax; refugee resettlement; and a number of socially conservative initiatives (and reactions), including abortion and LGBTQ issues.

As always, the Bass, Berry & Sims’ Government Advocacy & Public Policy Practice Group stands ready to assist you in matters where business and government intersect.