The Tennessee General Assembly convened for the first organizational day of the 113th General Assembly on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The initial days of a General Assembly that spans two years are filled with much ceremony as freshman and veteran members and their families pack into respective chambers. Underneath the swearing-in ceremonies and speeches sits a dense legislative agenda, committee assignments, and the biennial game of office assignment musical chairs.

The top-level issues include abortion exceptions, transgender treatment for minors and drag show attendance regulations. Other topics include Governor Lee’s infrastructure improvement plan – specifically how to equalize and incentivize payment for current road maintenance projects as well as the construction plan backlog.

Components of the funding plan include streamlining the administrative process by which road projects are approved, addressing Tennessee Department of Transportation staffing shortfalls, utilization of proposed public-private partnerships to address urban road matters, increasing the annual fee assessed to owners of electric vehicles, and likely the most controversial—choice or “toll” lanes. While details remain unavailable to the public, some members of the General Assembly are voicing concerns about components of the plan, and many have a series of questions that will bear themselves out in the forthcoming weeks.

Senate Committee Assignments

For the casually curious, not all committees are equal in scope and influence, so prime committee assignments are highly sought after, entailing the opportunity to vote on pet interest topics and often a heightened ability to fundraise. The Senate was the first to announce its assignments. Most of the chatter centered on who would replace former Senator Mike Bell as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Most considered Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), current chairman of the Education Committee and former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to be the frontrunner. However, in a surprise move, Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) was elevated to the position. As the committee with some of the longest and most technical discussions, it will be interesting to see how efforts around criminal justice, hemp-derived product regulation, and many others fare under the newest chairman.

While all other standing Senate committee chairmen retained their positions, the makeup of others changed significantly. Senator London Lamar (D-Memphis) was appointed to serve on the powerful Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. Senator Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) will join the Transportation and Safety Committee this year, giving her a potentially closer opportunity to review Governor Lee’s proposed road funding plan and advocate for the unique needs of metro areas. The State and Local Government Committee – charged with oversight of local governments, utilities, and elections – will see three new Republicans added to the nine-member committee, Senators John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), and Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun).

Top Senate leadership roles did not change, but Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) was removed from her largely ceremonial role as Deputy Speaker. She was replaced by not one but three other members. A reasonable observer may conclude that the change signals the leadership’s displeasure with the long list of controversial efforts she has sponsored over the past two years.

House Committee Assignments

In the House, the pre-session talk was primarily centered on the Judiciary Committee as well—but for a different reason. In recent years, the committee was split into Criminal Justice and Civil Justice Committees. It was hinted that the two might recombine under a single banner, but that was not done. Representative Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport), champion of the recent truth in sentencing measures propelled by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, was appointed chair of Criminal Justice. The Naming and Designating Committee, the only standing committee in the House to be chaired by a Democrat, received the axe treatment, but that is likely the result of its former chairman not returning to the chamber after a loss in the November general election.

The House Health Committee gained a new subcommittee deemed the “Population Health Subcommittee,” which will be chaired by Representative Michele Carringer (R-Knoxville). This newly created committee is designed to catapult favored forthcoming abortion measures and quickly dispense with others in keeping with Speaker Cameron Sexton’s (R-Crossville) support of exceptions for the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest.

The top ranks of House leadership remained consistent but with two notable changes. Representative Mark Cochran (R-Englewood) was successfully elected as Assistant Majority Leader and Representative Scotty Campbell (R-Mountain City) was selected as the Republican Caucus’s Vice Chair. These are supportive roles but can be a signal of leadership candidates in the making.

The General Assembly will take little official action in the next two weeks to administratively organize and attend gubernatorial inauguration festivities. When they return, the ominous House bill filing deadline will greet them on January 31. This is about a week earlier than in previous years. The Senate’s bill filing deadline is set for February 2. Once each passes, the stage will be set for the governor’s State of the State address on February 6.

If you have any questions about the 113th General Assembly, please contact the authors.