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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Legislators have great expectations for new session

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

(Photo)
State Rep. Pat Marsh is sworn in to another term of office last week.
(Submitted photo)
Tennessee General Assembly convened last week to begin a new session, doing some administrative business before taking a two-week break to allow legislators to move into their new offices or do other business.

The legislature will reconvene Jan. 28 to hear Gov. Bill Haslam's "State of the State" address.

State Sen. Jim Tracy and State Rep. Pat Marsh, both Republicans, each took time on Friday to speak with the Times-Gazette about their expectations for the upcoming legislative session.

Tracy, an insurance agent from Shelbyville, represents the 14th district (the number is different from previous years, when it was called the 16th district), including Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall, Moore and the eastern half of Rutherford counties.

Tracy recently announced that he'll be seaking a U.S. House seat in 2014.

Committee assignments

Marsh, a trucking company executive from Shelbyville, represents the 62nd district, including all of Bedford County and part of Lincoln County.

Marsh, who has served in the House since 2009, will for the first time chair a standing committee.

(Photo)
State Sen. Jim Tracy, seen with his wife Trena, takes the oath of office last week.
(Submitted photo)
"I'm excited about my new committee assignments," he said, saying that his hands were literally shaking when Speaker Beth Harwell announced his committee chairmanship.

As part of a major reorganization of the House's committee structure, last year's 12 committees have been rearranged into 13 committees with some being split and others consolidated. Last year, Marsh was a member of the commerce committee; this year, he's chair of the business and utilities committee, one of two committees into which commerce has been split.

Marsh said he's going to buy and study a copy of Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure, the book used by the General Assembly instead of Robert's Rules of Order.

Marsh had been a member of last year's conservation and environment committee, which has been combined with the agriculture committee to form the agriculture and natural resources committee. He will be a member of that combined committee.

"We have a lot of farmers in both counties," said Marsh, welcoming his new role in agriculture policy.

Tracy said he was "very honored" to be reappointed to chair the safety and transportation committee. He will also continue to serve on the commerce and labor committee, of which he'd been a member for the past year and a half.

He's no longer a member of the education committee, saying seats on that committee were needed by others and that most committee chairs only have two committee assignments anyway.

Streamlined

Tracy said the focus of the new legislative session will be to keep Tennessee "one of the best business-friendly states in the country." He said that the state is third in the nation when it comes to a low debt.

"We have been a very well-run state in Tennessee for a long time," he said, under both Democratic and Republican gubernatorial administrations, and Democratic and Republican-controlled legislatures. The state has a balanced budget amendment.

"Our pension program is in excellent shape," added Tracy.

Tracy said there will be a continue effort to streamline state government.

The House, meanwhile, is doing some streamlining of its own, with major rule changes, and the first set of permanent rules since 1997.

For the first time, Tennessee has put a limit on how many bills each House member may introduce -- 15 per session. The changes in the committee structure are intended to balance out the workload between committees and make sure each committee is able to properly consider the bills coming before it.

Marsh praised Harwell for her businesslike approach to running the lower chamber.

"I think we're going to save a lot of time and money," said Marsh, while warning that the legislative process can't move too quickly or there's a risk of making hasty decisions.

Budgets and finance

When the legislature reconvenes, Haslam will give his "State of the State" address and present his proposed budget, which Marsh said will occupy much of the legislature's attention right away.

Tracy said the state's revenues are up and unemployment is falling.

"We're in very good shape compared to other states around us," he said.

But he said the increased revenues are being taken up by Medicare and TennCare / Medicaid changes under the Affordable Health Care Act, and so aren't available to be applied to some of the state's other needs.

Tracy said colleges and universities have had to increase tuition, something that could be avoided if there were more state funding.

Marsh said that while he supports assistance to those who need health care, "we've got to be able to afford it." He said that even without any changes to the system, an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 more Tennesseans may qualify for TennCare, costing the state an estimated $300 million.

Tracy is introducing a bill related to welfare reform. He said some welfare recipients are using the EBT cards, which replaced food stamps, to pay for disallowed products, such as alcoholic beverages, and the bill is intended to eliminate that.

Worker's comp

Tracy said worker's compensation reform will be a major emphasis of the coming legislative session.

He said the current system is inconsistent, and judges in one part of the state make sharply different findings from those in another part of the state. He said the legislature wants to standardize benefits to be fairer to both employers and employees alike.

Ticketing

Marsh said the "Fairness in Ticketing" bill will be a hot issue in 2013. When Ticketmaster or other online firms make tickets available for a big concert or event, they often sell out within seconds -- but not necessarily to fans.

Ticket resellers gobble up many of the tickets and then resell them at a markup. Marsh said legislative proposals wouldn't prohibit this outright but would insist on transparency and require the resellers to be up-front about the face value of the ticket as compared to what they are asking for it.

Marsh said the goal is to make sure average citizens have the ability to buy tickets; many of Nashville's top music acts have said the ticketing issue is "killing [their] fan base," said Marsh, by making it hard for working-class fans to see their favorite artists.

School security

Tracy said the legislature is seeking input from school administrators, educators and law enforcement on ways to make schools safer in the wake of recent shootings.

"I'm involved in that," he said.

Marsh said he supports proposals to allow teachers who are legitimately trained and permitted to carry their weapons to school, saying he knows teachers who hunt and are firearm owners.

"That, to me, sounds like a reasonable way," said Marsh.

Education

Tracy said the legislature is still working on teacher evaluations. Some progress has been made, but Tracy and Marsh said the evaluations still need to be fairer and less burdensome for teachers.

Tracy also said the state needs to do more to promote parental support of education.

Tracy said there will be more focus on career and technical education, saying Shelbyville is lucky to have the Tennessee Technology Center here. Tracy said the buzzword for education may be "post-secondary," with an emphasis on providing alternatives like TTCS for those who aren't college-bound but who need more training than they received in high school.

Utilities

Marsh said the issue of utility poles will be a political hot potato this year. Cable television companies want to pay less for the right to hang their cables on poles owned by electric utilities. The electric utilities, not surprisingly, oppose this.

Wine in supermarkets

Tracy and Marsh both recently told the Times-Gazette they're hesitant to act too quickly on the issue of wine in supermarkets, wanting to protect small family-owned liquor stores which claim they'd be harmed. But Tracy said the issue is likely to be a topic of debate this year.

"It seems to be moving quicker than it has in the past," Tracy said. He said past bills have run into "bottlenecks" in the House, and the House will likely determine whether or not a proposal moves forward this year.

GOP supermajority

This is the first time since Reconstruction that the Republican party has held supermajorities in both the state House and the state Senate.

"We've just got to make sure we do the right things," said Marsh. He said he has good personal relationships with legislators from both parties, regardless of differences of opinion on individual issues.

"It's going to change the perception somewhat," said Tracy about the supermajority, but it doesn't necessarily make it easier to pass any specific proposal.

"You've got to get the votes to get your bill passed," he said.

Marsh said he was impressed by the class of new legislators, 23 in the House and eight in the Senate.

"The freshmen that I've met have really been sharp people," said Marsh.


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