Tennessee lawmakers convene 109th General Assembly

Major issues could include new abortion regulations, dialing back Common Core education standards, increasing the state's gas tax and tweaking Tennessee's supermarket wine law.

by Erik Schelzig Associated Press | 1/14/2015, 1:10 p.m.
Major issues could include new abortion regulations, dialing back Common Core education standards, increasing the state's gas tax and tweaking ...

NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers convened the 109th General Assembly on Tuesday amid abortion rights protests inside the state Capitol.

Republican Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville and Sen. Ron Ramsey of Blountville were re-elected as speakers of the House and Senate, while about 60 protesters outside the chambers shouted into a bullhorn, banged drums and chanted.

The protesters inside the Capitol had split off a much larger demonstration to oppose new restrictions after the approval of a constitutional amendment in November that gave state lawmakers more power to regulate abortions.

"They want to force women to have ultra sounds and extra medical procedures done," said protester Alex Harned, a Nashville massage therapist. "That's completely unnecessary, expensive. It just doesn't make sense."

At least 20 state troopers kept an eye on the protesters but didn't stop the demonstration. Lawmakers went about their business undisturbed, though the chants could be heard inside the chambers each time the sergeants-at-arms opened the doors.

Harwell said she wasn't bothered by the protests outside the House chamber.

"I encourage anyone to come to the state Capitol. This is their building, not mine," she said. "I would probably choose another method myself, personally. But as long as they're not doing it in this chamber where we have to maintain decorum, that's fine."

The Legislature's organizational session this week includes committee assignments, the election of constitutional officers and Gov. Bill Haslam's inauguration to a second term on Saturday. Lawmakers then go on a two-week break before things get serious.

Haslam has a called a special session starting Feb. 2 to take up his proposal to offer health coverage to 200,000 low-income Tennesseans. While the governor has insisted that his plan is different from the straight Medicaid expansion offered in other states, several GOP lawmakers are wary about approving a plan linked to President Barack Obama's health care law.

"We'll have to make a really good argument," said House Republican leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga. "It's got to appeal to their common sense — we're paying for these services now through insurance policies and through paying for hospitals."

"If people go with that argument and look at it from that standpoint I think it will pass," McCormick said. "And if they're not willing to do that because of political considerations, then it won't pass."

Legislative leaders have said they hope to limit the special session to one week before hearing Haslam's State of the State address around Feb. 9 and embarking on the regular legislative session.

Major issues awaiting lawmakers in the regular session could include new abortion regulations, dialing back Common Core education standards, increasing the state's gas tax and tweaking Tennessee's supermarket wine law.

(Associated Press writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report.)