- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee lawmakers return Tuesday for the second session of the 109th General Assembly with an eye toward quickly disposing of their business and heading home for election season.

All 99 House seats are up in November, along with 16 of 33 Senate seats. Given the overwhelming Republican advantages in both chambers, the April 7 candidate filing deadline will be key to incumbents looking to avoid primary challenges.

In the past, politically difficult bills have been pushed until after the filing deadline to give lawmakers without serious opposition the freedom to cast tough votes. But given the recent trend of wrapping up the session in mid-April, there wouldn’t likely be much time left to tackle controversial issues.

One major issue giving election-minded Republicans heartache is Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to increase funding for the state’s roads, most likely through Tennessee’s first gas tax hike in more than 25 years.

Haslam told reporters this week that he still hasn’t made up his mind whether to make the road funding proposal this year or next - though he acknowledged that several lawmakers have told him the case hasn’t been made to the public for why the state needs more money to maintain and build roads.

“There’s a lot of sentiment out there that folks say we need to do a better job of explaining to citizens around the state why we need to do something different than we are now,” Haslam said. “My main point to legislators has been that this is not something we can put off for five years.”

Some lawmakers would be more comfortable with more limited approaches to raising money, such as adding fees on electric cars, replenishing money taken from the road fund in past years to bridge budget gaps or raising the tax on diesel.

“I’m open to the piecemeal solutions,” Haslam said. “I just don’t want anybody to kid themselves that that’s a long-term answer to our issue around infrastructure.”

Other issues lawmakers expect to tackle this year include:

INSURE TENNESSEE: Haslam’s cautious approach toward a gas tax hike differs from last year’s headlong dive into a special session about Medicaid expansion, which occurred even though he privately acknowledged going in that he didn’t yet have the votes among fellow Republicans to pass the measure. That never changed, and his Insure Tennessee proposal was quickly defeated in the Senate. Despite pleading by the hospital lobby and Democrats to revive the measure, Haslam has said there would have to be a significant change in the political landscape for that to happen. “It wasn’t like we just barely lost,” he said in a recent speech to the Rotary Club in Nashville.

PRE-KINDERGARTEN: A long-awaited Vanderbilt study on pre-K did little to quell the political disagreements about the program aimed at 4-year-olds from low-income families, which Democrats want to expand to more classrooms around the state. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and other opponents of expansion say the study confirmed that pre-K does little to improve the long-term achievements of participants, but he also acknowledged that there is little chance that lawmakers will scale back the program.

MUNICIPAL BROADBAND: A federal decision overruling state laws that prevent utilities in Chattanooga and other cities from offering super-fast Internet to communities outside their service areas has led some lawmakers to call for a change in the state law to allow the practice while legal challenges work their way through the courts. But many lawmakers are sympathetic to the arguments of telecommunications companies that public utilities have an unfair advantage over the private sector. Meanwhile, Haslam’s office has initiated a statewide assessment of broadband availability and usage.

SCHOOL VOUCHERS: In what has become a perennial proposal in Tennessee, supporters again plan to push for a school voucher program that would provide money to parents who want to send their children to private schools. Haslam in the past has supported a limited approach, but that measure was withdrawn after proponents demanded that vouchers be made available to more students and their families.

HALL TAX: Tennessee’s Hall tax on earnings from stocks and bonds has long been a thorn in the side of anti-income-tax Republicans. But efforts to do away with the levy have been complicated by a provision that sends $189 million back to local governments in the communities where the tax was collected. While some have argued for dedicating much of an expected $350 million budget surplus toward eliminating the tax and paying back the local governments, others including Senate Speaker Ramsey support a more limited approach of increasing an exemption for senior citizens.


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