- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Randy McNally was elected as the new speaker of the Tennessee Senate on Tuesday, and fellow Republican Beth Harwell unanimously won a fourth term in charge of the House.

The votes came as lawmakers convened the first session of the two-year 110th Tennessee General Assembly.

The legislative session is expected to be dominated by debate over Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s efforts to boost transportation funding, likely through the first gas tax hike since 1989.

That discussion comes as several sitting lawmakers - including Harwell - are considering bids to succeed the term-limited governor next year. Harwell said she wants to concentrate on the legislative session before making up her mind about a gubernatorial bid.

“We are waiting on the governor’s proposal and it will be fully debated and vetted in this chamber,” Harwell told reporters. “This General Assembly does not take raising taxes lightly, so I predict that if we look at increasing the user tax on gas, we would also look at lowering the tax somewhere else.”

McNally succeeds Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who chose not to seek re-election. Ramsey became the first Republican Senate speaker since Reconstruction when he was elected to the upper chamber’s top post in 2007. The GOP has since built supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

McNally was sworn in as 87th speaker of the Senate, a position that also carries the title of lieutenant governor. The pharmacist from Oak Ridge spread the thanks around in his acceptance speech.

“It’s a big job, and I’m certainly humbled by the trust you placed in me,” McNally said. “I’m confident that my journey to this time and place was prepared well in advance by the many interactions I’ve had with you and other people and friends and family. But I recognize that I can’t complete that job alone.”

While lawmakers convened in the House and Senate chambers, a few dozen protesters gathered in the lobby to chant about protecting the rights of the poor, women, LGBT people, refugees and immigrants, people who need health care, Muslims and other groups.

“This was called a call to conscience, because we are calling our legislators to lift up our higher values, not values of xenophobia or racism or sexism, but values of showing that there’s enough for all to have health care, for all to be welcome, for all to be treated with respect in Tennessee,” said Justin Jones, a 21-year-old Fisk University student who led the protest.

In the Senate vote for speaker, 29 of 33 members voted for McNally, who in turn cast a ceremonial vote for Ramsey. All 99 House members voted for Harwell, who faced a harder-than-expected path for the GOP nomination when her caucus voted 40-30 in her favor last month.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said Democrats were encouraged by Harwell telling them “she’s the speaker not for the Republican caucus or the Democratic caucus, but for the House of Representatives.”

“We believed that and want to show our support for her going forward,” he said. “You know, we’ll have differences, but we supported her unanimously.”

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