Tennessee lawmakers are set to convene for the 108th General Assembly today, gaveling in this year's legislative session at the stroke of noon in Nashville.
Along with dozens of fresh representatives, the start of the session will mark the official beginning of an era sure to be distinguished by Republican supermajorities in both legislative chambers. In the House of Representatives, GOP lawmakers outnumber Democrats 70-29; in the Senate, the ratio is 26-7.
For Republicans, the dominance is at a level not seen since the days of the Reconstruction era. The most recent Democratic supermajorities occurred in the 1960s.
District 26 Rep. Gerald McCormick, who is House majority leader, said that despite a lack of clout from Democratic lawmakers, he still expects meaningful debate to occur, even between GOP party members.
"I think we'll have a healthy debate," McCormick said. "We won't be unanimous on a lot of issues and, quite frankly, we shouldn't be. We ought to argue, debate and fight, and do it in a way that is respectful."
McCormick referred to certain bills, such as a measure to allow guns be kept in parking lots of businesses or a proposal to implement a school voucher system, as areas where the range of opinions from lawmakers would vary. The representative pointed out that differences could be rooted in other factors besides partisanship.
"A lot of these issues aren't just Republicans versus Democrats; a lot of times, it comes down to rural versus urban, sometimes urban versus suburban," he said. "We'll just have to make our cases the best we can."
Rep. JoAnne Favors, the lone Democrat returning to Nashville from the Chattanooga area, said she didn't anticipate that being in the House minority would inhibit her ability to do her job. Although she would not hint at any bills she planned to put forward, Favors said she had been developing strategy for how best to guide her measures through the GOP-dominated House.
"I wouldn't call us a minority party," Favors said. "I've been part of a subpopulation all my life; I have experience dealing with that. It's not frightening to me. I've always had to develop strategies to accomplish what I achieve. As an African-American female and throughout my work career, I didn't just walk into situations—I had to develop strategies and work on trying to achieve them."
This week will be characterized by routine, organizational meetings for establishing rules and committee assignments. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who will be serving his first term in Nashville, said he requested a spot on the Senate Committee on Education, with the intent of pushing the idea of establishing a technical, vocational school in either Hamilton or Bradley County.
"It was one of the main things I campaigned on during the primary and general election," Gardenhire said. "People say we need to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs, but I think we ought to be focusing on careers, careers, careers as well. We've got to create something where these kids are able to graduate and get a career for themselves."
Along with committee assignments, legislators will vote on adopting a new set of House rules recently put forward by House Speaker Beth Harwell. Among the rules is an item that would limit the number of bills to 10 per legislator annually in order to encourage lawmakers to prioritize.
Favors said she thought the proposal was a good idea.
"Hopefully, people will be more thoughtful," she said.
After this week, lawmakers will break until Jan. 28, when Gov. Bill Haslam will deliver his annual State of the State address. Following the speech, the General Assembly will begin the work of attempting to adopt items of Haslam's legislative agenda, along with their own measures.
McCormick said he hoped the session would adjourn in April.
"I hope we can get out quick and come back home," he said.