Some of Tennessee’s most ardent conservatives aren’t coming back to Nashville for the next legislative session — some willingly, some not — but Republicans still hold overwhelming super-majorities in both the House and Senate.
The GOP will likely still hold the same 73 (out of 99) seats in the state House but gone are Republican Reps. Andy Holt, Micah Van Huss and brothers Matthew and Timothy Hill.
And despite the majority caucus’ claim in a post-election press release that it plans to focus on improving public education “especially in the area of childhood literacy,” “removing government barriers to health care to improve access and quality, while promoting affordability” and overhauling “our current system of justice to create a system of justice to create a system that balances justice with mercy,” few have any illusions that Republicans will push to the backburner the priorities of hardline conservatives like Holt and Van Huss. Those are things such as opposing abortion, opposing the removal of KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust in the Capitol, pushing the Bible as the state’s official book and deeming the media “fake news.” Perhaps those are included in the “other important issues” the Republican caucus promised to address when the legislature returns in January.
“Tennessee voters spoke with a loud and clear voice,” Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) said. “They like what the Republican Party has accomplished for our state and they overwhelmingly want to keep going in that direction.”
Unmentioned in the press release was the coronavirus, which has reached record levels in the state in recent weeks.
In the Senate, Republican control was diminished on Election Day, but only slightly. With Democrat Heidi Campbell beating incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville, Democrats now control six of the chamber’s 33 seats.
The first pre-session push by super-majority Senate Republicans, as evidenced by their public messaging, comes on an issue that wouldn’t change the way the state operates. Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) is continuing his effort to enshrine the state’s existing “right to work” anti-union law in the state constitution. The legislature must pass his resolution with a two-thirds majority for a second time before it can be sent to a statewide vote. Right to work has been the law in Tennessee for nearly 75 years, but a constitutional amendment would make it harder to repeal if political winds shifted.
“This amendment will guarantee future generations of Tennessee workers their right to work regardless of whether they choose to join a union,” Kelsey said.
Some individual lawmakers are making their own priorities for 2021 known. Williamson County Republican Rep. Brandon Ogles, fresh off a decisive re-election, said he wants to continue his effort at cracking down on the criminal justice front when he returns for his second term.
"I was first elected to hold our politicians and bureaucrats accountable for the safety of our children — we did that by securing half a billion dollars towards school safety over the next decade and I will continue to advocate for the safety and security of our citizens," Ogles wrote. "I am excited to get back to work in January to start the 112th General Assembly and will prioritize governmental accountability, domestic violence, and safety measures to protect our most vulnerable citizens."
The Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus is taking a different tack. Their first legislative effort in the new session, announced the day after the election, is to end executions of people with intellectual disabilities.
The push is inspired by the case of death row inmate Pervis Payne, whose disability his lawyers contend made it easier to paint him as guilty.
Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway told the Daily Memphian that the legislation would “provide (a) path through the courts for Mr. Payne to address the intellectual disability issue and prevent an unjust murder” by the state.
This story first appeared in our partner publication the Nashville Post.