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What to expect during the Tennessee Legislature’s 2023 session

Rachel Iacovone

While the U.S. House of Representatives took their time getting started with business — and selecting a leader last week — the Tennessee General Assembly is expected to get right to work when session starts this Tuesday. In the months leading up to the new year, legislators have already indicated which issues will be at the top of the list in 2023. Of course, there will always be unexpected bills late in the session, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expect infrastructure, abortion and o culture wars to dominate the conversation.

Lawmakers tasked with finding more money for Department of Transportation

Currently road construction and maintenance in Tennessee is funded through vehicle registration fees and the the gas tax. But as anyone behind a wheel in this state knows, Tennessee’s roads are literally, in some places, falling apart. Gov. Bill Lee said so right after being re-elected in November. Fixing roads and easing congestion on roadways will be his top priorities during his second term.

Right now, the top proposal from Republicans, and backed by Lee, appears to be the idea of toll lanes — that is, designated lanes users can pay to use to hopefully get past traffic. Expect debate over who pays. Republicans suggest they could contract tolls out to a private company, but already Democrats are skeptical this doesn’t somehow turn into a taxpayer giveaway.

“We spend roughly $2.7 billion a year on roads, primarily that comes in to gas taxes. That’s simply not keeping up with the needs of Tennesseans who are trying to get to work, who tonight who are traveling,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland.

Republicans also want to increase registration fees for electric vehicles. The idea is that it would supplement gas tax revenues from automobiles without fuel tanks. But Rep. John Clemons, D-Nashville, has another idea that has nothing to do with cars at all.

“We’ve got to develop alternative means of transportation, and passenger rail is the obvious choice. We have the rail lines going to and from the major cities outside of Nashville and to Nashville,” said Clemons. “We need to take advantage of those and get people off the roadways to the extent we can.”

The passenger rail idea is being studied by Tennessee now. That idea would use an Amtrak rail line to connect Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis.

Exceptions for Abortion

Another focus this session will be abortion. It’s a topic didn’t get much attention last year as Republican lawmakers were waiting to see what the Supreme Court might do. After SCOTUS struck down Roe v. Wade, states were given full authority over abortions, triggering Tennessee’s all-out abortion ban.

The implications of the law were felt almost immediately, as patients began traveling across state lines for the procedure. They’ve also left physicians worried about treating pregnancy complications, such as miscarriages, without running afoul of the law.

Currently, the law has no explicit exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the pregnant person. It only contains a legal defense should a doctor have to defend themselves in court. Democratic Caucus Chairman Clemons believes Republicans bit off more than they could chew with the law.

“I think when it comes to the Republican supermajority, they’re kind of like the dog that caught the car on this issue,” said Clemons. “They really jumped at the opportunity to pass the most draconian law possible and without even knowing exactly what it did or if they did know exactly what it did.”

After the law passed, WPLN sent out a survey to all lawmakers asking if they’d consider adding exceptions to the state law. At the time, Republicans remained mum on the issue, while Democrats were vocal about wanting exceptions added. Since then though Republicans have changed their tune.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton now appears ready to discuss changes. Doug Kuffner, Sexton’s spokesman, said, “Sexton believes clarification is needed in the current law, as well as a change to affirmative defense.” He later added that if a proposal with “agreeable language” made it to the House floor, that included rape and incest exceptions, the speaker would be supportive.

His Senate counterpart Lt. Governor McNally, however, is not as keen to revisit the subject.

“Lt. Governor McNally remains comfortable with the law as it stands,” his spokesperson, Adam Kleinheider, said in a statement. “While he respects the opinions of physicians and the medical community, he believes the affirmative defense exception sufficiently protects doctors who are engaged in providing care to pregnant women in life-threatening situations.”

Culture war issues are here to stay

Republicans passed several socially divisive bills in 2022 aimed at transgender athletes and librarians. They appear to be gearing up for another round, having already introduced a measure to end gender affirming surgeries for minors. Another bill would make it a felony for adult cabaret performances, including drag shows, to be performed on public property or in front of minors.

The latter has some worried that Pride celebrations could be targeted in the future. Murfreesboro’s Pride was told that permits for future events they wanted to host would be denied and pride event organizers in other cities as well.

The bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, notified that he filed the bill with this tweet.

Johnson is also the sponsor of the bill to ban gender affirming surgeries for minors. He announced the measure last year while attending a rally hosted by conservative podcaster Matt Walsh.

Other topics of concern

A few other topics to look out for are education, public safety, and how to properly fund the Department of Children Services so that they can properly take care of children in the system.

There’s also some concern about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s recent performance during Arctic temperatures, when several gas plants failed. Lawmakers have indicated they’ll be expecting some answers to what happened.

“I never want us to be in a situation at the coldest time in our state where the power is shut off as part of a rolling blackouts,” said Lamberth.

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