The Williamson County delegation delivered a broad overview of legislative bills constituents can expect in the 111th General Assembly at the Williamson, Inc. Town Hall at Columbia State Community College Friday.
Legislators also addressed Williamson County rising to the seat of power in the legislature.
“Freshman” Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, talked about his first couple of weeks on the Hill trying to follow the trail Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, who passed away in November, left behind.
Williamson County’s four legislators informed the audience about anticipated key legislation, regarding judicial reform, school safety and further opioid legislation, as well as mental health legislation for those who might be dangerous to society. Williamson, Inc. Legislative Committee member Dave Crouch served as moderator.
The bill-filing deadline is Feb. 7. House representatives are permitted to submit up to 15 legislative bills for consideration, while the Senate is permitted to introduce an unlimited amount.
Williamson County as Power House
Williamson County was established as a power seat in the 111th General Assembly this month with the key elections of Jack Johnson as Senate Majority Leader, Glen Casada as House speaker, Brandon Ogles as House Republican Caucus Vice-Whip and Gov.-elect Bill Lee will take the highest position in the state Saturday at his inauguration at War Memorial Building in Nashville at 11 a.m. Also, Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, was recently appointed to chair the House Transportation Infrastructure Subcommittee.
Even though there is some talk, or concern, across the state about Williamson County being positioned as an influential power spot, Johnson said it’s not so uncommon.
When asked, Johnson also assured audience members that the legislative process would remained balanced without special treatment being bestowed upon Williamson County through legislation.
“Even though we have these leadership positions, we can’t just snap our fingers and something special happens for Williamson County,” Johnson said. “That’s not how it works, even with the governor and everyone else.
“To do anything in the General Assembly, I’d have to get 17 votes in the Senate and 50 votes in the House. We are very fortunate and blessed that we will get to call attention to certain issues we have – school funding is one. It’s a good thing, but we still have the committee system to go through and to convince our colleagues.”
Johnson also pointed out that according to “political history” in the Tennessee legislature, representatives from the same region of the state have periodically risen to power. For example, “endearingly” termed the “West Tennessee Mafia” Ned McWhorter (former-governor), John Loller (former Lt. Gov.), Jimmy Naifeh (House speaker) once held the concentration of power. Then more recently, Johnson explained, East Tennessee leaders seemed to take the top spots, including Gov. Bill Haslam of Knoxville, Ron Ramsey (Lt. Gov.), Randy McNally (Lt. Gov.) and Gerald McCormick in the House.
The freshman experience
During the talk, Ogles shared his experiences during the first couple of weeks on the Hill as a “freshman,” legislator.
With a third of the House and Senate filled with newly-elected legislators, Ogles said if one calls the name “freshman,” in the hall of the Capitol building, most turn around.
“It’s the largest turnover since the Civil War,” Ogles said.
“There is a big difference between watching the legislature and being there.
“Charles Sargent did an amazing amount of work, and I see his traces everywhere. I’ve been there everyday soaking up the bread crumbs Charles has left.”
Ogles also said that in making legislation, he has learned that “it’s more like a game of chess than checkers” – a multitude of factors have to be taken into account and one move can affect people 10 years down the road.
That’s why, he explained, institutional knowledge is so important.
“There are a lot of moving parts and consequences to decisions. The institutional knowledge has to [play into decision-making],” Ogles said.
House committee expansions
Upon stepping into the position of House speaker, Casada, as promised when elected, made significant changes to the committee system in the House, including expanding the number of subcommittees to 30. Previously, for the past 8 years, one subcommittee operated under 14 standing committees. But last week, Casada restructured and expanded the committee system by introducing 13 full committees with 30 subsequent subcommittees.
Casada also fulfilled his vow of bipartisanship as House speaker when he appointed two Democrats to lead two subcommittees.
“I like to serve assertively and lead by example and put good people in charge,” Casada said when Crouch asked him to explain his leadership style.
“We have a team concept in the House,” Casada said.
Casada further explained his decision to add various subcommittees to the House committee system.
“The idea behind that is to put subject matter experts on those subcommittees so they can do deep dives [on crafting legislation.”
Casada also introduced “oversight committees” within the subcommittees, which will work in tandem with certain state departments (including the Tennessee departments of correction, children services and Tenn Care, for example) to provide oversight, transparency and assistance.
“We want the legislative body to look into prisons, children and family issues and all things intimately involved in our lives. Legislators should be involved in those,” he said.
“Glen has done a good job putting the right people in the right positions,” Johnson said.
“Having fresh new eyes coming in, and with new governor, will be healthy.”
Likely legislation in judicial reform, opioids, school safety and education
As House speaker, Casada will most likely carry Gov.-elect Lee’s legislation, however, because Lee has not been sworn in, Casada and other legislators explained that specific legislation is not yet formulated.
“We don’t have specific language from the governor, and we are still at a high level focus,” Johnson said.
However, Johnson expects some reform in the prison system, refocusing on rehabilitation for offenders rather than incarceration.
“That doesn’t mean are getting lax on crime, but if you commit a crime and pay your debt to society, once that is paid, we want you to be a productive member of society.”
During his campaign, Lee explained that he met with an incarcerated man for a year, serving as a mentor and sounding board, which made an impression. He also served on the board of Men of Valor, a rehabilitation ministry for previous offenders.
Some offenders Casada said lose their barber license or other trade licenses when incarcerated, which ultimately limits job opportunities.
Meanwhile, Ogles remains committed to introducing a school safety bill that would provide a Student Resource Officer for every school in Tennessee.
“The fiscal note is huge,” Ogles said.
“Sam and Jack are supportive. I am encouraged by parents and teachers this is an issue we should look at.”
Ogles said he believes the state has a fiduciary duty to help protect children in the state.
“We are gathering signatures at a rapid pace,” he added.
The opioid crisis is back on the table this legislative season as well as an education bill that could secure more funds for high growth school districts like Williamson County Schools. Casada also said he is interested in expanding funding to create mental health instututions to help those who are “a danger” to society.
“We need more beds and long term treatment,” Casada said.
Johnson also said legislators might be able to refine legislation, passed last year, to help direct cities in the annexation process, which has removed some power from the city of Franklin and placed it in the hands of citizens. In the meantime, Whitson is working to reduce traffic and will introduce the “Katie Beckett bill” or health care waiver for eligible ill children.