NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee session starts this week and figures to be one of the more contentious ones in recent memory.
WKRN News 2 sat down with leaders on both sides of the aisle to talk about all the issues and what they might look like in bill form.
Separate interviews were conducted with Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland), Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Democratic House Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).
Not every interviewee was asked about every subject, but there was considerable crossover with most of them.
Note: These answers have been edited for brevity.
In terms of overall goals, the Republican leaders WKRN spoke with were focusing on financial plans—on the other side of the aisle, Democrats discussed social issues heading into session.
Sexton: “Outside the budget, make sure we’re maintaining good fiscal, conservative policy in what looks like maybe a recession coming, is number one. After that, I think you’ll see infrastructure, roads, choice lanes being discussed. I think you’ll see the Dobbs decision with states setting abortion standards will be discussed heavily. I think there’ll be some healthcare stuff along with some juvenile crime and violent crime.”
Clemmons: “Improving Tennessee’s families lives every single day with respect to every issue, that’s our single focus this year. We’ve got a lot of issues to address with regards to public education. We’re going to be focused on returning local control to LEAs and locally elected officials. This state government under the GOP leadership and Governor Bill Lee has really overstepped into local decision-making when it comes to our public schools.”
McNally: “First and foremost, I think we need to continue to keep taxes low. In case of excess revenues, return that to the people who actually generated it. Also, make sure we have enough in reserves and Rainy Day fund and keep our bonded debt real low because, unfortunately, I think we’re headed for a downturn in the economy. It’ll be difficult to determine how difficult it’s going to go, so Tennessee needs to be prepared for that.”
Akbari: “Certainly looking at a woman’s right to choose – reproductive justice, gun violence, education and literacy, some of the pressing things that have kind of permeated throughout the state.”
“We’ve seen in the last two sessions a slate of hate that has kind of targeted the LGBTQ community, an increase in weapons legislation allowing open carry, which has been really dangerous I think, and, of course, an attack on the women’s right to choose.”
Johnson: “I always start with the budget because I believe it’s the most important thing we do – decide how to spend your tax dollars, how many of your tax dollars we need. I think we’ve done a really good job in recent years, we’re running significant surpluses.”
“But obviously, with some uncertainty in the economy, we need to be diligent about being prepared for potential economic downturns because that certainly has a negative effect on our revenues.”
Lamberth: “The top of the list is always the budget. We’re going to make sure we keep our taxes low, that we keep our debt level almost non-existent. We’re the lowest indebted state in the country and one of the lowest-taxed states.”
“We’re going to underspend our budget like we do every year which creates a surplus that we can then use on roads and bridges and water lines and hard infrastructure and buildings and state parks to really set Tennessee up for the future.”
Nashville vs. State Government
It’s no secret the rift between Nashville’s Metro Council and the state government is contentious at best. House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) and Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson) filed a new bill to limit the size of metro councils in Tennessee to 20 members. Lamberth’s bill comes after the council voted against hosting the Republican National Convention in Nashville in both 2024 and 2028.
Sexton: “Metro council is inefficient. You can’t have 40 people in a body where you only get 3,000 people to elect you. And I think even people in Metro government will agree it’s inefficient. We’re definitely going to look at reducing the size of Metro government and make it more efficient.”
“We’re willing to sit down with Metro, we’re willing to work with Mayor Cooper. People think it’s a Republican-Democrat thing. It isn’t. Even with Metro, when you agree, you can’t work with them. They don’t want to work with you. The state has an obligation to oversee local government.”
Clemmons: “This GOP supermajority has shown time and time again that it’s not afraid to step into local affairs. That should scare the daylights out of every Tennessean. When you have state government up here in Nashville trying to tell you what you’re doing in Sumner County at the local level, trying to tell you what you’re doing in Cocke County or Cumberland County, you should be wary of any politician that’s trying to overstep in your local affairs.
“We’ve seen it play out in the public education sphere, where the state is trying to tell local school boards and even librarians how to do their jobs. To the extent this GOP supermajority and the governor want to get revenge on Nashville for whatever reason they’ve dreamed up today, if they want to do that, that’s their prerogative. I would urge them to exercise a little caution before they set that dangerous precedent.”
McNally: “[Metro] is definitely dysfunctional, and I think that the alternatives are to shrink it or increase it. Probably the best one is to shrink it. I do think that they’ve lost their way and they really don’t represent the people of Nashville. They represent the Democratic Party and all the ideals it stands for. We’ve tried in the past to get along with them and have found it extremely difficult. It seems like they’ve got their own agenda, and it’s not really the public’s agenda.”
Johnson: “We, as a state, have a responsibility and an obligation to hold our political subdivisions accountable, and that’s what Metro government is. Obviously, there is a different ideological bent in the Metro Council than there is in the Tennessee General Assembly, so certainly we will disagree on some things. Relative to the size of the Council, this is something that’s been an ongoing discussion at some time, this didn’t just come up. This didn’t just come up because they refused to host the Republican National Convention. But that is a great example of something that causes a significant amount of frustration at the General Assembly level. The Republican National Convention… it’s a no-brainer. So would the Democratic National Convention.”
“When you have the opportunity to host something like that where the eyes of the world are on your city, and it’s a $200, $300 dollar impact to not just Nashville, by the way, because hotels in Franklin and Hendersonville and Dickson and Murfreesboro and Lebanon and Mt. Juliet would have all been full because of this convention. This would have been an incredible positive economic impact. So it does illustrate, I think, some of what we believe to be petty partisan politics that come out of the Metro Council.”
“To me, the Metro Council’s refusal to support hosting the Republican National Convention is a great example of the problem that we have. And if they have a problem with the Tennessee General Assembly or the composition of the Tennessee General Assembly, take it up with the people of Tennessee. Let me say this about the RNC. How many of those people would have also gone to Sevierville to go to Dollywood or maybe driven down to Memphis to see Graceland or Beale Street? How many of them would come down to Franklin to visit Carnton Plantation or the Carter House?”
“The legislation is not because of that decision. It’s because a number of decisions that have been building up over time and perhaps that decision to refuse to support the RNC coming to Nashville may have been the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Upcoming Infrastructure/TDOT Package
Clemmons: “I’m excited. The topic itself is exciting. We should’ve focused on this every year that I’ve had the honor of serving in the legislature. But right now, we don’t know what this plan is. We don’t know what Governor Lee is talking about. He’s out there politicking on something and hasn’t given anybody any details. Here we are, a week before our legislative session starts, and we don’t know anything.
It shows a weakness in leadership and a really fundamental problem in understanding how to govern and get legislation through the legislature. They like to do it where they just rush it through at the last minute and hope nobody notices the details, which I think they’ve successfully done (before).”
McNally: “I haven’t seen exactly what they’re going to do. My thought is if it is an alternative that a driver can choose to drive in a faster lane, particularly in and around cities like Nashville – they say about 40% of the traffic coming into Nashville is actually intent on going right through Nashville. So we’ve got three interstates converge here, in Knoxville we’ve got two that converge. It’s a very poor design.
But if you were to allow people to use a faster lane and pay per mile that they’re on that lane, then you also eliminate some of the traffic in the regular lane. So it’s advantageous to both sets of people.
‘Choice’ is the keyword. It’s not a toll road. You get to choose. You can drive to Nashville through I-40, which comes right to the center of town, or you might be able to take a faster lane that gets you there a lot quicker.”
Johnson: “The first thing we have to do is recognize the problem, and the problem is significant. Depending on whose number you use, there’s $26–maybe $30 billion worth of road projects across this state that are needed and have been approved and all they’re waiting on is funding.
I agree with the governor wholeheartedly that we should not raise the gas tax. I also agree with the governor that we should not start borrowing money to pay for our roads.
I think that the idea of creating public-private partnerships where you can monetize certain areas – very limited – where there is very high congestion, high density in order to help pay for some of those most expensive projects, I think we need to look at it.
When I’m asked about it, I always start with trying to explain the problem. If you think traffic’s bad now, if we continue to grow in the Middle Tennessee area, you could say the same about Knoxville, Memphis…if we keep growing in the way we’re growing right now, we’re going to be totally bottlenecked and gridlocked in 10 years. Our infrastructure cannot support it.”
Lamberth: “We’re going to do everything we can to eradicate traffic here in Tennessee. It is ridiculous the amount of traffic Tennesseans have to go through to just get to work, to get to where they want to go, to get to pay, to get to their kids’ soccer game. The traffic is gridlocked in many areas in Tennessee. For far too long, we’ve used outdated models to be able to deliver roads to Tennesseans.”
“It takes, on average, about 15 years from concept to folks driving on pavement. That’s way too long, it ought to be four or five years. But we’re going to do all this without increasing any debt and without raising taxes.”
Relationship with Opposite Party
As it currently stands right now – and it could certainly change – the attitude between the leaders in the Democratic and Republican party is significantly better than the end of last session. Tensions flared between Sexton and Dixie several times last year with them often spilling over to social media.
Sexton: “In order to work with someone, they have to be willing to work with you. I’ve always been able to work with John Ray [Clemmons], I’ve worked well with Karen Camper, who’s the Minority Leader. Even when the former caucus chair (Rep. Vincent Dixie) didn’t want to work with us, I was still working with Leader Camper. Now, with Caucus Chairman Clemmons, I view it to be more like when (former state representative) Mike Stewart and Karen Camper. We met a lot, didn’t have a lot of agreement on things, but you can have conversations and really talk about things, and that’s what you need to have.”
Clemmons: “Especially as a Democrat in a super-minority, you have to have relationships across the aisle. I work with the Speaker of the House because he is the Speaker of the entire House, not just the Republicans. So, we have to work with Speaker Sexton, we have to work with people across the aisle to be successful. That’s called legislating.”
“We’re not going to agree on a lot of issues. Speaker Sexton and I have done battle on his book burning bill, his support of the abortion bill, his push for any number of things. We’re just not going to agree on those issues. But we can agree not to agree and still treat each other with respect.”
McNally: “We try to be fair. If Democrats bring forth a bill that’s advantageous to the state, we look on it favorably. The old game was you didn’t pass it this year and the next year, there were two of the opposing parties that had the bill, so we don’t want to do that. I think you treat each individual member with respect, and I think, internally, they treat you with respect.”
Johnson: “I think we have a good working relationship with our friends across the aisle. In my role as Majority Leader, I want us to have an open dialogue and a collaborative conversation. Obviously, we’re going to disagree on things. The four years I served as the Republican leader with Jeff Yarbro as the Democratic leader, I think we had a really, really good working relationship.
“When we did disagree, we were able to do so agreeably and not with the type of divisiveness and vitriol you see in Washington, and I’m very proud of that. I am absolutely confident that with Raumesh Akbari as the Democratic leader, we had a great working relationship, so I very much expect that to continue.”
Rainy Day Fund
Sexton: “I don’t see taking any money out of the Rainy Day fund.”
Clemmons: “We’re blessed to have great financial leadership starting with Governor Phil Bredesen setting this in motion. That money’s there. The question then is, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to sit on it or are we going to improve the quality of life of every Tennessee family?”
“I would opt for being fiscally responsible and spending some of that money and prioritizing it on issues that affect Tennessee families on a daily basis – public education, infrastructure/healthcare and building our local economies, especially our rural communities.”
McNally: “First, we’ll try to use departmental reserves. We’ll also try to cut positions that are not essential. Probably the last is to hit the Rainy Day fund, and we did that under the Bredesen administration when we had the turndown in ‘08, ‘09. We were then able to replenish it quickly, but that’s what it’s there for. We don’t know whether it’s going to be a shower or a downpour.”
Akbari: “I don’t know if (Gov. Lee) will have to dip into the Rainy Day fund (for DCS). We certainly are anticipating a surplus with our sales tax and other types of collections. So, I’m hoping he’ll taking care of that within his budget.”
WKRN News 2 will be covering this year’s session in Nashville. Click here to read the latest from the State Capitol.