|Tennessee General Assembly|
House of Representatives
|Speaker of the Senate||Ron Ramsey, (R)
since January 9, 2007
|Speaker of the House||Kent Williams, (Carter County Republican)
since January 13, 2009
|Political groups||Democratic Party
|Last election||November 4, 2008|
|Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville|
According to the Tennessee State Constitution of 1870, the General Assembly is a bicameral legislature and consists of a Senate of thirty-three members and a House of Representatives of ninety-nine members.
The representatives are elected to two-year terms; according to a 1966 constitutional amendment the senators are elected to four-year terms which are staggered, with the districts with even numbers being elected in the year of Presidential elections and the those in the districts with odd numbers being elected in the years of Tennessee gubernatorial elections.
To keep the legislature a part-time body, it is limited to ninety "legislative days" per two-year term, plus up to fifteen days for organizational purposes at the start of each term. A legislative day is considered any day that the House or Senate formally meets in the chambers of each house. If it remains in session longer than ninety legislative days, lawmakers cease to draw their expense money, currently set at $141 per legislative day.
Legislators also receive an "office allowance" of $1,000 per month, ostensibly for the maintenance of an office area devoted to their legislative work in their homes or elsewhere within their district. Traditionally, it has been easier, politically-speaking, to raise the per diem and office allowance than the salary.
The speaker of each house is entitled to a salary triple that of other members. Under a law enacted in 2004, legislators will receive a raise equally to that given to state employees the previous year, if any.
The governor may also call "extraordinary sessions", limited to the topic or topics outlined in the call, limited to another twenty days. Two-thirds of each house may also initiate such a call by petitioning for it.
The expense per diem money is a boon to legislators who live within a realistic commuting distance of Nashville, but is a limiting factor in the lifestyle of those who live farther away; many share apartments during the term. The allowance, if claimed, is taxable income for federal income tax purposes for those legislators living within a 50-mile radius of Nashville, the state capital.
Generally speaking, "legislative days" are scheduled no more than three days a week during the session. Legislative sessions in both the House and Senate occur on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Tuesdays and the majority of Wednesdays are used primarily for committee meetings and hearings rather than actual sessions. Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the Tennessee Capitol also take on an eclectic flavor most weeks, as varied and diverse constituent groups set up display booths to inform lawmakers about their respective causes.
Sessions begin each year in January and usually end by May; during recent fiscal crises meetings have spilled on into July. The time limit on reimbursed working days and the fact that the Tennessee state government fiscal year is still on a July 1 – June 30 basis puts considerable time pressure on the General Assembly, especially with regard to the adoption of a budget.
Membership in the legislature is best regarded as being a full-time job during the session and a part time job the rest of the year due to committee meetings and hearings (for which legislators are reimbursed their expenses and receive a mileage allowance). A few members are on enough committees to make something of a living from being legislators; most are independent business people and attorneys, although the latter group is perhaps no longer the absolute majority of members that it at one time comprised. In keeping with Tennessee's agricultural roots, many senators and representatives are farmers.
Lobbyists are not allowed to share meals with legislators on an individual basis, but they are not forbidden from inviting the entire legislature or selected groups to events honoring them, which has become a primary means of lobbying. Members are also forbidden from holding campaign fundraising events for themselves during the time they are actually in session.
Each house sets its own rules and elects its own speaker; the Speaker of the Senate carries the additional title and office of Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee. For over three decades, both speakers were from West Tennessee; this caused considerable resentment in the eastern two-thirds of the state. From 1971 until January 2007, Tennessee had the same Lieutenant Governor, John S. Wilder, a Democrat. Wilder was re-elected to the position even after Tennessee Republicans re-took the State Senate in the 2004 election. However, in January 2007, after Republicans gained additional seats in the 2006 General Assembly elections, the Senate elected Republican Ron Ramsey (from East Tennessee) to the office of Lieutenant Governor.
The General Assembly districts of both houses are supposed to be reapportioned based on population as determined by the U.S. federal census on a decennial basis; in practice this was not done between 1902 and 1962, a fact resulting in the United States Supreme Court decision in Baker v. Carr (369 US 186) required this action to be taken and subjected it to judicial review. Afterwards, there have been other lawsuits, including one which resulted in an order for the body to create a black-majority district in West Tennessee in the House in the late 1990s.
The General Assembly is recognized by the State Constitution as the Supreme Legislative Authority of the State. It is the General Assembly's responsibility to pass a Budget for the functioning of the State government. Each year, the Governor, in his State of the State address, outlines his budget priorities; the Assembly, in joint session, is present for the speech.
According to the state constitution, three positions in state government collectively referred to as the "Constitutional Officers" -- the Secretary of State, State Treasurer, and the Comptroller of the Treasury, who serves many of the functions of an auditor -- are selected by the General Assembly in joint convention, where each member of the General Assembly is accorded a single vote and the office is awarded to the first candidate to receive a majority of the votes (67 of 132).
The General Assembly selects the members of the State Election Commission. It selects three members from the majority party (the one controlling the majority of the 132 total seats). In theory, they then select the members of the 95 county election commissions; in practice the General Assembly members tell which members of their party from their districts should be elected and the parties themselves select the members from the party which is not represented in that county by either a state senator or a state representative.
A contested gubernatorial election is also to be decided by a joint convention of the General Assembly according to statutory law; the General Assembly is also to decide the election by joint convention according to the constitution in the event of an exact tie in the popular vote, an extremely unlikely proposition.
The General Assembly can propose amendments to the state constitution, but only through one of two time-consuming processes:
For the legislature to propose amendments to the state constitution directly, an amendment must first be passed by an absolute majority of the membership of each house during one term of the Assembly. Then, during the next General Assembly term, each house must pass the amendment again, this time by a two-thirds majority.
The amendment must then be put on the statewide ballot, but only at a time when an election for governor is also being held. The amendment to be passed must receive over half of the total votes cast in the gubernatorial election in order to be ratified and come into effect.
The 1870 constitution of Tennessee had never been amended in this manner until 1998, when the "Victims' Rights Amendment" was added; a similar process was used in 2002 to enact the state lottery.
Two amendments proposed by the General Assembly were presented to voters on the 2006 ballot. In 2005 the "Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment," specifying that only marriages between a man and a woman could be legally recognized in the state, was approved for submission to the voters in 2006. The ACLU had previously challenged the validity of the ballot initiative by asserting that a constitutional obligation to advertise the amendment had not been satisfied. However, on February 23, 2006, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that the proposed amendment would be on the ballot in 2006. Both that amendment and an amendment authorizing exemption of senior citizens from property tax increases were approved by voters in November 2006.
The more usual method of amending the state constitution, and the one used in the past (all amendments prior to 1998), is for the General Assembly to put on the ballot the question of whether a limited constitutional convention should be called for the purpose of considering amendments to certain specified provisions of the constitution.
If the voters approve this in a statewide election they then, at the next statewide election, elect delegates to this convention. This body then meets (in the House chamber of the State Capitol) and makes its recommendations. These recommendations can be voted on in any election, either one specially called or in conjunction with other statewide elections, and need only pass by a majority of those casting votes.
This method can not be employed more often than once every six years.