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TN History for Kids

High Three: Learning the legislature

The Tennessee State Senate
PHOTO: Jed Dekalb, TN Photographic Services

By now you know that the Tennessee General Assembly consists of two chambers and that it has the power to pass laws that can affect just about every aspect of your life.

Now we're going to tell you much more "insidery" stuff. First we're going to tell you a little about how the legislature is organized and about who these 132 state legislators are (click here to learn the names of your senator and representative).

We're going to tell you about two types of people -- lobbyists and reporters -- who affect legislators and affect the way the general public perceives legislators. And we're going to give you an example of a controversial bill, and explain the long course it took to become a law.

First, let's meet the leaders of the Tennessee Senate and House.

The Tennessee Senate

Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally
PHOTO: Jed Dekalb, TN Photographic Services

As the speaker of the state senate, Randy McNally is also the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee, which means he would become the governor if the governor resigned or died in office.

McNally represents Anderson, Loudon and parts of Knox counties. He was elected Lieutenant Governor by his fellow senators for the first time in January 2017 and replaced Ron Ramsey, who held the post of lieutenant governor for 10 years.

McNally is a pharmacist who worked at the Martin Methodist Center in Oak Ridge for more than 30 years, retiring from there in 2010.

Lt Gov McNally in his home district

Everyone has hobbies, and Lieutenant Governor McNally has two in particular. One is the sport of lacrosse, which he still plays at the age of 72. "I used to play more of the active positions," he says, "but now I usually play goalie."

The other subject that gets Lieutenant Governor McNally talking is dogs. He and his wife Jan have adopted a series of golden retrievers over the years, which he admits to spoiling.

The first time McNally ever visited the State Capitol was in 1968. "We visited the House and Senate chambers," he says. "And at the time I didn't I had any reason to ever come back."

McNally was first elected to the legislature in 1978 and has been serving in either the House or Senate since that time.

The Tennessee House

Speaker Beth Harwell
PHOTO: Office of Speaker Beth Harwell

Beth Harwell is the leader, or Speaker, of the Tennessee House. When she was elected Speaker of the House in 2011, she became the first woman to ever hold that position.

Here are some interesting things about Speaker Harwell:

* She is originally from Pennsylvania and came to Tennessee to attend Lipscomb University.

* She balances being Speaker of the Tennessee House with being in a book club, exercising regularly and (most importantly) being the mother of three kids, all young adults. "It is nice when your teenage daughter tells you that you are cool," she says.

Sam Ervin (on the right) and Howard Baker
(on the left) during the Watergate hearings
PHOTO: Library of Congress

* She says she first got interested in politics by watching TV -- specifically, the 1974 Watergate hearings.

"One year, my grandmother came to live with us when she was sick," she says. "The nurse would take an hour off for lunch, and I would sit with my grandmother and we would watch TV.

"Well, the only thing on TV that summer was the Watergate hearings. And so I watched Watergate on TV and became enthralled and fascinated with the process. My grandmother’s hero became (North Carolina Senator) Sam Erwin and mine was (Tennessee Senator) Howard Baker. I told her that I was one day going to meet those men -- and I did!"

Speaker Harwell meets with representatives
of the University of Tennessee
PHOTO: Office of Speaker Harwell

Speaker Harwell was teaching political science at college when she decided to run for the state House in 1986. Today she looks back at that decision with amusement.

"There is something to be said for being naïve and energetic. I really didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to win this seat. I didn’t know a lot of people in Nashville. Most of the ones I did know were students, and not all of them liked me. If someone had analyzed the race, they would have said to me, 'Beth, there is no way you can win.' But I just ventured out and said to myself, 'You can do this.'"

Harwell won the Republican Primary that year, but lost the general election. Two years later she ran again and won, and has been re-elected by her constituents every two years since.

The committee system

The Senate Government Operations Committee
meets in January 2013

The Tennessee General Assembly meets from late January until about May each year. During a typical session, members propose in the range of 2,000 bills (more on that later).

Because there are so many bills, and because they cover such a wide range of issues, the legislature has set up a committee system that votes bills up or down before they are considered by the entire house or senate. Bills have to receive majority approval in committee before they will be considered by the house or senate.

We're not going to list every committee. But we will point out, since it should be of interest to you, that both the house and senate have education committees. Any bill that would affect the operation of your school would in all certainty be sent to both the 17-member House Education Committee and the 9-member Senate Education Committee.

So let's say, for instance, that you want the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a bill that gives every student a new school desk. To get this bill to pass, you write a House version and a Senate version and find someone in the House and Senate to sponsor the bill. A few weeks later the bill is sent to the House and Senate Education Committees. You need 9 votes in the 17-member House committee and 5 votes in the 9-member Senate committee.

Assuming you get through the education committees, you still have another hurdle. You see, in order to keep tabs on how money is being spent, all bills that require the state to spend money have to also be passed by the House and Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committees.

Senators Janice Bowling, Becky Massey, Delores Gresham
and Mae Beavers
PHOTO: Jed Dekalb, TN Photographic Services

If you get the bill through the committee system, you'll of course have to get the bill to pass the full house and full senate. That means you are going to need 50 votes in the 99-member house and 17 votes in the 33-member senate. If you have somehow made it through all those committees, getting enough votes on the floor shouldn't be much of a problem.

But make no mistake: Getting a bill to pass is a lot of work. It's so much work that there are people who spend their entire lives trying to navigate the process. They are called lobbyists, and we'll talk more about them in a while.

Today the Tennessee General Assembly is kind of an unpredictable place. Regardless of whether they are Republican or Democrat, regardless of which part of the state they come from, individual legislators can make a difference. They can, and do, show up every year with new ideas and have their ideas seriously considered by their colleagues and by  the governor.

But it hasn't always been like this. Click here to learn how things have changed.