High 3: Learning the Ropes at the Legislature

The Tennessee State Senate in session


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


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.

Lt. Gov. McNally loves dogs.

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

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 75. “I used to play more of the active positions,” he says, “but now I usually play goalie.”

Lt. Gov. McNally, Gov. Bill Lee, and McNally’s dog

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 of Representatives

Speaker Sexton makes a speech to the General Assembly in January 2021.


Cameron Sexton is the leader, or Speaker, of the Tennessee House. He was elected to this position in 2019.

Here are some interesting things about Speaker Sexton:

* He is originally from Knox County, where he attended Farragut High School.

* He is much younger than Lieutenant Governor McNally. In fact, the year after Sexton graduated from the University of Tennessee (1994), he worked for McNally’s fourth re-election campaign to the state senate.

* Sexton moved to Cumberland County to work for Van Hilleary, who was (at that time) a U.S. Congressman who represented that part of the state. He loved life atop the Cumberland Plateau and decided he didn’t want to live anywhere else.

* For his “day job,” Sexton works as a banker.

Speaker Sexton with some of his constituents

Speaker Sexton’s big slogan is to put “People Before Politics.” Since it wasn’t that long ago that he was new to the General Assembly, he has important advice to representatives who are. “Try to listen more than you speak,” he says. “That’s true anywhere, of course, but it’s really true here, because there is a lot to learn here. And remember that no matter what happens, try to remain civil to one another.

“Remember that the person you are arguing against on one issue is someone whose vote you may need again in 5 minutes.”

Sexton realizes that when most teachers and students hear the word “civics,” they think of Washington, D.C., rather than Nashville. But he maintains that “you can have a bigger effect as a state representative in Nashville than you can as a member of Congress in Washington.”


The committee system


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).

A committee of the legislature

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.

The hallways of the Tennessee State Capitol are very crowded when the legislature is in session!

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.

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 see how things have changed.