Tennessee General Assembly

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Tennessee General Assembly

Seal of Tennessee.png
General Information
Type:   State legislature
Term limits:   None
2015 session start:   January 13, 2015
Website:   Official Legislature Page
Senate President:   Ron Ramsey (R)
House Speaker:  Beth Harwell (R)
Majority Leader:   Mark Norris (R) (Senate),
Gerald McCormick (R) (House)
Minority Leader:   Lee Harris (D) (Senate),
Craig Fitzhugh (D) (House)
Members:  33 (Senate), 99 (House)
Length of term:   4 years (Senate), 2 years (House)
Authority:   Art III, Tennessee Constitution
Salary:   $19,009/year + per diem
Last Election:  November 4, 2014
18 seats (Senate)
99 seats (House)
Next election:  November 8, 2016
Redistricting:  Tennessee General Assembly has control
Meeting place:
TN State Capitol 2.JPG
The Tennessee General Assembly is the formal name of the state legislature of Tennessee. The Tennessee General Assembly consists of two houses, the upper house, the Tennessee State Senate and the lower house, the Tennessee House of Representatives.

As of May 2015, Tennessee is one of 23 Republican state government trifectas.

See also: Tennessee House of Representatives, Tennessee State Senate, Tennessee Governor


Constitutional structure

According to the Tennessee Constitution of 1870, the General Assembly is a bicameral legislature and consists of the Tennessee State Senate with 33 members and the Tennessee House of Representatives with 99 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.

Part-time legislature

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, in the future 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 Tennessee General Assembly convenes on the second Tuesday in January on the years following elections as outlined by Article II, Section 8 of the Tennessee Constitution. The legislature is limited to 90 paid legislative days within a two year term.


See also: Dates of 2015 state legislative sessions

In 2015, the Legislature was in session from January 13 through April 22.

Major issues

Major issues for the 2015 legislative session included health, education and finances.[1] Of particular focus will be Governor Bill Haslam's "Insure Tennessee" plan. The two-year pilot program would give access to healthcare coverage to those living in the state that do not currently have health insurance or limited options.[2]


See also: Dates of 2014 state legislative sessions

In 2014, the Legislature was in session from January 14 through April 18.

Major issues

Major issues during the 2014 legislative session included education, guns in work parking lots, and requiring prescriptions for drugs used to make methamphetamine.


See also: Dates of 2013 state legislative sessions

In 2013, the Legislature was in session from January 8 to April 19. Republicans had a supermajority for the first time since the Civil War era.

Major issues

Major issues in the 2013 legislative session included guns, school vouchers, and tax cuts to wine in grocery stores.[3]


See also: Dates of 2012 state legislative sessions

In 2012, the General Assembly was in session from January 10 through May 1.

Major issues

Republican legislators began the session by passing new congressional and state legislative maps, but redistricting may remain a major issue as Democrats have threatened a lawsuit over the new districts. Republican leaders said the session will focus on job creation and eliminating policies and regulations that restrict businesses, including the inheritance tax, and reforming unemployment insurance.


See also: Dates of 2011 state legislative sessions

In 2011, the General Assembly was in session from January 11 through May 21.[4]


See also: Dates of 2010 state legislative sessions

In 2010, the General Assembly was in regular session from January 12th to June 10th. Additionally, the General Assembly met in special session from January 12th to January 25th to deal with educational issues related to Race to the Top funds.[5]

Role in state budget

See also: Tennessee state budget and finances
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The state operates on an annual budget cycle. The sequence of key events in the budget process is as follows:[6][7]

  1. Budget instruction guidelines are sent to state agencies in August of the year preceding the start of the new fiscal year.
  2. State agencies submit their budget requests to the governor in October.
  3. Agency hearings are held in November. Public hearings are held in November and December.
  4. The governor submits his or her proposed budget to the state legislature in February.
  5. The legislature typically adopts a budget in April or May. A simple majority is required to pass a budget. The fiscal year begins July 1.

Tennessee is one of 44 states in which the governor has line item veto authority.[7]

The governor is legally required to submit a balanced budget proposal. Likewise, the legislature is legally required to adopt a balanced budget.[7]

Cost-benefit analyses

See also: Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative Cost-Benefit Study
Map showing results of the Pew-MacArthur cost-benefit study.

The Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative released a report in July 2013 indicating that cost-benefit analysis in policymaking led to more effective uses of public funds. Looking at data from 2008 through 2011, the study's authors found that some states were more likely to use cost-benefit analysis, while others were facing challenges and lagging behind the rest of the nation. The challenges states faced included a lack of time, money and technical skills needed to conduct comprehensive cost-benefit analyses. Tennessee was one of 29 states with mixed results regarding the frequency and effectiveness in its use of cost-benefit analysis.[8]

Ethics and transparency

Following the Money report

See also: "Following the Money" report, 2014

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer-focused nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., released its annual report on state transparency websites in April 2014. The report, entitled "Following the Money," measured how transparent and accountable state websites are with regard to state government spending.[9] According to the report, Tennessee received a grade of B and a numerical score of 83, indicating that Tennessee was "advancing" in terms of transparency regarding state spending.[9]

Open States Transparency

See also: Open States' Legislative Data Report Card

The Sunlight Foundation released an "Open Legislative Data Report Card" in March 2013. Tennessee was given a grade of C in the report. The report card evaluated how adequate, complete and accessible legislative data was to the general public. A total of 10 states received an A: Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.[10]



See also: Comparison of state legislative salaries

As of 2013, members of the Tennessee Legislature are paid $19,009/year. Legislators receive $173/day per diem tied to the federal rate.[11]

When sworn in

See also: When state legislators assume office after a general election

Tennessee legislators assume office the 15th of January following the election.

Work of the General Assembly

Legislative schedule

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 U.S. 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 Tennessee 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.

Gubernatorial election dispute

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.

Amending the State Constitution

The General Assembly can propose amendments to the state constitution, but only through one of two time-consuming processes:

Legislative initiative

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.

Constitutional convention

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.


The Tennessee Senate is the upper house of the Tennessee General Assembly.

The Tennessee Senate, according to the Tennessee Constitution of 1870, is composed of 33 members, one-third the size of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Senators are to be elected from districts of substantially equal population. Each member represents an average of 192,306 residents, as of the 2010 Census.[12] After the 2000 Census, each member represented 172,403.[13] According to the constitution a county is not to be joined to a portion of another county for purposes of creating a district; this provision has been overridden by the rulings of the Supreme Court of the United States in Baker v. Carr (369 US 182 1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (337 U.S. 356 1964) The Tennessee constitution has been amended to allow that if these rulings are ever changed or reversed, that a referendum may be held to allow the senate districts to be drawn on a basis other than substansially equal population.

Until 1966, Tennessee state senators served two-year terms. That year the system was changed, by constitutional amendment, to allow four year terms. In that year, senators in even-numbered districts were elected to two-year terms and those in odd-numbered districts were elected to four-year terms. This created a staggered system in which only half of the senate is up for election at any one time. Districts are to be sequentially and consecutively numbered; the scheme basically runs from east to west and north to south.

Republicans attained an elected majority in the Senate in the 104th General Assembly (2005-2006) for the first time since Reconstruction; a brief majority in the 1990s was the result of two outgoing senators switching parties.

The senate elects one of its own members as Speaker; the Speaker automatically becomes Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee. The current Speaker of the Senate and Lieutenant Governor is Republican Ron Ramsey, who was elected to the position in 2007, succeeding John S. Wilder, who had held the post since 1971. Although the Republican Party had attained a one-member majority in the November 2004 election, Wilder, a Democrat, had held his seat due to the support of some Republicans.

Party As of May 2015
     Democratic Party 5
     Republican Party 28
Total 33

The chart below shows the partisan composition of the Tennessee State Senate from 1992-2013.
Partisan composition of the Tennessee State Senate.PNG

House of Representatives

The Tennessee House of Representatives, is the lower house of the Tennessee General Assembly. According to the state constitution of 1870, this body is to consist of 99 members elected for two-year terms. Each member represents an average of 64,102 residents, as of the 2010 Census.[14] After the 2000 Census, each member represented 57,468.[15] In every even-numbered year, elections for state representative are conducted simultaneously with the elections for U.S. of Representative and other offices; the primary election being held on the first Thursday in August. Seats which become vacant through death or resignation are filled by the county commission (or metropolitan county council) of the home county of the member vacating the seat; if more than a year remains in the term a special election is held for the balance of the term.

The Speaker of the House is second in line to succession to the governorship after the Speaker of the Tennessee Senate; however, no Speaker of the Tennessee House has ever become governor. Since 1973, all Speakers have been from a single Democratic faction in West Tennessee; this has become a source of some resentment. The Speaker, under House rules, has the right to appoint all committees and their chairs and assign proposed legislation to committees, giving the Speaker tremendous power to push legislation through or conversely, to block it. The current Speaker, James Naifeh, has long been a target of concerted Republican efforts to unseat him. Recent high-profile and well-funded efforts to defeat him at the polls in his own district have failed thus far; future efforts may center around their allying with dissident Democrats who do not have a good relationship with Naifeh in an effort to replace him with another, less partisan, Democrat.

Party As of May 2015
     Democratic Party 26
     Republican Party 73
Total 99

The chart below shows the partisan composition of the Tennessee State House of Representatives from 1992-2013.
Partisan composition of the Tennessee State House.PNG


Partisan balance 1992-2013

Who Runs the States Project
See also: Ballotpedia:Who Runs the States and Ballotpedia:Who Runs the States, Tennessee
Partisan breakdown of the Tennessee legislature from 1992-2013

Tennessee State Senate: From 1992-2013, the Democratic Party was the majority in the Tennessee State Senate for 12 years while the Republicans were the majority for eight years. Tennessee was under Republican trifectas for the final three years of the study.

Across the country, there were 541 Democratic and 517 Republican state senates from 1992 to 2013.

Tennessee State House of Representatives: From 1992-2013, the Democratic Party was the majority in the Tennessee State House of Representatives for first 18 years while the Republicans were the majority for the last four years. The Tennessee House of Representatives is one of 18 state Houses that was Democratic for more than 80 percent of the years between 1992-2013. Tennessee was under Republican trifectas for the final three years of the study.

Across the country, there were 577 Democratic and 483 Republican State Houses of Representatives from 1992 to 2013.

Over the course of the 22-year study, state governments became increasingly more partisan. At the outset of the study period (1992), 18 of the 49 states with partisan legislatures had single-party trifectas and 31 states had divided governments. In 2013, only 13 states had divided governments, while single-party trifectas held sway in 36 states, the most in the 22 years studied.

The chart below shows the partisan composition of the Office of the Governor of Tennessee, the Tennessee State Senate and the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1992-2013. Partisan composition of Tennessee state government(1992-2013).PNG

SQLI and partisanship

To read the full report on the State Quality of Life Index (SQLI) in PDF form, click here.

The chart below depicts the partisanship of the Tennessee state government and the state's SQLI ranking for the years studied. For the SQLI, the states were ranked from 1-50, with 1 being the best and 50 the worst. Tennessee experienced both Democratic and Republican trifectas during the years of the study. Its best ranking, finishing 21st, occurred in 2012 during a Republican trifecta. Its worst ranking, finishing 40th, occurred in 2004 during a Democratic trifecta.

  • SQLI average with Democratic trifecta: 34.00
  • SQLI average with Republican trifecta: 23.00
  • SQLI average with divided government: 31.71
Chart displaying the partisanship of the Tennessee government from 1992-2013 and the State Quality of Life Index (SQLI).

Joint Committees

See also: Public policy in Tennessee

The Tennessee General Assembly has 4 joint committees:

See also

External links