The 2023 Tennessee legislative session has concluded, and for those of us who focus on serving our constituents in a positive and meaningful way, political theater often overshadowed any headlines reporting impactful legislation.
I want to highlight a few pieces of legislation I feel deserved more discussion. Below are six of those bills.
House Bill 1568: Solid Waste Authority for Murfreesboro
Murfreesboro is building a solid waste transfer station off of Butler Drive and they plan to partner with WastAway for an alternative solid waste solution for when Middle Point Landfill closes. This project is set to cost Murfreesboro approximately $60 million. This law is going to help remove that burden from Murfreesboro taxpayers.
By allowing Murfreesboro to set up its own solid waste authority, Murfreesboro can apply for $16 million in grants from the Inflation Reduction Act. Additionally, the remaining $44 million can be funded using revenue bonds as opposed to general obligation bonds. Thus, revenue from the facility will pay off the bonds as opposed to taxpayers.
Passage of this bill wasn’t easy. It was first heard in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which wasn’t necessarily favorable to the bill. I had to regroup with Murfreesboro for another strategy. We drafted a local bill and I presented it to the House Local Government Committee. I appreciate the city’s staff for listening to feedback and working hard to help draft a successful final version of the bill.
House Bill 437: 3rd Grade Retention Revision
In this session, we addressed concerns over the new third-grade retention law. Last fall, our delegation hosted a forum with Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to discuss the issue.
Prior to session, I worked on solutions and eventually drafted House Bill 270 and House Bill 978 with State Sen. Dawn White. House Bill 270 utilized the reading screeners as an additional tool for advancement to third-grade while House Bill 978 allowed school officials to appeal on behalf of the student instead of only parental appeals.
Both bills had broad support but were opposed by Gov. Bill Lee’s administration. The House Education Committee went through an extensive process of reviewing bills and negotiations with the Senate and administration. In the end, the House Education Committee decided to run House Bill 437 as a third-grade retention omnibus bill, but utilized our two concepts in the bill.
The new law isn’t exactly as I would have wanted it, but it is a big step forward for our students and parents.
House Bill 774: Protecting Tennessee Businesses and Workers Act
The Protecting Tennessee Businesses and Workers Act helps protect businesses from unnecessary burdens that could be imposed upon them by local governments. It keeps an equal playing field, especially for small businesses, by leaving those decisions to the business.
The law prohibits local governments from attempting to influence the wage and employment benefit decisions of private companies through actions such as the imposition of ordinances, purchasing and contracting procedures with contracted private companies, and the awarding of third-party contracts.
While local governments may offer whatever wages and employment benefits that they see fit to their own employees, they should not be able to dictate or influence those decisions in the private business. Such actions would prove harmful to locally owned, small businesses that may not have the resources or capabilities to meet the demands of such actions on the part of the local government. This law protects those private businesses from being undermined by overburdensome local ordinances.
House Bill 883: Life of the Mother Law
In 2019, the groundwork to ensure life is protected at conception in Tennessee was laid should the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverse its decision on legalized abortion. The General Assembly that year passed the Human Life Protection Act (HLPA), a conditional trigger law written to go into effect 30 days following a U.S. Supreme Court decision giving states the authority to regulate abortion.
When the high court on June 24, 2022 declared that abortion is not a constitutional right, the Human Life Protection Act became law and automatically made abortion for any reason a Class C felony crime in Tennessee. The HLPA saved thousands of babies, but much consternation came about due to the definition of abortion and the affirmative defense in the law.
When a layperson thinks of abortion, what they are really discussing is what is called an elective, induced abortion. In other words, the abortion or ending of the pregnancy isn’t medically necessary (thus elective) nor is it occurring naturally (thus induced by drugs or medical instruments). Treatments of ectopic pregnancies and molar pregnancies, while not considered elective, induced abortions under any medical definition, unfortunately were not clearly exempt from the HLPA.
Secondly, while it was highly unlikely that a district attorney was ever going to charge a physician for a medically necessary procedure, the affirmative defense only allowed a physician to defend their medical decision after the fact as opposed to being protected on the front end.
I expressed these concerns to a multitude of individuals, including legislative leadership and pro-life leaders. I believed so strongly that we needed to improve the HLPA that I filed my own bill and made it adamantly known that Tennessee needed to make three changes:
- Amend the definition to ensure that treatments of ectopic and molar pregnancies weren’t classified as criminal abortion because they simply aren’t.
- Ensure that treatment for life or organ health of a woman was protected on the front end as opposed to an affirmative defense.
- Clear up any conflicts in our Tennessee code in order to prevent legal challenges due to vagueness.
Several bills were filed that attempted to do much more, and the original HB 883 amendment went way beyond what needed to be addressed. The original HB 883 amendment, if it made it to the House floor, would have likely had over 60 votes against it. If over 50 “No” votes occur on a bill, then the issue is dead for the session. That meant that the three necessary changes to the HLPA would not have been able to be addressed during the 113th General Assembly.
I voted no on the original, overreaching House Bill 883 amendment in the Population Health Subcommittee. Ultimately, pro-life leaders across the state, leadership, and the Senate agreed that the three advocated changes to the HLPA needed to occur and the bill was amended. Once amended, the bill had strong bipartisan support as it passed both chambers and was signed by Governor Lee. House Bill 883 was one of the most significant bills that came through the General Assembly this year.
House Bill 702: Cracked down on fentanyl trafficking
For years, I have been harping on the dangers of illicit fentanyl and its analogues. In anesthesia, it is one of the better opioids for surgery, but on the street, and in the wrong hands, it can be deadly. With an open southern border and failures at the federal level to stop the flow of illicit fentanyl, I’ve been pushing for harsher penalties for fentanyl trafficking in Tennessee.
This year, we passed House Bill 702 which enhances the punishment for the sale, manufacture, delivery of, and possession with intent to sell, manufacture, or deliver fentanyl, carfentanil, remifentanil, alfentanil, and thiafentanil, from a Class C felony to a Class B felony for any amount 0.5 grams or more but less than 15 grams, and for any amount less than 0.5 grams if a weapon was involved or if the offense resulted in death or bodily injury to another person.
While I would like for the penalty to not include all the caveats, the fiscal note on the bill becomes an obstacle to passage if the bar is lowered for prosecution. Regardless, this is a positive step in the right direction.
House Bill 273: Improved Board of Medical Examiners function
The Board of Medical Examiners provides a vital function to Tennessee with oversight on medical licensing and patient safety standards. We must ensure that they are operating in an efficient and proficient manner. Unfortunately, we have discovered some barriers to productive operations within their system.
One of the issues the BME has had includes the utilization of the medical consultant that is provided to them from the Department of Health. It is critically important that the consultant and BME work in unison and that the consultant be accountable to the needs of the BME. HB 273 provides for the necessary level of accountability and will help our BME’s ability to function in a more productive manner.
Much more positive legislation came through the General Assembly this year including a balanced budget, tax cuts, teacher pay raises, and extension of the TN Together Opioid Law. I look forward to discussing those issues soon.
Rep. Bryan Terry, MD