The pace picked up this week on Capitol Hill with lawmakers advancing several bills through committee and on the House floor. The House Finance, Ways and Means Committee continued its work advancing the priorities of Tennesseans for next year by completing its seventh week of budget hearings. The House Education Committee on Wednesday held a special hearing to consider testimony from Tennessee teachers, superintendents and other experts on childhood literacy rates in Tennessee. Much of the focus was on the impact of the bipartisan Tennessee Literary Success Act and Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act passed by the General Assembly in early 2021. The laws were aimed at improving literacy rates and tackling the learning loss related to COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, only a third of Tennessee fourth graders were able to read at grade level. Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly have placed a heightened focus on foundational literacy skills in recent years because of the critical importance of third-grade reading proficiency.
The third-grade retention law passed in 2021 provides students with additional academic support before being promoted to the fourth grade if they are not reading on-level. Lawmakers this session have filed 18 bills to address concerns about the law. The House K-12 Education Subcommittee will begin to consider the proposals in a special hearing scheduled for March 7.
General Assembly bans gender mutilation of children
Legislation that prohibits minors from undergoing irreversible and harmful medical procedures for the purpose of changing their gender identity now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature following a 77-16 vote in the House chamber on Thursday.
Tennessee now provides the nation’s strongest protections against the removal of a child’s healthy body parts. House Bill 1, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, bans medical interference that alters a child’s hormonal balance and procedures that remove body parts to enable the minor to identify as a gender different from their biological sex. The Senate version passed on Feb. 13.
“These treatments and procedures have a lifetime of negative consequences that are irreversible,” said Lamberth on the House floor. “When you start cutting off body parts of a child and you’re telling them something is wrong with their body when they already think that, it is dangerous and destructive….What those children need is love and support, mental health treatment, and time.”
Any health care provider who violates the law can be sued in civil court by the minor injured, the parent of the minor injured or the Attorney General within 30 years of the violation. Providers found to be in violation could face up to a $25,000 penalty per violation and have their medical license restricted.
The legislation ensures that doctors can still prescribe hormone treatment to minors for medically necessary purposes and makes exceptions for children born with chromosomal anomalies or congenital defects. House Bill 1 now heads to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. It becomes effective July 1.
Constitutional carry expansion advances
Republican legislation to expand protections for Tennesseans’ Second Amendment rights advanced out of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee this week.
House Bill 1005, as amended, would expand constitutional carry in Tennessee by allowing law-abiding adults to carry a firearm where they are legally allowed to. The legislation would also lower the minimum age required for a person to obtain an enhanced, lifetime enhanced or concealed handgun carry permit from 21 to 18 years of age.
“You have a civil right to keep and bear arms, and it’s not just pistols,” said bill co-sponsor State Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County. “That is what this bill is about.”
If approved, the bill would also rename concealed handgun carry permits and enhanced handgun carry permits to concealed firearm carry permits and enhanced firearm carry permits. Permit holders and law-abiding adults would be allowed to carry any firearm they legally own in any place or manner currently authorized for handguns.
Existing state law prohibiting certain individuals, like those convicted of stalking, from possessing a firearm would remain unchanged. Additionally, the legislation would clarify that a person or entity who prohibits the possession of firearms on their property is not immune from civil liability. House Bill 1005 is scheduled to be heard in the House Civil Justice Committee on March 1.
General Assembly protects children from adult entertainment
The House chamber on Thursday passed legislation that protects children from being exposed to sexually explicit performances. House Bill 9, sponsored by State Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, restricts adult-oriented cabaret performances from being performed on public property if children could be present.
The bill requires private establishments such as bars or restaurants that host sexually explicit shows to require patrons to show identification to ensure they are at least 18. The bill provides common-sense protection and clarity regarding what performances are not appropriate for children.
Todd told members on the House floor he sought to clarify the law following community outrage in his district over a drag show planned on public property. The show was promoted as a “family-friendly” event.
“This is a common sense, child safety bill,” Todd said. “It protects children first and foremost. This will make it much easier for the public to determine what exactly is appropriate for children and what is not.”
A violation of this bill would result in a Class A misdemeanor, and a second or subsequent offense would result in a Class E felony. The bill returns to the Senate chamber for a procedural vote before heading to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Another proposal making its way through House committees would require a person to obtain a valid entertainer permit from the adult-oriented establishment board in jurisdictions with a board, prior to performing an adult cabaret entertainment show.
House Bill 30, sponsored by State Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, prohibits public, private and commercial establishments from allowing anyone under the age of 18 to attend such a performance. House Bill 30 is scheduled to be heard in the House Finance, Ways, and Means Committee on Feb. 28.
Subcommittee advances legislation targeting fentanyl dealers
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week advanced Republican legislation to strengthen the punishment for those who sell certain dangerous and illegal drugs like fentanyl in Tennessee.
House Bill 702, as amended, would increase the punishment for the sale, manufacture and delivery of fentanyl, carfentanil, remifentanil, alfentanil, and thiafentanil from a Class C felony to a Class B felony for amounts between 0.5 grams and 15 grams.
“The only way that we can try to hopefully deter some of the fentanyl poisonings… in our state is to make our (laws) much tougher,” said bill co-sponsor State Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro. “Hopefully that will deter some people from selling this drug and pushing it on their friends and throughout our communities.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there were 2,734 fentanyl overdose deaths statewide in 2021 – a 446 percent increase when compared to 2017. House Bill 702 is scheduled to be heard in the House Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 28.
Biological sex clarified in state law
The House Civil Justice Subcommittee this week advanced legislation to clarify the definition of “sex” in Tennessee state law.
House Bill 239 would define the term as a person’s immutable biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth and evidence of their biological sex. There are currently multiple departments within state government where the term has not been previously defined.
“It’s important for the law to be clear,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood. “We do unfortunately live in a day and time where terms that have always been understood in one way are now being used in ways that historically… have never been used. Having the definition of a term locked down in the code to give clarity to the judicial branch and the citizens is worth significant merit.”
According to the legislation, evidence of a person’s biological sex includes government-issued identification that accurately reflects a person’s sex listed on their original birth certificate. House Bill 239 is scheduled to be heard in the House Civil Justice Committee on March 1.
Legislation protects teachers from forced speech
A bill that would allow Tennessee teachers and public-school employees to set their own policy on whether to use a person’s preferred pronouns advanced to the Education Administration Committee this week.
House Bill 1269, sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, establishes that teachers and other employees of a local education agency (LEA) are not required to use a student’s preferred pronoun if it is not consistent with the student’s biological sex. Cochran on Tuesday told members of the House K-12 Subcommittee that forced speech is a violation of free speech, and the legislation is intended to protect school employees.
“Public school teachers and employees of (local schools) do not shed their constitutional rights when they walk in the door,” Cochran said. “Not only does the First Amendment protect your right to speak, it protects your right not to speak. It protects you from saying something you do not believe.”
House Bill 1269 bill does not actively authorize a teacher to establish a policy, but rather prevents adverse action if they do.
A legal precedent was established in 2021 when the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion in Meriwether vs Hartop affirming that educators cannot be forced to use inaccurate preferred pronouns that would violate their First Amendment right to free speech.
House Bill 1269 further shields teachers and school employees from civil liability and adverse employment action. It makes clear that a public school or LEA is not civilly liable if a teacher or employee of the public school or LEA refers to a student using a pronoun that is consistent with the biological sex of the student to whom the teacher or employee is referring, even if the pronoun is not the student’s preferred pronoun.
Bill eliminates probation for rape
Legislation that provides increased protections from convicted rapists advanced out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week.
House Bill 31, sponsored by State Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, would add rape to the list of crimes that a defendant is not eligible for probation under the Tennessee Criminal Sentencing Reform Act of 1989. Current state law allows for a criminal to be eligible for probation if their sentence is less than 10 years. However, certain enumerated offenses are not eligible for probation regardless of the length of the sentence. If approved, this legislation would add rape to that list.
The General Assembly approved Truth in Sentencing legislation in 2021 and expanded it again in 2022 to ensure certain violent offenders, including those convicted of rape, serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by a judge or jury. House Bill 31 is scheduled to be heard in the House Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 28.
Protecting senior citizens from stalkers: House Bill 1280, sponsored by State Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, would expand aggravated stalking offenses to include anyone who stalks a person who is 65 years of age or older and is at least 15 years younger than the victim. If approved, the change would increase the punishment from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a $3,000 fine. The House Criminal Justice Committee is scheduled to discuss House Bill 1280 on Feb. 28.
Ensuring fairness in girls’ sports: House Bill 306, sponsored by State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, would further protect girls’ sports in Tennessee by requiring private school students who compete in an interscholastic athletic activity or event as part of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) to do so in accordance with their sex at birth. Similar legislation applying to public middle and high school interscholastic sports activities was approved by the General Assembly in 2021. The House Education Administration Committee is scheduled to discuss House Bill 306 on March 1.
Eliminating disabled license plate fee: House Bill 76, co-sponsored by State Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, would eliminate the disabled license plate fee in Tennessee for a parent or guardian of an individual who is permanently and totally confined to a wheelchair. Currently, the registration fee is $26.50. The House Finance, Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to discuss House Bill 76 on Feb. 28.
Tennessee Businesses Against Trafficking Program: House Bill 115, The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week advanced the Tennessee Businesses Against Trafficking program, which engages corporations and other private entities in voluntary efforts to identify, prevent and combat human trafficking. Sponsored by State Rep. Debra Moody, R- Covington, House Bill 115 requires the Secretary of State to establish a program that includes participating in training, public awareness campaigns and other measures. The Secretary of State will work collaboratively with other state agencies and advisory councils to promote the program.
Charter schools: House Bill 1086 A bill that seeks to clarify various charter school-related provisions, as well as operational challenges charter schools face, will be considered by the Education Administration Committee on March 1. Sponsored by State Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, House Bill 1086 clarifies that charter schools may enroll out-of-district students after all eligible in-district students have been enrolled, and that out-of-district students may not exceed more than 25 percent of the total student enrollment. There is currently no cap on out-of-district enrollment and no requirement that in-district students be enrolled first. Additionally, the funding will work the same way as with any other public-school student that attends school out of district: TISA funds will follow that student to the receiving district, which may charge tuition to account for differences in local funding. Even though the student is attending a charter school, the tuition will go to the district. The bill also requires a charter school authorizer to review the performance of any other charter school operated by the school sponsor, governing body or charter management organization, among other provisions.