House considers additional safety measures, prepares to pass budget
Lawmakers have been winding down legislative business for the first session of the 113th General Assembly as the House and Senate chambers prepare to pass a budget and additional safety measures to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals.
Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday issued an executive order aimed at strengthening background checks. Tennessee law already prohibits people who have been involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment from possessing or purchasing firearms. The governor’s order sets a 72-hour period for reporting new relevant criminal activity and court mental health information to the Tennessee Instant Check System (TICS).
“We’ve been meeting with all stakeholders, the Department of Health, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Education, and families with children who went to Covenant School,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland said on Thursday. “We are focused on the horrendous tragedy (in Tennessee,) but it’s not just about that shooting; It’s about preventing the next one. It’s about making sure that never happens in Tennessee ever again. All ideas (are) on the table and we’ve had some spirited discussions. I feel like we can take some good steps forward and we already have with the School Safety Act.”
The House chamber last week passed bipartisan legislation that significantly strengthens safety at public and private schools across Tennessee. The School Safety Act of 2023, House Bill 322, was introduced in January, though several measures were added following the deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27.
These measures include enhanced legislation and funding to place an armed security guard at every Tennessee public school, boost physical school security at public and private schools, and provide additional mental health resources for Tennesseans. The bill adds $140 million to establish a school resource officer (SRO) grant fund to place a trained, armed security guard at every public school.
“If there’s one place every child should feel safe, it’s in school. So we’ve focused on that, but we want to go beyond that and focus on mental health to make sure there are no loopholes there for those who are being involuntarily committed,” Lamberth said.
The House on Thursday formally honored the Metro Nashville Police Department along with officers Rex Engelbert and Michael Collazo who took down the active shooter at the Covenant School, a private Christian academy. House Joint Resolution 504 honored the department and the officers whose heroic actions stopped the shooter within minutes of arriving at the school. House Resolution 521 recognized the Nashville Fire Department and the Nashville Department of Emergency Communications for the critical role they played in facilitating a quick response. The House also passed six joint resolutions to honor each of the six victims of the Covenant School shooting.
Each of the victims was memorialized in House Joint Resolutions 523, 524, 525, 526, 527, 528. They are Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney, and Hallie Scruggs, all age nine, Mike Hill, age 61, Cynthia Peak, age 61, and Katherine Koonce, age 60.
House passes Tennessee Information Protection Act
The House of Representatives on Monday unanimously approved legislation that will protect Tennesseans’ right to privacy and ensure they have control of the personal information they share online.
House Bill 1181, also known as the Tennessee Information Protection Act, requires large technology companies like Google, Instagram, and TikTok to fully disclose to consumers what information is being collected about them through their online activities.
“This provides a mechanism where they have to protect (your) data,” said bill sponsor House Majority Whip Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville. “They have to make sure you’re aware of what they do with that data. They have to make you aware if they sell the data. They have to give you a copy of the data. If you request that data to be deleted, this legislation makes them delete that information.”
When consumers interact on websites, social media or apps, they leave behind personal information that is sold without their knowledge to groups that use it to market their products, ideas or beliefs with targeted ads.
The Tennessee Information Protection Act will require online platforms to disclose up-front exactly what personal information will be collected and how they intend to use it. Tennesseans will also be able to opt-out of the selling of their personal information to third parties without discrimination. Additionally, the legislation includes protections for biometric data that measures physical characteristics like voice records, fingerprints, retinal scans or facial recognition.
Companies that misuse a consumer’s information will also be held accountable. The bill gives the state attorney general the authority to impose civil penalties if these big tech companies fail to safeguard private data or violate consumer protections.
The companion version of House Bill 1181 is still awaiting Senate approval.
Deaf mentor and parent advisor program bill advances
Republican legislation to help improve communication among families with young children who are deaf advanced out of the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee this week.
House Bill 435 would create a deaf mentor and parent advisor program to assist families in implementing bilingual and bicultural home-based programming for young children who are deaf, hard of hearing or deaf-blind. The program would be available at the West Tennessee School for the Deaf in Jackson as well as the Tennessee School for the Deaf’s campuses in Knoxville and Nashville.
“This mentoring program that we’re putting in place is where the parents will be taught how to communicate with that child through sign language and other things,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. “If this wasn’t in place, then this child is kind of growing up in silence in a home with parents that don’t really know how to communicate.”
The program would focus on preventing language deprivation or gaps through insufficient language access. It would provide a positive impact on a child’s social and emotional development while also ensuring they have equal access to learning opportunities at home and in the community. Additionally, parents would have the option of using a deaf mentor to expose them to American Sign Language and deaf culture.
Deaf mentors and parent advisors would make regular visits to the homes of young children who are deaf, hard of hearing or deaf-blind. They would interact with the children and their families using American Sign Language and spoken English. They would also support families in understanding how to provide accommodations and access to communication. House Bill 435 is scheduled to be heard in the full Finance, Ways and Means Committee on April 18.
General Assembly streamlines support for sexual assault victims
The General Assembly has unanimously approved Republican legislation that seeks to strengthen the collaborative response for sexual assault victims in Tennessee.
House Bill 415 requires each local law enforcement agency in the state to begin forming a sexual assault response team (SART) by Jan. 1, 2024. The team will help identify gaps in service and improve the response systems for adult sexual assault victims within the agency’s jurisdiction.
“What the (SART) will do is help to increase inter-agency and intra-agency collaboration and coordination,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Elaine Davis, R-Knoxville. “It also helps to focus on improving the coordination of services, policies and best practices between local agencies and other experts in this field in a collaborative effort that utilizes existing or available resources and personnel.”
Each team can include members who respond to and work with victims and possess expertise in a variety of disciplines relevant to sexual assault response, according to the legislation. Those members may include victim advocates, law enforcement, criminal prosecutors, health care service providers and mental health service providers.
Each SART may meet in person, by telephone or virtual means periodically as needed. All communications that occur during the meeting are confidential unless ordered otherwise by a court. House Bill 415 will now head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.
House increases support for human trafficking victims
Republican legislation to allow victims of human trafficking to receive financial support in Tennessee has been unanimously approved by the House chamber.
House Bill 555 adds human trafficking offenses to the list of eligible victims who can receive compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation (CIC) Fund for personal injury or loss incurred as a result of the crime.
“This bill was drafted… to allow victims of human trafficking the same opportunities as other victims to access the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund for pain and suffering,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson.
The CIC was established as a fund of last resort to financially assist innocent victims of violent crimes in Tennessee that result in personal injury. Eligible victims and claimants may be reimbursed for medical expenses, loss of wages and other unforeseen costs related to the crime.
The legislation clarifies that an individual is still eligible for compensation from the fund if they could not fully cooperate during the investigation and prosecution of the offender if their cooperation was impacted due to their age, physical condition, psychological state, cultural or linguistic barriers or due to other health and safety concerns. It also removes the requirement that human trafficking victims, or claimants acting on their behalf, must have reported the offense to law enforcement within 48 hours. The companion version of House Bill 555 is currently advancing in the Senate.
General Assembly strengthens protections against divisive concepts
The General Assembly on Thursday approved legislation that further protects the free expression of students and employees at public universities in Tennessee.
House Bill 1376 allows any student or employee of a public university to file a report of an alleged violation of state’s divisive concepts law. It also requires the institution to investigate the report and take appropriate steps to correct any violation that is found to have occurred.
“The purpose of this bill is to strengthen the prohibition on the divisive concepts… and promote freedom of expression and educational excellence,” said bill sponsor State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge. “The impact is to keep colleges about advancing knowledge and not advancing personal, political or social agendas.”
Divisive concepts are those that exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin and other criteria in ways that are contrary to the unity of the United States of America and the well-being of Tennessee and its citizens.
Violations of the law and any corrective actions taken must be reported annually to the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability. Additionally, the bill requires peaceful and lawful usage of the university’s facilities must be open to all recognized student groups. Student-invited guest speakers may also not be denied based solely on race, religion or nonviolent political ideology. A university may still deny obscene demonstrations or gatherings.
The General Assembly passed legislation last year protecting students and employees at public universities from being forced to believe or embrace divisive concepts. The law also prevents those individuals from being penalized, discriminated against or adversely treated due to their refusal to endorse any of the 15 defined divisive concepts. Public universities are also required to conduct a biennial survey of students and employees to assess the campus climate with regard to diversity of thought and the respondents’ comfort level in speaking freely on campus. House Bill 1376 will now head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.
Republicans protect Tennesseans’ privacy with drone legislation
The House chamber on Monday passed legislation to ensure technology used by first responders does not allow hostile foreign countries to spy on Tennesseans has been approved.
House Bill 1070 will prevent state and local agencies in Tennessee from purchasing new drones that are prohibited under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019. Those include drones that are made in China, Russia or other adversarial countries.
“This legislation makes sure that the local agencies [are] using the same standards to best use technology to help first responders do their jobs while protecting the privacy of U.S. citizens,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Michele Carringer, R-Knoxville.
Agencies will not be required to replace existing equipment and can still use any drones they currently have. However, any new devices must be purchased in compliance with the new regulations. House Bill 1070 will now go to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.
Bond amounts: The Tennessee General Assembly has passed Republican legislation that will increase judicial oversight of bond amounts for some of the most serious criminal cases. House Bill 830, sponsored by State Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, allows only a criminal, circuit court or general sessions judge to set bond for cases involving a Class A or Class B felony, aggravated assault, aggravated assault against a first responder, or felony domestic assault. Currently, bail can also be set by a judicial commissioner or a criminal or circuit court clerk. This legislation will bring more transparency and accountability to the bail process by ensuring that only elected judges make these important public safety decisions. It also requires anyone who is out on bail and arrested for another crime to have their new bond set in an amount twice the customary amount. House Bill 830 will now go to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Keeping child abusers out of schools: Legislation that further ensures child abusers remain out Tennessee classrooms has been approved by the General Assembly. House Bill 459, sponsored by State Rep. William Slater, R-Gallatin, adds that public charter schools are prohibited from employing anyone that has been found by the Department of Children’s Services to have committed an act of child abuse. The legislation clarifies that the State Board of Education is prohibited from granting, reactivating or restoring an educator license or teaching permit for such individuals. House Bill 459 now heads to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
“In God We Trust” on license plates: The House on Thursday passed the omnibus license plate bill, sponsored by State Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland. House Bill 142 adds “In God We Trust” to all license plates in Tennessee. Currently, Tennesseans can choose to opt-in to having the phrase on their license plate, and this legislation will change it to an opt-out option. The legislation now heads to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Funding honor guard ceremonies for veteran funerals: Sponsored by State Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, House Bill 1072, requires the Department of Veterans Services to establish and administer grants to organizations to provide honor guard ceremonies for funerals of Tennessee veterans. These honor guard ceremonies are typically performed by volunteer veterans groups that pay out-of-pocket for related expenses, including transportation, uniforms and other supplies. The bill is expected to be considered by the House, Finance, Ways and Means Committee April 18.
Tennessee supports Taiwan democracy: Both chambers of the General Assembly have approved House Joint Resolution 95, which encourages the members of the General Assembly to join the Taiwan Caucus and welcome the establishment of a Tennessee trade office in Taiwan to attract more investments. The Resolution comes after the Chinese Communist Party has encroached on Taiwan and threatened Taiwanese democracy.