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State Rep. Jeremy Faison’s Capitol Report

The 113th General Assembly is officially in its second session, and we are ready to get to work. This week I enjoyed catching up with colleagues, many of whom are dear friends, and meeting with constituents from various backgrounds to discuss the issues they are passionate about.

The 113th General Assembly kicks off its second session with the pledge of allegiance.

Republicans this year will continue focusing on making strategic investments in education and public safety while also strengthening the economy and cutting taxes.

Among the top priorities for 2024 will be to approve a spending plan that addresses the needs of all Tennesseans. After nearly a decade of unprecedented economic growth, lawmakers will have to be even more conservative with their spending in 2024 as experts expect a $300 million shortfall in the budget. The State Funding Board estimated revenue growth for the 2023 fiscal year to be at 7.7 percent, however, actual growth was closer to 5.39 percent.

Despite lagging revenue collections and record-high inflation, the Volunteer State remains in a strong overall financial position with its economy continuing to outperform the national average. Tennessee has a long tradition of being a well-managed state with an incredibly low tax burden for residents.  The General Assembly in 2023 invested an additional $250 million into the state’s Rainy-Day Fund, bringing it to more than $2 billion in total. This increases Tennessee’s financial stability and will benefit the state in the event of an economic downturn.

Supporting students and educators will also continue to be a priority for the Republican supermajority this session. Lawmakers have increased funding for K-12 education by $1.3 billion since fiscal year 2022-23, prioritized the individual needs of students with passage of the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act and approved the largest pay increase for teachers in state history. Members of the General Assembly this year will explore a proposal from Gov. Bill Lee that would expand school choice statewide through the Education Freedom Scholarship Act. This legislation would give families more control over how their tax dollars are used for their child’s education.

Improving public safety and protecting communities from crime will be another key area of focus this session. The General Assembly will consider measures to provide law enforcement with additional tools to keep criminals off the streets along with proposals to ensure offenders receive the appropriate sentences for their crimes. Last year, lawmakers approved $232 million to enhance school safety in Tennessee and will continue looking for additional ways to keep classrooms safe. 

Republicans will also look for ways to provide additional mental health support for residents as well as improve access to health care in rural communities along with other legislative initiatives that address various needs statewide.

Tennessee continues to thrive under conservative leadership, and House Republicans seek to build on that momentum in 2024.

Republicans seek to protect children from accessing pornography online

Protecting children is a top priority of Republicans in the state, and one piece of legislation up for consideration this session would shield kids from the harmful effects of pornography.

House Bill 1614, sponsored by House Finance, Ways and Means Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, seeks to restrict children from explicit adult content by requiring online media companies and operators to require age verification for access.

“Exposing children to pornography is a form of child sexual abuse and exploitation that can severely damage a child’s intellectual development and emotional well-being. It can lead to difficulty in forming and maintaining positive relationships,” Hazlewood said. “This legislation will apply the same safeguards and restrictions to the online world that we already have in place in the physical world. The standard should be the same.”

Known as the Protect Tennessee Minors Act, the bill would require companies to match a photograph of an active user to a photograph on a valid form of identification issued in the United States.

The legislation would create a Class C felony for website owners and operators convicted of violating the law. The Tennessee Department of Homeland Security would be responsible for enforcing compliance with the law.

A national survey by Common Sense Media cited 73 percent of teen respondents aged 13-17 had watched pornography online. Fifty-four percent reported first watching pornography online before age 13. 

The Tennessee General Assembly in 2017 joined with several other states in recognizing pornography as a public health crisis in a joint resolution.  This bill represents the next logical step in addressing this crisis and preventing harm, Hazlewood said.

Bill aims to close loophole for defendants found incompetent to stand trial

As part of an aggressive push to improve public safety in Tennessee, a Republican bill would close a legal loophole for defendants found incompetent to stand trial.

House Bill 1640, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, would require criminal defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial to be committed to an appropriate treatment facility. Current state law does not provide this requirement.

“This closes a loophole that puts the public’s safety at serious risk by allowing dangerous individuals back into society to languish and re-offend without receiving the appropriate mental health services and supervision they desperately need,” Lamberth said.  

The legislation was introduced following the murder of Jillian Ludwig, an 18-year-old Belmont University freshman who was fatally shot while walking in a Nashville park on Nov. 7. Her killer, Shaquille Taylor, was a repeat violent offender prosecuted in April 2023 for a separate crime of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The case against Taylor was dismissed after three court-appointed physicians testified he was incompetent to stand trial and was released from custody.

The legislation would additionally require individuals deemed incompetent to stand trial to be entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which serves as a namecheck database of people prohibited from buying or owning firearms.

Bills filed to improve mental health, school safety and support for victims

Republicans will continue to strengthen public safety in Tennessee this session through a slate of bills introduced this week aimed at boosting mental health, school safety and support for victims.

“We remain vigilant in our continued efforts to improve public safety in every community across Tennessee,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland. “In pursuit of our commitment, these proposals provide meaningful resources and effective tools to keep our most vulnerable and law-abiding citizens safe in critical times when it is needed most.”

Bills filed this week include:

Violation of bond conditionsHouse Bill 1641 would make it a Class A misdemeanor for an individual who is out on bond to violate the conditions of their release. This change would allow law enforcement to arrest an individual who is suspected of violating the conditions of their release instead of having to wait for the district attorney’s office to file a motion and schedule a court hearing which could take weeks.

BailHouse Bill 1642 prioritizes the safety of communities when pretrial decisions and bail determinations are made for a defendant. Other factors, such as the likelihood of appearing for their court date, would still be considered.

Mental health evaluations for misdemeanorsHouse Bill 1643 requires a mental health evaluation and treatment for any defendant charged with a misdemeanor who is believed to be incompetent to stand trial or if there is a question about their mental capacity at the time of the offense.

School safetyHouse Bill 1644 requires all public and private Tennessee schools to modernize communications dealing with fire alarms. The bill requires schools to develop a safety response plan when an unscheduled fire alarm is activated.  The goal is to help school personnel more quickly determine whether an emergency is a fire, inclement weather, or an active shooter situation.

Lifetime orders of protectionHouse Bill 1645 further strengthens existing legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2021 that allowed victims of violent crime to petition a court for a lifetime order of protection. House Bill 1645 extends lifetime protection for victims of aggravated stalking. The law prohibits convicted offenders from communicating with their victims for life. 

Legislation aims to ease cost of parenthood

A bill filed earlier this month would ease the cost of parenthood and allow families to keep more money in their pockets through a year-long tax holiday on certain baby products.

House Bill 1637, sponsored by State Rep. Greg Martin, R-Hixson, would make the retail sale of diapers, infant formula and baby wipes tax-free from July 1 to June 30, 2025.

“I know how expensive diapers and other products can be,” Martin said. “This legislation will ease the financial burden on parents and allow them devote more money to their children. We must do all we can to assist new parents, and keeping more of their hard-earned money is a good start.”

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, formula can cost a family more than $1,200 in the first year of life outside the womb. Diapers can cost an average of nearly $1,000 a year, and in 2023, 47 percent of families reported being unable to afford an adequate supply for the required number of changes, according to the National Diaper Bank Network

“Supporting families however we can is essential to Tennessee’s success,” Martin added. “I’m committed to making our state the best place to raise a family and this tax holiday will help achieve that goal.”

AI protections for music industry

Republicans unveiled legislation to address the damaging impact artificial intelligence (AI) can have on the music industry in Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Lee announced the Ensuring Likeness Voice and Image Security (ELVIS) Act this week, which will add protections for songwriters, performers, and music industry professionals’ voice from the misuse of AI to Tennessee’s Protection of Personal Rights law.

Overall, the music industry supports more than 61,617 jobs across the state, contributes $5.8 billion to Tennessee’s GDP and fills more than 4,500 music venues.

“From Beale Street to Broadway, to Bristol and beyond, Tennessee is known for our rich artistic heritage that tells the story of our great state,” Gov. Lee said. “As the technology landscape evolves with artificial intelligence, we’re proud to lead the nation in proposing legal protection for our best-in-class artists and songwriters.”

While Tennessee’s existing law protects name, image and likeness, it doesn’t specifically address new, personalized generative AI cloning models and services that enable human impersonation and allow users to make unauthorized fake works in the image and voice of others. Artists and musicians at all levels are facing exploitation and the theft of their integrity, identity, and humanity.

The ELVIS Act would be the first legislation of its kind in the nation to build upon existing state rule protecting against the unauthorized use of someone’s likeness by adding “voice” to the realm it protects.

Republicans reintroduce Child Victims’ Privacy Act

Republicans renewed efforts to protect the privacy of child victims of violent crime and their families in 2024.  The Child Victims’ Privacy ActHouse Bill 1695, would ensure county medical examiner and autopsy reports of minors who are victims of violent crime remain private except in certain circumstances.

“No parent should ever have to worry about seeing the extremely sensitive details of their child’s murder made public,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Rebecca Alexander, R-Jonesborough. “This legislation will provide important protections for these families to ensure they are not further traumatized by graphic photographs and other reports associated with these heinous crimes.”

The bill would protect sensitive information generally included in autopsy reports like a victim’s medical history, photos, toxicology, and communications with family members and law enforcement. The reports would still be allowed to be released in certain circumstances, including when a parent or guardian is not a suspect in the death of a child and gives explicit consent. A court may also order the release of the records upon showing good cause.

Death penalty could be option for convicted child rapists

Republican will seek to increase the penalty for child rapists in Tennessee. House Bill 1663, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, would expand the death penalty to defendants convicted of rape of a child under the age of 12.

“The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the very worst in our society, and there is no other crime more depraved, more sadistic or horrifying than the murder or rape of a child,” Lamberth said. “Someone who preys, stalks and hunts down children is a monster and should be punished as such. This change more adequately reflects our values when it comes to protecting children. It is the right thing to do, and I am hopeful this legislation will have very strong bipartisan support.”

House Bill 1663 will strengthen existing state law by increasing the penalty for rape or aggravated rape of a child to a Class A felony Range III, which carries a 40-60 years prison sentence. Current law classifies the offense as a Class A felony offense punishable by 25-40 years imprisonment. 

The proposal builds on the General Assembly’s efforts in recent years to improve public safety, reduce recidivism rates, and hold criminals accountable through smart-on-crime justice reforms. The General Assembly in 2022 passed truth in sentencing laws that increased penalties for the most violent of crimes and now requires offenders to serve 85-100 percent of their sentences. 

Bill would require driver’s license exams to be administered in English

Building on Republicans’ public safety push, legislation was filed this week to require written driver’s license exams to be administered in English.

House Bill 1730, sponsored by State Rep. Kip Capley, R-Summertown, would apply to applicants for driver’s licenses and intermediate driver’s licenses. The legislation would prohibit the use of translation dictionaries, electronic devices and interpreters for assistance with the exam’s administration.

“All Tennesseans want to feel safe on the road,” Capley said. “The ability to understand signs and warnings is important for the protection of other drivers. Not being able to do so can pose a real danger to public safety. If you have to take a written driver exam in a language other than English in order to pass, it’s my view that you shouldn’t receive a Tennessee driver’s license until you’re able to pass in the official and legal language of our state. The test will still be available for disabled Tennessee citizens who need modifications.”

Applicants are currently able to take the written driver examinations online or in person in English, Spanish, Korean, German and Japanese, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Lawmakers seek to prohibit taxpayer-funded ransomware payments

A Republican proposal introduced this week would prohibit state government agencies from paying ransoms to online criminals in the event of a cyberattack. 

House Bill 1733, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, would prohibit all state entities from contracting, negotiating with or paying an individual or entity that is a known system hacker.

“Paying extortionists only encourages more attacks, and it doesn’t guarantee the safe return of stolen data or recovery of our technological infrastructure,” Lamberth said. “Tennessee will be less of a target if criminals know we aren’t going to negotiate or pay them off.”  

Cybercriminals have increasingly targeted U.S. federal and state government agencies around the nation in recent years, attacking critical emergency alert systems and stealing citizens’ private data.

Ransomware is a type of malware designed to encrypt files on a device or computer, rendering them and their connected systems unusable, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Cybercriminals use these tactics to steal data and severely hinder the day-to-day operations of businesses and government agencies. The disruptions are costly and recovery of data is challenging. The agency launched stopransomeware.gov in 2023 to help organizations reduce their risk of ransomware.

Briefly…

Bill filing deadline approaching: The bill filing deadline for the 2024 legislative session is Wednesday, Jan. 31. As of Thursday, a total of 250 bills had already been filed in the House.

State of the State set for Feb. 5: Gov. Bill Lee will deliver his sixth State of the State address to members of the General Assembly and fellow Tennesseans on Monday, Feb. 5. The joint session will be held in the House chamber at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. Gov. Lee is expected to discuss his legislative agenda for the year as well as his proposed budget for 2024-25.

State offices will be closed in observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, Jan. 15. Members of the House of Representatives will return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 16.

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