The Tennessee House of Representatives is back in full swing in Nashville! We had a great first week of committees where we began passing important legislation on protecting children and healthcare workers, adoption and foster care, and ways to maintain small government in Tennessee.
Last week, I had the honor of welcoming the Empower Jefferson County group to our State Capitol.
Republicans prioritize adoption, foster care in Tennessee
Republican lawmakers on Monday announced sweeping legislative initiatives aimed at making adoption and foster care easier, more affordable and faster in Tennessee.
The legislation seeks to make many improvements such as removing red tape in the adoption process, increasing the number of children that someone can watch in their home and reducing the caseload of Department of Children’s Services (DCS) caseworkers.
“Being pro-life isn’t just about defending the unborn,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby. “As an adoptive parent, this is an issue very close to my heart. Every child deserves to be protected and cared for in a loving home. Republicans in the General Assembly are going to take aggressive steps to make Tennessee a national leader when it comes to protecting children as well as the most adoption-friendly state in the nation.”
The legislation includes:
Adoption and Foster Care Omnibus Bill – comprehensive legislation that would make various changes to adoption and foster care by eliminating red tape. If passed, the legislation would, among many other things, allow non-foster care parents to adopt from DCS, allow more time for adoptive parents to pay for birth-related expenses, allow foster parents to be involved in court proceedings, prohibit the overturning of adoptions after 6 months and increase options for pre-birth and post-birth surrenders. House Bill 551
Mother’s Tax Cut – would eliminate sales tax on baby formula, diapers and wet wipes. House Bill 1184
First Lady’s Children’s Trust Fund – would create a long-term funding strategy for organizations in Tennessee providing services to children instead of funding on a one-time, as needed basis. House Bill 792
Caseload cap for DCS workers – based on recommendations from an audit by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, this legislation would change the way caseload caps per DCS caseworkers are calculated from an “average” to “actual” cap of 20 cases per case worker. House Bill 630
Best interest of the child – legislation would require DCS to amend their mission statement to include “best interest of the child” as the department’s main goal. House Bill 552
Sick Leave Bank / State employees – a proposal would allow state employees with children who have prolonged illnesses to use the state sick leave bank to care for their sick child after they have depleted their personal time. House Bill 1151
Safe Haven Law – legislation would require DCS to transfer guardianship of an infant to a certified adoption agency if left at a Safe Haven location. It would also allow a court to waive the six-month waiting period to finalize an adoption of a baby who was surrendered under the safe haven law. House Bill 164
Abandonment – a measure would revise the definition of abandonment for purposes of terminating parental rights to include circumstances where the parent or guardian fails to visit or support the child for a period of three consecutive months if the child is less than four years of age. House Bill 163
Severe Child Abuse – legislation would add offenses that constitute severe child abuse for the purpose of juvenile court and termination of parental rights proceedings. House Bill 460
Incarcerated individuals – legislation would lower from 10 to 6 years the amount of time a parent or guardian must be incarcerated as grounds for termination of parental or guardianship rights. House Bill 461
Paid FMLA for adoptive parents – a bill would provide 6 weeks ofpaid family medical leave to state employees who are first-time adoptive or foster parents. House Bill 1316
Neighborhood child care – legislation would increase the number of non-biological children a person can watch in their home without having to register as a childcare facility. The goal is to start conversations about innovative solutions to the childcare desert in Tennessee. House Bill 573
DHS Childcare Improvement Fund – legislation would create a state fund to assist entities seeking to improve or create child care facilities. House Bill 634
Unlicensed child placement agencies – legislation seeks to crack down on unlicensed, out-of-state placement agencies operating in Tennessee that offer quick adoptions for high fees. House Bill 606
Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) – to ease the workload for DCS caseworkers, thelegislation would require DCS to hire GALs to review cases that might need parental rights terminated. House Bill 759
Legislation to protect children from harmful medical procedures clears first hurdle in General Assembly
Republicans in the General Assembly this week advanced legislation to prohibit minors from undergoing irreversible and harmful medical procedures aimed at changing their gender identity. House Bill 1 / Senate Bill 1 sponsored by Tennessee Majority Leaders, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the House Health Subcommittee this week.
The legislation would provide the nation’s strongest protections against the removal of a child’s healthy body parts. If passed, it would ban 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.
“Gender dysphoria is a mental health condition that should be treated with love and understanding, therapy, and other appropriate interventions – just as we treat other mental health disorders,” Lamberth said. “Under no circumstance should we ever allow a child to undergo a procedure that destroys their normal, healthy development. I appreciate the wisdom of the committee members who recognize that this legislation protects minors from the negative consequences of adult decisions they aren’t ready for.”
If passed, a 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 10 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 is scheduled to be heard in the House Health Committee on Wednesday, Feb 8.
General Assembly advances bills protecting children from adult entertainment
Legislation to protect children from being exposed to sexually explicit performances is one step closer to becoming Tennessee law. On Tuesday, the measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. House Bill 9/ Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and State Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, would restrict adult cabaret performances that appeal to a prurient interest from being performed on public or private property if kids could be around to see it.
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.
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 legislation will be considered by the full Senate and in the House Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 7.
Another proposal up for consideration next week, House Bill 30 / Senate Bill 841, sponsored by State Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski and State Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, 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. It 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 Cities and Counties Subcommittee on Feb. 8.
Small Government Efficiency Act advances in the House
Legislation that aims to ensure effective local representation and the utmost efficiency for taxpayers advanced out of the House Cities and Counties Committee on Wednesday. House Bill 48, also known as the Small Government Efficiency Act, reins in excessive government growth by lowering the maximum size of metropolitan and municipal legislative bodies in Tennessee to no more than 20 voting members.
The city of Nashville, which would fall under the scope of House Bill 48, has a population of 690,000 and is the 21st largest city in the United States. Nashville’s 40-member council is the nation’s third largest, just behind New York City which has a 51-member council and a population of 8.8 million and Chicago, which has a 50-member council and a population 2.7 million.
“When government grows beyond a certain size, it hinders economic growth, taxes are inevitably raised and the standard of living for the average citizen is diminished,” said bill sponsor Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland. “This legislation will strengthen local democracy and competency by improving the ability of local elected leaders to effectively represent their communities.”
Local government bodies exceeding 20 voting members would be required to dissolve and re-appropriate current districts using the latest federal U.S. Census data to ensure equal representation based on population. The House Local Government Committee is expected to consider House Bill 48 on Feb. 7.
Proposals offer Tennessee taxpayers oversight of state-funded investments
Sports Authorities / House Bill 1197, filed by State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, creates a 13-member board to provide oversight of sports facilities in counties where there is a metropolitan form of government with a population of more than 500,000. The bill specifies that three members are appointed by Nashville’s mayor; four members appointed by the governor and three members appointed each by the House and Senate speakers. If passed by the General Assembly, the bill would apply to Nashville’s Metropolitan Sports Authority which manages Nissan Stadium, Bridgestone Arena, Geodis Park and First Horizon Park along with other venues in Davidson County. The legislation aims to give Tennessee taxpayers more representation in the oversight of major sports venues paid for in part with state tax dollars. The General Assembly in 2022 approved a $500 million bond investment toward building a new enclosed stadium to be used for the Tennessee Titans. The venue will be used for year-round entertainment events and is expected to increase future tourism opportunities.
Airports / House Bill 1176, filed by House Majority Whip Johnny Garrett, R- Goodlettsville, improves the makeup of airport boards in counties where there is a metropolitan form of government and a population of more than 500,000. The state of Tennessee is the largest single investor in the Nashville International Airport and the bill, if passed, would give taxpayers more representation in airport authority decisions. The bill adds the governor and speakers of the House and Senate as appointing authorities for board positions. Any airport authority that falls under the scope of House Bill 1176 would be required to submit quarterly reports of activities, plans, and conditions and any proposals for capital expansion or improvements 90 days prior to the governor and General Assembly.
Bill would create food sales tax holiday for senior citizens
Republicans have filed a bill to create a three-month-long sales tax holiday on food for senior citizens in Tennessee.
House Bill 243 would make the retail sale of food and food ingredients tax-free statewide for anyone 70 years of age and older between July 1 and Sept. 30 of this year. The proposed tax cut would not apply to alcoholic beverages, tobacco, candy, dietary supplements or prepared food.
“Senior citizens, especially those on a fixed income, are really struggling right now because of inflation,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Michael Hale, R-Smithville. “These rising prices on everything from the grocery store to the gas pump unfortunately mean that some may be forced to choose between buying food or paying their bills. This legislation is one way that we as a state can provide additional relief to those Tennesseans in need of assistance.” House Bill 243 has been assigned to the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee for consideration.
Republicans file James ‘Dustin’ Samples Act to support firefighters with PTSD
Republicans in the General Assembly this week filed the James ‘Dustin’ Samples Act, House Bill 976, which aims to provide support for firefighters following a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.
The bill, sponsored by House Majority Whip Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, is named in honor of Captain James ‘Dustin’ Samples of the Cleveland Fire Department, who tragically took his life in 2020 after a years-long struggle with PTSD. If passed, the bill will make the diagnosis of PTSD for a firefighter presumed to be an injury suffered in the course of employment if certain criteria is met.
“The choice to become a firefighter comes from a passion to help others and save lives,” Garrett said. “Our firefighters do an extremely difficult job that frequently puts them in dangerous situations and exposes them to terrible destruction, trauma and sometimes loss of life. It can take an enormous toll on a person’s mental health which can be just as detrimental as any physical injury. This legislation will improve access to effective treatment but also break down barriers where asking for help has not always been easy.” House Bill 976 has broad backing in both chambers. The entirety of the Senate and a majority of the House have signed on as co-sponsors.
Bail reform increases judicial oversight for most serious crimes
Republicans have filed legislation that would increase judicial oversight of bail amounts set in the most serious criminal cases in Tennessee.
House Bill 830 would allow only a criminal or circuit court judge to set bail in cases involving an individual charged with a Class A or a Class B felony. Currently, bail can also be set by a judicial commissioner or a criminal or circuit court clerk.
“These serious crimes deserve the most intense scrutiny, especially since these decisions could result in potentially dangerous individuals being released back into our communities,” said bill sponsor State Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis. “This legislation would bring more transparency and accountability to the bail process by ensuring that only elected judges, not appointed judicial commissioners, are making these important public safety decisions.”
Concerns about violent crime suspects receiving small bonds, particularly in Shelby County, have grown in recent months.
Last fall, the suspect charged with fatally shooting a 15-year-old girl in Millington was released from jail within 24 hours on $10,000 bond. In December, a suspect accused of striking another man in the head with a golf club in Memphis was released on just $5,000 bond while the victim remained on life support at a local hospital.
A first-degree murder suspect was also recently released from custody due to what was later described as a “mistake” and a “process error.” He was later taken back into custody by authorities without incident.
Tennessee Immigration Transparency Act – House Bill 451, sponsored by Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, would create a centralized record system of reporting, investigations and public information regarding unauthorized immigrants housed or traveling within Tennessee. The bill requires the Tennessee Department of Safety to publish certain information on the department’s website. Should it become law, the system would be required to be put in place no later than Jan. 1, 2024.
State of the State set for Feb. 6: Gov. Bill Lee will deliver his fifth State of the State address to the General Assembly and fellow Tennesseans on Monday, Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. Central Standard Time. The joint session will take place in the House Chamber of the Tennessee State Capitol. The State of the State address will be streamed on Lee’s Facebook and YouTube channels and will be aired statewide.
State offices will be closed Monday, Feb. 20 in observance of President’s Day.