Pro-life bill strengthens protections for mothers in emergencies
The House chamber on Monday passed legislation ensuring the life of a mother will be protected when a nonviable pregnancy endangers her life. House Bill 883, sponsored by State Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, clarifies that terminating a nonviable pregnancy, such as in the case of an ectopic or molar pregnancy, is not an abortion. The measure passed 83-11.
Republicans in the General Assembly in 2019 laid the groundwork to ensure life is protected at conception in Tennessee should the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverse its decision on legalized abortion. The General Assembly that year passed the Human Life Protection Act, a conditional trigger law written to go into effect 30 days following the high court’s decision giving states the authority to regulate abortion.
When the U.S. Supreme 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.
House Bill 883 ensures elective abortions remain illegal in Tennessee, but removes the affirmative defense clause that could have required doctors to provide evidence defending their actions in court when saving the life of a mother. It now provides protection for physicians by decriminalizing the procedure in such emergencies.
“This bill provides better clarity and returns to the normal judicial system practice of innocent until proven guilty,” Helton-Haynes told members on the House floor on Monday. “It protects the life of the mother and the life of the baby.”
Approximately one in 50 ectopic pregnancies occur each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If left untreated, an ectopic pregnancy will likely result in a life-threatening hemorrhage.
“During pregnancy, a woman takes on the incredible responsibility to safeguard another human life and it is important her health is protected,” Helton-Haynes said. “I’m proud of what this pro-family, pro-life legislation accomplishes and I will continue advocating for the health of women and children in Tennessee.”
Tennessee Right to Life, the state’s largest pro-life advocacy organization, supported House Bill 883. The companion version of the bill is currently advancing in the Senate.
Republicans propose $407 million in tax cuts for families and businesses
Republican leaders this week advanced the Tennessee Works Tax Reform Act of 2023 that proposes a number of changes to the state’s tax code and represents an unprecedented $407 million in tax cuts impacting every Tennessean.
House Bill 323, sponsored in the House by Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Assistant Majority Leader Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, is part of Gov. Bill Lee’s top legislative initiates for 2023. The bill aims to lower the tax burden on businesses, boost Tennessee’s economic competitiveness, promote entrepreneurship and small business formation, as well as provide targeted relief to families.
“This is one of the largest tax reforms and tax cuts in Tennessee’s history,” Cochran told members of the House Finance Ways and Means Subcommittee on Wednesday. “It provides tax relief to Tennessee families, for businesses – particularly for small and medium-sized businesses – and makes us a stronger economic competitor in general.”
Tennessee Republicans remain committed to keeping taxes low. Tennessee is the second-lowest taxed state in the nation and collects zero income tax.
The cuts provide significant tax relief to small businesses by lowering the burden of the franchise and excise tax as well as the business tax rate. The bill would allow more than 23,000 small businesses in Tennessee to reduce their excise tax liability to zero by exempting the first $50,000 in income from the state’s excise tax. It also exempts up to $500,000 of business property from franchise tax liability.
The tax cuts would exempt 140,000 Tennessee businesses from the business tax by raising the threshold for business tax exemptions from $10,000 to $100,000 of gross receipts. In addition, it reduces the highest business tax rate from 0.3% to 0.1%.
The proposal will strengthen Tennessee’s economic competitiveness while prioritizing businesses within our state’s borders. It incentivizes businesses to hire Tennesseans and headquarter here. It ensures state tax deductions for research and development (R&D) expenses that help companies grow, innovate and produce superior products and services.
Finally, the proposal will deliver for working families by creating a three-month sales tax holiday food from Aug. 1-Oct. 31, 2023. It also seeks to incentivize businesses to provide paid family leave to employees by establishing a state-paid family leave franchise and excise tax credit on wages paid for a two-year pilot period. House Bill 323 is up for consideration in the Finance, Ways and Means Committee on March 28.
Effort to expand protections for Duck River advances
Republican legislation to expand protections for a portion of the Duck River advanced out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week.
House Bill 447 would classify a portion of the river in Maury County as a Class II scenic river area. The designation generally prohibits mining, commercial timber harvest or the construction of roads from occurring within a certain proximity of the river.
“This is a bill that is long overdue for Maury County,” bill sponsor State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, told the committee earlier this month. “The Duck River (is) the most biodiverse river in our country … I stand here before you now asking you to join with us to protect this water source in perpetuity making sure that we can maintain a clean water source, a viable water source, a recreational water source for the people of Maury County and southern Middle Tennessee for the foreseeable future.”
The Duck River flows 284 miles from east to west across Middle Tennessee, making it the longest river located entirely in the state. It is considered the most biologically diverse river in North America with more than 50 species of freshwater mussels and 151 fish species, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
If approved, the legislation would still allow for the construction and operation of water and sewer treatment facilities along the segment of the river. Some water harvesting projects as well as regional water resource projects identified by the Tennessee Duck River Development Agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority would also be permitted if certain criteria was met.
House Bill 447 is scheduled to be heard in the Government Operations Committee on March 27. The companion version of the bill was unanimously approved by the Senate earlier this month.
General Assembly modernizes money transmitter laws
The General Assembly this week approved legislation that modernizes Tennessee’s money transmitter regulations.
House Bill 316, also known as the Money Transmission Modernization Act, provides a long-overdue update to state laws governing companies like Paypal and Venmo that help transmit money between parties within the United States and abroad.
“(This) is a model that we hope all other states will eventually adopt,” said bill co-sponsor State Rep. Rush Bricken, R-Tullahoma. “It will improve licensing and statutes… for all of the companies that do money transmissions in our state. It will provide uniformity so all companies coming in and out of our state will have the same standards, capital requirements and liquidity requirements.”
There are nine states that have already passed a version of the bill, and similar legislation is pending in 13 other states, Bricken added.
The legislation does not address the use of digital currency, virtual currency or cryptocurrency. It also does not create any new form of currency or require individuals or businesses to use digital currency.
Additionally, the bill does not relate in any way to central bank control or a central bank digital currency. It also has nothing to do with the Uniform Commercial Code which governs various commercial matters including credit and bank transactions. The Money Transmission Modernization Act will now head to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Republicans protect teachers from implicit bias training advances
A proposal allowing Tennessee teachers to choose whether they want to take part in implicit bias training advanced out of the House K-12 Subcommittee this week.
House Bill 158, sponsored by State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, would prevent a local education agency or public charter school from requiring its employees to complete or participate in the training, which is designed to expose an individual to biases the program’s creator presumes the person to have.
The legislation would also protect employees from any adverse employment action if they refused to take part in the training. Additionally, the State Board of Education and the Department of Education would not be allowed to require an educator to complete or participate in the program as a requirement for things like educator licensure or professional development. House Bill 158 is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on March 29.
House votes to streamline adoptions of young foster children
The Tennessee House of Representatives this week approved legislation to improve the adoption process for foster parents of young children who have been abandoned.
House Bill 163 clarifies that if a parent or guardian fails to visit or support a child younger than four years old for three consecutive months it will qualify as abandonment and the child will be eligible for adoption. Currently, the time period for abandonment is four months. Additionally, if a child resides in a foster parent’s home for at least three months, a judge may waive the six-month waiting period for the order of adoption.
“Most children are moved around three times in the first year that they are in foster care,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman. “This type of legislation will help reduce that.” The companion version of the legislation is still advancing through the Senate.
General Assembly expands protections for Tennesseans with service animals
The General Assembly has passed legislation to increase protections and accountability for individuals with service animals in Tennessee.
House Bill 165 expands the penalty for misrepresentation of a service animal to include 100 hours of community service for an organization that assists individuals with disabilities. It also allows for anyone who utilizes or is training a guide dog to be held liable if the animal causes any damages.
“This bill is simply to codify some of the federal (American with Disability Act) guidelines and add some accountability for folks that are abusing this,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman. “An emotional support animal… is not considered a service animal, and therefore a business owner has the ability to ask them to leave.”
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, only dogs are recognized as service animals. They must be trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability and are generally permitted to accompany individuals in all areas where members of the public are allowed. Additionally, there are separate provisions for miniature horses that have been trained as service animals. The Senate version was approved in February. The legislation now heads to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Republicans make summer, after-school learning camps permanent
The House chamber on Thursday unanimously passed House Bill 68, co-sponsored by State Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville. The legislation indefinitely extends summer and after-school learning camps implemented on a temporary basis during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the summers following the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, all school districts in the state were required to offer in-person learning loss remediation and student acceleration programs, including summer camps, summer learning camps, after-school learning mini-camps and learning loss bridge camps.
These programs have been a success in the summer of 2021 more than 121,000 students participated with an attendance rate of 96 percent. In the summer of 2022, more than 90,000 students participated in the camps. House Bill 68 would continue the successful track record of these camps by making them permanent. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Motor vehicle registrations: House Bill 345, sponsored by State Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, would allow private, non-commercial vehicle owners and lessees to renew their vehicle registration for a 24-month period instead of a 12-month period beginning on Jan. 1, 2024. Currently, there are approximately 5.1 million passenger vehicles and 154,000 motorcycles registered in Tennessee, according to the Department of Revenue. House Bill 345 is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
Strengthening strangulation sentencing: House Bill 248, sponsored by State Rep. Jake McCalmon, R-Franklin, increases penalties for strangulation charges. The bill clarifies that if a victim loses consciousness, the assailant can be prosecuted for attempted first or second-degree murder and further adds that if a victim was pregnant at the time of the attack, the offender will be charged with aggravated assault involving strangulation, resulting in a Class B felony. If domestic violence is suspected, a defendant must also take part in evidence-based programming for domestic violence. Finally, criminals who have been charged with assault or aggravated assault involving a first responder may not be released on their own recognizance; the defendant must post bail. This bill will help law enforcement keep criminals behind bars and also protect victims of abuse. The bill is scheduled for consideration in the Criminal Justice Committee on March 28.
Parity of teacher salaries at special schools: House Bill 331 sponsored by State Rep. Elaine Davis, R-Knoxville, creates parity for salaries among teachers at state special education schools in Knoxville and Jackson who are currently paid approximately 10 percent less than their counterparts in Nashville. Teachers in each of the three campuses have the same professional and educational requirements, the same dedication to students and the same professional responsibilities. They also have the same director and superintendent of schools, as well as the same Human Resource department. The bill is expected to be considered in the House Education Administration Committee on March 29.
Increasing eligibility for HOPE Scholarship: House Bill 348, sponsored by State Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, expands higher educational opportunities by removing an eligibility restriction for the Tennessee Promise scholarship. Currently, the scholarship is available to all high school graduates when they enroll in college for the fall term following graduation. The bill would allow students to remain eligible for the scholarship if they defer college for up to 16 months after graduation. It better aligns state financial requirements and expands access for students who may need to defer college for a year after high school graduation. Students would still have to apply for the scholarship during their senior year of high school. Tennessee’s post-high school college rate has fallen from 62 percent to 53 percent since 2019, meaning 7,000 fewer high school graduates have attended college since then. House Bill 348 will be heard in the Education Administration Committee on March 29.
Cognitive tests for constables: House Bill 724, sponsored by State Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, heads to the governor for his signature after passing in both chambers of the General Assembly. This bill requires candidates for the office of constable to undergo a cognitive and psychological test attesting to their mental and cognitive fitness to perform the duties of a constable. The test is to ensure that elected officials can effectively carry out the duties of their position.
Expanding the talent pool for industrial development boards: House Bill 1430, sponsored by State Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville, passed by the General Assembly on Monday, removes an existing requirement that members of the board of directors for an industrial development corporation reside in the county in which the corporation was established. Allowing industrial development boards to choose to allow membership outside the county will help them recruit the best minds for the job.
Ensuring speedy compensation for witnesses: House Bill 1253The House chamber on Thursday passed legislation intended to speed up the process when witnesses for the state are compensated. Currently, if a witness is deemed necessary to a case and lives more than five miles away from where they were subpoenaed, then the witness’s expenses such as travel and board may be paid by the state. Sponsored by State Rep. John Crawford, R-Bristol, House Bill 1253 clarifies current law by making several changes to the statute to speed up the compensation process, including the removal of a requirement that indigency needs to be determined before a witness can be paid. Counties will continue to recover the costs of witness expenses from a convicted defendant.
Enhancing transparency of public records purchases: The Public Service Subcommittee this week passed a bill aimed at enhancing transparency around the purchase of public records containing personal information of Tennesseans. Sponsored by State Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman, House Bill 1322 requires the Office of Open Records Counsel in coordination with the Department of Safety and Department of Revenue to develop and maintain a system to track bulk purchases of public records containing personal information from state motor vehicle records.
Assessing financial literacy of Tennesseans: A bill that directs the Financial Literacy Commission to conduct a study to gauge financial literacy passed unanimously in the House chamber on Monday. House Bill 644, sponsored by State Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, commissions a study to examine financial education programs in the state and survey those programs available in other states. The Financial Literacy Commission will determine the scope of the study, and submit a report on its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly next year. The bill also recognizes April as Financial Literacy Month to promote financial literacy and help educate Tennesseans on the importance of personal finance. The study is intended to be a first step to reversing the following statistics: one in eight Tennesseans have student loan debt, the average Tennessean holds more than $83,000 in debt and Tennessee ranks fifth in the nation for personal bankruptcy.
Protecting personal data from Chinese companies: The House chamber on Thursday passed legislation that prevents Chinese social media companies from collecting the personal data of individuals who access the internet at public colleges and universities in Tennessee. The measure now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature. House Bill 1445, sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, prevents all public postsecondary institutions in the state from providing internet access to any social media platform that is operated or hosted by a company based in the People’s Republic of China. It aims to mitigate possible security threats to the state’s public higher education institutions’ networks. The legislation does not target any specific social media company. It would also not prevent access if it is necessary to perform certain activities related to law enforcement, investigatory functions, audit, compliance, or public safety functions.
Bear control: The House chamber on Thursday passed House Bill 1453, sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, which authorizes a person who resides on property that adjoins the Great Smokey Mountain National Park to take, attempt to take, or harm a bear that enters the person’s property if the bear acted in a manner that causes the person to have a reasonable belief they are in imminent danger of death or bodily injury. The bill also requires an individual to notify the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency within 24 hours after killing or seriously injuring a bear, if the individual is reasonably able to notify the agency, and the individual must not remove, reposition, retain, sell, or transfer the bear without authorization from the TWRA. The companion bill is currently advancing through the Senate chamber.