January 21, 2022 Legislative Update

This week's headlines include redistricting maps, waterways and barges, truck driver shortages, and more.

Lawmakers approve Senate and Congressional redistricting maps

The Tennessee State Senate on Jan. 20 voted in favor of new Senate and Congressional redistricting maps for Tennessee. The votes followed a lengthy and transparent process of gathering and considering input from stakeholders throughout the state.

The new Senate map balances the federal mandate of “one person, one vote” with the state constitutional mandate not to split counties. In the new Senate map, there are just nine-county splits, and a historically low deviation among districts of 6.1%. That’s lower than the 7.7% deviation in the alternative map presented in committee by the Democratic Caucus. No incumbents are paired together, and current district boundaries were disturbed as little as possible. The new Senate map presents the opportunity for minority representation in the State Senate and is superior in that regard to the map presented by the Democratic Caucus. Ours includes four districts with voting-age populations that are majority African-American: the 19th, 29th, 30th and 33rd districts. That’s compared to just three majority African-American districts in the map presented by the Democratic Caucus. “This map redrawing the state Senate districts for Tennessee meets our constitutional obligation to ensure fair and equal representation for all Tennesseans,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin). The new Congressional map has zero deviation among districts as prescribed in federal case law; all districts contain exactly 767,871 people, with the exception of the 4th District, which has 767,872 people. The map splits just 10 counties among the nine districts and it honors the three Grand Divisions of Tennessee: The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd districts are wholly within East Tennessee, the 8th and ninth districts are wholly within West Tennessee, and growing Middle Tennessee gets four districts. Population increases in and around Davidson County have made splitting the county a logical move to manage growth. There is also precedence for doing so. The last two Democrat-drawn maps in 2002 and 1992 split Davidson County in two. In the 1990s, Congressman Bart Gordon represented a portion of Davidson County, and in the 2000s, Congressman Blackburn represented a portion of the county. Democrats have also split both Shelby County and Knox County three ways at various points in history. “This map is legal, it is logical, and it is fair,” said Sen. Johnson. “It recognizes the regional differences among our three Grand Divisions, and it will give Tennesseans a strong voice in Washington.” Find the maps here. The House redistricting map will be considered next week.

Gov. Lee to Deliver Fourth State of the State Address on January 31

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is set to deliver his fourth State of the State address to the General Assembly and fellow Tennesseans on Monday, January 31 at 6 p.m. CT. The joint session will take place in the House Chamber of the Tennessee State Capitol. “I look forward to sharing my vision for Tennessee, including my budget and legislative priorities for the year,” said Gov. Lee. “Tennessee shows the rest of the country that America hasn’t lost her way, and with the support of the General Assembly, we’ll continue to ensure Tennessee is a national leader for opportunity and freedom.” Tennessee is in the best financial condition in recent history, having seen $1.2 billion in excess revenue from the 2020-2021 fiscal year, as well as $1.112 billion in revenue over budgeted estimates in the first four months of the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Tennessee has a proud tradition of being a fiscally conservative and well-managed state with the lowest possible tax burden to residents. The AAA-rated Volunteer State is among the five least indebted states in the nation per capita, ranks third for best-funded pension plans and is one of only five states without road debt. The high ranking is also boosted by the state’s low unemployment, rising educational achievement, and robust job growth. Expect the legislature to be very thoughtful in how state dollars are budgeted by possibly even taking a multi-year approach in spending to ensure Tennessee’s continued strong financial stability. The address can be found on Gov. Lee’s Facebook and YouTube channels and will be aired statewide.

Press conference on the Colonel Thomas G. Bowden Memorial Act

Sen. Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro) and Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville) held a news conference this week about SB 1749/HB 1686, the Colonel Thomas G. Bowden Memorial Act. The bill seeks to create a three-year pilot program called the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Respite Care Program, which would provide respite care services for families caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, as well as those living with Alzheimer’s disease. “I’m honored to carry this important piece of legislation to support those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers,” said Sen. Reeves. “We’re going to get this passed.” Reeves noted the following statistics:

  • Tennessee has the fourth highest Alzheimer’s death rate in the United States.
  • More than 120,000 Tennesseans are currently living with Alzheimer’s today.
  • More than 375,000 Tennesseans are providing unpaid care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
  • Currently the cost of Alzheimer’s and dementia care in Tennessee is about $1.1 billion.

The bill is named in memoriam of Retired Colonel Thomas G. Bowden, a Tullahoma native who dedicated 26 years of service to the United States Army and received the Distinguished Service Medal, among other awards. Colonel Bowden lost his life to Alzheimer’s at age 68. This act serves as testament to Colonel Bowden’s life as well as a tribute to the loving care provided by his wife of 46 years, Barbara Bowden. Barbara Bowden; Dawn Bunn, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association; and Rachel Blackhust, director of public policy and advocacy at Alzheimer’s Association also spoke at the press conference.

State’s unemployment hit a pre-pandemic low 

Tennessee’s unemployment rate is back to the pre-pandemic level of 4.0 percent according to Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord who appeared before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week. He said the rate could dip even lower in the future, reaching the 3 percent range. This is the lowest unemployment has been since March 2020, which was the last month before COVID-19 business closures impacted Tennessee’s economy. The rate, which fares better than the national average of 4.2 percent, is among the lowest in the Southeast. McCord said that with unemployment rates back to record low levels, Tennessee needs to focus on the state’s workforce labor percentage to address the supply and demand issues we face. While Tennessee has the highest rate in the Southeast at over 60 percent, it is still too low to meet labor demands. “If we are going to solve the supply/demand issue that we have, we are going to have more supply,” McCord said regarding workforce needs. “One of the ways you turn that around is that you introduce work at an early age and the work-based learning programs in education and what they are doing to introduce 16 and 17 year-olds to work while we have them is part of an overall strategy to help with that.” As a result of Tennessee’s falling unemployment, McCord said the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund is now taking in more money than the state pays out in unemployment benefits. Reaching a level of over $1 billion, the trust fund is solvent. Keeping the Unemployment Trust Fund on solid financial ground, without raising taxes, will continue to be a priority for the General Assembly.    

Tennessee Waterways / Barges

Tennessee’s waterways are underutilized according to Ingram Barge Company official, Andrew Brown, who spoke to lawmakers about the importance of the barge industry to the state’s economy. Brown said that in 2018, approximately 30.8 million tons of freight, valued at $5.2 billion, moved on Tennessee’s inland waterways. Tennessee is home to over 20,600 domestic maritime jobs, making the state number eighth in the nation despite being inland. Those jobs represent over $1.2 billion in direct worker income and over $4.9 billion in economic impact annually within the state. In addition, the annual shipyard economic impact in Tennessee is over $400 million per year. Brown supports improving the lock and dam infrastructure in Tennessee to enhance utilization of barge traffic on the state’s waterways. With these improvements and a modest increase in investment, he believes the amount of cargo moved on the state’s waterways could be doubled in the next five to ten years. Brown is also calling for state-level support of the U.S. Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, by acknowledging its importance to Tennesseans through a resolution from the State of Tennessee. The federal act requires that vessels carrying cargo between locations in the United States be owned by American companies, crewed by American mariners, and built in American shipyards. “You can see the national security implications of this law,” he said. Brown said the Chinese are building ocean-going vessels at an unprecedent rate with the goal of being the dominant player in water-borne international commerce. He said without the Jones Act, the Chinese could have similar aspirations for the inland market in the U.S. “In times of need we need U.S. ships and to have U.S. ships we need U.S. shipyards. The Jones Act makes all that possible.” Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) is drafting a resolution in support of the Jones Act and acknowledging its importance to national security and the economic well-being of Tennessee. 

Electric Aircraft 

Tennessee should ride the wave of electric vehicles with a new generation of electric aircraft according to Whisper Aero CEO Mark Moore who testified before the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week. Whisper Aero is developing a nine-passenger electric aircraft, which Moore expects to be flying within five years. Moore said new technologies help these electric aircraft be more energy efficient, faster and quieter. The vehicles will go up to 300 miles per hour for a 300-mile range at a $0.50 per seat mile cost. “What we are especially excited about is that we are part of a wave that has not been seen since the Wright brothers in terms of how quickly and how encompassing the aviation industry is changing,” Moore said. “There is an opportunity not only to create great jobs, like engineering jobs and manufacturing jobs to build these vehicles but to leverage the incredible opportunity that these new vehicles offer,” he continued. In order to capitalize on electric aviation, Moore said Tennessee should leverage its 77 existing small airports into a statewide aviation network. Moore also spoke about how the new aircraft could connect larger cities to the smaller, more rural areas of the state to stimulate their economies and help provide more accessible transportation.  He said there is more than $4 billion going into the building of electric aircraft today by both large aerospace companies and automotive companies like Ford, General Motors, Hyundai.        

Truck Driver Shortage 

Tennessee Trucking Association Chairman Donna England spoke to members of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week regarding their efforts to address a shortage of drivers within their industry. England said that a shortage of 80,000 drivers exists nationwide partially attributed to an aging truck driver workforce, some of whom retired early due to the COVID pandemic. She also attributed it to industry regulations like electronic login requirements, parking shortages, and drivers being pushed out due to traffic violations like speeding. The trucking industry is looking to recruit new drivers by educating high schoolers about the advantages of a career as a truck driver. England said the average salary of truck drivers is $48,500 but that there is potential for these wages to increase significantly. Some industry officials are also looking at training former prisoners who want to start a new life by being gainfully employed as truck driver. Approximately 93.8 percent of manufactured tonnage is transported by trucks in Tennessee, showing the importance of the trucking industry to businesses and jobs throughout the state. About 90.5 percent of the state’s communities depend exclusively on trucks to move their goods, illustrating the importance of the industry in supplying Tennesseans with needed products.  

Education committee advances bill 

The Senate Education Committee this week advanced SB 1674 after making an amendment. The bill extends eligibility for an education savings account to students zoned to attend a school in a Local Education Authority that, at any time during the three-year period immediately preceding Sept. 1, 2025, or thereafter, did not offer students 180 days of in-person learning each year due to COVID-19. “We’re doing this because we know in-person learning is the most effective way to educate a child,” said Sen. Mike Bell, (R-Riceville), who sponsored the bill. “We’re doing this to make sure our public schools, which are tasked with educating the vast majority of students in our state, take that job seriously.” During this week’s meeting, the committee agreed to amend the bill so that it would no longer apply to Local Education Authorities that voluntarily refused to allow parents and guardians to opt their students out of the mask mandate.

Doctors request an increase in trauma center funding in Tennessee

Trauma care in Tennessee is robust, but funding is on the decline as demand for trauma care continues to increase in the state. That’s according to a presentation before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week by Dr. Brian Daley, Program Director, Chief Division of Trauma and Critical Care at the University of Tennessee Medical Center at Knoxville; Dr. Brad Dennis, Trauma Medical Director at Vanderbilt University; and Dr. Bracken Burns, Professor of Surgery at East Tennessee State University. The doctors are requesting the committee and General Assembly at large stabilize Tennessee’s Trauma System Fund and ensure a sustainable funding source for the statewide trauma system. The Trauma Fund Law was established in 2007 to provide funding to support and maintain the state’s trauma system. Since then, the fund has decreased by over $2 million annually, while Tennessee has seen 7% population growth plus a two-fold increase in trauma patients treated across the state between 2010 and 2019, said Dennis. The trauma fund has diminished because it comes from the statewide cigarette tax, which has generated less and less revenue as the use of cigarettes continues to decline in Tennessee. Sen. Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro) noted that while smoking has decreased, vaping has increased in the state. Tax revenue associated with vaping does not currently fund the trauma system, but could be a potential future funding source, he suggested. Asked what is needed to keep Tennessee’s trauma system afloat, Daley pointed to the state of Georgia, where a state fund provides about $30 million a year to the trauma system. “That doesn’t compensate for all the uncompensated care and it doesn’t come close to providing all the resources for 24/7-365 care at all the trauma centers,” he said. “But it’s a robust number that allows them to really develop their system and to encourage additional hospitals to participate.”

Tennessee winegrowers call for relaxed regulations

Wineries and grape growers in Tennessee are being held back by onerous regulations in need of reform, according to a TN Farm Winegrowers Alliance presentation to the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week. Currently, growers are restricted from growing more than 50,000 gallons annually, said Rhonda Moody, president of the Alliance. He also noted a Tennessee winery can only sell five cases of wine to a customer in one day, but liquor and grocery stores can sell an unlimited amount of wine, to name a couple of examples of restrictions he’d like to see change. “Tennessee is probably the only state and grapes is probably the only crop that has caps built into the law to stop us from prospering,” Moody said. Moody said Tennessee never recovered from Prohibition, noting there were roughly 128,000 acres of vineyards in the state in the late 1800s and just 1,000 acres today. Moody urged lawmakers to pass legislation modeling that of North Carolina. In 2002, Tennessee was home to 21 wineries and North Carolina was home to 31 wineries. North Carolina since eased regulations on the industry and today is home to 200 wineries compared to just 68 in Tennessee, Moody said, adding the acreage and yields of North Carolina wineries are ten times that of Tennessee’s. Committee members were sympathetic to Moody’s request. “I think we have some work to do,” said Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma).