February 11, 2022 Legislative Update

This week's headlines include human trafficking training for school employees, ranked-choice voting, school board member pay, and more.

Bill seeks to expand human trafficking training in schools

The Senate Education Committee this week passed a bill requiring all school employees to be trained to detect and prevent human trafficking of children. Currently, only teachers are required to be trained on the detection, intervention, prevention, and treatment of human trafficking. Senate Bill 1670 seeks to expand that requirement to all other personnel that aren’t contractors, including bus drivers, janitors or cafeteria workers, every three years. “A lot of times these students who’ve been abused — a school nurse may see it or maybe a janitor may see what’s going on first,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), the bill’s sponsor. “This bill ensures they know what to do if that happens.” The training course would be online and last roughly 45 minutes to an hour, Gardenhire said. 

Commerce and Labor Committee passes “New Markets Development Act”

The Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously approved legislation that would create a tax credit program to encourage economic growth in rural and low-income areas. The bill will be reviewed by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee next. The program created by the “New Markets Development Act” would fund small businesses located in Tennessee through insurance premium tax credits. Variations of the program have been implemented in 14 other states and on the federal level. “We would see the benefits across the whole state potentially pretty quickly,” said Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon). “In my district and others, we desperately need access to capital, which is difficult to get for businesses that want to expand. This legislation will help make that happen.” Through the program, investment groups would receive tax breaks if they offer loans or invest in businesses or developments in low-income or rural areas. The program could raise and invest up to $100 million into Tennessee small businesses. “This is an investment strategy that has been useful at the federal level and there have been a number of states that have been doing this for at least a decade with huge success,” said Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson), a co-sponsor of the bill. “The operational theory here is this will increase investment in Tennessee into areas that investors don’t always look to. I think it’s a good step forward."

Ranked choice voting ban advances to Senate

Legislation banning ranked choice or instant runoff voting in state and local elections was passed by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. Ranked choice voting is a voting method in which voters rank candidates by preference. The candidate with a majority of first-preference votes wins. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, then the candidate with the lowest preference is eliminated and their votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates. “Instant runoff voting has been proven to increase voter confusion, decrease voter turnout and confidence, and produce results that leave no candidate with a majority of total votes,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), the bill’s sponsor. Senate Bill 1820 will next be considered by the full Senate.  

Education Committee approves equal pay for Board of Education members

A bill that would make compensation for school board members equal to that of county and municipal legislators was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week. According to Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who sponsored Senate Bill 1679, a majority of school boards members in Tennessee are paid less than the members of the local governing bodies, with about 80% of school board members paid below $3,000 a year to serve. “Most school board members work the same amount of time and sometimes longer hours than their counterparts on the local governing bodies,” said Gardenhire. “They ought to be compensated the same amount.” Gardenhire noted in Hamilton County, commissioners receive around $25,394 per year plus benefits while school board members are paid just $3,265 per year. “I’ve never heard a person that’s running for the school board say gosh I’m going to increase my pay by being on the school board,” Gardenhire said. “But after one, two or three terms they say I just can’t afford to do this.”

Gov. Lee Appoints Butch Eley as Deputy Governor

This week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the appointment of Butch Eley as Deputy to the Governor. Eley will continue serving in his current role as Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration (F&A) and as a member of Gov. Lee’s cabinet. The position of Deputy Governor was previously held by Lang Wiseman who has returned to the private sector. “For the past three years, Butch has played a pivotal role in our strong economic recovery and in maintaining Tennessee’s reputation for conservative fiscal management,” said Gov. Lee. “His extensive public and private sector experience will continue to add enormous value as we invest strategically in infrastructure, education and other priorities to serve Tennesseans and support our state’s growth.” Eley previously served as Chief Operating Officer in the Governor’s office from January 2019 to May 2020, where he led the state’s first four-year strategic planning process. In his subsequent appointment as Commissioner of Finance and Administration, he has developed multiple state budgets and works closely with legislative leaders of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group (FSAG) to oversee and allocate the influx of federal relief funds provided to Tennessee over the past two years. Prior to joining the Lee Administration, Eley was a founder and CEO of Infrastructure Corporation of America (ICA). Headquartered in Nashville, ICA was one of the nation’s leading infrastructure asset maintenance management companies with comprehensive asset management contracts throughout the country. Eley earned his bachelor’s degree and MBA at Belmont University. He and his wife Ginger reside in Nashville.

Gov. Lee Issues Statement on CMS Vaccine Mandate Lawsuit

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee late last week issued the following statement regarding the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana by Tennessee and 15 other states to vacate the CMS vaccine mandate: "We are renewing a challenge to the CMS vaccine mandate in court so Tennessee health care workers have the right to private health care decisions. While this mandate represents the worst of federal overreach, it also threatens our ability to staff facilities and provide care for the elderly, disabled and other high-priority populations."

Tennessee Forestry Commission testifies before committee

The Tennessee Forestry Commission testified before the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee concerning their annual report. Summarizing the past year, TN Forestry Commission Chair Johnny Heard said the commission identified the need for more engagement with the USDA Farm Service agency, expressed concern about the retention and recruitment of qualified personnel, endorsed the 2020 Forest Action Plan, and encouraged an increase in timber sales from the state forest. Heard said the commission suppressed 709 wildfires over 6,910 acres; safely conducted 232 prescribed fires across 12,100 acres; and deployed 215 personnel across 13 states to help them deal with wildfires and natural disasters, resulting in $2.6 million in revenue. The commission evaluated 38 logging operations with water quality complaints and found 22 with issues that affected water quality. It provided technical assistance to bring them into compliance with the Water Quality Control Act. The commission completed 24 timber sales of a combined 10.7 million board feet, generating nearly $3.5 million in revenue.  

In Brief

Internships: The Senate this week unanimously passed Senate Bill 520, which expands internship opportunities for high school students starting in the 2022-2023 school year. High school students are currently allowed to enroll in college courses at community as well as Tennessee College of Applied Technology colleges, some of which offer or require internships. High school students are typically under the age covered by workers compensation insurance without additional expenses so only large companies have been willing to absorb the risk, according to Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), who sponsored the bill.  “What this bill does is it allows the medium and small-sized companies to be able to hire interns without unreasonable workers compensation insurance risks,” said Sen. Briggs.  

Redistricting: Gov. Lee, on Monday, signed into law new Senate, House and congressional redistricting maps. For more information about the maps visit here

Travel Insurance: Passed by the Commerce and Labor Committee this week, Senate Bill 1868 clarifies existing law that regulates travel insurance, which protects against risk associated with travel. Adopted by 18 other states, the bill also includes provisions offering savings to the consumer, and prohibits the automatic addition of travel insurance to a booking.  

Cemetery Trust: Senate Bill 1934 allows cemeteries with small trust funds to share banking and trustee costs with other cemetery trust funds, and also provide cemeteries with a more stable way to determine the amount allowed for dispersing earnings for maintenance expenses. “Both reforms will help provide financial stability for smaller cemeteries throughout Tennessee,” said Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson). The Commerce and Labor Committee voted in favor of the bill this week. 

Law enforcement: Per a bill passed in 2014, peace officers who die in the line of duty or suffer a career-ending injury are presented the Three Stars of Tennessee Award in a ceremony on or around Sept. 11 each year. Senate Bill 1751, which cleared the Judiciary Committee this week, allows a representative of the agency at which the peace officer served to receive the award on his or her behalf if there are no available next of kin.

Receiver of Estate: Senate Bill 1680 authorizes the court to appoint a public receiver to make a recommendation on the need for a temporary or permanent receiver over an estate. A receiver is an appointed custodian of a person or entity’s assets. In explaining the intent of the bill, Sen. Todd Gardenhire described a situation in which a business owner passes away without a succession plan, and that business falls apart and loses significant value by the time the estate reaches the courts. “If a judge can appoint a receiver on the front-end of the estate it might salvage that most significant asset that doles off income to beneficiaries,” Gardenhire said. The bill was passed by the Judiciary Committee. 

Child abuse: Advanced by the Judiciary Committee this week, Senate Bill 1793 would require a court to revoke bail for a defendant who is convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child. “Continuous” is defined roughly as three or more acts of abuse within 90 days.