This week's headlines include divisive concepts in higher education, restrictions on religious institutions, a grocery tax suspension, and more.
Senate passes legislation to combat indoctrination in higher education
The Senate this week passed legislation that protects students and employees at public universities from being forced to believe or embrace divisive concepts. Senate Bill 2290 stipulates that students or employees at public higher education institutions must not be penalized, discriminated against, or adversely treated due to the student’s or employee’s refusal to endorse divisive concepts. The bill also prohibits public universities from requiring training programs that include divisive concepts. The bill lists 15 definitions of a divisive concept that are nearly identical to those included in legislation pertaining to public K-12 schools that passed last year, including the following:
- One race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex.
- An individual by virtue of their race or sex is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously, or subconsciously.
- An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex.
- This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.
“This bill doesn’t tell faculty members that they can’t teach or mention these divisive concepts, but it does say there can’t be any adverse action taken against a student who doesn’t conform or doesn’t believe these divisive concepts,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville). “Whether it’s a faculty member or a student, we need to make sure no punishment is taken out on them either through denial of tenure, promotion or a grade because they don’t go along with these divisive concepts.” The bill also requires public universities to conduct a biennial survey of students and employees to assess the campus climate with regard to diversity of thought and the respondents’ comfort level in speaking freely on campus. The findings would be presented to legislative committees during budget hearings. If a student or employee feels they’ve been treated unfairly with regard to divisive concepts, the bill states they can pursue whatever legal remedies are currently available to them.
Education Committee advances TISA with amendments
The Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (TISA), which would overhaul the state’s funding formula for public education, advanced out of the Education Committee this week. It will be reviewed by the Finance, Ways and Means Committee next week. TISA (Senate Bill 2396) would change the state’s funding formula for the first time in more than 30 years from a district-based model to a student-based model. “This formula is truly a student-centered formula. It allocates money to kids and the needs of kids,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the sponsor of the bill. “We can do something with this formula that we can’t do now. That is we can take a kid from any county in Tennessee and we know exactly how much money is being appropriated to that student. We need that shared accountability so we know whether money is being spent in a manner that we prescribed as a General Assembly.” Starting in the 2023-24 school year, TISA would invest an estimated $9 billion in education funding for the state, including state and local funds, which would include an additional recurring state investment of $1 billion. TISA would award each school district a base amount of $6,860 per student that is meant to cover the basics of education such as teacher and staff salaries, facility operations and more. There would be additional funding weights for students who need extra support, such as those who are economically disadvantaged, live in a rural area, or have a unique learning need, among other criteria. The formula would also provide “direct funding” for programs that offer students learning opportunities beyond everyday classroom instruction, as well as outcomes-based funding for districts that meet performance certain goals. The bill passed through the Education Committee with several amendments. Among them is an amendment that requires certain individuals involved in making local school funding decisions to pass a training assessment about how the new formula works, and another amendment that makes charter school funding a direct funding component that is not part of the base or weights.
Legislation protecting critical energy infrastructure gets Senate approval
The Senate this week passed legislation to protect critical energy infrastructure statewide. That includes storage tanks, pipelines, gas transmission lines and other infrastructure that is necessary to transport reliable and affordable fuel to support Tennessee’s economy and to meet the day-to-day demands of transportation and manufacturing. Energy infrastructure often crosses multiple county lines. Senate Bill 2077 would prevent local governments from blocking such infrastructure while preserving local zoning authority. “A locality should not have the authority to outright ban energy infrastructure when that infrastructure serves the vital needs of the people of an entire state,” said bill sponsor Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston). “Industries involved in energy and energy infrastructure are some of the most highly regulated in the state. Many federal laws already regulate safety aspects of pipeline construction and maintenance. “These pipelines, storage tanks, and other infrastructure segments provide natural gas, petroleum and other energy sources to those who need it,” Yager continued. “This bill keeps general local zoning power intact, and it only states that local governments cannot outright ban altogether this sort of infrastructure that is necessary to access reliable, affordable energy sources.”
Senate passes bill addressing school staffing challenges
The Senate passed legislation this week to help school districts across Tennessee address ongoing staffing challenges. Senate Bill 2702 would allow retired members of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) to be reemployed as a K-12 teacher, K-12 substitute teacher, or as a K-12 bus driver without the loss or suspension of the retired member’s TCRS benefits. “I’m appreciative of my Senate colleagues for passing this important legislation that I believe will go a long way to alleviating the staffing crunch facing schools statewide,” said Sen. Yager. “Many retirees are already helping their local school districts and want to continue to help, but are being held back by current requirements. This bill temporarily removes those barriers to provide much needed support in our schools.” Currently, retired members of TCRS may return to work, but only for a maximum of 120 days. This bill removes that limit as long as each retiree that participates is 60 or more days past their retirement date. During the reemployment, retirement benefits would be reduced to 70 percent of the retirement allowance the member is otherwise entitled to receive, and the existing salary cap would be removed. The bill would be effective from July 1, 2027 to June 30, 2025.
COVID-19 visitation law passes in Senate
Sponsored by Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senate Bill 2574 makes it clear that nursing homes and assisted living facilities will be required to allow a resident to have visitors not only during normal conditions, but also during an end-of-life situation if a disaster, emergency or public health emergency for COVID-19 has been declared. The bill was unanimously passed by the Senate this week. The bill stipulates that visitors must agree to follow safety protocols and cannot exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 or other communicable diseases, and cannot violate federal or state law regulating each facility. “During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Tennesseans were prevented from being with their grandparents, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and other loved ones during their final days of life,” said Sen. Crowe. “I received so many heartbreaking calls from families who experienced this. I hope this bill ensures this never happens again.”
Bill would prohibit restrictions on religious institutions during emergencies
A bill that would prohibit restrictions on religious organizations during emergencies received Senate approval this week. Senate Bill 1197 would prohibit the state, political subdivisions or a public official from limiting the lawful operations of a church or religious organization during a state of emergency or natural disaster. “This bill simply codifies our first amendment rights in the Constitution,” said Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), the sponsor of the bill.
Committee advances voter integrity legislation
Senate Bill 2245 prohibits non-U.S. citizens from participating in federal, state, or local elections in Tennessee. The bill passed out of the State and Local Government Committee this week. “This legislation specifically ensures that no local government entity attempts to give voting rights to non-U.S. citizens as we’ve seen happen in some other states,” said bill sponsor Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald). “The bill helps us to make sure the proper people are registered to vote.” The bill also gives additional tools to the coordinator of elections to identify non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls as well as Tennesseans who’ve moved to another state.
Bill cracks down on anti-Semitism in schools
The Education Committee this week advanced a bill seeking to prevent anti-Semitism in schools. Senate Bill 2684 as amended defines anti-Semitism, prohibits anti-Semitic acts in schools, and requires schools to investigate complaints alleging discriminatory anti-Semitic acts within 90 days. “Although the Holocaust is decades behind us and today we reflect in horror at this atrocious time in our history, it has been reported anti-Semitism is on the rise,” said bill sponsor Sen. Paul Rose (R-Covington). “This bill simply aims to codify a prohibition of anti-Semitism in our schools in Tennessee.” The bill clarifies it is not intended to infringe on free speech nor restrict teachings or the discussion of the history of Jews, Judaism, or the state of Israel, said Rose.
Gov. Lee proposes 30-day grocery tax suspension
On Thursday Gov. Bill Lee announced his proposal for a 30-day suspension of state and local grocery sales tax to provide direct financial relief to Tennesseans amid surging inflation nationwide. “As Americans see their cost-of-living skyrocket amid historic inflation, suspending the grocery tax is the most effective way to provide direct relief to every Tennessean,” said Gov. Lee. “Our state has the ability to put dollars back in the pockets of hardworking Tennesseans, and I thank members of the General Assembly for their continued partnership in maintaining our fiscally conservative approach.” The Governor’s proposal to suspend state and local sales tax on groceries for 30 days will be included in the Fiscal Year 2022-2023 budget amendment, which will be delivered on Tuesday, March 29. Lee hosted a roundtable with business leaders in Covington on Thursday, March 24, to discuss the tax cut proposal and hear about the local impacts of nationwide economic challenges.
The Senate passed the following bills this week:
Telehealth — Senate Bill 2453 deletes the sunset provision of the telehealth bill enacted by the General Assembly in 2020, requiring health insurance entities to continue to reimburse for healthcare services provided during telehealth encounters consistent with what is provided for in-person encounters. Without the bill, the 2020 legislation would have expired in April.
Computer science —Senate Bill 2406 requires the Department of Education to adopt standards for computer science education by the 2023-2024 school year. Under the bill, by the 2024-2025 school year all high school students would be required to take a full year of computer science education in order to graduate and middle schoolers would have to take at least one computer science course.
Veterans — Senate Bill 2551 authorizes the issuance of a disabled veteran registration plate without payment of a fee to a veteran with a service-connected disability.
Teachers — Senate Bill 1986 aims to remove a negative incentive for high performing teachers to teach at low performing schools. The bill allows teachers to rely more heavily on observation for the Level of Overall Effectiveness scores during adoption years, helping to reduce the negative incentive. Sponsored by Sen. Paul Rose, the bill shifts the policy to instead encourage, rather than harm, high performing teachers to teach at struggling schools.
Crime classification — Senate Bill 2087 requires that a person convicted of aggravated assault that involved the use or display of a deadly weapon be punished one classification higher than otherwise provided by law if the violation was committed by discharging a firearm from within a motor vehicle.
Landlord and Tenant — Under present law, when a landlord seeks to reclaim a rental property from a tenant who has breached the contract by not paying rent, if the tenant appeals the judgement then they must execute a bond. Senate Bill 1994 extends the applicability of that provision to all appeals by a tenant.