Capitol Hill Week January 23, 2020

Lawmakers stand with Governor Lee in support of comprehensive pro-life legislation

Contact: Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email: darlene.schlicher@capitol.tn.us

For Immediate Release: January 23, 2020

NASHVILLE -- Republican lawmakers from across Tennessee joined Governor Bill Lee at a press conference this week to show their support for comprehensive pro-life legislation he will introduce in the General Assembly this year. The proposal, which includes the prohibition of an abortion where a fetal heartbeat exists, would make Tennessee one of the most pro-life states in the country.

“I believe that every human life is precious, and we have a responsibility to protect it,” said Gov. Bill Lee. “Today, Tennessee is taking a monumental step in celebrating, cherishing, and defending life at every stage. I’m grateful to be joined by so many leaders in our state who are boldly standing up for our most vulnerable.”

The governor said the legislation builds upon successes in other states while incorporating innovative approaches to enhance existing law, including provisions such as:

  • Prohibiting an abortion where a fetal heartbeat exists;
  • Requiring a mother to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion; and
  • Prohibiting an abortion where the physician is aware that the decision to seek an abortion is motivated by the race, sex, or health or disability diagnosis of the unborn child. 

 

To protect against legal challenges, the new law would also include a creative “ladder” provision, modeled after Missouri law, of sequential abortion prohibitions at two-week gestational age intervals, along with severability clauses for each step of the ladder.

"As someone who takes seriously the cause of life, I am ecstatic to support this legislation,” said Lt. Governor Randy McNally. “The many provisions of this bill represent great leaps forward for the cause of life in Tennessee. The destination has always been clear. The issue has been identifying the proper vehicle. We now have the proper vehicle. This comprehensive, tiered approach is our best chance of advancing the cause of life without sacrificing the gains we have made. I appreciate the great work of Chairman Bell and the Judiciary Committee for their contributions to this effort. And my deepest thanks go to Governor Lee for bringing forth this much-needed, common-sense legislation. I support this initiative wholeheartedly and without reservation.”

“This comprehensive legislation is a powerful step forward in our efforts to protect the life of unborn children in Tennessee. I commend Governor Lee for his leadership on this important issue and look forward to doing everything possible to ensure its passage,” added Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin). 

“I appreciate Governor Lee’s commitment to protecting the life of the unborn and look forward to working with him to ensure passage of this legislation,” said Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

After the bill is filed, it will go to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it will be considered later in the 2020 legislative session.

Right to work amendment passes first hurdle in Tennessee Senate

A resolution allowing voters to add Tennessee’s Right to Work law to the state constitution passed its first hurdle in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week by a vote of seven to two. Senate Joint Resolution 648, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), ensures the constitution protects workers from being hired or fired based on their membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.

“This amendment will guarantee future generations of Tennessee workers their right to work regardless of whether they choose to join a union,” said Senator Kelsey.

Twenty-seven other states have enacted such laws, with nine adopting constitutional amendments. This includes neighboring states Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Another of Tennessee’s neighbors, Virginia, is presently considering repealing its Right to Work statute. A constitutional amendment in Tennessee would offer greater protection for workers against such repeal efforts in the Volunteer State.

“Tennessee’s Right to Work laws have been critical to producing the economic growth our state has experienced over the last decade,” said Lt. Gov. McNally. “I appreciate everything Senator Kelsey has done to support the right to work in Tennessee.”

“Our right to work law has helped make Tennessee a great place to work for decades,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin). “By codifying this law into the state constitution, we will ensure this freedom stays in place and helps Tennessee’s strong job market continue.”

Protecting worker freedoms is an idea that resonates with Tennesseans according to a recent poll. An October 2019 Beacon Center survey reported that seven out of 10 Tennesseans favor the Right to Work policy.

The resolution has also gained support from prominent Tennessee business leaders, including representatives of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Beacon Center’s advocacy partner, Beacon Impact.

“Rhetoric from national candidates against state right to work laws has caught the attention of small businesses across Tennessee,” said Jim Brown, Tennessee State Director for NFIB. “In neighboring Virginia there is currently an effort to repeal its right to work law adopted in 1947, and in Indiana a judge ruled in 2013 that its right to work law was unconstitutional. Tennesseans simply prefer choices over mandates. For these reasons, NFIB strongly supports SJR 648, which will strengthen a key element that has made Tennessee an attractive state for businesses and workers.”

“The Tennessee Chamber and our business community has remained strongly supportive of our status as a Right to Work state which is a key component establishing the Volunteer state as friendly to business,” said Bradley Jackson, President and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Embedding Right to Work permanently in our constitution sends a strong message moving forward that Tennessee is and always will be ready for business.”

“While Right to Work has been the long-standing public policy of Tennessee, it is increasingly under attack,” said Justin Owen, CEO of Beacon Impact. “It is imperative that we protect the fundamental right of Tennessee workers to decide whether or not to pay union dues for generations to come, and the best way to do that is to recognize this right in our state constitution.”

The resolution must pass the General Assembly by a simple majority this year and by a two-thirds majority during the 2021 or 2022 legislative session in order to appear on the ballot for a statewide referendum in November 2022. The amendment would become part of the state constitution if adopted by a majority of votes cast in the governor’s election.

Senate Commerce Committee approves legislation encouraging lower health care costs through Association Health Plans

Legislation which aims to lower premiums and overall health care costs for small businesses through Association Health Plans (AHP) was approved by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week. Senate Bill 645, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), aligns Tennessee’s AHP laws with new federal rules put into place by the Trump administration to help small businesses purchase affordable, high quality health insurance as a result of increased flexibility.

AHPs allow small businesses and entrepreneurs to band together with other businesses to purchase insurance with the bargaining power of a big company. The plans are similar to comprehensive large group or self-insured insurance policies offered by most large employers, covering the same types of treatments and procedures.

“The goal of this bill is very simple,” said Sen. Roberts. “It’s to lower health care premiums and lower overall health care costs for small business owners via association health plans. The Executive Order expands AHPs beyond their traditional scope, which has primarily focused on large employers and associations, and brings this flexibility to smaller employers and associations. It’s a very positive step in the right direction to help our small business owners manage their health care costs.”

Since 2003, average family premiums for Tennessee small employers have increased over 75 percent, while at the same time deductibles have spiked. As a result, almost 30,000 fewer workers at small businesses have private insurance coverage due to the decreased affordability.  

The rule changes allow associations to exist primarily for health insurance purposes. It also allows businesses that are not in a similar line of work to band together within a state or metropolitan area. Businesses could form AHPs, even if employees do not live in the same state. In addition, it allows married couples who own a business together to join AHPs for the first time.

“This helps a large number of businesses, entrepreneurs, independent contractors and their employees who are currently uninsured because they have been priced out of the individual market,” Roberts added. “It also helps married business owners who are not eligible for small group plans.”

The new definition will allow these AHPs to offer that coverage right away, instead of waiting years before allowing their members to access more affordable coverage.

According to the Foundation for Government Accountability, AHP reform could help up to 3.2 million individuals nationwide lower their insurance premiums. This, in turn, helps support entrepreneurship and job creation by making it easier for people to start their own businesses.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.

In other news…

Lawmakers discuss health care transparency through all payer claims databases – The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee heard discussion on legislation this week to increase consumer transparency in the health care industry through an all payer claim database (APCD). An APCD is a large-scale, secure database that collects health care claims data from health insurers as the basis for analyses of cost and quality.  Senate Bill 322, the Tennessee Health Care Transparency Initiative, seeks to provide consumers with more information regarding the costs of care to help them make informed decisions. The APCD will also aid in improving public health, controlling costs, aiding research, and fostering competition among medical providers according to expert testimony provided to the committee.

“Everywhere we go these days, one of the top issues is health care,” said Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro). “Tennesseans are looking for affordable, accessible health care that is transparent and focused on positive patient outcomes. People want to have an idea of what their health care is going to cost so they will have a dependable price structure. A bill like this is especially important due to the trend of more Tennesseans carrying health insurance with high deductibles and health savings accounts.”

The committee will continue discussion on the legislation on February 18.

Veterans’ higher education program see success -- Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) Executive Director Mike Krause reported to the Senate Education Committee this week that his team is taking their role in higher education for veterans from a compliance authority to proponents of the program. Krause reports that Tennessee is one of two states in the country with a veteran program designed to bridge the gap between military training and higher education credits. The ServiceMember Opportunity Portal (SOP) is a system where service members can put in the year they served, military branch, rank, and public institution they plan to attend, and it will tell them the classes in which they have earned credit. He says that he would like to see Tennessee become a destination for veterans to settle after their time in the U.S. Armed Forces is completed.

Vanderbilt University is also making strides in education accessibility for veterans. The committee heard testimony regarding their Bass Military Scholars Program which provides veterans that are accepted into their program a $25,000 per year scholarship for four years to attend one of their five graduate schools. Acceptance into the program consists of a review of the applicant’s academic record, a video testimonial, and demonstration of meaningful leadership and military experience.

Capitol lighted to raise awareness of slavery and human trafficking – Tennessee’s Capitol Building was lit in blue from dusk to dawn on Wednesday evening to raise awareness about slavery and human trafficking prevention in Tennessee. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has reported that human trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal industry, just behind drug trafficking.

State legislators have approved a series of bills over the past eight years addressing the problem after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. These legislative efforts earned Tennessee Shared Hope International’s highest ranking in the nation for fighting human trafficking.

In the 2019 fiscal year, the Office of Criminal Justice Programs (OCJP) under the State Department of Finance and Administration provided more than $760,000 to five human trafficking victim service agencies. OCJP funding helped provide services and support to 279 victims of human trafficking for crisis intervention, mental health assistance and advocacy in criminal justice proceedings. Lawmakers will continue their work to curb the crime and help survivors recover during the 2020 legislative session.

Revenues exceed budget estimates for December – Tennessee’s economy was strong in the month of December resulting in revenue collections that exceeded budget estimates. State revenue collections for the final month of 2019 were $55.3 million higher than the budgeted estimate and 4.87 percent more than December 2018 due to strong sales and corporate tax receipts. Year-to-date revenues for the first five months of the 2019-2020 fiscal year were $351.1 million more than the budgeted estimate. The estimates for 2019-2020 are based on the State Funding Board’s consensus recommendation of November 26, 2018 and adopted by the first session of the 111th General Assembly in April 2019. Also incorporated in the estimates are any changes in revenue enacted during the 2019 session of the General Assembly. These estimates are available on the state’s website at https://www.tn.gov/content/tn/finance/fa/fa-budget-information/fa-budget-rev.html.

New subcommittee seeks government efficiency in reporting -- The Senate State and Local Government Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee met for the first time this week to review the efficiency of reports from four agencies of state government. The new subcommittee, chaired by Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro), is reviewing reports submitted from various agencies under their purview to make them more efficient and effective. There are currently 43 statutorily-required reports from 19 state government agencies that are sent to the full committee for review. The goal of the subcommittee is to eliminate antiquated reports and make any needed reforms to ensure others are used in the most effective manner. The subcommittee will also investigate topics of interest on emerging issues and serve as the committee’s summer study group.

Testimony call for protecting pregnant women in the workplace -- In the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, March of Dimes Maternal-Child Health and Government Affairs Director Tamara Currin and A Better Balance Vice President Elizabeth Gedmark teamed up to express the need for policies that promote workplace accommodations for pregnant mothers. They said studies have found a direct correlation between premature births and mothers who work in physically strenuous environments.  Preterm birth and its complications are the largest contributors to infant death in the U.S., and in Tennessee, 11.1 percent of babies were born preterm in 2018.   Gedmark says that increased access to water, reduced exposure to chemicals, decreased standing requirements and other reasonable accommodations will lessen a mother’s risk of going into an early labor. Gedmark and Currin also contend that since 50 percent of mothers in Tennessee are on TennCare, there will be a reduced cost to the state and employers providing these accommodations due to extremely high cost of care for premature infants.

TN Department of Education reports show progress in school health —The Tennessee Department of Education (DOE) released four annual reports to lawmakers this week regarding implementation of best practices in schools to improve student and staff physical and mental well-being. One of the ways they are doing this is through their coordinated school health program which has shown success in the reduction of the number of students with overweight body mass index (BMI). The number of students with an overweight BMI dropped from  41.14 percent in the 2007-2008 school year to 39.3 percent during the 2017-2018 school year. The DOE also reports that the 2018-2019 school year showed a decrease in the number of confirmed bullying cases for the first time in three years.

TDOT gives road update on IMPROVE Act projects—The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) updated the Senate Transportation Committee this week on the status of projects funded under the Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act of 2017. Tennessee's conservative process of funding its highway program is often referred to as a “pay as you go” program. The state only spends the funds on transportation that are available through its dedicated revenues, the highway user taxes and fees, and federal funding. The 2017 law boosted funds available to repair Tennessee’s roads and bridges.

There are 962 specific projects located in all of Tennessee’s 95 counties which are slated for improvements under the act. Of those projects, 333 are in the engineering phase, 62 are in right of way acquisition, 71 are under construction, and 61 have been completed. TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges says the department is focused on making sure that revenue collected from the IMPROVE Act goes towards funding projects throughout the whole state, not just the large cities.

The list of IMPROVE Act projects includes the replacement of 525 bridges on local roads in which 20 were closed to traffic, 181 were weight posted such that a fire truck could not pass over them, and 161 where school buses were not permitted. Currently, 111 of these bridges are in the design phase, three are in right of way acquisition, 42 are under construction and 56 are complete.  TDOT is also resurfacing and repairing roads in Tennessee’s state parks using IMPROVE Act funds. Details of the projects are listed on TDOT’s website where individuals can track improvements.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) reminded members during the meeting that as ‘pothole season’ approaches, TDOT has a maintenance request form on their website for citizens to report needed repairs.  

Tennessee Higher Education Commission makes campus safety a top priority—During a Senate Education Committee meeting this week Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Mike Krause told members that if you ask any top official on any campus in Tennessee what their number one concern is, it’s safety. Krause says the commission is taking a new approach to preparing for potential threats to college campuses. Recently strides have been made to train campus security, surrounding police departments, hospitals and other emergency personal for the worst scenarios. In December, a Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) training was conducted at Vanderbilt University allowing all departments to train and learn how to work together in a mass casualty situation. Lawmakers will discuss other ways to enhance campus security in the coming months.

Lawmakers look at the Child Care Development Fund – Members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard testimony this week from Department of Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Danielle Barnes on the benefits of the state’s Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) and the challenges many Tennessee families face when trying to find child care.  CCDF is a block grant used to provide child care subsidies for low-income eligible families through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. With about 50 percent of Tennessee counties considered a “day care desert,” Commissioner Barnes pointed to the fact that there are more children who need child care than spaces available, a problem which has caused many issues. She added this isn’t a matter that money alone will solve. Affordability does play a major role in families’ abilities to access child care. On average, it costs about $8,500 per year to provide child care for an infant. CCDF recipients receive about $7,900 per year. Barnes said there are approximately 2,300 licensed child care providers in the state and only 62 percent accept CCDF funds. She is optimistic about helping working families in Tennessee find child care and increasing the number of facilities who accept CCDF funds.

With TANF enrollment declining in the past few years due to Tennessee’s growing economy, a need arose for families ineligible for TANF to pay for child care. In 2016, DHS created the Smart Steps program under CCDF to provide federal subsidies for child care to families who don’t qualify for TANF but make less than $4,300 per month. Commissioner Barnes asked committee members to help DHS in their efforts to raise awareness for the Smart Steps program so all eligible families can take advantage of these available funds.

 

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