Capitol Hill Week March 5, 2020

Lawmakers work to provide resources to tornado victims

Contact: Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email: [email protected]

For Immediate Release: March 5, 2020

NASHVILLE -- Passage of key legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, including comprehensive pro-life legislation to prohibit abortion when a fetal heartbeat exists, topped a busy week on Capitol Hill. Senate committees also heard updates from various officials of state government regarding the emergency response to help victims of the devastating tornadoes and storms that ripped through Tennessee in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Prayers for those devastated by the storms were lifted by committee members continually on Tuesday and Wednesday, with lawmakers standing in recognition of victims and the state’s emergency responders during Thursday morning’s floor session. Senators commended state and local emergency personnel who performed above the call of duty during the disaster and expressed appreciation for the heroic efforts of citizens who participated in rescue and recovery efforts. They also stopped to remember those who lost their lives and the families who must rebuild in the aftermath of the storms.

“This has been a tough few days that none of us will forget,” said Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), whose district was devastated by the storms. “As I toured the damage caused by the tornadoes, I was overwhelmed by the immense devastation and suffering. My heart goes out to those who have lost family and friends through this tragedy.”

Bailey praised the quick response of state government officials who offered immediate aid to storm-ravaged communities in his district. He also said a call for volunteers in Putnam County resulted in 2,500 citizens who showed up to help in recovery efforts. “That’s who we are in Tennessee,” Bailey continued “From our nation’s founding, we are the Volunteers.”

Bailey announced this week that he is drafting a tax relief bill to help storm victims rebuild. The legislation would allow building materials to be purchased tax-free for those affected.

Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), whose Nashville district was in the path of the storms, echoed Bailey’s praise for victims, volunteers and first responders affected by the tornadoes. “This week’s storms, while devastating, have shown the resilience in Nashvillians. Nashville and surrounding communities will bounce back stronger than ever."

“My heart aches for the scope of the destruction that I have seen of our neighbors and businesses,” said Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) whose district was also impacted. “It aches for those who have lost their houses and their loved ones, as well as for those displaced because their workplace has been destroyed. I am very grateful to Governor Lee for his quick response. TEMA (Tennessee Emergency Management Agency) and other state agencies have made multiple calls to us and our local officials to make sure that everything that can possibly be done at the state level is being afforded to our counties and hurting residents.”

At the direction of President Donald Trump, federal officials were dispatched to Tennessee immediately after the storms to assess the damage and assist with the recovery. The President said, “We send our love and our prayers of the nation to every family that was affected.  And we will get there, and we will recover and we will rebuild, and we will help them.”

A federal disaster designation enables local governments and individuals to access the critical federal grants and loans needed to help them recover from the damages sustained. The aid also helps citizens and state and local governments with costs for damage to roads, bridges, emergency protective measures, and debris removal.

“I was able to accompany the Department of Safety on Tuesday in their aerial survey of the damages of the tornado that had torn through Middle Tennessee overnight,” added Senate Transportation and Safety Committee Chairman Becky Massey (R-Knoxville). “Seeing it firsthand from the air was emotional and heart-wrenching.   All I could do while seeing it was pray. I want to thank our first responders, safety and road personnel, other state, city and county employees, medical personnel, non-profit organizations, volunteers and everyone who have and will be working tirelessly to get our communities back functioning.”

Multiple agencies of state government have set up mobile operations in affected areas to aid victims. A full list of information about the ongoing tornado recovery resources can be found on the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency’s (TEMA) website at

Senate Judiciary Committee approves comprehensive pro-life legislation

Major pro-life legislation, which includes a prohibition on abortions where a fetal heartbeat exists, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Senate Bill 2196, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), and Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), also includes a layered structure that prohibits abortion after the unborn child reaches certain gestational age milestones. The “ladder” provision bans abortion at 11 gestational age milestones ranging from 6 weeks to 24 weeks, with severability clauses for each step of the ladder. It is modeled after a Missouri law to protect against legal challenges.

A medical emergency exception is provided, under the bill, if certain requirements are met.

The proposal is part of Governor Bill Lee’s legislative priorities for the 2020 session. It also comes as a result of meetings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year which studied ways to implement pro-life legislation that will meet court scrutiny.

The bill calls for mothers to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion where the gestational age and the fetal heartbeat will be determined. The proposal also prohibits discriminatory abortion based on the unborn child’s race, sex, or Down syndrome diagnosis.

In addition, the legislation eliminates the requirement that the Department of Children’s Services provide court advocates and other information about judicial procedures to minors who are considering an abortion.

“I appreciate the work done by the Judiciary Committee in helping get the bill in the right posture and am confident that it is in the best shape possible to move forward,” said Sen. Gresham.

“What we have offered is the nation’s strongest opportunity to protect the life of the unborn,” added Sen. Lundberg.

“This bill’s multi-provision approach significantly enhances our state’s pro-life laws, while testing the limits of current court precedents,” said Sen. Bell. “I am proud of the work done by our committee to pass the most comprehensive legislation considered by any state to protect unborn children.”

The bill, which was approved 7 to 2, now heads to the Senate floor for final approval.

Senate Commerce Committee approves legislation raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21

Legislation which raises the minimum age required under state law to purchase tobacco products was approved this week by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Senate Bill 2202, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), raises the age from 18 to 21 to purchase, possess, transport, or consume any tobacco product, smoking hemp or vapor products.

“Smoking is a significant health issue,” said Sen. Hensley, who is a physician. “Raising the age limit for tobacco products will help us prevent premature deaths and improve the health and quality of life for thousands of citizens, as well as save millions in health care costs.”

The use of vaping products has grown dramatically over the past several years among youth.  A U.S. Food and Drug Administration study shows that 20.8 percent of high schoolers are considered frequent users of e-cigarettes.

In December, President Trump signed into law a provision in the federal budget making it a violation to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, including e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges.  This proposal puts state statutes in harmony with federal law and ensures that Tennessee will continue to receive $32 million in federal block grant funds.

The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse partners with Department of Agriculture each year to ensure tobacco products are not sold to underage individuals. Federal block grant funds provide prevention treatment and recovery support services and activities for people at risk or who have substance abuse disorders.

Tennessee Commissioner of Health Lisa Piercey told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week that smoking is a key contributing factor in the state’s poor health rating. She said while three people die each day of opioids, 31 deaths are attributed to tobacco use during the same period.

The Department of Health has requested $4 million in the 2020-2021 budget for tobacco prevention programs.

Constitutional Carry bill advances through Senate Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week allowing law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutional right to carry firearms without a permit, while cracking down on criminals who steal guns or possess them illegally. Senate Bill 2671, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), allows permitless carry, except in restricted areas. The legislation applies to law-abiding citizens in Tennessee who are at least 21 years old and who meet the eligibility requirements to receive a handgun permit under current law.

“I am very pleased this legislation has advanced,” said Sen. Bell. “It’s time we start trusting Tennesseans with the constitutional rights that were guaranteed by our founders.”

The proposal will not repeal Tennessee’s current permit system. A handgun permit will still be required for citizens to carry across state lines or in certain restricted areas.

Thirty-one states recognize the rights of citizens to carry a gun openly. If adopted, the legislation would make Tennessee the 17th state in the nation to pass a “constitutional carry” law.

The Tennessee Senate approved a similar bill in 2014 which fell short of the support needed to become law.

The legislation also includes tougher penalties for firearm-related crime to promote public safety including:

  • Increasing the penalty for theft of a firearm to a felony;
  • Providing a sentencing enhancement for theft of a firearm in a car;
  • Increasing the minimum sentence for theft of a firearm from 30 days to 180 days; and
  • Increasing the sentences for unlawful possession of a firearm by violent felons and felony drug offenders, possession of a handgun by a felon, and unlawfully providing a handgun to a juvenile or allowing a juvenile to possess a handgun.


The legislation now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee for approval.

In other news…

Tennessee Board of Regents requests funding for all campus chief of police—Sen. Dolores Gresham (R- Somerville) proposed Senate Bill 2340 to the full Senate this week to create a chief of police position to coordinate campus security and policy across 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) and 13 community colleges to keep students safe. The bill, which was recommended by the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), passed unanimously and now moves to Governor Bill Lee for his signature.

Legislation to end judicial diversion for continuous child sexual abusers passes Senate – The full Senate voted this week to add continuous sexual abuse of a child to the list of offenses which are not eligible for judicial diversion. Judicial diversion allows a charge or charges to be diverted for an agreed upon amount of time once the defendant pleads guilty and agrees to conditions given by the judge.

Continuous sexual abuse of a child is a serious felony offense that occurs when a person engages in multiple acts of child sexual abuse. Under the Tennessee statute, this offense may occur in a few different situations. This includes engaging in three or more incidents of child sex abuse involving the same minor on separate occasions over a period of 90 days or more. The offense may also be charged for one incident of sexual abuse with at least three children on separate occasions over a period of 90 days or more. Some examples are cases that involve victims related to the defendant by blood or marriage, or a defendant who is considered an authority figure, such as a parent, teacher, priest, or child care provider.

Senate Bill 2332, sponsored by Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), ensures no judicial diversion can be considered by the courts for this serious crime.

Senate committee passes bill to create Tennessee Childcare Task force – The Senate Government Operations Committee approved Senate Bill 2253 this week calling for a Tennessee Childcare Taskforce. The task force will recommend various ways to improve the quality, affordability and accessibility of childcare services throughout the state. The group will develop a multi-year strategic plan for increasing the availability of high quality child care. The bill is sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) and is set for a hearing in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee next week.

Tennessee Rare Disease Advisory Council passes Senate committee—Sen. Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro) introduced Senate Bill 2124 to the Senate Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. The legislation establishes a Tennessee Rare Disease Advisory Council to make treatment recommendations to advise TennCare and other public and private agencies providing services for persons diagnosed with chronic, complex, and rare diseases like hemophilia, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

“The council is going to offer TennCare a breadth of knowledge to help them select the most efficient and effective treatment for patients with rare diseases,” said Senator Reeves. “They will be a supportive position to government entities by providing a skilled cohort of rare disease specialists to advise the complexities of treating rare diseases from Tennessee’s leading clinical and academic institutions. They will add a lot of value to our TennCare program.”

Rare Disease Day takes place on the last day of February each year and was most recently celebrated on February 29th. The main objective is to raise awareness among the general public and decision makers about rare diseases and their impact on patients' lives.

Department of Health gives update on COVID -19 novel coronavirus in Tennessee -- The Tennessee Department of Health gave lawmakers an update on the COVID19 novel coronavirus this week. The department has launched a Tennessee Coronavirus Public Information Line in partnership with the Tennessee Poison Center which will be available from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. CST daily. The hotline number is 877-857-2945.

Although Tennessee has received its first positive test result for a case of the virus, Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the overall risk to the general public remains low. She said, “We are working closely with local health care partners to identify contacts and contain spread of this disease in our communities. We’ve been anticipating identification of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee. At this time, the overall risk to the general public remains low. We are continuing to work with the CDC and other agencies to provide guidance to Tennesseans to protect their health.”

Piercey said citizens should use the normal practices to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. These include washing hands with soap and water; covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing; and not touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. She also urged those who are sick to stay home and stay away from other people.

People with concerns about their health should contact their health care providers. TDH has additional information available at The CDC has updated information and guidance available online at

On Wednesday, Governor Bill Lee announced the formation of a Coronavirus Task Force to enhance Tennessee’s coordinated efforts to prevent, identify, and treat potential cases of COVID-19.

Continued good news on the jobs front / unemployment rate in Tennessee holds at a low of 3.3 percent --Tennessee continues to have low unemployment according to statistics released by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development on Thursday. The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for January 2020 is 3.3 percent. This represents a .1 percent drop as compared to the rate in January 2019. Tennessee employers added 6,500 new jobs across the state between December and January, with the most significant increase in the education and health services sector. When comparing January 2019 to January 2020, employment grew by 46,100 positions statewide.

Legislation calls for open records regarding acts of terrorism committed by juveniles – On Thursday, the full Senate approved legislation to ensure that any acts of terrorism committed by juvenile offenders are open to the public for inspection. Senate Bill 2747, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), adds an act that constitutes terrorism or attempt to commit terrorism by an adult to the list of juvenile court petitions and orders currently open for public inspection. The legislation also prohibits expunction of a juvenile’s record relating to a delinquent act of terrorism or an attempt to commit terrorism.

An act of terrorism is defined as conduct that violates the law and is intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a unit of government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of a unit of government by murder, assassination, torture, kidnapping, or mass destruction.  The bill is pending action in the House of Representatives.

Legislation gives health boards more tools to protect patients – The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approved a bill this week providing health related boards with more tools to take swift action to limit the authority of health care providers who have been disciplined in other states. Senate Bill 2169, sponsored by Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), would allow all health related boards to restrict licensure of potentially dangerous practitioners to protect patients while a practitioner’s license is pending a contested hearing.  It also provides health boards with new options beyond only suspension, which can be helpful for rural communities that have a limited amount of physicians. Haile said that under the legislation, a rural doctor in trouble for overprescribing controlled substances could be restricted from prescribing controlled substances while still being able to provide needed care to his or her community. The bill now moves to the full Senate for a final vote.

Legislation levels the playing field for construction service providers – The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously approved legislation this week to level the playing field with in-state and out-of-state construction service providers. Under current law, an out-of-state contractor is not required to keep and maintain workers compensation insurance for employees who work on a temporary basis in Tennessee.  However, this practice has been abused and given out-of-state employers an unfair advantage over those located in Tennessee. Senate Bill 2189, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), requires all construction service employers to provide workers compensation insurance to employees in the same manner as in-state employers.

TACIR mandate to study cost of Amtrak construction in Tennessee passes Senate—A trip down to Atlanta might be possible by train if the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) deems it an efficient cost. Senate Bill 2065, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), mandates TACIR to study the demand for faster rail service, operating characteristics of potential service options, forecast performance options and projected operational costs to the state to expand railroad passenger service from Nashville to Atlanta. The bill passed 30-0.

Legislation to extend CoverKids Program passes Senate—An extension of CoverKids, Tennessee’s children’s health insurance program (CHIP), came up for vote during Monday night’s session. Senate Bill 2183, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), will extend the CoverKids program from June 30, 2020, to June 30, 2025. The program provides coverage to uninsured Tennessee children who are not eligible for the Tennessee Medicaid program. Similar to Medicaid, the program is financed and administered by both the federal and state government. “It covers about 40,000 children, 6,000 pregnant women in Tennessee,” said Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City).

The legislation passed unanimously and now heads to Governor Lee for his signature.

Legislation to allow Department of Veteran Services to use nonprofits for suicide prevention training — Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) sponsored Senate Bill 2755 to require the Department of Veteran Services to provide suicide prevention training to employees who directly interact with veterans. The bill authorizes the Department of Veteran Services to use nonprofit organizations to provide the training leaving no significant fiscal note. The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, Jason Foundation and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education are just a few of the non-profits Bell named who would likely be able to step in and provide the training.

In 2017, 154 veterans committed suicide in the state of Tennessee out of the 6,139 committed nationwide in the U.S according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. The bill passed unanimously and is pending action in the House of Representatives.

Bill expanding emergency service tags to more professions passes senate—Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) won final approval of Senate Bill 2766 to allow additional emergency service personnel to be issued emergency license plates. The legislation expands the definition of emergency service squad to include emergency medical technicians, paramedic, emergency medical technician paramedics or other emergency medical responders. It also includes physicians and nurses who accompany or attend a patient in an ambulance. Emergency responders seeking emergency tags are required to submit proof of their profession to their county clerk’s office.

New Museum Building named “Bill Haslam Center” -- The Senate approved legislation this week renaming the new building which houses the Tennessee State Museum as the Bill Haslam Center. The museum was previously located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building until it was moved into the new James K. Polk Center in 1981. It remained there for more than 35 years until 2015 when Gov. Haslam proposed a new home for the museum on the northwest corner of the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville. The General Assembly approved funds in 2015 to build the new 137,000 square foot facility with additional funding raised through private contributions. Highlights of the museum include six exhibitions, a children’s gallery, interactive tables and screens, and documentary films. A second-floor veranda overlooks Bicentennial Mall with views of the state Capitol and downtown Nashville. Senate Bill 2301 is sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson).

Bill to give judges discretion in determining child custody plans passes Senate —The Senate unanimously approved legislation that gives judges discretion in determining child custody plans when a parent has committed domestic abuse against the child, other parent or other individual residing with the child. Senate Bill 2733, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), requires a court to make its decision based on the best interest of the minor child when limiting a parent’s residential parenting time because the parent has engaged in willful abandonment or abuse of the parent, child or another person living with the child. Current law has conflicting statues governing these instances. One statute allows a judge to use discretion in determining a child custody plan if there is proof they have committed an act of domestic violence, but another statute provides that a judge must limit a parent’s residential plan if there is proof they have committed an act of domestic violence. This legislation clarifies the law and mirrors other code governing parental rights, which prioritizes the best interest of the child.