February 17, 2022 Legislative Update

This week's headlines include materials in school libraries, COVID-19 vaccine exemption, school funding, and ranked-choice voting.

Age-Appropriate Materials Act clears committee

The Education Committee this week passed legislation requiring public schools to post online a list of the materials in their libraries. Proposed by Gov. Bill Lee, the Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022 (Senate Bill 2407) now goes to the full Senate for consideration. “This bill simply sets forth a framework for all of our public school libraries to use to make sure parents and other stakeholders, including teachers and school board members, have a way to find out what is in the public school libraries,” said Senate Majority Leader Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the bill’s sponsor. “This bill ensures public school libraries contain only materials that are age-appropriate
for students across Tennessee. “This bill does not ban any book. It does not compel any board or any school to ban a book,” Johnson continued. “Many schools already publish lists of their library materials. This is widely acknowledged to be a best practice.” The bill also creates a required standardized review framework to ensure school library collections are periodically evaluated for age-appropriateness. Currently, classroom textbooks and instructional materials used in Tennessee public schools are vetted for age-appropriateness and standards alignment through the textbook review, approval and adoption process. But there is no such standardized process for the review of public school library collections. The bill requires each local board of education and public charter school governing body to adopt a policy establishing procedures for the review of school library collections. Each policy must include a procedure for schools to receive and evaluate feedback from students, parents, and school employees about materials in the library collection. Should a school find a material is not age-appropriate based on student, parental or employee feedback, then the school would have to remove it. The decision is ultimately up to the school in conjunction with the school board. “If it passes, this bill sends a message that the General Assembly believes in the ability of parents to know and to be able to review those materials in a library and then have an appropriate framework through which they can provide feedback,” Johnson said.

Judiciary Committee advances legislation supporting foster youth

The Judiciary Committee this week unanimously passed legislation aimed at enhancing the support system for youth in foster care. Senate Bill 2398 proposes the state reimburse eligible relatives of foster youth to support the cost of raising the child. It would also expand eligibility of 18- to 21-year-olds who are transitioning from state custody to adulthood to access services. “There’s a motto here in our state that Tennessee fosters hope and this bill does just that,” said Sen. Page Walley (R-Bolivar), a co-sponsor of the bill. “This bill is a step in the right direction I believe for our kids, our families and our state.” There are many relatives of foster youth who would like to care for the child, but lack the means to do so, according to Walley. To keep foster children in the care of relatives in such situations, this bill proposes reimbursing the relative caregiver 50% of the full foster care rate for the care of the child if certain conditions are met. “This would keep these kids in family without them coming into state custody and experiencing the trauma that can occur,” said Walley. The second provision of the bill expands eligibility for state services among foster youth who have aged out of the foster care system at age 18 and until the age of 21. Under present law, foster youth between those ages can continue to receive services provided they are in school. This bill would allow youth in the job market to also be eligible for those benefits. The move would extend benefits to as many as 300 additional foster youth a year, according to Walley. “The traditional college-bound journey doesn’t apply to many if not the vast majority of youth who are in this situation,” he said. “These kids want to work and can work and want to remain connected with the support and wrap-around services the Department of Children’s’ Services provides.”

Bill seeks to codify medical, religious exemption for COVID-19 vaccine

Last year, President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring healthcare workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The order, which was initially enjoined by federal courts before being upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, included provisions that compel applicable employers to honor religious and medical exemptions. Senate Bill 1823 proposes to codify into state law the executive order’s medical and religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination mandates. The bill also goes a step further in assisting those seeking such an exemption by providing a state enforcement mechanism. Under the federal order, those wishing to obtain an exemption must hire an attorney and work with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to challenge the requirement, according to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the bill’s sponsor. This bill would allow those seeking an exemption to also work with the Attorney General, who could then take civil action against that employer if they fail to honor the exemption. Johnson said the medical exemption can be obtained via a note from a Tennessee physician while the religious exemption can be obtained simply by declaring a strongly held religious reason for not getting vaccinated. “That’s where it ends and then the employer must honor that request,” Johnson said. “The bill puts some teeth to make sure these employers in Tennessee are honoring the exemption request as provided for in the executive order.”

TISA Legislation Launches on Feb. 24 with Presentation from Gov. Lee and Commissioner Schwinn

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn will share legislation for the new student-based funding formula, known as the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement formula (TISA), on Thursday, February 24. Tennesseans will have access to a livestream presentation that breaks down key aspects of the legislation and funding proposal. Details about the presentation will be announced next week. “After an extensive process with input from thousands of Tennesseans, we are on the cusp of achieving an updated approach to public education that prioritizes students and invests in the future of Tennessee,” said Gov. Lee. “I thank our partners in the General Assembly who have worked with us for months to improve the way we fund public schools, and I have every expectation that we will get this done during the current legislative session.” “From the start of the public engagement process, Tennesseans from across the state have weighed in and developed a strong vision for how to best fund public education,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Under the TISA, we will put the funding focus on students and give Tennesseans clear information to understand how districts and schools are using funding to help our students thrive.” For the first time in over 30 years, the TISA will update the way Tennessee invests in public education by moving to a student-based funding formula, including the following components:

•Student-based funding starts with a base funding amount for every public-school student.
•Additional funding may then be allocated based on weights to address individual student needs.
•Direct funding is another opportunity for students to receive additional funding allocations to support specific programs, like tutoring.
•Outcome incentives are awarded based on student achievement to empower schools to help all students reach their full potential.

In January, Gov. Lee and Commissioner Schwinn released a draft framework for the new student-based K-12 funding formula, which incorporated input from thousands of Tennesseans. Starting last fall, the Department of Education and the General Assembly convened 18 funding subcommittees, organized a legislative steering committee, and provided over 1,000 opportunities for the public to engage, including 16 public town halls and local match conversations across the state. To learn more about student-based funding, Tennessee’s recent public engagement process and subcommittee recommendations, and to access additional resources, visit the Department of Education’s website.

Senate approves ranked choice voting ban

A ban on ranked choice or instant runoff voting in state and local elections (Senate Bill 1820) was passed by the Senate 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. The process repeats until a winner is identified. “It’s a very confusing and complex process that ultimately leads to lack of confidence in the vote totals,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who sponsored the bill. “It also leads to reporting results in a process that’s difficult, slow and costly.” To that point, Kelsey said the Oakland 2010 mayoral election, which utilized ranked choice voting, had 10 recounts, 11% of ballots were thrown out, and the winner still didn’t get 50% of the vote. New York City’s mayoral election last year, which also used ranked choice voting, saw eight recounts, 13% of ballots thrown out, and the winner won with just 31% of the votes cast. “This bill does away with that process and ensures that confusion doesn’t come to Tennessee,” Kelsey said.

In Brief:

Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss Memorial Highway — The Transportation and Safety Committee passed Senate Bill 2038, which names a segment of the Tazewell Pike in Knox County as the “Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss Memorial Highway.” A Knoxville native, Knauss made the ultimate sacrifice on Aug. 26, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was tragically killed while helping American citizens and Afghan refugees escape the country amid the withdrawal of American forces and personnel. “He was a true hero,” said Sen. Becky Massey (R-Knoxville). “Many Tennesseans regularly travel this road, and when we do we’ll think of Ryan and the sacrifice he made.”

New state song — The Senate named “I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” by Bluegrass group Dailey and Vincent, written by Karen Staley, as an official state song. It is Tennessee’s 11th official state song.

Human Trafficking training — The Senate voted in favor of Senate Bill 1670, which requires all school personnel, instead of only teachers, be trained at least once every three years on the detection, intervention, prevention, and treatment of human trafficking in which the victim is a child.

Residency requirements — Senate Bill 2616 would prohibit a person from being nominated as a candidate for U.S. Senator or member of the U.S. House of Representatives unless the person has voted in the three previous elections in this state. The bill cleared the State and Local Government Committee this week. The Tennessee State Constitution requires seven years of residency in the state to run for Governor, five years of residency to run for judge or district attorney, and three years of residency to run for the State Senate or House. But the state and U.S. Constitution are silent in regards to residency for running for a seat in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, according to Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), who sponsored the bill. “The constitution is silent on this issue. When the constitution is silent, the states can do what they want to do,” Niceley said.

Disabled license plates – Passed by the Transportation and Safety Committee, Senate Bill 2301 requires the design of disabled license plates to incorporate the color scheme, base design, and details used on the standard registration and license plate. “Integrating the standard registration plates with disabled license plates will bring the state into compliance with the most integrated setting regulations of the ADA, which enables individuals with disabilities to interact with non-disabled persons to the fullest extent possible and really doesn’t set them apart as far as identifying it separately,” said Sen. Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), who sponsored the bill. The bill would become effective Jan. 21, 2023.

State Park maintenance – The Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee this week signed off on Senate Bill 2418, which establishes the State Parks Hospitality Maintenance and Improvement Fund. Each fiscal year, the bill would require at least 2% of the gross revenue created by park facilities to be deposited into the fund, which will be used for maintenance expenses. “The fund will allow the Department of Environment and Conservation to sustain maintenance and replacement costs through self-funding rather than requesting regular allocations from the general fund for those expenses,” said Sen. Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), a co-sponsor of the bill. “We’re trying to make the parks self sufficient.” Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) said: “There had been no designated funding
to do the routine maintenance and we have found ourselves behind the curve with so many of our premier state parks. This bill will help fix that problem.”

Tourism – Senate Bill 2436 authorizes the commissioner of tourist development to develop and implement activities, grants, and programs that foster the growth of tourism in Tennessee. Passed by the Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee, the bill also designates the department of tourist development as the department responsible for the implementation and administration of all marketing and promotion, tourism partner services, and economic development projects.

Local Education Agencies — The Senate this week passed Senate Bill 503, which entitles Local Education Agencies to reimbursement for the cost of providing health or medical services to eligible students. Payment will come from the Department of Finance and Administration. “This will help stop a hemorrhage of funds from our LEAs,” said Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston), a co-sponsor of the bill. “This is really a good piece of legislation that will help the kids and our school districts.”

Crime — Senate Bill 1807 adds rape to the list of offenses for which a defendant is not eligible for probation under the Tennessee Criminal Sentencing Reform Act of 1989. The bill was passed by the Judiciary Committee this week.

First Responders — The Judiciary Committee signed off on Senate Bill 1785, which expands the definition of aggravated assault and assault against a first responder to include an assault involving the use or display of any article used or fashioned to lead the victim to reasonably believe it to be a deadly weapon.