February 29, 2024 Legislative Update

Senate advances legislation to crack down on crime and hold criminals accountable

This week, Senate Republicans advanced several bills to increase penalties for criminals, specifically repeat offenders and criminals who target children.

Strengthening Tennessee's response to repeat misdemeanor offenders

To address the issue of persistent crime, Tennessee lawmakers are prioritizing solutions to tackle the challenge of repeat misdemeanor offenders who often avoid significant consequences. Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) passed Senate Bill 2155 in the Senate Judiciary Committee which would increase the minimum jail time following a fifth qualifying misdemeanor offense. The list includes 37 total crimes ranging from assault to driving under the influence. 

Under this legislation, a criminal who has been convicted of any combination of five or more qualifying misdemeanors in the past ten years would be subject to a class E felony charge at the discretion of a judge. In the case of certain repeat violent offenses such as domestic assault and child neglect, the legislation would raise the third or subsequent conviction from a class D misdemeanor to a class E felony.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of repeat misdemeanor offenders across the state of Tennessee,” said Watson. “They are habitual criminals, and the public is tired of them getting off with a simple ‘slap on the wrist.’ This legislation is one remedy we should consider to curb criminal recidivism.”

A Class E felony is punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 2155 on Tuesday and it now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee advances legislation to protect children from abusers

This week, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee advanced multiple pieces of legislation that will protect children from known abusers and also enhance the punishments for child abuse.

Senate Bill 1835, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), enhances the penalty for abusing a child over the age of nine. Currently, the offense results in a Class A misdemeanor, and abusing a child under the age of nine is a Class D felony. This enhancement will bring the offense of abusing a child older than nine to a Class E felony to ensure child abusers are held accountable. The legislation advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Another bill will create a Class A misdemeanor offense for knowingly leaving a child in the care or supervision of a person who is a registered sex offender. Senate Bill 1587, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) aims to protect children from unsafe environments. This bill advances to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Senate Bill 2070, cosponsored by Leader Johnson and Senator Brent Taylor (R-Memphis) will protect children from being in unsafe homes. The bill will ensure that a child cannot be in a home where there is a history of child abuse. It also holds caregivers, parents or guardians accountable to protect the child from abuse by other individuals in the home. Senate Bill 2070 advances to the Senate floor for final consideration.

These pieces of legislation are some of the latest efforts the General Assembly is advancing to protect children in and out of the home by enhancing punishments for abusing children.

Dr. Benjamin Mauck Act

The Dr. Benjamin Mauck Act advanced this week to increase penalties for assault in a healthcare facility. On July 11, 2023, Dr. Benjamin Mauck was shot point blank three times in his Collierville medical facility. One week prior, his life had been threatened by the individual who savagely murdered him.

Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) passed legislation out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that would enhance the punishment for assault in healthcare facilities to a Class A misdemeanor and aggravated assault in healthcare facilities to a Class C felony. Senate Bill 1709 advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Senator Taylor advances bill to prohibit local restrictions on routine traffic stops

To fight violent crime in Memphis, State Senator Brent Taylor (R-Memphis) passed Senate Bill 2572 this week out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee to ensure law enforcement can conduct routine traffic stops as part of their efforts to protect public safety. The Memphis City Council passed a resolution last year to prohibit Memphis Police from stopping vehicles for expired tags, broken tail lights, loose bumpers, and similar offenses. Taylor’s legislation would prohibit local governments from restricting law enforcement’s ability to conduct routine traffic stops.

“Routine traffic stops have resulted in major arrests and the apprehension of violent criminals for years,” said Taylor.  “Whether it’s a random drug trafficker pulled over for running a stop sign or the most well-known case—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh—routine traffic stops are a proven means of catching violent offenders, drug traffickers, and other dangerous criminals.”

Reclaiming regulatory oversight of intrastate commerce from federal government

On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee advanced Senate Bill 2133 sponsored by Senator Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun) that would delegate regulatory oversight of intrastate commerce from the federal government to the state. The legislation would empower Tennessee to govern the production and distribution of goods within its borders.

“This bill makes it clear that if commerce in Tennessee does not fall under interstate commerce because it takes place solely within our state, then it falls under the purview of the state of Tennessee,” said Lowe.

When laws are ambiguous or silent, then under Chevron deference precedence the court defers to the regulatory agency that oversees the subject matter to interpret the law. The United States Supreme Court is currently in a position to consider overturning Chevron deference, which would return the interpretation of regulatory law to the judicial branch. If Chevron is overturned, the legislation would make clear that regulatory authority for intrastate commerce falls under the state of Tennessee.

“In recent years, we have seen federal bureaucrats interfere in Tennessee’s commerce in the sale and production of pork products and even neighbors selling tomatoes to neighbors. All of that is regulated by the federal government because of the doctrine of Chevron deference. This bill seeks to eliminate ambiguity in Tennessee law and ensure that Tennessee is in a position to regulate our own business.”

The Tennessee General Assembly has taken steps in recent years to claw back regulatory authority from the federal government. In 2023, a new law passed enabling Tennessee to reclaim control of meat inspection from the federal government and speed up the process which was hurting meat producers.

The bill passed committee and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

The Family Rights and Responsibilities Act advances

The Senate Judiciary Committee this week approved legislation that explicitly lays out twelve fundamental rights of parents in Tennessee Code. The Family Rights and Responsibilities Act, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), protects parents’ fundamental rights and responsibilities to make education, healthcare, moral and religious decisions for their child. The bill aims to protect children from being indoctrinated by ideologies contrary to the values taught by their parents.

“The relationship between a parent and child predates the institution of government itself. Parents know their children best, and they have the right and responsibility to make decisions in the best interest of the child without undue influence from the government,” said Sen. Haile. “ Families are the backbone of our society, and the laws of our society should reflect the sanctity of parents’ fundamental rights.”

The legislation advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and moves to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Legislation addressing generative AI in music industry awaits senate floor vote

On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed the Ensuring Likeness Voice and Image Security (ELVIS) Act, a bill updating Tennessee’s Protection of Personal Rights law to include protections for songwriters, performers, and music industry professionals’ voice from the misuse of artificial intelligence (AI). The ELVIS Act would be the first legislation in the nation to protect against the unauthorized use of someone’s likeness by adding “voice” to the existing protections.

Tennessee’s music industry supports more than 61,617 jobs across the state, contributes $5.8 billion to the state’s GDP, and fills over 4,500 music venues.

“The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence is exciting in many ways, but it also presents new challenges -- especially for singers, songwriters and other music professionals,” said Leader Johnson. “Tennessee is well-known for being home to some of the most talented music artists in the world. It is crucial our laws protect these artists from AI-generated synthetic media which threatens their unique voices and creative content.”

Tennessee’s current law protects name, image and likeness, but it doesn’t specifically address new, personalized generative AI cloning models and services that enable human impersonation and allow users to make unauthorized fake works in the image and voice of others. Artists and musicians at all levels are facing exploitation and theft of their unique voices, threatening the future of Tennessee’s creators, the jobs that they support across the state and country, and the bonds between fans and their favorite bands.

The bill now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Increasing compensation for community-based long-term care providers: In-home caretakers confront challenging work conditions, leading to low retention rates across the state. In an attempt to alleviate this issue, legislation sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) aims to compensate long-term care providers who already reside with patients. Senate Bill 2036, if enacted, would enable caregivers who live with their patients to receive payment through TennCare, offering crucial support to both the caretaker and the patient.

“This bill will ensure that the long-term care providers have as large of a recruiting pool as possible,” said Briggs. “Enabling their ability to hire providers who are in the home with the beneficiary will help make that possible.”

The legislation passed the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Tuesday and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Updates to workers’ comp. benefits for Tennessee National Guard -  Senate Bill 2083, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), addresses the disparity in workers' compensation benefits for the Tennessee National Guard. Currently, if a National Guard member is injured while on active state duty, their workers’ compensation benefits are based on their Guard pay, even though their civilian pay might be higher. The bill requires that workers’ compensation injury or death benefits for Guard members be based on whichever compensation rate is higher between their civilian wages and active duty wages. The bill will ensure that Tennessee National Guardsmen injured on state active duty are not suffering financially while recovering from their injuries. The bill passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee and advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Sending Tennessee National Guard to the US southern border -  Senate Republicans passed Senate Resolution 188, by Leader Johnson, to express their support for Governor Lee’s action to send Tennessee National Guard troops to join efforts with the Texas National Guard and others to help secure the U.S. southern border. After Gov. Lee visited the border with other governors in early February, he committed to sending two waves of state active-duty soldiers to Texas to assist in their efforts.

Safeguarding homeowners - On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed legislation designed to shield homeowners from the threat of foreclosure by Homeowners Associations (HOAs). Under Senate Bill 2150, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), HOA’s would not be permitted to foreclose on a resident’s home for their failure to pay fees associated with nonessential amenities. This measure ensures that homeowners are protected from disproportionate consequences for financial challenges related to optional community features. The bill now advances to the Senate floor for final approval.

Election day school closures - The Senate State and Local Government Committee this week approved legislation aimed at improving school safety during elections. Senate Bill 1836, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), requires public schools to be closed for instruction if the building is being used as a polling place for a presidential election primary. Schools used as polling locations for the November general election are already required to be closed.

TWRA grants for Marinas – In 2022, Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) sponsored legislation that established a grant program for marinas to address public infrastructure costs. The program was funded through gasoline tax revenue and administered by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). This year, Senator Yager is sponsoring legislation that will allow these grants to be administered based on the amount of gasoline sold. It also will ensure that a minimum of twenty-five marinas receive a grant, ensuring that regardless of size, all marinas can participate in the grant program. The legislation advanced out of the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week and moves to the Senate floor.

Dietitian Licensure Compact - The Senate Government Operations Committee gave a positive recommendation to Senate Bill 1862, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), which would create the Dietitian Licensure Compact. The compact aims to facilitate the interstate practice of dietetics to improve public access to dietetics services. The bill now moves to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Local government contracts with energy developers - Senate Bill 2424, sponsored by Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah), passed the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week. The bill would allow a local government to negotiate with an energy project developer. An agreement would have to be made, and the terms and conditions of the agreement must include the duration of the agreement, the location of the land involved, a description and design of the project and any other terms agreed to by the local government. The local governing body must approve of the terms and conditions of the agreement. The bill moves to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Bills Previously Covered that Passed the Senate Floor This Week

  • Senate Bill 613 - Sponsored by Senator Haile allows courts to add trauma-informed education as a requirement in a parenting plan when children have been removed from their homes in cases of dependency or neglect. (Covered Week 6)
  • Senate Bill 1679 - Sponsored by Senator Haile, requires schools to develop a safety response plan when an unscheduled fire alarm is activated. The goal is to help school personnel more quickly determine whether an emergency is a fire, inclement weather, or an active shooter situation. (Covered Week 5)
  • Senate Bill 1768 - Sponsored by Senator Lundberg, requires an administrator of elections to temporarily step down from the position at least 30 days prior to an election if an immediate family member was on the ballot in the county they serve. (Covered Week 6)
  • Senate Bill 1825 - Sponsored by Senator Watson, prohibits all state entities from contracting, negotiating with or paying an individual or entity that is a known system hacker. (Covered Week 6)
  • Senate Bill 1853 - Sponsored by Senator Lundberg, increases the number of available credit hours for high school work-based learning programs from a yearly maximum of three to six. (Covered Week 5)
  • Senate Bill 1957 - Sponsored by Senator Haile, allows veterinarians in Tennessee to report suspected animal cruelty and testify in judicial proceedings regarding that animal’s care without violating veterinarian-client-patient confidentiality. (Covered Week 6)
  • Senate Bill 2059 - Sponsored by Senator Walley, requires the Administrative Office of the Courts to submit reports on juvenile courts that are noncompliant with statewide data collection requirements. (Covered Week 6)
  • Senate Bill 2066 - Sponsored by Senator Bailey, requires childcare facilities in Tennessee to have carbon monoxide detectors installed in every room. (Covered Week 6)
  • Senate Bill 2359 - Sponsored by Senator Watson, safeguards the rights of families to adopt or foster without facing mandates regarding specific vaccinations. (Covered Week 6)