January 25, 2024 Legislative Update

Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after week-long extreme weather delay

The General Assembly postponed official business and state offices closed last week after record-breaking amounts of snow and ice blanketed the state. Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill on Monday and submitted hundreds of new bills to be considered during the 2024 legislative session ahead of the Thursday, February 1 deadline to file new bills.

TDOT praised for rising to the occasion amid record amounts of snow and ice

Last week the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) worked overtime to clear roadways across the state and improve hazardous road conditions caused by snow, ice and subzero temperatures.  Chair of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) opened her committee meeting Wednesday by recognizing the great work of TDOT and the Department of Safety to keep citizens safe during the unusual winter weather conditions.

“On behalf of our committee, I would like to thank all TDOT and Safety employees - from those on the frontline like the highway patrol folks clearing accidents and TDOT workers running snow plows to all of the support personnel that helped on the backend,” Massey said to the departments. “It was a storm of the decades and impacted so many communities. You all worked around the clock to keep our communities safe so that we could traverse around to places like work and medical appointments. We can’t thank you enough for all that you do.”

TDOT Commissioner Butch Eley told the committee TDOT staff worked 16-hour shifts to clear and treat roads. Over the course of a week, TDOT deployed 88,500 tons of salt, 1.5 million tons of brine and 884,200 miles driven to make roads in Tennessee safe to drive.

“We are very fortunate to have some of the best-maintained roads in the country,” said Eley. “But I will tell you that our most important assets are really not our physical assets but our people, and we’re very proud of that.”

TDOT’s new 10-year transportation project plan

Eley went on to update the committee on the department’s new 10-year project plan announced last month. The $15 billion, fiscally-constrained plan establishes a long-term investment strategy for infrastructure in Tennessee. Much of the funding for these projects is made possible through the $3 billion allocated by the General Assembly last year in the Transportation Modernization Act to address a $26 billion backlog of transportation and congested related needs.

Tennessee takes pride in being one of the only states with no road debt. The new TDOT plan maintains this status and is consistent with the state’s fundamental principles of responsible fiscal management. Notably, it identifies a funding stream for every 93 projects in the plan to ensure what gets started gets finished. 

Other guiding principles of the plan include to continue fully funding State of Good Repair for road maintenance, balance rural and urban investments, utilize all available state and federal funds, and deploy TMA funds quickly.

The Department stressed the financial importance of finishing projects quickly. As prices for materials are rapidly rising, the longer a project takes to finish the more expensive it becomes.

The new plan also includes Tennessee’s first potential Choice Lanes, authorized by the TMA, to serve motorists in some of the most congested urban areas of Tennessee.

Legislation proposed to help victims of human trafficking rehabilitate

Legislation is moving through the Senate to give victims of human trafficking with HIV a better chance at rehabilitating their lives. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 0181, sponsored by Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah),  which would allow victims of human trafficking with convictions of aggravated prostitution to have their records expunged. The legislation would also remove the requirement for those victims to be placed on the sex offender registry (SOR).

Under current Tennessee law, if a person knowingly has HIV and engages in prostitution then the criminal charge is elevated to aggravated prostitution, a Class C felony requiring lifetime registration as a violent sex offender. 

“Our current law places a lot of barriers for women who have been trafficked and many times, through no fault of their own, have contracted HIV and are trying to rebuild their lives,” said Walley. “These laws neglect to consider that when someone is trafficked they face coercion, manipulation, and threats by traffickers and pimps and as they try to rehabilitate their lives.”

Senate Bill 181 would allow a victim of human trafficking who was convicted of aggravated prostitution to petition the court to have their record expunged. It would also remove the requirement for those convicted of aggravated prostitution to be placed on the state SOR and allow those currently on the SOR for aggravated prostitution to be removed.

“Being classified as a violent sex offender creates many issues for those on the list including access to jobs, housing, and certain rehabilitation programs,” added Walley. “The expungement of these victims' records whose lives have been devastatingly affected by human trafficking would allow them to seek the care they need, help them to pursue jobs and remove barriers from housing issues they otherwise would face.”

The bill now moves to the Senate floor to be considered by the full Senate.

Tennessee Promise Program evaluation indicates high success rates for students

Over the past decade, Tennessee high school graduates have had the opportunity to enroll in the Tennessee Promise Program which was first passed by the General Assembly in 2014. This week the Senate Education Committee was briefed on a recent report revealing the tremendous success of the Tennessee Promise Program. The report was issued by Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability. Since its inception, Tennessee Promise has provided over $168 million in financial aid for students to attend Tennessee public higher education institutions tuition-free, and students enrolled in the program are excelling.

The report highlighted Promise students on average maintain higher achievements in many areas compared to their non-Promise student peers. Promise students excel academically, earn more credits and have higher retention rates compared to non participating students. Overall, the program's evaluation indicates students receiving the Promise scholarship are empowered and motivated to obtain good grades and complete their postsecondary education.

Participating students can earn a bachelor’s degree, certificate or technical diploma for free at any of Tennessee's 27 colleges of applied technology (TCATs), 13 community colleges, and HOPE eligible independent or public four-year universities offering an associate's degree or certificate. Promise students make up over 30 to 47 percent of college enrollees in Tennessee any given year.

“These grants help reach students who have financial barriers that don’t allow them to seek postsecondary education and gives them the chance to pursue their dreams,” said Senate Education Chairman Jon Lundberg. “I am very proud of this program and am honored to be a part of students' steps toward success.”

In 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation to provide additional assistance to students with financial need to cover “non-essential” costs like books, which can cost up to $1,000 a year.

Tennessee lawmakers are working hard to ensure the Promise Program continually does the best of its ability to help students in need reach their educational goals.

In Brief…

Safe haven centers have saved over 128 babies in Tennessee

On Wednesday, Lawmakers heard from the Secret Place to Live for Newborns Organization about their continual efforts to protect children and mothers in Tennessee. The Safe Haven Law was enacted in 2001 due to a 14 year-old mother abandoning her newborn which ultimately resulted in the child's death and the imprisonment of the mother. This law allows mothers of newborns to surrender unharmed babies to designated facilities within two weeks of birth without fear of being prosecuted or questioned. Tennessee was one of the first states to pass The Safe Haven Law and has since rescued 128 babies, which is a new baby almost every other month since the law has been enacted. There are over 1,500 facilities throughout the state of Tennessee and the organization is using its best efforts to continually update, train, and equip these facilities with resources to maintain safe processes. The organization commended the Tennessee General Assembly for their continued financial support and is proud of all the work that has gone into providing surrendered newborns a safe place.

Finance Committee hears update on Annual Comprehensive Financial Report

The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee was briefed by the Department of Finance and Administration on the state’s award-winning Annual Comprehensive Financial Report (ACFR) for Fiscal Year 2023. The ACFR is Tennessee’s official annual report on financial activity. It is one of the most  important documents for any local or state government to establish financial transparency and credibility with its creditors and oversight agencies. In Fiscal Year 2023, the state’s net position increased by $6.6 billion, bringing the state’s total net position up to $60 billion. This includes $34.1 billion in capital assets, $22.6 billion in unrestricted funds allocated based on state statute, and another $3.3 billion in restricted funds. Tennessee’s ACFR has consistently won the prestigious Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting. In 2022 the state’s ACFR won the award for the 43rd year – more than any other state has been awarded the certificate, and the Department believes the 2023 ACFR will also earn the award.