March 21, 2024 Legislative Update

Public and school safety, protecting Second Amendment rights highlight the week

Senate Education Committee concluded its business this week, with four of five Senate standing committees now closed. The Senate body was hard at work this week advancing legislation to improve public and school safety, protect Second Amendment rights, cut taxes, and empower parents. 

Next week, lawmakers will begin discussions to finalize the budget as the governor’s supplemental amendment is proposed to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee next Tuesday.

Bill aims to close loophole for defendants found incompetent to stand trial

As part of a big push to improve public safety in Tennessee, a Republican bill would close a legal loophole for defendants found incompetent to stand trial.

Senate Bill 1769, sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), would require criminal defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial to be committed to an appropriate treatment facility. Current state law does not provide this requirement.

“For the safety of our communities, these violent offenders who are incompetent to stand trial should not be released from custody,” said Lundberg.

The legislation was introduced following the murder of Jillian Ludwig, an 18-year-old Belmont University freshman who was fatally shot while walking in a Nashville park on Nov. 7, 2023. Her killer, Shaquille Taylor, was a repeat violent offender who was deemed incompetent to stand trial for committing aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in April 2023.  Because of this finding, Taylor was released from custody and went on to murder Jillian Ludwig later that year.

The legislation would additionally require individuals deemed incompetent to stand trial to be entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which serves as a namecheck database of people prohibited from buying or owning firearms.

Second Amendment Financial Privacy Act passes Senate

Legislation passed the Senate floor this week to protect financial transaction data associated with firearm and ammunition purchases from being used to conduct mass surveillance of law-abiding Tennesseans.

Senate Bill 2223, also known as the Second Amendment Financial Privacy Act, would prohibit financial institutions like banks and credit card companies from requiring the use of a specific merchant category code (MCC) to identify transactions that occur at firearms retailers in the state. The bill would also prevent legal purchases from being denied at firearms retailers as well as protect financial records of the transactions from disclosure unless required by law.

“The potential for abuse of this information is clear. So clear that even Visa, the industry-leading payment processor, has paused implementation of this MCC code,” said Johnson. “This legislation is good public policy to put a stop to this kind of behavior.”

Alleged violations of the law would be investigated by the Attorney General’s Office and could result in a civil penalty of up to $10,000 if necessary, according to the bill. If approved, Tennessee would join a handful of other states like Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana and Texas that have already passed similar legislation. The new law would take effect July 1.

Senate passes legislation to simplify franchise tax and return money to taxpayers

On Thursday, the Senate approved legislation to cut taxes by simplifying the state’s franchise tax – a business tax on net worth. This adjustment will offer relief to taxpayers, modernize the way the tax is calculated and manage newly discovered legal risks.

The legislation will align Tennessee’s franchise tax with surrounding states. It is also a proactive measure to mitigate the legal risks of the current franchise tax policy.

“Because our state is in a strong fiscal position due to years of consistent conservative budgeting, we are able to issue this tax cut and remedy legal concerns without a costly legal battle,” said Yager. “This is the most fiscally responsible way to protect Tennessee tax dollars and provide equitable tax relief for businesses that have invested in Tennessee.”

The current property measure of the nearly century-old franchise tax is an alternative minimum tax on property used in Tennessee. The property measure disincentivizes investment in the state and has recently created additional legal challenges.

Senate Bill 2103, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), would change Tennessee’s franchise tax to remove the property measure and authorize the Department of Revenue to issue refunds to taxpayers who have paid the franchise tax based on property located in the state.

“It’s important to remember the money being returned under this bill is not government money; it’s taxpayer money,” said Stevens. “We trust that taxpayers are in the best position to decide how to use those funds. They may raise employee salaries or purchase additional manufacturing goods. Regardless of how the refunds are used, those taxpayers receiving refunds will circulate the money back into the economy.” 

Tennessee Prevention of Drunk Driving Act advances

Legislation to reduce drunk driving in Tennessee advanced out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week.

The Tennessee Prevention of Drunk Driving Act, sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) would create a 12-member advisory task force to review impaired driving and boating statewide, and offer solutions to reduce those crimes from occurring. The task force consists of 12 members of the General Assembly.

Additionally, law enforcement officers investigating fatal wrecks involving a suspected drunk driver would be required to determine if the individual was served alcohol at a licensed establishment. The findings would be reported to the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) within 48 hours.

“This bill addresses the rising problem of intoxicated driving in Tennessee,” said Sen. Rose. “Accidents involving alcohol have increased 59% since 2019, and this is a five-pronged approach to help find solutions to curb drunk driving.”

The legislation would also require the ABC to regularly report to the legislature ways to prevent underage drinking, drunk driving and other harmful uses of alcohol in Tennessee.

There were 6,135 wrecks statewide that involved an alcohol-impaired driver in 2022, according to the most recent data from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. There were 324 fatalities and more than 3,700 injuries as a result.

Duty to Warn Act seeks to enhance public safety

The Tennessee Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week approved legislation sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville)  to increase protections for those targeted by threats of violence.

Senate Bill 1673, also known as the Duty to Warn Act, clarifies the requirement for mental health professionals and behavior analysts in Tennessee to inform local law enforcement if a patient makes an imminent threat to harm a specific individual or clearly identified group. Threats that are more general in nature must be reported to either the 988 Lifeline or a local crisis response service.

The legislation includes protections from civil, criminal and disciplinary penalties for mental health professionals and behavior analysts who make reasonable attempts to comply with the law. Senate Bill 1673 now advances to the Senate floor for final consideration. The measure’s companion legislation has already passed the House.

Cassie Wright Act seeks to ensure parents can access mental health records of minor teenage children

Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) is sponsoring the Cassie Wright Act to ensure parents are informed by physicians about their minor child’s prescription medications and/or suicidal ideation. The legislation is named after a teen who tragically took her own life after receiving a mental health diagnosis unknown to her mother.

Under current Tennessee law, an individual 16 years old or older does not have to obtain parental consent for prescriptions, and physicians are not required to provide information to parents about medications prescribed for their child.  Physicians are also not currently required to inform parents if their child is struggling with suicidal ideations. Due to this law, Cassie’s mother was unaware that she was suffering.

“This legislation aims to protect and help young individuals who are suffering,” said Sen. Rose. “If Cassie’s mother knew what condition her daughter was suffering from, she could have provided more resources to help Cassie. Instead, this story ended tragically.”

Senate Bill 2482 clarifies in law that parents have the right to access their minor's prescription records even if given without the parent's consent. It also clarifies that a physician’s duty to report includes reporting to a minor’s parent if there is an apparent ability and likelihood to commit suicide. The bill advances to the Senate floor for final approval.

Legislation advanced to empower parents with school materials

The Senate Education Committee advanced legislation on Wednesday to increase parental and community involvement over what materials should be available to minors.

Senate Bill 1858, sponsored by Speaker Pro Temp Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), would make clear that parents of a public school student or public charter school student have standing to file civil action against their local education agency to enforce the Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022.

The Age Appropriate Materials Act requires public school libraries to post online a list of materials in library collections and to create a review framework to ensure age-appropriateness. A total of 181 books were challenged statewide between January and August 31, 2023.

Several bills advance to improve school safety

This week, several measures advanced to continue efforts to improve school safety across the state for public and private K-12 schools as well as at higher education institutions. Those school safety bills are highlighted below.

School de-escalation training – The Senate Education Committee advanced school safety legislation to require de-escalation training for teachers and administrators in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1721, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) would ensure school personnel receive the training annually beginning in the 2024-25 academic year.

A report last year from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability found that over the last 25 years, 43 percent of shootings that occurred at Tennessee schools were due to the escalation of a dispute. The bill passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and now awaits approval on the Senate floor.

Increasing availability of SROs - Currently, over 500 Tennessee schools are without a school resource officer (SRO), even though the state provides grant funding to place an SRO in every Tennessee public school. To help alleviate this safety risk for these schools, Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) is sponsoring legislation that would help fill this gap and provide more schools with equipped officers.

Senate Bill 2901 would allow a retired law enforcement officer who is a member of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) or local retirement fund to be reemployed as a full-time SRO at a Tennessee public school without loss or suspension of the officer’s retirement benefits. This legislation passed out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday and now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Ensuring safe school traffic – Legislation sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) aimed at protecting kids from traffic during busy school transportation hours passed out of the Senate this week with bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 2771 would allow counties to hire employees or use volunteers to direct vehicles within a marked school zone. Anyone who served as a traffic director would be required to undergo training and use the appropriate safety apparel and equipment. This legislation would also authorize counties to close roads within certain hours of the day for easier and safer pickup and dropoff zones. The bill now awaits passage in the House.

Improving student safety on college campuses - Legislation to ensure college students in Tennessee can protect themselves on campus without facing criminal charges advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

Senate Bill 1868, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) would clarify that it is not a crime for adults to carry certain non-lethal weapons in most buildings, recreation areas and other facilities on public college campuses. The bill specifies that non-lethal weapons include pepper spray, a pepper spray gun, pepper gel, mace, an electronic control device, a stun gun or other conducted energy device. The legislation now awaits approval on the Senate floor.

Emergency phones on college campuses –  To enhance safety measures on college campuses, Tennessee higher education institutions have blue-light emergency phones, which connect callers directly to emergency services. Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) is sponsoring legislation to further safeguard students by mandating all calls made from those emergency phones be recorded. Senate Bill 1784 passed out of the Senate State and Local Committee on Wednesday and now awaits final passage on the Senate floor.

Increasing private school safety - Legislation sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) is aimed at increasing safety at more private schools in Tennessee. Existing state law only allows K-12 private schools to establish a handgun carry policy. Senate Bill 1708 allows a private school with students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade to adopt a handgun carry policy for its campus. The bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and now awaits final consideration on the Senate floor.

Supreme Court Affirmative Action Ruling - Last year, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the discriminatory practice of affirmative action, which allowed race to be used as a deciding factor in admission to a university. Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) is sponsoring Senate Bill 2822 which will ensure that higher education institutions are complying with the Supreme Court’s decision in admission practices.

The bill adds that any audit of a higher education institution by the Tennessee Comptroller must review compliance with the Supreme Court ruling and ensure no Tennessee higher education institutions are using race as an admissions factor. The bill passed the Senate this week and is still moving through committees in the House of Representatives.

Right to parental notification - To continue efforts to address gender identities of children in school, Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) is sponsoring Senate Bill 1810 which will ensure parents are made aware if their child asks for accommodations in school to affirm their gender identity. The bill passed the Senate floor this week.

Last year, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 466 which protects teachers from being disciplined, fired or held civilly liable when asked to use pronouns not consistent with a student’s biological gender.

Increasing availability of middle school CTE courses –In an effort to provide more students with access to career development, legislation sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) would expand the availability of  Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses for middle school students.

CTE class size maximums are currently set at an average of 20 and a maximum of 25 students. Senate Bill 2764 would allow Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to expand CTE class size in grades 6-8 to an average of 30 and a maximum of 35 students. This legislation passed out of the Senate this week and awaits final approval in the House of Representatives.

Public school therapy dog pilot program proposed – A bill to create a therapy dog pilot program in Tennessee public schools advanced in the Senate this week. Senate Bill 1867, also known as the Beyond Ordinary Learning Opportunities Act, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) would require the Tennessee Department of Education (DOE) to create a one-year pilot program that would place a therapy dog in five public schools statewide. The pilot program would take place during the 2024-25 school year. The DOE would then submit a report to the General Assembly detailing the effectiveness of the program.

Therapy dogs in schools can improve students’ social well-being and reading skills and have other cognitive benefits, according to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Senate Bill 1867 passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Tennessee leads the nation in trusts - Every year for almost a decade, Tennessee has updated its trust laws and is now one of the leading trust jurisdictions in the country. This week the Senate passed legislation sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) that continues those annual efforts to improve Tennessee’s trust laws. Senate Bill 2256 makes various updates to strengthen trust laws to keep Tennessee at the forefront of the country’s leading trust jurisdictions.

The state’s annual efforts to improve trust laws have resulted in new trust companies coming to Tennessee and increased business opportunities for existing trust companies. In the past eight years, the total trust assets under management in Tennessee has increased from $25 billion to $270 billion.

Prohibiting gender transition treatment for inmates- The Senate State and Local Government advanced Senator Kerry Roberts’ (R-Springfield) legislation, Senate Bill 2861, to prohibit the Department of Corrections from administering hormone replacement therapy or providing sex reassignment surgery for inmates with gender dysphoria. The legislation ensures no state funds go towards gender transition treatments.

This is the latest move by Republican lawmakers to push back against pervasive gender ideologies. Last year, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), which prohibits gender transition surgeries and hormones from being administered to minors in Tennessee.

Mental health emergency admittance - Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) is sponsoring legislation aimed at improving the protection of individuals with mental health concerns and their families.

Currently, individuals can only be admitted to a treatment facility in emergency situations if there is an immediate risk of harm. However, this often means intervention comes too late to prevent harm. Senate Bill 2734 seeks to address this issue by replacing the term "immediate" with "imminent" risk, allowing for earlier intervention and better protection for those in need and their communities.

Healthcare Provider Advertising Law - Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) is sponsoring legislation to strengthen the standards for advertisements that include a healthcare practitioner’s name. 

The measure requires any advertisement that uses a healthcare practitioner’s name to prominently state the profession or license held by the practitioner. It expands upon an already existing law that requires providers to wear identification badges within their offices so that patients are informed of their provider’s information and credentials.

Additionally, the legislation prohibits an advertisement from portraying any deceptive or misleading information such as a physician claiming to be a specialist without having the required training in that specialty.

The Healthcare Provider Advertising Law passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and advances to the Senate floor for final approval.

Changes to medical licensing standards - The Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced two bills sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) this week that remove barriers to licensing for two medical occupations.

Senate Bill 2004 adds licensed professional counselors, marital and family therapists and clinical pastoral therapists to the list of medical practitioners in code. This will allow for these mental health specialists to serve more people across Tennessee.

Senate Bill 468 will address the shortage of licensed sleep technicians in Tennessee. The bill will allow a student to present A-STEP training as a satisfactory requirement for licensure as a polysomnographic technologist.

Both bills advance to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Misdemeanor sentencing Senate Bill 1859, sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) would extend the percentage of a misdemeanor sentence that a court may require a defendant to serve from 70 percent to 100 percent. As it stands, the maximum percentage is 75 percent time served, and this bill would give local judges the flexibility to require offenders to serve their whole sentence, allowing judges to make the best decision for the defendant and their communities. Senate Bill 1859 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and now awaits final passage on the Senate floor.

Restraining orders - To help ensure the safety of individuals protected by restraining orders, legislation sponsored by Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) would clarify how long protective orders remain in place leading up to and during court proceedings. Senate Bill 1905  would state that a protective order remains in effect during the appeal to a circuit or chancery court unless otherwise ordered by the general sessions judge or official. This bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Offsetting costs for county jails – To help offset the operations costs of county jails, Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) is sponsoring legislation that would reimburse county jails for the costs of providing HIV medications for inmates. Senate Bill 1771 would require the state Department of Correction to pay for HIV medications for inmates committed to a county jail or workhouse who previously received prescription medication to treat HIV or AIDS through a state department, agency, or program, such as TennCare. These medications can run up to $7,000 per month for each affected inmate, which can have a severe impact on budgets for county jails. The bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

State dedications - The Senate State and Local Government Committee this week passed measures to dedicate certain times of the year to honor and appreciate women veterans and Christian heritage.

SJR 1044, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), dedicates June 12, 2024 as Women Veterans Appreciation Day.

Senate Bill 2306, sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) designation November as Christian Heritage Month

Human Rights Commission restructuring - Senator John Stevens (R-Huntington) passed Senate Bill 2503 on the Senate floor directing the Human Rights Commission to work with the Attorney General’s office to review the feasibility of transitioning into a part of the Attorney General’s office.

Tethering the Human Rights Commission to the judicial branch will provide increased fairness and responsiveness. It requires the Attorney General to submit its recommendations to the Senate and House speakers no later than January 1, 2025.

Urging state cooperation to fight human trafficking - A resolution urging interstate cooperation to fight human trafficking was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

House Joint Resolution 798, sponsored by Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), encourages Gov. Bill Lee to work with necessary law enforcement agencies and neighboring states to identify and prosecute individuals and organizations engaged in child and human trafficking.

There were 518 reports of minor sex trafficking in the state of Tennessee as of Nov. 5, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Increasing support for victims of child sex trafficking – Legislation that would give victims of child commercial sex trafficking more time to file a civil lawsuit against their attacker advanced this week in the Senate.

Senate Bill 1801, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would allow victims to sue up to 30 years after they turn 18 for any injuries or illnesses that occurred as a result of the sexual abuse. The law currently gives victims 15 years after they turn 18 to pursue civil action against an alleged perpetrator. The legislation passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Prioritizing safety of children in custody cases – Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) is sponsoring legislation to ensure judges are equipped to handle custody proceedings involving child abuse. Senate Bill 2627 requires the court to always ensure the safety of the child in all cases of custody or reunification treatment. This legislation would also require the courts to consider evidence of abuse of the sibling in custody cases. The legislation passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Improving safety at campgrounds – Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) is sponsoring legislation aimed at improving safety at campgrounds by ensuring campground rules are clearly posted for visitors.

Senate Bill 1918 would require campground owners to inform visitors of campground policies such as curfew, alcohol use, tobacco use, and pets by posting the policies in high-traffic areas or using alternative methods of notification. The legislation would also require a campground owner to remove a person who breaks these policies and notify local law enforcement.

The legislation passed the Senate floor on Thursday and now awaits signature from the governor.

Opportunities for engineers Senate Bill 2498 sponsored by Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville), seeks to increase the number of engineers in Tennessee. The legislation would allow graduates of an unaccredited engineering technology program to become a certified engineer if certain requirements are met. The legislation passed the Senate floor this week.

Live music and performance venue fund - Live music venues are a significant part of Tennessee’s rich music history. To further promote this culture and advance tourism development across the state, Senate Bill 2508, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), will create the live music and performance venue fund.  The Department of Economic and Community Development will oversee the fund and distribute grants to eligible recipients.

Protecting animals – Multiple bills passed out of the Senate Judiciary this week aimed at protecting animals in Tennessee.

Senate Bill 1767, sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) expands the definition of "racketeering activity" to include committing, conspiring to commit, aiding, attempting to aid, soliciting, coercing, facilitating, or intimidating another person to commit the criminal offense of animal fighting. 

Another bill sponsored by Lundberg raises the criminal offense of certain animal cruelty offenses. Senate Bill 1782 would raise the criminal offense of cock fighting from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony.

Both bills now await final consideration on the Senate floor.

Bills Previously Covered that Passed the Senate Floor:

  • HJR 81 - sponsored by Niceley, will prohibit a state property tax. (Covered Week 6).
  • Senate Bill 1201 - sponsored by Johnson, will ensure subcontractors are paid in a timely manner. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 1545 - sponsored by Rose, will grant state employees who become foster parents six weeks of paid leave. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 1699 - sponsored by Rose, will prohibit convicted offenders from communicating with their victims for life. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 1738 - sponsored by Rose, enacts the Tennessee Foster and Adoptive Parent Protection Act, which protects religious freedom for existing and prospective foster and adoptive parents in Tennessee. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 1881 - sponsored by Massey - makes telehealth more accessible to patients. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 1998 - sponsored by Jackson, would require organizers of public school athletic events to accept cash for admission or the purchase of concessions or other items for sale at the event. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 2098 - sponsored by Johnson and Massey, will merge the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Commission on Aging and Disability into the Department of Disabilities and Aging. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 2151 - sponsored by Johnson, will prohibit providers from coercing, misleading or misrepresenting information to a patient receiving a vaccine or screening test. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 2337 - sponsored by Yager, will enhance the penalty inmates receive for indecent exposure while incarcerated. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 2349 - sponsored by Haile, clarifies that the definition of a dependent and neglected child means a child at the time of the filing of the petition. (Covered Week 9).
  • Senate Bill 2428 - sponsored by Powers, will enable county fire departments to be better prepared to respond to emergencies. (Covered Week 8).
  • Senate Bill 2571 - sponsored by Taylor, creates the Parent Accountability Act aimed at creating accountability for parents with delinquent children. (Covered Week 8).
  • Senate Bill 2585 - sponsored by Taylor, criminalizes the selling, manufacturing, purchasing and possessing of license plate flippers. (Covered Week 8).
  • Senate Bill 2741 - sponsored by Gardenhire, will require state and local governing bodies to make meeting agendas available at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting. (Covered Week 9).