March 28, 2024 Legislative Update

Curbing illegal immigration and improving public safety highlight the week

This week on Capitol Hill lawmakers were hard at work passing meaningful legislation to improve the lives of Tennesseans as the General Assembly begins to wind down. Public safety was a big focus this week. Among the important measures passed were several bills to curb the effects of illegal immigration in Tennessee and protect Tennessee communities from the crisis at the southern border as well as violent criminals.

Additionally, this Holy Week, lawmakers passed legislation to designate November as Christian Heritage Month to recognize the importance of Christianity in the nation’s history.

Legislation seeks reports on illegal immigrants who commit crimes in Tennessee

Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) is sponsoring two bills that will strengthen the state’s standing to sue the federal government over the costs of illegal immigrants to Tennessee’s taxpayers. Haile’s bills would generate reports that detail the costs incurred by the state from illegal immigrants who commit criminal offenses in Tennessee.

Senate Bill 757 would require a local law enforcement agency to verify a detainee’s citizenship. If found to be not lawfully present in the United States, then the jail must report that illegal immigrant to the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Senate Bill 2158 would require the District Attorneys General Conference to collect and compile data on the cost incurred by the state as a direct result of known illegal immigrants charged or convicted of a criminal offense. The report will be submitted to the Governor and both speakers of the General Assembly.

“With record numbers of illegal immigrants pouring into our country as a result of failure from the Biden Administration, every state has become a border state,” said Haile. “These bills will help us learn the cost and impact the immigration crisis is having on our state, so we can take steps to fix the issues and protect Tennessee communities.”

Senate Bill 757 advances to the Senate floor for final approval, and Senate Bill 2158 advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Enforcing sanctuary city ban

On Monday, Senate Republicans passed legislation to ensure that no city in Tennessee is harboring illegal immigrants. Senate Bill 2576, sponsored by Senator Brent Taylor (R-Memphis) will require the Sheriff of every county to fully comply with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Legislation was passed in 2018 that authorized sheriffs to ban sanctuary cities in Tennessee. This bill ensures that the prohibition of sanctuary cities is enforced.

Clarifying immigration status requirements for employment

Another bill passed this week helps address the employment of illegal immigrants. Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) is sponsoring legislation that clarifies acceptable hiring practices for legal and illegal immigrants. Senate Bill 1866 would specify that when an employer considers hiring an immigrant who might be in the process of getting their documentation to work in the country legally, the employer must consider the immigrant’s legal status at the time he or she is seeking employment. This legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Legislation aims to increase punishment for illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes

Legislation that would sentence illegal immigrants convicted of violent crimes in Tennessee to life in prison without parole advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

Senate Bill 2770, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) would allow a judge to sentence an illegal immigrant to life without parole if convicted of a violent crime or if a deadly weapon was involved in the offense. The bill also authorizes the same enhancement for adults convicted of a violent crime on school property.

“Tennessee borders eight states and has seven interstates running through it,” said Bowling. “These factors make Tennessee more susceptible to illegal immigrants trafficking humans and drugs in our state. These offenses breed violent crime and pose a significant threat to public safety.”

Under the bill, the arrest of an illegal immigrant and all subsequent convictions must also be reported to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. The data will be used to help understand the impact on Tennessee. 

The Department of Homeland Security has reported more than 6 million encounters along the southern border since 2021. An additional 1.7 million individuals entered the country illegally and successfully evaded authorities.

Death penalty could be option for convicted child rapists under new bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation to increase the penalty for child rapists in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1834, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), would expand the death penalty to defendants convicted of child rape.

“We have a compelling interest to protect our most valuable citizens, our children,” said Yager. “Child rape is one of the worst crimes imaginable, and there are times life imprisonment for the rapist does not go far enough.  This legislation gives prosecutors the ability to go after the most severe offenders of child rape with the most severe punishment: death.”

The legislation will strengthen existing state law by increasing the penalty for rape or aggravated rape of a child to death, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or life in prison. Current law classifies the offense as a Class A felony punishable as either a Range III offense, which carries a sentence of 40-60 years in prison or a Range II offense of 25-40 years in prison.

The proposal builds on the General Assembly’s efforts in recent years to improve public safety, reduce recidivism rates, and hold criminals accountable through smart-on-crime justice reforms. The General Assembly in 2022 passed truth in sentencing laws that increased penalties for the most violent of crimes and now requires offenders to serve 85-100 percent of their sentences. 

Legislation aims to level the playing field for college athletes to maximize NIL value

Legislation passed by the Senate this week keeps Tennessee leading the nation in name, image and likeness (NIL) protections for college athletes. Senate Bill 709, sponsored by Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) updates the state’s current NIL law to provide more opportunities for student-athletes to capitalize on their talents.

The legislation establishes legal protections for current and prospective college athletes to maximize their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) value.

“In the last five 5 years, we have made significant progress to ensure college athletes can participate in the free market and earn profit from their own names and faces,” said Stevens.  “For decades, the NCAA banned student-athletes from being compensated for their name, image and likeness, while the NCAA and universities made billions off those athletes. Fortunately today, NCAA athletes can profit from their NIL. This legislation further aligns Tennessee’s NIL laws with free-market principles and promotes fairness and transparency in collegiate athletics in Tennessee.”

The bill protects the ability of current and prospective athletes to assess their NIL value freely by performing “diligence.” This means that in the recruitment process, a prospective athlete can better explore their NIL value at different institutions and make more informed decisions about their financial future.

“This legislation keeps Tennessee institutions competitive,” added Stevens. “It ensures our laws are attractive and fair for young talented athletes looking to bring their skills to Tennessee universities.”

Sen. Taylor advances several bills to improve public safety in Memphis

Senator Brent Taylor (R-Memphis) has led major efforts this year to improve public safety, specifically in his home city of Memphis. Memphis’ crime rate has grown exponentially, and Taylor is determined to reduce crime rates by keeping violent criminals off the streets. This week, Sen. Taylor advanced several bills aimed at making Memphis safer.

DA Second Opinion Act would allow DAs from neighboring counties to prosecute crimes

Taylor successfully passed legislation through the Judiciary Committee this week that would require law enforcement to report certain major criminal investigations to District Attorneys in neighboring counties. Senate Bill 1802 —known as the DA Second Opinion Act—would permit a neighboring District Attorney to prosecute certain Shelby County crimes if the Shelby County DA refuses to prosecute.

“This legislation will permit law enforcement to make a prosecution request to a neighboring District Attorney who may have a more ‘law and order’ approach to criminal prosecutions,” Taylor stated. “Police officers work hard to build a case against violent criminals. This bill is designed to give law enforcement officials more options. It will provide Memphians the opportunity to receive the justice those in the law-abiding community demand.”

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Bill would increase punishment for intentionally blocking roads

Republicans advanced another bill sponsored by Taylor this week aimed at preventing roadways from being illegally blocked in Tennessee.

Senate Bill 2570 would increase the penalty for intentionally obstructing roadways or other areas used for transportation from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D felony. The legislation would also allow anyone who suffered injury or loss as a result of the crime to seek compensatory damages through legal action.

A Class D felony is punishable by a minimum of two years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000. If approved, SB 2570 would take effect July 1.

This legislation passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Prohibiting ‘Ability to Pay’ to determine bail

Another bill sponsored by Taylor advanced in the Judiciary Committee to keep Shelby County’s new Bail Hearing Room from recklessly releasing criminals without bond based on an “Ability to Pay Calculator” to set bail. Since being implemented in February 2023, the Bail Hearing Room has led to a more than 10 percent increase in the number of criminal defendants released without bond.

Senate Bill 2565 will ensure that a defendant’s ability to pay is not used as a determining factor when setting bail. Similarly, another of Taylor’s bills ensures that the threat to public safety is the number one factor considered when determining bail.

“The purpose of bail is to ensure that the defendant appears in court and to ensure the safety of the public if the defendant is released pre-trial,” said Sen. Taylor. “If a judge sets bail at whatever amount the defendant can pay, that is the same thing as releasing a defendant on their own recognizance because they have the money in their pocket to make bail.”

Creating a high-demand workforce grant program

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed legislation that would bolster Tennessee's high-demand skilled workforce and create more apparent opportunities for workers.

Senate Bill 1937, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), establishes a high-demand workforce readiness grant program for students pursuing careers in these fields with skills in high demand. The program will provide financial assistance to eligible students enrolled in approved institutions sanctioned by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

"By providing students with access to quality education and training opportunities, we are not only investing in their future success but also driving economic growth and innovation across our state,” said Haile. “This bill demonstrates our commitment to fostering a highly skilled workforce that is ready to meet the evolving demands of our economy.”

The High-Demand Workforce Readiness Board is tasked with annually identifying high-demand sectors within the state and reputable institutions offering training programs in these critical fields. The new grant program established under the legislation would complement the efforts of the board.

The bill now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committees. 

Legislation designates November as Christian Heritage Month

This Holy Week, Republicans passed legislation to set aside a month to recognize the historical and cultural significance of Christianity in the state and country. Senate Bill 2306, sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) designates November as Christian Heritage Month.

Senator Rose and other Republican senators spoke about the important role of Christianity in making the United States a prosperous nation. Rose cited George Washington’s farewell address in which he said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

“Our Christian heritage is critical to this nation,” said Rose. “Republicans and Democrats cannot solve the problems that plague our state and nation, but there is one who can and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ. If we desire to continue to exist as a nation, we need to go back to the roots of our founding. This bill is important in that pursuit, so that citizens can learn more about Christian Heritage.” 

Ben Kredich Act aims to prevent impaired driving by those treated with Narcan

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation to clarify that patients who have been treated for a drug overdose with Narcan could still be impaired and charged with driving under the influence, as drugs would still be present in their system.  Senate Bill 2116, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) instructs first responders who administer an opioid antagonist such as Narcan to an individual experiencing a drug overdose may provide information on the risk of driving within a 24-hour period.

The legislation is named after Ben Kredich who tragically lost his life after being struck by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel after being administered Narcan in a hospital earlier that day. The driver was unaware of possible side effects of Narcan and that the drugs causing the overdose would remain in his system for at least 24 hours.

“The education provided under the Ben Kredich Act will help curb accidental deaths and DUI offenses, hopefully preventing another situation like the one that happened to Ben,” said Massey.

The bill now advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Legislation would expand newborn safe haven program

A proposal to expand the availability of Safe Haven Baby Boxes for newborns in Tennessee advanced this week in the Senate. Senate Bill 1670 sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) adds emergency communication centers and certain nursing homes that are staffed 24 hours a day to the list of approved locations where newborn safety devices may be located for the purpose of surrendering a newborn.

Since 2001, Tennessee’s Safe Haven law has allowed mothers in certain cases to surrender their newborn without fear of being prosecuted. The child must be no more than 14 days old, unharmed and left voluntarily. The General Assembly previously approved legislation in 2022 that expands the state’s safe haven law by allowing for the installation of Safe Haven Baby Boxes at police and fire stations in Tennessee.

Senate Bill 1670 passed the Senate floor unanimously on Thursday and now goes to the governor for his signature.

In brief…

Violation of bond conditions - Senate Bill 2564 would make it a Class A misdemeanor for an individual who is out on bond to violate the conditions of their release. This change would allow law enforcement to arrest an individual who is suspected of violating the conditions of their release instead of having to wait for the district attorney’s office to file a motion and schedule a court hearing which could take weeks. This legislation, sponsored by Sen. Brent Taylor (R-Memphis), passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and now awaits final passage on the Senate floor.

Pretrial monitoring - Another bill sponsored by Taylor would strengthen Tennessee’s bail laws and improve public safety. Senate Bill 2566 would require defendants charged with a Class A, B, C or D felony to submit to pretrial monitoring if the magistrate issues conditions of release. Courts must also forfeit bail and may issue an arrest warrant if a defendant fails to comply with the conditions. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this week and now moves to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

More tools to fight elder abuse - To help the state fight elder abuse, the Senate passed, Senate Bill 163, sponsored by Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah). The legislation empowers District Attorneys to provide confidentiality for those who report information about abuse. Under the bill, those who come forward can still be interviewed, but their identity will be protected. This will help DAs go after abusers by encouraging citizens with knowledge of abuse to come forward.

Delinquent property tax payments - Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) is sponsoring Senate Bill 2172 which aims to help citizens behind on paying property tax. The bill will set up a uniform system for the collection of delinquent property tax by allowing partial payments. The partial payments will help citizens cut down on the interest owed. The bill advanced out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee to the Senate floor for final approval.

Ensuring schools know students’ criminal histories – To ensure schools are aware of their students’ criminal histories, the Senate passed legislation to authorize schools to remind parents of their obligation to disclose to the school if their child is convicted of certain  delinquent acts. Senate Bill 2365, sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), also increases the penalty for parents or legal guardians who fail to do so from a Class C misdemeanor to Class B misdemeanor.

Accepting electronic insurance cards - Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) is sponsoring legislation to help streamline doctor and hospital visits. Senate Bill 2363 would require hospitals and physicians to accept electronic insurance cards as valid proof of insurance. This legislation passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Wednesday and now awaits final passage on the Senate floor.

Penalizing violent conduct in judicial proceedings - Senate Bill 2221, sponsored by Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville), creates a Class E Felony offense for a person who causes bodily injury to or offensive contact with someone who is part of a judicial proceeding. Offensive contact could include spitting, throwing, or otherwise transferring bodily fluids, bodily pathogens, or human waste onto a victim. The bill would apply to participants in a judicial proceeding including anyone employed as a judge, district attorney general, attorney for a party in a criminal or civil case, court employee, bailiff, courtroom security personnel, and other person who works in the building where a judicial proceeding takes place.

Increasing penalties for child endangerment – Tennessee lawmakers are actively working to prevent children, who are unable to protect themselves, from being knowingly endangered by an adult. Legislation sponsored by Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro) would create a higher offense for parents or guardians who knowingly endanger their child. Senate Bill 2662 would increase the charge for anyone who acts negligently or engages in conduct that places an eight year old child or younger in danger from a Class D felony to a Class B felony. This legislation passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Increasing protections from bullying and cyberbullying - The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Senate Bill 1887, sponsored by Senator Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun), to further protect students in Tennessee from bullying and cyberbullying. The bill would classify the crimes as forms of harassment and require an officer who has knowledge of bullying or cyberbullying to make a report of the incident and notify the parent or guardian when the victim is a minor. The bill advances to the Senate floor for final approval.

Prioritizing autopsies for children - Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville) is sponsoring legislation that will instruct the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and county and chief medical examiners to create policies prioritizing the autopsies of children involved in active investigations by DCS. The bill pertains to issues uncovered by the Second Look Commission when trying to look at the most heinous deaths against children. The Commission looks at the autopsies to help investigate and close cases, and some of the autopsies have taken up to 3.5 years to be completed. Senate Bill 2929 will ensure that the cases are prioritized so they can be closed and resolved quicker. 

Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act - Legislation to ensure the integrity of presidential electors advanced out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. The Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act, sponsored by Senator Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun), would require each elector or alternate to vote for the candidate for which they were elected or appointed to represent. If they refuse to do so, they will be replaced. The bill advances to the Senate floor for final approval.

Helping rural utility operations -- Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah) is sponsoring Senate Bill 129 which will help rural counties with utility depreciation by allowing a one-year delay in depreciation payments. Currently, one year after a utility system is installed and operational, the municipality is responsible for paying depreciation, which is costly and burdensome on rural counties. This also makes it even harder to replace the systems once its life has ended. The bill advances to the Senate floor for final approval.

Ensuring SROs at schools - Senate Bill 1715, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) would ensure that all schools have a school resource officer (SRO) on campus. Currently, some local boards of education have not entered into a memorandum of understanding with the local law enforcement agency, meaning that some schools do not have a SRO. This bill will allow the law enforcement agency to assign a law enforcement officer to serve as the SRO to a school.

Accountability for election administrators – Legislation sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) would help create accountability for election administrators by enforcing certain rules and regulations to follow.  Senate Bill 1706 requires an administrator of elections to file information of certain educational events related to elections that occur outside of the state to the Secretary of State. The bill specifies that the form must be filed within 15 days of the event. The legislation passed out of the Senate on Thursday and now awaits passage in the House.

More opportunities for physician assistants – Tennessee has many compacts with other states that allow certain workers to cross state lines with their licenses and practice in those states and in our state. Legislation sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), Senate Bill 1727, would add physician assistants to these already existing compacts by enacting the Physician Assistant (PA) Licensure Compact. This bill passed out of the Senate on Thursday and now awaits passage in the House.

Providing more employment opportunities – Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) is sponsoring legislation aimed at increasing workforce participation. Senate Bill 1915 would enable individuals with specific criminal offenses on their record to secure employment opportunities. If passed, the bill would allow licensing authorities to evaluate candidates' criminal histories on a case-by-case basis when determining approval or denial of certain occupational licenses. This legislation passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and now awaits final passage on the Senate floor.