March 7, 2024 Legislative Update

School choice takes center stage as committees work toward final calendars

 Lawmakers were hard at work this week, as the Senate is in full swing. The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee concluded its business for the year, while many other committees will be working off their final calendars next week. Every committee is advancing important legislation to improve the lives of Tennesseans.

Senate Education Committee advances legislation to expand school choice in Tennessee

For the second week in a row, the Senate Education Committee reviewed the Education Freedom Scholarship Act to expand school choice and give Tennessee parents more control over how their tax dollars are used in their child’s education.  After a lengthy discussion, the committee passed the amended proposal, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Education Chairman Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol).

“Incredible work has been done by the General Assembly to improve public education over the last decade,” said Leader Johnson. “This will be an important next step in our ability to improve educational opportunities for our families in the state of Tennessee. This legislation will empower those who are ultimately responsible for making the educational decisions for children in Tennessee: parents.”

The Education Freedom Scholarships Act, a legislative initiative of Governor Lee’s, seeks to establish school choice for all Tennessee families. The Senate Education Committee passed the bill with several changes from the initial proposal while maintaining the initial underlying premise: to empower parents to send their child to the school that best fits their needs.

Under the amended legislation, in the 2024-25 school year 20,000 Education Freedom Scholarships (EFS) would be available for eligible families to choose alternative educational options outside of the public school they are zoned for.  In the 2025-26 school year and beyond, the proposal would establish universal eligibility for all students entitled to attend a public school.

“Parents have often been reduced to outsiders when it comes to education,” said Lundberg. “I think this bill puts them back in as insiders, where they should be.”

The state’s new education funding formula – Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) – provides $7,075 to educate each child. The EFS would direct that $7,075 to private or public school tuition, as well as homeschooling expenses.

The measure includes out-of-district enrollment and testing accountability for those who take advantage of the scholarships. The out-of-district enrollment allows parents to send their children to any public school of their choice, based on availability.

“When we talk about parental choice, I think that should include open enrollment,” Lundberg continued. “Out-of-district enrollment allows the scholarships to be used for public schools in addition to private and homeschools.”

To ensure EFS recipients are generally on track with their peers, the testing accountability would require a state or federally-recognized English Language Arts exam in third grade as well as an eighth-grade math exam. However, it does not have any curriculum requirements.

This week, the House of Representatives advanced a different version of the Education Freedom Scholarship Act. The two chambers are expected to work towards consensus in the coming weeks. 

The Senate version now advances to the Finance Committee for further review.

Legislation advances to restrict vehicle booting in Tennessee and protect vehicle owners from predatory parking enforcers

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) introduced legislation this week to prohibit unlicensed individuals from booting vehicles in Tennessee and cap the fee to remove a boot at $75. The legislation ensures vehicles are not unfairly immobilized by overzealous parking attendants. To further protect vehicle owners, the bill also proposes new regulations for towing and parking.

“This legislation will protect vehicle owners in Tennessee from bad actors seeking to profit off of immobilizing and confiscating vehicles,” said Johnson. “I’ve received complaints from many constituents who have had to go through unreasonably long and expensive processes to regain control of their vehicles which were unfairly immobilized or towed. Unfortunately, our current laws do not provide legal recourse to punish parking enforcers engaged in certain nefarious practices. This bill targets those bad actors and protects Tennessee vehicle owners.”

Senate Bill 1692 generally prohibits booting vehicles in Tennessee, with exceptions for individuals licensed through a local government. Local governments that choose to allow booting must be responsible for licensing and enforcement compliant with minimum standards set in the legislation. For example, under the bill, to boot a car in a commercial parking lot a licensed parking attendant must be present, identifiable as an employee and available to remove the boot within 30 minutes of a driver’s call.

The legislation also ensures that vehicle owners are properly notified if their vehicle is being towed, sold or demolished by a towing company. Furthermore, if the towing process has begun, but the vehicle hasn’t left the parking area, the bill requires towing companies to release vehicles to the owner for a fee of no more than $100.

The legislation passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Tuesday and advances to the Senate floor for final approval.

Smart Heart Act protects health and safety of Tennessee students

Legislation sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) aims to protect the health and safety of Tennessee students.

In 2015, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation that annually informs and educates coaches and athletes of symptoms of cardiac arrest. Senate Bill 2175 expands upon this act by requiring the governing authority of schools with grades nine through twelve to provide automated external defibrillators (AED) accessible to students during school hours and within 1,000 feet of any athletic student activity.

The bill also adds that the existing program must include training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), first aid, and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) for all participants.

“Over 23,000 children under 18 have cardiac arrests outside of hospitals annually,” said Hensley. “This bill is important because it will help save lives.”

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee and awaits final consideration on the Senate floor.

Senate advances Debbie and Marie Domestic Violence Protection Act

The Senate Judiciary Committee this week advanced legislation sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) that would increase protections for victims of aggravated domestic assault in Tennessee.

Senate Bill 1972, also known as the Debbie and Marie Domestic Violence Protection Act, would require aggravated assault suspects in certain domestic violence cases to wear a global position monitoring system (GPS) if they are released on bond.

Under the legislation, a GPS service provider must be able to notify a victim’s cell phone if their alleged attacker is within a certain proximity of their location. The company would also be required to notify local law enforcement when a violation of a defendant’s bond conditions occurred.

The legislation is named in honor of Debbie Sisco and Marie Varsos. Both women were killed in 2021 by Varsos’ estranged husband Shaun who was out on bond for strangling his wife and threatening to shoot her a month earlier.

There were 61,637 victims of domestic violence statewide in 2022, according to the most recent data from Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The legislation advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Artificial Intelligence Advisory Council -  The usage of artificial intelligence is rapidly increasing, and state governments and businesses are still learning how to manage the technology. Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) is sponsoring legislation that will create the Artificial Intelligence Advisory Council so that the state can develop a framework for leveraging artificial intelligence safely and effectively. The Council will have the responsibility of understanding, navigating and building a structure for the use of artificial intelligence within the State of Tennessee. Senate Bill 2530 was presented in the Senate Government Operations Committee this week where it received a positive recommendation to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.

Updates to AOC filing system – A bill sponsored by Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro) aims to update and maintain new filing systems for the Administrative Office of the Courts. Senate Bill 2689 would require the AOC to define and develop new software systems to help with consistency across the state as well as have updated software for a more streamlined filing process. The new systems would include data management, case filing, electronic payment and data reporting. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and now awaits passage on the Senate floor.

Communication between juvenile courts and DCS – Senate Bill 447 sponsored by Senator Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun) requires the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to notify the juvenile judge when a child placed in DCS custody is going to be discharged from the care of DCS. This bill ensures effective communication within the juvenile justice system and DCS. It also sets a procedure for the judge to object to the child being discharged from DCS custody. The measure passed the Senate floor this week.

Danielle’s Law – Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah) passed legislation this week that will extend the statute of limitations for cases of rape or sexual assault, provided the victim is 18 years old or older. It extends the permissible time frame for initiating prosecution to three years if law enforcement was not involved and to five years if law enforcement was involved. 

Gold Star Children’s Day – The Senate State and Local Government Committee unanimously approved House Joint Resolution 733, introduced by Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), which designates Aug. 1 as Gold Star Children’s Day in Tennessee. Gold Star Children are children who have had a parent killed while serving in the U.S. military. House Joint Resolution 733 will now go to the Senate floor for final approval.

Ensuring safe school traffic –  Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) is sponsoring legislation aimed at protecting kids from traffic during busy school transportation hours. This bill would allow counties to hire employees or use volunteers to direct vehicles within a marked school zone. Senate Bill 2771 would also authorize counties to close roads within certain hours of the day for easier and safer pickup and dropoff zones. This bill passed the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee on Wednesday and awaits final consideration from the Senate.

The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act - Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) is sponsoring legislation that will support healthy kids in school. Under federal rules during the Obama administration, whole milk could not be distributed in schools. Under The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, schools can now have a dispenser for whole milk options. Whole milk has been shown to help with calcium absorption in children. The bill advances to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Improvements to Age Appropriate Materials Act - Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) passed legislation on the Senate floor this week that will keep obscene materials from public school libraries. Obscene materials include content that is sexually explicit or excessively violent. Senate Bill 1060 now heads to Governor Lee’s desk.

Senate passes bill ensuring teacher accountability – The Senate passed legislation this week sponsored by Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville) to ensure teachers are held to the highest standards of conduct and safety for students. Senate Bill 1701 would remove educators' licenses if the educator is found guilty of certain criminal offenses. This legislation now heads to Governor Lee’s desk.

Preventing opioid overdoses - Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro) passed Senate Bill 2141 on the Senate floor this week. The bill ensures that any student present at school or a school-sanctioned event cannot be punished for possessing naloxone. Naloxone is a drug that can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, but it must be used quickly. It is now available over the counter as the opioid crisis continues to rise and claim the lives of Tennesseans. Teenagers aged 14-19 are the fastest growing category of overdose victims, leaving some students feeling the need to carry naloxone to have it available in the event of needing to save a life.

Prohibiting license plate flippers – On Wednesday, The Senate Transportation and Safety Committee passed legislation criminalizing the selling, manufacturing, purchasing and possessing of license plate flippers. Sponsored by Senator Brent Taylor (R-Memphis), Senate Bill 2585 makes purchasing or possessing license plate flippers a Class B misdemeanor. The bill also makes the manufacturing, distributing and selling of license plate flippers a Class A misdemeanor.  Plate flippers, which allow drivers to switch between their legitimate plate and a blank space or expired plate, are sold in several physical and online retailers. Concealment of a license plate is currently a Class C misdemeanor in Tennessee.  The bill awaits final consideration on the Senate floor.

Keeping Tennessee Roads Safe – On Wednesday, the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee passed legislation to prevent accidents and keep Tennesseans safe. Sponsored by Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), Senate Bill 2665 proposes the establishment of a task force dedicated to addressing the issue of illegal street racing and devising effective prevention strategies. This legislation now awaits final consideration on the Senate floor.

Presidential at-large delegates - Senate Bill 1960, sponsored by Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah), advanced out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. It would require presidential at-large delegates and alternates that are selected by a state political party to be selected after the first Thursday in April and before the first Thursday in May. It would also require the number of delegates to be proportional to the votes the candidate received. The bill advances to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Increasing public accommodations for disabled adults - Chairman Bo Watson (R-Hixson) passed legislation this week to increase the availability of public adult-sized changing tables in Tennessee. Senate Bill 2484 would allow the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to increase grant amounts from $5,000 to $10,000 to support the installation of powered, height-adjustable, adult-sized changing tables in public restrooms statewide. The legislation also allows for the creation of an ad-hoc committee to advise and assist with grant applications. The General Assembly in 2022 allocated $1 million in state funding to expand the availability of adult-sized changing tables in public restrooms in Tennessee. The legislation is awaiting Gov. Lee’s signature.

Protecting elderly and disabled adults – In an attempt to protect Tennessee’s vulnerable communities, Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) is sponsoring legislation for elderly and disabled adults and their families to guard against financial exploitation. Senate Bill 2147 would remove the financial and beneficiary rights of a surviving spouse if the spouse is found by a court to have entered into a marriage in a deceptive or financially exploitative manner. This legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and has been referred to the Senate floor for passage.

Removing barriers to licensure for counselors – This week, Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) passed Senate Bill 2628 on the Senate floor. The bill will require the Board for Professional Counselors, Marital and Family Therapists, and Clinical Pastoral Therapists to grant licensure to an applicant who meets certain qualifications if the board has entered into a reciprocal agreement with another state. This requirement will allow easier access to professional counselors who are licensed in another state to practice in Tennessee.

Social work licensure compact – To increase access to quality social workers, Senator Page Walley (R-Savannah) is sponsoring Senate Bill 2134 to establish the Social Work Licensure Compact. The legislation, which passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week, seeks to enable social workers who are qualified to work in other states participating in the compact to work in Tennessee. Two states have already ratified the Compact. This legislation puts the framework in place for the compact to go into effect when seven states ratify the Compact.

Temporary No-Wake Zones - Senator John Stevens (R-Huntington) is sponsoring legislation that will increase the safety of workers trying to make repairs around bodies of water in Tennessee. The bill grants the executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency the authority to declare a special, temporary no-wake zone in very limited circumstances. Senate Bill 2046 advances to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Preserving Wildlife Management - In an effort to proactively prevent issues hunters in other states are facing, Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) is sponsoring legislation that will codify in statute that hunting, fishing and conservation are the preferred methods of wildlife management in Tennessee. It also would require appointees to the Fish and Wildlife Commission to be active participants in activities regulated by the commission. Senate Bill 2039 advances to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Newborn screenings – Each year, around 385 Tennesseans are born with a rare genetic disorder. Tennessee leads the nation in newborn screenings, one of the most successful public health programs offered. The Recommended Uniform Screening Panel (RUSP) is a list of conditions that should be tested for during the newborn screening, but sometimes it takes years for new conditions to be added to the screening panel in Tennessee. Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) is sponsoring Senate Bill 1791 which will ensure that any new diseases from RUSP will be added to Tennessee’s state panel within three years. If the timeline is not possible, then the Department of Health will notify the applicable legislative committees of the reason for the delays. Early detection is important as it can save and improve the quality of life of those with rare genetic disorders. The bill passed the Senate floor this week and is moving through committee in the House of Representatives.

County Fire Departments - Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville) is sponsoring legislation that will enable county fire departments to be better prepared to respond to emergencies. Senate Bill 2428 authorizes a county to enter a mutual aid agreement with a municipality for fire services. County general funds can also be used to fund up to fifty percent of the cost of providing fire services within the county. The bill advances out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee and awaits final consideration on the Senate floor.

Allowing written fiduciary oath – A bill sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) allows the court to waive the requirement of a spoken fiduciary oath. Senate Bill 2227 would make it permissible, with a judge’s discretion, for conservators, guardians and fiduciaries to file written fiduciary oaths. The bill heads to Governor Lee’s desk.

Bills Previously Covered that Passed on Senate Floor

  • SJR 919 - Sponsored by Senator Johnson, would expand judges’ ability to deny bail for certain violent crimes when it is in the best interest of public safety. (Covered Week 6).
  • Senate Bill 1587 - Sponsored by SenatorHaile, creates a Class A misdemeanor offense for knowingly leaving a child in the care or supervision of a person who is a registered sex offender. (Covered Week 7).
  • Senate Bill 1688 - Sponsored by Senator Lowe, allows parents and guardians to hold back their child from the next grade without the approval of the school board if their child has a learning or behavioral delay. (Covered Week 6).
  • Senate Bill 1836 - Sponsored by Senator Johnson, requires public schools to be closed for instruction if the building is being used as a polling place for a presidential election primary. (Covered Week 5).
  • Senate Bill 2036 - Sponsored by Senator Briggs, would enable caregivers who live with their patients to receive payment through TennCare, which would offer crucial support to both the caretaker and the patient. (Covered Week 7).
  • Senate Bill 2071 - Sponsored by Senators Johnson and White, makes changes to the Relative Caregiver Program which provides stipends to those who meet a certain income threshold to care for children in their family. (Covered Week 5).
  • Senate Bill 2081 - sponsored by Senators Johnson and Powers, will help recruit and retain Tennessee National Guard service members with specialized skills. (Covered Week 5).
  • Senate Bill 2082 - Sponsored by Senators Johnson and Walley, will help local governments mitigate risks from natural disasters by creating the Resilient Tennessee Revolving Loan Fund Act. (Covered Week 5).
  • Senate Bill 2100 - Sponsored by Senator Johnson, would allow a third-party examiner, inspector, engineer, or professional to inspect certain processes. (Covered Week 6).
  • Senate Bill 2150 - Sponsored by SenatorJohnson, HOA’s would not be permitted to foreclose on a resident’s home for their failure to pay fees associated with nonessential amenities. (Covered Week 7).
  • Senate Bill 2424 - Sponsored by Senator Walley, would allow a local government to negotiate with an energy project developer. (Covered Week 7).
  • Senate Bill 2571 - sponsored by Senator Brent Taylor (R-Memphis) the Parent Accountability Act is aimed at creating accountability for parents with delinquent children. Under the legislation, judges would have the discretion to fine parents or guardians instead of the child for their delinquent actions after their first offense. (Covered Week 7)
  • Senate Bill 2083 - sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) addresses the disparity in workers' compensation benefits for the Tennessee National Guard. 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. (Covered Week 7)