Action on Capitol Hill continued to shift from committees to the floor of the Senate this week as lawmakers worked diligently to approve many important bills. Over half of the Senate’s nine standing committees have completed their business for the 112th General Assembly. Meanwhile, the state budget will be the central focus during the final weeks before adjournment.
Gov. Bill Lee proposes new budget amendment
Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley briefed members of the Senate Finance Committee this week on Governor Bill Lee’s proposed additions to the 2022-2023 state budget. The total cost of the proposed budget is $52.8 billion. Changes to the proposal include $241 million for one-time budget expenditures and $74 million for recurring items. The new amendment reflects Governor Lee’s priorities to focus on long-term, strategic, one-time investments that can help the state withstand future economic downturns.
Among the new budget initiatives proposed are investments in entertainment venues. It includes a $500 million bond authorization and $55 million recurring to cover the debt service to help complete a new covered stadium that would be home to the Tennessee Titans. The governor is also proposing $17 million in grants to prepare a Nashville track for a NASCAR race.
Another sizable addition to the proposed budget is a one-month grocery sales tax holiday so Tennesseans can keep more money in their pockets to help provide relief amid rising inflation. This would cost $80 million in non-recurring funds.
Other highlights of the new proposed budget include:
$66 million for air carrier support with $12 million for general aviation
$20 million to reduce the professional privilege tax on brokers, lawyers, doctors, and lobbyists from $400 to $300 per year
$20 million for riverfront development in Memphis
$15 million for voting machines with a paper trail
$10 million for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
$3.9 million for Booker T. Washington State Park
$9 million for TCAT Campus Expansion
The Senate is also considering removing the state portion of the license plate registration fees for a full year, which could save Tennessee drivers $121.6 million. In the coming weeks, the General Assembly will continue to review the Governor’s proposal and work on crafting a balanced budget that benefits all Tennesseans and continues the state’s record of fiscal responsibility.
Transparency in sentencing for Victims Act advances
Senate Bill 2183 is designed to better inform crime victims and their families about how much time an offender will serve at the time of sentencing. It passed the Judiciary Committee this week and next goes to the full Senate. The bill would require all Tennessee courts to place on the record the estimated number of years and months to be served before a criminal is eligible for parole.
Transparency in Sentencing is necessary to create true accountability for the criminal justice system. Victims and the general public need to have all information possible. This transparency will help mitigate any false sense of security victims might previously have felt after hearing a ‘full’ sentence imposed. This bill will allow victims to process what is really happening and lets the public know as well. Currently, when a criminal defendant is being sentenced, it is unknown when that criminal defendant is going to be released unless they are required to serve a 100% sentence without credits.
Education Committee approves bills promoting fairness in school sports
Two bills that I sponsored aimed at ensuring fairness in school sports advanced out of the Education Committee this week. Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation prohibiting biological males from participating in girls’ sports in public K-12 education. Senate Bill 2153, which I sponsored, would extend that prohibition to public higher education institutions.
This bill is trying to level the playing field for female athletes who’ve trained all their lives, especially in college where they’re competing on a high level. When they have to compete against a biological male it’s just not fair. This bill is just trying to help those females be able to play on a level playing field. There have been numerous examples of biological males competing and winning in women’s sporting events throughout the country, including in the NCAA 500-yard freestyle last month.
The Education Committee this week also passed Senate Bill 1861, which builds off the aforementioned legislation passed last year. Under the bill, the Tennessee Department of Education would withhold a portion of state funds from public middle or high schools that fail or refuse to determine a student’s gender at the time of birth for participation in school sports. The bill would take effect July 1, 2022.
Expanding access to wheelchairs – The Senate voted to expand access to important medical equipment for Tennesseans who need assistance getting around outside their homes. Senate Bill 2134 ensures that those who require Complex Rehabilitation Technology (CRT), defined as high-end, power and manual wheelchairs, are able to obtain them through their health insurance. These chairs are expensive and can range from $25,000 to $45,000, requiring many people to rely on insurance to afford them. However, currently there are policies that deny a wheelchair to someone in need because it is taken outside of their home to places such as church, the grocery store, or doctor’s appointments. This bill prohibits a health insurer from considering the location of where CRT can be used when making the medical necessity determination.
Extending handgun carry permits – Senate Bill 2701 would extend the validity of enhanced handgun carry permits from eight years to the lifetime of the permit holder. The Judiciary Committee advanced the bill this week. For enhanced handgun carry permits issued before July 1, 2022, the permit may be submitted to the Department of Safety, which will issue a replacement permit that does not have an expiration date. There will be a $50 fee to do so. The bill would not change current requirements for background checks of permit holders every four years. The act would take effect on July 1, 2022 and would apply to enhanced handgun carry permits issued before, on or after that date.
Taking action against abortion advocacy in public schools — The Education Committee this week passed legislation intended to prevent abortion advocacy in public schools. Senate Bill 2158, which I sponsored, prohibits an LEA or public charter school seeking assistance in teaching family life from knowingly entering into an agreement with a person or entity that performs abortions, induces abortions, provides abortion referrals, or provides funding, advocacy or other support for abortions.
Revising teacher evaluation criteria — The Education Committee this week passed legislation that requires greater consideration of student achievement in teacher evaluations. Senate Bill 2155, which I sponsored, lowers the teacher observation component of the evaluation from 50% to 40% and increases the student achievement component from 15% to 25% to more adequately measure the proficiency of students.
Increasing penalties for boating under the influence — Legislation that increases penalties for boating under the influence earned Judiciary Committee approval this week. Senate Bill 2736 would enact “Nicholas Law,” which makes a boating under the influence conviction equal to that of driving under the influence for the purpose of determining whether the offender is a repeat offender. In other words, if someone is convicted of boating under the influence and is later convicted of driving under the influence, they could be punished the same as if they were guilty of two DUIs.
New offenses for heinous crimes — Passed by the Judiciary Committee this week, Senate Bill 2841, which I sponsored, creates three new offenses that apply to particularly heinous, worst-of-the-worst crimes. The new offenses include especially aggravated rape, especially aggravated rape of a child, and grave torture. The crimes are punishable by imprisonment for life without the possibility for parole or death.
Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, writes a weekly legislative update on the 112th General Assembly.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Herald: Legislative Update: Budget becomes central focus of General Assembly