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  • Writer's pictureState Rep. Kelly Keisling

Capitol Review from State Rep. Kelly Keisling


Covenant attack puts increased focus on school safety, House postpones votes in remembrance of victims


It was a somber week on Capitol Hill as lawmakers joined Tennesseans and the rest of the nation in mourning the deaths of six innocent people killed by an active shooter at the Covenant School, a private Christian academy in Nashville, on Monday, March 27.


Votes on scheduled legislation were postponed in both the House and Senate chambers Monday evening in recognition of the victims of the horrific attack. Pastor Brad Hall, president of the Tennessee Christian Motorcycle Association, led the House in prayer for the victims and their families before the members adjourned.


The victims were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney, and Hallie Scruggs, all age nine, Mike Hill, age 61, Cynthia Peak, age 61, and Katherine Koonce, age 60. The shooter was a former student of the private school whom police described as a biological woman but identified as a transgender male.


Flags over the capitol and all state buildings were flown at half-staff this week in honor of the families, students, school faculty and church.


The House is scheduled on Monday, April 3 to formally honor the Metro Nashville Police Department along with officers Rex Engelbert and Michael Collazo who exemplified courage in the face of evil. The officers’ heroic actions stopped the shooter within five minutes of arriving at the school.


The tragedy turned the spotlight on school safety in the Volunteer State. Since 2018, the General Assembly provided more than $550 million to make Tennessee public schools safer. This money has provided school resource officers (SROs), enhanced school security measures and mental health resources. Funding for school safety is built into the new student-based funding formula known as the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) which goes into effect on July 1.


The 2023-24 fiscal year budget proposes an additional $50 million to address new school safety enhancements. Of that, $20 million is proposed for School Safety Grants directed to local school districts.


The School Safety Act of 2023, House Bill 322, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and House Education Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, codifies best practices already carried out in most Tennessee schools. The bill aims to ensure a statewide standard of school safety by putting in place collaborative prevention strategies for threat assessment, active shooter drills, and requires public and charter schools to secure all exterior doors and vestibules. It requires all newly built schools to install classroom door locks. An amendment pending on the bill would extend the law to include private schools.


This year’s upcoming budget also includes nearly $32 million for the Tennessee School Safety Initiative. It provides 131 new positions to support the school safety division related Homeland Security. It would provide at least one special agent for each of the state’s 95 counties. The agent would be responsible for providing threat assessments, monitoring safety as well as collaborating with law enforcement. House Bill 322 is scheduled to be considered in the House chamber on April 6.


General Assembly approves $3.3 billion for transportation infrastructure


Legislation that will modernize Tennessee’s infrastructure and address critical transportation needs now heads to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk for his signature. The House on Thursday approved House Bill 321, known as the Transportation Modernization Act, which will invest an unprecedented $3.3 billion to accommodate Tennessee’s record growth, address traffic congestion and meet transportation needs across rural and urban communities.


Gov. Bill Lee earlier this session announced the investment plan as part of his legislative package for the year. Transportation Chairman Dan Howell, R-Ocoee, and Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, guided passage of the bill through the House in partnership with Lee’s administration and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).


“Our roads are the vital arteries of our communities that connect Tennesseans to their jobs and schools, goods to our businesses, and first responders to the scene in emergencies,” Lamberth said. “This investment addresses challenges like potholes, safety, and long commutes, but more importantly, it creates greater, faster access to more destinations. Our state is well prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”


The legislation will give TDOT the resources needed to solve the state’s current and future mobility challenges, including seeking the use of public-private partnerships to preserve state funds for rural infrastructure priorities, exploring Choice Lanes to decrease congestion and increase economic impact statewide, and expanding the alternative delivery model to save taxpayer dollars and deliver road projects more efficiently.


“As Tennessee continues to experience unprecedented growth, investing in our transportation infrastructure is essential to ensuring residents and our economy keep moving forward,” said Howell. “The Transportation Modernization Act will provide historic funding to address congestion in both rural and urban areas of our state. It will also provide innovative solutions to these challenges without the need to raise taxes. I was honored to guide passage of this important piece of legislation in the House, and I appreciate Gov. Lee, TDOT, and my colleagues in the General Assembly for their support of this generational shift in how we address infrastructure in our state.”


The legislation:

  • Provides $750 million for infrastructure for each of the four transportation regions

  • Provides another $300 million to expand the State Aid Program for local road projects

  • Expands TDOT’s existing alternative delivery tools

  • Establishes a structure for electric/hybrid vehicle fees


Scholarships for child care focused on early literacy


The House K-12 Subcommittee this week advanced legislation that seeks to make child care more affordable while also improving early childhood literacy in Tennessee.


House Bill 785, also known as Promising Futures, would use sports gambling tax revenue to fund last-dollar scholarships. It helps parents and legal guardians of children who are not yet in school develop early language and literacy skills in high-quality learning programs. Those could include community-based or home-based child care providers along with public or private preschools.


“In so many areas of our state there is not adequate child care, and if there is child care it is unaffordable too many,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. “We use our current lottery funds today in higher education… and we want to look at those dollars also being used for early childhood development. So, just like the Tennessee Promise, applicants would have to apply for federal financial aid first before being eligible for state dollars.”


Tennessee has taken significant steps in recent years to address challenges with early childhood literacy in elementary school. However, many children are entering kindergarten already significantly behind where they need to be. Promising Futures seeks to improve literacy among those young students.


If approved, the program would be administered by the Department of Human Services in consultation with the Department of Education. Scholarships would be capped at $4,500 per child annually. Parents would also be required to be working or in school for at least 30 hours each week. House Bill 785 is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on April 5.


Legislation to expedite adoptions of surrendered newborns advances


Legislation that aims to expedite adoptions of newborns who have been voluntarily surrendered in Tennessee advanced out of the House Civil Justice Committee this week.


House Bill 164 would allow a judge to waive the six-month waiting period for adoption if a child, who was voluntarily left at a facility or in a newborn safety device, has lived with a family for at least three months. Once 90 days have passed after an infant is surrendered, the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) would also be required to file a petition to terminate the parenteral rights for the child within 10 days. A hearing must then be held within 30 days, unless an extension was in the best interest of the child.


“There is a tremendous need for this,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman. “I don’t know of a greater purpose that we can serve as a legislative body than to streamline the process to move children into stable homes quicker than with this type of legislation right here.”


Last year, the General Assembly approved legislation expanding the Tennessee Safe Haven law to allow for the installation of Safe Haven Baby Boxes at police and fire stations statewide. First passed in 2001, the state’s safe haven law allows mothers in certain cases to surrender their newborns to designated facilities without fear of being prosecuted. The child must be 14 days old or younger, unharmed and left voluntarily.


The surrendered infant is then taken immediately to the nearest emergency room to be evaluated. The hospital must also contact DCS, which will then assume care, custody and control of the child. House Bill 164 is scheduled to be voted on by the House chamber on April 3.


Lawmakers aim to reduce DCS case manager workloads


Legislation to ensure that case managers with the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) are not overburdened with cases advanced out of the House Civil Justice Committee this week.


House Bill 630 would limit case manager workloads to no more than 20 simultaneous cases by Jan. 1, 2025, and no more than 15 simultaneous cases by Jan. 1, 2027, except in certain circumstances. It would also provide DCS with more flexibility to allow for certain additional personnel to help manage cases as well.


“We do have caseload parameters in code now… but we are adjusting those to something that hopefully will become more manageable for the benefit of the children,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington. “Better care for children is the bottom line. It has been difficult for DCS to reach the targets already in code, which is an average of 20. If you have one person with 40 (cases) and then two people with 10 each, it’s hard to give the children the services they (need).”


If approved, the legislation would require DCS to publish information related to current caseloads on its website annually beginning next year. It also includes language to ensure that nonconsensual sex acts at residential facilities are investigated.


The bill addresses two of the legislative recommendations that were included in a recent DCS audit by the Comptroller’s Office. It will also help the department’s employee retention and recruitment efforts as well, Leatherwood added.


If DCS fails to meet the caseload limits for two consecutive months, the department will be required to update the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House of Representatives about all corrective actions being taken. After three months of noncompliance, the commissioner would be required to notify the governor and General Assembly if any of the caseload requirements are infeasible or unwarranted. House Bill 630 is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on April 5.


Legislation aims to tackle juvenile justice issues


Legislation aimed at finding new solutions for juvenile justice issues in Tennessee advanced out of the Government Operations Committee on Monday. House Bill 1103, sponsored by State Rep. Mary Littleton, R- Dickson, would create the Juvenile Justice Review Commission under the Department of Children’s Services and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY).


The new commission would be modeled after the Second Look Commission, which reviews severe child abuse cases. The legislation limits the cases to be reviewed by the commission to those involving delinquent adjudications rather than unruly offenses, which fall under social services purview.


If approved, the 15-member commission would meet at least quarterly and would be required to provide the General Assembly with findings and legislative recommendations in an annual report beginning in 2024. The legislation was among multiple recommendations that were made earlier this year by the General Assembly’s Joint Ad Hoc Committee on Juvenile Justice. House Bill 1103 now advances to the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee for April 5.


TDEC announces $203 million in water infrastructure grants


The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) this week announced 43 grants totaling $203.2 million from the state’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) fund for various drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure improvements statewide.


The grants represent a total of 132 individual projects. Of those announced, 14 are collaborative grants that involve multiple entities such as cities, counties or water utilities partnering on projects to work toward a shared purpose.


Since August, $401.7 million in ARP funds have been awarded by TDEC.

Tennessee received $3.7 billion from the ARP, and the state’s Financial Stimulus Accountability Group dedicated $1.35 billion of those funds to TDEC to support water projects in communities throughout Tennessee. Of the $1.35 billion, approximately $1 billion was designated for non-competitive formula-based grants offered to counties and eligible cities. The remaining funds will go to state-initiated projects and competitive grants.


Banning taxpayer-funded abortions


Legislation that would prevent any city, county or metropolitan government from using taxpayer dollars to directly or indirectly assist with obtaining a criminal abortion or abortion-related services now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature. House Bill 90, sponsored by State Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, prohibits taxpayer funds from being used as part of a health benefit plan or for travel to a state where abortion is legal. House Bill 90 ensures no municipality, county or metropolitan government in Tennessee reallocates tax dollars, cuts critical services or staff positions to pay for a criminal abortion or abortion-related services. The Tennessee Constitution gives the State of Tennessee authority over local government bodies and allows the state to preempt a local government as long as it does not violate a right guaranteed by the State Constitution.


Adding “In God We Trust” to the state seal


Sponsored by State Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, House Bill 771 would add the words “In God We Trust” to the Tennessee state seal. The bill asks the governor, who is the keeper of the seal, to direct the secretary of state to redesign the state seal. The Senate and House would then have to pass a resolution approving of the new design, which would include both Tennessee’s state motto of “Commerce and Agriculture” as well as the nation’s motto of “In God We Trust.” In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law “In God We Trust” as the nation’s official motto and mandated that it be printed on all American currency, denoting America’s economic and political prosperity is in God’s hands. The companion bill passed in the Senate unanimously. House Bill 771 is expected to be considered on the House floor next week.


School bus safety


The General Assembly has approved Republican legislation that will increase the punishment for drivers who illegally pass a school bus that is picking up or dropping off children. House Bill 818, sponsored by State Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, would increase the fine for not stopping for a school bus from $200 to $250 for the first offense based solely on video camera footage from the bus. The minimum fine for subsequent offenses would be raised from $250 to $500. The legislation would also make it a Class E felony if a driver illegally passed a school bus and struck another person. It would be a Class C felony if the victim died. There were 84 citations issued to drivers for illegally passing a school bus in 2022. House Bill 818 will now go to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.


-- Kelly Keisling serves as State Representative for House District 38 which encompasses Macon, Clay, Pickett, Scott, and part of Fentress Counties. To reach State Representative Kelly Keisling, call 615-741-6853 or email him at rep.kelly.keisling@capitol.tn.gov. Connect with Kelly on Facebook and Twitter.

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