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  • Writer's pictureState Rep. Kelly Keisling

Capitol Review from State Rep. Kelly Keisling


General Assembly delivers historic tax cuts, major investments for Tennessee’s future


Lawmakers on Friday marked the end of the first half of the 113th General Assembly with a slate of successful budget and legislative initiatives that prioritizes the needs of all Tennesseans.


The final week of the session was highlighted by the fulfillment of the General Assembly’s constitutional duty with the passage of a $56.2 billion budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year.


Guided by House Finance Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, the zero-debt budget is a spending plan that addresses the needs of all Tennesseans while advancing Republicans’ efforts to strengthen families, bolster safety, improve education, create new opportunities for economic development and modernize transportation.


“Tennessee is well-known for its common-sense budgeting and sound fiscal responsibility that supports great quality of life for our citizens,” Hazlewood said. “Good governance at the greatest efficiency has led to extraordinary economic growth and success in the Volunteer State. This budget is a solid spending plan that makes wise investments for the future of our state and gives citizens back more control over their hard-earned dollars.”


Lawmakers this session made key investments in transportation and infrastructure by providing $3.3 billion to alleviate urban traffic congestion and improve rural roads to support economic growth and development.


To further prepare a skilled workforce for tomorrow, legislators committed nearly $1 billion to complete a master plan for the state’s Tennessee Colleges of Applied Sciences (TCATs). The plan includes improvements to 16 existing TCATs, replacing seven outdated facilities and building six new TCATs at strategic locations.


The budget makes significant investments in school safety with $223 million to provide a school resource officer for every public school and a Homeland Security agent for every county. These funds will also provide safety grants for private schools.


Notably, the budget provides a $404 million cut in taxes, the largest in Tennessee’s history. These cuts aim to lower the tax burden on businesses, boost Tennessee’s economic competitiveness, promote entrepreneurship and small businesses. It provides targeted relief to families with a three-month-long tax break on groceries from Aug. 1-Oct. 31.


It also makes a $250 million deposit in the state’s Rainy-Day Fund, which serves as the state’s savings account to help withstand economic downturns, bringing the fund to a historic balance of more than $2 billion.


The General Assembly remains committed to keeping taxes low. Tennessee is the second-lowest taxed state in the nation and collects zero income tax. Tennessee holds the highest bond rating issued by all three of the nation’s credit rating agencies, which reflects extreme confidence in the Volunteer State’s preparedness in meeting financial commitments in tough economic times.


2023 legislative and budget highlights:


Protecting Children

  • Increased resources to the Department of Children’s Services

  • Protected children from being exposed to sexually explicit adult entertainment

  • Prevented harmful and irreversible medical procedures from being performed on minors

  • Passed comprehensive legislative package to improve adoption and foster care in Tennessee

  • Provided $42 million to Increase placement stability for foster families caring for children with disabilities


Safe Communities

  • Invested $223 million to improve school safety, including $140 million for school resource officers (SRO) in every public school, $30 million for Homeland Security agents in every county and $14 million for private school safety

  • Improved safety standards and protocols at public and private schools in Tennessee

  • Increased requirements and accountability for good behavior sentence reduction credits

  • Added more than 142 positions to the Tennessee Highway Patrol

  • Invested $357 million to expand communications infrastructure for first-responders

  • $50 million for the violent crime intervention program

  • Protected the 2nd Amendment


Transportation and Infrastructure

  • Invested $3 billion in the Transportation Modernization Fund to alleviate urban congestion and fund rural road projects across the state

  • Provided $300 million to expand the state aid program for local road projects

  • $76 million in recurring dollars for the Transportation Equity Fund for airports

  • Created a new strategy to address traffic congestion and accommodate Tennessee’s record growth


Tax Cuts

  • Provided $404 million in tax relief to boost economic competitiveness, promote entrepreneurship, and provide relief to families.

  • $150 million in annual small business tax relief

  • Three-month-long tax break on groceries from Aug. 1-Oct. 31.

  • Sales tax holiday on clothing and school supplies from July 28-30.


Economic Development & Workforce

  • Invested nearly $1 billion to complete the TCAT Master Plan to improve 16 existing TCATs, replace seven outdated facilities and build six new TCATs at strategic locations across Tennessee

  • $103 million for ECD Fast Track grant fund

  • $45 million for rural development grants and services to enhance TN’s rural communities and distressed counties


Stronger families

  • Strengthened protections for pregnant women and the unborn

  • Provided six weeks of paid leave for state employees and teachers following the birth or adoption of a child

  • Extended TennCare coverage for mothers to 12 months postpartum

  • $20 million for crisis pregnancy centers

  • $15 million to establish the child care improvement fund


Health care

  • Increased pay for providers serving vulnerable citizens

  • Invested in rural and distressed hospitals

  • Extended TennCare coverage for mothers to 12 months postpartum

  • $33 million for nursing home support

  • $20 million over two years for children’s hospital infrastructure grants


Legislature raises teacher pay nearly $1 billion since 2011


The General Assembly has approved $125 million in additional funding to increase teacher pay in Tennessee. House Bill 329 sets the base salary for teachers at $42,000 beginning with the 2023-24 school year.

The proposal will directly impact 7,588 teachers statewide. Currently, the minimum salary for teachers in Tennessee is $40,000.


By raising the minimum salary to $42,000, the legislation will move Tennessee ahead of Mississippi and South Carolina in teacher pay while also catching the Volunteer State up with other nearby competing states like Alabama and Florida. It will also move Tennessee closer to a minimum salary of $50,000 for teachers by the 2026-27 school year.


“This body has added nearly $3 billion in new education dollars since 2011,” said bill sponsor House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland. “We’ve increased the per-pupil average spending by more than $3,000 and we’ve supported our teachers to the tune of $861 million in salary increases over those years. We cannot, we should not and we will not stop now.”


House Bill 329 also ends the practice of local school district deductions for national, state and local labor organizations. School districts are currently allowed to provide these unions with a free benefit of collecting dues on their behalf. That includes accepting membership forms from the union and then automatically deducting membership dues from the member’s paychecks.


This legislation will ensure that taxpayer resources in K-12 education are not used to support the activities, political or otherwise, of any organization, including national labor unions. House Bill 329 will now head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law. It will take effect July 1.


James ‘Dustin’ Samples Act supports firefighters suffering with PTSD


The General Assembly on the last day of session unanimously passed the James ‘Dustin’ Samples Act, a bill that will provide support to firefighters following a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.


Sponsored by Majority Whip Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, House Bill 976 makes clear that a firefighter’s PTSD diagnosis connected to one or more calls of a particularly traumatic nature is presumed to be an injury suffered in the course of employment and qualifies for resources through their workers’ compensation benefits plan.


“The decision to serve Tennesseans as a firefighter means much more than fighting fires. In addition to the physical risks, repeated exposure to every type of traumatic scene can take an enormous toll on a person’s mental health,” Garrett said. “This legislation will improve access to effective treatment but also break down barriers where asking for help has not always been easy.”


The bill establishes a grant program to mitigate the cost to an employer providing worker’s compensation for firefighters diagnosed with PTSD. In order to qualify for the grant, employers must provide mental health resiliency training as part of their continuing education program. The bill is named in honor of Captain James ‘Dustin’ Samples of the Cleveland Fire Department, who tragically committed suicide in 2020 after a years-long struggle with PTSD. The bill now head to the governor’s desk for his signature.


House passes three bills to alleviate shortage of teachers


The House this week passed three bills designed to alleviate the shortage of teachers at schools throughout Tennessee. Legislation sponsored by State Rep. Robert Stevens, R-Murfreesboro, House Bill 424, would grant a temporary teacher license to student teachers in certain circumstances. The bill would allow student teachers to be eligible for a one-year teacher license if they complete all required coursework and are supervised by another educator. Student teachers would only be eligible for the temporary license after the school district tried and was unable to fill the position.

House Bill 662, sponsored by State Rep. Tim Hicks, R-Gray, seeks to expand access to Career Technical Education (CTE) courses across Tennessee. It will allow an education agency to hire a person with an active industry license or credential to provide instruction to students but only if the instruction is supervised by a licensed teacher. The licensed teacher would be the teacher of record for the course and the credentialed individual is subject to a background check.


House Bill 897, sponsored by State Rep. Chris Hurt, R-Halls, will address the shortage of physical education teachers in elementary schools. The director of schools can request an endorsement exemption from the Commissioner of Schools that will allow a licensed teacher in another subject to teach physical education to students. The waiver will only be valid until June 30 after the school asked for it, and schools must demonstrate that they were unable to fill the role with a qualified teacher. All three bills now heads to the governor’s desk.


Lawmakers strengthen protections for girls’ athletics in Tennessee


The General Assembly has approved legislation that further protects the integrity of girls’ sports in Tennessee.


House Bill 306 requires private school students who compete in an interscholastic athletic activity or event as part of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) to do so in accordance with their sex at birth.


“(This legislation) protects competition because girls should compete against girls in high school and boys should compete against boys,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood. “It simply is not fair, it’s anticompetitive, to allow boys to compete against girls in girls’ sports. If you’re dealing with a sport that is co-ed that is a different issue.”


Female students will still be allowed to participate on teams designated for males if the private school does not offer a separate team for female students in that sport. Similar legislation applying to public middle and high school interscholastic sports activities was approved by the General Assembly in 2021. House Bill 306 has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.


General Assembly strengthens oversight of state-funded investments


The General Assembly has approved two pieces of legislation that will give Tennesseans more representation in the oversight of how their tax dollars are spent on state-funded investments.


House Bill 1176 improves the makeup of airport boards in counties where there is a metropolitan form of government and a population of more than 500,000. This would include the Nashville International Airport of which the state of Tennessee is the largest single investor.


“The (Nashville) airport has become the 27th largest airport in the country,” said bill sponsor House Majority Whip Johnny Garrett, R- Goodlettsville. “It has become a hub for the commerce that happens here, and as we continue to ask our constituents to invest in critical assets, I believe it’s critical that Tennesseans have a seat at the table to make sure we continue a long-term strategic relationship with the airport.”


The governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and metropolitan mayor would each appoint two members to the board. The legislation would also require quarterly reports or briefings be submitted to the governor and General Assembly regarding activities, plans and conditions along with any proposals for capital expansions or improvements.

Of those who use the Nashville International Airport, 70 percent live outside of Davidson County, Garrett added.


State lawmakers also approved House Bill 1197, which creates a 13-member board to provide oversight of sports facilities in counties where there is a metropolitan form of government with a population of more than 500,000.


The legislation was sponsored by State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, and will apply to Nashville’s Metropolitan Sports Authority which manages Nissan Stadium, Bridgestone Arena, Geodis Park and First Horizon Park along with other venues in Davidson County.


The mayor of Nashville will appoint seven members of the board while the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would each appoint two members. This will give Tennessee taxpayers more representation in the oversight of major sports venues paid for in part with state tax dollars.


A total of $350 million in state funding for Memphis sports stadiums was included in the budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year. The General Assembly last year also approved a $500 million bond investment toward building a new enclosed stadium to be used for the Tennessee Titans. The venue will be used for year-round entertainment events and is expected to increase future tourism opportunities. Both bills now go to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.


Protecting teachers from forced speech


Legislation that allows Tennessee teachers and public school employees to set their own policy about whether to use a person’s preferred pronouns now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.


House Bill 1269, sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, establishes that teachers and other employees of a local education agency (LEA) are not required to use a student's preferred pronoun if it is not consistent with the student's biological sex. Forced speech is a violation of free speech, and the legislation is intended to protect school employees, Cochran told members of the House last week.


The bill does not actively authorize a teacher to establish a policy, but rather prevents adverse action if they do.


A legal precedent was established in 2021 when the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion in Meriwether vs Hartop affirming that educators cannot be forced to use inaccurate preferred pronouns that would violate their First Amendment right to free speech.


House Bill 1269 further shields teachers and school employees from civil liability and adverse employment action. It makes clear that a public school or LEA is not civilly liable if a teacher or employee of the public school or LEA refers to a student using a pronoun that is consistent with the biological sex of the student to whom the teacher or employee is referring, even if the pronoun is not the student's preferred pronoun.


Lawmakers enhance third-grade literacy


The 113th General Assembly has approved legislation that aims to further improve third-grade literacy in Tennessee.


House Bill 437 includes several enhancements to bipartisan legislation passed in 2021 to address learning loss related to COVID-19 and provide struggling students with additional academic support before being promoted to the fourth grade.


“We are putting ourselves and our children at an economic and educational disadvantage by allowing them to move out of third grade when they are not on grade level for reading and comprehension,” said bill co-sponsor State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka.


The legislation further expands fourth-grade eligibility by allowing students who score in the “approaching” category on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test to still be promoted to the next grade level if they also scored in the 50th percentile or higher on their most recent benchmark assessment provided by the state.


Parents will also be able to receive additional assistance from school administrators when filing a wavier to appeal their child’s retention. Additionally, the bill requires a tutor be assigned for one year to every student who is retained in kindergarten through third-grade beginning in the 2023-24 school year. House Bill 437 has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.


Legislation passed to bring fugitives to justice quicker


Legislation that aims to bring fugitives to justice faster has been approved by the 113th Tennessee General Assembly.


House Bill 1022 requires a defendant’s name to be placed on all available law enforcement databases within 10 days if a court issues a bench warrant for their failure to appear on a felony, Class A misdemeanor or Class B misdemeanor that is violent or sexual in nature, or if they have been charged with failure to appear.


“Sometimes when someone fails to appear in court they are not entered into (the National Crime Information Center database),” said bill sponsor State Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski. “This (will) add another tool to the tool belt of law enforcement and make sure that victims don’t continue to be victims, that they have their day in court and justice may have the opportunity to be served.”


The legislation also requires an arresting officer or their agency to exercise due diligence in determining the existence of an individual’s criminal history after their arrest but prior to the determination of bail. The findings must be made part of the defendant’s law enforcement file. House Bill 1022 has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.


Legislation protects school libraries from obscene material


Legislation to further ensure that only age-appropriate books are available in public school libraries in Tennessee has been approved by the General Assembly.


House Bill 841 establishes that it is unlawful for a book publisher, distributor or seller to knowingly provide obscene material to a K-12 public school in Tennessee.


“This bill should help our librarians and our district attorneys make sure that the books that are sent to our schools are age-appropriate,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet. “This bill doesn’t apply to teachers or anybody else. It applies to the book distributors.”


A violation would result in a Class E felony and minimum fine of $10,000. State lawmakers last year passed the Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022 to increase transparency and oversight of instructional material and literature used in public schools. The law requires public schools to post online a list of the materials in their libraries. It also requires a standardized review process to ensure school library collections are periodically evaluated for age-appropriateness. House Bill 841 has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.


Forever Homes Act


Gov. Bill Lee on Monday signed into law The Forever Homes Act, House Bill 318, which aims to accelerate placement of foster children in Tennessee. Sponsored by State Rep. Iris Rudder, R-Winchester, will provide support to foster and adoptive families and accelerate child placement, namely allowing for a judicial waiver to speed adoption finalization from six to three months if a court sees fit, providing foster parents with a respite period of up to six months without losing their standing as a foster home, and extending care services for expectant mothers.


Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022 Updates


The General Assembly last year passed the Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022, which increased transparency and oversight of instructional materials and literature used in public schools. If a school finds a material is not age appropriate based on student, parent or employee feedback, the school may remove the book by appealing to the local school board or charter school governing body. House Bill 663, sponsored by State Rep. Tim Hicks, R-Gray, creates an additional step to the process of evaluating materials in school libraries. The bill requires complaints to first go to the local school district for resolution prior to going to the local board of education for review. The bill heads to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.


Protecting Tennessee Workers


The House and Senate reaffirmed their commitment to protect workers’ freedom by passing legislation to prevent coercion in union-organizing elections and secure workers’ rights to secret ballot union elections. When a workplace decides to vote on unionizing, it is often done in an open election with workers’ choices made public to union organizers. Due to the lack of privacy of the vote, many workers are subjected to a public pressure campaign by union officials seeking to unionize the workplace. That process is called card check. House Bill 1342, sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and co-sponsored by State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, would require employers that accept state incentives to honor employees’ rights to a secret-ballot union election and put an end to card check practices. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.


Breast cancer screening


House Bill 355, sponsored by State Rep. Rebecca Alexander, R-Jonesborough, requires health benefit plans to provide diagnostic screening and imaging at no supplemental cost to patients. This bill establishes that the health benefit plan provides this coverage without imposing a deductible, coinsurance, copayment, or a maximum limitation on the application of the deductible, coinsurance, copayment, or other out-of-pocket expense on the patient. House Bill 355 now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.


Adding “In God We Trust” to the state seal


The General Assembly approved legislation adding the words In God We Trust” to the Tennessee state seal. Sponsored by State Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, House Bill 771 The bill formally asks the governor, who is the keeper of the seal, to direct the secretary of state to redesign the state seal with the phrase by July 1, 2025. The Senate and House will need to pass a resolution approving 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.


Hope scholarship eligibility for overachieving students


House Bill 27, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, allows students who earn their bachelor’s degree early to continue receiving the Tennessee HOPE scholarship while they pursue an advanced degree. Students remain eligible after their graduation if they continue to meet all eligibility and academic requirements, earned their first bachelor’s degree early while receiving the scholarship, and are admitted and enrolled in coursework in pursuit of a master’s degree, doctorate or another advanced degree at an eligible postsecondary institution within three months of graduating. Last year, the General Assembly approved an $85 million increase in funding for the HOPE scholarship. With the increase, the scholarship award was raised from $3,500 to $4,500 per year for freshman and sophomores at four-year institutions and from $4,500 to $5,700 for juniors and seniors. It also increased from $3,000 to $3,200 per year for students at two-year schools. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.


Traffic light timing


The General Assembly has passed legislation that ensures yellow traffic lights in Tennessee remain lit for a minimum of three seconds before turning red. House Bill 766, sponsored by State Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, requires the timing be determined using engineering practices identified in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices as adopted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. It also includes a minimum one-second delay before the traffic signal in an opposite direction turns green. The legislation will now head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.


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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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