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  • Writer's pictureState Rep. Kelly Keisling

Capitol Review from State Rep. Kelly Keisling


House committees begin work as bill filing deadline approaches


House members returned to Nashville on Monday to finalize their legislative proposals for the year after a winter storm closed Capitol Hill last week.


House committees also began meeting to discuss legislation that has already been introduced ahead of the bill filing deadline on Jan. 31.


House budget hearings underway, budget growth stable


The House Finance, Ways and Means Committee began its annual budget hearings this month as members determine how to best meet the needs of Tennesseans amid significantly slower revenue growth.


Every state department will present their budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. Additional hearings are scheduled to take place between Feb. 7 and March 11.

“The information that we get from these hearings will help us to make better decisions as we move forward in the budgeting process,” House Finance, Ways and Means Chair Patsy Hazlewood said Tuesday.


Highlights from the initial House budget hearing presentations include:


Finance commissioner: ‘Much slower budget growth’ ahead


Tennessee remains financially strong despite reduced revenue growth projections, Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Jim Bryson told committee members Tuesday.


Bryson added that a “much slower budget growth” of 0.5 percent is expected during the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1.


“Overall, the fundamentals of our economy remain good and seem to be improving a little bit according to some economists,” Bryson said. “However, it is clear that the high tax revenue growth of the last few years is behind us. We are returning to a period of normal to slow growth that is more historically typical than the budget growth of the past few years.”


Tax revenue for the current budget year was initially estimated to top $19.8 billion. However, that number was revised in November to $19.1 billion. The estimated tax revenue for the upcoming fiscal year is $19.2 billion.


Key factors contributing to the stabilizing revenue growth for the state include the shift in spending patterns, high interest rates, housing costs, slowing corporate profit growth and federal stimulus dollars working out of the economy.


While the overall economy and tax collections have slowed, Bryson assured lawmakers that Tennessee still remains “well prepared and financially strong.” The state is not expected to dip into its more than $2 billion Rainy-Day Fund during the current or upcoming budget year, he added.


“We have been conservative and careful,” Bryson said. “The state remains in good fiscal condition as long as we remain diligent in continuing our history of conservative budget management.”


TennCare provides update on renewal process


TennCare annual renewal process is underway following a three-year pause by the federal government.


So far, the department has been able to renew coverage for 61 percent of individuals within the first six months of the redetermination process that resumed in April 2023. Approximately 7 percent of cases are still pending.


State and federal law require all Medicaid recipients to go through the redetermination process annually to verify that they continue to meet all eligibility requirements. However, the renewal process was suspended by the federal government in January 2020 due to Covid-19.


“We have more than 1.7 million members that are going through this renewal process for the first time in three years,” TennCare Director Stephen Smith told lawmakers earlier this month. “We have some TennCare members that are going through this process for the first time since they’ve joined the TennCare program. It is a pretty substantial undertaking for both us and the members that we serve.”


There were approximately 1.4 million TennCare members in March 2020. Enrollment spiked at 1.75 million in May 2023. Renewal numbers are expected to be finalized in May with enrollment anticipated to be approximately 1.42 million.


Individuals can complete the renewal process online at TennCareConnect.tn.gov, by downloading the TennCare Connect app, calling 855-259-0701, visiting a Department of Human Services kiosk, by mail or by faxing their completed packet to 855-315-0669.


K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund update


The initial funds from Tennessee’s K-12 Mental Health Trust fund are ready to be spent.

The K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund Board in November approved a $6 million appropriation from the fund during the current fiscal year along with an additional $6 million in the upcoming budget year.


“This General Assembly… [is] attempting to do what we can to address the mental health crisis in the state, particularly with our children in K-12,” Hazlewood said.

State lawmakers partnered with Gov. Bill Lee in 2021 to establish the K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund and invest $250 million to address student mental health statewide. The fund had an estimated value of $256.2 million as of Dec. 31, according to the Department of Treasury.


There were 36 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 17 in Tennessee that were diagnosed with at least one of 11 behavioral health conditions in 2021 including anxiety, depression and self-harm, according to a recent Vanderbilt Child Health Poll. That was 7 percent more than 2019.


Competitive grants will be awarded by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to fund both one-on-one and group mental health interventions, in addition to training for faculty and staff. They will be distributed equitably across the state based on population.


Lottery surpasses $7 billion for education


The Tennessee Education Lottery (TEL) celebrated its 20th anniversary this month with more than $7.2 billion raised for education programs statewide.


Since 2004, the TEL has funded more than 2 million scholarships and grants for students attending higher education institutions in the state along with hundreds of K-12 after-school programs.


“Education proceeds funding over that 20 years have grown approximately 4.5 percent annually,” TEL President and CEO Rebecca Paul told committee members earlier this month. “Last year, we did over $2 billion in sales and over $500 million [went to] to education.”


There has been a total of $19.8 billion in prizes won by players since the TEL began. In all, 395 tickets have been sold worth at least $1 million. Additionally, more than $1.9 billion has been paid to a network of more than 5,000 retailer locations statewide.


Lottery-funded programs include 13 individual scholarships and grants to higher education institutions, K-12 after-school programs and an energy efficient initiative for K-12 schools. The General Assembly increased overall HOPE Scholarship award amounts in 2022 and expanded eligibility qualifications last year.


Lawmakers propose penalties for abortion trafficking


Lawmaker this week reaffirmed their commitment to protecting the unborn by introducing legislation to make abortion trafficking of a minor a Class C felony.


House Bill 1895, proposed by State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, seeks to stop anyone who attempts to circumvent the state’s current abortion law by helping to facilitate an abortion for the minor without parental consent.


If the bill becomes law, it will become illegal for any adult to recruit, harbor, or transport a pregnant, unemancipated minor for a criminal abortion, help a minor obtain an abortion-inducing medication, or conceal an act resulting in a criminal abortion.


“Tennessee Republicans will never stop working to advance and uphold the pro-life and pro-family values held by an overwhelming majority of people in this state. We will continue our commitment to protect parents’ rights and defend the defenseless,” Zachary said.


Republicans in the General Assembly in 2019 laid the groundwork to ensure life is protected at conception in Tennessee should the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverse its decision to legalize abortion. The General Assembly that year passed the Human Life Protection Act, a conditional trigger law written to go into effect 30 days following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade.


When the high court overturned its 1973 decision on June 24, 2022, the Human Life Protection Act became law and automatically made abortion for any reason a felony in Tennessee. House Bill 1895 is expected to begin moving through committees in the coming weeks.


Protecting Children from Social Media Act


Legislators have introduced legislation to restore parental authority on social media platforms by requiring online companies to verify ages of account holders.


The Protecting Children from Social Media Act, filed by State Rep. Jake McCalmon, R-Franklin, in partnership with Gov. Bill Lee’s administration, requires social media companies to verify parental consent for minors who wish to become account holders. It gives parents a high level of access to supervise their child’s online interactions as well as the ability to revoke consent.


“Social media has hurt a generation of young people by exposing them to unhealthy content and dangerous interactions with strangers online. They have become victims of companies who have deliberately targeted them for profit through addictive algorithms designed to maximize the amount of time kids use them,” McCalmon said.


“This bill applies meaningful safeguards to protect children but ensures parents are the only decision-makers when it comes to who communicates with their children online.”


House Bill 1891 would require social media companies to provide privacy monitoring tools and control daily usage, scheduled breaks, and parent notifications. It directs the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, specifically the Division of Consumer Protection, to enforce the law and handle complaints.


The U.S. Surgeon General in 2023 released an advisory warning to the public about the “profound risk of harm” social media use has on young people. The advisory cites several studies and includes a review of available evidence and further studies noting social media use is up 95 percent among minors ages 13-17, with more than a third saying they used social media “almost constantly.” Although age 13 is commonly the required minimum age used by social media platforms in the United States, nearly 40 percent of children ages 8–12 use social media.


Similar legislation requiring age verification on social media sites has passed in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Utah.


Rules proposed for AI use in education


A bill requiring schools to develop guidelines for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) advanced out of the K-12 Subcommittee this week.


House Bill 1630, sponsored by State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, would require the governing boards of public colleges and universities, public charter schools, and local boards of education to regulate the role and use of AI in each institution.


“It basically puts out there for our students and our faculty what the playing field’s going to be going forward in education on how the use of artificial intelligence will be used or not used by teachers, faculty and staff,” Cepicky said.


Schools would be required to craft a policy by the 2024-25 school year and report it to the Tennessee Department of Education by July 1 each year.


House Bill 1630 is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on Jan. 31.


Duty to Warn Act reintroduced


House legislators continue to pursue legislation to increase protections for anyone targeted by threats of violence in Tennessee.


The Duty to Warn Act, sponsored by State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, would require qualified mental health professionals and behavior analysts to inform either local law enforcement, call the 988 Lifeline or a local crisis response service if a patient threatened violence against a group of people such as school or daycare students, individuals at a place of worship or a person’s family, among others.


“The safety and well-being of every individual remains our top priority in Tennessee,” Zachary said. “By strengthening the reporting requirements for threats of violence in our state, we will better ensure the proper authorities are notified before a tragedy occurs. This legislation will not only protect the public from harm, but those in crisis as well.”


House Bill 1625 also includes protections from civil, criminal and disciplinary penalties for mental health professionals and behavior analysts who make reasonable attempts to comply with the law.


Lawmakers propose foster care pilot program


A bill filed this month would create a pilot program to streamline the foster care process in Tennessee and ease the burden on the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).


House Bill 1815, sponsored by State Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman, would establish a five-year pilot program allowing licensed private agencies to provide the same services as DCS.


“Children in the foster system deserve a streamlined, stable and safe opportunity for placement into a loving home,” Butler said. “While DCS is making strides to improve, our current process isn’t working. This program will show there is a better way to serve the children in Tennessee. This legislation will improve the efficiency of Tennessee’s foster system and create more stability for the children.”


The pilot program would serve up to 450 eligible children. To be accepted into the program, private entities must be child care or child placing agencies registered in the state of Tennessee. They would have full decision-making authority over children placed in their custody and be required to adhere to strict standards of operation.


Private entities across the state of Tennessee have expressed interested in participating in the pilot program. Currently, Tennessee has roughly 9,000 children in its foster system but only about 4,000 foster families and a shortage of DCS case workers.


Tennessee children living in poverty continues to decline


The number of Tennessee children living in poverty has declined more than 8 percent over the last decade, according to the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth’s State of the Child 2023 report.


The commission reports 17.6 percent of Tennessee children were living below the federal poverty level in 2022, compared to 25.8 percent in 2012.


A family of three earning less than $23,030 is considered to be living below the federal poverty level, a metric of income used to determine eligibility for public programs.


The annual data book tracks the status of children by analyzing state-level statistical indicators of child well-being using social, educational, economic and health data.


“[This report] is a compilation of existing data around how our children are doing in a variety of areas,” Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth Executive Director Richard Kennedy told committee members during a presentation Wednesday. “With the report, it’s really important for us to try to be as balanced as possible, so we are very mindful that there are lot of things that we are doing very well as a state and there are lots of opportunities that we have.”


Additional highlights from the presentation include:


  • 29% of Tennessee high school students in 2021 reported their mental health was either most of the time or always not good within the past month

  • 42% of Tennessee high school students in 2021 reported symptoms of depression within the previous year – a 63% increase from 2011

  • The suicide rate among Tennessee youth 13-18 increase from 7 per 100,000 to 9.4 per 100,000 between 2019 and 2021

  • 11th graders across all measures had the highest rate of suicidal behaviors and were the most likely to have asked for help

  • 1 in 10 households with children in Tennessee reported having a child that needed mental health treatment in September 2023

  • There were 511 social workers serving 975,545 students statewide in 2022-23

  • There were 660 school psychologists employed by Tennessee districts in 2022-23


Legislators seek increased punishment for child abuse, neglect


Legislators have filed legislation to strengthen the punishment for individuals who put young children in dangerous or harmful situations.


House Bill 1817, sponsored by State Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson, would increase the penalty for knowingly endangering, abusing or neglecting a child 8 years of age or younger from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D felony. The legislation would also increase the penalty for negligently engaging in such conduct from a Class D felony to a Class B felony.


“No child should ever be put in a dangerous situation, especially due to the actions of someone who is supposed to be responsible for their well-being,” Littleton said. “This important legislation will strengthen the punishment associated with these senseless, irresponsible and preventable crimes. I remain committed to ensuring the safety of all Tennesseans, especially our most vulnerable residents.”


House Bill 1817 seeks to prevent young children from being exposed to illegal and potentially deadly drugs like fentanyl in Tennessee, Littleton added. If approved, the new law would take effect July 1.


Relative Caregiver Program expansion proposed


A bill would allow more families to receive reimbursement for costs related to raising children through Tennessee’s Relative Caregiver stipend program.


House Bill 1675, which is being carried by State Rep. William Slater, R-Gallatin, would remove the current provision that excludes those who make more than twice the federal poverty level, allowing families of all income levels to be eligible to receive funds through the program.


Tennessee’s Relative Caregiver Program, proposed by Gov. Bill Lee in 2022 and passed by the General Assembly, provides support to families caring for children who are related to them but whose parents are unable or unwilling to provide care. The program reimburses some costs of raising the child, helping keep them out of the state foster care system.


According to current law, to be eligible for the stipend, a juvenile court must issue a final custody order, which can be a costly and lengthy process. This legislation would remove that requirement, allowing relative caregivers who meet eligibility criteria and have been awarded custody by an order of a court to be eligible for the program.


Since the Relative Caregiver Program began last year, 1,341 children have been finalized to receive the stipend. Nearly 10,000 payments totaling over four million dollars were distributed between January and October 2023.


Assault and aggravated assault in health care facilities


The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week advanced legislation that would create new Class A misdemeanor offenses of assault and aggravated assault committed within a health care facility. House Bill 1628, introduced by State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, would apply to anyone who knowingly caused bodily injury to another person within a health care facility, or who causes physical contact with another person that could be considered extremely offensive or provocative. Those found guilty would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. House Bill 1628 is scheduled to be heard in the Criminal Justice Committee on Jan. 30.


Recall of elected non-constitutional public officials


House Bill 1818, sponsored by State Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman, would create a process for Tennessee residents to initiate a recall election for all state and local elected non-constitutional public officers. Grounds for recall would include physical or mental lack of fitness, incompetence, violation of the oath of office, official misconduct, lack of confidence, malfeasance, neglect of duty, voter dissatisfaction, or conviction of a felony offense. It would not apply to the governor, members of the General Assembly, judges, treasurer, comptroller, secretary of state, elected law enforcement officers and officials, or a person appointed to a public office, among others.


Official state books


House Bill 1828, sponsored by State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, would designate the first 10 official state books for Tennessee. The list includes “Farewell Address to the American People” by George Washington (1796); “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835 and 1840); Aitken Bible (1782); “The Papers of Andrew Jackson”; “Roots” by Alex Haley (1977); “A Death in the Family” by James Agee (1958); “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren (1947); “American Lion” by Jon Meacham (2009); “The Civil War: A Narrative” by Shelby Foote (1958-1974); and “Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton (2016). House Bill 1828 is scheduled to be heard in the House Public Service Subcommittee on Jan. 30.


Unemployment Rate


The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development this week reported the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the state remained unchanged in December at 3.5%.


  • The unemployment rate decreased in 92 counties, increased in two counties and remained the same in 1 county

  • Moore County reported the lowest unemployment rate at 2.1%

  • Bledsoe County had the highest rate at 4.8%

  • The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the U.S. decreased from 4.2% to 3.9% during the same time period


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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 X.


Representative Keisling serves as Chairman of the State Government Committee as well as serving as a member of the Calendar & Rules Committee, Finance, Ways & Means Committee, Government Operations Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee, Corrections Subcommittee, Departments & Agencies Subcommittee, Public Service & Employees Subcommittee.

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