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  • Writer's pictureState Rep. Kelly Keisling

Capitol Review from State Rep. Kelly Keisling


General Assembly confirms new Tennessee Supreme Court Justice


Members of the General Assembly confirmed the appointment of Dwight E. Tarwater to the Tennessee Supreme Court in a joint session in the House chamber on Thursday.


Tarwater, a Knoxville attorney, brings more than 40 years of legal background to the court, including decades of trial and appellate experience. He also previously served as chief legal counsel to former Gov. Bill Haslam from 2014 until 2019.


The vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court will be created by the retirement of Justice Sharon Lee, effective Aug. 31. Tarwater’s tenure on the court officially begins Sept. 1. The General Assembly is required to confirm appointments for Supreme Court Justices per an amendment added to the state constitution in 2014. Justices are retained through a “yes” or “no” election every eight years.


Also on Thursday, the General Assembly confirmed the appointment of Matthew Wilson to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals for the Western Section. Wilson previously served as an assistant United States attorney in the Western District of Tennessee. He brings significant criminal law experience to the Court of Criminal Appeals, including nearly 20 years of legal service at both the state and federal levels. Wilson fills a vacancy that was created by the death of Judge John Everett Williams in September.


Small Government Efficiency Act becomes law


Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday signed legislation that ensures effective local representation and the utmost efficiency for taxpayers.


House Bill 48, also known as the Small Government Efficiency Act, reins in excessive government growth by lowering the maximum size of metropolitan and municipal legislative bodies in Tennessee to no more than 20 voting members. It passed on Monday in the House chamber and on Thursday morning in the Senate.


The city of Nashville, which would fall under the scope of House Bill 48, has a population of 690,000 and is the 21st largest city in the United States. Nashville’s 40-member council is currently the nation’s third largest, just behind New York City which has a 51-member council and a population of 8.8 million, and Chicago, which has a 50-member council and a population 2.7 million.


“This isn’t just about Nashville,” bill sponsor House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, told members on the House floor on Monday. “This is about every single city in the state not (making) the mistake that Nashville made 50 years ago when it (decided on) 40 members. We don’t want any city in this state to expand beyond 20.”


Local government bodies exceeding 20 voting members will be required to dissolve and re-appropriate current districts using the latest federal U.S. Census data to ensure equal representation based on population by May 1, 2023.


Legislation seeks to increase school bus safety in Tennessee


Lawmakers this week advanced legislation strengthening 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 make it a Class E felony if a driver illegally passes a school bus and strikes another person. It would be a Class C felony if the individual died.


“In 2019, the General Assembly passed legislation attempting to reduce the number of people illegally passing stopped school busses by allowing schools to install cameras on the outside of busses,” Whitson told the committee Tuesday. “Over the last several years, we have learned about some enforcement challenges due to a lack of clarity within our current statute. This bill provides that clarity and incorporates lessons learned from other states to help us better understand and stop these violators.”


The legislation would also 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 a second or subsequent offense would increase from $250 to $500.


In 2022, there were 84 citations issued to drivers who illegally passed a school bus that was either picking up or dropping off children, according to data from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. House Bill 818 is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on March 15.


Rural Brownfield Investment Act conserves green space, creates greater economic opportunities


Both chambers of the General Assembly this week unanimously passed legislation that will fast-track the redevelopment of former industrial sites, known as brownfields, throughout Tennessee.


Gov. Bill Lee in February announced his proposal to clean up brownfields as part of his legislative package for 2023.

State Rep. Ron Gant, R-Piperton, guided passage of the bill, known as the Rural Brownfields Investment Act. House Bill 319 creates a state-administered brownfield grant program with the goal of providing technical and financial resources directly to communities while bolstering incentives for developers. It will provide $5 million annually for investigation, assessment and remediation to local governments, economic development agencies, development boards and county land banks.


“This plan partners with communities by helping to remove financial barriers that have previously prevented them from utilizing these properties,” Gant said. “Cleaning up these areas will create more economic opportunities but also allow us to conserve more green spaces for agricultural and recreational use.”


Brownfields are generally defined as abandoned or underutilized properties like industrial facilities. Their use or development can be complicated by the presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. They often contribute to blight and community decline. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.



Bill aims to prohibit taxpayer-funded abortions


Legislation this week advanced that would prevent any city, county or metropolitan government from using taxpayer dollars to directly or indirectly assist with obtaining an abortion or abortion-related services.


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.


On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the federal standard protecting the right to abortion and returning the regulation of abortion to the states.


House Bill 90 ensures no municipality, county or metropolitan government in Tennessee reallocates tax dollars, cuts critical services or staff positions to pay for abortions or abortion-related services.


Government bodies should not be in the abortion business. Using taxpayer dollars to transport a pregnant woman across state lines for an abortion is an inappropriate use of funds, Moody said.


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. House Bill 90 is expected to be considered in the House Local Government Committee on March 14.


Lawmakers seek to protect personal data from Chinese companies


The House Higher Education Subcommittee this week advanced legislation to prevent Chinese social media companies from collecting the personal data of individuals who access the internet at public colleges and universities in Tennessee.


House Bill 1445, sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, would prevent all public postsecondary institutions in the state from providing internet access to any social media platform that is operated or hosted by a company based in the People’s Republic of China. It aims to mitigate possible security threats to the state’s public higher education institutions’ networks.


“Anybody on a campus can still use their personal data to access any of these social media websites, but it would not allow them to use the Wi-Fi at the higher education [institution] to access these social media sites that are connected to the Chinese government,” Faison told members of the committee Monday.


The legislation does not target any specific social media company. It would also not prevent access if it is necessary to perform certain activities related to law enforcement, investigatory functions, audit, compliance, public safety, or other legal functions of the institution.


House Bill 1445 is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on March 15.


Bill punishes those who provide vehicles to intoxicated drivers


Legislation that helps keep intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel advanced out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week.


House Bill 1198, also known as the Silas Gable Flatt Law, would make it a Class A misdemeanor to knowingly provides a motor vehicle to a person who is intoxicated or someone whose license has been suspended or revoked due to a conviction for driving under the influence.


“(Repeat offenders) know that they can drive someone else’s car and their parent, loved one or whoever enabled them to do so won’t be penalized,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville. “This bill seeks to change that.”


Anyone convicted of violating the law would be required to serve a minimum of 48 hours in jail. Punishment for a second offense would be a minimum of 72 hours in jail while third or subsequent offenses would be a minimum of seven days.


The legislation is named in honor of Silas Gable Flatt, an unborn child who was killed last year when the vehicle his family was traveling in was struck head-on by an intoxicated driver in Overton County. The suspect, who had multiple previous driving under the influence charges, had been allowed to use the vehicle by a parent.


House Bill 1198 is scheduled to be heard in the Criminal Justice Committee on March 14.


House passes permit requirement for adult entertainers, prohibits performances where children are present


The House chamber on Monday passed legislation requiring a person to obtain a valid entertainer permit from the adult-oriented establishment board in those jurisdictions prior to performing an adult cabaret entertainment show.


House Bill 30, sponsored by State Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, prohibits public, private and commercial establishments from allowing anyone under the age of 18 to attend such performances.


The law simply provides a way to ensure minors aren’t exposed to sexually explicit performances, Doggett told members of the House.


“All we are doing is stating that a permit will be required for adult cabaret performance, which is defined as being harmful to minors,” Doggett said. “A person who is not performing in a sexual manner that is harmful to children would not require a license.”

The companion version of the bill is currently advancing through the Senate. If passed in both chambers, the bill would go into effect once signed by the governor.


House votes to protect rights of marriage officiants


The House chamber on Monday passed legislation to protect the rights of marriage officiants in Tennessee.


House Bill 878, sponsored by State Rep. Monty Fritts, R-Kingston, would prohibit a person from being required to solemnize a marriage in Tennessee.


“This bill is indeed a freedom bill,” Fritts said. “[It] is designed to simply and clearly protect the rights of the officiants of wedding ceremonies.” The legislation is still making its way through the committee process in the Senate.


Tennessee Special Educator Scholarship Act advances


Legislation to increase the number of special education teachers in Tennessee advanced this week.

House Bill 251, also known as the Tennessee Special Educator Scholarship Act, would provide post-secondary financial assistance of up to $750 per semester to eligible special education professionals who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree and meet certain criteria.


“We all know that we’re struggling to find teachers in our school districts, especially in special education,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville. “These scholarships would go a long way to assisting individuals wishing to pursue teaching careers in special education and just help attract more qualified people to that position.”


Recipients would be able to receive the scholarship for up to eight semesters or until they obtain their first bachelor’s degree. They must also agree to work full-time as a special education teacher in a Tennessee public school for at least three consecutive years following graduation. House Bill 251 is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on March 15.


Reflecting Tennessee’s Volunteer Spirit in state motto


The House chamber unanimously voted to add “Send Me” to the State’s official motto of “Agriculture and Commerce” which has been on the seal of Tennessee since 1801. House Bill 47, sponsored by State Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, said adding the phrase reflects the well-known volunteer spirit of Tennesseans.


Protecting against unwanted surveillance/drones


The House Public Service Subcommittee on Tuesday advanced legislation that prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from purchasing drones from corporations or entities which are banned under the National Defense Act of 2019. House Bill 1070, sponsored by State Rep. Michele Carringer, R-Knoxville, aims to protect Tennesseans from surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party and other foreign entities. The bill is expected to be considered by the House State Government Committee on March 15.


Evading arrest


House Bill 1475, sponsored by State Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, would increase the mandatory minimum punishment for Class E felony evading arrest in a motor vehicle from 30 days to 90 days in jail. The legislation would also increase the minimum punishment for those who evade arrest and risk injury or death to the public, a Class D felony, from 60 days to 120 days in jail. House Bill 1475 is scheduled to be heard in the Criminal Justice Committee on March 14.


Sergeant Chris Jenkins Law


House Bill 353, sponsored by State Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, was passed unanimously by the House chamber on Thursday. The legislation, which still needs Senate approval, would make it a crime for a person to transport a ladder that is not properly secured to prevent it from falling onto a public roadway. A violation of the law would be a Class C misdemeanor while an improperly secured ladder that caused a motor vehicle accident would result in a Class A misdemeanor. The bill is named after Sgt. Chris Jenkins who was fatally struck by a semi-truck while removing a ladder from Interstate 75 in Loudon County on Feb. 3, 2022.


Bear Control


House Bill 1453, sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, authorizes a person who resides on property that adjoins the Great Smokey Mountain National Park to take, attempt to take, or harm a bear that enters the person’s property if the bear acted in a manner that causes the person to have a reasonable belief they are in imminent danger of death or bodily injury. The bill also requires an individual to notify the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency within 24 hours after killing or seriously injuring a bear, if the individual is reasonably able to notify the agency, and the individual must not remove, reposition, retain, sell, or transfer the bear without authorization from the TWRA. House Bill 1453 is scheduled for consideration in the State Government Committee on March 15.


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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 Twitter.

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