Capitol Review from State Rep. Kelly Keisling
House protects Tennessee workers’ right to private votes
Lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation ensuring Tennessee workers’ rights are protected by secret ballot in union-organizing elections. House Bill 1342, sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, prohibits an employer who accepts economic development incentives from Tennessee from disclosing an employee or subcontractor’s personal contact information to a labor organization without consent.
Tennesseans voted in 2022 to codify the right-to-work in the state constitution. This measure protects Tennessee workers from being fired for not joining or paying a union.
Even with these protections in place, Tennessee workers can still face intimidation when it comes to unionizing. Through a process known as card check, union officials pressure workers privately and publicly until they collect enough signatures directly from the workers until they have enough signatures to begin bargaining collectively.
“If we are going to invest in a company, we want to make sure that the workers have rights to free, fair and private elections,” said Vaughan. “This is a way we can take care of our economic incentives and investments and protect our investments as a state moving forward.”
House Bill 1342 ensures taxpayer dollars are not used to support coercive union tactics like card check. The legislation protects workers’ right to a private ballot in union elections and respects their right to privacy at home when companies take taxpayer-funded economic incentives. The companion bill is currently advancing through the Senate.
Legislators protect foster children from abusive parents
Legislation to help further protect foster children from abusive parents was approved this week by the Tennessee House of Representatives.
House Bill 752 would make it a Class C misdemeanor for the first time a foster parent in a kinship placement allows a child to visit a parent despite a court order prohibiting the contact.
“These are adults and they know that they are not supposed to be there,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson.
The fine for first-time offenses would be $50. Subsequent violations would result in a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
There are approximately 121 children in Tennessee who are currently in kinship foster care and have a visitation restriction in place against their parents, according to information from the Department of Children’s Services.
The companion version of the bill is advancing through the Senate.
Law aims to minimize trauma for child victims of sexual assault
Both chambers of the General Assembly this week passed legislation that aims to minimize trauma for underage victims of sexual assault during the criminal justice process.
Current state law allows minors who have been sexually assaulted to be interviewed by trained professionals and recorded to for court proceedings. The law only allows these videos to be used in court for minors under the age of 13 and only for sexual offenses.
House Bill 557, sponsored by State Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson, extends the admissibility of forensic interviews in court for all children under 18 years of age, and allows forensic interviews to cover statements on sexual and physical abuse.
The law also adds an additional qualification for forensic interviewers that increases the credibility of forensic interviews and their admissibility in a court of law. The bill will prevent children from being further traumatized by being required to testify in court in front of their abuser. House Bill 557 now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Committee advances bill to enhance third-grade literacy
Legislation aimed at further improving third-grade literacy in Tennessee advanced out of the House K-12 Subcommittee this week.
House Bill 437, as amended, includes several enhancements to bipartisan legislation passed in 2021 to address learning loss related to COVID-19 and provide students with additional academic support before being promoted to the fourth grade if they are approaching reading on-level.
“There has been a lot of discussion about education in Tennessee over the last few years, especially about the reading issues that our children are facing,” said bill co-sponsor State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka. “The thing that we have to be very careful of is continuing on this pathway of moving kids forward that aren’t ready. We’re not really doing them a service. We’re actually doing them an injustice.”
If approved, the bill would expand 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 and given as a test.
Parents would also be able to receive additional assistance from school administrators when filing a waiver to appeal their child’s retention. The legislation also requires a tutor to be assigned for one year to all students in kindergarten through third grade who are retained beginning with the 2023-24 school year.
State Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who is the primary sponsor of House Bill 437, told members of the committee on Tuesday that Tennessee must also continue to focus on early childhood literacy beginning in pre-kindergarten.
“We’re not through with this,” White said. “We are going to keep working, but I think we have addressed some of the major concerns that (exist with the current law). We can’t take our foot off the accelerator. We know it’s difficult… but we can get this right and we have a good opportunity to do so.” House Bill 437 is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on March 22.
Bills seek to study financial literacy in public schools
Legislators this week advanced two bills dealing with financial education being taught in Tennessee public schools.
House Bill 782, as amended, would allow the Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission to request information regarding the financial literacy education already being provided to public elementary and middle school students in the state.
“We all know financial literacy is important to our young people,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. “(This is) mainly just a survey we can take to see exactly where we are.”
House Bill 782 does not include any requirements for age-appropriate financial literacy concepts to be taught in public schools. The legislation is scheduled to be voted on by the House chamber on March 23.
Another proposal making its way through House committees would require the commission to study financial education programs in Tennessee as well as survey those programs available in other states. House Bill 644, sponsored by State Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, would also recognize April as Financial Literacy Month in the state. The bill has been placed on the House consent calendar for March 20.
Do-Not-Text law lets Tennesseans block unwanted messages
The House chamber on Thursday unanimously passed legislation to allow Tennessee consumers to block unwanted text messages. The Senate companion version passed unanimously on March 6.
House Bill 805, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, merges text message solicitations to the state’s Do Not Call Registry. It extends the same prohibitions, requirements, and penalties that apply to telephone solicitations to unwanted text messages.
The Tennessee Public Utility Commission (TPUC) would continue to oversee the registry, which includes landlines and cell phone numbers of Tennessee telephone subscribers who have elected not to receive solicitations. Businesses may not be included on the list.
“I think we’re all sick of getting unsolicited texts messages from individuals we don’t know and I know my constituents are as well,” Lamberth told members on the House floor. “If you want to be left alone you can be added to this and just be left alone.”
House Bill 805 prescribes a maximum penalty of $2,000 dollars for each violation of a text solicitation to a person on the registry.
There are some exemptions to the law which include invitations to be called by the person being called and solicitations on behalf of a not-for-profit organization.
The Tennessee Do-Not-Call law only authorizes the regulation of telemarketing for commercial purposes; political telemarketing is not covered by this law. Because free speech is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for the regulation of commercial speech but has provided political speech with much greater protection from government regulation. House Bill 805 now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature. For information and to be added to the Do-Not-Call Registry, visit here.
House passes zero tolerance for threatening school violence
The Tennessee House of Representatives approved legislation this week to enhance the punishment for students who threaten violence at school.
House Bill 340 expands what constitutes a zero-tolerance offense to include threatening mass violence on school property or at a school-related activity. A violation would result in a student being expelled from school for at least one calendar year.
It would be up to the local director of schools or the head of a charter school to determine whether the expelled student must attend an alternative school or virtual classes.
“That would be a local control issue for that LEA (local education agency) to determine what is best for that student,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka. “(They) right now have the ability to create alternative learning environments.”
Other zero-tolerance offenses include bringing a firearm onto school property; committing aggravated assault or assault that results in bodily injury to a school employee; or is in unlawful possession of any drug, including any controlled substance, on school grounds or at a school-sponsored event. The companion version of the bill is still currently advancing through the Senate.
House adopts Copperhead Road as official state song
Lawmakers in the House of Representatives unanimously approved House Bill 1437, by State Rep. Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City, this week to add “Copperhead Road” to the list of officially recognized state songs. The song was written and performed by Steve Earle and references Johnson County and Knoxville in the lyrics. House Bill 1437 now heads to the Senate for approval.
Another proposal, House Bill 622 by House Majority Whip Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, would designate “The Tennessee in Me” by Debbie Mathis Watts as an official state song. It is expected to heard for consideration in the State Government Committee on March 22.
Other state songs by year of adoption:
“My Homeland, Tennessee” – Written by Nell Grayson Taylor, music by Roy Lamont Smith. Adopted in 1925.
“When It's Iris Time in Tennessee” – Written by Willa Waid Newman. Adopted in 1935.
“My Tennessee” – Written by Frances Hannah Tranum. Adopted in 1955 as the official public school song.
“Tennessee Waltz” – Written by Redd Stewart, composed by Pee Wee King. Adopted in 1965.
“Rocky Top” – By Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Adopted in 1982.
“Tennessee” – By Vivian Rorie. Adopted in 1992.
“The Pride of Tennessee” – By Fred Congdon, Thomas Vaughn and Carol Elliot. Adopted in 1996.
“A Tennessee Bicentennial Rap: 1796-1996” – By Joan Hill Hanks of Signal Mountain. The General Assembly adopted the song in 1996 as the Official Bicentennial Rap song though the song is not an official state song.
“Smoky Mountain Rain” – Written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan. Adopted in 2010.
“Tennessee” – Written by John R. Bean of Knoxville. Adopted in 2011.
“Amazing Grace” – Written by John Newton. Adopted in 2021.
“I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” – Written by Karen Staley. Adopted in 2022.
Genetic information and life insurance providers
House Bill 1309, sponsored by State Rep. Sabi Kumar, R-Springfield, would prohibit life insurance providers from canceling coverage for an individual or a family member based solely on their genetic information. Providers would also be prohibited from requesting or requiring a genetic test or other specific DNA information as a precondition of insurability. Access to genetic data could only be provided with an individual’s signed, written consent. House Bill 1309 is scheduled to be voted on by the House chamber on March 20.
Surprise Billing Consumer Protection Act
House Bill 1503, sponsored by State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, aims to protect Tennesseans from being unexpectedly billed for out-of-network health care services that were provided at in-network facilities. As amended, the comprehensive legislation would hold patients harmless in surprise billing situations as well as establish an independent dispute resolution process for insurers and providers. It would also implement greater oversight of network adequacy standards. The Surprise Billing Consumer Protection Act would not apply to TennCare. House Bill 1503 is scheduled to be heard in the Government Operations Committee on March 20.
Aggravated kidnapping, rape sentences
The House chamber this week passed legislation to enhance the punishment for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated rape and rape convictions. House Bill 5, sponsored by State Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, would require the sentences for those crimes be no less than those imposed for a Range II offender. For aggravated kidnapping and aggravated rape, which are both Class A felonies, the punishment would be between 25 and 40 years in prison. For rape, which is a Class B felony, the punishment would be 12 to 20 years in prison. The companion version of the bill is still currently advancing through the Senate.
Tax relief for disabled veterans
House Bill 1361, sponsored by State Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, would increase property tax relief that is available to disabled veterans and their spouses in Tennessee. The legislation would increase the threshold for calculating property tax relief from $175,000 to $210,000 for tax years beginning Jan. 1, 2024. House Bill 1361 is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on March 22.
Supporting state employees with sick children
A bill to increase support for state employees who must care for their sick is expected to be up for consideration in the House chamber on March 23. Under current law, state employees may not utilize sick leave grants from the state sick leave bank for any illness of a family member. House Bill 1151, sponsored by State Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, will allow state employees to utilize the state sick leave bank when caring for a sick child. In order to utilize grants of sick leave from the bank, employees must first take five consecutive days with no pay. The companion version passed unanimously in the Senate.
2023 Tennessee Ag Day on the Hill
To be held on Wednesday, April 5 at the Beth Harwell Plaza of the Cordell Hull Building, 425 Rep. John Lewis Way in Nashville.
-- 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 email@example.com. Connect with Kelly on Twitter.