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  • Writer's pictureState Rep. Kelly Keisling

State Rep. Kelly Keisling Capitol Hill Review

State Representative Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown)

Last U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan honored by the General Assembly

The General Assembly this week honored late U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss who was killed by a suicide bomber while helping with evacuations at an Afghanistan airport last summer.

Knauss, a 2016 graduate of Gibbs High School in Corryton, Tenn., was among 13 American service members and at least 170 civilians who died during an attack at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 26. He is believed to be the last U.S. military death during the war in Afghanistan.

State Rep. Dave Wright, R-Corryton, State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, and members of the Veterans Caucus on Monday presented Knauss’ family with a framed copy of Senate Joint Resolution 9019 honoring the memory and dedicated service of the fallen soldier.

“May we always honor those who wear the military uniform and give them the honor they deserve in every walk of life from the time they enter until the time they leave,” Knauss’ mother, Paula Knauss Selph, told the House chamber. “May we honor the veterans and give them the support they deserve. May we help those young ones that are… going in to serve our country and coming out as strong men and women. May God give us the strength to know that we make a difference just as they have.”

Knauss was based at Fort Bragg, N.C. and was a member of the 9th Battalion, 8th Psychological Operations Group. He had “impeccable character” and a “stalwart commitment to living the examined life with courage and conviction,” according to the resolution. In all, more than 2,460 American service members were killed during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, according to the White House. Information about Senate Joint Resolution 9019 can be found here.

Committee advances Campaign Finance and Ethics Reform Act of 2022

The House Local Government Committee on Tuesday advanced comprehensive legislation that will provide increased transparency and accountability in elections.

House Bill 1201, sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and State Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, will close loopholes which have in the past been exploited by special interest groups attempting to hide their identity or activities days before an election.

The law would simply provide a mechanism to make reporting and disclosing of campaign finances more transparent so that Tennessee voters can truly make more informed decisions, Speaker Sexton told members of the committee on Tuesday.

“If you’re spending more than $5,000 within a 60-day window of a campaign cycle, you’re trying to influence somebody’s vote. The voters – the citizens of Tennessee - they need to know who the people are who that are trying to influence their vote,” said Speaker Sexton.

As amended, the bill proposes several reforms to the state’s existing campaign finance laws. Tax exempt organizations that spend $5,000 or more within a 60-day window of an election would be required to disclose their total expenditures.

The bill also requires a 501 (c) (4) that spends a minimum $5,000 for campaign materials or communications naming or showing the likeness of a candidate within 60 days of an election to be treated as a political action committee for the purpose of reporting expenditures.

The legislation enhances interim reporting for candidates and PACs of contributions and expenditures received 10 days before an election. One of the most important changes, is that the bill would extend civil penalty joint liability to candidates controlling or serving as officers of PACs. It would prohibit PAC funds from being used to pay assessed penalties on those PACs. Information about House Bill 1201 can be found here.

Other key reforms in House Bill 1201 include:

  • Requires candidates and PACS to keep campaign funds separate from other funds including personal funds.

  • Adds two nonpartisan members to the Registry of Election Finance from the Advisory Committee on Open Government, updates Registry appointments guidelines and adds restrictions to Registry and Ethics Commission members and spouses

  • Requires legislators to keep detailed contributions and expense documents for audits

  • Adds members of the governor’s cabinet to the list of people who can’t be paid for consulting services

  • Clarifies that state trial court judges file annual statement of interest disclosures with the Ethics Commission

  • Requires annual statements of interest disclosures to be signed under penalty of perjury

Legislation allows for safer surrender of newborns in Tennessee

The House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation Thursday to increase options for the safe surrender of newborn children in Tennessee.

House Bill 1301 expands the Tennessee Safe Haven law to allow for the installation of Safe Haven Baby Boxes at police and fire stations in the state. First passed in 2001, Tennessee’s existing safe haven law allows mothers in certain cases to surrender their newborns to designated facilities without fear of being prosecuted.

Within the last 18 months there have been five baby abandonments statewide, according to bill sponsor State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville. Two of those children died. The lack of anonymity in existing laws is believed to have led the children to be abandoned in places like a dumpster, the banks of a river and a front porch.

“This piece of legislation will save lives,” Zachary told members of the House Children and Family Affairs Subcommittee last month. “When a mother opens the box, an alarm goes off on the inside (of the facility) to let them know the box has been opened. When the mother closes the box, it automatically locks the box, an alarm goes off, 911 is called and the baby is immediately picked up.”

In order to be surrendered, the newborn must be 14 days old or younger, unharmed and voluntarily left by a person who purports to be the child’s mother and does not express an intention of returning for the infant, according to the legislation.

An individual who retrieves a surrendered infant must immediately arrange for the child to be taken to the nearest hospital emergency room. The hospital must immediately notify the Department of Children’s Services that the newborn is at the hospital. Upon notification, the department shall immediately assume care, custody and control of the child.

Instillation of the Safe Haven Baby Boxes would be paid for using private donations and not state funds, according to Zachary. The first one is expected to be installed in Knoxville.

House Bill 1301, which was approved by the Senate chamber last month, will now go to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law. Information about the legislation can be found here.

Bill allows for partial reimbursement of handgun safety course

Legislation that would partially cover the cost of handgun safety courses in Tennessee advanced out of the House Government Operations Committee on Monday.

House Bill 2850 would allow for the Department of Safety (DOS) to pay a reimbursement of up to $30 for each individual who completes an approved handgun safety course for the first time. Funding would come from application and processing fees DOS receives for enhanced handgun carry permits.

“We realize that gun safety courses are important and there are certainly people who need it,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Sabi Kumar, R-Springfield. “This bill… will encourage people to take gun safety courses.”

According to the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee, the number of reimbursements is estimated to be 31,850 annually.

The purchase of a gun or registration for a carry permit would not be required in order to receive the reimbursement, Kumar added.

The legislation will now go to the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee for additional discussion. More information about House Bill 2850 can be found here.

Criminal Justice Committee advances bill regulating on Delta-8 products

The House Criminal Justice Committee advanced legislation this week that would regulate products containing high levels of the drug tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and how they are labeled and sold in Tennessee.

House Bill 1927 prohibits any person from knowingly selling or distributing a product containing a hemp-derived cannabinoid to a person under 21. It further prohibits a person under 21 from possessing, purchasing or accepting a product containing a hemp-derived cannabinoid.

Despite the high THC concentration and a health advisory warning from the FDA, Delta-8 is currently a legal substance in the state. It is often sold and packaged in the form of candy or gummies.

This bill aims to protect consumers from a drug that has resulted in more than 2,300 calls to poison control centers for adverse reactions. The Tennessee Poison Control Center reported 115 calls from people who overdosed on Delta-8 products in 2021, approximately 32 of the calls involved children under 5-years-old.

“There are currently no regulations. There is no legitimate way for consumers to know exactly what they are buying,” said bill sponsor Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, to members of the Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday. “A 7-year old can walk into a gas station or retail store right now and buy a package of high THC (product) and consume that. I would hope no one would sell that to a child, but there is nothing in the law that would prohibit that.”

House Bill 1927 also creates a 5 percent retail tax on the sale of products containing hemp-derived cannabinoids, effective Jan. 1, 2023. The bill is expected to be considered by House Government Operations Committee on April 18. Information about House Bill 1927 can be found here.

State Parks Funding Act maximizes Tennessee’s investment in parks

The House chamber this week unanimously passed legislation ensuring Tennessee State Parks will be able efficiently save and plan for maintenance projects as well as the replacement of equipment at hospitality facilities in perpetuity.

House Bill 2168 establishes the State Parks Hospitality Maintenance and Improvement Fund. The bill allows the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to self-fund rather than requesting regular allocations from the general fund for routine maintenance, replacement of furniture, fixtures and equipment as well as regular renovation.

The bill requires at least 2 percent of the gross revenue created by park facilities to be deposited into the fund to be used for maintenance expenses each year.

In all, Tennessee’s 56 state parks include 200,000 acres of public lands that are visited by more than 30 million people each year. State parks have a $2.1 billion total economic impact on the state economy. Twenty-four of the state’s parks are located in distressed or at-risk counties that depend on the parks to drive taxpayer dollars to those communities.

Having a designated funding source for Tennessee’s park system will serve to better maintain and modernize the parks so they may continue to provide healthy, educational and inspirational opportunities for future generations. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature. For information about House Bill 2168 visit here.

Legislation creates Institute of American Civics at University of Tennessee

The General Assembly this week passed legislation creating the Institute for American Civics at the University of Tennessee in. House Bill 2157 aims to create greater understanding of the principles and philosophies that contributed to the founding of Tennessee and the United States.

Gov. Bill Lee announced his plan for the institute as part of his budget proposal during his State of the State address on Jan. 31. Informed patriotism should stretch beyond the K-12 classroom and into higher education, the governor told members of the General Assembly. It will be located within the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

Foreign powers have sought to influence students at American universities in recent decades. Confucius Institutes, which have ties to Communist regimes and backed by the Chinese government, were established at the University of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University and University of Memphis. All have since been phased out. The Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation in 2021 banning Confucius Institutes. The bill heads to the governor’s desk for his signature. More about House Bill 2157 can be found here.

Bill addresses antisemitism on school campuses

This week, the House passed legislation that aims to make it easier to identify and investigate allegations of antisemitism on school campuses in Tennessee.

As amended, House Bill 2673 requires a state governmental entity or a local education agency (LEA) to take into consideration the working definition of antisemitism as adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance when investigating a complaint alleging antisemitism occurred on a public school or college campus.

“This bill… gives LEAs or other higher learning institutions a guideline as to what is an antisemitic act,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station. “It’s not intended in any way to limit complaints. It’s basically to bring to light what actually is an act of antisemitism.”

The bill clarifies it is not intended to infringe on free speech nor restrict teachings or the discussion of the history of Jews, Judaism, or the state of Israel. Information about House Bill 2673 can be found here.

General Assembly bans abortion advocacy in public schools

The General Assembly this week passed legislation intended to prevent abortion advocacy in Tennessee public schools.House Bill 2557 sponsored by State Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, prohibits local school districts or public charter schools teaching family life from knowingly entering into an agreement with a person or entity that performs abortions, induces abortions, provides abortion referrals, or provides funding, advocacy or other support for abortions. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature. Information about House Bill 2557 can be found here.

Committee advances bill to ensure SNAP work requirement oversight advances

Legislation ensuring oversight related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) advanced out of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

House Bill 2096 prohibits the Department of Human Services (DHS) from providing discretionary exemptions to SNAP work requirements for certain individuals. It also requires DHS to submit an annual report to the General Assembly detailing the instances in which a waiver of, or exemption to, work requirements were sought, applied for, accepted, or renewed by the department.

“This puts into (state law) primarily what the department is doing now,” bill sponsor Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, told members of the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on April 6. “If someone goes on temporary assistance, the goal is to get them out of the situation they are in and back on their feet. The best way to do that, if they are able bodied, is to make sure they get work training or they get a job.”

SNAP, formerly referred to as food stamps, is a U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional assistance initiative that is managed by DHS in Tennessee. The program provides qualifying households with a grocery stipend for a set length of time so that recipients can focus on work, training and/or higher education instead of worrying about where their next meal will come from. Eligibility and SNAP application information can be found on the DHS website.

House Bill 2096 is expected to be voted on by the House chamber on Monday, April 18. Information about the legislation can be found here.

General Assembly strengthens unlawful photography law

The House chamber this week approved legislation that expands the definition and punishment of unlawful photography in Tennessee. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.

House Bill 2459 clarifies that unlawful photography includes taking photos or recordings of unclothed intimate areas of a person’s body for the purpose of offending, intimidating, embarrassing or harassing them or for personal sexual arousal or gratification.

The bill clarifies that when an offender uses images for sexual gratification they will be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, a penalty that carries a possible sentence of 11 months, 29 days in jail and $2,500 fine. The proposal adds a Class B misdemeanor offense when an image is used for offending, intimidating, embarrassing or harassing a person. That crime carries a penalty of six months and a $500 fine.

State Rep. Iris Rudder, R-Winchester, introduced the bill after a teenager in Franklin County was secretly recorded by another student while undressed in a bathroom stall at school. The student shared the video on social media, but could not be criminally charged under current statute. For information about House Bill 2459, visit here.

Revising teacher evaluation criteria

Legislation requiring greater consideration of student achievement in teacher evaluations now heads to Gov. Bill Lee for his signature. House Bill 2116, sponsored by State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, increases from 50 to 60 percent the amount that student achievement data can contribute toward an educator’s final annual evaluation score. It also increases from 15 to 25 percent the amount that other approved measures of student achievement to more adequately measure student proficiency. Information about House Bill 2116 can be found here.

Increasing penalties for boating under the influence

Legislation that increases penalties for boating under the influence now heads to the governor’s desk for approval. House Bill 2270, sponsored by State Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, enacted “Nicholas Law,” which makes a boating under the influence conviction equal to that of driving under the influence for the purpose of determining whether the offender is a repeat offender. In other words, if someone is convicted of boating under the influence and is later convicted of driving under the influence, they could be punished the same as if they were guilty of two DUIs. Information about House Bill 2270 can be found here.

Limiting potential disruptions at polling places

House Bill 1914 would allow county election commissions in Tennessee to adopt a policy for credentialing members of the press to enter a polling place while voting is underway. According to state law, only election officials, voters, individuals properly assisting voters, the press, poll watchers and others with written authorization from the county election commission are allowed inside a polling place that is in use. House Bill 1914 would not change those rules. The legislation is expected to be voted on by the House chamber on Monday, April 18. Information about House Bill 1914 can be found here.

Restitution for children of victims of DUI offenders

Legislation that provides restitution for minor children when a parent is killed by a drunk driver now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature. House Bill 1834 requires the convicted offender to pay restitution in the form of child maintenance to each of the victim’s children until each child reaches 18 years of age and has graduated from high school. Sponsored by State Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, the bill requires the court to determine a reasonable payment after considering factors including the financial needs of the child and the financial needs of the surviving parent, among other criteria. Information about House Bill 1834 can be found here.


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 Connect with Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Representative Keisling serves as Chairman of the State Government Committee and Vice Chairman of the Joint Fiscal Review Committee. He also serves as a member of the Calendar and Rules Committee, Transportation Committee, Corrections Subcommittee, Departments and Agencies Subcommittee, and Public Service Subcommittee.


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