2020 Legislative Wrap-Up, Part 2

Shortly after 3:00 a.m., the members of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly finally adjourned sine die. This marks the conclusion of this year's legislative session, which had no shortage of good, bad, and ugly (mostly the latter two) moments from start to finish. 
 
Before we get into what happened to the major pieces of legislation that we've been watching since January and over the past several weeks, we wanted to highlight what went on last night while most of you were sleeping. You've likely already read about it from multiple news outlets, but we'll recap it briefly for you here as well. After claiming multiple times that it would only hear legislation that was time-sensitive, dealing with the budget, or specifically related to COVID-19, the Senate went back on its word late last night and chose to use women's health as a bargaining chip to get what it wanted from the House in the approved budget. These are the kind of disgusting, closed-door games that the Republican supermajority feels entitled to play with the lives of Tennesseans just to advance their extreme agendas that do absolutely nothing to help working families. If you begin to think for one second that the GOP clique truly cares about their constituents who sent them to Nashville, think again.  
 
The news was hardly any better when comes to the final version of the state budget. Teachers will no longer receive their previously-promised bonuses after their initial proposed pay raises fell victim to the spending cuts chopping block, but funds for Governor Lee's currently-being-challenged-in-court school voucher plan remain. Wealthy Tennesseans will no longer pay the Hall Income Tax on stock dividends. While this has been gradually phased out over the past couple of years, it is yet another break for those at the top. For a more in-depth look at the ins and outs of the final budget, click here.
 
Below, we've highlighted what happened to the major pieces of legislation that have been on our radar (some since January and some just within the past couple of weeks). While we were actually able to score a couple of victories (the COVID-19 liability bill that protected businesses died after the conference committee report was rejected and multiple legislators expressed doubts about the law's constitutionality), we unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) saw SJR 648 (aka The "Kelsey Amendment") clear its first of three hurdles on Wednesday evening. As we noted last week, our state elections this year are incredibly important. If we want to change labor's power and influence at the Capitol, we need to elect more legislators who will actually stand up for working families. Once again, keep in mind that Republicans currently hold supermajorities in both chambers; there is not much that our allies are able to do, even when they fight as hard as they can for us. Complaining will not change things, but elections can. Even if we are able to flip just a handful of seats, that is a small (but powerful) step forward. We look forward to working with all of you this summer and fall to ensure that we start making these changes a reality. Stay tuned, because we're just getting started. 

What Happened to Our Most-Watched Bills?

SJR 648: As we've noted many times since January,  this is the dangerous "Kelsey Amendment," which seeks to enshrine Tennessee's Right to Work law in the state constitution. Late Wednesday evening, it passed the House on its third and final reading by a vote of 67-23. Republican Representatives Jim Coley (who is not running for re-election) and Bud Hulsey did not vote (which is essentially the same as a "no" vote for counting purposes) while Representative Mark White appeared to join the Democrats in voting against it. However, the adjusted final vote is now 68-22, meaning that he changed his vote after the fact. This is only the first of three hurdles that the resolution has to clear, so our fight is far from over.  

Status: This will need to be heard, read, and passed again by the 112th Tennessee General Assembly before it could go on the ballot in 2022. However, instead of a simple majority, SJR 648 will need a 2/3 majority in both chambers to pass next year. This is more difficult for legislators to accomplish, especially if we are able to successfully flip a handful of House seats this fall. We'll be following up over the coming months with possible additional strategy sessions and other ways that we can raise awareness about this terrible resolution. Knowledge is power, and we could potentially have a chance to stop this before it even gets on the ballot. 

House Bill 2623 (SB 2381):  This is the caption bill that carried what's known as the  "Tennessee Recovery and Safe Harbor Act," legislation championed by the NFIB and Tennessee Chamber of Commerce that has been filed in other states and protects businesses from COVID-19-related liabilities without giving any thought to workers. This legislation was retroactive (which is almost unheard of), and many legislators from both sides were concerned it being challenged in court. 

Status: Through conversations that we had with Representative John Ray Clemmons, he led the charge (especially on the House floor) to highlight how this legislation in no way protected workers or accounted for their needs. Representative Clemmons also noted how clearly unconstitutional this legislation was and that it would undoubtedly be challenged in court. In the final hours of session, the conference committee to address differences between the two chambers' versions failed, meaning that this bill died. However, with rumors of a special session being called in the near future to potentially address this bill, there is always a possibility that this could come back in some form. We will be monitoring this closely. 

House Bill 2620 (SB 2273):  While this caption bill initially aimed to increase the penalty for rioting, it quickly became a means for the Republican supermajority to target peaceful protesters who have been camping out in front of the Capitol for days. The legislation would have made "camping" on state property a felony punishable by a minimum of 30 days in jail. House Majority Leader William Lamberth has been leading the charge on this legislation.  

Status: While this bill passed the House, it did not make it out of the Senate. However, this is yet another item that we'll be watching closely in the event that lawmakers try to revive it in some form.