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2021 Legislative Preview

Alyssa Hansen
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Almost nine months ago to the day, the Tennessee General Assembly temporarily recessed until at least June 1st as the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread throughout the state. One resumed regular session, one special session, and one ongoing health crisis later, we are preparing for the start of the 112th Tennessee General Assembly next month. Many details of what that will look like, however, are yet to be finalized. Access to the public will likely be severely limited (if there is any at all), which means that the bulk of the labor movement's legislative work will likely be done from a distance to protect everyone's health and safety as much as possible. Once those details are finalized, we will send out a notice to let you know. Over the course of the next few weeks and especially after the holidays, we'll be sharing ways that you can get involved and help working families throughout the state once legislators reconvene in Nashville (especially as it relates to the Right to Work constitutional amendment, which you can read more about below). For a recap of where things ended in June and a reminder of lawmakers' out-of-touch policy wish list from August, please visit the "Legislative Updates" section of our website to read any and all of our updates from this past year. 

Now, we look ahead. The legislature is scheduled to reconvene at noon on Tuesday, January 12th, 2021. Because 2020 was an election year, the legislature will go into recess for two weeks after the opening week of session for reorganization. This is the period where legislators move offices (if necessary), committee assignments are made, and other organizational details are ironed out. Bills should tentatively begin moving on or around February 1st. Leading up to and during that time, we'll be reading through any and all filed bills to begin tracking the good, the bad, and everything in between. Our weekly legislative updates will likely start in late January and will be posted on our website. However, these may need to start sooner in light of calls to action and other important items. 

We've listed the changes that have occurred in the General Assembly since the election, as well as what bills or issues we know we will see or expect to see again. Remember, this is not a final or complete list, just a summary of some of the major issues that we will likely face. If you have questions about any of the information listed below, please don't hesitate to contact our office.

House vs. Senate

Post-election, there have been a couple of changes in both chambers. Overall, however, the numbers have barely shifted and unfortunately not in our favor. Republicans still hold overwhelming supermajorities in both chambers, making it more difficult to proactively push legislation that helps working families or stop bad pieces of legislation as early as possible. 

Newly-elected Senator Heidi Campbell's win over incumbent Senator Steve Dickerson in Senate District 20 means that the Tennessee Senate is now made up of 27 Republicans and 6 Democrats. In the House, Republicans hold 73 seats and Democrats hold 26 seats. Labor-endorsed candidate Torrey Harris defeated incumbent Representative John DeBerry in House District 90. Because DeBerry ran as an Independent after previously serving as a Democratic representative (at least on paper), newly-elected Representative Harris's win didn't change the overall numbers. 

In terms of leadership, Cameron Sexton is still Speaker of the House. Representative William Lamberth is House Majority Leader, while Representative Jeremy Faison is Caucus Chairman. The Democrats will be led by Representative Karen Camper and Representative Vincent Dixie. In the upper chamber, Senator Randy McNally will continue serving as the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Senate.

Legislators won't be assigned to committees until after January 12th. This is one of the most important pieces of our work, because having labor-friendly legislators on committees that we deal with frequently can be the difference between stopping a bad bill or having a good bill move forward. Once committees have been assigned, we will send out a notice to all of you. Some of the many committees that we deal with consistently include the House Consumer & Human Resources Committee (and its two subcommittees) and the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee. 

Filed & Potentially Soon-to-be-Filed Legislation

These are some of the issues/bills that we've either dealt with or have anticipated encountering during recent legislative sessions. Given Republicans' dominance in both chambers, we expect to see a handful of bad piece of legislation aimed at workers and/or the labor movement. Remember, this is just a partial list of things that we expect to see next month. 

  1. Right to Work Constitutional Amendment. Senator Brian Kelsey didn't waste any time refiling legislation that would enshrine Tennessee's Right to Work law in the state constitution. This year, it will be known as SJR 2.Please note that this is a different bill number than we dealt with this year. We are now preparing to enter Phase 2 of our fight against this amendment. Unlike this year where it passed by a simple majority, the amendment must pass both chambers by a 2/3 majority this time. This is more difficult but still doable with a Republican supermajority. 

    Something else that's important to note: Senator Kelsey could choose to run the amendment in 2021 or 2022, especially if it looks like he is having trouble gaining support for it this time around. If necessary, Phase 3 of our fight would be having this question go before voters in 2022. We will be communicating important information about legislators we need all of you to contact and other action steps that you can take to help defeat this dangerous amendment. We'll also be sharing a social media toolkit that's currently in production which will include messaging guidance, social media graphics, sample letters to the editor, and more. Finally, our website will feature a special section dedicated solely to this issue. While we don't know exactly what other curveballs may be coming our way, this is currently our biggest fight for the upcoming legislative session.
  2. Save Tennessee Call Center Jobs Act. This bill would enact the "Save Tennessee Call Center Jobs Act," the main goal of which is to stop companies from sending jobs overseas and keeping jobs in Tennessee. 

  3. Almost any issue related to COVID-19. From even more liability protections for businesses, to help for front line workers or those in industries with a higher likelihood of contracting COVID (restaurant workers, etc.) from employers who might be forcing them to return to work, many of the good and bad bills we'll likely see will deal with COVID-19. Legislators have also floated the idea of limiting a future governor's powers during a state of emergency and restricting what the state's six largest health departments can or cannot do.