One week after approving a $42.6 billion annual spending plan, the Tennessee General Assembly on Wednesday wrapped up the rest of its legislative business for the year by passing bills dealing with medical marijuana, constitutional challenges to state statutes, unemployment benefits and the way Tennessee schools teach lessons on racism.
It was a cap on what Gov. Bill Lee called a “very successful legislative session [with] a very bold agenda,” in which lawmakers passed bills cutting the number of weeks Tennesseans can draw unemployment benefits, giving college athletes permission to make money from endorsements, forcing transgender kids to participate in sports based on the gender listed on their birth certificate, giving Tennesseans the right to carry handguns without a permit, requiring women seeking an abortion to be offered the choice of burying or cremating fetal remains and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s rainy day fund, pension fund and a new mental health trust fund whose annual returns will be used to support programs for kids.
“It was bold and ambitious,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) said.
• On criminal justice, which Lee said is an issue “very near and dear to my heart,” the legislature passed several bills with widespread support among both parties, including efforts to expand expungement opportunities and offer more chances at redemption for nonviolent offenders. But critics of the overall effort describe it as a case of one step forward and two steps back since the state will also spend an estimated tens of millions of dollars more annually on incarceration under this year’s legislative package, even as Lee and Johnson said a goal of the push was to leave fewer people in prison.
But one effort at enhancing criminal penalties failed this week, as the Senate sponsor deferred consideration of a measure — which easily passed in the House — that would have increased penalties on people, such as racial justice protesters last summer, who block roadways and sidewalks while adding a new penalty for people deemed to be part of a riot who intimidate someone deemed not part of the riot and giving immunity to drivers who unintentionally hit people in a roadway.
On Wednesday, the most-watched debates centered around medical marijuana, remaking parts of the state’s judicial system and cracking down on a nebulous concept related to racism that Republicans argued is infiltrating Tennessee schools.
• On marijuana, the legislature passed its most expansive medical cannabis bill yet, but it still left proponents wanting. The bill, which Lee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally both said they could stomach after long opposing medical marijuana, will allow Tennesseans with a handful of illnesses to obtain 0.9-percent THC oil from other states. The compromise bill limited the potency of marijuana patients are allowed to possess while also stripping PTSD from the list of qualifying illnesses.
Critics had several concerns. The simplest, and perhaps least common, was that no one should have marijuana for any purpose. Others said the bill didn’t go far enough, or excluded Tennessee farmers from the lucrative industry, or forced patients to cross state lines to obtain the medicine.
• A session-long effort to remake parts of the state judiciary led to last-minute deal-making and an entirely new idea that pieced together various failed proposals and sprinkled in some new concepts. The overall goal, as stated by bill sponsors and legislative leaders, is to knock Davidson County off its place of prominence in the judiciary — most legal challenges to Tennessee statutes are filed in the capital city’s courts, where judges are elected by a mostly Democratic populace. And those judges have stymied Tennessee Republicans in recent years, especially when a Nashville chancellor found Lee and Republican lawmakers’ 2019 private-school voucher plan unconstitutional. (They’ve also frequently voted in the state’s favor.)
Though those decisions can and often are appealed to the Republican-dominated appeals and supreme courts, state lawmakers sought to make the first step in the process a little easier. The result of the sausage-making was a Frankenstein’s monster of several other proposals. Now, instead of a litigant challenging state law in Nashville’s court system, they would file in their home county. And instead of a Nashville judge hearing that trial, a panel of three judges — picked from each Grand Division by the Supreme Court — would hear the trial. When a litigant hails from out of state, the case would be filed in Sumner County rather than the capital because, Senate Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville) said, “why not?” or, alternatively, “that’s where the House wanted it to be,” a reference to Sumner County Rep. Johnny Garrett, who pushed the Sumner County move.
For days, the House and Senate could not agree on how to handle the new system. The House planned a “court of special appeals,” which would only have appellate jurisdiction in most constitutional challenges, while the Senate pushed a “super chancery court” similar to the proposal that passed but with standing judges elected statewide rather than ones pulled from judicial districts around the state on an as-needed basis. Originally, the new court was going to cost $2 million annually; the amended effort supposedly won’t cost much of anything.
The bill was thrown together at the last minute. Even the governor said he hadn’t seen it, and consideration was delayed after the hastily constructed bill was found to have a significant typo. “We shouldn’t remake how the judiciary works with two hours left in session,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) said. “It’s a crazy thing to do.” Bell said the compromise was “better than what either body passed” and would allow for judicial interpretations that “more closely reflect the judicial philosophy of the judges all over the state,” as opposed to just in Nashville.
• On a separate but related matter, the House and Senate jointly weakened a bill that would have both barred local governments from using taxpayer resources to sue the state and would have given the state automatic relief from injunctions placed on a state action by a trial court. Both of those measures were pulled from the bill Wednesday, and the chambers agreed on a bill that would give the state the right to automatically appeal a preliminary injunction even before a trial has concluded.
• On unemployment, the House and Senate were mostly in lockstep throughout, with Republicans in the supermajority agreeing that it was necessary to cut unemployment eligibility down from the current 26 weeks to a range of between 12 and 20 weeks, while boosting weekly payouts, which run as low as $275, by between $25 and $50. The goal, backers said, was to help employers who can’t find workers. Supporters of the legislation said that workers weren’t going back to work because of government unemployment payouts, though their evidence for the connection was almost exclusively anecdotal. Additionally, the measure will not go into effect until the end of 2023.
• The House and Senate spent much of their final day in Nashville wading into a complicated, vague debate over so-called critical race theory, which Republicans warn is infesting public schools — again, largely anecdotal. The chambers agreed to ban various ideas from Tennessee’s K-12 public schools. Sen. Page Walley of Bolivar was among the only Republicans to express skepticism over the push, part of a national Republican messaging effort on the issue, which seemingly stemmed from a bad experience Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey had as a law student at Georgetown University two decades ago.
“Let’s tell the rest of history that hasn’t been told,” Walley said. “We’ve got to be very careful to not do anything that will in any way discourage folks from telling our stories.”