2010 Legislative Session Roundup: Tennessee

Tennessee’s much-publicized educational reforms overshadowed the fact that the state’s policy decisions during the 2010 legislative session took a sharp rightward turn.  Immigration and abortion were big targets, but public health and safety were also negatively affected by legislation that defied common sense. 

Tennessee’s $29.9 billion budget represented an overall decrease of 0.3 percent from FY 2009-10, even as it depleted $245 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.  The budget protected $3.8 billion in Pre-K-12 education funding and provided nearly $20 million in tax relief on the purchase of furniture, appliances or building materials for victims recovering from disastrous floods.  It also included $22.3 million in state dollars for a West Tennessee mega site, a future home for companies and a potential economic engine for a part of the state struggling with some of the worst unemployment in the region.

Education:  Two landmark bills were signed into law during Tennessee’s special session.

The union-backed “Tennessee First to the Top Act of 2010” helped the state win $500 million in the federal Race to the Top educational grant competition.  Though annual evaluations of teachers and principals were a major sticking point, a compromise allows student growth data to count for 35% of an evaluation and while another 15% is based on other student performance information.  Other provisions of the bill include that:

  • The state can contract private entities or nonprofits to operate failing schools;
  • A 15-member teacher evaluation advisory committee will recommend guidelines and criteria to the State Board of Education, and;
  • An amendment that also passed creates the Teacher Professional Development Fund, dedicated funding for teacher training that is the first of its kind in the state.

The Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 creates a new funding formula for public colleges and universities that is based on student success rather than enrollment.  It also creates a statewide transfer policy to allow students who graduate from two-year community colleges to move on to four-year universities as a junior. 

Energy:  Federal energy assistance to low-income families was expanded through SB 3870/HB 3804, which raised the ceiling for eligibility.

Sentencing Guidelines:  Under the new law, armed robbers would be forced to serve at least 74% of the minimum 8-year sentence, raising the minimum prison time to nearly six years.  The measure pays for itself by removing mandatory prison time for first-time offenders who commit one of 19 nonviolent felonies, including passing forged checks or shoplifting merchandise worth less than $1,000.

Campaign Finance Reform:  In response to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, the legislature approved the bipartisan SB 3198/HB 3182, which would make corporations play by the same rules as political action committees and require public disclosure of political donations for independent expenditures.

Defeating Anti-Immigrant Legislation:  An effort to eliminate translations of the written driving exam was defeated in the House Budget Subcommittee.  Over thirty-five other anti-immigrant bills were defeated in the Tennessee this year.

Defeating Anti-Health Care Reform Legislation:  Though it breezed through the Senate, a House subcommittee killed the Tennessee Health Freedom Act, which would have blocked implementation of the federal health care reform law and directed the state attorney general to file a lawsuit against it. 

Bills that Died in Committee:

  • Fair Taxation:  SB 1741/HB 1947 would have required out-of-state corporations that are not required to collect Tennessee sales tax to report annually the amount of their customers’ purchases to the customer and to the state Dept. of Revenue. 
  • Seniors:  A bill that would create a Department of Aging failed by one vote in a Senate committee – supported by senior groups and disability groups, it followed the recommendations of an administration study as the first step toward consolidating programs for seniors. 
  • Predatory Lending:  A bevy of legislation designed to protect consumers from predatory lenders died in committee:
    • HB 3111/SB 3104 would have capped payday loan rates at 100% APR;
    • HB 3112/SB 3103 sought to prohibit Internet payday lending, regardless of whether the lender is located inside or outside Tennessee, and;
    • HB 3113/SB 3102 requires the state to impose a fee of $2,500 on each payday lending location, which would go toward a special financial literacy trust fund.
  • Coal Mining:  The Scenic Vistas Protection Act, backed by every major Christian denomination in the state, would have banned mountaintop mining.
  • Proof of Citizenship:  A bill requiring voter applicants to prove their citizenship status passed both chambers but died in conference committee.

Steps Backward:

  • Voting Rights:  SB 440/HB 0960 disenfranchises voters by requiring felons to pay all their fines and court costs before getting their voting rights restored.  After a lengthy debate in the House, the bill passed on a vote of 69-23, while the Senate unanimously voted in favor of the bill.  The legislation was signed into law in June.  A two-year delay on the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act also passed, which requires paper ballots and precinct-based ballot scanning machines.
  • Privatization:  The School Board’s budget included a proposal to outsource the jobs of nearly 700 custodians and groundskeepers to a private company called GCA Services.  On July 1, the new policy took effect – though 451 former school workers have cleared background checks to work for GCA, there’s no firm number on how many have actually been hired.
  • Abortion:  Both chambers approved a measure banning insurers from offering abortion coverage.  But legislators didn’t stop there:
    • Legislators also approved SJR 127, which would remove the right to abortion found in  the Tennessee Constitution by the state Supreme Court.  Before going to the 2014 ballot for voters to ultimately decide, it must first pass each chamber in the next two-year General Assembly by 2/3 vote.
    • SB 3812/HB 3301 would levy a fine of $2,500 per day against any facility performing abortions that doesn’t post signs declaring it illegal to force a woman into terminating a pregnancy.  Additionally, physicians would be fined $1,000 per day whenever he/she conducts an abortion and the signs are not posted. 
  • Guns in Bars:  The Governor vetoed a bill that would allow handgun-carry-permit holders to take guns into places serving alcohol, including restaurants, museums, zoos, and other entities with liquor licenses/beer permits.  However, both chambers overrode the Governor’s veto.
  • Nutrition:  Both chambers passed legislation blocking local health boards from requiring restaurants to put nutritional information on their menus.
  • Immigration:  Despite holding the line and preventing over 35 anti-immigrant bills from passing, a few still slipped through.
    • Both chambers passed a resolution commending Arizona for their passage of draconian SB 1070. 
    • An English-Only in the Workplace bill was modified at the last minute, disregarding work done in conjunction with pro-immigrant groups.
    • Despite outcry from groups like the ACLU, the Bishop Diocese of Knoxville, and the Tennessee NAACP, a bill was signed into law that would require jailers in the state to verify the immigration status of every person detained.  Jailers are now required to determine whether someone is in compliance with complex, federal immigration laws, despite no specialized training, funding, oversight, or access to federal immigration databases. 

Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus - Tennessee Values Mark Senate Democrats’ Work in 2010 Session
TN Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition
Tennesseans for Fair Taxation
SEIU Local 205
Tennessee Citizen Action
ACLU of Tennessee
Common Cause Tennessee
Coalition for Responsible Lending in Tennessee
The Commercial Appeal - Legislative Winners, Losers as Tennessee’s Session Ends
Chattanooga Times Free Press - Tennessee Legislative Politics Veer Right