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Tennessee Legislature Adjourns After Passing A Final Flurry Of Bills

Stephen Jerkins

Tennessee’s General Assembly passed several last-minute measures on Wednesday night before adjourning for the year. The measures touch high-interest subjects, including unemployment, constitutional challenges to state laws and the lessons taught in public schools.

The legislature’s final acts of the year included:

  • slashing the number of weeks that unemployed Tennesseans can receive benefits;
  • banning some concepts of racism from being taught in schools, and;
  • altering how constitutional challenges to state laws are handled in the courts.

Lawmakers completed their work in just over four months. They passed a $42 billion state spending plan that gives residents a one-week sales tax holiday while pouring surplus tax dollars into capital projects and the state’s retirement system.
More: Read an Associated Press roundup of the legislative session.

The session was also marked by what Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called “conservative wins.” Tennessee will allow most adults to carry handguns without training or background checks. Lawmakers will mandate that medical providers cremate or bury fetal remains from surgical abortions. Legislators were also successful in pushing through a Medicaid block grant in the first days of session.

The Republican supermajority pushed through many measures that restrict people who are transgender, especially transgender youth. Transgender athletes in high school will be required to play on sports teams with their sex assigned at birth. In Tennessee schools, students and teachers will be allowed to refuse to share restrooms with their transgender peers.

Legislators also slightly adjusted the amount of THC allowed in cannabis oil, an incremental change that stops short of broader medical marijuana legislation.

Unemployment reduced

On unemployment, lawmakers have more than cut in half the amount of time that an unemployed person can get help from the state.

The change comes after a year of record unemployment, and when some at the capitol claimed people were staying unemployed on purpose so that they could claim the insurance.

The bill would reduce the current 26-week benefit period to 12 weeks, and tie the period to the unemployment rate. Benefits would last 12 weeks as long as the unemployment rate stays below 5.5%. The period would extend and max out at 20 weeks as unemployment rises.

The maximum payout, meanwhile, will rise from $275 to 325 per week.

Backers say it’s a way to incentivize Tennesseans to re-enter the workforce. But opponents believe it will only make people drop out of the labor force altogether. If signed by the governor, the measure will make Tennessee’s unemployment payout period among the lowest in the nation.

Courts altered

One of the final compromises of session deals with the courts, and how lawsuits making constitutionality claims are handled. The House and Senate had settled on different approaches that forced a reconciliation on Wednesday night.

If signed by the governor, the new approach would move challenges to state laws out of the hands of Davidson County judges, who have long handled such matters.

The new method, to start in July, would allow constitutional challenges to be filed anywhere in the state. When they are, the local judge will be joined by two other judges from Tennessee’s other grand divisions — they’d be chosen by the state Supreme Court — to review the case.

Curriculum mandate

A late-developing bill — detailed here by WPLN — passed to ban public schools from teaching about privilege and racial inequality.

The measure aims to prohibit the teaching of “critical race theory,” which asserts that racism is systemic. Republican supporters of the legislation argued that teaching issues related to race should be balanced and impartial, arguing both the good and the bad from the nation’s history. But Black Democratic lawmakers pushed back, asking how teachers are supposed to present both sides of slavery.

Memphis Democrat Antonio Parkinson tells CNN the bill is an attempt to whitewash history for Tennessee students.

If teachers teach that racism is deeply engrained in United States systems for the benefit of white people, their school or district could lose state funding. The bill now heads to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk.

Tony Gonzalez, a reporter in Nashville since July 2011, covers city news, features inspiring people, and seeks out offbeat stories. He’s also an award-winning juggler and hot chicken advocate who lives in East Nashville with his wife, a professional bookbinder. During his time at The Tennessean newspaper, his investigative reporting and feature stories were honored in the state and nationally. Gonzalez grew up near Chicago and came to Nashville after three years reporting and editing at Virginia's smallest daily newspaper, The News Virginian.
Alexis Marshall is the 2018 fall reporting intern at Nashville Public Radio. She is a senior at Middle Tennessee State University.
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