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Tennessee’s tumultuous legislative session concludes after final flurry of action on education, guns and spending

Protesters unveiled a banner from the House gallery on the last day of session.
Blaise Gainey
Protesters unveiled a banner from the House gallery on the last day of session.

State lawmakers wrapped the 2024 session up Thursday night, having passed two of the biggest bills in the last week.

Major business tax cut

One of the largest budget items to pass was done so hours before lawmakers adjourned. It’s a $1.5 billion piece of legislation that allows businesses to apply for a rebate on property taxes paid over the last three years. Moving forward, instead of paying property taxes, business will pay a tax based on their income. The change reforms the state’s nearly century-old franchise tax system.

Lawmakers from both parties were upset with the idea throughout the entire session.

Many questioned if they could just fix the system and not give rebates. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, was one of them.

“We don’t owe those companies anything. They operated under the laws of Tennessee,” Clemmons said.

He proposed a plan that would give tax credits to companies instead of doling out more than a billion dollars. It was voted down.

As it passed on the House floor, Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, responded to claims that the state was giving away the money by saying it “doesn’t belong to the state.”

The plan lawmakers came up with in the end allows businesses that have been paying property tax to seek rebates from the state for the last three years. If they accept the rebate, they will not be allowed to sue the state over the current system, and will have their business publicly displayed on a state website for 30 days.

Education scholarships

Ahead of session, Gov. Bill Lee announced he wanted to set up a universal school choice system that would give parents scholarships for their children that attend private schools. The idea was instantly met with public backlash over the idea that the state would spend money to send kids to private schools.

Lee wanted up to 20,000 vouchers given out at the amount of $7,075 each. Both chambers immediately started off far apart on their proposals. The House tacked on a bunch of other proposals in their bill — Democratic lawmakers believe to try to win a favorable vote by those who opposed a standalone private school voucher bill. The Senate, however, stuck very close to what the governor asked for. In the end, Lee called the attempt quits after months of negotiations didn’t help the chambers see eye-to-eye.

Arming teachers

Possibly one of the most controversial bills of the year passed in the last week of session. It will allow teachers and school staff to carry firearms.

Sponsor Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, believes the measure is much better than other states that already allow faculty to have guns because of the requirements: those who want to carry would have to have a psychological exam done and complete 40 hours of law-enforcement-approved firearm training.

But Democratic lawmakers, parents and students all came out to tell the legislature in many ways that they didn’t want guns in their schools. Leading up to the vote, several protests were held and petitions signed to have lawmakers call off the idea. Ultimately, they were ignored, as both chambers passed the bill and sent it along to the governor’s desk.

What’s next?

Lawmakers will be going back to their districts. Many of them to campaign — with elections coming up this year for several seats.

As for the governor, it’s likely he’ll be taking time trying to figure out how to get more elected officials to support his voucher bill for next session. Along with that, he’ll be busy signing several bills that have not yet reached his desk.

Blaise Gainey is a Political Reporter for WPLN News. He is the youngest of three siblings, husband and father of two. He previously held the State Government Reporter position for WFSU News in Tallahassee. He is from Apopka, Fla., and graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He previously worked for The Florida Channel and WTXL-TV. He is excited to move to another capital and report on state government. In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, outdoor activities and enjoying family time.
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