Extremism & wealthy special interests: A review of GOP priorities in the latest legislative session

Tennessee Senate Democrats
7 min readJun 13, 2021

NASHVILLE — The first year of the 112th General Assembly will be remembered for the controlling party’s obsession with nationally-driven culture war politics, extreme measures that threaten Tennessee’s long-term success and politics that almost always favored wealthy special interests over people who work for a living.

With a budget surplus in the billions and billions of federal aid, the General Assembly had an opportunity to make a big difference on a variety of issues that hold our families back.

The legislature could have aggressively shutdown the coronavirus to protect our health and keep businesses open, but instead advanced legislation that sowed doubt about Covid-19 vaccinations. Republicans could have used their power to meaningfully improve healthcare affordability, develop new access to child care or invest in our underfunded public schools. But those priorities and the challenges our families face were ignored.

Here’s our review of the most appalling, wasteful and destructive Republican bills that became law:

Gov. Lee, GOP abolish handgun carry licenses, background checks and gun safety training

Senate Bill 0765
Tennessee has weak gun safety laws and more people here die due to gun violence each year than almost every other state. Despite the widespread prevalence of gun-related deaths, Republicans this session gave a green light to irresponsible people who want to go armed around our families.

Under Gov. Bill Lee’s permitless carry law, nearly any person will be able to carry a handgun in public without training, without obtaining a license and without passing a background check.

Many police leaders, firearms instructors and even gun-owning Republican voters voiced strong opposition to this dangerous legislation because they know the truth: gun safety training and background checks save lives.

Anyone who refuses to take the responsibility of gun ownership seriously should not be allowed to carry a handgun in public.

Republicans cut support for people who were laid off by half

Senate Bill 1402
In the midst of a pandemic and its economic calamity, wealthy special interests made it a top priority to punish people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own — and the Republican majority delivered.

Under this new law, Tennessee’s baseline unemployment insurance period will be reduced from 26 weeks to 12 weeks — the shortest benefits period in the nation.

The law also includes a modest payment increase for recipients. But Tennessee will still have one of the lowest weekly benefits in the nation.

Almost every worker in the state pays into the unemployment insurance trust fund, but under Republicans, workers will have less access to their own money.

Bonus pain: In May, Gov. Bill Lee made matters worse for struggling families by joining the corporate special interest crusade to reject federal unemployment insurance enhancements included in the CARES Act.

The decision will cost out-of-work families $300 a week and will cost Tennessee businesses nearly a half billion dollars from lost customers.

Legislature rams through Trump-inspired Medicaid scheme

Senate Joint Resolution 25
For a decade, the Republican majority has rejected federal funding to extend TennCare health insurance to workers who are not offered health benefits through their job.

Their obstruction has increased family healthcare costs and decreased accessibility. Tennessee’s healthcare economy has lost more than $10 billion and there are closed hospitals all across our state to prove it.

Regardless of zip code, our families deserve access to affordable health coverage and reliable hospitals. But right now, one out of 10 people in the state don’t have health coverage and 75 percent of rural hospitals are on the brink of collapse.

Instead of fixing these problems, the controlling party hastily approved a law that makes Tennessee a guinea pig for Donald Trump’s experimental plan to cut state Medicaid programs. This reckless and untested scheme could jeopardize the long-term strength of TennCare and limit care for vulnerable Tennesseans.

Gov. Lee and certain politicians have said the Medicaid block grant scheme will lead to more people gaining health coverage, but that is not included in the current proposal. The director of TennCare, in January, said there was no plan to expand eligibility for TennCare.

Republicans double special interest PAC campaign contribution limit

Senate Bill 1120
The priorities of families in Tennessee have never garnered less attention from Republican lawmakers than ever before and that’s not likely to change under a new law catering to big corporations. Under Senate Bill 1120, the campaign contribution limits on businesses and special interest PACs effectively doubles.

Moving forward, a political action committee or corporation can effectively donate $25,400 to a candidate for state senate in an election cycle, while an individual can donate only $3,200 (if they can afford it).

Controlling party attacks judicial independence

Senate Bill 868
Throughout the legislative session, majority party lawmakers were looking for ways to retaliate against the Davidson County Chancery Court, which has found several Lee administration laws unconstitutional.

In the last moments of session, Republicans aligned around an untested idea to create a new statewide chancery court with sole jurisdiction in cases challenging state law.

Former state Supreme Court justices from both parties said the bill was an ideological power grab that threatens judicial independence.

Placing policy that drives down worker wages in the constitution

Senate Joint Resolution 2
Tennessee has fewer union workers than almost every other state so it is no surprise that Tennessee workers, on average, earn $10,000 less each year than the average American.

Despite this sorry fact, the controlling party advanced an amendment to the state constitution that labor experts say will further drive down wages and benefits for Tennesseans.

The so-called “right to work” measure effectively defunds labor organizations that put pressure on non-union employers in the market to increase pay in order to compete for workers.

The end result: workers, both union and non-union, take home less pay and fewer benefits.

Voters will get the final say on this constitutional amendment in 2022’s November General Election.

Hiking loan fees on ‘unbanked’ families

Senate Bill 344
While many states are finding ways to shield financially insecure families from predatory banking practices, the controlling party in Tennessee is headed the opposite direction, marching lockstep with wealthy special interests.

Under this law, money lenders dealing short-term, installment loans can increase fees and service charges by $133 million a year.

The bill sponsor testified that the typical borrower was “unbanked” — a term used to describe financially vulnerable persons who live paycheck to paycheck often times without a savings account.

Restrictions on classroom discussions about racism, racial inequities

Senate Bill 623
Though the phrase was never spoken until the final moments of the legislative session, Republicans passed a bill banning lessons characterized as “critical race theory.” Educators and experts say the bill will have a chilling effect on classroom discussions about race-based oppression and the cause of racial disparities in America.

Oh the irony! For years it’s been members of the controlling party accusing Democrats of trying to whitewash or erase history.

Slate of shameful anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions become law

The controlling party passed five new restrictions targeting LGTBQ people without citing one real world example showing why the law was needed.

But making a difference was never the point. These laws are driven by national politics and Fox News click bait, not real families.

From the ban on trans kids playing gender-aligned school sports to separate-and-unequal bathroom policies, these laws will stigmatize an already vulnerable population that is at high risk for mental health problems and bullying.

While there is no solution within any of these laws, there are plenty of new problems. Tennessee will once again be thrust into federal civil rights lawsuits where the biggest loser is taxpayers and our economy will surely suffer backlash as sporting events and innovators move to places that treat every citizen with respect.

Read a more complete description of each anti-LGBTQ+ law here.

Anti-vaccine laws undermining public health

Under Gov. Bill Lee’s pandemic response, Tennessee had one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country. More than 12,500 people in our state died due to Covid-19 and our vaccination program has lagged far behind the rest of the nation.

The legislature should have been a voice holding Lee’s administration accountable for reopening the state safely, but instead, the controlling party passed laws that undermine life-saving vaccinations.

Most of these measures banned activity that’s not actually happening in Tennessee, such as vaccine passports and government-mandated vaccinations.

Even though the content of these measures may not change health policy drastically, the discussion around these bills did significant damage to public health by sowing doubt about the efficacy vaccinations.

Religious mandates on abortion providers

Senate Bill 828
If the controlling party truly cared about reducing unwanted pregnancies or improving the well-being of women, they would rally behind ideas to increase access to birth control and healthcare.

Instead, their policy prescriptions focus on restricting rights, intruding on personal decisions and endangering women’s health. In recent memory, conservative lawmakers have never let a legislative session go by without passing some new and heinous law restricting access to abortion services.

This year was no different. Under this outrageous new law, women seeking legal abortion services will be forced to also pay for a burial or cremation. It’s medically unnecessary and a cruel abuse of state law.

More mass incarceration

Tennessee is likely the only state in the nation where the legislature has enacted “criminal justice reforms” that resulted in more people getting locked up for longer.

Despite a handful of positive criminal justice reform bills passing, the vast majority of crime-related legislation will lead to longer sentences.

Still there is no evidence to suggest that this approach to criminal justice is working to either improve outcomes for incarcerated people or to make communities safer. It’s a wasteful commitment to a broken philosophy.