‘Leading the nation’ in a race to the bottom for working families
With no economic or health care plans to strengthen the middle class, Republicans lean into culture wars
by Senator London Lamar, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus
This year has been a disaster for the Tennessee G.O.P. and it’s just as bad for working and middle class families.
In the last decade of Republican control at the Tennessee General Assembly, the annual legislative session has followed a familiar pattern: Working families get lip service from Republicans while their party enacts more trickle-down economics and wastes time and tax dollars on power grabs that trample our freedom.
This year was more of the same, but even more extreme.
There are so many real problems facing Tennesseans right now: gun violence and public safety, housing affordability, health care access, child care availability, teacher shortages, polluted waterways, diminishing personal freedom and much more.
Instead of tackling these issues head on, the supermajority offers three basic approaches:
- Band-Aid solutions that sound good, but do nothing to address the root cause of problems;
- New laws that make these problems worse. (In fact, every one of these challenges has intensified under Republican control of the state legislature.); and
- Culture war politics that distract us from real economic issues and erode trust between our families.
When Gov. Bill Lee and the majority party are not ignoring our concerns, their members are actively blocking meaningful policy solutions and protecting profits for corporate special interests and their wealthy campaign donors.
There is no better example of this corruption than the debate on gun safety.
This March, six people, including three 9-year-olds, were slaughtered at a Nashville school by a shooter armed with two semi-automatic rifles. In multiple public opinion surveys since, Tennesseans have shown there is overwhelming support for common sense restrictions on guns, such as universal background checks for purchases and red flag laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily withhold guns from someone who poses a danger to themselves or others.
Yet, the only gun legislation that became law in the wake of this horrific tragedy was a policy no one asked for: a law that makes it harder for average citizens to bring a civil lawsuit against gun manufacturers and dealers.
In this moment, it’s a moral failure that Republicans ended this year’s legislative session just weeks after a school shooting with no action to stop future gun violence.
Unfortunately for our families, their failure to lead this state does not begin and end with their refusal to address gun violence.
Health coverage helps families live fuller lives and achieve economic stability. It also ensures our doctors, nurses and hospitals are paid for the care they provide, potentially easing the hospital closure crisis gripping our rural communities.
Making the situation worse, an estimated 350,000 Tennesseans are expected to lose access to TennCare health coverage this year — adding to the almost 700,000 people in our state who have previously lost health coverage.
The G.O.P. response? Crickets.
Republicans ignored the dual housing and child care crises that are constraining family budgets in every part of the state. Families that cannot access stable housing and child care cannot fully participate in our economy — a shortage that hurts both working families and businesses who need workers.
And aside from the obvious, headline-grabbing scandals and an authoritarian assault on democracy, what did Republicans focus on?
- Attacks on our public schools. Republicans relentlessly attacked teachers and public schools. They rejected efforts to delay implementation of their controversial third-grade retention law, which could hold back 60 percent of all third graders based on a single test score.
- Overreach. Republicans passed multiple laws to steal freedom from cities and overturn decisions made by local voters — specifically targeting cities in the four big counties: Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton.
- Reckless gun policy. In addition to blocking progress on gun reform, the Republican state attorney general cut a deal in court to lower the age for carrying a firearm without a permit from 21 to 18. The legislature pressed pause on legislation that would extend the state’s permitless carry law to long guns, but they still passed a law that increases the number of people who can carry firearms on college campuses.
- Wasteful lawsuits for extremism. Republicans enacted laws they knew were unconstitutional, putting taxpayers on the hook to fund their political campaigns against drag performers, LGBTQ families, local control and the federal government. In recent years, their budgets have committed millions worth of our tax dollars toward senseless legal fights that would be better used to improve life for our families.
- Toll roads. Using billions of dollars from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure acts, Republicans announced a new investment in roadways, but not mass transit. They also legalized toll roads and invited big business to run them, siphoning away even more precious infrastructure funding.
- Extremism on abortion. The G.O.P. doubled down on their extreme abortion ban, keeping the procedure a felony even when a pregnant patient’s health is at risk, for fatal fetal anomalies, and in cases of rape and incest.
- Thought police. Republicans expanded their laws censoring books and honest American history and, opened a new line of attack on universities by placing major restrictions on state institutions that incorporate diversity and inclusion in employee training.
- Cuts to HIV prevention. Without a plan to continue HIV surveillance, Republicans rejected federal grant funding that boosts community-based nonprofit groups working to prevent new infections.
- Anti-LGBTQ and division. They passed harmful multiple laws that demonize LGBT families. So much so that we’ve reached the point where some families are choosing to leave their home state.
- Corporate tax breaks. Republicans added more than $200 million worth of permanent tax breaks for corporations, but only provided working and middle class families temporary tax relief on their grocery bill.
- More mass incarceration. And they’ve committed taxpayers to funding more failed mass incarceration policies while they do next to nothing to address the root causes of crime.
With complete disregard to mounting evidence to suggest otherwise, Gov. Lee declared earlier this year that Tennessee was “leading the nation.”
In what we asked: Violent crime? Low-wage jobs? Food insecurity? Personal bankruptcy? Opioid abuse? Infant deaths? Department of Children’s Services debacles? Mental healthcare deserts? Voter suppression? The number of people without health coverage?
Hubris is no substitute for solutions.
In this instance, bragging is just a convenient way to distract people from the truth: Under a decade of Republican control, Tennessee is leading the nation — in a race to the bottom for working families.
Finally, we will end on a positive thought: The Republicans who currently control the legislature have sparked the beginning of a movement in Tennessee. Young people, people who work for a living, and women across this state are fed up with the arrogance, greed and abuse of power.
Their moral failings are a call to action for people who believe Tennesseans deserve so much better.
The Senate Democratic Caucus hears you and we will be in this fight with you every step of the way.
Author’s note: Despite the divisive and unproductive work environment created by the supermajority, members of the Senate Democratic Caucus were still able to pass meaningful legislation that improves the lives of working families and makes our state work better. We will highlight these bills soon.
A review of the worst new laws:
Republicans make it harder for laid-off workers to get unemployment benefits
- SB 1285 requires people — who lost their job through no fault of their own — to jump through even more hoops to receive unemployment benefits.
- Under the law, unemployment enrollees could lose their already paltry benefits if they don’t complete five “work search” tasks each week. State law already requires three work search activities to qualify.
- At a maximum of $270 a week, Tennessee has one of the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation. And in 2021, Republicans even capped the number of weeks a person can receive unemployment benefits at 12 — fewest in the nation.
STATE INTERFERENCE: Republicans stomp local government for low-wage employers
- SB 681 by Sen. Reeves uses state law to prohibit cities from deciding the terms of their own business contracts.
- Under the bill, local governments are prohibited from awarding contracts to businesses based on what the company pays its employees and offers for benefits.
- The bill boosts companies that pay low wages and offer few, if any, benefits.
Anti-worker Republicans block state incentives for companies that work with unions via ‘card check’
- Tennessee Republicans are no stranger to passing unconstitutional laws to score political points — especially when the target is working people who fight for better wages and benefits.
- SB 650 threatens state incentives for any company that opts to work with unions via a process called “card check.”
- The G.O.P. law is aimed squarely at Ford Motor Company, which has worked with the United Auto Workers via card check for decades.
- Despite the company’s long-standing and productive relationship with the United Auto Workers, the state of Tennessee committed about a billion dollars to the vehicle manufacturer to establish a production facility called Blue Oval City in West Tennessee.
- This legislation would prohibit state incentives from going to any company that works with unions via “card check” — a method for employees to organize into a labor union in which a majority of employees in a bargaining unit sign authorization forms or “cards.”
Anti-teacher, anti-worker: Gov. Bill Lee inserts anti-union nonsense into teacher salary bill
- After the governor announced his intention to raise Tennessee’s base educator pay to $50,000 by 2027, legislation to establish new base salaries should be cause for bipartisan agreement.
- But instead, the Republican governor inserted an anti-worker poison pill into SB 281 that would prohibit school districts from deducting union dues through payroll.
- At every turn, Tenn. Republicans want to limit the power of workers to negotiate better pay and working conditions.
More private school vouchers: Legislation expands controversial private school voucher program to Hamilton County
- SB 12 expands Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial private school voucher program to Hamilton County.
- According to the Tennessee Lookout, 643 students in Nashville and Memphis have already received about $8,000 each in public funds to enroll in private schools.
- That’s $5 million worth of public tax dollars drained from two public school districts to private schools.
- This law ensures even more dollars will be diverted from our public schools.
Defunding public schools: GOP increases eligibility for Lee’s private school vouchers
- SB 638 expands student eligibility for Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program in public school districts that are being forced by law to participate.
- Under the law, students who were eligible to attend a district school over the last three school years can now apply for a private school voucher.
This year’s third grade class left out of law easing retention policy based on one test score
- Emerging from the pandemic, Republicans invented a third-grade retention policy that requires students to repeat the grade based on a single test score.
- The law is poor policy. Teachers and parents were not shy in voicing their concerns.
- SB 300 reforms the third-grade retention law passed in 2021 that holds students from fourth grade based their English language arts score on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test — or the TCAP.
- But this new law won’t spare this year’s class of third graders. Republicans specifically left them out of the change.
G.O.P. targets ‘implicit bias training’ in education
- SB 102 makes it illegal for any government-run education institutions to require “implicit bias training” for employees.
- The purpose of these courses, also called unconscious bias training, is to raise awareness about the mental shortcuts we use that lead to snap judgements. Research shows that people often make decisions about people’s talents and character based on perceived socioeconomic status, race, sexual identity and gender.
- It’s no surprise coming from a political party that also bans books, honest history lessons and discussions about gender.
Republicans expand ban on divisive concepts, like critical race theory
- In recent years, Republicans have started policing feelings in public education from pre-K to college. A new G.O.P. law further wedges lawmaker feelings into university policy.
- SB 817 uses state law to rewrite policies at public universities and encourage more investigations into “divisive concepts,” such as critical race theory.
- The law also: bans universities from spending cash on activities that promote a “divisive concept”; requires universities to advertise the “divisive concepts” on its website and provide training; and prohibits universities from collecting diversity statements in hiring or admissions;
- The statute also establishes new rules for workers whose job duties include “diversity, equity or inclusion.”
Under law, more students can skip sex ed, health services and school surveys
- SB 1443 creates a new parental exemption process that ensures fewer students participate in school surveys, health services and sex education (as meager as it may be).
- This law also requires parents to sign off on any lesson plans related to “sexual orientation curriculum” and “gender identity curriculum” — which, for the record, is not happening in Tennessee public schools.
- For schools, this legislation creates a new administrative quagmire while also reducing needed services.
- Another dangerous Republican law from make-believe land.
G.O.P. blocks most civil suits against gun manufacturers, dealers
- Tennessee has one of the nation’s highest rates of violent crime. Citizens are also still reeling from a March school shooting in Nashville that left six people dead, including three 9-year-olds.
- The incident caused thousands of Tennesseans to flood the Capitol Building demanding change to the state’s lax gun laws. But Republicans refused to act. In fact, the only gun measures that passed are an insult to victims of gun violence.
- SB 822 protects profits for gun makers by extending new legal protections to manufacturers and dealers.
- The law severely limits the kinds of civil lawsuits that citizens can bring against gun makers and sellers.
- Civil liability plays an important role in promoting community and consumer safety. Even the possibility of a lawsuit can incentivize an industry to take steps to prevent their products from causing harm.
- Under this new law, consumers could only bring a lawsuit under several limited circumstances, including a seller being directly involved with a crime and product defects.
GOP law allows more employees to carry firearms on college campuses
- SB 515 allows a new class of employees to carry firearms on public college campuses.
- Firearms are the leading cause of death for youth in America.
- “In the small number of states that have forced guns onto college campuses, there is no evidence that it has helped prevent mass shootings,” says Everytown Research & Policy.
Abortion Remains a Felony in Most Cases
Anti-abortion group’s narrow ‘life’ exception endangers women
- Women should being making the decision when to start a family — not the government. But in Tennessee, it’s Republican politicians who have the say over all reproductive decisions.
- In 2019, Republicans passed a complete and total ban on abortion that would kick into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
- Last August, the G.O.P. ban became active state policy and inserted confusion into medical decisions about ending a pregnancy even when a woman’s life is at risk.
- SB 745, which was written by an anti-abortion lobbyist, adds an extremely narrow “life” exception to Tennessee’s extreme abortion ban, but critics say the vague policy still puts pregnant patients in danger. Under the law, a doctor’s legal risk of being charged with a felony perversely decreases as their patient gets closer to death.
- The law does add an exception for ectopic and molar pregnancies, but it provides no exception for fatal fetal anomalies, nonviable pregnancies or health conditions, such as cancer, which can complicate a pregnancy.
Republicans push dangerous abortion ban even further
- SB 600 prohibits local governments from spending funds “for the purposes of assisting a person in obtaining an abortion.”
- Republicans say they are targeting health benefit plans or abortion travel funds that might pop up in a city or county.
- Sen. London Lamar pointed out in committee the prohibition could also apply to government-run hospitals or ambulance services assisting a mother who is experiencing a potentially fatal pregnancy complication.
- More legal confusion when a woman’s life is on the line.
More Mass Incarceration
New government board setup to end sentence credits could depress rehabilitation
- SB 1236 creates a new government board that exists solely to extend prison sentences.
- Currently, incarcerated people earned credits for “good behavior.”
- But under this law, a new Inmate Disciplinary Oversight Board could choose to deny these credits and extend sentences.
- The board is duplicating the work of the state parole board and it appears the only purpose is to increase incarceration costs.
- Advocates have made it clear that eliminating sentence credits will have a detrimental effect on rehabilitation and behavior issues inside already understaffed prisons.
Law creates new hurdle to obtain ‘good behavior’ credits for early release
- SB 806 changes how the Department of Correction awards credits for good behavior, adding a new, arbitrary requirement for early release.
- Under the law, inmates must complete risk-and-needs assessment and participate in programming or employment in order to even be eligible to earn sentence credits for good behavior.
Republicans rob locally-elected district attorneys of control over death penalty cases
- SB 1500 inserts the unelected state attorney general into capital cases, giving the state unprecedented control over court proceedings where a defendant has been sentenced to death.
- This law marks a major and unnecessary change in how the state defends capital convictions and sentences, robbing locally-elected district attorneys of control over all types of state post-conviction matters in death penalty cases.
- Local district attorneys, elected by their communities, are in the best position to defend convictions and sentences arising out of offenses prosecuted in their districts.
- This legislation likely violates the constitutional authority of the district attorneys general and has already subjected taxpayers to another costly lawsuit against the state.
Constitutionally suspect law attempts to accelerate death penalty cases
- The death penalty has never proven to be a crime deterrent, but that doesn’t stop “pro-life” Republicans from embracing it.
- SB 1112 adds a new, likely unconstitutional, provision to state law. Under the new policy, the state must carry out a sentence of death within 30 business days of the conclusion of any appeals or post-conviction relief, if the jury unanimously determines that certain circumstances are met.
GOP bans some health care for trans kids
- The supermajority is using state law to interfere with private healthcare decisions at nearly every level.
- SB 1: Republicans passed a law to deny life-saving, gender-affirming care to transgender youth and criminalize doctors who provide treatment.
- The law is currently facing a federal lawsuit.
G.O.P. criminalizes some drag shows
- Senate Bill 3 used state law to target drag performers with criminal penalties.
- This law is also facing a federal lawsuit.
- With so many real issues affecting families, it’s ridiculous the Republican-controlled legislature is wasting our time with an unconstitutional bill demonizing a fraction of Tennesseans.
- These dangerous bills are tacit approval of anti-gay and anti-trans violence as well as threats of violence.
- This GOP effort cames less than three months after a mass shooting at the LGBTQ night spot Club Q in Colorado Springs left 26 injured and five dead, including a native Tennessean, Kelly Loving.
Anti-trans student pronoun bill: License to bully queer students
- SB 466 establishes protections for a public school teacher who intentionally misgenders a trans student.
G.O.P law defining gender could run afoul of federal funding rules
- SB 1440 defines “sex” in state law — federal rules be damned.
- According to the legislation, sex means a “person’s immutable biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics.”
- Fiscal analysts flagged the bill, saying it could “jeopardize federal funding” worth more than $2 billion received by multiple state agencies.
GOP targets trans athletes at private schools
- SB 1237 gives private schools the legal authority to restrict trans students from participating in school sports.
- This law expands a law passed earlier that targeted trans kids in public schools.
G.O.P. upends community-led boards overseeing police conduct
- SB 591 abolishes community oversight boards monitoring police misconduct in four communities across the state.
- Proponents say these boards, when working properly, have built trust between police and community members through transparency and accountability.
- This law will force four boards in Tennessee’s largest cities to drastically change their approach.
Republicans create new board to protect Confederate monuments
- State law already prohibits state and local governments from removing Confederate monuments without state approval.
- Still, advocates seeking the removal of Confederate monuments from some places of honor have found limited success.
- SB 1100 could change that. The law replaces the current process, which is controlled by the Tennessee Historical Commission, and creates the Tennessee Monuments and Memorials Commission to hear petitions from local governments to remove monuments.
- This board would include nine voting members, three by each speaker and three by the governor.
Law bans the Knoxville city council “at-large” election process
- SB 526 bans the city of Knoxville from electing council members through an at-large nomination process.
- This law marks another major intrusion on local control over Knoxville’s city council elections.
Law takes aim at ‘pending ordinance doctrine’ used by cities to manage development
- SB 559 prohibits cities and counties from utilizing the “pending ordinance doctrine.”
- The doctrine, established by a 2007 Tennessee Supreme Court opinion, allowed cities to refuse or revoke a redevelopment when a pending zoning ordinance would prohibit the use of land for which the permit is sought.
- Oftentimes, city officials and neighbors do not know how a developer would use land until a permit application is filed.
- This law will create a huge financial burden on local governments to update zoning policy.
STOVE WARS: Republicans prohibit cities, counties from regulating gas stoves
- Not a single city or county has proposed regulations for gas stoves, but that’s not going to stop Republicans from passing a new law that restricts local control.
- SB 367 inserts Tennessee into the stove war debate that no one was having locally.
Republicans ban local policies linked to ‘Agenda 21’
- SB 1147 prohibits state and political subdivisions from adopting policy recommendations that restrict private property rights without due process.
- The bill sponsor said the law is targeting any policy recommendations linked to “Agenda 21,” which was adopted by the United Nations in 1992.
G.O.P. cuts the size of Nashville’s metro council by half
- SB 87 cut the size of Nashville Metro Council by half.
- Though Republicans were informed repeatedly that their bill was unconstitutional, they passed it into law anyway.
- The law was blocked from taking effect recently by a state court, but the legal battle may take years to unfold.
Republicans takeover Nashville’s airport authority
- SB 1326 vacated the membership of the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority and gave themselves the majority of the board’s appointments.
- Under this overreaching law, state Republicans will have control over six of the appointments to the eight-member board.
G.O.P. overrides Nashville voter referendum to hasten Nashville racetrack redevelopment
- SB 832 voids a Metro Nashville rule, approved by voters in 2011, that required a two-thirds vote for improvements and renovations to existing facilities.
- The 2011 ordinance passed at the behest of racetrack advocates who wanted to preserve the in-city track.
- Now, racetrack advocates pushed to override the ordinance with a state law to make it easier for the racetrack renovations to move forward with the business behind Bristol Motor Speedway.
Republicans rewrite the rules governing the Nashville convention center
- SB 648 targets the Nashville Convention Center and limits the city’s control over one of its top tourism assets.
- Under the law, the city is prohibited from using excess tax revenues from the Music City Center from being applied to any purpose other than bond payments and operating expenses.
- The bill initially went much further, but Republicans relented after investors scolded them for messing with contractual bond obligations.
GOP gives themselves seats on Nashville’s sports authority
- SB 1335 targeted Nashville’s sports authority, which has oversight of professional sports designations in the city.
- In one more act of retaliation, Republicans gave themselves six of the board’s 13 seats.
GOP legislation will reduce river, wetland conservation
- SB 629 will reduce the amount of river and wetland conservation that is required of developers who pollute public waters with new construction.
- State law, generally, protects public water quality by requiring developers to “mitigate” or offset unavoidable damage to streams and wetlands from their building and construction projects.
- This legislation, according to the fiscal memo, will “result in a decrease” in the amount of land subject to compensatory mitigation.
- Even more pollution: SB 628 similarly allows developers to skirt construction permitting rules by allowing the clear cutting of trees on property purchases they intend to develop.
Bill, backed by construction company, creates permit for destructive river sand mining
- SB 407 requires state officials to create a permit for sand mining in public rivers, streams and wetlands.
- The demand for construction-grade sand is a worldwide environmental issue, according to a study published by Science Direct. “Effects are found on the physical, biological, chemical and anthropogenic environment.”
- The sponsor told a Senate committee the bill was backed by Rogers Group, the largest, privately owned aggregate construction company in the nation.
Republicans block consideration of ‘ESG’ factors for state investments
- SB 955 restricts state treasury officials from investing state dollars using “environmental, social, and governance interests,” also called ESG factors.
- Investors are increasingly using ESG factors as a way to support businesses that promote sustainability, ethical practices and conscious consumerism.
- The practice has grown as more people look for ways to take action against climate change, unfair economic practices and social injustices.
- Instead of adopting these forward-thinking policies, Republicans in Tennessee have banned them altogether for state investments.
Compromising Public Health
Law strips older teens of their right to get vaccinated without parental consent
- In Tennessee, minors who are 14 years old or older do not need their parent’s consent to receive most healthcare services, including vaccinations. It’s called the “mature minor doctrine.”
- SB 1111 changes that by prohibiting healthcare professionals from providing any vaccination to any minor without written consent from their parent.
- The law could reduce child vaccinations in a state where vaccination rates are already declining.
- In February, Dr. Randy Wykoff, the dean of ETSU’s public health college, told senators that Tennessee’s declining childhood immunization numbers should be cause for concern.
Measles or polio anyone?
- Several diseases that are preventable via immunization have started popping up in places as childhood vaccination numbers have declined.
- SB 644 exacerbates that problem.
- Under the law, parents — who homeschool their children, but enroll them to participate in public school extracurriculars — are no longer required to provide proof of immunization to the school district.
- The policy could expose more kids to communicable diseases.
Law could shift limited funding for HIV treatment from community partners to jails
- SB 927 allows sheriffs to apply for federal grant funding to treat AIDs and HIV.
- This concept sounds good on paper, but here’s the problem: this federal funding is limited and any grant funding for jails will reduce funding for nonprofit community partners who are providing treatment to Tennesseans.
- According to fiscal analysts, all $26 million worth of federal funding is currently being utilized by community partners who treat AIDs and HIV patients.
Law shields businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits indefinitely
- Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Republicans passed a law to protect corporations and business owners from lawsuits related to health and safety conditions of their operations.
- The anti-worker law drastically restricted the circumstances under which an employee could challenge unsafe business practices in court.
- Essentially, the law gave legal immunity to businesses.
- It was scheduled to sunset this year, but SB 11 extended the protections indefinitely.
Abuse of Power
Speakers can now file lawsuits against the federal government
- Yet another example of expanding legislative powers, SB 487 allows the Speakers of the House of Representatives and the Speaker of the Senate to bring a lawsuit against the federal government.
- Traditionally, this kind of legal action has been managed solely by the Tennessee attorney general’s office. In theory, limiting political influence over legal decisions.
- But in recent years, Tennessee Republicans have committed millions worth of tax dollars to political causes by challenging the federal government in court.
- This marks the latest expansion of political overreach. It’s likely to increase litigation costs without any meaningful benefit to Tennesseans.
Traffic laws for thee, not for me:Speakers, governor can ignore traffic rules, under new law
- SB 449 authorizes the state vehicles transporting the governor and speakers of the state House and Senate to use emergency lights and ignore traffic laws.
- The Tennessee Journal reported on the law earlier this year pointing out the obvious double standard for powerful politicians and everyday citizens.
GOP appoints politico who distributed album with a song titled ‘Barack the Magic Negro’
- Republicans this year approved HJR 124 to confirm Gov. Bill Lee’s appointment, John “Chip” Saltsman, Jr., to the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission.
- Saltsman, a former Tennessee G.O.P. chairman, was once in the running the be the national party chairman.
- But Saltsman dropped his bid after receiving blowback from his decision to send national committee members a Christmas CD that contained a parody song titled “Barack the Magic Negro.”