Senate Democrats celebrate 2021 legislative wins as new laws take effect today

NASHVILLE — The 2021 legislative session of the 112th General Assembly was amongst the most contentious in our state’s modern history.

Left to right, top to bottom: Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville); Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis); Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville); Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis); Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis); and Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville)

The session will be largely 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.

Read our review of the worst bills to become law here.

Still, the Senate Democratic Caucus found success passing 35 pieces of substantive legislation, in addition to cosponsoring laws, on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to expanding STEM education in our K-12 schools.

Here’s a look at positive reforms that are now law in Tennessee:

Education

We set out with a goal of fixing the school funding formula, but the controlling party refused. Still, the Senate Democratic Caucus passed several bills that will improve student learning outcomes and promote equity in public school education.

Senate Bill 844
This law will make it easier for business owners to make connections with students who are interested in apprenticeships. Under the law, the Department of Education will create a statewide online directory of high school apprenticeship coordinators making these connections easier than ever.

Senate Bill 414
The SEM Advancement Act will help our best kids go even farther with their studies. Under this law, local school boards are required to develop and adopt an “acceleration policy” for qualifying students in grades seven through 12 to access advanced courses on English language arts, mathematics and science.

Senate Bill 1303
This new law will ensure that students who are in foster care can participate in school sports. A flaw in current law was prohibiting some kids in foster care from joining a school team. Under this law, these kids will have access to team sports.

Senate Bill 1425
This new law will save local school districts money when addressing a new threat: cybersecurity. Under the law, the Department of Education will create a template safety plan that includes cybersecurity policies and procedures for a local school district to consider when officials are developing their district-wide and building-level school safety plans.

Senate Bill 634
This legislation authorizes local school districts to develop and implement a “Stop the Bleed” program. “Stop the Bleed was developed by medical experts in response to the horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary as a way to improve survival rates when bystanders are confronted with severe bleeding. Stop the Bleed training empowers bystanders to take life-saving action to control severe bleeding — regardless of the situation or cause of the bleed. Under the law, local education officials are authorized to begin placing bleeding control kits within each school and training staff members on using the kit, which includes a tourniquet and bandages for compression and bleeding control.

Senate Bill 1424
This law creates three new safeguards in the hiring process for school districts to ensure the people they’re hiring are safe to be around children.

Senate Bill 752, co-sponsored
The Tennessee Registered Apprenticeship Program Act, which was based on legislation filed last session by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, creates a Tennessee Office of Apprenticeship within the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The goal of this new office will be to increase the number of student apprenticeships with private industry in the state.

Senate Bill 1000, co-sponsored
College sports are a multi-billion industry and the only group that could not benefit from that financial success was students. Under this law, collegiate athletes in Tennessee will now have the right to earn compensation for their name, image and likeness.

Criminal Justice

Tennessee has a mass incarceration problem — and still the GOP passed more than two dozen sentencing enhancements, which will lock people up for longer without addressing the root causes of crime. Taxpayers will be on the hook for millions of dollars worth of new prison costs with no proof communities are safer. Still, some positive reforms were passed by the Senate Democratic Caucus:

Senate Bill 19
First responders receive additional protections from assault under Tennessee law. Under this new law, nurses who are on the job will receive protection equal to that of first responders in cases of assault.

Senate Bill 334
This law ensures incarcerated women, ages 40 through 74, receive a mammogram or other appropriate early breast health screening on a regular basis. Under this bill, state correctional facilities will also be required to provide educational training on the importance of preventative health care.

Senate Joint Resolution 80
This amendment to Tennessee Constitution will abolish all forms of slavery in Tennessee. Under the current state constitution, and the federal constitution, those who are convicted of a duly committed crime may still be punished by slavery or involuntary servitude. This Constitutional Amendment will abolish slavery under all circumstances — once and for all. In November 2022, voters in the General Election will decided whether to adopt the amendment.

Senate Bill 1307
The Right to Call for Help Act ensures that domestic violence survivors and crime victims are able to call for help without fear of losing their homes. Under this law, landlords would not be able to evict a tenant solely based on the police visiting their property — a practice that unfortunately happens. Action is still pending in the House.

Senate Bill 337
Human trafficking can happen in any community — regardless of size or geography. This law will help school districts confront the problem. Under this law, school staff will receive training at least every three years to help them detect, intervene and prevent human trafficking in children.

Senate Bill 1435
Under this law, police must record interrogations involving a child. Nearly half of states require all custodial interviews to be recorded — juvenile and adult. Custody recordings help law enforcement better convict the guilty, protect the innocent, shield police from false claims of misconduct, and save time and money. Action is still pending in the House.

Senate Bill 1033
This new law helps victims of domestic assault escape an abuser. In many places, a victim of domestic assault who lives with the abuser may feel trapped by a lease. Under this law, a renter who becomes a victim of domestic abuse, assault or stalking has the right to terminate a rental or lease agreement with their landlord.

Senate Bill 1437
This law will help people who are returning from incarceration get off to a better start. Under this law, parole officials will be required to help an incarcerated person develop a “release plan” within a year of their release date. Release plans are a best practice in criminal justice because it helps a person think through where they will live, expenses they may have and building a future.

Senate Bill 827
This bill would ban the practice of solitary confinement for pregnant women who are incarcerated. Action is still pending in the House.

Senate Bill 643
This new law will raise awareness of best practice for combating child abuse and human trafficking. Under the law, the Department of Children’s Services will post guidelines for identifying and reporting signs of abuse.

Senate Bill 951
It’s unfortunate that “April’s Law” is even needed. The law is a result of a family discovering a funeral home employee defiling their daughter’s dead body. While the act was abhorrent and an unforgivable abuse of trust, the case could not be tried under state law. This law now clarifies that a person who engages in sexual contact with a corpse commits the offense of abuse of a corpse

Senate Bill 965
This new law will help people clear their record after making a regrettable decision. Under the law, a court will inform a defendant at the time of sentencing whether their conviction is expungeable and the date at which time the crime can be expunged

Senate Bill 551
Children are hurt or killed in firearm accidents everyday in America. Anything that can be done to promote safe storage practices could potentially save a life. Under this law, the state of Tennessee will stop applying a sales tax on purchases of gun safes and gun safety devices for one year.

Senate Bill 1380, co-sponsored
The “8 Can’t Wait” movement for police use-of-force reform that arose after the murder of George Floyd even touched Tennessee. While this bipartisan bill does not do everything recommended in the 8 Can’t Wait policy guidelines, this legislation was a giant step forward in our state. Under this law:

  • Choke holds are banned unless lethal force is authorized;
  • Departments are required to develop de-escalation policies;
  • Officers who are witnessing excessive force are required to intervene;
  • Departments are required to establish a use of force reporting system;
  • “No knock” warrants are banned.

Senate Bill 1349, co-sponsored
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to put to death a person with an intellectual disability, but Tennessee state law on the matter had some glaring loopholes. The case of Pervis Payne, a man with disabilities on death row for a crime he maintains he did not commit, called a group of bipartisan lawmakers to act. Under this law, a person sentenced to death would have a right to petition a court to determine whether the defendant is intellectually disabled. Mr. Payne’s lawyers have already appealed.

Senate Bill 448, co-sponsored
The “Post-Conviction Fingerprint Analysis Act of 2021” will help ensure that people facing serious charges get a fair trial. Under the law, prosecutors are required to present potentially exculpatory evidence to the defendant and their lawyer.

Senate Bill 767, co-sponsored
One of Gov. Bill Lee’s criminal justice bills, this new effort changes state law to encourage treatment over incarceration for non-violent drug offenders. The bill also reduces the probation period from 10 years to 8 years and right sizes the penalty for technical violations of probation.

Senate Bill 768, co-sponsored
Gov. Lee’s second criminal justice reform bill, the “Reentry Success Act of 2021,” improves support offered to people making the transition from incarceration to society. Provisions of the new law include:

  • Limits the liability of employers making a good faith hire of someone with a criminal record;
  • Removes the Department of Safety’s $65 fee to set up a payment plan for a Restricted Driver’s License, a barrier for some returning to society from maintaining a job;
  • Increases for local jails the daily reimbursement rates per inmate, between $3 and $6, for facilities expanding their offering of classes and other resources;
  • Creates a presumption that an eligible inmate must be released on parole, unless a good reason is shown, upon the inmate reaching the his or her release eligibility date or any subsequent parole hearing;
  • Allows the Board of Parole to hear testimony from inmates seeking release both in person and by video; and
  • Limits the amount of time an inmate has to wait for another parole hearing, upon denial, to 6 years rather than the current 10-year maximum.

Senate Bill 675, co-sponsored
Developed in partnership with a Memphis-based criminal justice organization, this law will help formerly incarcerated Tennesseans gain access to jobs and housing. Under this law, people who have served their sentence and probation will be able to remove additional misdemeanor and low-level, non-violent felony charges from their record.

Senate Bill 707, co-sponsored
Under this law, a person who is charged with nearly any class A misdemeanor, but is also eligible for judicial diversion, would gain a pathway to apply for expungement.

Families and Children

Hard work isn’t paying off and opportunity is out of reach for too many families in Tennessee. That’s not happening by accident or bad luck; these deficiencies are driven by policy choices. Whether its affordable healthcare or accessible childcare, we can only confront the challenges affecting families in our state if we make solving those problems a priority.

Senate Bill 22
In an effort to expand access to affordable child daycare throughout Tennessee, this law authorizes state departments to lease space to childcare service providers. As the largest employer in the state, this initiative could provide new childcare opportunities for thousands of working families.

Senate Bill 136
Normalize natural hair. Senate Bill 136 is the CROWN Act; CROWN stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. Under this measure, employers and public schools would be prohibited from discriminating against people who choose to wear their hair naturally or in protective style such as braids, locks or twists. Action is still pending in the House.

Senate Bill 1388
Tennesseans deserve fair treatment in our state courts, regardless of whether or not they have a disability. This new law closes a loophole that allowed judges to terminate a parent’s custody rights based solely on a parent’s physical disability. Under this law, a physical disability can no longer be the primary factor in determining parental custody rights.

Senate Bill 1440
This law creates new privacy rights for people in a conservatorship in the state of Tennessee, while also providing opportunity for advocacy organizations to continue their work of protecting individuals receiving care from a conservatorship.

Senate Bill 1105
This law creates new efficiencies for childcare providers that work with the Department of Human Services. Under the law, DHS will utilize a child care subsidy program that better accommodates parent work schedules and streamlines the payment process.

Senate Bill 807
This law will create a new position in the Department of Human Services to coordinate child care resources in the state. To ensure consistent and effective lines of communication, this new official will serve as a direct point of contact for child care providers, community stakeholders and partner agencies.

Senate Bill 644
Siblings who are separated in foster care should always have the right to keep in contact with one another. Under this law, the Department of Children’s Services is required to provide contact information for siblings who are apart.

Senate Bill 1104
This law will help child care providers keep their doors open and offering the day care services that our state desperately needs. Under the law, the Department of Human Services will develop a shared services alliance to reduce costs and improve the quality of child care in the state. Participating providers will gain access to child care business resources and negotiated discounts.

Senate Bill 677, co-sponsored
This law creates the Tennessee Child Care Taskforce. This 15-member panel will propose policies to address the state’s childcare shortage. This taskforce will begin meeting as soon as this summer.

Senate Bill 751, co-sponsored
The federal government provides cash assistance to families who have lost income through a program called TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Last year, it was reported that Tennessee’s TANF program had stockpiled more than $740 million — the largest cash reserve of any state in the nation. Under this new law, the state will be required to disburse more TANF dollars each year. In addition to creating new penalties for abusing assistance, the law will:

  • Study the effects of cash payment increases;
  • Establish community grants up to $50 million for nonprofits serving needy families;
  • Create a $182 million pilot program for new nonprofits; and
  • Limit the amount Tennessee can build in its reserve moving forward.

Senate Bill 114, co-sponsored
The bill started out by creating a minimum wage of $15 an hour for workers who provide care to people with disabilities on behalf of the Department of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities. Due to resistance from some Republicans, the bill was amended to $12.50 an hour. It’s not good enough to address the shortage of care workers, but it is progress.

Extremism, wealthy special interests overlook incremental progress

Unfortunately, the first year of the 112th General Assembly will not be known for the small, incremental progress we achieved.

Instead, people will remember the 2021 legislative session for the controlling party’s obsession with nationally-driven culture war politics, extreme measures that threaten Tennessee’s long-term success, and a complete disregard for the big challenges that families face in our state.

With a budget surplus of more than $2 billion, the General Assembly had an opportunity to make a big difference in healthcare affordability, accessible child care, or investments in education, but those priorities were largely ignored.

Fighting for everyday people in the Tennessee General Assembly