On Monday night Governor Bill Lee delivered his annual address to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly. Aside from the presence of First Lady Maria Lee and Lt. Governor Randy McNally, both of whom are recovering from serious health issues, there was little to nothing positive about the evening. Lee touted his still secret voucher legislation and vaguely alluded to his impending proposal to overhaul the franchise tax. There was no mention of gun violence or substantive plans to improve the lives of Tennessee families – just more corporate handouts and enriching private entities with taxpayer dollars.
Senator London Lamar of Memphis delivered the prebuttal and rebuttal on behalf of the joint House and Senate Democratic Caucuses.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem of Chattanooga passed the first Democratic bill on the House floor this year. HB1170 requires the Tennessee peace officer standards and training (POST) commission to create guidelines on teaching officers the best practices for recognizing and responding to a medical crisis involving a person under arrest. During committee debate, Rep. Hakeem shared the story of a Texas man who died in custody because arresting officers failed to recognize that he was having a medical emergency. Senator Raumesh Akbari expects to present the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.
Unfortunately, Rep. Hakeem’s bill to create exceptions in our state’s draconian abortion law for victims of rape and incest and to protect the health of the mother was voted down in the House Population Health subcommittee this week. Hakeem’s HB1884 was House Democrats’ latest attempt to carve out exceptions to our state’s abortion laws.
Last year, Reps. Gloria Johnson and Chairman Clemmons both proposed legislation to create exceptions that were also voted down, and other Democratic members will have more legislation to restore women’s right and reproductive health freedom this session.
Representative G.A. Hardaway paid tribute to two Memphis trailblazers who recently passed. Flanked by supporters from the Shelby County delegation, he passed HJR0862 and HJR0863—memorials for long-time school board member and education advocate Sara L. Lewis and former city councilwoman and local leader Janet Hooks.
Representative Jesse Chism of Memphis passed a bill out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week requiring law enforcement to make an audio/visual recording when performing a formal interrogation of a youth offender. Rep. Chism says this added transparency will protect both the law enforcement officer and the youth in question. Chism’s bill, HB1602, now moves on to the House Criminal Justice Committee next week.
Representative Justin Jones passed HB2030 through the same subcommittee. The bill would expands state laws concerning ‘revenge pornography’ to include images created using artificial intelligence. The issue was brought to Rep. Jones’ attention by female students at Fisk University. Referring to the problem as “an alarming evolution of technological capabilities that currently exist in a kind of wild west outside of the law.”
Jones pointed out that bipartisan attorneys general and law enforcement groups across the country have called for creating laws to address the issue. The bill will be heard in the Criminal Justice Committee next week.
Representative Jason Powell advanced his bill to make Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” the official holiday song of Tennessee.
Lee, a longtime Nashvillian, was the first woman inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. She was only 13 years old when she recorded the Christmas classic.
Last year, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the very first time, 65 years after its release—the longest stretch ever between a record release and hitting No 1. HB1613 passed the Public Safety Subcommittee this week and is set to be heard in the State Government Committee next week.
TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY
As the Republican supermajority again targeted Tennessee State University this week, House Democrats continued to voice their support for the embattled HBCU, one of our state’s two land grant universities. On Wednesday, Republicans on the Senate Government Operations Committee voted to eliminate the TSU board of directors and replace it with a brand new board that would be entirely handpicked by Governor Bill Lee. Should the bill pass, the current board will cease to exist on June 30, 2024.
Representative Harold Love, the Deputy Leader of the House Democratic Caucus, acknowledged last year’s report from the State Comptroller but defended the current board by saying,
“Many of the recommendations that were made by the Comptroller for corrective measures have already been implemented by this board. They should be able to continue the work that they’ve started.”
He added that this is a critical time for TSU as it searches to replace current president Dr. Glenda Glover who is leaving at the end of the current academic year.
Rep. Love, who chaired a joint committee that investigated and documented how the school was under-funded by the state for decades, went on to say, “Churning over the board at the same time as a presidential search is underway could affect the candidate pool and have detrimental effects both in the immediate future and long-term.”
Representative Sam McKenzie, Chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, said the proud history of TSU needs to be respected by lawmakers:
“As one of the most prominent HBCUs in the State of Tennessee and its status as one of our two land-grant institutions, we need to show the University the respect it deserves.”
The Knoxville Democrat added, “The influence of TSU on this state and the world can’t be measured. From its renowned engineering department to world-famous alumni like Oprah Winfrey and Wilma Rudolph to its Aristocrat of Bands winning a Grammy just last year, we need to treasure TSU and support the work that is being done there and not make overly aggressive moves.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons emphasized that,
“TSU is an incredible asset to the city of Nashville and this entire state. Generations of students who have attended this storied institution of higher learning have accomplished great things despite our state’s inexplicable failure to provide it with the resources and funding it was due and rightfully deserves. While we certainly have a duty to hold the university accountable, I would encourage my colleagues to focus more on fully supporting and respecting TSU as one of our state’s preeminent institutions of higher learning and work together to create increased educational opportunities for future generations of Tigers.”
Rep. Love and Democratic leadership continue to work across the aisle with sincerely hope that a compromise can be reached prior to the bill’s passage in both houses which would allow some of the existing TSU board to remain intact.