NASHVILLE - New tough-on-crime measures, a record-busting $52.8 billion state budget with a one-time break for Tennesseans' vehicle-registration fees, as well as a new K-12 school funding formula are among dozens of new laws and provisions approved by state lawmakers to take effect July 1.
Other measures becoming law include a bill under which Tennessee's Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission can overrule local school board decisions and ban certain school library books not only for that district but for systems across the state.
Another new law approved by the Republican-dominated General Assembly puts "natural immunity" from having had COVID-19 on equal footing with the benefits of having been vaccinated, despite health care experts who cite evidence to the contrary.
In the new spending plan for the fiscal year that starts Friday lawmakers voted to waive the state's sales tax for August on grocery store food and food ingredients. These are normally taxed at 4% by the state. Local sales taxes, however, will still apply.
Lawmakers added a yearlong tax holiday pushed by Democrats to apply to purchases of gun safes and safety devices that takes effect July 1. And Tennessee is also maintaining its traditional sales tax holiday weekend on purchases of clothing, school supplies and computers July 29-31.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, was a prime mover on the idea to waive license plate fees this year.
"We had some conversations, some of us, about what we might do that would just affect Tennesseans," Watson said in an early May interview in the state Capitol after the budget bill passed.
Waiving the vehicle registration fee amounts to about a $121 million break for Tennesseans, Watson said. Tennessee's annual registration is $23.75 for cars.
New school funding formula
Also taking effect July 1 is Republican Gov. Bill Lee's new funding formula for K-12 education, dubbed the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement. Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, it will replace a 30-year-old funding formula, affecting nearly 1 million students.
Lee's plan launches with $250 million in one-time money for schools, coupled with another $750 million in recurring dollars going forward.
The old formula distributed money to the state's 147 public school systems based on enrollment and resources necessary for staffing, textbooks, technology, transportation, school breakfast and lunch programs as well as a multitude of other education costs.
The new formula sets a rate of $6,860 per pupil. It then distributes additional dollars based on students designated as economically disadvantaged or who have disabilities or other unique learning needs as well as come from low-income, rural areas or both.
Under the new formula, the Hamilton County school system is projected to receive $397 million in fiscal year 2024, $47 million more than the $350 million the system will receive this academic year, according to state Department of Education projections.
Democrats, a minority in the General Assembly, objected to the legislation, among other things saying that given Tennessee's 44th national ranking among states when it comes to public education funding, the amount doesn't come close to what is truly needed. Democrats also unsuccessfully sought to inject more transparency into what is included in the formula's per-pupil base and strip out additional funding for charter schools, which Lee favors.
Another bill taking effect seeks to enforce a measure passed last year that aims to block "biological males" from participating in girls' sports in public K-12 education institutions. The new law requires the Tennessee Department of Education to withhold a portion of state funds from public middle or high schools that allow "biological males" to compete in girls' sports at public K-12 schools.
Another law taking effect July 1, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, expands an existing requirement for teachers to be trained to detect and prevent human trafficking. It will now apply to all school employees who aren't contractors. The list of workers includes bus drivers, janitors and cafeteria workers. They would undergo the same human trafficking training as teachers do every three years. It includes how to identify abuse and report issues.
Gardenhire said by phone Tuesday the effort grew out of a local request.
"The Women's Fund of Chattanooga brought me that bill, and we talked about it a long time," he said.
'Truth in Sentencing'
The governor's relationship with fellow Republican leaders was put to the test this year over criminal justice issues after Lee in 2021 won approval for two measures that offer community-based alternatives to incarceration for low-level or nonviolent felons as well as help inmates with education and life skills.
This year, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican speaker from Oak Ridge, pressed a series of law-and-order bills, one of them a "Truth in Sentencing" bill. It's now law and requires people convicted of certain violent offenses to serve 100% of the sentence imposed by a judge before becoming eligible for release.
Lee refused to sign the bill, saying criminal justice data did not indicate the new law would achieve its goals. But he did not veto it, which allowed it to become law anyway. Sexton and McNally embarked on a ceremonial signing tour of the Truth in Sentencing bill in several cities across the state, including Chattanooga.
"Truth in Sentencing is vital legislation that protects victims and provides true accountability for those who commit crimes," McNally said in a statement. "The clarity Truth in Sentencing provides will serve as a critical deterrent against violent offenders. The costs associated with the law are well worth the peace of mind offered to victims and the overall boost to public safety. Tennesseans across the political spectrum want law and order in Tennessee. This legislation will go a long way toward providing it."
Lee also refused to sign a Gardenhire-sponsored bill changing legislative analysts' method of projecting the costs of housing convicted felons.
Lee also didn't sign a Republican-backed bill, now a law, that makes it a felony to camp on all public property unless otherwise stated. Critics charged it criminalizes homelessness.
"I worry about the unintended consequences," Lee said when asked why he didn't sign the bill.
The governor didn't sign another bill that removed his control over a majority of appointments to the state school board. The measure cut Lee's appointments from six to three and bumped up Sexton and McNally's appointments from two each to three. Usually, an unsigned bill is returned to the legislature. In this case, it was not, triggering a cottage industry of speculation as to why. Regardless, it takes effect July 1.
Lee also declined to sign into law another bill that established a three-year residency requirement to run in a congressional race in Tennessee.
"I think that finding the way forward, working together with the legislature, understanding the process, working to make bills something that we both can live with - we did that on a number of occasions," Lee said when asked by the Times Free Press last month why he hasn't vetoed bills with which he disagrees.
"But," Lee added, "at the same time, still expressing my concerns and the things that we want to look at closely going forward."
The Tennessee Constitution makes it fairly easy for state lawmakers to override a governor's veto. It takes the same simple majority of votes to override a veto as it took to pass the bill originally.
In the House, that means getting 50 of the 99 representatives to pass a bill or override a veto. In the Senate, it takes 17 of the 33 members to pass a bill or override a governor's veto.
While Republicans' supermajorities in the House and Senate are so large they can conduct business without a single Democrat present, Democrats claimed a number of victories this year.
- Reducing red tape for barbers and beauticians.
- Protection for contract workers with a law that requires ride-share companies to inform contract workers about possible deficiencies in their auto insurance coverage.
- A bill requiring state officials to develop passenger rail recommendations that would connect majority Tennessee cities, including Chattanooga, to Amtrak, which is eyeing expansion after receiving some $66 billion from the Biden administration.
- Banning employers from paying subminimum wages for workers with disabilities. Federal law permits paying workers with physical or mental impairments less than the $7.25 federal minimum wage. The bill died last year. But Democrats resurrected it and passed it with bipartisan support.