Political notebook: Bill to provide PTSD coverage for firefighters moving in legislature

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Firefighters from Cleveland and across Tennessee stand with Jennifer Samples, a Cleveland, Tenn., police officer, in 2022, as they advocate for the James “Dustin” Samples Act, which requires Tennessee firefighters’ post-traumatic stress disorder problems be covered under state workers' compensation laws. Sample’s husband, Cleveland Fire Department Capt. James “Dustin” Samples, took his life in 2020 following a yearslong struggle with PTSD.

NASHVILLE -- Although Gov. Bill Lee last week signed into law a bill banning gender-affirming health care for transgender children in most cases, much of the national -- and international attention -- has been on a second bill the Republican signed.

That's the bill that bans performances of "adult-oriented" entertainment, including "male and female impersonators," on public property or in other venues if the performance is sexually explicit and deemed "harmful to minors."

The ban on gender-affirming care for minors had complete support from GOP lawmakers, who hold super majorities in both the Senate and House. Most Democrats opposed the legislation.

By Friday, however, much of attention was on the law dealing with drag shows and popular "drag story hours," where queens read to children. The new law, which takes effect July 1, as well as the gender-affirming care bill even made it the White House briefing room podium, where Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about it. She said Americans were more concerned about "real" issues, such as inflation, the economy and safer communities.

"Right now, you have a governor from Tennessee (who) has decided to go after drag shows," Jean-Pierre said. "What sense does that make to go after drag shows? How is that going to help people's lives who are thinking about the economy, who are thinking about making sure their kids are going -- are going to be safe when they go to school or their communities are safe? But that's what he wants to focus on."

Before signing the bill, a 1977 high school year book photo of the governor was posted on Twitter showing the then-teenaged Lee, a player on the football team, wearing a girl's cheerleader outfit and wig during a "powder puff" game.

Questioned last week about the photo after he toured an elementary school in Portland prior to his signing of the bills, a visibly angry Lee called it a "ridiculous question ... conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious question."

How local lawmakers voted on gender-affirming treatment, restrictions on drag shows

The gender health care bill mandates transgender children in almost all cases end current medical treatment by March 2024 and will prevent minors from receiving puberty blockers, hormone therapies or surgical procedures. It provides an exemption for intersex children who have a discrepancy between the external genitals and the internal genitals.

Sens. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Adam Lowe, R-Calhoun, voted for both bills.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat, voted for the gender-affirming treatment ban bill and against the drag performance bill.

Hakeem later told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he was torn over the gender-affirming care bill ban, saying "I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place." He added he was concerned about erring on the "wrong side," and worrying about decisions made when children are in early adolescence. Two other Democrats also voted yes on the gender-affirming care ban bill.

ACLU-Tennessee puts government officials on notice

Tennessee is the first state to impose restrictions on adult performances with children present, and Lee's signing of the measure made national news. And the issue could be fought in court.

"I want to be abundantly clear," ACLU-Tennessee Legal Director Stella Yarbrough said in a statement last week. "The law that was just signed does not make it illegal to perform drag in Tennessee. The law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene."

But, Yarbrough said, "We are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate, chilling protected free speech and sending a message to LGBTQ Tennesseans that they are not welcome in this state."

She went on to warn that ACLU-Tennessee "will challenge enforcement of this law if it is used to challenge a drag performer or shut down a family-friendly LGBTQ event."

Still, there is concern the law will have a chilling effect on such events.

Last year, a drag show event with children present in Chattanooga drew protests from conservative activists, although it turned out the performer was actually a biological woman. There have been similar actions elsewhere in Tennessee. The Senate bill was introduced by Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican.

Bill providing workers' comp benefits for firefighters' PTSD gains ground in legislature

After failing last year to clear its first legislative hurdle, a 2023 version of a bill seeking to provide workers' compensation benefits to Tennessee firefighters formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder is moving in both the Tennessee House and Senate.

House Bill 976 is titled the "James 'Dustin' Samples Act" to honor the memory of the late Cleveland city firefighter. Samples, a captain, struggled for years with post traumatic stress disorder, an ailment not covered under the city's worker's compensation plan. He took his own life shortly before Christmas 2020 amid continued problems stemming from work-related PTSD added on to his and his wife's inability to continue paying for treatment that had been helping, his wife, Jennifer Samples, has said.

Jennifer Samples, a Cleveland city police officer, has been joined by Cleveland firefighters, other firefighters from around the state, and the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association in championing the legislation. Sample's death, they say, symbolizes the personal trauma and the trauma that firefighters can face while saving lives and property.

"This bill isn't just a namesake for my husband but testament to his legacy of helping others," Jennifer Samples told House Government Operations Committee members last week. "Dustin would drop everything to be there for anyone in need, whether that was a call to duty at the fire station or a text from a brother in need. Justin knew what it meant to be there for others because he knew what it felt like to feel alone."

She said it's more than a suicide prevention effort, noting, "While I know this bill will save lives, it's also to save careers, marriages, families and relationships. You see, PTSD doesn't affect just the first responders. It affects the family, the whole department and, in turn, the whole community. I watched my husband struggle in secret and silence for years, scared to come forward and say anything due to shame and fear of appearing weak.

"When he was finally brave enough to come forward and say 'I need help,' we found relatable resources and referenced hard-to-get, hard-to-find administrative support, and the financial burden was high," she said. Samples later added: "I sit here for a little girl back home who dreams, who aspires to being a firefighter just like her daddy."

Last year's effort got tangled up in local government concerns about the financial impact, with estimates from local governments that it would cost more than $4.8 million annually. This year, the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee analyzed costs and looked at a similar program in Maine. It was substantially lower.

This year's legislation provides state funding through the fiscal year 2028-29 budget to see how costs play out in real time. The fiscal note estimates the program would exceed $445,400 in the fiscal year 2023-24 budget lawmakers are working on now with the funding kicking in midyear. The cost would be $890,700 in fiscal year 2024-25 and for several budget years following that. State support would end after December 2028.

After that date, local governments would fund the expenditures associated with the program.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.