Expulsions, takeover, and culture wars mar tense Tennessee legislative session.
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Session is finally over, and it is safe to say it has been an exhausting few months.
The final four weeks of the legislature saw the state barrel toward an early finish, as thousands protested for more gun reform.
Plenty of other legislation passed this year, too, though.
Here’s a breakdown of all that went down in a final wrap of the session.
Expulsions bring Tennessee to the center
The vote to expel Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville), Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) and Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) essentially took a torch to a powder keg covered in gasoline.
With the state and the city of Nashville already reeling from the Covenant shooting and weeks of protest, the expulsion proceedings brought even more scrutiny to the Capitol.
National, and even international, media descended on the capital city, as lawmakers were bent on turning Tennessee from ‘America – at its best’ to ‘America – the land of questionable choices.’
The House expelled Jones and Pearson while retaining Johnson. The pair found their way back less than a week later when their respective county commissions voted them back.
In the first 24 hours following the expulsion, they raised over $425,000 (you can’t raise money while in session but once expelled, they no longer had to play by those rules).
Jones and Pearson now have a war chest for their re-election campaign and national name recognition. In addition, they got to meet the president.
Whether you agree with them or their politics doesn’t really matter. This really, really worked out in their favor.
State v Local (Metro-Nashville)
There were no short of six bills going after the city of Nashville that passed this legislative session and several that didn’t pass, too.
Back after the city denied the 2024 RNC, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) told News 2 that retribution was coming.
And come, it did.
The state voted to slash Metro Council, take over nearly half the seats on the BNA Airport Authority and Metro Sports Authority, cut the police community oversight board, change the tax structure of the Music City Center, and change voting structure at the Fairgrounds Speedway.
The law to halve Metro Council won’t go into effect until at least 2027, as a three-judge panel granted an injunction after the city filed suit.
After all the blowback, it appears that Nashville will play ball for the 2028 RNC, but there’s still a long road ahead.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) has made his money by waging what he calls a “war on woke.”
It appears Tennessee legislators are trying to cash in on that same ideology.
Bills to attack the LGBTQ+ community were rife this session, as the state voted to bar children’s gender-affirming care, ban drag shows for anyone under 18, protect teachers who intentionally use the wrong pronouns for a student, regulate private school sports for transgender students, codifying the term ‘sex’ as how you were born and more.
The Washington Post reports Tennessee introduced 27 bills going after the LGBTQ+ community.
You might remember much of the conversation actually started last year when an extreme right-wing commentator posted about Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital’s treatment of minors. But if left-wing outlets posted about the opposite effect, it largely went unnoticed.
The escalation of ‘culture wars’ is going on around the country, and this session, Tennessee found itself leading the front lines.
There was gun reform in the state this session, but maybe not quite like you’re thinking.
Though it wasn’t in the legislature, lawmakers still saw Tennessee lower its open carry law from 21 to 18. The Attorney General struck a deal with a far-right gun group after the group pressed a suit against Tennessee, arguing its current (now previous) gun law is unconstitutional.
At the same time, the legislature did debate on a similar bill to codify the same rule in the state code—though that bill was ultimately tabled till next year.
The state did pass another separate gun bill that’s set to take effect July 1, though it’s waiting on leadership to sign off on it.
It would give protection to gun manufacturers if people commit crimes with their weapons. You might remember Sandy Hook victims’ families settled with the gun company Remington following the massacre.
In Tennessee though, that company would be protected once this goes into effect.
As for actual gun safety regulations, the state passed nothing.
Toll or choice lanes?
Whatever you want to call them, they passed.
The legislature is investing an enormous $3.3 billion when it comes to infrastructure projects in Tennessee. Really, in this reporter’s opinion (this is not an opinion column, but just this once, I’ll share mine), the investment is needed, at least at some rudimentary level. Traffic is bad, potholes are bad, infrastructure is bad.
That much is universally agreed upon.
The debate comes in when trying to figure out how to invest that money. Democrats pushed back on the “choice lanes” debate, arguing they’re essentially toll lanes (kind of like they have in Virginia or Texas). Republicans say you don’t have to use them, it’s a choice.
Either way, they’re coming. That $3.3 billion will be split among the four TDOT regions with roughly $750 million going to each one.
Abortion exceptions…or lack thereof
To be clear: Tennessee did pass an abortion exception this year. However, it is extraordinarily narrow.
The bill gets rid of the “affirmative defense” language and replaces it with “reasonable medical judgment.”
It also adds exceptions for abortions performed due to ectopic or molar pregnancies.
There was a lot of debate about whether Republicans bent over to conform to Tennessee Right to Life, and Democrats were frustrated that the bill changed so much over time.
But, ultimately, the narrow language passed.
Teacher pay raises but not without a caveat
Teacher pay is going to increase to a $50,000 floor in Tennessee.
But Republicans attached an anti-union stipulation in there to force Democrats to make a choice: either vote against teachers or vote against unions.
It was essentially a poison-pill tactic that Democrats, being in the superminority, had to bow to.
A lack of green
No shortage of money in Tennessee, but there is a big shortage of cannabis.
With arguably more momentum than ever before, lawmakers shot down several attempts to legalize cannabis in Tennessee, either medically and recreationally.
Even though it polls enormously high, lawmakers say voters aren’t willing to make-or-break their votes based cannabis (as opposed to something like abortion, which voters might be more fluid).
While states like Illinois rake in copious amounts of money, several Republican lawmakers continuously balked at the idea of legalization.
At the same time, Kentucky legalized medical cannabis while Missouri legalized recreational and the North Carolina Senate passed a medical bill (it still awaits approval from its House).
All of the rest (also what didn’t happen)
After the Covenant shooting, lawmakers passed a bill aimed at hardening schools with more SROs, behavioral health funding and other measures.
Third-grade retention changes that take effect next school year passed. They eased up on some of the requirements for retention while also allowing schools to assist in the appeals process.
Private school voucher programs expanded to Hamilton County. The bill originally also included Knox County, but the Knox County Senate delegation nixed that.
Religious non-profit partners of the governor can now receive state dollars. Previously, they could not.
The grocery tax holiday will be three months later this year, as opposed to the one-month holiday last year. Gov. Lee baked that into his budget, approved by the legislature.
A bill to require the TBI to eliminate its sexual assault kit backlog and start turning over kits in 30 days failed. Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) sponsored the bill and was furious that it didn’t pass.
A safe gun storage bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) got delayed. It would have enacted harsher penalties for people who leave their firearms unattended. It got nixed till 2024.
A bill to provide free breakfast and lunch in all public schools failed. The House sponsor told WKRN he pulled the bill because lawmakers would never approve the budget it would require.
DCS got a big boost in this year’s budget. The department, though not without its controversy, has taken some steps toward stability, as no more children are sleeping in offices.
Chris O’Brien is the State Capitol Reporter for WKRN. You can reach him at co’firstname.lastname@example.org (yes on the apostrophe).