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Adams and Reese Legislative Report – 4-23-2021

General Assembly Could Wrap Up Next Week; Opioid Abatement Fund Legislation Progresses

The 112th General Assembly could complete their work for the year next week, a bit of a surprising development given the recent narrative that adjournment would take place sometime the first week in May, but consistent with the initial projections offered by leadership at the beginning of session. The House could see the budget on the floor as early as Tuesday or Wednesday, and will also enact a modified version of the “flow motion” next week, allowing legislation to flow from committee to floor much quicker than is currently witnessed. If the past is any indicator however, any number of unexpected snags can derail the orderly and efficient conclusion of session, not the least of which is bickering between the two chambers, a phenomenon that frequently appears in the final days.  With the House Insurance and Senate Commerce Committees having finished up their work for the year, very few non-finance committees are scheduled to take action next week.

Opioid Abatement Fund Legislation Progresses 

In anticipation of the state reaching settlements with four major opioid-related entities, two legislative committees approved legislation this week that will help create a structure for both receiving those funds and determining how they will be spent.  The legislation, which has the endorsement of Attorney General Herbert Slatery, would set up an opioid abatement fund, create an opioid abatement council to oversee those funds, and allow the state to enter into settlement agreements with Amerisource, McKesson, Cardinal, and Johnson & Johnson.  The fund would also be the repository of funds from the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy. The legislation proposes a 60/40 split between the state and counties, respectively, and is patterned after the structure that the state of Kansas has established.  As part of the 60/40 split, the subdivisions and state would each receive 15% of the settlement with no strings attached, but the remainder would have to be used for abatement issues.

The legislation contemplates an abatement council that would have 15 members, with four each appointed by the Governor, Senate, and House, two selected by the counties and one from the cities. The council would oversee the funds and ensure the funds were going to opioid related abatement programs such as treatment, education, drug courts, and numerous data-evidence based programs. The use of the funds must be on the pre-approved list or approved by the council. Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) will be monitored carefully and guidelines will be established by the council to see the effect it has on patients, to ensure that patients are not simply swapping one drug addiction with another. Attorney General Slatery appeared in committee this week to answer questions and show support.

Creation of New Chancery Court Legislation Advances 

While a number of legislators have offered proposals this session to change the courts and judges that deliberate cases where the state is a party – including cases that deal with election law and redistricting issues as well as those concerning the constitutionality of a state statute or legislative action — one bill emerged this week with the support of Lt. Governor Randy McNally.  That will create a statewide chancery court that would obtain jurisdiction on constitutional challenges and other types of cases involving the state, instead of every decision at the trial court level being decided by Davidson County (Nashville) judges, as has traditionally been the practice. Under the bill, the governor would appoint three chancellors, one from each grand division, and those judges would subsequently stand for election. In presenting the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate sponsor Mike Bell (R- Riceville) – who also chairs the committee — asked rhetorically,  “why should judges who are elected by the most liberal constituency in the state… why should they be the ones deciding cases that affect the state in general?”

The legislation states that the statewide chancery court would have original jurisdiction in a number of situations related to the state, including constitutional challenges, state statues, executive orders, administrative rules or regulations, as well as situations where the state is a party and the plaintiff is seeking declaratory orders or injunctive relief.

This bill, and others like it, mirrors the frustration felt by some in state government over recent rulings from Davidson County judges on state-related issues, including some high-profile election law rulings last summer. Those rulings particularly attracted the ire of Republican legislators, as evidenced by a GOP-led House resolution to have one Davidson County judge removed from office. While that resolution died in subcommittee, it did not stem the tide of attempts to change how lower court cases involving the state are handled.  With Nashville growing more Democratic, and having a position akin to an island of blue surrounded by a sea of Republican red in most other counties of the state, the judges in Davidson County have been increasingly under the microscope at the General Assembly. 

The bill moves on to Senate Finance, Ways and Means and House Finance, Ways and & Means Subcommittee next week.

 Solicitor General Legislation Halted for the Year 

Legislation that would move the solicitor general position under the General Assembly and have that position defend the constitutionality of state laws was postponed until 2022. The position currently is housed under the Attorney General’s office, which raised concerns the move could violate separation of powers. Tennessee is the only state that has their Supreme Court appoint their Attorney General, an issue for the Senate sponsor, Paul Bailey (R- Sparta), who argued that he wants someone to represent the legislative branch and possibly work on their behalf when the legislature is at odds with the governor.

The Attorney General’s office said the legislation could lead to inefficiency for the state’s legal interests. After a conversation with the Attorney General’s office, Bailey agreed to delay the bill until next year to discuss solutions on the issue, and expressed a hope that a separate position can be carved out to serve as the legislature’s legal counsel.

Tennessee Unemployment Structure to be Cut with Legislation 

After a change of Senate sponsors, the Senate Commerce committee approved legislation to reduce from 26 to 12 the maximum number of weeks a Tennessean can collect unemployment. Senator Art Swann (R- Maryville), the original sponsor, stated that he no longer wanted to sponsor the legislation once the amendment was crafted to drop the number of weeks to 12, a figure that Swann criticized as being too low. Jon Lundberg (R- Bristol) took over the legislation for the Senate while Rep. Kevin Vaughan (R- Collierville) is pushing it forward in the House.

The legislation intends to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund balance, which has been below the federally recommended level for the past few years. It would increase the weekly unemployment payments up to $50. The shift to 12 weeks would not begin until July 2023, but would make Tennessee have the shortest length of time for an unemployed person to receive benefits.

The legislation comes from House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R- Crossville), and it appears that the measure now enjoys widespread support among legislative leadership.  It will be heard in Senate Finance, Ways and Means next week and is currently stationed in a “behind the budget” holding pattern in the House, meaning it must obtain budgetary funding in order to move forward.   

Looking Ahead 

            As the 112th General Assembly heads toward what could be the final week of the 2021 session, one can expect a busy few days. Budget negotiations will continue through the weekend, and the budget could potentially be on the chamber floors as early as Tuesday if things go smoothly.  Then there are the scores of remaining bills that need handling unrelated to the budget. All bets are off once the budget is passed however, as once it has completed its only constitutionally required duty, the legislature is known to adjourn with numerous bills still in the pipeline.   

           Stay tuned, and do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or concerns. Have a great weekend.

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