Weekly Recap: Major Gun Legislation Reaches Governor’s Desk;  Lee Proposes $250M Mental Health Trust Fund for Students
With the calendar moving into April and leadership still targeting a late April / early May adjournment, committee chairs are actively pushing to wrap up their committee work to leave the necessary time to address the budget issues that typically dominate the last two to three weeks of session. With an estimated 1,000 bills on notice this week, the legislature may very well have reached the high water mark in terms of legislative activity.

“Constitutional Carry” Passes House; Advances to Governor Lee for Signature

One of the most heavily-discussed pieces of legislation this session has now passed the House and is headed to Governor Lee’s desk for signature.  The “Constitutional Carry” bill, as it is often called, allows adults ages 20 and older to carry open or concealed handguns without a permit, and allows members of the military to do the same provided they are 18 or older.  Currently, gun owners have to take a training course before carrying a handgun. 

The bill has been a centerpiece of Governor Lee’s legislative package for 2021, and it passed easily in the Republican-controlled House this week, by a 64-29 margin. Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) called the vote “a massive step forward for freedom in our great state.”  Tennessee issued 145,000 permits in 2020.   

Governor Lee Brings Back Push for Mental Health Trust Fund for Students

 This week, Governor Lee reintroduced a proposal for a $250 million fund for mental health services for school-aged children in Tennessee. The Mental Health Trust Fund would support direct clinical services in schools, mental health awareness, suicide prevention and other related concerns. The fund was originally proposed in the Governor’s 2020-21 budget, but was put on pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Lee says the pandemic makes mental health “important now more than ever. The challenges of this past year have complicated those mental health challenges for those kids.”

One in five children currently receive a mental health diagnosis, with most students receiving services through their school. The fund will utilize state dollars, but it is unclear when the schools will receive the funding.

Businesses to Decide which Health Guidelines to Follow under Passed Legislation

The House unanimously passed legislation Monday evening that allows businesses to decide whether to follow health guidelines issued by either state or local authorities during a pandemic. The “Business Fairness Act,” which was championed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), still requires businesses to follow public health guidelines, but allows them to choose between the state or local guidelines, which sometimes differed, with the state guidelines tending to be somewhat less stringent.  The impetus for the bill arose during the pandemic, when Governor Lee lifted certain statewide orders for the 89 counties that operated under the authority of the Tennessee Department of Health, while businesses in the state’s six largest counties – with their own, independently operating public health departments — were forced to continue to operate under requirements that were unique to those counties, which tended to be more restrictive. 

The bill also aims to protect small businesses and ensure they are able to open if larger businesses are allowed to open. In the spring of 2020, Governor Lee temporarily required “nonessential” businesses to shut down due to the pandemic.  Proponents of the legislation argue that tended to affect smaller retail stores, while the nature of operations of some larger stores such as Target and Walmart placed them into the “essential” category, thus allowing them to remain open. Once the Governor lifted those restrictions, the proponents argue, businesses in some counties were allowed to reopen while certain businesses in the large counties with their own health departments were often required to remain closed.   

The legislation passed unanimously in both chambers and heads to Governor Lee for signature.

Legislation to Prohibit Government from Requiring Vaccine Advances

With the hallway outside its meeting room clogged with anti-vaccine protesters —  a first for this Covid-19 legislative session — the Senate Health & Welfare Committee advanced legislation yesterday to prohibit governments from requiring Tennesseans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Senator Janice Bowling (R- Tullahoma) presented the bill, stating people are afraid of the government and they have a right to be. The legislation would prohibit the Governor from issuing executive orders, as well as prohibit departments and agencies from issuing rules mandating that residents receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Hospitals, long-term facilities and public universities controlled by the state will be excluded.

Despite clearing an important hurdle in the Senate, the legislation still has work to do in the House, where it was moved to the final calendar of the House Health Committee due to concerns over which government entities should be allowed to require vaccines.

More Committees Targeting Closure

 Several committees and subcommittees officially closed this week, with one of the most significant committees in the entire legislature – Senate Commerce – targeting the end of next week to complete its work for the year.  Observers will note that while a number of committees are on what are referenced as their “final calendar,” it may take multiple meetings over days or weeks to actually complete that work. Along those lines, Senate Judiciary will begin to work through its final calendar next week, but may not complete its work until the week of April 12.  It is also important to note that even a closed committee is subject to be reopened at the call of the Chair, which is a phenomenon that is frequently observed in the closing days of session. 

With so many committees on final calendars, please take a close look at your bill tracking report.  Any bill that has not begun to move through the legislative process is highly unlikely to move at all this year, absent unusual circumstances.  Please note however that as 2021 is the first year of a two-year General Assembly, any bill that does not make it into law this year is still subject to be revived in 2022 as long as it has not been voted down in committee.

As always, please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions. Have a safe and joyous Easter weekend.