Legislative Wrap-up: Chattanooga Chamber Focused on Economics, Health & Criminal Justice Reform

Justin Groenert, VP, Public Policy, Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce

Tennessee lawmakers have completed the work of the 112th General Assembly. The 2021 legislative session was a slow return to normal, as COVID-19 precautions relaxed over the course of the session.

As elsewhere, the pandemic became a critical focus. Early on, attention was squarely on the educational fallout for students who shifted to online learning last year. Gov. Bill Lee called a special session in the first weeks of the legislative session aimed at passing three important bills pertaining to literacy, teacher pay and standardized testing to allow school districts the necessary time to implement these measures. 

SB 7003/HB 7002, The Tennessee Literacy Success Act requires LEAs to provide foundational literacy skills instruction, provide reading interventions and supports and administer universal reading screeners to students in kindergarten through grade three to improve reading proficiency.  

SB7002/HB7004, The Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act requires local education agencies and public charter schools to implement a program of after-school learning mini-camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps to remediate student learning loss.

SB 7001/HB 7003 implemented a hold harmless provision in this year’s standardized testing for teachers due to the changes in learning in 2020. 

Key areas of focus for the Chattanooga Chamber during the regular session included economic recovery, economic and workforce development, health and criminal justice reform.

Economic Recovery

More than 30 bills were filed relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting state of emergency that saw governments institute restrictions on business operations. Less than a handful passed. A majority of them were favored by the business community’s lobbying corps around the state. Several examples of this include the exemption of state franchise and excise taxes from any relief payments businesses may have received from federal and state governments. In addition, the fall deadline for filing those taxes is pushed back to Nov. 15.

The Small Business Fairness Act allows any business that is following government guidelines by any agency of jurisdiction during a state of emergency like a pandemic to remain open. Similarly, legislation was passed that prohibits classifying workers as essential vs. non-essential, with several specifications.

Economic and Workforce Development

The $42.6 billion budget, one of the largest in state history, was aimed at one-time capital expenses and took advantage of one-time federal government funding. 

Chattanooga saw $2 million in state funding in the budget for the Trades Academy, a partnership between the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Association of General Contractors, the Chattanooga Chamber and other community partners aimed at getting students focused on trades programs and skills. 

Funds to provide state matching grants to entrepreneurs receiving federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants were included in the final budget. While its annual allocation was historically $3 million, the grant program increased to $7 million. Those funds will be used by entrepreneurial small businesses for marketing and other uses not allowed by the federal grants.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood authored a bill creating a child care taskforce to recommend a strategic action plan to guide the administration and general assembly on how to address the challenges of quality, affordability and accessibility of child care in the state. 

Career and technical education, apprenticeships and the creation of the Tennessee Work Ready Opportunity Program all moved forward as the state works to grow workforce.

Another top priority in the workforce space for the Chamber was the passage of the Right to Work constitutional amendment. Right to Work has been codified in Tennessee for years, but with the federal government taking potential steps to remove these laws from state books, the legislature has worked the past two legislative sessions to complete the process to amend this into the state constitution. Having passed two legislatures, the amendment will appear on the 2022 ballot for voters in Tennessee to have their say.

Health Care

Our health care system is of critical importance to our area and the business community, especially as the work to end the pandemic continues. Telehealth, which passed last legislative session, saw several bills adding language expanding it to allow out-of-state medical professionals to be covered and behavioral health services to be included. 

Certificate of Need legislation was also at the forefront of our legislative priorities this session. At the request of our four hospital systems and the Tennessee Hospital Association, we advocated for the compromise legislation allowing for an easier process for rural areas to gain access to hospital services, while protecting the current funding model for our major hospital systems in the state.  

Criminal Justice Reform

Gov. Lee campaigned on this issue and has made it a priority for his administration. After last year’s session was shortened and the focus shifted to the immediate pandemic response, criminal justice reform returned to the Governor’s agenda.

The Reentry Success Act aims to improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated persons by setting a framework for the state Board of Parole to evaluate release of low-level and non-violent offenders when they reach their release eligibility date if they have completed required classes and training. It also supports county jails in implementing evidence-based programs, including parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and educational opportunities. Another provision removes barriers by eliminating restricted driver's license application fees and authorizes parole hearings via video.

Alternatives to Incarceration will expand treatment services and community-based supervision for offenders as alternatives to incarceration. It allows a judge to examine offenders on an individual basis and expands low-level offenses eligible for referral to specialty courts such as drug or mental health courts. It also prioritizes community-based alternatives and, Gov. Lee's office says, “provides guardrails for swift correction” while maintaining “encouraging behaviors” such as keeping a job, remaining connected with families and support groups as well as community involvement.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

While the session saw a lot of positive legislation that makes the business climate in Tennessee great, there were several bills that were concerning to the business climate. Legislation was passed that required transgendered high school students to play sports based on their biological sex, requires schools to alert parents ahead of any lessons pertaining to LGBTQ issues, among others. A late caption bill was used to outlaw critical race theory from Tennessee schools. The Tennessee Thrives Coalition and members of Tennessee’s business lobbying groups worked to oppose and amend these bills as they moved through the legislative process, with varying degrees of success. 

As the battle for talent and workforce intensifies, we will continue to advocate for the most inclusive and diverse environment in the country.

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