News

National Democrats Back Mackler in Senate Primary

U.S. Senate Democrats are wading into the open Tennessee Senate race, backing Nashville attorney James Mackler over other announced Democrats, the Nashville Post reports. The endorsement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee favors Mackler over Marquita Bradshaw, a Memphis environmentalist, and Diana Onyejiaka, a Nashville-based consultant and professor. All three are seeking the Democratic nomination to vie for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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Lawmakers Want to Cancel Nathan Bedford Forrest Day

State Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, filed legislation this week that would remove Nathan Bedford Forrest Day as a day of special observance in Tennessee, the Nashville Scene reports. Governors dating back nearly a century have been required to declare the day a special observation. In 2019, Gov. Bill Lee drew national attention when he signed the proclamation. Lamar’s push comes amid growing attention to the state’s celebration of Forrest. Many have sought the removal of a bust honoring Forrest from a prominent place just outside the House and Senate chambers for years to no avail.

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TBA Launches New Legislative Updates Podcast

The General Assembly is back in session and so are TBA’s Legislative Updates! Hosted by Berkley Schwarz, TBA’s director of public policy and government affairs, and Adams and Reese attorney and TBA lobbyist Brad Lampley, the Legislative Updates podcast provides a weekly breakdown of what’s going on at the state legislature. The show livestreams on the TBA’s Facebook page every Thursday and is run in podcast form each Friday. The Legislative Updates podcast is available on the TBA’s website and anywhere you listen to podcasts. Don't miss the first episode featuring special guest Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, who talks about life as a lawyer legislator and the future of the professional privilege tax. 

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TBA to Focus on Professional Privilege Tax as New Session Begins

The Tennessee legislature convened this week in Nashville for the second year of the 111th General Assembly. The legislature is expected to take up many hot button issues, such as criminal justice reform, health care, medical marijuana and abortion. Additionally, House Majority Leader William Lamberth has indicated that Republicans will push for a reduction on the professional privilege tax, “as the budget allows.” At the end of the 2019 legislative session, the legislature voted to remove 15 professions from having to pay the $400 professional privilege tax. However, seven professions, including attorneys, continue to pay the tax. Eliminating the professional privilege tax is one of the TBA’s top legislative priorities this year, and today the TBA government affairs team joined the NFIB, the Tennessee Medical Association and others in distributing a joint letter to all members of the General Assembly asking them to eliminate the tax. For more information and to contact your legislators on this important issue, go to TBA Impact.

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Lawmakers Call for New Oversight on State Prisons

Following news of a negative audit for state prisons last week, House Minority Leader Karen Camper says the legislature should revive a correction oversight committee to hold the Department of Corrections accountable, the Daily Memphian reports. Others are going a step further suggesting an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or criminal prosecution may be necessary. Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said the department concurs, or concurs partially, with all of the findings but contends it operates “safe and secure” prisons and “provides effective community supervision.” In a statement, he said the department is dealing with the problems raised in the report.

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New Blue Book Commemorates 19th Amendment Anniversary

The 2019-2020 edition of the Tennessee Blue Book is now available and it honors the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Secretary of State Tre Hargett said the commemorative edition recognizes the steadfast efforts of Tennessee suffragists and the pivotal role Tennessee played in ratifying the amendment. The cover of the book — yellow — also honors the symbolic color of the national women’s suffrage movement. Published every two years, the Blue Book is the definitive manual on Tennessee state government featuring biographies of elected and appointed state officials, census data, election statistics, state history and more. Read more from Hargett's office or order your free copy by calling 615-741-2650 or emailing publications.information@tn.gov.

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House Speaker’s Chief of Staff Resigning Today

Days before the start of the new legislative session, House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s chief of staff Scott Gilmer is stepping down, the Tennessean reports. A legislative employee since 2007, Gilmer has served as chief of staff to three House speakers including former Rep. Beth Harwell and Rep. Glen Casada. His resignation is effective today. He will join the Path Company as vice president for business development. Taking over for Gilmer on an interim basis will be Holt Whitt, who most recently served as the speaker’s director of legislation.

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Governor Hopes for Medicaid Decision by Summer

Gov. Bill Lee says he’s hopeful the federal government will approve lump sum funding for the state's Medicaid program by this summer, the Tennessean reports. But he confirmed that officials have not given him a date yet. Tennessee filed a $7.9 billion block grant proposal with federal officials in November. If approved, state lawmakers would then have to vote on the final product. Lee said he is open to calling a special session of the legislature if one is needed.

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Kelsey Seeks to Add ‘Right to Work’ to State Constitution

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Memphis, is helping lead an effort to add Tennessee’s Right to Work law (enacted in 1947) to the state constitution, the Daily Memphian reports. Senate Joint Resolution 648 would add language to the constitution making it unlawful to deny employment based on membership in, affiliation with, resignation from or refusal to join a labor union or employee organization. To take effect, the resolution would have to pass in two sessions of the General Assembly and then be approved by a majority of voters in the following gubernatorial election.

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Bill Would Give Lawmakers Role in Refugee Resettlement

A bill filed by state Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, and Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, would change the way the state decides to participate in the federal resettlement of refugees. The new proposal would create a two-step process, Nashville Public Radio reports. First, local governments would have to agree to resettlement. Then the state legislature would consider the issue, with a two-third majority vote required to approve participation. Currently, federal rules rely on the governor of each state to approve statewide resettlements.

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Former Public Defender to Challenge Cooper

Keeda Haynes, a former Nashville public defender who went to law school after a five-year prison sentence, is the latest Democrat to announce a challenge to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, the Nashville Scene reports. Haynes left the public defender’s office, where she had worked since 2013, in December and is now a legal adviser for Free Hearts, a nonprofit organization that provides support to families affected by incarceration. In addition to Haynes, Cooper is facing local activist Justin Jones in the primary, as well as Meredith Mattlin, a Democratic socialist, and Joshua Rawlings, formerly a Republican. Cooper is seeking re-election to a 16th term in Congress. Learn more about Haynes’ journey in this recent podcast from the TBA.

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Rep. Phil Roe Will Not Seek Re-election

Rep. Phil Roe, a Republican from Jonesborough, announced Friday he will retire from the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of the current Congress, Chattanoogan.com reports. Roe, a retired OB-GYN, also served as mayor of Johnson City before running for Congress. He is currently serving his sixth term in the House. During his time in Congress, Roe has focused on veterans’ issues — serving as chair and now the top Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee — and has been an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act. CNN has more on his career.

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Republican to Run for Rep. Byrd’s Seat

Former Savannah city manager Garry Welch has announced his bid for the GOP nomination to represent House District 71, TNJ: On the Hill reports. That is the seat currently held by Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, who recently told colleagues he would not seek reelection amid allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls in the 1980’s. Welch, who retired in 2018 after serving 12 years as city manager, says he is well qualified to represent the district, which covers all of Hardin, Lewis and Wayne counties and part of Lawrence County.

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Memphis Rep. Wants Reduced Sentences for Juveniles Who Commit Murder

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari plans to revive legislation aimed at giving prisoners who commit murder as juveniles a chance for earlier release if they change their lives, the Daily Memphian reports. The Memphis Democrat’s legislation would enable juveniles convicted of murder to be eligible for parole after 25 years, instead of an automatic life sentence of 51 years, provided they meet certain requirements such as completing education courses and maintaining a good disciplinary record. In addition, the bill would direct the Parole Board to consider youth-related factors when determining eligibility for parole. Akbari introduced similar legislation in 2019 but it was not considered.

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New State Laws Go into Effect

While Tennessee's new law allowing would-be gun owners to get a concealed carry handgun permit with video training is garnering the most news coverage, there are 17 other new laws that went into effect on Jan. 1. The Times Free Press has a run-down of some of them, including new requirements for health insurance and medical billing transparency; new protections for elderly and vulnerable adults who are victims of sexual exploitation; a requirement that the state health insurance plan allow proton radiation therapy to treat cancer; a new grant program for volunteer fire departments; and new requirements for residential contractors.

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Gov. Lee Names Mae Beavers to Parole Board

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has appointed former Republican state Sen. Mae Beavers to serve on the state Board of Parole, the Commercial Appeal reports. Beavers, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018, will begin a six-year term this week. Board members are paid approximately $102,000 a year. In other news, Beavers has sued Mt. Juliet Republican Susan Lynn, alleging that the state representative spread rumors about Beavers breaking into her home and trying to have her killed. Beavers also has accused Ann Calabria, a former county election commissioner, of defaming her character. Beavers says the lawsuits will not affect her work on the board, the Tennessean reports.

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Parties File Final Arguments in Abortion Waiting-Period Case

A multi-year legal challenge to Tennessee’s 48-hour waiting period for abortions now rests with a federal court, but Senior Judge Bernard Friedman, a Michigan judge appointed to preside over the case, has no set timetable for issuing his ruling, the Tennessean reports. The 2015 law requires women seeking an abortion to wait 48 hours between receiving in-person counseling from a doctor and returning to a clinic for an abortion. Both sides submitted final written conclusions late last month.

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GOP Leaders Want to Forge Ahead with Refugee Suit

Despite Gov. Bill Lee’s consent to continue refugee resettlement in Tennessee and several losses in federal court, Republican legislative leaders say they will continue to push a lawsuit challenging constitutionality of the federal resettlement program, the Daily Memphian reports. House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally are prepared to move ahead with a suit authorized by the state legislature in 2016. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has declined to take the case so it is being handled by the Thomas More Law Center. The suit has lost at three levels in federal court, including two defeats at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The lawmakers are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will consider it.

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State Rep. Introduces Measure to Elect AG

State Rep. Bruce Griffey, a Republican from Paris, has introduced a joint resolution to change the process for selecting the state attorney general from appointment by the Tennessee Supreme Court to popular election, Fox 17 reports. The resolution, HJR 0657, also changes the term of the attorney general from eight to four years. The legislation envisions the new process would take effect with the November 2024 general election.

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Grills Elected to House Vacancy

Republican Rusty Grills won the special election last week to fill the vacant House District 77 seat in West Tennessee, the Nashville Post reports. Grills, a Dyer County Commissioner, will be sworn in when the legislature returns in January. He will succeed Republican Bill Sanderson, who stepped down in September to focus on his family and wine business. Grills won 85% of the vote, beating Democrat Michael Smith and several independent candidates.

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Capitol Commission Chair Commits to Meeting on Forrest Bust

Stuart McWhorter, the chair of the Tennessee Capitol Commission, committed this week to hold a meeting by the end of February to discuss the process for a vote on whether to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Capitol, the Daily Memphian reports. The commitment came in a meeting with Memphis Democrat Rep. G.A. Hardaway, who is chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. The commission declined to remove the bust two years ago when former Gov. Bill Haslam called for it to be taken out.

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Congress Approves $25M Increase for LSC

The U.S. Senate yesterday passed an appropriations bill that includes $440 million for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) — an increase of $25 million over last year’s budget and the largest appropriation in the agency’s history. The U.S. House of Representatives passed identical legislation on Dec. 17 and President Trump is expected to sign the bill today. According to the LSC, the majority of the appropriation is for basic field grants to fund the direct delivery of legal assistance. More than 93% of the funding will be passed on to independent legal aid organizations that serve low-income residents in every state. In a statement today, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez applauded Congress for increasing the funding.

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Court Blocks Legislator’s Request for Bluecross Claims Data

A federal court has blocked the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration from providing records requested by Rep. Martin Daniel, the Nashville Post reports. Daniel had requested all 2018 claims data related to state employee health plans. BlueCross BlueShield asked the court for a temporary restraining order arguing that providing the documents violates its contract with the state and federal law. The restraining order stops the release of the data until Jan. 17 unless the court determines the request actually violates the law.

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Republican Gillespie to Seek Memphis House Seat

John Gillespie of Shelby County will run in the Republican primary for the House District 97 seat being vacated by Rep. Jim Coley, the Daily Memphian reports. He will face Brandon Weise. A native of Memphis, Gillespie works as a grant coordinator for Trezevant Episcopal Home and recently received Coley's endorsement. Democrats also likely will have a contested primary with Allan Creasy and Gabby Salinas announcing for the seat.

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Blackout Period for Nonpartisan PACs Struck Down

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has struck down state laws that bar nonpartisan political action committees (PACs) from donating to candidates within 10 days of an election, the Tennessean reports. The state legislature had created a 10-day blackout period when nonpartisan PACs could not give to a candidate, though PACs controlled by a political party still could. The group Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws argued that the law created a double-standard that unfairly penalized nonpartisan groups. The ruling upholds a decision from the chancery court. The attorney general's office has not said if it plans to appeal.

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