The 111th Tennessee General Assembly completed its final order of business for the year in the early morning hours of June 19 following a marathon through-the-night session that began at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, June 18. The final hours were marked with plenty of disagreements between parties and chambers, with the latter preventing passage of at least two bills that were a priority for each chamber.
$39.4 Billion Budget Passed
The final act was headlined by a $39.4 billion budget that replaced and further trimmed a budget the legislature approved in March. The scaled-back spending plan anticipates a $1 billion shortfall in the fiscal year 2021 and, following a “stalemate” between the two chambers, eventually cleared the impasse in a conference committee.
The new budget closely resembled the one proposed by the governor and approved by the Senate the week of June 8, slashing a number of priorities initially proposed by the governor earlier this year. That, of course, was before the state was physically and financially rocked by two devastating tornadoes and the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are a few notable cuts to the administration’s original list of priorities:
- Reducing a $25 million broadband initiative to $10 million.
- Eliminating $6.6 million to launch a pilot program to extend TennCare postpartum health insuranceand $2 million for dental pregnancy coverage.
- Eliminating pay raises for teachers, state employees and legislators.
- Reducing funding for capital maintenance projects for state-owned properties and higher education institutions, including $37 million worth of projects at the University of Tennessee and $9 million at the University of Memphis.
Fetal Heartbeat Abortion Ban Bill Passes
As part of the budget negotiations, the House persuaded the Senate to take up the fetal heartbeat abortion ban bill. The bill bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is typically at about six weeks into pregnancy. The bill was part of the legislative package for the governor at the start of the year. Opponents of the legislation are criticizing the Senate for taking action on the bill after publicly stating that it was not on their priority legislation list for the June session. In the early hours of Friday morning, the Senate moved to suspend the rules and passed the bill on a party-line vote. It is expected that the governor will sign the bill in the coming days.
“Safe Harbor and Recovery Act” Stalls
A bill designed to encourage and stimulate economic activity by increasing civil liability protection against coronavirus lawsuits on behalf of essential businesses and others that reopen amid COVID-19 uncertainty, stalled in the early hours Friday. Despite support from a broad coalition of interests representing businesses, and those in the healthcare and education industries, the “Tennessee Safe Harbor and Recovery Act” ultimately failed because Republicans in the two chambers vehemently disagreed on the legislation’s effective date.
Senate Republicans and industry supporters favored retroactive application of the legislation that dated back to early March. House members and opponents, including the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association, fought hard against retroactivity and questioned the provision’s constitutionality. Notably, both sides relied on a 2010 opinion by former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch that addressed the constitutionality of retrospective laws in Tennessee.
Ultimately, Republicans in the two chambers broke opposite directions and held their ground following a conference committee that adopted the Senate version. After a bipartisan attack on the bill’s retroactive application, the House was four votes short of approving the conference committee report.
High Profile Healthcare Bills Stall
The disagreement between the two chambers extended to two healthcare-related bills that were extensively debated for the past two years. Both bills were passed on the Senate and House floors, but in different versions—and neither will become law. The House prevailed in a conference committee to require payment parity by insurers (the major point of contention) and broad coverage requirements for telemedicine services, but the Senate refused to consider the conference committee’s majority report.
The two chambers also reached an impasse on much-debated (and lobbied) reforms of the state’s certificate of need (CON) program administered by the state’s Health Services and Development Agency. Senate leadership consistently signaled an unwillingness to stray from legislation drafted and developed on the heels of a 2020 bicameral “CON Working Group.” House leadership viewed the Senate version as too limited. In the end, the two chambers were too far apart and despite appointing conference committees around midnight, the two never came to the negotiating table.
Such was a microcosm of the larger tension that played out in the waning hours Friday morning. Ultimately, the two chambers adjourned until 2021 without some of the formalities and courtesies typically afforded between the bodies at the close of a session. Immediately following adjournment, the media reported that members of the Senate leadership team discussed with the governor the prospect of a special session to reconsider the Safe Harbor and Recovery Act. Governor Lee has since confirmed he is considering it.
If you have any questions about the actions of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly, please contact the authors.