The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of the 2020 Session
BY RON SHULTIS
After returning from the March recess at the start of June, the General Assembly officially adjourned for the year at 3:00 am last Friday. And just like everything else in 2020, this session was filled with surprises, twists, turns, and oddities. What people have tried to pass for years finally did, and much of what everyone expected to happen didn’t. For those of you who didn’t stay up to watch, we’ve got you covered on the biggest shockers from the 111th General Assembly.
The Good: Right to Work and Drug-Free School Zone Reform
In what was Beacon’s top policy recommendation of the year, the General Assembly took the first step to protect the rights of Tennessee workers by putting Right to Work in the state Constitution. As Beacon CEO Justin Owen recently wrote, Right to Work “means that workers in our state cannot be compelled to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment. It likewise protects the right of those workers to join a union if they so choose. Put simply, this is about protecting worker freedom.” Right to Work states like Tennessee have higher wage growth, employment growth, and population growth. Next year, the General Assembly will have to pass the measure by a two-thirds vote. It will then be placed on the ballot in the 2020 election for voters to decide whether to add it to the state Constitution.
While Right to Work passed its first time around, Criminal justice reform advocates have long tried to change the state’s drug-free school zone laws. Previously, any conviction involving drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, library, recreation center, or park resulted in an automatic mandatory minimum sentence and enhanced penalties. While protecting children from drugs is vital, the zones were so large that many people were arrested within their own home or driving along the freeway, completely unaware they were technically in a school zone. However, disputes over how to reform this law have led to proposed reforms dying year after year more than Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. But in this topsy-turvy world, the law was finally changed with the drug-free school zone distance reduced 500 feet. Additionally, judges now have the discretion to decide if the crime was related to the intent of the law: to keep dangerous drugs away from children, before assigning the enhancement.
The Bad: Local Property Rights Protections
This year, Beacon recommended two reforms to protect Tennesseeans’ property rights. The first reform sought to require local governments to issue permits in a timely manner and prevent them from “denying by delay.” Additionally, Beacon recommended placing limits on the growth of property taxes. Tennessee, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Hawaii are the only states that do not prevent large local property tax hikes in some form or fashion. Sadly, because taxpayer funded lobbyists were given a Fistful of Dollars by local governments, neither of these proposals got any traction. I bet Nashville taxpayers would really have liked that protection right about now…
The Ugly: Healthcare Reform
Even prior to recessing in March, the General Assembly was already considering reforming several healthcare laws like peeling back certificate of need requirements and expanding access to telemedicine. During the economic shutdown, Gov. Lee’s executive orders temporarily deregulated these laws, with telemedicine becoming more popular than ever before. In May, Beacon called on the legislature to make these reforms permanent. If there was ever a time to think and enact bold healthcare reforms, now was the time. Doing so would have led to expanded access to healthcare, higher quality care, and lower costs to consumers. However, in a bigger disappointment than the finale of Game of Thrones, the chambers couldn’t come to an agreement on either measure and adjourned, passing up the opportunity to change healthcare in Tennessee for the better.
Bonus: The Mixed-Bag (Innovation Freedom)
The ability for companies and entrepreneurs to innovate and bring their new products and services to the market without government interference is becoming more of a focal point of Beacon. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, governments, or even think tanks, won’t have all the answers. But innovators will. This year, there were two proposed measures around innovation. The first, proposed by Governor Lee’s administration, allowed innovative companies to obtain a waiver from certain rules and regulations for a period of time to test out their new product or service. Unfortunately, despite this proposal being about making it easier for new businesses to start, it was not considered essential to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and was not considered when legislators returned to session in June. Another reform that did pass allows companies like Amazon to test delivery robots on public sidewalks. Paving the way for these types of technologies will lead to investment and innovation in our state. Who knows, before long Amazon and others could test drone delivery services here in Tennessee. Imagine delivery services not needing to clog our roads. As Doc Brown said in Back to the Future, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”