You will, within the next year, be able to drink alcohol legally at Thompson-Boling Arena during concerts and at a planned restaurant at Zoo Knoxville.
You can buy raw butter from a Tennessee dairy, but not certain meat products directly from the farm.
If you work in most professions that paid a $400 annual “privilege tax,” you won’t have to again after this year. And you could hit the jackpot by online sports betting, but you’re more likely to lose and help fund schools, roads and other infrastructure.
Those are just some of the impacts of the laws passed by the 111th Tennessee General Assembly in the first year of its two-year session that ended May 2.
Though the Legislature’s work was largely overshadowed by scandalous revelations surrounding the House Speaker and his chief of staff, the Legislature was also notable for what it didn’t do. The Chamber followed about 180 bills that held implications for the business community. Less than 10 percent of those passed.
And as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally was eager to discuss with Chamber members, the state remains on sound fiscal footing.
McNally, an Oak Ridge resident whose district includes some of Knox County, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn, a longtime Knoxville state representative, spoke May 10 at the Chamber’s final Capitol Connections of 2019.
McNally, who previously served as chairman of the Senate’s Finance Committee, noted that the Legislature returned some $50 million to taxpayers, some by eliminating the privilege tax for 15 out of 22 professions and repealing the amusement tax on small gyms, fitness centers and health clubs.
As championed by first-year Gov. Bill Lee, the Legislature also allocated $225 million to the state’s rainy day fund, the largest ever one-time payment. The state also did not take on any new debt, McNally stated.
The Legislature’s fight over Education Savings Accounts, more commonly known as vouchers, overshadowed additional funding for K-12 and post-secondary education. In its final form, the voucher bill – championed by Dunn – only impacts Shelby and Davidson counties, both of which have at least 10 underperforming schools. Families in the Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts earning up to 2.6 times the federal poverty level will be eligible for the program, which will award them $7,376 annually for private education expenses.
While Dunn was ultimately successful in his push for vouchers, he fared less well with his longtime quest to make alternatives available to funds used for pre-kindergarten, which he contends has not proven effective for children. He sought to make grants available to schools that operate a pre-K program for use with other initiatives that may have better outcomes for students.
Lee and legislators also put some dollars behind their campaign promises to encourage more students to pursue a technical education that provides the skills needed for today’s trades jobs and accelerate students’ path toward college completion.
The number of so-called dual enrollment courses – i.e. both high school and college credits are awarded – that the state will pay was doubled to four per student; scholarships for high school students who enroll in a technical or community college full-time was increased from $600 to $1,000 per semester; and a grant fund of $25 million was established for local partnerships seeking to better align training with workforce needs.
Knoxville Rep. Rick Staples championed the legalization of online gambling, an endeavor that is expected to net the state $50 million. Eighty percent of the windfall is earmarked for the Lottery Education Account; 15 percent to local governments for infrastructure; and 4 percent to fight gambling addiction.
Several big businesses – including Amazon, Tennessee Titans, Hilton and others – denounced several pieces of legislation during the session they contended were discriminatory and harmful to the state’s business environment.
Two of the hot-button proposals – a bill allowing private adoption agencies to refuse placement to certain individuals and another related to school bathroom policies – were postponed until next year in the Senate. Lt. Gov. McNally acknowledged the financial implications of business concerns, while Speaker Casada dismissed them by saying businesses should stay out of politics.
Lastly, a bill related to voter registration drew two lawsuits before the ink on Gov. Lee’s signature was dry.
The law makes it a Class A misdemeanor for voter registration organizations to intentionally pay workers based on quotas; submit 100 or more incomplete voter forms and don’t complete state training; or if they enroll 100-plus voters and fail to ship completed forms by the deadline or within 10 days of registration drives. A class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to almost a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office said the bill was necessary – the strictest in the nation – because of many of the registrations submitted in the Memphis area by the Tennessee Black Voter Project included incorrect, incomplete or duplicate information. The situation landed in court weeks before Election Day last year.
The NAACP, the ACLU and other organizations have sued the state over the law.