My 16th year in the Legislature may have been the most difficult one yet. Far too many Tennesseans are struggling with unemployment, caring for themselves or a loved one with COVID-19, or simply experiencing the loneliness that comes from lack of community. Amid this global pandemic, however, I think you can be proud of the work being done by our state.
Right to Work
One of the best ways we can help bring jobs back in Tennessee is to strengthen our Right to Work law, which guarantees you the right to hold your job, whether you choose to join a union or not. I’m proud to report my proposal to add the Right to Work law to our state constitution passed both houses of the General Assembly this year. This will protect future generations of Tennessee workers.
Twenty-seven states are Right to Work, and nine of those have constitutional amendments. Three of those are our neighbors: Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. But one of our other neighbors, Virginia, also enacted Right to Work when we did back in 1947 and seriously debated repealing it this year until the governor put a stop to efforts.
We can avoid such threats to our law in Tennessee by passing a constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments are hard to repeal. But they are also hard to pass. Next year, the amendment must pass a second time by an even higher threshold: a two-thirds majority. Then it will appear on the ballot in November 2022. We will need your support to get this across the finish line.
Right to Life
The life of the unborn is precious, and I was proud to cast my vote this year in favor of protecting life. After two years of discussion, Tennessee passed a comprehensive life-affirming bill as part of Governor Lee’s legislative priority to ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected. It’s a simple concept. The definition we use for life at the end of life, the detection of a heartbeat, should be the same one we use at the beginning of life. The law also prohibits discriminatory abortions based on the unborn child’s race, sex, or diagnosis of developmental disability. It represents the strongest protections for the unborn since Roe v. Wade was decided.
I have always been a strong supporter of the Right to Life, but this was my first vote cast on the subject as a father. Having heard my daughter’s heartbeat in the womb at a very early stage makes me have even greater clarity and conviction for my pro-life position.
Unfortunately, the new law has been put on hold by a federal judge. But it’s important for Tennessee to push back against judges who overstep their constitutional roles. This decision is being appealed and could reach the Supreme Court. While I was disappointed that Chief Justice John Roberts cast his first vote in favor of abortion this year, I am prayerfully hopeful that his courage will be bolstered by the addition of a new Supreme Court Justice who will vote to protect the most vulnerable in society.
Protection from Frivolous Lawsuits due to COVID-19
Tennessee businesses need help reopening, so they can hire back all their workers and get the American economy roaring again. The Tennessee Legislature did our part to help last month by passing legislation to ban frivolous lawsuits based on flimsy claims due to COVID-19. No one knows for sure where they catch the coronavirus from, so businesses shouldn’t have to worry about being sued for spreading the virus, especially since we included an exception for really bad behavior that amounts to gross negligence or willful misconduct. I’m proud of Governor Bill Lee for calling a special session to address the issue. It’s time to get our economy moving again in a responsible way.
Even in the face of an economic downturn, the Legislature was able to pass a balanced budget that keeps conservative fiscal management at the center our focus. I’m happy to report that our state sales tax collections came in $100 million higher than projected for the first month of our new fiscal year. Because we buckled our belt and remained focused on the necessities, we will weather this storm.
Health Care Funding
As the world moves through the Coronavirus pandemic, health care sits at the front of the minds of many Tennesseans. That is why the General Assembly provided $150 million to specifically address public health and safety issues related to COVID-19. The state also helped out local governments in Shelby County by sending over $10 million in direct aid. We take this pandemic seriously and are doing our part to combat it. I hope you will too.
Amidst the difficult budget predictions for next year, I am proud that Tennessee kept education funding as our #1 priority. By finding cuts to other areas, we were even able to increase funding for K-12 education by $50 million next year. That will fully fund the K-12 education system throughout Tennessee, as well as the pension plan for teachers and state employees.
I am glad that all our suburban school systems were able to open to some form of in-person learning this year. It is important for children to have social interaction while they grow and develop their brains. And science tells us they face little risk from COVID-19. As we have already seen, some schools may be forced to shut down temporarily, but that is okay and to be expected. Outbreaks among children are as inevitable as outbreaks among adults. I remain hopeful that Shelby County Schools will join the ranks of those meeting in person. Our children cannot afford to fall a whole year behind in learning. We need them to be ready to tackle the new economy.
I am sorry the state unemployment insurance program was overwhelmed with the number of claims from people losing their jobs due to the pandemic. On top of that, the software had to be adjusted to add the extra $600 a month payments from the federal government. The Administration hired more workers to try to handle the overflow, but unfortunately that effort was not enough to meet the needs of our citizens. Therefore, if you or a loved one from Cordova, East Memphis, or Germantown needs help receiving your benefits, please never hesitate to call or email the office. We will do our best to assist.
It’s hard to believe, but Tennessee’s nickname, the Volunteer State, was not officially recognized by state government until this year. Thankfully, we Tennesseans don’t need a resolution from the General Assembly to know of our volunteer spirit. We see it every day in fundraising drives and work campaigns after natural disasters. We see it in the volunteers who celebrated passage of the 19th Amendment, allowing women’s right to vote at the Tennessee Capitol, even in the midst of a pandemic. And we see it among our health care workers, police, and first responders who are working to keep us all safe at this time. Thank you for doing your part to keep us forever known as the Volunteer State!