NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday adjourned for the year after spending their final moments slashing how long the unemployed can receive benefits, and banning certain concepts on race and racism from being taught in schools.
The GOP-controlled General Assembly had been meeting since January, with members often bucking public health guidance on wearing masks and social distancing despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Just last week, some members proudly removed the plastic barriers on the House floor that had been erected to help prevent the spread the virus.
As required by the state Constitution, lawmakers finalized a $42.6 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. The budget includes a one-week sales tax holiday on restaurants, bars and groceries, an infusion of cash into capital maintenance and improvements, and a big paydown into the state’s retirement system.
However, more contentious issues dominated the legislative session, ranging from targeting transgender students to abortion to guns.
A bill centered on restricting what concepts on institutional racism can be taught in school attracted some of the most impassioned debates. While most of the majority-white GOP caucuses in the House and Senate supported the effort, Black Democratic lawmakers warned the bill would make schools fearful to teach about the United States' history on race.
“Critical race theory is rooted in critical theory, which argues that social problems are created and influenced by societal structures and cultural assumptions,” said state Sen. Katrina Robinson, a Black Democrat from Memphis. “How ironic that a body made up of a simple majority of white privileged men can determine whether even my grandchildren can see reflections of themselves in the history lessons at their school.”
A last minute addition to the critical race theory bill would ban schools from teaching students that "the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”
“That is the very definition of critical race theory,” Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey, from Memphis, said. “I was subject to this teaching 20 years ago in law school and know it very well, and that is the very definition of it.”
With Republican support, lawmakers approved legislation that would make Tennessee the latest state to allow most adults 21 and older to carry handguns — openly or concealed — without first clearing a background check and training. Republican Gov. Bill Lee declared the measure a top priority for his administration despite many law enforcement advocacy groups standing in opposition. The legislation will go into effect July 1.
Tennessee is also expected to join a growing number of states to require medical providers cremate or bury fetal remains from surgical abortions. Republican lawmakers eagerly backed the legislation even as critics warned that it would stigmatize a legally available procedure.
Lee has yet to sign the measure, but the vocally anti-abortion governor signed one of the strictest abortion bans in the country last year. That law — which barred abortions at as early as six weeks — was promptly blocked from being implemented due to a legal challenge.
Earlier this year, Lee signed a proposal that would bar transgender athletes from playing girls’ public high school or middle school sports. That bill is expected to face a legal lawsuit.
Other transgender bills include a measure requiring businesses or government facilities open to the public to post a sign if they let transgender people use multiperson bathrooms, locker rooms or changing rooms associated with their gender identity. The Human Rights Campaign, which opposed the proposed requirement, says it would be the first of its kind.
A separate bill about bathrooms would opens up schools and districts to lawsuits if they let transgender students or employees use facilities marked for the sex opposite of what’s on their birth certificate. Finally, lawmakers passed legislation banning gender-affirming medical treatment for trans minors — including the use of puberty blockers and hormone therapy.
Lee has not publicly disclosed if he'll sign any of the above three bills, but he's never vetoed a bill since taking office.
On Wednesday, one of the last bills debated focused on slashing how many weeks unemployed Tennesseans may receive benefits. Under the bill, unemployment benefits would be cut from 26 weeks to 12 weeks — making it among the lowest in the country.
Additional weeks would be added if the state’s average unemployment rate goes above 5.5% for a maximum of 20 weeks should the unemployment rate reach 9%. Supporters argued the move will encourage people to become employed full-time.
Critics warn that the reduction would not help the state’s unemployed, particularly those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the benefit cap would go up to $325 per week. It was previously $275 per week. If signed by Lee, it would go into effect in late 2023.