I want to begin my second and final report on the 2021 General Assembly by personally thanking our representatives – State Senator Joey Hensley, Representative Clay Doggett, and Representative David Byrd – for their hard work and leadership.

I’m happy to report that they and other legislators made education a priority in 2021, including an investment close to home: $6.1 million to make Martin Methodist College part of the UT system. $5.1 million is an annual expenditure to support the school and its students.

Other post-secondary education spending will  –

* Help stabilize budgets in the state’s colleges and universities and keep tuition increases to a minimum;

* Eliminate current Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) waitlists; and

* Establish a new TCAT facility in Shelbyville.

Lawmakers committed $143 million to address student learning loss caused by COVID-19 interruptions. Teachers, schools, and school districts will not face negative consequences if student evaluations reveal learning loss. Attendance (or lack thereof) during the pandemic won’t affect Basic Education Program (BEP) funding to local school systems.

Legislators addressed a shortage of teachers by simplifying licensure for those moving to Tennessee from another state. Another change allows local school systems to create alternative ways for teachers to earn additional endorsements (change the grade level or subject they’re teaching), without necessarily going back to college.

Lawmakers removed common core materials from Tennessee classrooms, and prohibited the use of curriculum that says an individual, by virtue of his/her race or sex “is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” Another new law requires that student athletes compete based on their gender at birth.

Tennessee’s new Mental Health Trust Fund will expand clinical services provided to students in schools; promote mental health awareness; address suicide prevention, bullying and violence.

Lawmakers addressed general health needs by allocating $5.5 million in recurring funds to get more medical residents (family medical doctors, psychiatrists, and others) into rural hospitals. Studies show doctors tend to stay at hospitals where they complete their residencies.

A shortage of nurses led to a measure to allow unlicensed, recent graduates of an accredited nursing school to work under a registered nurse for up to 120 days or until they take the licensure exam for registered nurses.

The state budget reflects a commitment to job creation:

*7 million to support entrepreneurs and innovators;

*$24 million in new funding for rural economic development projects;

*$190 million in Fast Track Infrastructure grants;

*$8 million to expand marketing and tourism initiatives; and in another move that will help tourism,

*$30 million for deferred maintenance for Tennessee’s state parks, which had a record number of visitors in 2020.

Firearms, safety and Second Amendment rights were big concerns for the General Assembly. The state budget includes $150 million in new funding for criminal justice and public safety initiatives; $9.5 million to improve salaries for probation and parole officers; and $4.4 million for new agents in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations. Other measures include:

*A new gun carry law that allows residents age 21 and over to carry a gun without a permit if they have not been convicted of a felony, have orders of protection against them, pending charges or convictions of domestic violence or stalking, do not have a history of DUIs, are illegal aliens or fugitives from justice.

*A Second Amendment Sanctuary Act which prohibits state and local officials from enforcing anything that infringes on that right and creates a felony for any public personnel who gives information about firearm owners for a federal registry. Another measure prevents state or local firearm registries; another prohibits the use of local or state funds to enforce any regulation of the sale of firearms, their accessories, or ammunition.

It’s obvious lawmakers had recent headlines in mind when they passed measures that:

*Ban chokeholds unless an officer believes deadly force is authorized; require chokehold training to be taught at police academies; ask law enforcement agencies to develop de-escalation policies; and require other officers to intervene in cases of excessive force.

*Increase penalties for criminals who evade arrest.

*Classifies the crime of murdering a first responder simply for the job they do as terrorism.

An additional $5.3 million was appropriated to fight human trafficking and support victims. New laws make sex traffickers ineligible for early parole or release, and ensure violent offenders who commit crimes against women and children serve 100% of their sentences.

Our four-legged friends are better protected thanks to the removal of “depraved and sadistic” from animal abuse laws, making cruelty easier to prove.

Another law, sponsored by Rep. Clay Doggett, requires that victim restitution be paid before court costs and other fines and extends the length of time that victims have to request restitution.

Senator Joey Hensley sponsored a measure requiring all absentee ballots to include an “easily discernible” watermark. Ballots without the watermark will be rejected.