From arming teachers to corporate tax breaks: Tennessee’s new, extreme laws

Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a litany of starkly conservative laws this year, ceding little quarter to gun control advocates and democracy activists calling for moderation.

Related: ‘You have imprisoned our democracy’: inside Republicans’ domination of Tennessee

Providing government-funded vouchers to private schools

Bill Lee, the governor, put his political weight behind an effort to provide government-funded vouchers to private schools that could be used by any student in the state. That bill failed to reach a vote as the state’s outnumbered Democratic lawmakers, mostly from Tennessee’s largest cities, made common cause with a minority of Republican lawmakers from ruby-red rural districts.

A system of vouchers that any parent could access – including wealthy parents – would have been much more likely to subsidize children already enrolled in private school, a realization that helped doom the bill, said JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Teachers of Tennessee, an education policy non-profit.

“Every legislative proposal gets entangled in political theatrics, and this universal voucher bill was no exception,” he said. “School choice options already exist in the state. Governor Lee’s proposal was poorly written, arriving late in session and had zero accountability in the plan. Both chambers understood the long-term financial implications of the plan and tried to address weaknesses.”

Supporters described it as a means of offering options to poor children in underperforming schools. Republicans in rural districts who opposed the bill said there were too few private options in their districts to justify the potential harm to their fragile public school systems.

“We spent almost the entire legislative session talking about school vouchers, when the overwhelming majority of Tennesseans were against school vouchers,” said Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, a progressive advocacy organization. “In the end, it did lose. But that kind of sucked all the oxygen out of the room for most of the session.”

Some Republican lawmakers are facing primary challenges now, as advocates for private schools turn their political machinery on holdouts while others challenge legislators who voted for the bill.

“Several of them signed on as co-sponsors of the voucher bill very late in the game, and they had already had primary challengers filed and validated to be on the ballot,” said Jody Barrett, a freshman state Republican representative from rural counties south and west of Nashville. “So, you can’t say that that’s why they decided to run against them. But I think it’s clearly going to be something that will be heavily emphasized in those races.”

We spent almost the entire legislative session talking about school vouchers, when the overwhelming majority of Tennesseans were against …

Michele Johnson

Tax breaks to corporations to the tune of $1.55bn

Debate over school vouchers may have obscured attention on a billion-dollar change to corporate tax law enacted this year in Tennessee, Barrett said. Lawmakers dropped a state property tax on corporations representing about $400m in annual revenue. The legislation also allows corporations to file for a rebate on those taxes paid over the last three years, requiring Tennessee to set aside $1.55bn in reserves to service those rebates.

“I think in years past, that would have been something that would have gotten much more attention and coverage from the media if there wasn’t this kind of headline grabbing fight over the voucher bill,” Barrett said. “Those are huge numbers, not only from recurring costs going forward, but a one-time hit.”

For the moment, Tennessee’s conservative voters are more focused on immigration policy and inflation worries than they are on the details of the state’s $56.2bn budget, Barrett said.

Civil penalties for aiding minors with abortion

Meanwhile, the state’s Democrats are still reeling from attacks on progressive policies at the state and municipal level and Republican efforts to expand gun rights.

Tennessee lawmakers created civil penalties for an adult who helps a minor cross state lines to travel for gender-affirming care, allowing parents to sue people providing such assistance. Tennessee already bans gender-affirming care for minors. Lawmakers also criminalized assistance by adults helping minors seek an out-of-state abortion without a parent’s approval, establishing the practice as a Class A misdemeanor with penalties up to one year in jail.

Restricting library materials

A bill that would have banned LGBTQ+ flags at public schools failed to advance, largely on constitutional concerns. But lawmakers added restrictions on library materials containing “objectionable” material and mandate that students watch fetal development programming with an anti-abortion theme. Schools that do not inform the parents of students who have confided plans to transition to a different gender or are using different pronouns will face now punishment under Tennessee law.

Arming public school teachers and staff with guns

Among the more strident bills passed last month was a measure to allow teachers to arm themselves in class. Though the new law allows school districts to opt out of the policy, its passage came despite howls of contempt raining down from the galleries from gun control advocates who have been pressing for change following the Covenant school mass shooting of 2023. House lawmakers cleared the galleries before voting 68-23 to pass the bill.

Johnson said she viewed it as an act of indifference to the political forces unleashed by the Covenant school shooting in Nashville last year.

Related: Tennessee passes bill to allow teachers to carry concealed guns despite protests

“It really radicalized a lot of Republican moms who have basically held vigil with legislators. And these are folks who are connected, who donate and vote,” she said. “The fact that they passed arming teachers was kind of like … we don’t really care what the people think.”

The bill allowing teachers to carry guns was part of a series of bills addressing school safety, including new legislation raising the criminal penalties for threatening a mass shooting, mandatory instruction on firearms safety for children, safety training for school bus operators and adding active-shooter protocols for fire alarms.

Cities like Nashville and Memphis are broadly constrained by state law and court’s interpretation of the second amendment in their ability to pass local legislation restricting firearms. Increasingly, they are being preempted by state law in their approach to police brutality and other areas in conflict with conservative orthodoxy. Legislators disbanded citizen review panels created by Nashville and Memphis in the wake of the Tyre Nichols killing, for example.

Creation of development authority not requiring state leaders

Some of the rancor between Nashville and conservative Tennessee leaders may be abating, at least when they can all agree that making money is a good thing.

Lawmakers approved the creation of the East Bank Development Authority without requiring state leaders to dominate its board, a welcome relief for Nashville leaders looking at a massive neighborhood redevelopment project akin to the construction of a second downtown for Nashville to accompany the construction of a new stadium for the Tennessee Titans football team.

“This is a generational decision,” said Peter Westerholm, policy director for the Greater Nashville regional council. “Whatever gets built there is likely going to … have a 100 year impact in terms of the importance of trying to get it as right as possible.”

For a moment, the development authority looked like it may get swept up in the partisan committee fights of the day, but it managed to slip through unscathed. Barrett does not think this means the larger ideological conflicts with Nashville are over, however.

“I’m sure there’s still something on the back burner that that it will linger for a little while. I don’t know that we’re singing Kumbaya together, or anything along those lines,” he said. “But I think this mayor has, after winning the election, has tried to make an effort to assuage some of those negative feelings between the two parties.”

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