NASHVILLE (AP) — Over the last four months, Tennessee lawmakers pushed through bills that would create a two-county expanded education voucher program, seek federal permission to overhaul TennCare through block grant funding and allow online sports betting in the state.
The Republican-supermajority General Assembly wrapped up its annual legislative last week, clearing those contentious proposals and others.
There were noteworthy failures as well. Lawmakers opted against legalizing medical marijuana in non-smoking forms, a proposal to ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected and a proposal that would have let adoption agencies reject prospective parents due to written religious beliefs.
The action next moves to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who will review a slew of bills that passed in his first year in office. However, he has said there are no bills he is considering vetoing. The closest call was the sports betting bill, but he has decided to let that one take effect without his signature.
Here is a look at some of the winning and losing bills of the 2019 session of the Tennessee General Assembly:
AMMUNITION TAX BREAK: Removes $435,400 worth annually of taxes on ammunition. SB423/HB494
BAN ON PLASTIC BAG BANS, TAXES: Bans local governments from regulating certain plastic bags, utensils or assessing fees on food and drink sales. SB431/HB1021
CHARTER SCHOOLS AUTHORIZER: Tweaks how Tennessee intervenes in charter school authorization cases by creating a commission to oversee such appeals. SB796/HB940
CHILD SEX DOLLS: Bans possessing, selling or distributing a child-like sex doll. SB659/HB1168
DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME: Keeps Tennessee on daylight saving time year-round — but only if Congress first passes a federal law allowing states to do so first. SB1100/HB247
DEATH PENALTY REVIEW: Removes one state court’s review before executing inmates and provides automatic state Supreme Court death penalty reviews. SB589/HB547
DRIVER’S LICENSE SUSPENSIONS: Allows people to still have a restricted driver’s license while they pay off their court fines. HB 839/SB 1143
FEDEX TAX BREAK: Awards FedEx $21.3 million in tax breaks for its $1.3 billion Memphis hub expansion. SB1161/HB1461
FISCAL REVIEW: Lets the House and Senate speakers appoint the executive director of the Fiscal Review Committee. HB1233/SB1235
GUNS, MENTAL ILLNESS: Outlaws transferring a gun to someone, knowing the person was committed to a mental institution or is receiving treatment, unless the right to have a gun was restored. SB1402/HB752
GYM TAX REPEAL: Repeal a $10 million amusement tax on gym memberships. SB960/HB1130
HANDGUN CARRY PERMIT TRAINING: Allows concealed carry of guns under a less expensive permit that doesn’t require live-fire training. SB705/HB1264
HANDHELD PHONE BAN WHILE DRIVING: Bans the use of handheld cellphones while driving. SB173/HB164
HYGIENE PRODUCTS FOR PRISONERS: Provides female hygiene products to female inmates for no charge. SB75/HB129
MEDICAID BLOCK GRANTS: Requires the state’s top leaders to call on the federal government to send a fixed amount of money each year in the form of block grants. SB1428/HB1280
NATURAL HAIR STYLING: Loosens state regulations surrounding African-style hair braiding. SB1185/HB320
POLICE OVERSIGHT LIMITS: Limits community oversight boards that investigate police misconduct, but maintains reduced subpoena power for them. SB1407/HB658
PROFESSIONAL PRIVILEGE TAX: Eliminates $22 million worth annually of professional privilege taxes on 15 professions, from accountants to real estate brokers. SB398/HB1262
ROE V. WADE ABORTION BAN “TRIGGER”: Ensures most abortions would be outlawed should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. SB1257/HB1029
SCHOOL SAFETY: Provides $40 million through grants to help pay for school resource officers and other safety priorities. Schools would provide matching funds to get grants. SB803/HB947
SPORTS BETTING: Allows regulated statewide mobile and interactive sports gambling for people 21 years old and up. SB16/HB1
VOUCHERS: Diverts more tax money to private education, gives participating families debit cards worth up to $7,300 in state education money each year. SB795/HB939
VOTER REGISTRATION PENALTIES: Allows voter registration groups to face fines for submitting too many incomplete signup forms and criminal penalties for submitting registration forms too late. SB971/HB1079
WATERED-DOWN BATHROOM BILL: Spells out that Tennessee’s public indecency law applies to single-sex, multiperson bathrooms and changing rooms. SB1297/HB1151
ADOPTION RELIGIOUS OBJECTIONS: Would have allowed faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with gay parents and other families because of their religious beliefs. SB848/HB1152
AGE LIMIT TO 21 FOR SMOKING, VAPING: Would have increased the age for tobacco and vaping device purchases to 21. SB1200/HB1454
ARMING TEACHERS: Would have permitted public school teachers to carry concealed firearms. SB1399/HB1380
BUSINESSES, ANTI-DISCRIMINATION: Would have banned cities and state agencies from taking “discriminatory action” against businesses if they have internal polices in compliance with state law. SB364/HB563
CLOSED PARTY PRIMARIES: Would have allowed only registered party members to vote in election primaries. SB1500/HB1273
DEATH PENALTY MENTAL ILLNESS BAN: Would have barred death sentences for people who had severe mental illness at the time of their offenses. SB1124/HB1455
E-VERIFY EXPANSION: Would have required more small businesses to use the E-Verify program to screen whether workers have legal immigration status to work in the U.S. SB1165/HB1239
FELON VOTING RIGHTS: Would have made it easier for some felons to get their voting rights restored. SB589/HB547
FETAL HEARTBEAT ABORTION BAN: Would have banned abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. SB1236/HB77
GUNS ON PRIVATE PROPERTY: Would have eliminated penalties when carry permit holders bring guns to some private properties and immediately leave when they realize firearms are banned. SB1401/HB545
IMMIGRATION LANDLORD PENALTIES: Would have banned landlords from renting or subleasing housing to people in the U.S. illegally. SB1167/HB614
INSTANT RUNOFF VOTING: Would have let Tennessee’s four biggest cities decide whether to allow instant runoff voting in local nonpartisan contests. SB970/HB599
MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Would have legalized and regulated medical marijuana in non-smoking forms. SB572/HB1011
SCHOOL TRANSGENDER BATHROOM POLICY: Would have authorized Tennessee’s attorney general to defend a public school’s transgender bathroom and locker room policy. SB1499/HB1274
SENATE CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTION LIMITS: Would have doubled individual and political action committee campaign contribution limits for Senate candidates. SB1009/HB1278
SENATE PAC LIMITS: Would have doubled state Senate campaign contribution limits political action committees. SB 1231/HB 1232
SHACKLING PREGNANT INMATES: Would have banned shackling pregnant inmates, particularly during childbirth. SB1150/HB1240
Top state GOP aide
resigns amid allegations
NASHVILLE — The Republican Tennessee House speaker’s chief of staff resigned Monday amid allegations that he sent sexually explicit and racist text messages, and after admitting he used cocaine inside a legislative office building when he held a previous job.
Cade Cothren stepped down late Monday, House Speaker Glen Casada said in a text message to The Associated Press.
The resignation, which Casada said was effective immediately, comes at a time when at least four other Tennessee lawmakers have faced high-profile sexual misconduct allegations.
Cothren, who earned nearly $200,000 a year, told news outlets the best thing for Tennessee was for him to step down so that he would not be a distraction to House and Senate Republicans. He became Casada’s chief of staff this year, and at age 32, was the youngest person to serve in the role in decades.
He resigned just hours after news outlets reported he and his boss had exchanged sexually explicit comments about women. First revealed in The Tennessean, the reports also alleged Cothren sent sexually explicit messages to and made “inappropriate” advances toward former interns, lobbyists and campaign staffers between 2014 and 2016.
The newspaper said the text messages between Casada and Cothren did not involve the former interns. The report did not say if they involved the lobbyists or campaign staffers. Other news reports surfaced Monday alleging that Cothren sent racist texts and used drugs.
Cothren released several statements Monday as the allegations surfaced, first admitting to using cocaine in a legislative office building when he was press secretary for the Tennessee House Republican Caucus several years ago. The Tennessean also quoted him as saying that he admitted making “derogatory” comments about women in the past.
He did not respond definitively, however, to allegations that he had sent texts using a racial slur and calling black people idiots. He told the AP that all of the accusations “are years old” and that he did some things in the past that he was “not proud of.”
WTVF-TV was the first to report on the alleged racist text messages, last week. The station reported the drug use on Monday.
Regarding the drug use, Cothren said in a joint statement with Casada that because of intense pressure and high expectations during his career, he “unfortunately turned to maladaptive coping mechanisms.”
“Like so many young, egotistical men aspiring to a career in politics that came before me, moving up the career ladder was met with unrelenting stress, peer pressure, and unrealistic expectations. I know that this is not an excuse,” Cothren said.
In the statement, Casada said Cothren told him of the drug use nearly three years ago, and that he decided then to give his aide another chance.
“Politics has become a game of ‘gotcha’ with no thought of forgiveness and starting anew. I choose to believe that we all deserve a shot at redemption,” he said. “I gave Mr. Cothren this chance to prove himself, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
After the reports of the sexually explicit texts emerged, however, Casada said that he would have to “re-evaluate” his previous position.
Cothren is not the first person in Tennessee political circles to face allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. In 2018, news outlets reported that three women had accused Republican Rep. David Byrd of sexual misconduct when he was their high school basketball coach several decades ago. Two women alleged Byrd inappropriately touched them. The third said Byrd tried to.
Byrd has not outright denied the allegations since they were first reported nearly a year ago, but has said he’s truly sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students.
Casada, who was running for speaker at the time, rushed to defend Byrd during his 2018 reelection campaign. Casada released digital ads comparing the scrutiny Byrd was under to that given to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump. And like Trump, he claimed that Byrd had been the victim of “fake news” generated by liberals. Meanwhile, former House Speaker Beth Harwell and current Senate Speaker Randy McNally, both Republicans, called for Byrd to resign.
In March, after protesters and victim’s advocates held multiple demonstrations objecting to Byrd serving in a leadership position, Casada asked him to resign as chairman of an education subcommittee.
Earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Rick Staples resigned from his leadership position after a House ethics panel concluded he violated the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.
Additionally, former Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham was expelled from the House in 2016 after an attorney general’s investigation outlined allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office. Former Republican Rep. Mark Lovell resigned in February 2017 after a woman accused him of inappropriate touching at a legislative event.