Legislation to benefit veterans, tourism budget hearing receives committee approval

From the desk of State Senator Steve Southerland:

(NASHVILLE), March 19, 2021 – Senate committees continued to advance significant legislation and review substantial budgets this week, including a reviewal of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development budget, a bill to benefit service members, and a key proposal aiding small businesses. 

Tennessee Business Fairness Act

Senate Commerce and Labor Committee members approved Senate Bill 474, allowing businesses to remain open during a pandemic or other health emergency if they follow safety guidelines. The Tennessee Business Fairness Act puts all companies on the same playing field in a declared state of emergency, allowing all businesses to remain open regardless of size.  

We learned a lot over the last year about public health guidelines, essential vs. non-essential businesses, social distancing, and more during the pandemic.  We also learned that these restrictions impacted certain small companies much more negatively than others. Certain industries needed greater flexibility.

This legislation addresses those concerns in the future. First, it would provide greater flexibility for businesses to follow the public safety guidance – state or local – that works best for them, their customers, and employees. Secondly, it would ensure that government isn’t in the business of picking winners and losers like Michigan, where big-box retailers are thriving while small retailers remain at 50% capacity as of early March. 

The bill, which now heads to the Senate floor for final consideration, is supported by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

STRONG Act for Tennessee National Guard

This legislation, which passed the Senate Education Committee, expands eligibility to servicemembers for a master’s degree and certificate-producing programs. It provides tuition reimbursement for up to 120 hours for a bachelor’s degree, 40 hours for a master’s degree, and 24 hours for a vocational or technical program.  The legislation also provides reimbursement for up to 30 additional hours for any service member enrolled in ROTC or other officer-producing programs while pursuing a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree.  Students enrolled in officer-producing programs are required to take specific courses outside the requirements of their chosen degree. This requirement could lead to ROTC students hitting the credit hour cap before obtaining their degree and losing their additional reimbursement eligibility.  Finally, the bill extends the program for four more years until June 30, 2025.

The STRONG Act has boosted the recruitment of service members in the National Guard since its enactment in 2017.  This legislation aims to retain and renew more service members by offering additional education benefits.

Tennessee Department of Tourist Development Budget

This week I was able to oversee the completion of the Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee’s work for the year. As part of our final agenda, we reviewed the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development’s budget. Tourism is the second-largest revenue-generating economic sector for the state, right behind agriculture.

The department explained that their focus this year would be on promoting Tennessee goods and businesses. The department received $25 million in Cares Act Funds which they are using to promote safety and build consumer demand for tourism. The department used $15 million of the Cares Act funds for enhancing projects with destination marketing, regional tourism offices, welcome centers, and state parks.

Research conducted by destination analysts in summer 2020 revealed that Tennessee was in the top five most visited states. Of those top five, Tennessee was the only non-beach state. Even with this positive acknowledgment, there have been significant challenges faced by the department given substantial declines in leisure and hospitality that were the result of COVID-19 restrictions.

Still, departmental research found Tennessee to be one of only seven states that experienced a positive change in the average percent of consumer spending from April 13, 2020, until January 17, 2012. The department expects to see full recovery within a year and is requesting budgetary increases of $8 million for marketing and $2.2 million for rural tourism. We, as a committee, approved their request, which now goes to the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee.