General Assembly update from Sen. Steve Southerland

The Tennessee General Assembly adjourned the 2021 legislative session on May 5 and State Senator Steve Southerland gave an update on Senate activity.

The year began with passage of landmark legislation in a special session to boost student literacy and to help students recover from one of the most turbulent school years in state history due to the pandemic. The regular legislative session saw action to strengthen Tennessee’s economic recovery, expand broadband, prepare students for 21st century jobs, and improve health care.

The full Senate passed legislation that sets up a framework to maximize settlement funds Tennessee will receive from lawsuits surrounding the involvement of certain pharmaceutical companies in the state’s ongoing opioid crisis. Senate Bill 558 creates an opioid abatement fund financed by opioid-related settlement agreements received by the state from McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., AmerisourceBergen, and Johnson and Johnson.

The legislation establishes an Opioid Abatement Council that will provide broad input on how the funds should be utilized to best combat opioid addiction across the state. This will allow settlement and bankruptcy abatement funds to be released directly to the state rather than being held by a national administrator. Moreover, default provisions will be in place that will allow joint state-subdivision abatement councils and local governments to provide input on how the funds should be implemented.

The legislation also details how the fund will be distributed to the state and its counties, with 60 percent of overall funds going to the state and 40 percent to the counties. The state will be expected to use a large majority of its allotted funds to help target regional areas suffering from higher rates of opioid-related addictions, arrests, hospitalizations, and deaths. Counties will use their funds to target opioid-related issues closer to home. Furthermore, the abatement council must approve the methods by which a large majority of the funds are utilized. The council will also provide preapproved methods to make the implementation of the funds easier for county governments.

Since 2017, Tennessee has been a lead state in negotiating settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors. The goal has been to encourage counties and cities to join settlements, unlocking bonus provisions and maximizing the abatement and other funds flowing to the state and local governments.

Legislation incentivizing the safe storage of firearms was approved during the final week of legislative deliberations. Senate Bill 551 exempts the purchase of gun safes and safety devices from the state’s sales tax for a one-year period beginning July 1, 2021. The bill was funded in the budget passed by the General Assembly last week.

Legislation seeking to improve the family budgets of rural teachers was approved by the full Senate this week. Senate Bill 1338 requires the State Board of Education to increase the minimum salary on the state salary schedule by the same percentage as any increase in funds made to the instructional component of the Basic Education Program. By doing so, the lowest paid teachers within Tennessee will receive the raises. The legislation now goes to Governor Bill Lee’s desk for his signature.