Anti-transgender bill advances as Tennessee lawmakers return to work
Tennessee lawmakers marked their return to legislative offices Tuesday by advancing an anti-transgender proposal after abruptly recessing three months ago because of the coronavirus outbreak.
In March, lawmakers scrambled to approve a newly designed 2020-21 fiscal year budget back when the virus outbreak was just emerging in Tennessee - leaving hundreds of bills in limbo - but promised to formally return on June 1.
House members, however, decided to gather this week and hold legislative committee meetings on a wide variety of bills - many of which were not directly related to COVID-19. This included a proposal dictating that Tennessee elementary and high school students could only play sports based on the sex identified on their birth certificates.
The bill is one of two proposals being considered in the GOP-dominated Statehouse involving transgender students and what sports teams they can play on.
“I have two daughters that are both school athletes and I would certainly be upset - and I know a lot of other people that may have daughters - if they were competing against a male athlete that considers themselves female transgender and they have an unfair advantage,” said Rep. Bruce Griffey, a Republican who is backing the bill.
The proposal advanced out of a subcommittee on a voice vote with only one person voting in opposition. It must still face the full House Education Committee and House floor.
However, even if the bill clears those hurdles, it's unclear how much success it would have in the Senate.
The Senate's only scheduled meeting this week is a briefing on COVID-19-related federal funding.
This has resulted in a stark difference between the House and Senate on what issues will be considered over the next coming weeks.
House leaders have argued that lawmakers can properly address COVID-19 budget and response needs while also taking on other types of legislation. Senate leadership has countered it wants to focus solely on the budget, time-sensitive measures and other COVID-19 items.
Two criminal justice reform bills backed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee won't be part of the action. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Curcio said a criminal justice task force set up by Lee will work on the issue between now and the next legislative session in January.
In March, the GOP-dominated Statehouse approved a $39.8 billion spending plan that was a far cry from the plumper proposal that Lee had submitted earlier this year.
Yet even with a stripped-down budget, lawmakers are bracing for yet another budget rewrite depending due to steep declines in state revenues over the past few months.
Earlier this month, Tennessee's Department of Finance and Administration announced that the state collected roughly $855 million less in April than it collected in the same month last year. In total, the state saw nearly $1.3 billion in tax revenue last month, or about 35% less than had been projected before the pandemic.
Griffey's anti-transgender proposal is expected to jeopardize roughly $623 million in federal education funding because it likely violates federal laws banning discrimination on the basis of sex.
Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville announced Tuesday that students will leave campus early for the in-person fall semester on Nov. 24, with final exams to be held online after the Thanksgiving break. The semester will start Aug. 19, with classes planned for Labor Day, Sept. 7, and fall break, previously scheduled for Oct. 8 and 9.
Coursework will include face-to-face instruction in larger rooms for social distancing purposes, some online classes, and some that are combination, wrote Donde Plowman, chancellor of the flagship Knoxville campus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.
According to the Department of Health, there have been 20,965 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee and 343 deaths as of Tuesday.
Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn.