NASHVILLE — Amid nationwide unrest and a global pandemic that wrecked the state budget, Tennessee lawmakers wrapped up a legislative session early Friday by advancing an anti-abortion proposal that includes some of the strictest restrictions in the country.
The passage of the bill shocked Democratic lawmakers and reproductive rights activists who had been assured for weeks that the GOP-dominated Senate would not take up the measure.
Senate leaders had promised only to consider coronavirus- or budget-related proposals. However, just after midnight, the chamber passed the abortion bill backed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee as budget negotiations stalled.
“People are going to wake up tomorrow and we will have passed a bill that we said we weren’t going to take up,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville.
Under the bill, abortions would be banned once a fetal heartbeat is detected — about six weeks into pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant. Similar legislation has been enacted in other states, such as Mississippi and Georgia, but has been blocked by legal challenges.
The bill requires women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound and have the doctor describe and display the image to her.
Also tucked in the 38-page bill was a requirement that doctors inform women that drug-induced abortions may be halted halfway. Medical groups say the claim isn’t backed up by science and there is little information about the reversal procedure’s safety.
Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville said that women’s reproductive rights were being used “like a bargaining chip” to get the budget passed.
Lee, a Republican, had encouraged the Senate to take up his proposal while talking to reporters earlier that Thursday.
“I believe that life is precious. Every human being is created in the image of God and protecting those lives is important to me. This legislation is an effort to do that,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee promised to challenge the law immediately, calling it “flatly unconstitutional.”
“Politicians should not be deciding what is best for women and certainly not making reproductive health care decisions for them. As promised, we will see them in court,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU Tennessee.
Meanwhile, bleary-eyed after spending hours hashing out spending plan details, lawmakers eventually passed a $39.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2020-21.
A key win for the Senate was the elimination of the state’s Hall income tax on stocks and bonds.
The Tennessee Legislature began phasing out the state’s Hall tax in 2016, with its total elimination beginning Jan. 1, 2021. The current Hall tax rate is 1% on dividends from stock.
State lawmakers made sure to remove their automatic salary bumps, as well as strip away $41 million that was set aside to implement a contentious school voucher plan that is currently being blocked by an ongoing legal battle.
Additionally, $210 million will be funneled to the state’s cities and counties. There are no restrictions on how the money can be spent.
The House had initially proposed a $100 million sales tax holiday that would be spread over a week, but that was significantly pared down. The $25 million compromise would be spread over two weekends and apply to restaurants and retail shops.
Lawmakers entered their election-year legislative session in January, only to leave town in March for months because of the coronavirus pandemic. They returned to work about three weeks ago.
Senate Republicans pared down the election-year agenda, but still opted to advance Lee’s anti-abortion bill. The House went it alone to pass other controversial bills, including Lee’s proposal to drop a requirement to get a permit to carry handguns, only to see the Senate decline to take them up.
After George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests and unrest, Tennessee Republicans stirred more outrage locally by spiking a resolution this week for Ashanti Nikole Posey, a black teen shot and killed this year. Police officers had said the 17-year-old was killed after she and a friend made a “small marijuana sale,” though the sale has never been proven.
Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth helped block the joint resolution after he told the chamber he could not support the legislation due to the circumstances surrounding Posey’s death.
However, by Thursday night, Senate members passed their own version honoring Posey that did not require approval from the House.
During the final moments of session, however, the two chambers were unable to pass legislation that would have provided broad protections for businesses, schools and nursing homes against COVID-19-related lawsuits. The Senate and House disagreed over whether the proposal should be implemented.
A separate attempt to make the Bible the official state book also failed, but at 3 a.m., the sponsor argued at length on the House floor that it should eventually pass.
The House did advance a resolution congratulating Tennesseans “for clearly seeing that the mainstream media has sensationalized the reporting on COVID-19 in the service of political agendas.”