While most news coverage on the Tennessee General Assembly this session has focused in large part on the battle for the House speakership and other political maneuvering amongst the new Republican majority in that chamber, there’s been plenty of action at the committee level on a range of bills affecting hate crimes, adoption, voter identification and other issues of interest to the GLBT community.

One major piece of legislation that got plenty of publicity early on was SB0078/HB0605, which would make it illegal for cohabitating couples to adopt a child, as well as HB2159/S 2136, which would redefine the legal status, and adoptability, of fertilized embryos.

Sponsors of these bills took advantage of their newly minted majority in the House to move the legislation, but the fiscal note, or potential cost of enacting the legislation, has stalled each for now, says Chris Sanders, president of the Tennessee Equality Project.

“Unless something changes, the fiscal notice will probably kill it this year,” Sanders said of the adoption bill. “The bill won’t die utterly this year, but they won’t put it on notice if they know it’s going to be defeated. If the economic picture were different and the state had huge revenues, we’d have a problem on our hands.”

Indeed, the state’s bleak fiscal outlook is stopping much legislation in its tracks, as financial realities sometimes can trump ideology at the Capitol.

“The fiscal picture is working in our favor as well, as the hate crimes bill that we and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition have been advocating doesn’t have a substantial fiscal impact,” he said. “A lot of Democrats told us they’d love to support it, but were afraid of the cost. When they found out there really wasn’t any, it removed significant obstacles.”

The bill, HB0335/SB0253, is being brought by Rep. Jeanne Richardson (D-Memphis) and would add “gender identity of expression” to Tennessee’s hate crimes sentencing-enhancement statute. It passed out of the Criminal Practice and Procedure subcommittee on April 22, and now will move to the full House Judiciary Committee, thus ensuring that the issue will be further debated and hopefully advanced for a full House vote this year.

“This is a small but solid victory for a great bill,” Sanders said. “Even an issue that has trouble gaining traction can move if the preparation is right.”

Getting such legislation actually moved forward is a bonus during a session where much of the fight was focused on stopping bad legislation early on, added Marisa Richmond, president of the TTPC.

“Getting the hate crimes bill passed out of the subcommittee was a big thing,” Richmond said. “We are now up to 18 sponsors in the House alone, including a majority from the Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus.”

Both organizations also are keeping their eye on include bills that would affect voter identification. Two, HB1426 and SB1934, would urge the state not to comply with the REAL ID act, and are supported by the community.

“The transgender community is working at the national level to repeal the REAL ID act in Congress.” Richmond said. “It requires the creation of a national database of personal information, including all changes, that must be maintained for a minimum of 10 years. We oppose the bill because we consider it an invasion of personal privacy which could be used to discriminate against or harass people.”

While the General Assembly works to wrap up its business in the coming weeks, anything and everything can still happen to these pieces of legislation. Both Sanders and Richmond say that the community should very much remain engaged with legislators, and continue to be heard through the end of the session and during the recess that follows.

“We have to keep up the efforts,” Sanders said. “It’s not necessarily a good time to run with positive legislation, but we have to create more discussion. A lot of these bills will be rewritten for the next session, so we have to be ready.”
 

 For a list of legislation TEP and TTPC have been monitoring and lobbying for or against, visi tnep.org and ttgpac.com.

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