On January 12, 2021, the 112th General Assembly convened to conduct business. The General Assembly welcomes two new senators and ten new representatives as six incumbent members were unsuccessful in their reelection and six open seats were filled. Republicans hold the balance of power by a margin of 27-6 in the Senate and 73-26 in the House of Representatives.
The Senate reelected Randy McNally (R) of Anderson County to serve as Speaker/Lt. Governor for his third term. The House of Representatives elected Cameron Sexton (R) of Cumberland County as Speaker of the House who also served in the position during the 111th General Assembly.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Farm Bureau’s ability to advocate on your behalf in person is inhibited. While the Public Policy Division staff will be closely monitoring issues, face-to-face interaction will be minimal as access to both the Capitol and Cordell Hull buildings are limited because of COVID-19 protocols put in place to protect legislators and their staff. Virtual meetings and phone calls will be the staff’s primary modes of communication. Farm Bureau’s greatest strength is in its grassroots efforts and your voice is as important as ever this legislative session. We encourage you to be attentive to Farm Bureau Public Policy publications and action requests and as always, continue to utilize and strengthen relationships with your lawmakers through phone calls, emails and social media.
This year in the legislature, Farm Bureau anticipates six overall themes to be discussed both on Capitol Hill and in the news. These themes include COVID-19, education, the budget, broadband, government power and hold-over legislative initiatives from 2020 which could not be completed. Within those themes are Farm Bureau priorities and items to watch such as the AgEd Taskforce, funding for agriculture in the budget, broadband and the constitutional amendment for right-to-work.
Farm Bureau is assessing the bills filed in this General Assembly, of which many are related to Farm Bureau policy positions. Farm Bureau will monitor this legislation and promote Farm Bureau’s grassroots 2021 resolutions. Each year Farm Bureau works with lawmakers to solve issues for Tennessee’s farmers by filing legislation. Below are Farm Bureau’s 2021 priority issues.
Powers of Local Boards of Health (SB1368 Bell/HB1163 Lamberth)
During the pandemic, Governor Lee has vested six county boards of health with decision making authority around COVID-19. These six county boards of health were vested this power as the health department in those counties which hire their own health director, whereas in the other 89 counties the health director is an employee of the state. There has been concern about how much authority an unelected board should have.
In a separate but similar issue, there have been attempts by activist groups to use local boards of health as an avenue to regulate agriculture specifically animal feeding operations through the powers of local boards of health.
The General Assembly has repeatedly limited local governments from regulating agriculture. Farm Bureau does not believe the current statute (TCA § 68-2-601 (f)(3)) gives local boards of health the authority to regulate agriculture. Legislation which clarifies the authority of these boards to not prohibit or regulate agriculture is supported by Farm Bureau.
Tennessee State Fair (SB1155 Haile/HB1286 Boyd)
President Jeff Aiken serves on the Tennessee State Fair and Exposition Commission which recently recommended to Governor Lee that the Tennessee State Fair should be moved to the Wilson County Fairgrounds. In the Governor’s proposed budget, there is $5 million set aside to assist with this transition. Legislation has been filed to formally proceed with this initiative.
The legislation also specifies the non-profit Tennessee State Fair Association in conjunction with Wilson County Promotions, Inc. (who operates the Wilson County Fair) to operate the state fair. This would ensure the state fair is not simply contracted to the highest bidder and would eliminate any uncertainty that could exist. This gives the not-for-profit Tennessee State Fair Association and Wilson County Promotions, Inc the ability to plan long into the future to build the state fair into the most successful fair possible and establishes accountability between the Tennessee State Fair and Exposition Commission, the Tennessee State Fair Association and Wilson County Promotions, Inc.
Farm Lemon Law (SB831 Niceley/HB830 Kumar)
This bill creates a lemon law in Tennessee for farm equipment. Many states have lemon laws pertaining to farm equipment and machinery not conforming to the express warranties offered by the manufacturer. This legislation is needed to protect farmers in Tennessee like other consumers, or like farmers in other states.
Lemon laws are state laws that cover nonconformity to the warranty, defect, or condition that substantially impairs consumer products in violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, the federal law governing warranties. All fifty states have some form of lemon laws to complement the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Typically, lemon laws refer to motor vehicles. “Substantially impair” is defined as to render a vehicle unreliable or unsafe for normal operation or to reduce its resale market value below the average resale value for comparable vehicles. The Tennessee lemon law covers a passenger motor vehicle that is sold in Tennessee and is subject to registration and title in Tennessee or any other state. The Tennessee lemon law does not cover farm equipment. Some states have lemon laws pertaining to farm equipment and machinery not conforming to the express warranties offered by the manufacturer.
Simplify Sales Tax Exemption Process on Agricultural Input Items (SB905 Stevens/HB1405 Halford)
Equipment, technology and innovations used in modern agricultural production are numerous and change rapidly. Specific statutory exemptions for each item are becoming legally complex. The statute should authorize an exemption for farmers who have received a prior certificate of exemption from the department of revenue to purchase items used in producing, harvesting, storing and marketing an agriculture commodity. Sales tax exemptions for agricultural input items have been placed into state law as needed since the inception of a state sales tax in 1947. Farm Bureau is working to reform laws relative to agricultural sales tax exemptions in order to facilitate more input items and provide the same exemptions as manufacturing.
Increase the 1,500 Acre Cap for Greenbelt Property (SB1282 Nicely/HB1445 T.Hicks)
Tennessee law only allows an individual to enroll 1,500 acres in the Greenbelt program. This provision in law dates back to 1984 when rural counties with large forestry landowners were impacted by lower property tax revenues as a result of the Greenbelt tax classification. The enrollment cap on individuals does not reflect today’s farm operations and places those who exceed the cap in a competitive disadvantage to similar farmers in other states. Farm Bureau policy supports increasing the acreage limitation to reflect increasing acreage ownership by farmers.
Education Special Session
During the week of January 18, the General Assembly convened for a special session called by Governor Lee to address a range of education issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Lee and his administration proposed legislation for the special session to address literacy learning loss, accountability, funding and teacher pay. Farm Bureau supported this legislation and believed it aligned with our grassroots policy while contributing to the educational well-being of the youth and future of Tennessee. Below is a statement made by TFBF President Jeff Aiken in response to the legislation:
“The Tennessee Farm Bureau supports Governor Lee’s special session legislation which addresses a range of education issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The educational well-being of our students is fundamental to our state’s success. The COVID-19 pandemic has developed concerns within our education system. We believe Governor Lee’s legislation is an appropriate and favorable step toward fostering better education for Tennessee students and families. We encourage lawmakers to support this legislation and to complete an efficient special session for the benefit of the youth and the future of Tennessee.”
The legislation implementing the proposed educational programs passed both the Senate and House on January 21. In order to make sure funding for the bill was in the proper form, lawmakers came back January 22 to address the legislation which amends the current fiscal year’s budget to pay for the programs. After passage in both Houses, the legislation was sent to Governor Lee’s desk for his signature.