Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley March 11, 2020

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    Lawmakers work to provide resources to tornado victims

   Senate committees heard updates from various officials of state government regarding the emergency response to help victims of the devastating tornadoes and storms that ripped through Tennessee in the early hours of March 3rd. Prayers for those devastated by the storms were lifted by committee members continually, with lawmakers standing in recognition of victims and the state’s emergency responders during floor session. Senators commended state and local emergency personnel who performed above the call of duty during the disaster and expressed appreciation for the heroic efforts of citizens who participated in rescue and recovery efforts.  We also stopped to remember those who lost their lives and the families who must rebuild in the aftermath of the storms. My continued prayers go out to those affected by this devastating disaster. I am proud of Tennesseans for coming together during this difficult time to help those who are in need.

   Senate Judiciary Committee approves comprehensive pro-life legislation

   Major pro-life legislation, which includes a prohibition on abortions where a fetal heartbeat exists, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 3rd.  Senate Bill 2196, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), and Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), also includes a layered structure that prohibits abortion after the unborn child reaches certain gestational age milestones.  The “ladder” provision bans abortion at 11 gestational age milestones ranging from 6 weeks to 24 weeks, with severability clauses for each step of the ladder. It is modeled after a Missouri law to protect against legal challenges. 

   A medical emergency exception is provided, under the bill, if certain requirements are met. The proposal is part of Governor Bill Lee’s legislative priorities for the 2020 session. It also comes as a result of meetings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year which studied ways to implement pro-life legislation that will meet court scrutiny.

   The bill calls for mothers to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion where the gestational age and the fetal heartbeat will be determined. The proposal also prohibits discriminatory abortion based on the unborn child’s race, sex, or Down syndrome diagnosis. 

   In addition, the legislation eliminates the requirement that the Department of Children’s Services provide court advocates and other information about judicial procedures to minors who are considering an abortion. The bill, which was approved 7 to 2, now heads to the Senate floor for final approval.

   Senate Commerce Committee approves legislation raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21

   Legislation, which raises the minimum age required under state law to purchase tobacco products, was approved the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.  Senate Bill 2202, sponsored by myself and Senate Republican Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), raises the age from 18 to 21 to purchase, possess, transport, or consume any tobacco product, smoking hemp or vapor products.

   The use of vaping products has grown dramatically over the past several years among youth.  A U.S. Food and Drug Administration study shows that 20.8 percent of high schoolers are considered frequent users of e-cigarettes. 

   In December, President Trump signed into law a provision in the federal budget making it a violation to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, including e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges. This proposal puts state statutes in harmony with federal law and ensures that Tennessee will continue to receive $32 million in federal block grant funds. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse partners with Department of Agriculture each year to ensure tobacco products are not sold to underage individuals. Federal block grant funds provide prevention treatment and recovery support services and activities for people at risk or who have substance abuse disorders. 

  Tennessee Commissioner of Health Lisa Piercey told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week that smoking is a key contributing factor in the state’s poor health rating. She said while three people die each day of opioids, 31 deaths are attributed to tobacco use during the same period. The Department of Health has requested $4 million in the 2020-2021 budget for tobacco prevention programs.

   Smoking is a significant health issue. Raising the age limit for tobacco products will help us prevent premature deaths and improve the health and quality of life for thousands of citizens, as well as save millions in health care costs. I was happy to see this legislation passed through committee and I look forward to passing it on the Senate floor.