2019 Legislative Session Wrap Up

Group of students at Disability Day on the Hill

We are extremely thankful to announce the passage and funding of the Katie Beckett bill! $27.3 million was allocated to fund this bill and support children with long-term disabilities or complex medical needs whose family incomes have prevented them from qualifying for TennCare. The Katie Beckett program will create a dedicated pathway for children to access TennCare and other home- and community-based services (HCBS) to help keep them healthy and their families together. This program will make a tremendous difference thanks to the support of countless families and advocates! 

After the Governor signs the Katie Beckett Bill into law, TennCare and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) will be working on a waiver amendment to submit to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). We will be partnering with the administration and families to ensure that there is a role for community input in the design process. 

The 111th General Assembly adjourned late in the evening on Thursday May 2, 2019. This year’s final debate of session was over the Medicaid block grant bill in Tennessee. Although block grants could afford states more flexibility in how services and supports are delivered, funding for Medicaid through a block grant would likely come with fewer dollars from the federal government.  Lawmakers settled on a final bill similar to the Senate version, which included certain “guard rails,” such as indexing for inflation and population growth, as well as giving the state some flexibility in how block grants would work. Any block grant approved by CMS will require approval from the General Assembly before Tennessee accepts it. The Coalition and fellow advocacy organizations share deep concerns over this contentious bill, and legal challenges are expected as this moves forward. There are significant implications in both access to healthcare and the potential for cuts to coverage for the most vulnerable populations in Tennessee. 

In his first State of the State address, Governor Lee stated his focus on education, criminal justice reform, mental health and rural economic development. One of Governor Lee’s initiatives was a bill to create Education Savings Accounts (ESA). The Coalition shared concerns about this legislation in a statement available at https://www.tndisability.org/article/potential-impact-education-savings-... intent of ESAs is to allow families more choice in the educational environment for their child. However, the law does not appear to be designed to serve students with the most need and may result in educational practices that lead to exclusion and discrimination for students with disabilities. The final version of the bill will only enact ESAs in Shelby and Davidson counties. There may be legal challenges to come with this legislation. Our major concerns surround protections for the rights of students with disabilities and whether the funding available will be sufficient. 

The Tennessee state budget for fiscal year 2020 will be $38.5 billion:

  • $18.6 billion in state appropriations, 
  • $13.9 billion in federal, 
  • and $6 billion from other departmental revenues, higher education tuition and fees, and bonds. 

Maintaining last year’s wage increases for direct support professionals (DSPs) serving people under the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities waiver programs was a priority for our membership. Thankfully, $5.9 million was included in the budget for this purpose; $2.9 million is recurring funding and $3 million is non-recurring.  The budget also includes $8 million to expand the Tennessee Early Intervention Services program for children from birth to 3 years old and $3.5 million to expand the Health Safety Net fund for uninsured adults.     

Below is a quick review of the bills we have been watching closely and their impact on the Disability Community: 

  • This year was a big one for our friends in the Deaf community. Through their incredible advocacy, bills for the Tennessee School for the Deaf to establish both a school for the Deaf in Middle Tennessee and a Deaf mentor pilot project in Knoxville were passed. Legislation was passed to change the definition of a “Deaf person” in Tennessee Code Annotated. Legislation also replaced the language “hearing impaired” with “Deaf or hard of hearing” in the code. Kudos to member agency BRIDGES!
  • A bill strongly supported by the Tennessee Coalition for Better Aging (TCBA), of which TDC is a part, passed this session. This creates a state Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia advisory council attached to the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability (TCAD). This council will work to create an Alzheimer’s disease state plan, identifying barriers to care and providing best practices to address these gaps.
  • Considerable progress was made on a bill advocated for by the Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion (TASMIE), of which TDC is a member. The bill would prohibit courts from sentencing a defendant convicted of first-degree murder to death if there was evidence, at the time of the offense, that the defendant had a severe mental illness. This bill passed the House Judiciary Criminal Justice Subcommittee. Supporters will continue to educate legislators and the community before picking back up next session.
  • A bill that has come to be known as the “voter criminalization bill” also passed. It introduces numerous restrictions on third-party voter registration groups and is already facing legal challenges. This bill requires voter registration groups to comply with various training requirements and creates criminal and civil penalties for submission of “incomplete” voter registration forms. The effect of this bill will likely be voter suppression.
  • A bill revising the state code related to special education passed. This administration bill is intended to modernize state code as well as create consistency with federal law. Throughout session, advocates met with the Department of Education and legislators about the bill. Analysis is ongoing and we are working to fully understand potential impact. 
  • We are glad to see the public guardianship bill pass, giving the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability (TCAD) the ability to request the district public guardian to serve as a conservator for persons with disabilities who are younger than 60 years of age when necessary.
  • Personal support services licensure was changed by passage of legislation that exempts from licensure those individuals providing direct care services to three or fewer people who are participating in consumer direction in a Medicaid HCBS program. This bill may help make more workforce available to try to combat the direct support professional (DSP) shortage. 
  • Legislation passed directing the Bureau of TennCare to establish a program to identify child enrollees in TennCare who are likely to be eligible for federal supplemental security income due to disability upon reaching 18 years of age. This program must also provide counseling and enrollment assistance to the child and their parent or guardian to prevent a gap in TennCare eligibility upon the child reaching 18 years of age. 
  • The Dynamic Accessibility Act passed. It requires the Commissioner of General Services to designate a new, more active symbol of access for people with disabilities on state property. It also requires the Department of Revenue to designate a new symbol of access for drivers and passengers with disabilities on registrations, placards, decals, and license plates. The act is not retroactive and does not apply to state government entities that may jeopardize federal funding or grant money. 
  • The Department of Revenue is urged to study enforcement of disabled parking violations, as well as local ordinances and resolutions relative to accessible parking. If such a study is conducted, the department must report its findings and recommendations to the Senate Transportation and Safety and House Transportation Committees by February 1, 2020. 
  • This year, state legislators passed legislation to create a new Class B misdemeanor offense if a person fraudulently represents a disability or disability-related need for the use of a service or support animal in residential settings. There is a national push from the Apartment Association about the fraudulent representation of service animals.  While the Coalition and our partners understand these concerns, fair housing protections for reasonable accommodation should not be abridged. The new law includes a number of provisions that conflict with federal law. This bill will need to be revisited next year. Member agency Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) helped lead advocacy on this bill.

For more information: 

Download our priority bill tracking summary

Download our comprehensive bill tracking summary of legislation related to the Disability Community