General Assembly to Return on June 1st
This report is not our year-end summary of significant environment- and conservation-related legislative developments. Instead, we highlight several legislative issues that may be acted upon in the June session of the General Assembly. These items are not scheduled for committee or floor action this week, but it is possible they will be next week.
The budget is an environmental issue every year, but that is especially true this year. The General Assembly adopted what they called a “bare-bones” budget in March before taking a 9-week recess due to COVID-19. The expectation is that the main item legislators will discuss in the upcoming week or two will be significant reductions in expenditures due to substantial reductions in revenue.
We must convey two critical messages about the budget to legislators:
Do not reduce critical reserve funds for the protection of our parks, rivers and natural areas.
Fund a budget that does not reduce our state’s ability to adequately regulate and protect activities that can harm our land, water and air.
Five Important Bills that May See Action this Year
Here is a short list of issues and corresponding bills we have strong reason to believe will be acted upon in the next week or two.
Energy, Climate, and Sustainability
For the last several years, most (but certainly not all) members of our Tennessee General Assembly have sought to protect coal mining and increase our state’s production of coal.
SB1633/HB1675: Coal plants
This bill requires faster state implementation of federal changes intended to make it harder to retire coal fired plants. This week the Senate published a short list of bills that the Senate committees plan to take up in the June session, and this one is on that list. It will not be heard this week, but it will likely be heard in the Senate Finance committee the following week. TCV opposes this bill. The reason for this dangerous bill, which is not supported by the state executive branch, is to rush a process that would lead to more emphasis on coal before a possible change in national policy as a result of 2020 elections.
SB2188/HB2255: Billboard regulation/deregulation
Tennessee has no enforceable billboard regulation law right now, as ours was held unconstitutional by the Courts for not being content neutral (i.e. some billboards were not allowed because of their message). There are two competing bills. One is from the Department of Transportation, Tennessee's regulatory agency for billboards. It seeks to merely fix the problem that made the law unconstitutional.
The other is a disappointing bill from the billboard industry. It adds concessions sought unsuccessfully by the billboard industry over many years, such as inadequate vegetation protection, excessive and distracting digital billboards, and alterations to the spacing between billboards, etc. For a time, it appeared the Senate and House would deadlock and the legislature would fail to pass anything. Now, it looks like a compromise amendment may be proposed, which could result in a bill passing after all. Advocates are not yet sure what is in that compromise as no amendment has been filed, but this week the Senate published a short list of bills still in committee that would be up for consideration and this bill is on that short list.
In the context of conservation, mitigation means a measure or act required by state regulation to moderate or alleviate environmental impacts. A pending bill that might still pass would allow penalties to be assessed on groups engaging in mitigation who fail to complete land acquisition and initial improvements in a timely way. While most environmental groups agree that lack of effective mitigation is a problem and appreciate this bill raising the problem, many advocates do not feel the bill as currently amended is the answer. This bill also is on a short list of bills still in committee that would be up for consideration.
Water and Solid Waste
SB2119/HB2636: Subsurface sewer disposal
Subsurface Sewage Disposal System means a system, other than a public or community system, which receives sewage. Included within the scope of this definition are septic tank absorption systems, privies, chemical toilets, and other similar systems. This bill weakens local regulation of subsurface sewage disposal, which raises serious clean water and public safety issues.
SB2224/HB2206: Increased amount of sewage spread on drip fields
This bill allows sewage to be spread on land by use of drip or spray fields. It allows developers to install decentralized wastewater systems without design or construction approval by the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation. As amended in the House subcommittee it eliminates the possibility of a permit being required for modifying or installing a “land application”. In other words, sewage can be spread on land.