Tennessee‘s strategic agility in a time of crisis

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Since the start of the pandemic, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, an Atlas Network partner, has been at the forefront of ensuring the state legislature embraces policies aimed at sustainability and recovery. Thanks to their work, a bill to add a Right to Work amendment—which would render it illegal for workplaces to require labor union membership for employees—to the state’s constitution passed the legislature, and access to telehealth and liability protections were established.

The Beacon Center presented the idea of a Right to Work constitutional amendment to local business organizations and formed a coalition with the state’s Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). The team also conducted a poll to measure the popularity of the measure, which revealed exceptionally strong support. The results were widely disseminated and Beacon Center was invited to meet with several sympathetic lawmakers, some of whom ended up co-sponsoring the bill. In June, Senate Resolution 648 (to introduce a ballot initiative to amend the Tennessee Constitution) passed by a vote of 68-22, beginning the process to make it “unlawful for any person, corporation, association, or this state or its political subdivisions to deny or attempt to deny employment to any person by reason of the person’s membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.”

The Beacon Center also provided guidance on the importance of implementing telehealth reforms and COVID-19 liability protection very early in the pandemic. “We highlighted both of these important reforms in multiple pandemic response briefs shared with policymakers and the governor’s ‘reopening’ taskforce,” explained Beacon Center’s director of policy and research, Ron Shultis. “These were so well received by members of the taskforce and the governor himself that they changed messaging and used our exact talking points.” By also utilizing a strong social media and digital marketing strategy, the issue became widely discussed among lawmakers, stakeholders, as well as the general public. The attention spurred by Beacon Center’s outreach contributed to Governor Bill Lee calling a special session last August to prioritize these measures, both of which (Senate Bill 8002 and Senate Bill 8003) passed by overwhelming majorities.

All three reforms are, and have been, incredibly important as Tennesseans have sought to get safely back to work. “Tennessee has signaled to businesses looking to escape states willing to close people’s businesses and ruin livelihoods, like California and Michigan, that Tennessee is open and welcome to businesses and workers,” continued Shultis. Additionally, the liability protections for schools and businesses gave existing Tennessee businesses the confidence that they could safely reopen without facing costly and frivolous lawsuits. Without this protection, many businesses and even schools expressed hesitation about reopening. Lastly, deregulating and expanding consumer access to innovative telehealth services allowed patients to continue to see their doctors and maintain healthy lives during the pandemic.

While many states have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to seize more control, Tennessee is actively working to get out of people’s way. “Tennessee’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a model of how to protect both lives and livelihoods in a safe, responsible way,” concluded Shultis. Tennessee is on track for a speedy, sustained recovery, and the Beacon Center is leading the way.

Atlas Network supported this initiative with a grant.