In 2022, EPU shifted how we address policy as an organization by moving away from the identification of issues to fortifying our organization’s position as a valuable resource for actionable tools to advance equity in the South. To that end, we undertook a review of the legislative landscape of the South, reviewing bills filed in the 2022 legislative sessions throughout our geographic focus area.
2022 was a busy year for state legislatures. While the production of new congressional and local electoral maps was at the forefront of most state legislative agendas, issues surrounding recovery from natural disasters, the continued effects of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as responses to landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions added even more to already heavy plates. Nearly 25,000 bills were filed in 12 of the 13 states in EPU’s geographic focus area (Texas was not in session as its legislature meets biennially in odd numbered years). Out of that number, 10,905 bills were enacted into laws.
EPU reviewed just a fraction of those bills, focusing on those that had the potential to affect the advancement of equity positively or negatively in the areas of climate and environment, the criminal legal system, democracy and voting, economic equity, education, health, housing, immigration, and infrastructure.
Tennessee was the most active state with 4,607 bills introduced and 2,995 bills (65.01%) enacted. The biggest policy issue in Tennessee was education with 2,471 filed (53.6% of the total bills), and 1,982 (80.2%) enacted. Out of the enacted measures that EPU reviewed, the top issue was also education, with 54 equity-positive bills enacted in the 2022 legislative sessions. Tennessee was also successful in enacting legislation that fights directly against the race-conscious curriculum challenges we’ve seen emerging throughout the country and especially in the South with the passage of Senate Bill 2501, sponsored by Senator Raumesh Akbari (D), that requires middle school curricula include Black history, Black culture, and multicultural diversity.
We saw innovative solutions emerge from Mississippi to support both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Senator Juan Barnett (D) sponsored two key pieces of legislation. Senate Bill 2437 created a pilot program at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility that will allow 25 inmates to work, earn at least minimum wage, and save half their earnings. In addition, these inmates will be connected with a pre-arranged job upon completion of their sentences. Another bill sponsored by Senator Barnett (SB 2273) will allow employees on parole and probation to replace previously required monthly meetings with their parole or probation officer with proof of documentation from their employer, such as timecards or other proof of employment. Additionally, Senate Bill 2600, sponsored by Senator Daniel Sparks (R) created a study committee to research recidivism in the state and new approaches to support formerly incarcerated individuals upon the completion of their sentence.
Our engagement with policy makers and review of the 2022 legislative landscape provided us with essential information on the leaders championing change throughout the South, the polarized atmospheres in which they work, the challenges associated with that polarization, and how we can provide the support and tools that they need to enhance and increase their effectiveness in this work.