budget

House, Senate pass barebones budget

The state Capitol has been closed to visitors since March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have passed a barebones budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The spending plan projects no economic growth and required the deep reductions from Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s original proposal.

Democratic efforts to eliminate about $40 million to start up the governor’s school voucher program failed.

Lee was on hand to watch the the budget debate in the House and Senate.

House GOP leaders: ‘Trust us’ on secret budget discussions

The state Capitol was closed to visitors on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After the House Republican supermajority holed up behind closed doors for 75 minutes to discuss the massive overhaul of the state’s budget in response to the coronavirus crisis, Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) and Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) spoke to reporters about their justifications for the secret meeting.

Here’s a partial transcript of what was said:

Lamberth: We’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s a transparent process. That includes, from time to time having a caucus meeting that is a closed caucus meeting so they can merely have the information, but no decisions were made.

Q: Just to clarify, a closed caucus meeting is transparent?

Lamberth: Absolutely. It will be prepare us to be able to discuss this later. And everything that was said in that room will be said again on the record. We emphasized that to the members. No decisions were made, no votes were taken whatsoever, and none will be taken in there. What was done was to lay out a schedule for what will happen for the rest of the day, and to lay out the information they have that will be provided to anyone else who wants it.

Q: How will the public know what that schedule is?

Lamberth: What we’re asking is for you to trust us right now. We will continue to get that information out there every single day.

[….]

Q: The Senate rules dictate that when the caucus meets, because they have a majority of the chamber, they must be open. Why have you guys not followed suit, and why should the House supermajority be able to talk behind closed doors?

Faison: Obviously, we don’t follow what the Senate does. We do what we believe is right for our people and our members.

Q: And it’s right to meet behind closed doors when you have a supermajority?

Faison: If we were making a decision, or taking a vote, or whipping a vote or anything like that, I would be vehemently against closing our doors.

[…]

Q: What about the funding for the Education Savings Account law. Was that discussed?

Faison: We discussed what is currently in the budget that deals with ESAs, and the lack of it dealing with ESAs. There’s appropriation in this budget that a lot of people erroneously thought had something to do with implementing ESAs or making ESAs happen. In fact, the money that’s appropriated in this current budget is money that will go to the public schools in Nashville and Memphis.

Q: But that’s for the implementation of the ESA program.

Faison: It does not have anything to do with the implementation of the program. What it has to do with is if a student and their guardian chooses to come out of a public school, the money that follows them goes to the new school they’re going to and we have created a whole separate pot of money that holds that public school harmless. …. We’re in a place right now that we’re not going to get into the politics of what we did with the bills we passed last year.

[…]

Q:  Surely the money could be used to go toward the raises for teachers whose raises are going to be cut?

Faison: We do have a 2% raise for teachers. We’ve dialed back on a lot of stuff.

Q: Why not use the $37 million for the ESA program for teacher raises? If the program isn’t funded, it can’t go forward.

Lamberth: That is absolutely not true. And as my friend, you know that is not true. You are well aware what this money is for. Whatever talking point you got from the Democratic caucus is not accurate. This money in this budget goes to public schools. You know it and I would appreciate it you get that information out there.

Q: As a reminder, 20 Republicans voted against this legislation, so it’s not just Democrats.

Lamberth: That is a Democratic talking point, and you know it. This money goes to public schools. The ESA program can go forward without this money. It is our preference is to backfill any of that money to a public school.. That’s what this money goes to. Period.

Vouchers vs. teacher pay? Lawmakers gear up for budget battle

Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter presents budget cuts to the Senate Finance Committee on March 18, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee lawmakers are gearing up for a long day Thursday in which they hope to come to an agreement over deep budget cuts before going into recess until the coronavirus crisis subsides.

One of the biggest sticking points is Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to keep funding in the budget to launch his school voucher program this fall while cutting a planned 4% teacher pay raise in half.

The word around the largely deserted hallways of the Cordell Hull Building is that the House will go first on trying to pass the budget, with the Senate to follow suit later.

Here is Gov. Lee’s revised budget plan amid coronavirus pandemic

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The governor’s revised budget proposal assumes Tennessee’s economic growth will drop from a projected 3.1 to zero in the coming fiscal year.

A detailed breakdown can be viewed here: FY21 Amendment Overview Schedule.

Here are the assumptions of his plan for addressing the fallout from the corona virus in the current budget year and next, as released by the governor’s office:

Recognizing the sudden change to our economic circumstances by:

  • Lowering our Growth Rate for the current year from 3.75% to 2.5%.
  • Revising our FY21 growth rate from 3.1% to basically zero.
  • Adding to our reserves: Rainy day: $1.2 billion balance at 6/30/20 & $1.45 billion balance at 6/30/21.
  • Making an additional $57M in base reductions.

New spending items that include:

  • Fully Funding the BEP Formula.
  • Fully Funding Higher Education outcomes-based funding formula.
  • Fully funding our Pension contribution.
  • Fully funding our OPEB Liability contribution.
  • Fully funding the inflationary growth in TennCare.
  • Fully funding the growth in DCS children in state services.

Adding resources to critical services:

  • DL Services.
  • State Road Troopers (10 Troopers).
  • TBI Field Agents (25 agents).

Continuing to address, not defer, the long list of deferred Capital Maintenance items in both state government and higher education.

Expanding services for our most vulnerable population.

Providing salary funding for state employees, higher education and K12.

Responding to the Tornado Disaster and COVID-19 by:

  • Adding $30 million to our Disaster Relief Fund for TEMA.
  • Adding significantly to our fund for emergencies to repair state buildings.
  • Establishing a new $150M fund to help us be responsive to Health & Safety Issues resulting from COVID-19.
  • Doubling our Local Government Grants from $100M to $200M (no county will receive less than $500,000 & no municipality will receive less than $30,000).
  • Strengthening our Safety Net for Mental Health and Health.

UPDATE: For the  budget amendment in text form, click here.

 

Senate Education holds meeting in largely empty committee room

The Senate Education Committee meets on March 16, 2020, amid a ban on public attendance in the Cordell Hull Building. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate Education Committee was the first panel to hold a meeting Monday under emergency rules preventing the public from entering the Cordell Hull Building. The committee advanced the state Education Department’s budget and then adjourned.

“We indeed live in interesting times,” Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), the chair of the committee, said. “It’s been the hallmark and tradition that each member who brings a bill to this committee can expect a fair hearing on their proposal…. We have approximately 110 bills yet to have been heard in this committee, but these interesting times make that somewhat challenging.

“Our state’s priorities are clear, however. We are required by our constitution to address a budget and appropriations plan. Therefore, today we will only consider briefly the budget for the Department of Education in order to refer it to Finance for their appropriate action. Education bills are our next priority, and hope to have an opportunity to consider those before we adjourn sine die, whatever that date that may be.”

One curiosity was the attendance of political activist Kevin Baigert, the husband of a writer for a conservative website. Baigert is the treasurer of a PAC that has targeted Republican House incumbents during campaign season. It’s unclear how he got into the building when members of the public, advocates, lobbyists, and other visitors have been barred.

 

Read the full text of Gov. Bill Lee’s second State of the State address

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is the full text of Gov. Bill Lee’s second State of the State Address, as prepared for delivery on Monday evening:

Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Dunn, Members of the 111th General Assembly, Justices, Constitutional Officers, fellow Tennesseans:

It is an honor to once again be with you this evening.

Before I begin, Speaker Sexton, let me offer special congratulations to you on your election as Speaker.

I am looking forward to working with you during this session and in the years ahead as we make our state a leader in the nation.

Last year, I stood at this podium, newly inaugurated as the 50th Governor of Tennessee. It has been a rewarding year, far more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

To serve Tennesseans, to help make their lives better, to help give them a better education, to help recruit and create good jobs, and to help make our state a leader in the nation, it has been a humbling and truly honorable experience.

To serve with you, the men and women of the General Assembly, has been a tremendous honor as well.

Thank you for your support during my first year, it means an awful lot to Maria and to me.

With all of the noise in our nation these days, whether it comes from Washington, or New York, or Hollywood, I can’t help but look across this room in Tennessee and be inspired.

Inspired by every man and woman in this chamber who sacrifices much and who is dedicated to their beliefs and to the service of their neighbors.

Thank you for what you do, and I look forward to working alongside each of you this session and in the years ahead.

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‘Wildcat’ budget hearings hit 2nd week in House

House budget hearings head into their second week in Nashville on Dec. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state House is holding its second round of pre-session budget hearings starting on Monday. The hearings are unusual because Gov. Bill Lee has yet to present his annual spending proposal to lawmakers. But the meetings give lawmakers a chance to rake in a couple of weeks worth of per-diems before Christmas and to bask in the spotlight of media coverage in what could otherwise be a slow pre-Christmas news week. Some statehouse wags have taken to calling them the “wildcat” budget hearings (a reference, perhaps, to wildcat strikes, or to the wildcat formation in football).

Everything should be live streamed on the General Assembly’s website. Here’s the schedule:

Monday, House Hearing Room I

  • 9:30 AM – 10:00 AM General Services
  • 10:00 AM – 10:30 AM Military
  • 10:30 AM – 11:00 AM Veterans Services
  • 11:00 AM – 11:30 AM Alcoholic Beverage Commission
  • 1:00 PM – 1:30 PM Human Resources
  • 1:30 PM – 2:00 PM TACIR
  • 2:00 PM – 2:30 PM TN Human Rights Commission
  • 2:30 PM – 3:00 PM TN State Museum

Tuesday, House Hearing Room I

  • 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Correction
  • 10:00 AM – 10:30 AM Board of Parole
  • 10:30 AM – 11:00 AM TRICOR
  • 11:00 AM – 11:30 AM Comptroller of the Treasury
  • 11:30 AM – 12:00 PM Treasury
  • 1:30 PM – 2:00 PM Secretary of State
  • 2:00 PM – 2:30 PM Finance and Administration
  • 2:30 PM – 3:30 PM Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services

Wednesday, House Hearing Room III

  • 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • 10:00 AM – 10:30 AM Administrative Office of the Courts
  • 10:30 AM – 11:00 AM Attorney General and Reporter
  • 11:00 AM – 11:30 AM District Attorneys General Conference
  • 11:30 AM – 12:00 PM District Public Defenders Conference
  • 1:30 PM – 2:00 PM Office of Post-Conviction Defender
  • 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM Children’s Services
  • 3:00 PM – 3:30 PM Public Utility Commission

Thursday, House Hearing Room III

  • 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Transportation
  • 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM Human Services
  • 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM Safety and Homeland Security
  • 12:00 PM – 12:30 PM TN Arts Commission
  • 12:30 PM – 1:00 PM TN Housing Development Agency
  • 1:00 PM – 1:30 PM Tennessee Corrections Institute

 

GOP leaders hold secret weekend budget negotiations

The Tennessean’s Natalie Allison made the trek into the legislative office complex over the weekend to check up on budget negations between Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Once she showed up, the meeting was abruptly adjourned.

Secret meetings are nothing new at the General Assembly, which has exempted itself from the state’s open meetings laws. But that doesn’t make it look any better for leadership to hammer out details of the state’s annual spending plan behind closed doors.

Read Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Governor Bill Lee’s first State of the State address, as prepared for delivery on Monday evening:

Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Casada, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Dunn, Members of the 111th General Assembly, Justices, Constitutional Officers, friends, guests, fellow Tennesseans:

Tennessee’s voters and its constitution have given me the responsibility of delivering this address evaluating where we are as a state and recommending action to make us even better.

I am grateful for this opportunity to serve, and it is my high honor to be here tonight. There’s a scripture that encourages us to consider others as more important than ourselves.

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Lee previews State of the State address

Bill Lee delivers his inaugural address in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is previewing his first State of the State addresss with some excerpts, including his approach to the state spending plan, charter schools, public safety, and mental health.

Here’s the full release from Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tonight, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee will give his State of the State address and present his conservative budget to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly at 6 p.m. CT on statewide television.

The following excerpts are from his remarks as prepared for delivery:

State of the State

“Now, I think we can all agree that while important things happen in the halls of government, it is actually what happens outside these walls that makes Tennessee truly great.”

“To our elected leaders in this room and the many Tennesseans watching from their homes, I am proud to report after seeing with my own eyes: the state of our state is hopeful, prosperous, and strong.”

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