White House details American Families Plan impact in Tennessee

Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration is breaking down how its American Families Plan would affect each state.

Here is the White House report on Tennessee:

The Need for Action in Tennessee

The American Families Plan is an investment in Tennessee’s children and families – because when American families do well, our nation thrives. The American Families Plan is a once-in-a-generation investment in the foundations of middle-class prosperity: education, health care, and child care. It will help families cover the basic expenses that so many struggle with now, lower health insurance premiums, and continue the American Rescue Plan’s historic reductions in child poverty. It will yield significant economic returns – boosting productivity and economic growth, supporting a larger, more productive, and healthier workforce on a sustained basis, and generating savings to states and the federal government.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Higher education is key to unlocking opportunity in the new economy, but the average cost of a 2-year degree in Tennessee is $4,600 per year. High costs are part of the reason just 60 percent of students in Tennessee are able to complete a postsecondary degree of any kind within 6 years of enrolling, and across the United States, high-minority and high-poverty high schools have seen 9 percent and 11 percent declines in college enrollment, respectively. To make higher education more accessible, the American Families Plan will provide at least two years of free community college to all students, including DREAMers. It will also increase the maximum Pell Grant awards by approximately $1,400 to support the 124,000 students in Tennessee who rely on Pell for their education, and provide grants to increase college retention and completion. In addition, the American Families Plan will provide support to
minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and the students they serve across the country, like Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). This includes 12 MSIs in Tennessee.

UNIVERSAL PRE-SCHOOL: Pre-school is critical to ensuring that children start kindergarten with the skills and supports that set them up for success in school. But today, only 40,900 or 25 percent of the 166,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Tennessee are enrolled in publicly-funded pre-school. The American Families Plan will provide access to free, high-quality pre-school to all 3- and 4-year-olds in Tennessee, boosting their educational outcomes and allowing more parents to go back to work. In addition, the American Families Plan will ensure that all employees in funded pre-school programs are paid a $15 minimum wage and provide compensation and benefits comparable to kindergarten educators to those with similar qualifications.

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Gov. Lee declares victory in legislative session

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

Lawmakers wrapped up their business for the year last night, and Gov. Bill Lee is lauding fellow Republicans who run the General Assembly for their accomplishments.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee marked the close of the 2021 legislative session, which includes the passage of his $42.6 billion budget and full agenda as outlined during his State of the State address in February.

“Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton and the members of the General Assembly have been key partners in reducing crime, supporting strong families and strengthening our economy, especially in rural Tennessee,” said Gov. Lee. “I commend the legislature for their work this session to pass measures that will benefit Tennesseans and continue our reputation for conservative fiscal management.”

“We were presented with many challenges this session and we met each and every one,” said Lt. Gov. McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “We invested in education and kept taxes and debt low. Most importantly, we ensured our state pension system remains fully funded for years to come. This protects our fiscal stability and our state credit rating. I am thankful to Gov. Lee, Speaker Sexton and every member of the General Assembly for their tremendous work on behalf of the people of Tennessee this session.”

“I greatly appreciate Gov. Lee, his administration, Lt. Gov. McNally, the House and the Senate for their continued partnership, which has led to a smooth and incredibly successful legislative session,” said Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). “Solutions to improve childhood literacy, our debt-free balanced budget, permitless handgun carry, criminal justice and truth in sentencing reform and preserving our election integrity will continue to move this state forward in a conservative direction. I am proud of these and other achievements that will allow Tennessee to maintain its status as a national leader for all others to follow.”

Gov. Lee’s slate of budget and legislative priorities included initiatives to address criminal justice reform, invest in rural communities, enhance public safety, support families and build on the successes of the special session on education.

Highlights from Gov. Lee’s agenda include the following:

Investing in Rural Tennessee
• Investing a historic $100 million to provide underserved areas across the state with high-speed broadband, which is part of a public-private partnership to incentivize broadband providers to match public dollars
• Dedicating $100 million for local infrastructure grants

Strengthening Tennessee Families
• Providing higher education supports for youth aging out of the foster care system
• Extending coverage for adopted youth to retain TennCare eligibility up to age 18
• Expanding postpartum care for the TennCare population from 60 days to a full year
• Reforming the TANF program to promote economic mobility and improve outcomes for recipients

Supporting Tennessee Students
• Increasing transparency for any foreign investment activity on college campuses
• Expanding access and improving quality of apprenticeship programs
• Investing $250 million in the Mental Health Trust Fund
• Increasing the teacher salary component of the BEP by 4%

Enhancing Public Safety
• Protecting the Second Amendment by extending law-abiding Tennesseans’ constitutional right to carry a handgun
• Stiffening penalties for criminals who steal or illegally possess firearms

Prioritizing Conservative Criminal Justice Reform
• Improving outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals by increasing transparency in the parole process
• Enhancing practices that support success post-release
• Expanding treatment services and community-based supervision for offenders as alternatives to incarceration

What’s next for the proposed super chancery court?

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The two chambers of the General Assembly are advancing competing versions of a bill seeking to bypass the chancery court in Nashville as the venue for constitutional challenges. The Senate version, which passed 27-6, would create a new super chancery court made up of three judges elected statewide. The House voted 68-23 on Wednesday to establish a special court of appeals comprised of three judges who would stand for retention elections.

The differing approaches appear destined for a conference committee to try to work out the differences. But it’s unclear where the twain might meet.

The Senate measure is sponsored by Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville), a longtime advocate of popular elections for judges. As is Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Hixson). So backing off of the contested election element would be a tough bill to swallow. But after the House decided to go with the appeals court concept, the lower chamber appears locked into the idea replace-retain elections for members of the new bench.

A layer of unease about the bill is that the governor would appoint the members of both versions of the new court, which has led to criticism that he would be able to stack the bench to favor his own legislative initiatives that have either already run into trouble in court, or could do so in the future.

One way to lift that concern would be hold open races for the judicial seats in August 2022 rather than have the new chancellors first be appointed by the governor. But that would only work for the Senate bill, as the House measure by definition involves the appointment of judges.

UPDATE: After extensive closed-door huddling, the Senate has retreated on its demand for electing statewide judges. Under a compromise, the chancellor who lands a legal challenge of constitutional or redistricting matters would be joined by two other chancellors from the remaining two grand divisions to preside over the case.

Coming soon to a political ad near you? Lawmakers approve pay hike for themselves

The House meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee lawmakers have approved a bill to give each of them an extra $3,000 per year. Officially, the money is meant to cover members’ home office expenses. But in practice, there’s no requirement for legislators to document how they spend the money.

The measure was given final approval in the House on Thursday on a 70-12 vote.

“We just cut Tennesseans’ unemployment and now we’re essentially going to give ourselves a pay raise,” said Rep. Jason Hodges (D-Clarksville), who voted against the bill. “Guys, I just don’t think that looks good.”

The measure, which takes effect after the 2022 elections, also ties future increases to the Consumer Price Index, which generally increases about 2% per year. The bill also allows lawmakers to be reimbursed for unlimited round trips to the Capitol and to opt for a higher daily lodging allowance than supplied under the federal government rate of $234 per night.

Legislators are often hesitant about voting to increase their compensation because it makes for easy fodder for challengers’ campaign ads.  

Voting for the bill were Reps. Alexander, Baum, Boyd, Bricken, Calfee, Campbell, Camper, Carr, Carringer, Casada, Cepicky, Cochran, Crawford, Curcio, Darby, Doggett, Eldridge, Faison, Farmer, Gant, Gillespie, Grills, Halford, Hall, Haston, Hawk, Hazlewood, Helton, Hicks G, Holsclaw, Howell, Hurt, Curtis Johnson, Keisling, Lafferty, Lamberth, Leatherwood, Littleton, Love, Lynn, Mannis, Marsh, McKenzie, Miller, Moody, Moon, Ogles, Parkinson, Potts, Powers, Ragan, Ramsey, Reedy, Rudd, Rudder, Cameron Sexton, Jerry Sexton, Shaw, Sherrell, Smith, Terry, Todd, Vaughan, Warner, Weaver, White, Whitson, Williams, Wright and Zachary.

Voting against were Reps. Clemmons, Dixie, Freeman, Hakeem, Hardaway, Harris, Hodges, Gloria Johnson, Mitchell, Powell, Thompson, and Windle.

The Senate version passed 28-2, with the votes against coming from Sens. Campbell and Crowe.

Partisan statewide chancery court idea dropped in House, replaced by new appeals court

House members attend a floor session in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A Senate proposal to create a statewide chancery court made up of three judges elected in statewide partisan elections has been dropped in the House. Instead, the lower chamber wants to create a new “court of special appeals,” made up of three new judges who would stand for yes-no retention elections.

The new panel could take up case in which the attorney general intervenes on behalf of the state, and it would be the court of original jurisdiction for any challenges of redistricting plans.

Former lawmakers or governors would not be eligible to serve on the new intermediate court of appeals. Members would be appointed by the governor, though nominees would have to be confirmed by a joint convention of the General Assembly.

Senate Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville) has been a main proponent of holding popular elections for a statewide chancery court. The conflicting versions of the court proposals could lead to the need for a conference committee to see if the two chambers can work out their differences.

Here’s the full House amendment sponsored by Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville):

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 16, is amended by adding the following as a new chapter:

16-7-101.

There is created and established an appellate court to be designated and styled the court of special appeals of Tennessee.

16-7-102.

(a) The court of special appeals is composed of three (3) judges, one (1) from each grand division of the state.

(b)

(1) Immediately preceding appointment, each Judge must be at least thirty (30) years of age, must have been a resident of the state for at least five (5) consecutive years, and must have been a resident of the grand division from which the judge is appointed for at least one (1) year. For purposes of this section, resident has the same meaning as defined in § 2-1-104. The judges must be duly licensed to practice law in this state.

(2) In order to ensure fairness, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, and to avoid political bias, a former member of the general assembly or a former governor shall not serve as a judge of the court of special appeals.

(c) The governor shall appoint three (3) persons to serve as judges of the court of special appeals and vacancies on the court of special appeals must be filled by the governor. Each judge of the court of special appeals will be elected by the qualified voters of the state in a statewide retention election conducted in accordance with title 17, chapter 4, part 1. A judge of the court of special appeals must qualify as a candidate and be elected by the qualified voters of the state.

The initial terms of the judges begin on October 1, 2021. The oath of office for each judge of the court of special appeals must be filed and entered on the minutes of the court in the grand division from which the judge resides. The oath must likewise be filed and entered on the records in the office of the secretary of state at Nashville.

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Big legislative fight remains over pharmacy benefits bill

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) presides over the chamber on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As part of last week’s budget bill, House and Senate leaders set aside $3.8 million in recurring funding to pay for changes to state law regarding pharmacy benefits and pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs. But securing funding is only part of the challenge for sponsors. Now they have to get their colleagues to actually vote to pass the bill.

The Tennessee Business Roundtable is one of the interested parties hoping to persuade lawmakers not to enact the measure. Patrick Sheehy, the group’s president, in a letter urges senators to vote against the bill sponsored by Sen. Shane Reeves (R-Shelbyville) because it constitutes “unnecessary government regulations that could increase the already-rising costs of employer-provided health care plans.”

UPDATE: The House Finance Committee advanced the bill to a full floor vote after House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) attended committee meetings to speak forcefully on the bill’s behalf.

Here’s the full letter from the Tennessee Business Roundtable:

Dear Senators:

Over the last several weeks, you likely have heard and read much from pharmacy, pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) and insurer interests, and from bill sponsors, about SB1617, legislation which proposes numerous new regulations on PBMs operating in Tennessee. We write to provide a perspective from many of the Tennessee employers who play a pivotal role as the ultimate payors in our state’s health care system on this legislation, and to outline why our organization does not support this bill in its current form.

We share some of the concerns of the bill sponsors and proponents because in the American health care system, employers, directly or indirectly, pay 100% of the costs of health care — by paying for the health benefits they provide to employees, paying corporate taxes which fund government-provided care, and paying compensation to employees, who in turn use those earnings to pay part of their health care expenses, as well as taxes of their own. This matters a great deal because over 50% of Tennesseans — about 3.5 million people — receive their health coverage through employer-sponsored health benefit plans.

At the same time, the ultimate payors — employers — lack effective control over many of that system’s structures and cost drivers. As Tennessee business operators have undoubtedly told you, the costs of employer-sponsored coverage continue to rise at unmanageable and unsustainable rates, and a primary driver of these cost increases is spending on prescription drugs. Employers and their plan administrators in Tennessee continue to struggle to understand, administer, and effectively manage these unsustainable cost increases; despite these difficulties, thousands of our state’s employers continue to offer health benefits because they truly value their employees.

At its core, SB1617 is a government mandate which would impose major restrictions on the few critical tools Tennessee employers do have to manage their employer-sponsored health plan designs and costs.

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Lawmakers close to approving $3K bump in office allowance for selves, higher contribution limits

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With just days remaining in the legislative session, state lawmakers are getting close to giving final approval to a bill providing each of them a $3,000 annual bump in their home office allowance.

The bill would also hike legislators’ per diem amounts to reflect the average cost of hotels in Nashville’s busy — and pricey — downtown business district rather than the rate allowed for federal workers ($234 per night this year).

And best of all for lawmakers, they get the money regardless of how much (or little) they actually spend on their home offices or lodging in Nashville. No need to submit receipts. And the home office allowance would be indexed to the consumer price index — the urban version, even though most lawmakers live in rural areas — meaning it will have automatic increases in the future.

House members are currently limited to mileage reimbursement for one round-trip between their home and the Capitol per week. The bill would allow them to put in for as many trips as they choose to take.

The changes are estimated to cost an additional $438,000 per year. The Senate has already approved the changes, and the House is expected to vote on whether to concur early this week.

Meanwhile, a separate bill would double the contribution limits for senate candidates who have long complained that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as those running for the House because their terms are twice as long and they represent three times as many people. Under the latest version of the bill headed for a final vote in the Senate, the House would also get a boost in the amount candidates for the lower chamber could receive from each PAC from from $8,300 to $12,700, bringing them into line with those running for Senate or governor.

New PAC takes aim at Gov. Bill Lee’s re-election bid

(Image credit: Beat Bill Lee PAC)

A new political action committee called Beat Bill Lee takes aim at the Republican’s re-election efforts. The PAC is run by Emily Cupples, the former communications director of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Lee is running for a second term next year. While limited polling has shown his popularity has slipped with Democrats, he remains popular with Republicans. No Democratic candidate has won a statewide race in Tennessee since 2006.

Here’s the release from the new PAC:

GROUP OF CONCERNED TENNESSEANS LAUNCH BEAT BILL LEE PAC
April 29th, 2021 (Tennessee) – Today, Tennesseans from across the state filed a political action committee against Governor Bill Lee’s bid for re-election in 2022. Funded by small dollar donations, the PAC will use funds raised to organize hard working families across Tennessee and America to mobilize against the power grab from Bill Lee and other fringe conservatives. This political action committee is composed of Tennesseans from all parts of the state and members include working families, single young folks, white collar professionals, politicians, and Tennesseans from all backgrounds united around the mission to beat Bill Lee in 2022. Beat Bill Lee will utilize a mixture of traditional and unconventional campaign tactics to lead a campaign against the current sitting governor.

“Since Bill Lee took office 7 rural hospitals closed, 4 during the COVID19 pandemic, unemployment reached an all time high, gun violence increased by 50%, and our student proficiency dropped. Spending $7 million taxpayer dollars on lawsuits, it’s evident Lee is serving dark interest groups and not Tennessee families. We cannot wait until 3 months out from election day, when the primary is over, to start mobilizing against Lee. We must stop Bill Lee and the dark money interest groups he represents from their continued destruction of Tennessee. The work to Beat Bill Lee begins today.” – Emily Cupples, Beat Bill Lee PAC Director.

Ogles returns to House after extended absence

Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin), second from right, attends a floor session April 26, 2021. (Image credit: Screengrab from legislative feed)

State Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin) returned to the House this week after missing several weeks with what he called an “extended battle” with COVID-19 and pneumonia.

“I am thankful for those who have called, sent texts, and helped out during my absence,” Ogles said in a message posted on his Facebook page. “I am looking forward to being back in the office, serving District 61 and finishing out this legislative session strong.”

Legislative attendance records show Ogles was excused from House floor sessions on Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, and then missed another session March 15. He was then away for every floor session between March 25 and his reappearance on Monday.

Several other lawmakers have missed time this year due to COVID-19.

Senate deals setback to effort to block local governments from suing state

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate on Monday rejected a proposal by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to ban local governments from filing lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of laws passed by the General Assembly.

Kelsey said his bill would only apply to lawsuits filed after the bill went into effect. But he cited recent legal challenges over school vouchers, voter ID, and funding for large school districts as examples of litigation he is seeking to outlaw.

Kelsey’s bill went off the rails when Republicans like Sens. Ken Yager of Kingston and Page Walley of Bolivar began questioning why local governments should be prevented from challenging the constitutionality of measures that may bring them fiscal harm.

Walley noted that when he was a state House member in the 1990s, 77 small school districts successfully sued the state for more equal education funding. Kelsey argued that instead of the lawsuit filed by the late Lewis Donelson, the small school districts should have pursued their aims by “talking to the legislature.”

Walley agreed it would have been better for the General Assembly to act on its own accord, but recalled “an intransigence” on the part of lawmakers that prevented a solution at the time.

The vote on Kelsey’s amendment failed 14-14, with three Republicans and two Democrats missing the vote. Kelsey asked to move his bill to Wednesday, at which point he is expected to introduce another amendment seeking similar restrictions.

Kelsey’s amendment failed on a 14-14 vote on April 26, 2021.