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Erik Schelzig

Editor, The Tennessee Journal

Lee details amendments to annual spending plan

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters outside the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is making his end-of-session amendment to the state’s annual spending plan. Here’s a release from the governor’s office detailing the proposal:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced his amendment to the proposed Fiscal Year 2021-2022 budget.  

The amendment includes $580 million in available funds as a result of fiscal prudence. These funds will be invested in strategic long-term projects that focus on a return to pre-pandemic priorities and deliver critical services while not growing government. The budget amendment also includes nearly $100 million for a two-week sales tax holiday on all grocery sales, purchases at restaurants, and all prepared food. 

“This proposal supports Tennesseans by strategically investing in long-term initiatives that will move our state forward,” said Gov. Lee. “I’m especially proud to provide tax cuts to get money back to Tennesseans to encourage them to frequent industries that have been disproportionately and negatively impacted this year.”  

This amendment reflects the Governor’s priorities and includes record investments in broadband, economic development, safety and law enforcement, increasing reserves, and education.  

“Due to Tennessee’s strong financial leadership, Tennessee has been ranked number one in fiscal stability by US World News & Report in both 2019 and 2020,” said Commissioner of Finance and Administration Butch Eley. “Our prudent and cautious approach has established Tennessee as a leader in fiscal conservatism, and we thank the General Assembly for their partnership in these efforts.” 

Notable investments in the FY 21-22 budget amendment include:   

Tax Cuts 

  • $25M for a two-week sales tax holiday for groceries 
  •  $75M for a two-week sales tax holiday for restaurants and all prepared food 
  •  $16M to reduce the professional privilege tax by 25 percent

K-12 Education and Mental Health 

  • $250M trust fund to assist K-12 families who are facing significant mental health issues in the wake of COVID-19 
  • $18.5M to transportation to students for summer learning  
  • $2M to provide an additional 4 high quality, grade aligned books and resources over the summer for the 88,000 rising first graders in Tennessee 

Higher Education 

  • $79M to eliminate current TCAT waitlists statewide, currently at 11,400 students 
  •  $25M to Tennessee Promise to permit increases in the Hope Scholarship  
  • $4M to increase Agriculture Extension Agents at University of Tennessee and Tennessee State University  

Rural & Agriculture  

  • $50K to support the state fair (in addition to the $250,000 recurring in originally proposed budget for total of $300K and $5M non-recurring)  
  • $3M to provide additional funding for rural projects as part of the Rural Economic Opportunity Fund (in addition to $21M in originally proposed budget for total of $24M)   

Safety 

  • $500K to provide gun safety programming for children  
  • $17M to replace radios for state troopers   
  • $18M to improve the statewide disaster communications system  
  • $680K to add 4 new Homeland Security Agents  

Economic Development 

  • $5M to provide grants to restore and preserve historic downtowns across the state  
  • $3M to increase employment in Tennessee through the Small Business Innovation program 

Transportation 

  • $3M recurring and an additional $10M nonrecurring to provide additional direct funding to airports across Tennessee through the Transportation Equity Fund (total $50M investment in air infrastructure) 

To view the full budget amendment, click here.

Tennessee ranks fifth from bottom in COVID-19 vaccination rate

Graffiti scrawled on the side of a shuttered Nashville gas station denounces COVID-19 vaccinations on April 11, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee ranks fifth-worst among the states for the percentage of residents who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines. The 30.3% rate was above only Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, according to CDC data compiled by The Washington Post.

Tennessee slipped another spot among states delivering both doses of the vaccine, with its rate of 18.2% besting only Alabama, Utah, and Georgia.

Here are the counties with the highest percentage of fully vaccinated residents:

  • Loudon (26%)
  • Meigs (23%)
  • Pickett (23%)
  • Unicoi (23%)
  • Washington (23%)
  • Cumberland (22%)
  • Madison (22%)
  • Sullivan (22%)

Those with the lowest rates are:

  • Moore (8%)
  • Sequatchie (10%)
  • Grundy (10%)
  • Lauderdale (11%)
  • Cannon (11%)

Among the state’s largest counties, Shelby’s rate was 17%, Davidson and Knox were at 19%, and Hamilton reached 21%.

The rollout will likely be further complicated by a recommendation by federal authorities to pause the adminstration of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Alexander to be honored in joint convention

News coverage of Lamar Alexander’s first joint address to state lawmakers in 1979. The retired U.S. Senator is scheduled to speak to lawmakers on April 12, 2021.

Lamar Alexander, who served three terms in the U.S. Senate and two as governor, is scheduled to be honored in a joint convention of the General Assembly on Monday afternoon.

Alexander, a Maryville Republican who didn’t seek re-election last fall, will also be in Nashville to tour the new Tennessee State Library and Archives facility north of the state Capitol.

Alexander’s first speech to a joint convention of the House and Senate occurred more than 42 years ago when he delivered his first budget address in February 1979.

White House circulates states’ infrastructure needs, but doesn’t detail how much each would get

The White House is putting out a state-by-state breakdown of infrastructure needs it says would be addressed by Democratic President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion proposal dubbed the American Jobs Plan.

While the cheat sheets list states’ specific deficiencies, they don’t break out how much of the federal money would be directed to each of them under the plan. So take it for what it’s worth.

Republicans are blasting the plan for going well beyond the scope of what is traditionally considered to be infrastructure.

Here’s the full release from the Biden administration:

For decades, infrastructure in Tennessee has suffered from a systemic lack of investment. The need for action is clear:

ROADS AND BRIDGES: In Tennessee there are 881 bridges and over 270 miles of highway in poor condition. Since 2011, commute times have increased by 7.7% in Tennessee and on average, each driver pays $209 per year in costs due to driving on roads in need of repair. The American Jobs Plan will devote more than $600 billion to transform our nations’ transportation infrastructure and make it more resilient, including $115 billion repairing roads and bridges.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: Tennesseans who take public transportation spend an extra 67.9% of their time commuting and non-White households are 5.6 times more likely to commute via public transportation. 21% of trains and other transit vehicles are past useful life. The American Jobs Plan will modernize public transit with an $85 billion investment.

RESILIENT INFRASTRUCTURE: From 2010 to 2020, Tennessee has experienced 40 extreme weather events, costing the state up to $20 billion in damages. The President is calling for $50 billion to improve the resiliency of our infrastructure and support communities’ recovery from disaster.

DRINKING WATER: Over the next 20 years, Tennessee’s drinking water infrastructure will require $8.7 billion in additional funding. The American Jobs Plan includes a $111 billion investment to ensure clean, safe drinking water is a right in all communities.

HOUSING: In part due to a lack of available and affordable housing, 396,000 renters in Tennessee are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. The President proposes investing over $200 billion to increase housing supply and address the affordable housing crisis.

BROADBAND: Nearly 10% of Tennesseans live in areas where, by one definition, there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds. And 46.8% of Tennesseans live in areas where there is only one such provider. Even where infrastructure is available, broadband may be too expensive to be within reach. 17% of Tennessee households do not have an internet subscription. The American Jobs Plan will invest $100 billion to bring universal, reliable, high-speed, and affordable coverage to every family in America.

CAREGIVING: Across the country, hundreds of thousands of older adults and people with disabilities are in need of home and community-based services. The President’s plan will invest $400 billion to help more people access care and improve the quality of caregiving jobs.

CHILD CARE: In Tennessee, there is an estimated $768 million gap in what schools need to do maintenance and make improvements and 48% of residents live in a child care desert. The American Jobs Plan will modernize our nation’s schools and early learning facilities and build new ones in neighborhoods across Tennessee and the country.

MANUFACTURING: Manufacturers account for more than 15% of total output in Tennessee, employing 357,000 workers, or 11.5% of the state’s workforce. The American Jobs Plan will invest $300 billion to retool and revitalize American manufacturers, including providing incentives for manufacturers to invest in innovative energy projects in coal communities.

HOME ENERGY: In Tennessee, an average low-income family spends 8-10% of their income on home energy costs forcing tough choices between paying energy bills and buying food, medicine or other essentials. The American Jobs Plan will upgrade low-income homes to make them more energy efficient through a historic investment in the Weatherization Assistance Program, a new Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to finance building improvements, and expanded tax credits to support home energy upgrades.

CLEAN ENERGY JOBS: Tennessee has outsized potential for innovative energy technologies including carbon capture and sequestration and geothermal energy generation, that create good paying union jobs. As of 2019, there were 79,626 Tennesseans working in clean energy, and the American Jobs Plan invests in building that industry through a reformed and expended Section 45Q tax credit and extending renewable energy tax credits.

VETERANS HEALTH: Tennessee is home to over 470,000 veterans, 9.4% of who are women and 45% who are over the age of 65. The President is calling for $18 billion to improve the infrastructure of VA health care facilities to ensure the delivery of world-class, state of the art care to veterans enrolled in the VA health care system. This includes improvements to ensure appropriate care for women and older veterans.

It’s budget amendment week in Tennessee! (UPDATED)

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is scheduled to present his annual budget amendment this week, usually a sign that the legislative session is nearing its end. The updated spending plan comes at a complicated time for policymakers given the influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds and the prospect of even more money from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package.

Lee in a speech to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce last week hinted that a tax cut will be part of his budget amendment. Though details remain scarce, it will be interesting to see how the Lee administration tries to thread the needle on meeting federal guidance that money from the COVID relief fund can’t be used to fund tax cuts.

UPDATE: The Tennessean reports Lee plans to propose a two-week sales tax holiday on food purchased at restaurants and supermarkets. The proposal is estimated to cost $100 million in forgone revenue.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery and his counterpart from Kentucky have filed a lawsuit seeking to undo the strings attached to the federal funds.

House adopts resolution calling for convention on congressional term limits

Rep. Chris Todd (R-Jackson) makes the motion to close all House Republican Caucus meetings to the public and the press on Nov. 24, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state House has voted 53-34 to join a call for a national constitutional convention to set term limits for members of Congress. While the margin appears lopsided, the measure sponsored by Rep. Chris Todd (R-Jackson) received only three more votes than the minimum needed to clear the chamber. The resolution now heads for the consideration in the Senate.

Tennessee’s congressional delegation has seen some turnover in recent years. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Winchester and Chuck Fleischmann pf Chattanooga have the longest tenures among Republicans as they are in their sixth terms. Rep. David Kustoff (R-Memphis) is in this third term, while Reps. Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), Mark Green (R-Ashland City), and John Rose (R-Cookeville) are in their second. Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Kingsport) is a freshman.

Among Democrats, Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville is in his 10th term and Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis is in his eighth.

Here’s a release from the group U.S. Term Limits lauding Thursday’s floor vote:

Nashville, TN — Today, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed HJR8, a resolution declaring that the state legislature seeks to join other states in proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to establish term limits on Congress. The bipartisan vote was 53 yeas – 34 nays, overwhelmingly in favor of passage. The effort, sponsored by state Rep. Chris Todd, is being spearheaded by the nonpartisan, grassroots nonprofit, U.S. Term Limits.

Rep. Chris Todd said, “Now, more than ever we see the need for limiting the terms of the U.S. Congress. You would be hard-pressed to adequately defend the loss of new ideas and vision we all observe and the potential corruption that comes with being a career politician in Congress.”

According to a recent RMG Research poll, 78% of likely voters in Tennessee support term limits on Congress, including strong support among Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike.
U.S. Term Limits President Philip Blumel commended the Tennessee House of Representatives saying, “The people of Tennessee are lucky to have public servants who see what is going on in D.C. and are willing to take action to fix it. They know that Congress won’t set term limits on itself. Therefore, it is the obligation of the states to do so.”

Once the senate passes the sister resolution, Tennessee will join other states in the call for a convention for the exclusive purpose of proposing term limits on the U.S. Congress. Thirty-four state legislatures must pass similar resolutions on the topic and approve the term limits amendment before it goes to the states for ratification.

Voucher supporters’ poll indicates wide backing for school choice

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

School voucher supporters are out with some new national polling showing wide support for school choice. Opponents have long argued the polling questions are loaded to turn out the most favorable results.

The polling comes as a faction of state Republicans take their latest run at ending automatic paycheck deductions to pay union dues to the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Similar efforts have foundered in committee and on the Senate floor in prior years.

The TEA’s political action committee is one of the most generous donors to state lawmakers of both parties.

Here’s the release from the American Federation for Children:

Parents and families have been on a rollercoaster when it comes to K-12 education in the time of COVID-19. A new poll from Real Clear Opinion Research finds overall support for school choice is increasing as parents need more options than ever.

Major findings:

— 71% of voters back school choice. This is the highest level of support ever recorded from major AFC national polling with a sample size above 800 voters.

— 65% support parents having access to a portion of per-pupil funding to use for home, virtual, or private education if public schools don’t reopen full-time for in-person classes.

Statement from John Schilling, President of the American Federation of Children:

“The continued very strong support among voters for school choice and spending flexibility for parents of school-aged children is a clear message for policymakers. Parents and families are demanding greater choice in K-12 education and they expect policymakers to put the needs of students ahead of the special interests who are bound and determined to protect the status quo.

“The need for education freedom is at an all-time high and it’s reaffirming to see many state policymakers stepping up and supporting school choice across the country. Thirty-two states have introduced 36 bills to create or expand educational choice and we urge policymakers in these states to get these bills over the finish line on behalf of families and students.”

Full Details:

Question: School Choice

School choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their child’s needs. Generally speaking, would you say you support or oppose the concept of school choice?

Support:

All: 71%

Race & Ethnicity:

White: 73%
Black: 66%
Hispanic: 68%
Asian: 66%

Party ID:

Democrat: 69%
Republican: 75%

Question: Funding students vs. funding systems

On average, American taxpayers spend $15,424 per student nationwide on K-12 public education. Would you support or oppose giving parents a portion of those funds to use for home, virtual, or private education if public schools do not reopen full-time for in-person classes?

Support:

All: 65%

Race & Ethnicity:

White: 65%
Black: 63%
Hispanic: 60%
Asian: 69%

Party ID:

Democrat: 66%
Republican: 67%

Question: Faith in teachers’ unions

In many states, teachers’ unions have advocated to keep public schools closed and continue virtual learning instead of reopening school buildings. Meanwhile, 92% of private Catholic schools were operating with in-person learning in September. Does this make you feel more or less favorable towards teachers’ unions that oppose re-opening?

More Favorable: 36%

Less Favorable: 47%

Date: March 12-17, 2021
+/- 2.44%

More school choice polling can be found at www.SchoolChoicePolling.com

Where to watch Gov. Lee’s roundtable on criminal justice reform

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is hosting a virtual roundtable on criminal justice reform Wednesday featuring former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and others.

The event starts at 11:15 a.m. Central, and can be viewed at one two places:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GovBillLee/

YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/c/GovBillLee/featured

Lee hosting roundtable on criminal justice reform including Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is hosting a roundtable on criminal justice reform on Wednesday featuring former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, among others.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is kicking off Second Chance Month by hosting a roundtable conversation on criminal justice policy with conservative thought leaders, including former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, former Governor Rick Perry, Pat Nolan, Brooke Rollins and Josh Smith.

“Criminal justice reform is still somewhat of a conservative frontier, and with our strong proposals, we can reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars and make Tennessee communities safer,” said Gov. Lee. “I look forward to a thoughtful discussion on how Tennessee can lead the nation in balancing the notion of justice with the public safety outcomes we all expect.”

“The American Conservative Union Foundation (ACUF) has consistently scored legislation in states across the country similar to that which Governor Lee has proposed,” said David Safavian, General Counsel for ACUF. “We view the underlying tenets of his approach as built on conservative ideals of improving community safety, advancing human dignity, reducing wasteful spending and the belief in redemption.”

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Sponsoring it to kill it? Opponent of making Bible official state book takes control of resolution

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

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) has taken over sponsorship of a resolution seeking to declare the Bible the official book of Tennessee. The move could effectively kill the measure, The Tennessean’s Natalie Allison reports.

The sponsor of a bill or resolution decides when — or whether — it should be discussed in committee.

McNally has long argued that putting the Bible would be trivialized by placing it alongside other symbols like the state amphibian or flower. Then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, vetoed a similar Bible measure in 2016 on similar grounds. The House ended up voting against an ovrride.

The House last week passed the perennial measure sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) on 55-28 vote. This year’s version is a joint resolution, which goes through the entire process in its originating chamber before being shipped over to the other (unlike bills, which are usually debated concurrently and usually have like-minded sponsors at the helm).

“The first senator to sign on to a House Joint Resolution received by the Senate becomes the prime sponsor,” McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider told the paper.

It just so happened to be the Senate speaker.