State Rep. Kelly Keisling: Capitol Hill Review
The General Assembly approves $42.6 billion budget
The House and Senate of the 112th General Assembly on Thursday successfully approved a no-debt $42.6 billion budget that provides strategic investments in education, health care, public safety and economic development initiatives.
As a result of careful spending decisions and governing by conservative principles, Republicans were able to return to many pre-pandemic priorities with the 2021-22 fiscal year budget. The spending plan makes key investments that strengthen Tennessee’s standing as the most fiscally responsible state in America. The 2021-22 fiscal year budget invests $100 million into the Rainy-Day fund, bringing our state’s savings account to $1.55 billion. Republicans have ensured the state honors its commitment to state employees and teachers by setting aside $250 million through the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System. Tennessee remains on solid financial ground as one of the indebted states in the nation with a AAA bond-rated state rating.
The budget provides $730 million in new spending for education, including the spending from the special session. This includes more than $480 million on K-12 education and more than $240 million on higher education.
The Basic Education Plan (BEP) will be fully funded at approximately $62 million. Tennessee educators will receive $120 million to provide a pay increase in addition to $43 million allocated for teacher salary increases during January’s special session. The budget includes $79 million to address the growing needs of Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology campuses. The new budget funds $250 million for a Mental Health Trust Fund to provide mental health assistance and support for K-12 students.
Additionally, the budget cuts more than $50 million for a sales tax holiday on grocery sales and prepared foods from July 30-Aug. 5.
The budget also puts a strong emphasis on job creation and rural development with a significant $100 million investment to expand high-speed broadband to underserved Tennessee communities. These funds are in addition to federal coronavirus stimulus money provided for this purpose. In other jobs investments, the budget provides $190 million for Fast Track Infrastructure Grants to add high-quality jobs throughout the state. It also provides $7 million to help support Tennessee entrepreneurs and innovators with promising start-up companies.
Health care is another essential priority for next year’s budget. It provides $37.9 million to fully fund medical inflation in the state’s TennCare program and adds $5 million to further widen the state’s Health Care Safety Net. The Health Care Safety Net focuses on services that help uninsured patients get preventative and disease management care and avoid more costly hospitalizations.
Key budget highlights include:
$100 million for cities and counties with funds available in July for any non-recurring needs;
$931 million for capital improvements to keep the state’s infrastructure strong without incurring debt for such needs;
$30 million for deferred maintenance for Tennessee’s state parks which had a record number of visitors in 2020;
$9.5 million to improve salaries for probation and parole officers to offer competitive pay with other states and to keep Tennessee safe;
$4.4 million for new agents in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) to meet increased investigative needs;
$17 million for a new radio communication system, $2.3 million for body cameras and full funding of the salary plan and survey for state troopers;
$18 million to improve Tennessee’s statewide disaster communications system;
$24 million to provide additional funding for rural projects as part of the Rural Economic Opportunity Fund;
$8 million to expand marketing and tourism initiatives;
$145 million for air and rail transportation infrastructure;
$5.3 million to fight human trafficking and support victims;
$50 million for a sales tax holiday on grocery sales, restaurants and all prepared foods on July 30 – Aug. 5
$400,000 for senior citizens centers to be distributed through the Tennessee Commission on Aging;
$450,000 for Big Brothers and Big Sisters organizations
$250,000 for child advocacy centers to be distributed through the Department of Children’s Services.
The FY21-22 budget takes effect July 1, 2021.
Republicans hold school districts harmless for BEP funding next year
The General Assembly this week approved legislation that holds school districts in Tennessee harmless for their Basic Education Program (BEP) funds because of the effects on student attendance due to the coronavirus pandemic.
BEP funding is based on the average daily attendance of students. During the pandemic, school attendance has fluctuated greatly. House Bill 777 requires that a Local Education Agency’s (LEA) BEP funds for the 2021-22 school year may not be less than the LEA’s BEP calculation for the 2020-21 academic year. School districts may receive additional funds if their average daily attendance has increased.
This legislation extends hold harmless provisions adopted by the General Assembly in a special session on education in January.
General Assembly sends Right to Work constitutional amendment to the ballot for final approval
Tennessee’s Right to Work law is one step closer to being added to the state constitution. The House of Representatives on Thursday gave final approval to a resolution to add the law protecting Tennessee workers to the state constitution.
Following three readings on the floor of the House, the measure received more than two-thirds supermajority vote required to pass. House Joint Resolution 72 fulfills the second required passage of this measure by the legislature. In June 2020, Senate Joint Resolution 648 overwhelmingly passed the General Assembly, which was the first step to enshrine the law to the Tennessee Constitution.
The amendment must be adopted by a majority vote in the 2022 governor’s election in order to be added to the state constitution.
Tennessee’s Right to Work statute has been state law since 1947. It provides workers cannot be hired or fired based on their membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization. When introduced in 1947, supporters of the bill argued that it would “be of great advantage to the average member of organized labor.” It also protects the rights of those who choose not to join a union.
Twenty-seven other states have Right to Work laws, and nine of those have passed constitutional amendments, including neighboring states Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Alabama amendment passed most recently in 2016. Another neighbor, Virginia, has considered repealing its Right to Work statute. A constitutional amendment in Tennessee would offer greater protection for workers against such repeal efforts.
The resolution has also gained support from prominent Tennessee business leaders.
House Bill 37 prohibits local governments from classifying workers as essential or nonessential
Both chambers of the General Assembly passed legislation recognizing that every job in Tennessee is essential to the state’s economy. House Bill 37 protects Tennessee citizens and businesses from burdensome government restrictions.
House Bill 37 prohibits a local government body from classifying a category of workers as essential or nonessential. Government should not be allowed to impose restrictions and inequities that threaten the livelihood of millions of Tennesseans. The bill recognizes all workers are essential and ensures government does not impede on any individual’s right to work or earn a living.
This legislation clarifies a local governmental entity may not create categories or classes of essential and nonessential businesses, trades, professions, or industries for the purpose of suspending lawful commerce, encumber trade, or denying citizens the right to work. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Republicans give student-athletes right to capitalize on name, image
Republicans this week passed legislation allowing college athletes to benefit financially from the use of their name, image and likeness. The bill passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly.
As amended, House Bill 1351 puts student-athletes first rather than the financial interests of schools by ensuring the right to earn compensation by a third party. This bill modernizes the college sports revenue model while protecting the integrity of higher education athletics programs.
The bill authorizes colleges and universities to prohibit student-athletes from accepting payment for activities reasonably considered in conflict with the institution’s values. Athletes may not profit or lend their name, image or likeness to promote gambling, tobacco, alcohol and adult entertainment.
The bill makes clear that scholarships awarded for athletics do not qualify as compensation for name, image, or likeness, nor does it provide an opportunity for “pay for play” by the institutions.
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for approval. Once signed, House Bill 1351 will take effect on Jan. 1.
The Tennessee Election Integrity Act passes both chambers
Both chambers of the General Assembly gave final approval this week to legislation that aims to uphold the integrity of elections in Tennessee by ensuring absentee ballots are not fraudulent.
House Bill 1276, requires all absentee ballots to include an easily discernible watermark approved by Tennessee’s Coordinator of Elections, except those officially authorized to be delivered electronically. The Tennessee Election Integrity Act, the legislation also requires absentee ballot counting boards of local county election commissions to reject any absentee ballot without the approved watermark to prevent election fraud. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Major Trevor Joseph Act provides flexibility for the interment of active duty service members
The General Assembly unanimously passed the ‘Major Trevor Joseph Act’ this week, legislation that modifies current burial practices for active-duty military members.
House Bill 442 requires the Department of Veterans Services to provide burial services for a person who died while on active duty with the United States armed forces, Tennessee National Guard or Tennessee Air National Guard and is being interred in a state veterans’ cemetery on a date requested by the family members of the person if the department is given at least 72 hours notice for the burial.
The legislation was inspired by Major Trevor Joseph, a Collierville native and medical services officer in the US Army. Joseph was serving as commander of the “Cajun Dustoff” MEDEVAC unit in Fort Polk, La. at the time of his death. His family requested he be buried in a state veterans’ cemetery on a weekend to accommodate friends and family wishing to attend the ceremony, but he was instead required to be interred on a weekday. House Bill 442 ensures Tennessee honors those who make the ultimate sacrifice for our state and nation by giving them a proper burial service that aligns with the families’ requests.
The General Assembly passes the Mercenary Rioter Act
The House chamber this week approved the Mercenary Rioter Act which aims to ensure protests remain peaceful. House Bill 881 increases penalties for those who are paid to participate in riots and those who come from outside the state with intent to commit a criminal offense and riot.
This legislation makes it a Class E felony and increases the punishment for aggravated rioting to a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 days imprisonment for one offense or 60 days for two or more offenses.
Tennessee law defines a riot as three or more individuals inciting a violent disturbance that creates grave danger of substantial property damage, serious bodily injury, or obstruction of law enforcement or government functions. The bill passed in the Senate chamber in March. It now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Statewide Silver Alert program passes General Assembly
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) will soon implement a statewide Silver Alert program in Tennessee after House Bill 119 unanimously passed in the General Assembly this week.
The Silver Alert program will benefit persons who are 60 of age or older, suffer from dementia, are 18 years of age or older with an intellectual, developmental, or physical disability when their whereabouts are unknown or they are believed to be in danger.
Currently in Tennessee, local police or sheriff departments are the gatekeepers for Silver Alert, left to make a judgment on when or if a Silver Alert is warranted. House Bill 119 moves this responsibility to the TBI, who will then be required to alert law enforcement agencies and designated media outlets across the state upon receiving notice of a missing citizen fitting the description above.
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
House protects legal firearm owners’ privacy
The House Republicans this week approved legislation that protects the privacy of citizens related to firearm ownership. Similar to the protections guaranteed by the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), House Bill 1171, also known as the Firearm Information Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA), will protect Tennesseans who are exercising their right to own and purchase firearms.
This legislation will create a Class A misdemeanor for any public personnel that intentionally discloses information about an owner of a firearm for the purpose of compiling a federal firearms registry or confiscation of firearms. The bill will create a cause of action for a gun owner to pursue civil action against an individual that releases information about gun ownership to facilitate any federal government effort to confiscate or register firearms.
The Firearm Information Privacy Protection Act will act as a buffer between Tennessee and the federal government’s unconstitutional and invasive attempts to prohibit citizens from protecting one’s life, liberty and family. House Republicans stand committed to protecting the Second Amendment rights of all law-abiding Tennesseans.
House Bill 1171 is expected to be heard for consideration in the Senate chamber on May 4.