State Rep. Kelly Keisling's Capitol Hill Review for March 20, 2020
House passes $39.8 billion budget before recessing until June 1st
Because of the unprecedented circumstances involving the current COVID-19 health pandemic, members of the House of Representatives this week limited all official business to fulfilling its constitutional requirements of passing a balanced budget and any associated actions that keep the state’s doors open in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Thursday evening, members approved the $39.8 billion preliminary and emergency budget that addresses both current and future needs resulting from the spread of the aggressive COVID-19 virus.
To balance the budget with a reduction in growth, more than $900 million in reductions have been made to the original proposal, which was unveiled during February’s state of the state address. This emergency budget invests a total of $350 million into the Rainy Day Fund, bringing the state savings account to $1.45 billion.
Additionally, it supports the state’s educators and students by providing $58.7 million for a two percent pay raise while also fully funding the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) through a $50.3 million investment.
The FY 2020-2021 budget makes strategic investments to combat COVID-19 in Tennessee. This includes the establishment of a $150 million fund for health and safety issues resulting from the virus. The budget also makes a combined $26.5 million investment to strengthen the safety network for both mental health and health care services. Approximately $19 million will support the health care safety network, $7.5 million will support the children’s behavioral and mental health services and $3 million will expand the School Based Behavioral Liaisons across the state. An additional $1 million was invested into the Rural Hospital Transformation program so our rural health facilities can continue to evaluate their business models in efforts to ensure they effectively operate and address health needs that arise under these extraordinary circumstances.
COVID-19 is also creating tremendous economic burdens on Tennessee’s local and statewide economies. To support communities across Tennessee, $200 million in combined funding will be sent back to both cities and counties in the form of grants. Through this grant program, no county will receive less than $500,000 and no municipality will receive less than $30,000. Tennessee’s 15 distressed counties will also receive additional funding through this program to better assist businesses and those most in need during these extraordinary circumstances.
The budget also makes a $30 million investment into the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) Disaster Relief Fund to support recovery efforts for victims of the March 3 tornado outbreak and to assist in response with COVID-19. Approximately $25 million in funding will add an additional year to the broadband initiative so we can continue to increase accessibility to reliable services, especially in rural communities.
In support of Tennessee’s workers and businesses, we have also invested $40 million for FastTrack Job Development grants to create new opportunities, generate job growth, and retention. We have also invested $41.8 million to enhance Tennessee’s unemployment system.
This emergency budget enables the state to take immediate action in the days, weeks, and months ahead to quickly address the needs of our citizens. It also provides flexibility for when we return to the Capitol to take further action after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
Lawmakers safeguard teachers, students, and schools during closures
All Tennessee school districts are closed through March 31 at the request of the governor. House members this week took several steps to ensure our students, teachers, and schools were not negatively impacted by unexpected closures related to both a recent tornado outbreak and the COVID-19 health pandemic.
Lawmakers on Thursday passed House Bill 2818, which holds all students, teachers, and schools harmless as it relates to TNReady testing, teacher evaluation growth scores, final grades, school and district accountability assessments, BEP-related requirements, and post-secondary readiness assessments for the 2019-20 school year.
Additionally, the Tennessee General Assembly partnered with the governor and our Department of Education this week to obtain two nutrition waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide School Food Authorities (SFAs) flexibility to continue providing meals to our at-risk student population.
We remain committed to our students, teachers and schools. When they have the resources needed to be successful, our entire state benefits.
Telemedicine legislation approved in bi-partisan fashion in House chamber
Before recessing, members of the House of Representatives joined together to approve bipartisan legislation that focuses on patients and providers by allowing Tennesseans to have direct interactions with their physicians using remote locations through telemedicine.
House Bill 1699 protects existing telehealth arrangements that do not require an existing doctor patient relationship but will create structure for all providers to use telemedicine with established patients who have been seen in their practice in the last 18 months for follow-up care in their home, place of work or other mobile locations as long as the provider has access to the relevant public record.
The legislation also included a provision for payment parity among doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants because providers and hospitals should be uniformly reimbursed by insurance companies for the services they provide, whether during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic or in future health situations.
House Bill 1699 now awaits additional action.