THE STATE OF THE STATE
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee delivered his first State of the State & Budget Address Monday night to the 111th Tennessee General Assembly and a statewide television audience (including NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS viewers). For the first time ever, the Governor gave similar addresses later in the week in the other Grand Divisions of the state, in Memphis (West Tennessee) and Knoxville (East Tennessee).
The speech sought to outline Mr. Lee’s approach to a state spending plan (a $38.6 billion budget), and the delivery of key services. Several of the new programs and increased spending (for examples, vocational and workforce education improvements, additional school safety grants), have been revealed over the past six weeks since Governor Lee took office. I written about them in previous columns, so this week I will focus more on some of new initiatives and spending unveiled during the speech and in the new budget.
Overall, the new spending seems to total well in excess of $200 million (including over $70 million for a 2.5% pay raise for teachers and $175 million more to fund the ongoing Better Schools Program or BEP). Speaking of raises, the state’s correction officers, now among the lowest paid in the nation will see a boost, as well as state workers overall. It’s outlined in this TENNESSEE JOURNAL blogpost.
While some of these increased expenditures, such as raises and funding the BEP are expected every year, some conservatives might wonder about all this is increased spending coming for a self-proclaimed “small government person.” But Mr. Lee also made it clear his budget address he is also saving for any future rainy day for state revenues:
“In my budget, we are making the largest single contribution to our Rainy- Day Fund in the state’s history.
When this budget is implemented, our Rainy- Day Fund will be $1.1 billion – the largest it has ever been in both real dollars and as a percentage of our overall revenue.
This budget is fiscally conservative and stays within the Copeland Cap, which as you in this room know is in our state’s constitution as a guardrail against out-of-control government spending. “
Here is a brief overview of some the key (and likely most-debated) elements of the Lee budget and legislative package:
While candidate Lee was a strong proponent on the campaign trail, one area where the Lee administration had released few, if any details before the State of the State, was how he would proceed in terms of creating more parental choice in Tennessee public education. The Governor made it clear in his remarks he is making a big push towards increasing support for charter schools and creating a school voucher program (Education Savings Accounts).
Here’s a breakdown of what is being proposed:
Doubling the amount of facility funding available to public charter schools (from $6 to $12 million) and providing new criteria for access to public facilities.
Establishing an independent state authorizer to approve high-quality charter schools.
Empowering the State Board of Education to develop authorizer standards that ensure only high-quality schools are authorized.
As for school vouchers, or Education Savings Accounts here is the Governor’s plan:
• Provides approximately $7,300 to eligible, participating students.
• Eligibility limited to low-income students in districts with three or more schools ranked in the bottom 10% of schools. Currently includes Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Jackson-Madison, Shelby and the Achievement School District.
• Establishes a new school improvement grant fund for LEAs included in the program during the first three years.
• The local education agency (LEA) will be disbursed grant funds in the amount equal to what local students receive in their education savings account.
• Gov. Lee is recommending $25 million in this budget as an initial payment towards this grant fund with additional funding to be added in subsequent years.
• Enrollment will be limited to 5,000 students in its initial year. The cap will increase by 2,500 students per year if the cap is met.
• Only authorized providers and schools will be eligible to participate in the program, with the Department of Education having the authority to remove poor performing providers and schools.
• Strong accountability measures are in place to ensure that education savings account funds only go to Department of Education approved expenses.
The charter expansion effort and voucher plan are sure to get the biggest pushback and opposition. It’s already coming from teacher groups and school officials. Most Democrats seem poised to oppose it too. Right now, approval of charter schools has been a local school board’s job with the state getting involved only on appeal if a local charter school proposal is disapproved. Under the Governor’s plan the state will take over front end approval, with guidelines being established to ensure only high-quality charters are approved or sustained.
The opposition’s concern is, that like charter schools, educational savings accounts will take money away from already financially strapped school districts, and that will hurt, not help students.
The Governor’s plan to provide $25 million to cushion the financial blow the first year for school districts losing students is not likely to change opponents’ minds and neither will the anti-fraud efforts included in the program, as some states with vouchers have seen this problem arise.
Politically, the scope of the voucher program is very similar to the one suggested by former Governor Bill Haslam. The State Senate has passed such legislation twice, but the bill has never gotten out of committee in the House.
That 99-member body will be the battleground again. If Republicans and Governor Lee are united on this issue, vouchers and increased support for charter schools should pass handily. But the teacher and school board opposition, even from Republican parts of the state (i.e. outside Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga) seems to remain strong. Frankly many rural school boards see vouchers as a way of using tax dollars to create new private schools (competition)in their district which they don’t see as helpful at all.
It comes down to this:
Will the extra push by this new Governor for parental school choice make the difference in creating vouchers and expanding charter schools for Tennessee in 2019?
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
This is another topic Governor Lee talked about frequently on the campaign trail and it’s becoming an increasingly high profile, and sometimes bi-partisan, issue nationwide. Out of a 17 -page speech, the Governor devoted almost four pages to what he wants to do in this area. Last year in pushing juvenile justice reform, Governor Haslam spent less than a page on the topic.
Here is Governor Lee’s key message:
“Of those who are incarcerated, 95% are not serving a life sentence and will eventually come out and we need to be sure they are prepared for that. Why? Because every successful reentry means one less crime, and one less victim.”
“My commitment to having fewer crime victims in this state is reflected in a proposed expansion of education and re-entry counselling opportunities in our prisons. Educational attainment for incarcerated people can reduce their risk of recidivism by up to 43%.”
The devil will be in the details and I expect quite a bit of debate on this, but I would say, so far, the vibes are positive for the Governor for approval of his criminal justice proposals, including among the public.
The Governor did get a little push back on the length of his speech. At 57 minutes it could be the longest in recent State of the State history.
Here’s a link to Governor Lee’s full speech. It’s worth a read if you want to know where state government seemed to be headed under the Lee administration.
ANOTHER WEEK MORE CASADA CONTROVERSY
The cost of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly has gone up quite a bit and could be going up even more in the Governor’s new proposed budget. According to this TENNESSEAN article a lot of that extra expense to taxpayers already approved is due to new Speaker of the House Glen Casada. The Speaker defends the additional expenses.
FETAL HEART BEAT BILL PASSES HOUSE
The State House on Thursday passed (66-21) a controversial bill that would ban abortions in Tennessee as soon as a fetal heart beat has been detected. The legislation goes now to the Senate where chances for approval remain unclear. In fact, the legislation has not started moving through the approval process in the upper chamber.
The swift movement of the heart beat bill this year in the House is remarkable compared to last year. That’s when a State Attorney General’s opinion killed the measure, saying it was “constitutionally suspect” because similar laws in other states have been struck down in the courts.
Some pro-life groups such as Tennessee Right to Life and the three Roman Catholic Bishops in Tennessee have withheld their endorsements for similar reasons. They say they prefer to pursue efforts to limit abortions through legislation more likely to withstand legal scrutiny.
But with two new Justices now on the U.S. Supreme Court, advocates for the heart beat bill see this legislation as a potential test case to take to the Highest Court to see if it leads to an overturn or modification of the landmark Roe V. Wade decision that currently is settled law in terms of abortion rights.
The heart beat bill was amended in the House. The amendment says if the measure is struck down in the courts, that the current 20-week limit on abortion in Tennessee would stay in effect. However, House debate was cut off before an amendment that would have allowed exceptions in cases of rape or incest was even brought to the floor.
The Tennessee fetal heat beat proposal continues to receive national ink.
Governor Lee has indicated he supports the heartbeat bill and will sign it if it reaches his desk.
STOPPING PRE-NATAL CARE EVEN BIRTH CERTIFICATES FOR IMMIGRANT MOTHERS AND BABIES
Here’s a bill that is bond to stir up a lot of controversy and maybe even get some ink and publicity nationally if it starts moving in the Legislature. The measure’s main State House sponsor is Bruce Griffey of Paris. He’s a new Republican lawmaker who is also the sponsoring a bill to set up a fee on transactions with Mexico that he says can be used to build President Trump’s border wall.
Now with co-sponsor Mark Pody in the State Senate, he wants to make it illegal for pregnant women, who are in Tennessee unlawfully, to receive pre-natal and other services from the state. The bill would even deny these babies birth certificates as a mean to undermine claims of birthright citizenship.
Elsewhere on the Hill, the effort to allow party registration in Tennessee primary elections was revived in committee.
But the amended bill doesn’t require voters to register by party. They can just do so if they want to do that, while other voters can continue the long tradition in Tennessee of picking in what primary they want to vote on the day of the election.
I guess this is an effort to placate the state’s Republican Party Executive Committee which wanted closed primaries and required party registration. But this amended bill really doesn’t seem to do very much.
What’s the point? Is this an effort to resurrect the bill, get it around difficult committees, in the hopes of restoring the legislation to include closed primaries and required party registration by the time the final floor votes are taken? Stay tuned.
THE FLOODING CONTINUES
The heavy rains of February across Tennessee continue to take a toll.
Governor Lee this week signed an executive order that is a necessary prelude to request an federal emergency declaration and assistance.
From the Governor’s new release:
“As waters recede and we are now able to fully review the extent of flooding damage across our state, I signed an executive order as a key step in working with the federal government for further recovery efforts,” said Lee. “We thank the first responders who are working diligently to keep citizens safe and deliver services.”
Currently, 83 counties have reported damage. The Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) have been coordinating with local authorities to collect the necessary data for further recovery efforts.
The executive order suspends certain laws to enable smoother delivery of health care, insurance, relief supplies and personnel, and other recovery components. The order is retroactively effective February 6, 2019, when the flooding and severe weather began, to ensure that it covers all relief efforts, and it will remain in effect through April 7, 2019.
The order will also help facilitate the repair of the more than 232 locations on Tennessee state and federal highways damaged by the flooding, with more areas likely to be identified as floodwaters recede.”
Today (Friday March 8) Governor Lee was set to tour hard hit areas impacted by flooding including Hardin County.
ONE YEAR LATER AND A LOOK AHEAD ON INSIDE POLITICS
This week marks one year that David Briley has served as Mayor of Nashville. He came into office on March 6, 2018. This city and its politics were in turmoil after the resignation of his predecessor Megan Barry. She stepped down after disclosing an extra martial affair and pleading guilty to felony theft charges.
To look back on his past year in office and to look ahead at the challenges facing the city, Mayor Briley is our guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS.
We discuss Metro pay raises; job incentives given to companies relocating and bringing jobs to Nashville; school board issues; a new plan to deal with indigent health care in Nashville and much more. Watch us!
INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:
7:00 p.m. Friday;
5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday;
1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.
THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.
One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.
This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.
A NEW INDIGENT HEALTH CARE PLAN FOR NASHVILLE
Here is something I know Mayor Briley and I will discuss. It’s a plan coming from Metro General Hospital officials and Meharry Medical College to better equalize the costs and burden of uncompensated indigent health care in Nashville. The plan, described as “bold” by proponents, seeks to have all the public and private hospitals in town share and coordinate efforts in providing services to the poor. One big issue still to be determine: How to pay for it?
Another topic we will discuss in some detail with Mayor Briley is the passage by the Metro Council this week of a non-binding resolution that says until the city grants its employees a cost of living pay raise, it should not approve any more job incentive packages for companies such as Amazon to bring thousands of jobs to Nashville.
But at the same time, the Council this week went ahead and approved such a similar (but smaller) jobs incentive package for the New York investment AllianceBerstein to come to Nashville. The Council also wants Metro to pay for these job incentive programs with surplus funds being generated by the Music City Center and other tourism related taxes and fees.
We will see what the Mayor thinks about this hot-button topic. I will just say the Mayor doesn’t seem concerned about any delay or conflict between granting the incentives and paying them out to the relocating businesses. That’s largely because it will be a year or more before those monies are needed and by then he is confident there will be a Metro employee pay raise before then. The Mayor also seems confident that an agreement can and should be reached to use surplus tourism-related dollars to pay those job incentives although there some legal restrictions that must be dealt to use some of those monies for that purpose.
In a related matter, AllianceBernstein is already involving itself in hot button political issues in Tennessee. The company this week issued a statement outlining its opposition to legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly. These are proposed laws which the firm sees as anti-LGBT and bad for business.
COMMUNITY OVERSIGHT DEVELOPMENTS
On INSIDE POLITICS, Mayor Briley repeated his opposition to legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly to weaken the powers and membership diversity of the city’s new Community Oversight Board. In that regard, he is somewhat encouraged by amendments added to the bill this week in a Senate committee that would maintain some subpoena power for the board and would give a one- year grace period before any new law goes into effect. The Mayor believes the added opposition from Knoxville officials to the bill has helped make a difference on the Hill. Knoxville has had a Community Oversight Board, without state interference, for 20 years.
FAMILY SAFETY CENTER OPENS
It’s one of several projects Mayor David Briley inherited when he took office. Both Mayors Karl Dean and Megan Barry worked to make it happen.
On Thursday of this week, the Nashville Family Safety Center had its opening ceremonies. It is located on Murfreesboro Road next to the new Metro Police headquarters.
From a mayoral office news release:
“The Family Safety Center is part of a nationwide movement to develop family justice centers that better assist victims of interpersonal violence by co-locating government and nonprofit services under one roof. The Family Safety Center will offer support and resources to anyone in Nashville who has experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, elder abuse or child abuse. Victims/survivors have the option to involve law enforcement or not.
Nashville’s Family Safety Center will be the largest and most comprehensive family justice center in the country.”
I suspect this is one project Mayor Briley has been more than happy he got to see through to completion.
CLEARING THE SCOOTER CLUTTER
The scooter craze in Nashville has been nothing short of amazing. But it’s also been frustrating for many pedestrians and drivers sharing the sidewalks and roadways in town.
At first, Metro Council thought about limiting the number of scooters allowed in Nashville, but for now has settled for new regulations and increased fines for those who do not park or use the vehicles correctly.
The Council also wants to review of the whole concept of scooters in being allowed in Nashville as early as next year.
ANOTHER COURTHOUSE SCANDAL BREWING?
In a week that Nashville looked back one year later on a scandal that rocked the Metro Courthouse, is another scandal brewing?
THE TENNESSEAN has a story based on a court document it has obtained. The document says disgraced former Metro General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland, now in federal prison, is telling investigators that some prominent local judges and attorneys joined him on some overseas travels which included some inappropriate activities. All those implicated deny doing anything wrong.
The paper also reports one local prosecutor involved in one of the trips has already had his pay docked by District Attorney Glen Funk.
CHARLATANS AND INTERNET FRAUDSTERS
Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has heard enough from those who question the safety and reliable of vaccines.
This week as Chairman of the Senate Health Committee he conducted a hearing to emphasize the vital importance of the public, especially children, be vaccinated to protect themselves and all of us from diseases such as measles, polio, rubella.
In his opening remarks, Alexander said those saying vaccines aren’t safe are “charlatans and internet fraudsters”.
This is not the first time in recent weeks Tennessee’s senior senator had spoken out on this topic. He called out one of his new Tennessee congressional colleagues, Dr. Mark Greene when he questioned the veracity of government research on vaccines. Alexander said plainly: “Vaccines save lives.”
THE WALL EMERGENCY VOTE
It’s looking more and more likely the Congress will pass a resolution nullifying President Trump’ national emergency declaration to allow him the funds to build his southern border wall. The U.S. House has already approved the measure to stop the emergency. At least 4 Republican Senators (perhaps several more) say they will support the nullification, making it highly likely the measure will pass the upper chamber as well.
Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has sharply criticized the President’s emergency declaration saying it creates a constitutional crisis and sets a bad precedent for future presidents and lawmakers. Alexander however has not said he will vote to nullify the declaration saying he prefers President Trump withdraw the emergency declaration and use other funds Congress has approved which Alexander believes can be used legally to build the wall.
As for Senator Marsha Blackburn she told reporters this week she is supporting the President and will oppose the resolution to stop the national emergency declaration.
"There is agreement from everyone that is the crisis," she said. "We have to deal with it… Until we deal with all of this trafficking and the drugs coming across the border, that every town is a border town. I am going to stand with the president on this," she vowed.
The nullification of the emergency declaration would be politically embarrassing for the President, especially the rebuke by a Republican-controlled Senate. Something like this has never occurred. But Mr. Trump will likely prevail in keeping the emergency declaration in force by vetoing the resolution. It does not appear either House has the votes to override his veto.
Then the emergency declaration and the southern border wall fight will move to the courts.
I am taking some time off next week.
There will be no column on March 15. Look for the next Capitol View on Friday, March 22.
For INSIDE POLITICS, we will air (the weekend of March 15-17), an encore presentation of our recent interview with Nashville historians David Ewing and Dr. Reavis Mitchell of Fisk University We discuss Nashville’s leadership role in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s
We’ve had a lot of positive response to this particular program, so we are pleased to air it again.