Capitol Hill Week January 30th, 2020

Budget moves front and center as General Assembly prepares to meet for State of the State Address on Monday

Contact: Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email: [email protected]

For Immediate Release: January 30, 2020

NASHVILLE -- The pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers put the finishing touches on legislative proposals before next Thursday’s bill filing deadline and prepare to receive Governor Bill Lee’s budget proposal on Monday night. Senate committees also heard testimony this week regarding several important issues before the General Assembly, including Tennessee’s health status and progress being made to ensure mental health parity. In other action, state senators advanced a Right to Work Constitutional Amendment resolution, legislation to help Middle College Scholarship recipients and first-time homeowners, and a proposal to officially recognize Tennessee’s long-held nickname as the Volunteer State.

The General Assembly will meet in a joint session in the Tennessee State Capitol on Monday evening to hear Governor Bill Lee’s second State of the State address, where he will unveil his budget proposal for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Passage of a conservative balanced budget that highlights education improvements, job creation, and public safety is a top priority for lawmakers this year and is the only duty prescribed for the General Assembly in the state’s constitution. This year’s budget proposal is aided by the fact that Tennessee’s finances are the healthiest in state history and enjoys the highest ranking of the nation’s top credit rating agencies.

Tennessee is among the five least indebted states in the nation per capita, ranks third for best-funded pension plans and is one of only five states without road debt. The state’s financial status is also boosted by record low unemployment rates, rising educational achievement, robust job growth and a healthy economy.

The joint session will be aired at 6:00 p.m. CST / 7:00 p.m. EST and will be live-streamed on the General Assembly’s website. Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee members will get down to work studying budget details the following morning with an overview of the governor’s plan scheduled from Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter. The budget will continue to be front and center for the remainder of the 2020 legislative session. Senate committees are set to hear the individual budgets of 60 departments or agencies of state government between February 11 and March 11.

Legislation calls for an increase in the amount awarded to Middle College Scholarship students

The Senate Education Committee approved legislation on Wednesday to increase the amount awarded for a Tennessee Middle College Scholarship from $1,000 to $1,250 for each semester of full-time attendance.   Senate Bill 1579, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), helps offset costs for bright high school students looking to get a head start on their college degrees, accelerating the state’s Drive to 55 to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with degrees by the year 2025.

Middle College is a public community college program that, in partnership with the local education agency (LEA), permits high school students to earn their diploma and an associate degree during their junior and senior years.  Although the program facilitates a seamless transition to post-secondary education, due to the requirement that recipients have a high school degree, the students have not been eligible for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship. The scholarship helps pay for the cost of tuition and books for students in the program.

“This is a program that encourages our best and brightest to get a jump start on their education and compliments our efforts to accelerate the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees or certifications,” said Sen. Yager. “The students in this program are not receiving any deferential treatment. They are attending high school part time, fulfilling all the requirements, and taking regular college courses. It is a very rigorous program. Unfortunately these students do not qualify for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship which requires a high school degree so this legislation helps offset some of the costs.”

Middle College students are among the most sought-after students in the nation by four-year colleges and universities and typically achieve 100 percent proficiency on high school benchmark exams.  On average, 90 percent of Middle College graduates transfer to a four-year college or university.

Senate State and Local Government Committee approves legislation officially designating Tennessee as the Volunteer State

The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved Senate Bill 1552 which officially designates Tennessee as the “Volunteer State” to honor the state’s heritage and inspire future generations to answer the call to service.   While Tennessee has commonly been referred to by this nickname since as early as 1812, it is not recognized in state law.

“The Volunteer State is what makes Tennessee what it is,” said Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), sponsor of the bill. “It speaks to the essence of everything we are about. Whether it’s volunteering for military service in a time of need, or coming together to uplift a community, Tennesseans are dependable, hard-working and eager to answer the call to service. This volunteerism is a large part of what makes our state so great. Through this legislation we pay tribute to all past, present and future volunteers by officially declaring Tennessee the Volunteer State.”

The Volunteer State moniker dates back to the War of 1812 because of the prominent role played by volunteer soldiers from Tennessee. It also refers to the state’s response to President Polk’s call for 2,600 volunteers at the beginning of the Mexican-American War, which resulted in 30,000 volunteering from Tennessee alone.

Massey said there have been several state mottos which have dissipated.

“At one point we were nicknamed ‘the mother of Southwestern statesmen’ and that was applied because Tennessee furnished the U.S. with three presidents and a number of other leaders who served with distinction in high government office. We were called the ‘big bend’ state, referring to the Indian name for the Tennessee River. One that was most interesting was the ‘hog and hominy’ state. Now obsolete, this nickname was originally applied because the corn and pork of Tennessee were in such great proportions between 1830 and 1840.”

The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration. It is also pending final action in the House of Representatives.

Right to work amendment advances in Tennessee Senate

A Tennessee Right to Work Constitutional Amendment is one step closer to passage after receiving overwhelming approval in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week. Senate Joint Resolution 648, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) Lt. Governor Randy McNally, Senate Republican Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) and 15 other members of the Senate Republican Caucus, would guarantee future generations of Tennessee workers their right to work regardless of whether they choose to join a union.

Twenty-seven other states have enacted such laws, with nine adopting constitutional amendments. This includes neighboring states Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Another of Tennessee’s neighbors, Virginia, is presently considering repealing its Right to Work statute. A constitutional amendment in Tennessee would offer greater protection for workers against such repeal efforts in the Volunteer State.

The resolution now goes to the floor of the Senate where it will be read three times before a vote is taken. The resolution must pass the General Assembly by a simple majority this year and by a two-thirds majority during the 2021 or 2022 legislative session in order to appear on the ballot for a statewide referendum in November 2022. The amendment would become part of the state constitution if adopted by a majority of votes cast in the governor’s election.

Legislation would raise debt limit for low interest mortgage program serving first-time homebuyers and veterans

The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved Senate Bill 1576, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), to increase the Tennessee Housing Development Authority’s (THDA) Great Choice Mortgage Program’s debt limit. The program, which uses tax-exempt bonds to make low-interest mortgages to first-time homebuyers and veterans, was created to make homeownership more available and affordable for Tennesseans.

The Tennessee General Assembly has increased the debt limit for the Great Choice Mortgage Program 12 times since 1973, recognizing the value of the program. In 2019, the Great Choice Mortgage Program issued 4,500 mortgages to new homebuyer and veterans. The program is expected to reach its $2.9 billion debt limit in early 2020. The legislation would raise the maximum aggregate principal amount for which the agency may issue bonds to $5 billion.

THDA Executive Director Ralph Perry says the need for the legislation comes from an increase in the business the Great Choice Mortgage Program is doing. Perry notes that while the program has tripled its loan volume over the last three to four years, the average credit score is up and loan delinquency is down.  

“The revenue bonds from the program stand on their own and do not affect the full-faith and credit of the State of Tennessee,” said Sen. Yager. “This is a very worth-while program that has put a lot of people in homes who wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy them.”

The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Senate honors life of fallen officer Spencer Bristol

This week, the Senate paused for a moment of silence as they voted on a resolution to honor the life and memory of Master Patrol Officer Spencer Daniel Bristol. Officer Bristol was killed in the line of duty on Dec. 30, 2019 while pursuing a fleeing suspect following a crash and high-speed car chase that began in Hendersonville and ended on Interstate 65 in Goodlettsville.

“This is certainly a tragic death,” remarked Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin). “Officer Bristol was a young man with a young family who served his community bravely.”

Senator Haile introduced the Spencer Bristol Act last week to hold criminals accountable by significantly increasing penalties for evading arrest when a law enforcement officer is injured or dies during a pursuit involving a fleeing suspect. Currently, penalties for evading arrest on foot are far less stringent than those imposed for suspects fleeing in a vehicle. This legislation enhances the penalties for evading arrest, whether on foot or in a motor vehicle, to a Class C felony, punishable by three to fifteen years in prison, if the offense results in serious bodily injury of a law enforcement officer. The sentence is increased to a Class A felony, punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison, if the offense results in the death of a law enforcement officer.

“We are thankful for Officer Bristol’s service and all members of law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day,” added Haile. “We are heartbroken that Officer Bristol gave the ultimate sacrifice while working to keep our community safe. Through this legislation we will increase protections for police officers and will continue to stand with the brave men and women who protect and serve our communities.”

The legislation will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee where it will be scheduled for consideration in the coming weeks.

Legislation seeks to protect the rights of homeowners

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approved legislation this week which seeks to protect the rights of homeowners. Senate Bill 1429, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), provides that when a Homeowner Association (HOA) amendment restricting long-term rentals passes in the future, current homeowners would have a “vested right” to operate under the rules in which they purchased or received the property regarding rentals. These rules would be in effect until the property is sold to a new owner who would then be subject to any amended HOA restrictions.

“At the heart of this issue is the belief that the right to rent your home is a property right inherent with owning the home and unless that right is inherently forfeited in writing it should not be taken away,” said Sen. Bell. “Rules are being changed on homeowners, individuals and companies, after they have already invested in or inherited a home under a different set of rules.”

The bill was discussed by lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session. It was deferred by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee last April to give all parties an opportunity to be heard.

The legislation also requires transparency from HOAs to homeowners who request to receive information about a vote that prohibits or restricts long-term rentals. The bill defines long-term rental property as a single-family residential real property that is leased by the owner for a period of 180 or more consecutive days, a provision which would ban corporation rentals for 30 days at a time. Long-term rental companies would be required to notify HOAs if there is a change in contact information or property ownership. This provision was placed in the bill after complaints by HOAs that out-of-state companies were difficult to contact regarding rental property within their community.

The legislation would only apply to HOA amendments passed after May 1, 2020, the effective date of the bill. It now heads to the Senate floor where it will be considered for a final vote.

In other news…

More jobs are headed to Tennessee / Amazon to create 1,000 new jobs in Memphis -- There was good news on Tennessee’s jobs front this week with the announcement that Amazon will establish a new, state-of-the art fulfillment center in Memphis. Amazon will create 1,000 new full-time jobs, with industry leading pay and benefits starting on day one, at its new Shelby County fulfillment center. Employees at the 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center will work alongside Amazon’s innovative robotics technology to pick, pack and ship smaller customer items, such as books, electronics and consumer goods. Amazon currently operates fulfillment and sortation centers in Charleston, Chattanooga, Lebanon, Memphis, Murfreesboro, and Nashville, a Prime Now Hub in Nashville and various other facilities supporting last mile delivery operations across the state. The company is in the midst of building a corporate office in Nashville which will house the tech and management functions for their Retail Operations division. Amazon estimates its investments in the state have created an additional 6,000 indirect jobs on top of the company's 6,500 direct hires.

Joint Government Operations Committee adopt rules for state’s Safe At Home Address Confidentiality Program -- The Joint Government Operations Committee voted this week to adopt permanent rules governing the state’s Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program. The program, which is the result of legislation sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) in 2018, helps victims of domestic abuse, stalking, human trafficking, or any sexual offense by protecting the confidentiality of their address. The purpose is to protect the victims’ information allowing them to escape their abusers and start a new life.

Once a program participant has been approved to participate, they are provided with a ‘substitute’ address. The participant can then use the ‘substitute’ address as their official mailing address for all state and local government purposes and for their children, including public school or public benefits enrollment, subject only to a few limited exceptions. By doing so, the participant’s confidential address will not appear in public records relating to either themselves or their children.

The program is administered for those who satisfy eligibility and application requirements at no cost by the Secretary of State’s office. Approximately 100 participants have signed up for the program thus far and over 450 applicant assistants have been trained.

Rules adopted for Pilot ESA Program – Rules were approved this week by the Joint Government Operations Committee for the Pilot Education Savings Account (ESA) program to serve low-income students zoned to public schools in Metro Nashville, Shelby County and the state’s Achievement School District (ASD). The action comes as a result of Governor Bill Lee’s legislation passed last year to improve education opportunities for students, focusing on providing parental choice in school districts which have the state’s highest concentration of poverty and priority schools. 

State Board of Education Director of Legislative and External Affairs Nathan James told committee members about their efforts to include comments during the ESA rule-making process from all interested parties. Their efforts include a rule-making hearing that was live streamed to provide greater access to the process. The ESA program is currently on track to launch for the 2020-2021 school year.

Committee votes to clarify TN Supreme Court ruling – On Tuesday, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means approved Senate Bill 453, clarifying that release eligibility for first degree murder defendants sentenced to life in prison prior to July 1, 1995, will be treated the same as those who commit the offense after that date. The action follows a Tennessee State Supreme Court ruling in the Cyntoia Brown case which shed light on an ambiguity in state law dealing with life sentences for those convicted of first degree murder between November 1980 and July 1995. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually directed the State Supreme Court to clarify the state’s life sentences as a result of this case. The legislation, which now goes to the Senate floor, is sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

Senate Health and Welfare Committee hears update on state’s overall health -- Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of the East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, spoke to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week regarding the status of Tennessee’s overall health. Wykoff pointed to the need to work on economic development in the state’s poorest counties as a key factor in improving Tennessee’s overall health. Wykoff linked economic development and education attainment to poor health outcomes among Tennesseans, illustrating the life expectancy gap of citizens in the state’s wealthiest counties as compared to their counterparts in those which are distressed.   Governor Lee and the General Assembly are working to combat the problem with a concentrated focus on improving opportunities for the state’s distressed counties.   This includes establishing the Center for Rural Health Research at East Tennessee State University. The center is focusing on areas such as the opioid epidemic, adverse childhood experiences, communicable and chronic disease, tobacco use, obesity, rurality and poverty, and limited resource healthcare settings.

Wykoff said unhealthy choices are major contributing factor on health outcomes in Tennessee. “Changing behavior is one of the major things we have to change in our state,” he said. The state ranks 46th in smoking, 45th in diabetes and 47th in physical inactivity. On the positive side, the state ranked 2nd in the nation in childhood immunizations, 3rd in high school graduation rates, 8th in excessive drinking, and 16th for infectious diseases. The state ranks 38th in drug deaths.

“These issues are really not political issues,” Wyknoff said. “These issues are really about whether all of us can work together to do the kind of things that we need to do to give our children and grandchildren, and now our great-grandchildren, the kind of lives that we want them to have.”

Lawmakers hear testimony regarding recent ruling on state’s Billboard Act -- The Senate Transportation and Safety Committee heard testimony this week regarding a federal court ruling which struck down Tennessee’s Billboard Regulation and Control Act based on free speech grounds. The impetus behind the ruling is a provision in state law which provides an exception for “on-premises” signs, which allows for signage regarding activities conducted on the property on which it is located to be permit-free. It was challenged by a property owner who placed a sign on his unoccupied property which did not fit into this exception.

Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) officials told committee members the action by the Sixth Circuit Court has resulted in a suspension in enforcing the state’s law enacted in 1972 to comply with the federal Highway Beautification Act. This has caused concern that up to 10 percent of the state’s highway funds could be in jeopardy in the future since the ruling put Tennessee out of compliance with federal requirements. That Beautification Act requires that states must maintain effective control of billboards on such items as size, spacing, lighting and location of outdoor advertising signs. Legislation is being drafted for consideration this year that will put provisions of the state’s Billboard Regulation and Control Act back in place, while addressing the court’s ruling.