February 8, 2024 Legislative Update

Governor emphasizes fiscal responsibility and education in State of the State address

Senators stand with Texas on border crisis

This week Governor Bill Lee delivered his sixth State of the State address on Monday evening in a joint session of the General Assembly, where he laid out his 2024 budget priorities. Lee’s proposals include strategically investing in economic and educational opportunities, strengthening families and preserving Tennessee’s natural resources.

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee was presented with a more detailed overview of Lee’s 2024 budget proposal by Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Jim Bryson.

Legacy of fiscal responsibility

In his speech, Gov. Lee credited the General Assembly’s unwavering commitment to fiscal responsibility as the reason for the state’s firm financial foundation. After years of extraordinary revenue growth, revenues are slowing. However, because of consistent conservative budgeting, Tennessee is well-positioned to continue its record of fiscal responsibility with a balanced budget, healthy savings and tax cuts.

“Tennessee’s fiscal management approach has set the standard for how states across the country should operate, and families and businesses nationwide have taken note,” Lee remarked.

Lee’s proposal includes a $20 million investment in Tennessee’s Rainy Day Fund, bringing Tennessee reserves to more than $2 billion – the largest in state history. It also includes significant tax relief in the form of simplifying the state’s franchise tax.

Lee touted Tennessee’s economic growth calling Tennessee “an economic powerhouse for this country.”

“Over the past five years, Tennessee has been ranked as the fastest-growing economy of all 50 states, the number one state for fiscal stability, a top state for business, the second lowest-taxed state per capita, and the lowest debt state in America,” said Lee. “Any state would envy the position that we’ve been in.”

Investing in Education

Once again, Education is a top priority for Gov. Lee this year. In the speech, Lee underscored his focus on improving the state’s public schools, while also ensuring parents have the freedom to make education decisions specific to their child’s needs.  Lee expressed his intentions to provide school choice for every Tennessee family through his Education Freedom Scholarship Act proposal.

“We’ve done a lot of work in Tennessee, but we still have a ways to go in providing the best possible education for every student in our state,” he said. “2024 is the year to make school choice a reality for every Tennessee family.”

Lee also emphasized his commitment to investing in and improving Tennessee public schools.

“We have placed an unprecedented focus on public education, and I intend to continue that every year,” Lee said. “We can give parents choice and support public schools at the same time. You’ll hear me say that over and over again – these two ideas are not in conflict.”

Notable education highlights in Lee’s 2024 proposed budget include:

Public Education Investments

  • More than $261 million to strengthen education through the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) formula growth, including teacher pay raises
  • $30 million for summer learning programs to support students between school years
  • $3.2 million dedicated to AP Access for All, which provides AP courses to students across rural and urban Tennessee
  • $2.5 million to strengthen students’ reading and phonics skills
  • $577,000 to ensure we train Tennessee teachers to be the best and brightest educators of Tennessee children
  • $15 million to fund charter school facility improvements

Expanding Choices for Tennessee Parents

  • $141.5 million to establish Education Freedom Scholarships to empower parents with the freedom to pick the right school for their child

Advancing Rural and Mental Health

Gov. Lee also announced a plan to spend $208 million over the next five years to support rural healthcare based on recommendations from the governor’s Rural Healthcare Task Force formed in 2021.  If approved, this would be the single largest investment in rural healthcare in state history. The significant funds are a result of Tennessee’s successful one-of-a-kind TennCare waiver, which allows TennCare to recoup savings as a result of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the TennCare program.

The $208 million would be used to strengthen rural health by investing in apprenticeships and skilled training, provide greater access to specialty care and telemedicine, improve career

pathways, establish hospital and physician practice grants, and create a new Center of Excellence to sustain and expand rural health support.

Lee also proposed to use more than $100 million from shared TennCare savings, to invest in behavioral health and substance abuse support in Tennessee over the next five years.

Prioritizing Public Safety

Over the last few years, lawmakers have worked closely with Gov. Lee to prioritize major investments to keep Tennessee communities safe. On Monday, Lee announced he’s continuing his commitment to that shared priority by proposing funding for 200 new Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers, with an additional 60 trooper positions starting this year.

Lee also thanked the General Assembly for their work to combat violent crime and improve school safety. He touted the importance of the new $150 million investment in the Violent Crime Intervention Fund which is enabling partnerships with local governments to help places like Shelby County. Lee also reflected on the horrible tragedy at Covenant School last year, which prompted a strong response to enhance the school safety legislation being considered at the time. Following the tragedy, lawmakers and Gov. Lee created a $140 million grant to place a trained, armed school resource officer in every Tennessee public school.

Preserving Outdoor Heritage

Lee proposed big plans to continue efforts to preserve Tennessee’s natural beauty and outdoor heritage for generations to come. These proposed investments include:

  • $63 million to create four new Tennessee State Parks
  • $20 million to expand blueway trail access, which will drive tourism and economic activity across our rural communities
  • $20 million to improve water quality at rivers, lakes and streams across the state, making them safe for future generations to enjoy and the Bill Dance Signature Lakes Fishing Trail
  • $25 million to establish the Farmland Conservation Fund, partnering with farmers to place a conservation easement on their land to preserve and protect Tennessee for future generations
  • $5 million to protect and enhance scenic beauty along our major highways
  • $3 million for Access 2030 to make Tennessee State Parks accessible to Tennesseans with disabilities

Tennessee Republicans express support for Texas in fight to secure southern border

The federal government has created a crisis at the United States’ southern border as illegal immigrants are flowing into the country at record levels allowing drug cartels and terrorists to enter undetected. Texas has declared the crisis an invasion and is pushing back to defend their state, while the federal government is attempting to block Texas at every turn. This week, Tennessee Senate Republicans passed SJR 906, sponsored by Senator Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun) to express strong support for Texas’s efforts to secure the southern border and exercise their right to self-defense under Article I of the US Constitution.

The resolution reads: “Due to the present administration's abrogation of its duty to secure the

border, more than six million illegal immigrants have crossed our southern border in the last

three years.” It goes on to affirm that, “The State of Texas has acted properly in declaring an invasion pursuant to such constitutional provision and invoking Texas’s constitutional authority to defend and protect its citizens and sovereign property.”

Recently, Gov. Lee traveled to Eagle Pass, Texas to join Texas Governor Greg Abbott and 12 other governors to discuss how states can restore security amid the federal government’s failed leadership. Additionally, Gov. Lee committed to deploying two additional waves of Tennessee National Guard troops to support Texas’ ongoing efforts to improve border security.

Marsy’s Law passes first hurdle to become part of the Tennessee Constitution

In an effort to support Tennessee crime victims and prevent further trauma, Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) is sponsoring a resolution seeking to add Marsy’s Law to the Tennessee Constitution to guarantee victims of crime have clear and enforceable rights.                     

This week, Marsy’s Law, House Joint Resolution 94, passed its first hurdle in the Senate with approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure aims to give constitutional protections to victims, including the right to be heard, the right to be informed, and the right to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect through the judicial process.

Marsalee Nicholas’s family, who Marsy’s Law was named for, ran into the man who murdered Marsy a week after her death at the grocery store on the way back from her funeral. Marsy’s murderer was her ex-boyfriend, who stalked and killed her while she was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1983. They were not notified that he was released on bail.  Marsy’s Law seeks to ensure devastating and traumatic experiences like this never happen to victims in Tennessee.

“Tennessee crime victims are not given the same amount of protection as convicted criminals,” said Sen. Stevens. “Marsy’s Law will ensure that victims have equal access to justice.”

HJR 94 passed the House of Representatives in the 2023 legislative session. If passed by the Senate this year, the resolution will be required to pass by a two-thirds majority in the 2025 or 2026 legislative sessions before it can appear on the ballot for a statewide referendum. The amendment would become part of the state constitution if adopted by a majority vote in the 2026 governor’s election.

Legislation advances to make Safe Baby Courts permanent  

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Senate Bill 1585 that would extend the Zero to Three Court Initiative program indefinitely, so it can continue to serve children and parents suffering from substance abuse disorder. Since the General Assembly passed the Zero to Three Court Initiative in 2017 to expand Safe Baby Courts, it has successfully improved outcomes for infants, toddlers and families in crisis across the state. The Safe Baby Courts aim to secure permanent placement for children by focusing on rehabilitating parents who suffer from substance abuse disorders, so they can be reunited with their children. 

“The winners here are the children and the families,” said Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), who is sponsoring the legislation. “This has been a good program in our state for young children and parents in custody and I am proud to be a part of legislation that is helping repair Tennessean families.”

Since 2017, the state of Tennessee has expanded the number of Safe Baby Courts from 5 to 13. Since its inception, 1,006 children have been served through infant courts and more than 50% of them have returned to a biological parent. Remarkably, only two of those 1,006 children have returned to state custody within six months. The court reaches permanency for these children around 94 days sooner than the traditional case.

The legislation is now awaiting approval from the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee.

In Brief…

Ensuring election integrity with mail-in ballots - This week, the Senate State and Local Government Committee advanced Senate Bill 1967, sponsored by Chairman Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville). The bill will require absentee ballots to be picked up further in advance of election day. It would shorten the deadline to request an absentee ballot from 7 to 10 days before an election. In Tennessee, all absentee ballots must be returned by mail.  The three additional days are largely needed as a result of service standard changes made to the USPS in October 2021 that resulted in 1-2 day delivery delays for first class mail. These three additional days would help ensure that all ballots have adequate time to be mailed, received and counted by the election commission ahead of election day.

Political offices - To ensure the focus of elected officials in Tennessee is not split between two different offices, Chairman Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) is sponsoring Senate Bill 1968 to prevent a person from holding or running for two elected offices at the same time.  Currently, a person cannot hold two elected constitutional offices at the same time. Under the proposed bill, a person could not run for or hold two elected offices at the same time, regardless of if the position is constitutional or not. However, the bill does make an exception in elections for state executive committee, presidential delegates and special elections. The bill moves to the Senate floor.

Protecting personal beliefs - Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) is sponsoring Senate Bill 596 to ensure a person is not required to solemnize a marriage if the person has objections due to their personal or religious beliefs. This bill would codify the fundamental principle that no person should be compelled by the government to act contrary to their personal or religious convictions. The legislation emphasizes the importance of respecting diverse beliefs and values. It would ensure that individuals, whether ordained ministers, justices of the peace, or other authorized officiants, maintain the freedom to exercise their deeply held convictions regarding marriage solemnization. The bill advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, and is awaiting passage on the Senate floor.

Motorcycle license plates - The Senate Transportation and Safety Committee approved legislation that would authorize disabled decals for motorcycle license plates, which would benefit many Tennessee veterans who own motorcycles. Many veterans and others with disabilities are still capable of driving motorcycles, and they sometimes have specialty motorcycles made for those with disabilities. Senate Bill 1678, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), will now move to the Senate floor for a final vote.