Capitol Hill Update from State Representative David Byrd November 25, 2020

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   FAST Act simplifies and modernizes financial aid programs, while maximizing stewardship of grants benefitting students — Cost-saving legislation, simplifying and modernizing the HOPE Lottery Scholarship’s financial aid program, was approved in 2020. Called the Financial Aid Simplification for Tennessee (FAST) Act, it is the most comprehensive financial aid overhaul since the implementation of the HOPE Lottery Scholarship Program in 2003. Public Chapter 794 streamlines state law so that students and their families have a clearer understanding of their options, while maximizing stewardship of grant programs that benefit students. The legislation also aims to keep students on a path to graduation as Tennessee strives to create a highly skilled, credentialed workforce to ensure economic prosperity and competitiveness. 

   Laws governing Tennessee’s financial aid program for students have been amended 84 times since its inception, causing much confusion regarding their interpretation. The programs also needed to be aligned with new federal policies.

    Currently, HOPE lottery scholarship aid can be used for courses outside of a student’s major that do not progress them meaningfully forward in their program of study. The legislation provides that financial aid should only pay for programs within the student’s field of study to keep a focus on timely graduation and costs.

   The bill also establishes one clear definition of HOPE scholarship termination at completion of five years or achievement of a degree. It ensures, however, that ROTC students are not penalized for enrolling in military science courses. 

   In addition, the legislation winds down loan programs that are not working, have low enrollment, or that are supplanted by new programs. Students currently enrolled in those programs will be “grandfathered in” and will not be affected. 

   The legislation allows THEC to realize up to $4 million in savings annually at a time when the higher education and the state’s financial aid programs have suffered significant losses due to COVID-19. 

   Legislation enhances Chairs of Excellence Endowment Fund — The General Assembly approved legislation to modify and improve the Chairs of Excellence investment strategy. The Chairs of Excellence program was set up in 1985 to bring eminent scholars to the state’s public institutions and attract research initiatives and private funding to Tennessee. The program has resulted in an unprecedented level of donations to higher education from private and corporate sources.   The Chairs of Excellence funds must be invested in accordance with the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) investment policy and guidelines, which have changed over the years. Public Chapter 687 provides that the chairs of excellence assets may be invested in the same type of assets and investments as the TCRS to maximize them for the benefit of the program in accordance with the policies and guidelines established by the trustees.

   New law addresses electronic meetings by state’s higher education governing boards – The General Assembly passed a new law to align the rules applied to electronic meetings for all state higher education governing boards. Under the changes, state university boards for the University of Tennessee (UT) system are authorized to meet electronically without a physical quorum and without filing a determination of necessity, provided that the advisory boards for UT have had a physical quorum present at the location of a meeting at least once in the last twelve months. Previously, UT advisory boards had to file a “determination of necessity” with the Secretary of State’s office in order to be granted authority to meet electronically.

   Public Chapter 692 brings the UT advisory boards in line with the board of trustees of the University of Tennessee and the Board of Regents of the state university and community college system. The legislation also adjusts the deadline for appointing full-time faculty and student members to advisory boards for the University of Tennessee institutions from April 15 to May 31.

   As always, I am truly humbled and honored to be your voice on Capitol Hill. If there is ever any issue I can assist with, please reach out to my office by calling 615-741-2190 or emailing me at rep.david.byrd@capitol.tn.gov.