Gov. Lee’s budget amendment includes tax holidays, investments in mental health, education and economic development
The state budget is the central focus in the last remaining weeks of the first session of the 112th General Assembly as committees begin to complete their business for year. Gov. Bill Lee this week announced his amendment to the proposed 2021-22 fiscal year budget which includes $580 million in available funds. These funds will be invested in strategic long-term projects that focus on a return to pre-pandemic priorities and deliver critical services while not growing government. The budget amendment also includes nearly $100 million for a two-week sales tax holiday on all grocery sales, purchases at restaurants, and all prepared food. This amendment reflects Republican priorities and includes record investments in broadband, economic development, safety and law enforcement, increasing reserves, and education. A key provision of the budget amendment is a $250 million investment in a Mental Health Trust Fund to assist K-12 families who are facing significant mental health issues in the wake of COVID-19. This proposal creates strong mental health services for school-aged students through a systemwide, evidence-based approach. Gov. Lee’s budget amendment includes:
•$25M for a two-week sales tax holiday for groceries
•$75M for a two-week sales tax holiday for restaurants and all prepared food
•$16M to reduce the professional privilege tax by 25 percent
K-12 Education and Mental Health
•$250M trust fund to assist K-12 families facing significant mental health issues in the wake of Covid-19
•$18.5M to transportation to students for summer learning
•$2M to provide an additional grade aligned books and resources over the summer for 88,000 rising first graders
•$79M to eliminate current TCAT waitlists statewide, currently at 11,400 students
•$25M to Tennessee Promise to permit increases in the Hope Scholarship
•$4M to increase Agriculture Extension Agents at University of Tennessee and Tennessee State University
Rural & Agriculture
•$50K to support the state fair (in addition to the $250,000 recurring in originally proposed budget)
•$3M to provide additional funding for rural projects as part of the Rural Economic Opportunity Fund (in addition to $21M in originally proposed budget for total of $24M)
•$500K to provide gun safety programming for children
•$17M to replace radios for state troopers
•$18M to improve the statewide disaster communications system
•$680K to add 4 new Homeland Security Agents
•$5M to provide grants to restore and preserve historic downtowns across the state
•$3M to increase employment in Tennessee through the Small Business Innovation program
•$3M recurring and an additional $10M nonrecurring to provide additional direct funding to airports across Tennessee through the Transportation Equity Fund (total $50M investment in air infrastructure)
The House chamber on Thursday unanimously passed legislation strengthening and improving the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. House Bill 142 was recommended by a group appointed to study possible changes to the program, which currently has $710 million in reserves. The funds, which come from a federal block grant, provide important support to working families such as child care assistance, temporary cash assistance, transportation, job training, employment activities and other support services offered through the state’s Families First Program. This legislation creates a two-year pilot program which provides enhanced cash assistance to individuals who are actively pursuing educational opportunities. The bill also distributes $180 million through a new Tennessee Opportunity Pilot Program, which will create large-scale programs benefiting TANF recipients. The legislation also increases the TANF allotment. For example, it increases the monthly amount a family of three receive from $277 to $387.
House Bill 142 will also create the Families First Community Grants to infuse $50 million in TANF reserves funds into the community through grants to organizations providing services to low-income families. It includes the Two-Generation program, which focuses on intergenerational poverty through a “whole family” approach by combining parent and child interventions to break the cycle of poverty and create a pathway to economic security. The bill requires that $191 million will be reserved to ensure the program’s stability during an economic downturn. However, once those reserves are in place, it provides that funding not spent from the department’s previous year will be used for community grants that will be spread statewide to build stronger families and a thriving Tennessee.
Finally, the bill creates The TANF Advisory Board consisting of up to 21 people to approve grantees and provide important input regarding the effectiveness of existing Families First and Two-Generation Program policies and grant programs. The board will also be responsible for selecting recipients for Tennessee Opportunity Pilot Program grants, community grants and selecting research partners to evaluate the successes of grant programs awarded through TANF.
House passes Textbook Transparency Act
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly supported legislation this week that ensures all textbooks in the hands of Tennessee students are accessible to the public to view. House Bill 1513 creates the Textbook Transparency Act which increases transparency in public school educational material. The Textbook Transparency Act makes available online textbooks that are adopted by the state of Tennessee and used by public schools. Compared to the 90-day timeframe textbooks are currently required to be available to the public, this bill requires publishers to make these materials available so long as they are actively being used in the classroom.
Republicans expand scholarship eligibility to homeschoolers
More Tennessee students could soon be eligible for state scholarships under Republican legislation. House Bill 646 will expand the eligibility for home school students to receive the HOPE and Tennessee Promise scholarships. The legislation revises current state statutes by implementing certain criteria for home school students to meet in order to take advantage of the lottery scholarships. It allows the students to qualify for the scholarship based on a GPA, whereas currently home school students have had to rely solely on their ACT scores to establish eligibility for the HOPE scholarship. Students will now be able to qualify for the scholarship by successfully completing two dual enrollment courses with a minimum GPA of 3.0. It also removes the requirement for a student to maintain “home school status” for a minimum of one full calendar year prior to graduation. The bill will be heard for consideration in the Finance, Ways, and Means Committee on Tuesday, April 20.
House increases transparency of foreign influence on campuses
The House chamber unanimously passed legislation requiring greater transparency for foreign investments on college campuses in Tennessee. It prohibits the establishment of Confucius Institutes which have ties to communist regimes. As amended, House Bill 1238 requires state institutions to disclose gifts received from and contracts initiated with a foreign source in excess of $10,000. The bill requires the institution to submit a disclosure report to the Comptroller of the Treasury and Department of Safety for review. It provides Tennessee taxpayers greater transparency in foreign influences and preserves the integrity of the state’s higher education institutes. This legislation further provides taxpayers with greater transparency of foreign influences and preserve the integrity of Tennessee’s higher education institutions. The bill now awaits passage in the Senate.
Statewide Silver Alert legislation advances
Legislation creating a statewide Silver Alert program advanced in the House this week, passing the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Wednesday. House Bill 119 implements a Silver Alert program under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to assist in the locating of missing and vulnerable citizens in Tennessee. The Silver Alert program will benefit persons who are 60 years of age or older, suffer from a documented case of dementia, or are eighteen years of age or older with an intellectual, developmental, or physical disability whose whereabouts are unknown or are believed to be in danger or unable to return to safety without assistance. Local police or sheriff departments are currently the gatekeepers for Silver Alert in Tennessee, left to make a judgement on when or if a Silver Alert is warranted. Should the legislation become law, the TBI would be required to alert law enforcement agencies and designated media outlets across the state upon receiving notice of a missing citizen fitting the guidelines. The bill moves on to the full Finance, Ways and Means Committee, where it will be heard for consideration on Tuesday, April 20.
House increases public safety on roadways
The House chamber this week passed legislation aimed at increasing public safety by making it a Class C misdemeanor offense for a person to solicit from the roadway, shoulder, berm, or the right-of-way of a controlled-access highway as well as entrances or exits of a highway. House Bill 978 makes camping on the shoulder of a state highway or under a bridge or overpass punishable by warning citation on the first offence and $50 fine and 20-40 hours of community service on subsequent offenses. The Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 generally makes it a Class E felony offense for a person to camp on property owned by the state knowing that the area on which the camping occurs is not specifically designated for use as a camping area. The legislation makes the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 applicable to all public property rather than only state-owned property. This bill also extends to local governments and their employees the provisions of the Act concerning impoundment and disposal of camping equipment that is used in violation of the act. It awaits passage by the Senate.
Republicans protect religious freedom in Tennessee
Republicans on Monday passed legislation further protecting Tennesseans’ First Amendment right to hold religious services during a state of emergency. House Bill 1137 prohibits the state or a public official from restricting church services during a state of emergency such as a pandemic or natural disaster. This legislation also prohibits county health officers from closing or limiting the operations of a church or religious organization. The First Amendment guarantees the right of all citizens to freely practice their religion and to peacefully assemble at their chosen house of worship. Though Tennessee has not imposed any restrictions on religious services since the pandemic began, other states have. House Bill 1137 ensures the government will not infringe on those rights.
House honors centennial celebration of 105th Attack Squadron of the Tennessee Air National Guard
The House on Monday unanimously passed a resolution honoring the 105th Attack Squadron of the Tennessee Air National Guard on its 100th anniversary serving the Volunteer State. The roots of the 105th Attack Squadron reach back to World War I, when the Aero Squadron of the American Expeditionary Force was formed at Kelly Field, Texas in 1917. Veterans of the 105th Aero Squadron living in Nashville in 1919 gathered to organize an air element of the Tennessee National Guard. The unit received federal recognition on Dec. 4, 1921 and was assigned to the U.S. Army’s 30th ‘Old Hickory’ Division. The squadron’s insignia still includes a figure of President Andrew Jackson ‘Old Hickory’ on horseback. The 105th was called to active duty in 1940 and became a ready source of trained personnel and seasoned pilots when our nation entered World War II. The 105th supported the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, national and state civil disturbances, the Vietnam War, and Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Volant Oak, Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
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