General Assembly passes key bills, including budget, as lawmakers look to close 2021 session
The state budget led a host of important bills that were approved during the week of April 26th as lawmakers prepare to close the 2021 legislative session. The General Assembly, which is looking to adjourn the week of May 3rd has completed the vast majority of its business with most of the remaining action pending on bills that were behind the budget due to their cost.
The no-debt budget, which will fund state government for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, continues lawmakers’ efforts to take care of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, ensure public safety, keep promises to state employees and maintain fiscal discipline. It prioritizes education, health care, and job development, including a record investment in broadband. The structurally-balanced budget also makes a significant deposit in the state’s Rainy-Day Fund, which serves as the Tennessee’s savings account to withstand economic downturns, bringing the fund to a historic level of $1.55 billion. The new budget funds many of last year’s budget priorities, which were put on hold as Tennessee’s attention shifted toward addressing the health and economic effects of the pandemic, including $250 million for a Mental Health Trust Fund to provide mental health supports to K-12 students.
Education, Health Care, Jobs, and Public Safety are priorities of 2021-2022 budget – Tennessee’s 2021-2022 budget funds $143 million in improvements made by the General Assembly during the Special Session on Education to tackle student learning loss. It also includes funds to raise literacy rates, provide pay increases for teachers and fully fund the state’s Basic Education Plan (BEP). The BEP is the funding formula by which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools to provide students and teachers with the tools they need for academic growth.
Key expenditures in higher education include $36 million to fully fund the Outcomes-Based Funding Formula to help stabilize budgets in Tennessee’s colleges and universities and keep tuition increases at a minimum. It provides $79 million to eliminate current Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) waitlists, currently at 11,400 students, to equip students with critical job skills. It also provides $42 million for a TCAT in Shelbyville to meet growing student needs in Middle Tennessee.
The budget also puts a strong emphasis on job creation and rural development with a significant $100 million investment to expand high speed broadband to unserved Tennessee communities. A second large investment is expected to be provided next year. These funds are in addition to federal coronavirus stimulus money provided for this purpose. In other jobs investments, the budget provides $190 million for Fast Track Infrastructure Grants to add high quality jobs throughout the state. It also provides $7 million to help support Tennessee entrepreneurs and innovators with promising start-up companies.
Health care is another key priority for the budget. It provides $37.9 million to fully fund medical inflation in the state’s TennCare program and adds $5 million to further widen the state’s Health Care Safety Net, bringing it to over $30 million. The Health Care Safety Net focuses on services that help uninsured patients get preventative and disease management care and avoid more costly hospitalizations.
A Senate amendment also added $1.5 million to the state’s Graduate Medical Education (GME) Program for a total of $5.5 million in recurring funds to get more residents into rural hospitals, particularly family practice doctors, pediatricians and psychiatric physicians. These funds will be used as stand-up money for five medical residents per year per hospital. Research shows that 70 percent of the doctors end up practicing where they do their residency.
In addition, the budget provides $38.9 million for a pay increase for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs), who provide care to some of Tennesseans most vulnerable citizens who suffer from a variety of disabilities. The budget supports pay increases for DSPs from a minimum of $10.50 to $12.50 per hour.
Tennessee Election Integrity Act – Legislation which aims to uphold the integrity of elections in Tennessee by ensuring absentee ballots are not fraudulent was approved by state senators on final consideration. Senate Bill 1315, which I sponsored, requires all absentee ballots to include an easily discernible watermark approved by Tennessee’s Coordinator of Elections, except those officially authorized to be delivered electronically. Called the Tennessee Election Integrity Act, the legislation also requires absentee ballot counting boards of local county election commissions to reject any absentee ballot without the approved watermark to prevent election fraud.
Tennessee Second Amendment Sanctuary Act – The full Senate voted to enact legislation making it clear that state and local officials must not enforce laws, treaties, executive orders, rules or regulations of the U.S. government that violate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Senate Bill 1335 affirms that such laws, treaties, executive orders and rules or regulations are null, void and unenforceable in Tennessee and prohibits public resources from being used to enforce them. The Tennessee Second Amendment Sanctuary Act also provides that any official who violates the statute is subject to ouster, unless they are otherwise excepted by the State Constitution. I was happy to be the sponsor of this bill to strengthen our fundamental 2nd amendment right to bear arms.