Senate committees focus on state budget

Tenn. Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville)
Sen. Mark Norris

As the 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly gets closer to adjournment, Senate committee action last week primarily centered on the state budget. The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee received Governor Bill Haslam’s amended budget proposal on April 25, and it makes several improvements and adjustments to the original plan submitted to lawmakers on Jan. 30. The appropriations amendment is customarily introduced in the final weeks of the legislative session for consideration and approval by the General Assembly.

In addition to the tax cuts, for the second year in a row, the amended budget proposal does not take on any new debt and makes significant investments in teachers, K-12 schools, higher education, state employees, and the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Notable investments in the fiscal year 2017-2018 budget amendment to Senate Bill 483, which I sponsored, include:

  • $8 million in recurring funds to increase salaries paid to the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities service providers who care for the state’s most vulnerable
  • $2 million in recurring funds for prevention, education, treatment and recovery services with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  • $55 million in one-time funds for transportation projects as the IMPROVE Act is phased in
  • $40 million in one-time funds for a new State Library and Archives building to collect and preserve Tennessee records of historical, documentary and reference value
  • $10.65 million in one-time funds for disaster relief in Gatlinburg and Sevier County after the devastating wildfires in November 2016

The budget is the only bill the General Assembly has a constitutional obligation to pass. Lawmakers will continue work on the legislation this week as House and Senate leaders and members of the Finance Committees hammer out details. The next step is consideration by full Senate and House of Representatives.

Tennessee history

The Senate unanimously approved a bill April 24 that would require Tennessee’s public schools to go back to teaching at least one full semester of Tennessee history. Senate Bill 631, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), is named for the late Senator Douglas Henry, who was a great advocate of Tennessee history and devoted much of his public life to its cause.

As amended, the semester of Tennessee history would be carved out between grades 4 and 8, a detail to be worked out by the Tennessee Board of Education and local school systems.

The bill complements a system under which the subject of Tennessee history is presently “embedded” into U.S. history classes in grades 4, 5, 8 and 11. The embedded system, however, is piecemeal and does not call for the “story” of Tennessee to be taught. At their request, all members of the Tennessee Senate were added as sponsors of the bill.

Similarly, the full Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) designating the week of Sept. 17 as “Celebrate Freedom Week” in Tennessee public schools. The timing coincides with Constitution Day, which is also known as Citizenship Day, commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Senate Bill 1152 is designed to emphasize the teaching of the country’s origins with an emphasis on the founding documents during that week.

News in brief

School Bus Safety: Legislation aiming to increase safety on Tennessee school buses was approved by the full Senate on final consideration and sent to the governor for his signature. Senate Bill 1210, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), raises the minimum age for drivers to 25 and requires all drivers to complete a school bus driver training program based on standards developed by the Department of Education and the Department of Safety prior to transporting any students. The legislation clarifies that drivers must have five consecutive years of unrestricted driving experience prior to the date of application. The proposal also requires school districts and charter schools to appoint a transportation supervisor, who receives annual training and is responsible for monitoring and overseeing student transportation for their district or charter school. The transportation supervisor would be responsible for implementing the school safety policy set by the local board of education, including a policy for investigating complaints.

LEAP / Education: The full Senate approved Senate Bill 1231 last week to include “work-based learning experiences” in the curriculum for work-based learning under the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP). The legislation, which I sponsored, aims to meet necessary skill standards of industries in Tennessee as part of the LEAP program. The LEAP program not only makes sure the state education programs are providing a more relevant educational experience, but aligns them with the private sector as well, so that students can work, learn and earn simultaneously. The LEAP program has engaged almost 20,000 students since it was passed in 2013.

Consumer protection/automobiles: Legislation protecting consumers from purchasing a used automobile that has been recalled and is unsafe to drive has received final Senate approval. Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), provides transparency to buyers regarding the recall before the purchase is made from a licensed Tennessee dealer. Also called the “Motor Vehicle Recall and Disclosure Law,” the legislation prescribes that any vehicle deemed unsafe by the Highway Safety Administration to drive is too dangerous to be sold until properly repaired by the dealer. Other than “stop sale” recalls, vehicles for sale with unrepaired open recalls would have to be disclosed to the customer in writing before the sale. The bill also provides that after 30 days of waiting for a repair part, the manufacturer must pay a one percent monthly payment to the dealer based on the average trade-in value of the vehicle being withheld from sale.

MARK NORRIS is a state senator (R-Collierville) for Tennessee and Senate Majority Leader. He chairs the Senate Rules Committee and serves as second vice-chair for the Senate Calendar Committee. He is also a member of the Senate Ethics Committee; Finance, Ways and Means Committee; State and Local Government Committee; and Joint Pensions and Insurance Committee. He may be reached at (615) 741-1967 or via email to