Lawmakers adjourn after passing budget, key bills

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

The 2017 session of the 110th General Assembly has adjourned to become a part of Tennessee history with some of the most important bills of the year being approved during the final week of legislative action. This includes the passage of the $37 billion state budget. It proposes state government spending for the next fiscal year that begins July 1 and extends to June 30, 2018.

Senate Bill 483, which I sponsored, maintains Tennessee’s sound fiscal practices. For the second year in a row, the state budget does not take on any new debt. It assumes an annualized growth rate of 3.17 percent, based on an economic growth forecast of 4.5 percent. Such fiscally conservative practices have resulted in Tennessee having a budget surplus rather than a deficit as many other states have experienced. This is one of the reasons Tennessee is ranked among the best managed states in the nation. We cut taxes in five of the previous six years and generated more revenues as a result. The 2017-2018 budget cuts more than $250 million in taxes in the next fiscal year and more than $400 million in taxes annually at full implementation.

The budget’s 4 tenets

Education, Employment, Economic Opportunity, and Enforcement of the Law are the underlying drivers of Tennessee’s 2017-2018 state budget adopted by the General Assembly last week. The budget continues Tennessee’s strong commitment to education by providing an additional $200 million to fund the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP). This includes $100 million to improve teacher salaries, $22 million to help schools serve high need students, and an additional $15 million is provided for career and technical education equipment.

It also continues several important higher education initiatives in the Drive to 55 to make sure that 55 percent of Tennesseans have a post-secondary certificate or degree by the year 2025. This includes the Reconnect Act and the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act. The Reconnect Act is a last-dollar scholarship which makes Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college. The STRONG Act creates a pilot program for those who protect and serve their state and country in the Tennessee National Guard to receive tuition funding toward a first time bachelor degree.

On employment and economic opportunity, the legislation provides $113 million in Franchise and Excise (F&E) tax cuts, which are available to over 500 manufacturers in Tennessee benefitting over 310,000 of their employees. Since the recent passage of legislation initiating the F&E cuts, two major industries have announced they will locate facilities in Tennessee, creating a combined 520 new jobs in the state.

Also conducive to job creation is the $150 million in new, recurring revenue appropriated for improving Tennessee’s roads, making them inviting to new industries looking to locate in the state. The improvements are also essential for road safety. Presently, 40 percent of the state’s major urban roads are in less-than-fair condition. Likewise, approximately 19 percent of Tennessee bridges are in need of repair, five percent are structurally deficient, and 14 percent are functionally obsolete.

On enforcement of the law, the budget provides 30 new positions for district attorneys, 18 new public defenders, 25 new Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers and new funding to increase coverage for families of police and firefighters who lose their life in the line of duty. It provides more than $2 million in recurring funds to incarcerate felons with firearms and abusers of the elderly and to enhance sentences against illegal aliens who commit unlawful acts. It also provides $5 million in funding to increase the per diem paid to local jails for housing state prisoners and $29.5 million for a new multi-agency law enforcement training center.

Other highlights of the budget include:
•$8 million for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to purchase an airplane to assist in criminal investigations and manhunts
•$55 million for utilization grants for TennCare
•715 more slots for the Employment and Community First Choices (EFC) Program to provide long-term services and supports
•$1 million for the OPTIONS program, which gives home- and community-based service choices to the elderly, as well as adults with disabilities
•$10.3 million to improve access to broadband in Tennessee
•$8 million to increase the reimbursement rate for direct support professionals who provide home and community-based services through the Department of Intellectual Disabilities (DIDD)
•$11.5 million for substance abuse and crisis services
•$21.7 million in a new money to help fund rural initiatives as recommended by the Rural Development Task Force Study
•$40 million toward the cost of a new State Library and Archives building to collect and preserve Tennessee records of historical, documentary and reference value
•$10.65 million for disaster relief in Gatlinburg and Sevier County after the devastating wildfires in November 2016
•$77 million for state employee pay increases and market rate adjustments targeting high-turnover positions in state government
•$614 million in state dollars for maintenance and new buildings across general government and higher education
•$25 million for higher education outcome formula increases of the Complete College Act
•$132 million in non-recurring funds to the state’s Rainy Day Fund to an all-time high of $800 million, well on the way to a target of $1 billion
•Full restoration of property tax relief for veterans, disabled and the elderly
•$18 million for the next state veterans’ home in West Tennessee

The priorities outlined in the budget make it clear that state government stands behind the elderly, the vulnerable, the sick and the unfortunate.

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