(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 6, 2014 – The budget moved front and center on Capitol Hill this week as Governor Bill Haslam presented his proposal to fund state government for the 2014-15 fiscal year that will begin in July. Haslam’s “State of the State / Budget Address” was also highlighted by the announcement of his “Tennessee Promise” legislation to make two years of state community college or technical schools available free of charge to all graduating high school students.
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee began their task of studying the $32.6 billion appropriations bill, which is $600,000 less than the budget adopted for the current fiscal year. Haslam said the conservative budget continues to prioritize education and job growth, by focusing on preparing students for the workplace.
Drive to 55 / Tennessee Promise — Building on the Tennessee Complete College Act passed in 2010, the governor launched the ambitious “Drive to 55” initiative last year to bring the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications from 32 % to 55% by the year 2025. The Tennessee Promise proposal aims to boost efforts to reach the 41 percent of Tennessee high school graduates who do not pursue postsecondary education, many of which are due to financial barriers.
“Through the Tennessee Promise, we are fighting the rising cost of higher education, and we are raising our expectations as a state,” Haslam said. “We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee.”
“The governor has proposed a bold plan to bolster our Drive to 55 by 2025,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “It also compliments our workforce development efforts to close the job skills gap. Recruiting new and better paying jobs for Tennesseans with on-the-job training and higher education will strengthen our economy and improve the quality of life for all.”
Under the Labor and Education Alignment Program (LEAP), sponsored by Norris and initiated by the General Assembly last year, $10 million in alignment grants to local communities with approved strategic plans in place to close the skills gap between higher education and the workplace.
Under the Tennessee Promise plan, students graduating from a community college could use the state’s transfer pathways program if they choose to attend a four-year school, making it possible to start as a junior. In order to pay for the plan, the governor has proposed transferring approximately $300 million in lottery reserve funds, which would be added to the $47 million already placed in an endowment for student scholarships. It is estimated that the cost of the Tennessee Promise scholarships will be approximately $34 million annually. The governor has recommended $110 million should remain in the lottery reserve fund to help ensure adequate funding moving forward.
Other Drive to 55 efforts this year include:
- Statewide expansion of the Seamless Alignment of Integrated Learning (SAILS) program to eliminate the need for remedial math courses for students entering college with $2.6 million in the proposed budget. Currently, 70 percent of high school graduates need remedial classes before they are able to take a college level course.
- Offering one dual enrollment course to high school students at no cost with discounted courses available after that. Dual enrollment allows high school students to take college credit courses, and there is a 94 percent probability that those students will go on to college.
- Expansion of the Degree Compass program that predicts the subjects and majors in which students will be most successful with $300,000 in the proposed budget.
- Creation of an Adult Student Data System to help state colleges and universities – both public and private – do a better job of identifying and recruiting adults that are most likely to return to college and complete their degree with $300,000 in the proposed budget.
- Appointment of a new Director of Workforce Alignment that will work with state departments and local officials.
- Workforce alignment grants to local communities that have strategic plans in place to connect education institutions with employers with a focus on closing the skills gaps in their area with $10 million in the proposed budget.
- Changing the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship allotment to incentivize completion by raising the scholarship for two-year schools from $2,000 to $3,000 and shifting the scholarship for four-year schools from $4,000 to $3,000 the first two years and $5,000 the last two years. All students currently receiving the scholarships would be grandfathered in at the current rate, as well as all who enter in the 2014-2015 school year.
Budget / Overall — In his budget address, Governor Haslam reiterated that the 2014-2015 budget was challenging as revenue collections over the past several months have not met projections. However, the governor pointed out that Tennessee is in a better position to balance the budget because the state has been fiscally conservative in years past. The budget shortfall is expected to be about $116 million by the close of the current fiscal year.
In order to balance the budget, Haslam has proposed selected reductions, including eliminating 664 positions in state government, of which all except 100 are currently vacant. Some of the other reductions include finding cost savings in the TennCare program and in corrections.
In 2005, the state set a goal of keeping spending for the program at 26%. TennCare currently consumes about 30% of the state’s general budget.
“We have $260 million in new revenue this year,” said Haslam. “ Increased TennCare costs will take up $180 million, employee health insurance costs are up $40 million, and $120 million are proposed for education. So, if you’re doing the math at home, before putting anything toward employee salaries, higher education, social services for our most vulnerable citizens, or anything else, we are already $80 million in the red.”
“This is definitely a tough budget year,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). “The governor has proposed a plan that prioritizes education and improves services for our most vulnerable citizens, while realizing efficiencies to utilize our financial resources wisely. It also helps to reestablish our Rainy Day Fund so we have adequate savings in case of a downturn in our economy. I look forward to seeing more details in the coming months.”
All Senate committees will review the various departmental budgets in depth over the next month. Traditionally, the budget is one of the last bills voted on during the legislative session.
Other budget highlights include:
- $1.7 million to fund a new statewide residential drug court in Middle Tennessee;
- $6.4 million to fund new child protective services and case manager positions as well as other critical children’s services including foster care and adoption assistance;
- $7 million increase for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to care for some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens;
- A one percent pay raise for state employees;
- $40.3 million to the Rainy Day Fund bringing it to $496 million on June 30, 2015;
- $61 million in Fast Track Infrastructure and Job Training assistance;
- $6 million for a statewide tourism fund to support the work of the tourism commission.
Highlights of capital investments to support higher education include:
- $13 million to fund the Complete College Outcomes Formula;
- $63 million to fund capital maintenance projects at institutions across the state;
- $36.7 million to fund a new Williamson County campus for Columbia State Community College;
- $28.7 million to fund a new classroom building at Volunteer State Community College.
Notable K-12 investments include:
- $63 million to increase teacher salaries as part of the governor’s ongoing effort to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in terms of paying teachers more;
- $48.6 million dollars to fully fund the BEP formula.
Legislation approved by Senate Judiciary Committee continues fight against Human Trafficking in Tennessee
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved several key bills this week which continue Tennessee’s fight against human trafficking. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), alongside Senators Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), and Ken Yager (R-Kingston), have proposed new anti-human trafficking laws that will raise awareness and help limit wide-ranging human trafficking activity currently taking place in the state.
The General Assembly passed a series of bills addressing human trafficking after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. Tennessee emerged as a national leader in the fight against human trafficking as a result of those efforts, receiving an “A” ranking from Shared Hope International’s 2013 state report card. Tennessee scored 93.5%, the highest of any other state rated in the Protected Innocence Challenge.
This year, the anti-human trafficking coalition has filed 11 bills with the hope that they will toughen state laws, help survivors, and aid law enforcement in their quest to eradicate human trafficking in Tennessee. The package of bills seek to enhance penalties against those who promote or patronize the illegal act, give more rights to human trafficking victims, update state laws to help ensure offenders cannot escape prosecution, and mandates a statewide TBI training program that will raise awareness and spotlight victims’ needs and issues.
“This is a widespread problem in Tennessee, and it is especially disturbing because many victims of human trafficking are children,” said Senator Kelsey. “I am honored to once again bring this legislation on behalf of victims and their families that have all been impacted so greatly by these terrible crimes.”
Among human trafficking legislation approved by the Judiciary Committee this week are:
- Senate Bill 1748, sponsored by Senator Yager, which prohibits asserting that the subject of the offense was a consenting minor or a law enforcement officer as a defense to promoting prostitution.
- Senate Bill 1660, sponsored by Senator Kelsey, which adds the offense of promoting prostitution to the list of offenses that constitute severe child abuse
- Senate Bill 1665, sponsored by Senator Kelsey, which calls for the TBI to implement courses of instruction for the training of law enforcement officers and state personnel in the handling of human trafficking
- Senate Bill 1656, sponsored by Senator Kelsey, which increases from 15 to 18 years old, the age of a minor against whom an offense of trafficking of a commercial sex act is a Class A felony
- Senate Bill 1657, sponsored by Senator Kelsey, which broadens the list of crimes for which a judge may grant the interception of electronic communications for evidence to trafficking for commercial sex acts, promoting prostitution, patronizing prostitution, especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, solicitation of a minor, and soliciting sexual exploitation of a minor/exploitation of a minor by electronic means.
“These bills tie the noose tighter around those who engage in human trafficking,” said Senator Yager. “They also solidify Tennessee as a national leader in eradicating 21st century slavery.”
Environment Committee hears report on the health of Tennessee’s Forests
The Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee heard testimony this week from Tennessee Forestry Commission Chairman John Ross and State Forester Jere Jeter about the health of Tennessee’s forests. Forests cover half the state and provide more than 60,000 jobs. They also help promote clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation for all Tennesseans.
Ross and Jeter provided members of the committee with an annual update assessing the health of the state’s forests and how the commission is working to address important long-term issues. This includes how to preserve working forest landscapes, protecting forests from harm and enhancing public benefits from the forests.
General forest condition trends on Tennessee’s private forestlands include the aging of forests and a decrease in pine forest types. Another key concern is pests. Tennessee’s highways and waterways are potential pathways for pest introduction and are cause for concern for several pests currently found in other regions of the continent. The Division of Forestry has partnered with the Nature Conservancy to improve the health of Tennessee trees by engaging people in early pest detection, tree health monitoring, tree planting and stewardship. In good news, the report said no gypsy moth infestations are present in Tennessee at this time.
Fire protection is a main concern for forest preservation. Ross reported a new record low in the number of fires in Tennessee last year. The state saw the lowest number of fires since 1927, with a total of 639 wildfires that burned 9,033 acres. Ross said efforts in fire prevention and suppression greatly assisted with this record low.
Wood products from Tennessee forests are an important part of the state’s economy. The Tennessee Wood Products Program initiated last fall, connects consumers and the state’s forest products industry through “branding” of products produced here. The campaign increases visibility and enhanced marketing opportunities for forest products businesses and is open to any business that produces or manufactures wood products.
“Tennessee’s forests are very important to the health and economic well-being of our state,” said Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Steve Southerland (R-Morristown). “All Tennesseans have a stake in making sure our forests are sustainable. This report points us in the direction of the many opportunities we have to improve the general health of our forests. “
Aggravated Child Neglect – Legislation that raises the penalty for aggravated child neglect or endangerment passed the Senate this week. Senate Bill 1695, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), puts aggravated child abuse into the category of crimes in which convicted offenders must serve at least 85% of their sentences in prison. Currently, those convicted of aggravated child neglect and endangerment are eligible for release after serving 55% of their sentence. The legislature has moved several violent crimes to the 85% category over the past several years, which previously allowed offenders to serve as little as 35% of their sentences behind bars.
Attempted First Degree Murder — Similarly, legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to prohibit release eligibility for attempted first degree murder that results in serious bodily injury until the offender has served 90% of the sentence imposed less sentence credits earned. Senate Bill 1649, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), specifies that sentence credits cannot reduce the percent of prison time served below 80%. The bill attempts to treat the sentence for attempted first degree murder in such a manner that does not give convicted offenders a lighter sentence when the victim survives due to the crime’s proximity to a highly skilled trauma center.
Recognizing Sacrifices of First Responders – The Senate Government Operations Committee has approved a bill creating the “Three Stars of Tennessee Award” for peace officers, firefighters, and medical first responders killed or injured in the line of duty. Senate Bill 1691, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), calls for the governor to present the award to each recipient or the surviving next of kin during a public ceremony held on or as near as practicable to September 11 each year. The award, which will consist of a medal, a certificate and a ribbon suitable for wearing on a uniform, aims to recognize the heroic and brave sacrifices of first responders who give their lives or suffer a career-ending injury protecting and serving the public.
Remembering George Jones — Country music legend George Jones was recognized on February 5, 2014 for his talent and his contribution to the music industry by the Senate through Senate Joint Resolution 562. The Resolution, sponsored by Senator Johnson (R- Williamson), explores the life of Mr. Jones from his humble beginnings in Saratoga, Texas, to his illustrious career playing and singing country music, to his passing just hours before his final concert on April 26, 2013.