Budget becomes central focus of General Assembly

From the desk of Sen. Steve Southerland:

NASHVILLE) March 31, 2022 – Action on Capitol Hill continued to shift from committees to the floor of the Senate this week as lawmakers worked diligently to approve many important bills. Over half of the Senate’s nine standing committees have completed their business for the 112th General Assembly. Meanwhile, the state budget will be the central focus during the final weeks before adjournment.

Governor Lee proposes new budget amendment

Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley briefed members of the Senate Finance Committee this week on Governor Bill Lee’s proposed additions to the 2022-2023 state budget.  The total cost of the proposed budget is $52.8 billion.  Changes to the proposal include $241 million for one-time budget expenditures and $74 million for recurring items. The new amendment reflects Governor Lee’s priorities to focus on long-term, strategic, one-time

A sizable addition to the proposed budget is a one-month grocery sales tax holiday so Tennesseans can keep more money in their pockets to help provide relief amid rising inflation. This would cost $80 million in non-recurring funds. The Senate is also considering removing the state portion of the license plate registration fees for a full year, which could save Tennessee drivers $121.6 million. In the coming weeks, the General Assembly will continue to review the Governor’s proposal and work on crafting a balanced budget that benefits all Tennesseans and continues the state’s record of fiscal responsibility.

Senate Republicans vote to balance power of government agencies in courts

Senate Republicans voted this week to pass legislation directing courts to no longer give deference to administrative agencies over citizens and businesses. Senate Bill 2285 directs courts to take up cases that involve the interpretation of administrative rules “de novo”. This means a court will have to decide these cases without reference to any legal conclusion or assumption made by a previous court.

The bill directly addresses a landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision which established the “Chevron Doctrine” in 1984. This ruling gave deference to administrative agencies in the interpretation of their own rule. Supporters of this legislation say the Chevron Doctrine has been responsible for expanding the administrative state at the cost of the average citizen and business.

Senate advances legislation increasing benefits for teachers

The Education Committee this week advanced legislation to increase benefits for Tennessee teachers. One measure would award bonuses to public school teachers who achieve certain performance measures. Senate Bill 1981 would require the Department of Education to establish a grant program to award the bonuses. Under the program, teachers would receive awards based on the performance designation of their most recent evaluation. The awards include:

$1,000 bonus for performing “above expectations”
$2,000 bonus for performing “significantly above expectations”
$3,000 bonus for teachers who score “above expectations” and at least 40% of their students received a passing, proficient or “on track” score on a state assessment
$4,000 bonus for teachers who score “significantly above expectations” and at least 55% of their students received a passing, proficient or “on track” score on a state assessment

A teacher meeting either of the first two metrics above may receive only one bonus per year, and a teacher who meets the last two metrics may receive up to two bonuses per year. The bill does not prohibit an LEA from awarding teachers additional bonuses beyond the ones outlined in this bill.

Another legislative initiative aims to increase affordability of graduate school for teachers furthering their education. Senate Bill 2721 waives the cost of one course at any state college or university.

Expanding access to wheelchairs – The Senate voted to expand access to important medical equipment for Tennesseans who need assistance getting around outside their homes. Senate Bill 2134 ensures that those who require Complex Rehabilitation Technology (CRT), defined as high-end, power and manual wheelchairs, are able to obtain them through their health insurance. These chairs are expensive and can range from $25,000 to $45,000, requiring many people to rely on insurance to afford them. However, currently there are policies that deny a wheelchair to someone in need because it is taken outside of their home to places such as church, the grocery store, or doctor’s appointments. This bill prohibits a health insurer from considering the location of where CRT can be used when making the medical necessity determination.

Helping visually impaired with prescription medication – The Senate approved legislation to ensure a visually impaired individual will have access to prescription labels and materials that are appropriate to their needs. Senate Bill 1859 allows those with disabilities to request their prescription information to be printed with either large print or Braille, or given audibly. This will prevent those with visual impairments from taking the wrong medication or dosage.

Extending handgun carry permits – Senate Bill 2701 would extend the validity of enhanced handgun carry permits from eight years to the lifetime of the permit holder. The Judiciary Committee advanced the bill this week. For enhanced handgun carry permits issued before July 1, 2022, the permit may be submitted to the Department of Safety, which will issue a replacement permit that does not have an expiration date. There will be a $50 fee to do so. The bill would not change current requirements for background checks of permit holders every four years. The act would take effect on July 1, 2022 and would apply to enhanced handgun carry permits issued before, on or after that date.

Thank you for reading this edition! Please continue to keep an eye out for unclaimed funds letters from my office. I encourage you to contact my office to share your thoughts and concerns. My office can be reached by phone at: (800) 449-8366, extension: 13851 or by e-mail at: sen.steve.southerland@capitol.tn.gov. Thank you for the honor to serve you in state government and God bless!