Tennessee’s legislature approved a fast-tracked budget of about $39.8 billion late Thursday night after a marathon day of activity and as the state responds to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
The amount is about $900 million less than what was initially proposed by Gov. Bill Lee’s administration.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson said the approved budget excludes many of the initiatives considered earlier this year.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had one that did this, which basically took most everything that was in the original proposed out and got us to the posture where we are today,” Johnson said.
Among the initiatives gone: Lee’s $250 million K-12 Mental Health Fund. The administration has also reduced a promised salary raise for teachers to 2%, down from 4%.
Overall, the cuts reduced the budget growth rate for fiscal year 2021 to 0%.
But, the budget has some new additions.
It includes $150 million to fight the spread of coronavirus in the state and adds $30 million to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. This would help with tornado recovery.
The administration will also deposit $350 million into its rainy day fund. That’s $300 million more than what was initially proposed earlier this year.
This last item has raised some questions among lawmakers, including Sen. Joey Hensley.
“I’ve had some people ask me why we din’t use some of the rainy funds we have rather than putting more into the rainy day,” said Hensley, R-Hohenwald.
Johnson responded that the administration wants to put money into the fund because it’s unclear what the next fiscal year will look like in terms of the economy.
“We still have to get through the reminder of this fiscal year, and the administration is reasonably confident that the changes we’ve made … that we’ll be able to balance the book,” Johnson said. “But when we look at the next fiscal year, and the potential on our revenue collections, it can be pretty bad.”
Democrats Criticize Some Of Lee’s Priorities
One of the allocations the Lee administration is retaining in this new budget is about $38 million for the Education Savings Account program.
The school voucher initiative has to start by the 2021 school year, but Lee is pushing for it to start next fall.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, emphasized this was something Lee wanted to do despite it not being pressing.
“That doesn’t feel responsible to me and it doesn’t feel like the type of decision that we are trying to make here this week,” Yarbro said.
Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, had an amendment to redirect the appropriated money to a “health care safety net” and rural health clinics. The amendment failed.
Earlier this week, the governor told reporters the school program was an essential allocation.
“We are funding any program that we already have a financial commitment to fulfill, Lee said. “That includes that program.”
Unprecedented Legislative Session
The legislature also voted to go into a recess for at least eight weeks.
This week, in-person access to committee hearings and the chambers was limited to members, staff and journalists.
In the Senate, the chaplain of the day conducted a prayer via a video stream.
Some members expressed publicly their concerns about coming to the legislature in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, wore a mask as a protection. He said this was the “most irresponsible session” he’s been part of.
“Our workers in here — whether it’s the clerk’s office, the interns when they were here, the secretaries, all of them — have been exposed,” Hardaway told WPLN News. “Why would leadership violate the protocols that the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, their favorite President Donald J. Trump … all have said you either do social distancing or you have personal protection equipment?”