Haslam budget laying groundwork for state park privatization beyond Fall Creek Falls?

Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed 2017-18 budget includes an unprecedented $58.8 million in capital spending at state parks across Tennessee, leading to speculation that the administration has plans for privatization at three state park that get most of the money, reports the Times-Free Press.

That would follow the pattern set earlier when the 2016-2017  Haslam budget included major funding for Fall Creek Falls state park. Only months after the budget was adopted did the administration announce that the park’s operations would be privatized after the state spends money building a new park inn and other improvements.

“At this time, there are no active plans in place” in regards to further privatization efforts at those three parks, Paris Landing, Pickwick Landing and Henry Horton, said a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesperson in an email Friday.

Elected leaders from those park areas polled this week — all in Middle or West Tennessee — also said they have not been told if the state plans to pursue privatization at their parks. But each were familiar with the concept after a 2015 attempt to outsource hospitality operations at 11 state parks that failed because of the facilities’ poor conditions.

…(State Sen. John) Stevens’ district includes Henry County’s Paris Landing State Park, which is set to receive $23.07 million for the demolition of its inn and construction of a new inn that would include conference space and a restaurant.

He said he supports rebuilding the inn and is thankful for the administration’s proposed investment, adding that locals are interested in having input in the facility’s design.

“I have spoken to our local chamber and there is support in the community for the new building coupled with concern, privatization being one,” Stevens said.

…Marshall County’s Henry Horton State Park would receive $10.05 million under the proposed budget for the demolition of the inn, visitor center, and restaurant there. The money would also pay for the construction of a new visitor center and restaurant, but not another inn.

…An inn would remain part of Pickwick Landing State Park in Hardin County under the proposed budget. Nearly $12 million would be spent to renovate the current facility, which includes a conference center and restaurant.

Comptroller puts TN school funding calculator online

News release from state Comptroller’s office

Tennessee’s K-12 public schools depend on the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) formula to distribute nearly $4.4 billion in state funding. For years the BEP has been calculated by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) without any way to verify the results. Now, the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has created a method to independently calculate and verify the BEP.

The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability has reconstructed the entire BEP calculation from scratch using input data for student enrollment, unit costs, and other factors.

The Comptroller is also bringing transparency to the BEP formula by making its BEP Calculator publicly available to all Tennesseans. Details and dollar amounts for every school district in Tennessee can now be downloaded from the Comptroller’s website. Users can even create their own scenarios using different inputs – teacher salaries, insurance premiums, etc. – to see how changes impact BEP allocations.

The Comptroller has also created an interactive map where you can easily view of snapshot of essential BEP facts and figures for each of Tennessee’s 141 school districts.

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Haslam budget gives pay raises to teachers, state employees; spends $655 million on building construction & maintenance

Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposes spending $37 billion in the 2017-18 fiscal year, which is about 4.8 percent more than in the current fiscal year. The money includes about $18 billion in federal funds.

Here are some of the highlights:

–There’s new money (about $100 million) to cover a 4 percent pay raise for K-12 public school teachers, if spread across the board to all – though school systems can distribute the funds so some get bigger pay raises than others.  Schools would also get an extra $22 million for English language learning programs.

–There’s funding for all state employees (including those in higher education) to get a 3 percent pay raises if handled across the board plus $23 million for “market adjustment” pay raises in some job categories.

–There is $655 million for building construction and maintenance across state government and higher education.

–As announced before, $279 million extra would be spent on highway construction and maintenance with money generated from an increase in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. Another $135 million from revenue overcollections would go to road construction on a one-time basis as a “payback” of money taken from the road fund in previous years.

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Haslam proposes expanded free tuition plan, $37B budget in ‘State of the State’ speech

(Note: Full text of the governor’s speech is HERE.)

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE – In his seventh State of the State address to the General Assembly, Gov. Bill Haslam introduced his proposal to make Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all Tennessee adults without a degree access to community college tuition-free – and at no cost to taxpayers.

If the Tennessee Reconnect Act is approved, Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to offer all citizens – both high school students and adults – the chance to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate free of tuition and fees.

“Just as we did with Tennessee Promise, we’re making a clear statement to families: wherever you might fall on life’s path, education beyond high school is critical to the Tennessee we can be,” Haslam said. “At the end of the day, there is no higher potential for providing more opportunity for our citizens than increasing access to high quality education. And the point is, we’re doing it while maintaining discipline and responsibility to the taxpayer – keeping taxes and debt low and saving for when the economy ultimately slows.”

Launched in 2013, the Drive to 55 is the governor’s effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025. Currently, Tennessee needs 871,000 post-secondary degrees or certificates to reach 55 percent, but mathematically there’s no way to reach that goal by only serving high school students. There are 900,000 adults in Tennessee that have some college but no degree.

Tennessee adults without a certificate can already attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) tuition-free under the Reconnect program, and the governor’s Tennessee Reconnect Act would add community colleges into the program. Click here for information on the Reconnect proposal. (And there’s an ‘infographic’ HERE.)

The governor also unveiled tonight the Tennessee STRONG (Support, Training and Renewing Opportunities for National Guardsmen) Act, establishing a four-year pilot program for eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard to receive a last-dollar tuition reimbursement toward a first-time bachelor’s degree.

The Reconnect and STRONG acts are the final two pieces of NextTennessee, Haslam’s 2017 legislative agenda aimed at building and sustaining economic growth and the state’s competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans.

The governor also released his Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget proposal. The $37 billion proposal makes significant investments in teachers, K-12 schools, higher education, state employees, the state’s Rainy Day Fund and the tax cuts included in the governor’s IMPROVE Act. For a second year in a row, and the second year in Tennessee recorded history, the state budget does not take on any new debt.

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State revenue was $150M over estimates in December

News release from Department of Finance and Administration

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee revenues for December exceeded the same month one year ago.  Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin reported today that state revenues for December were $1.2 billion, which is a growth of 11.33% and $125.5 million more than December 2015.

“Total revenues in December were higher than expected due to collections in the sales and corporate tax categories. Recorded revenues in the corporate category for December include a substantial one-time payment,” Martin said. “December sales tax revenues reflect retail activity that occurred in November including ‘Black Friday’ and after-Thanksgiving sales. January’s report will capture consumer spending for the Christmas holiday season. Continue reading

McNally names Watson chair of Senate Finance Committee; Tracy as speaker pro tem; Bailey as Transportation chair

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has appointed Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee – the position McNally held before being elected speaker of the Senate on Tuesday. Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, will, in turn, replace Watson as Senate speaker pro tempore — and Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, will succeed Tracy as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Otherwise, committee chairs remain the same for the 110th General Assembly as they were for the 109th General Assembly when Ron Ramsey did the appointing as speaker.

A chart (pdf) listing Senate committee assignments is available by clicking on this link: senatecommittees110tga

Here’s McNally’s press release on the appointments:

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TN education graded C- overall; gets an F in funding

Tennessee doesn’t spend enough on public schools, but it distributes what it does spend relatively fairly, according to a new national report.

As further summarized by Chalkbeat Tennessee:

The state earned a C-minus overall in public education on Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report, ranking 36th of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The overall grade takes into account finance, performance and “chance for success,” a category representing the role that education plays in outcomes from early education to adulthood.

Tennessee’s lowest grade was in spending: an F and a national ranking of 46th. However, the state received a B-plus and ranked No. 5 for equity in distributing funding across districts. The finance grade was based on federal data from 2014.

The state’s highest grade was in the category of “chance for success,” scoring a 73.7, or a C.

The report, released last week, comes as Gov. Bill Haslam prepares to present his annual budget for 2017-18 following several years of spending increases for K-12 education. He hinted after a budget hearing in November that he’ll propose more increases for teacher pay, but nothing drastic.

Note: The Education Week summary for Tennessee is HERE.

Black named interim House Budget Committee chair

House Republicans have named Rep. Diane Black to be interim chairman of the Budget Committee, in a move that Politico reports is aimed at keeping the GOP agenda moving swiftly while current Chairman Tom Price focuses on his nomination to be President-elect Donald Trump’s HHS secretary.

House Speaker Paul Ryan offered the proposal at a House GOP conference meeting Monday night, which he said would allow the Budget Committee to get up and running as quickly as possible, while giving Price the ability to fully prepare for a confirmation gantlet in the Senate, according to Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

Upon Price’s confirmation, the Republican Steering Committee would select a permanent chairman. Black, a Tennessee Republican, would seem to have the inside track for the job, though Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), the vice chairman, is also vying for the post.

The Budget chairman will play a crucial role for the GOP in the coming months, helping to steer controversial efforts to repeal Obamacare and potentially approve a massive tax reform package. That’s because Republicans are planning to use a powerful procedural tool known as budget reconciliation to bypass the Senate’s typical 60-vote threshold and jam through legislation on party-line votes.


Legislator seeks state money for ‘Monkey Trial’ courthouse repair

State Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, says he’s seeking state funds for repair of the Rhea County Courthouse, where the “Scopes Money Trial” played out in 1925, and thinks Gov. Bill Haslam will include the money in his budget for the coming year, reports the Times-Free Press.


“We’ve got to start from the top and work our way down,” Travis said of the estimated $200,000 in work needed to replace what is believed to be the original slate roof from 1891.

The roof must be leak proof before the rest of the building is protected from the elements, he said.

Travis said the project is as important to Tennessee and U.S. history as it is to the history of Dayton and Rhea counties.

From July 10 to July 21, 1925, the Rhea County Courthouse was the stage for the famous Scopes Evolution Trial, in which John Thomas Scopes, a Dayton high school teacher, was tried for teaching that human beings evolved from a “lower order of animals,” according to the historical account by the Scopes Trial Festival.

Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but on appeal the decision was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1927. The court case, commonly referred to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” raised debate on issues such as separation of church and state, academic freedom and the relationship between science and religion.

In 1977, the National Park Service named the courthouse a National Historic Landmark, a somewhat rarer designation than being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to which it was named in 1972.

Landmarks are “nationally significant historic places” that “possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” according to the National Park Service.

Veterans renew lobbying to restore cuts in state tax relief program

A bill has already been filed for the 2017 legislative session that would restore a cut in the state-funded subsidy of local property taxes paid by military veterans and The Tennessean has a report on veterans who will be lobbying for passage of the measure in a year with huge budget surpluses.

The bill (HB5) by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, himself a veteran, declares that veterans can get property tax relief on the first $175,000 in value of their homes. After the cut – pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the state comptroller’s office because of rapid growth in the cost of the program – the subsidy applies to only the first $100,000 in value.

It’s been a hotly-debated topic for three years. Legislators last year added close to $1 million in funding for the overall program beyond what was allocated in Haslam’s budget (low income elderly and disabled persons are also eligible for a state subsidy), but didn’t change the value cap for veterans.

As many as 16,700 disabled veterans and their surviving spouses received $12.1 million in benefits via the tax relief program during the 2015-16 tax year, which is the most recent data available. The year before, about 15,900 disabled veterans and their surviving spouses received $8.5 million in benefits.

By comparison, 133,400 low-income elderly and disabled residents received about $20 million in benefits in the 2015-16 tax year.

… The effort to undo the changes to the tax relief program is the No. 1 priority, says Barry Rice, president of the Tennessee State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

“On a scale of one to 10, it’s about an 11 or 12,” he said.

Despite lawmakers’ promises of additional change to the program, Land remains skeptical.

Land says the state’s public officials are playing political football with the men and women who have risked their lives by serving their country. He points to the amount of federal money that the state’s veterans bring to Tennessee to underline the sheer economic value they bring to the state.

Land also said he finds it disheartening to see veterans’ property tax relief being scrutinized when the state has a surplus and teachers and public employees have been receiving raises.

“Give me a break,” he says. “This is just shoving stuff down our throats.”


Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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