Budget Talks Begin;   

Criminal Justice Reforms, Compensation

for College Athletes Nearing Goal Line

With just three weeks remaining in the 2022 session, the collective focus of the General Assembly now turns to the state budget, and the level of political horse-trading – sometimes between the administrative and legislative branches, and sometimes between the chambers themselves – reaches a fever pitch.  While the budget becomes the main act, several other pieces of high-profile legislation, such as certificate of need reform, opioid abatement fund, and medical cannabis, still face hurdles until they reach the finish line.  Those factors working together often create the right conditions for political drama.  Indeed, bitter battles have erupted at the end of session between the two chambers more than once in recent years, despite a GOP supermajority. Stated differently, we are now entering the time of year when political observers buckle their seat belts. 

Lee Administration Unveils Budget Amendment; Signals Return to “Pre-Pandemic Priorities” 

This week Finance & Administration Commissioner Butch Eley presented the Lee administration’s supplemental budget proposal, an annual occurrence that signals the beginning of the home stretch of the legislative session.  The budget amendment compliments and completes the original budget that the administration released in February, outlining Governor Lee’s top legislative priorities.

The budget amendment includes $580 million in available funds, with the stated goal of returning to pre-pandemic priorities while not increasing the size of government. Comm. Eley noted a focus on  broadband, economic development, safety and law enforcement, increasing reserves and education. The amendment also features tax cuts, including a two-week sales tax holiday for groceries and restaurants, as well as a partial reduction in the professional privilege tax currently being paid by attorneys, physicians, financial advisors, and other professions. In a press release, Governor Lee said he is “especially proud to provide tax cuts to get money back to Tennesseans to encourage them to frequent industries that have been disproportionately and negatively impacted this year.”

The high profile expenditures also include $250 million for a Mental health trust fund for school children, $3 million for additional rural projects, $500,000 for a gun safety program for children, $3 million to increase employment in the state through the Small Business Innovation Program, and more. The amendment also sets aside $13.5 million for a minor league baseball park on the edge of downtown Knoxville, as well as a tax break for the Tennessee Titans to aid in renovations to Nissan Stadium.

The supplemental budget also proposes an additional contribution to the Rainy Day Fund of $50 million, on top of the $50 million already promised in the original budget. This will put the total balance of the Rainy Day Fund at around $1.5 billion, a new record.

Commissioner Eley announced today that Tennessee tax revenues collected in March surpassed budget expectations by $57.1 million or 4.75 percent. An increase in sales tax revenue by $40.4 million than expected resulted in the large bump. The surplus from March puts the fiscal year surplus total at $1.35 billion.

To review the entirety of the budget amendment as well as Commissioner Eley’s presentation to the finance committees, click here.

Governor’s Criminal Justice Reforms Getting Traction 

While he was a political candidate on the campaign trail, Governor Lee frequently emphasized the need for comprehensive criminal justice reform in Tennessee, and vowed to make it one of his top priorities as Governor. Criminal justice reform has remained a key policy goal for the Governor in his first term, although the timing has been delayed due to both the pandemic and some hesitancy by the General Assembly.  Indeed, a number of recommendations made by the Governor’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force failed to gain attention among key members. Nevertheless, it seems that the administration’s fortunes may change in the 2021 session, as two of the Governor’s initiatives passed House Finance, Ways and Means this week – meaning the next stop is the House Floor – and are set to be heard in the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee next week.  

One of the initiatives, HB784, seeks to minimize the amount of jail time for persons charged with technical probation violations, that occur following their release from prison. With a goal of keeping prison populations low, the bill seeks to expand the group of people eligible for recovery courts, shorten the maximum amount of time someone can be place on probation from ten years to eight, prohibit one technical violation for being the sole reason for probation being revoked, and limit the amount of time someone violating probation can be sent back to jail.

Another Lee administration initiative, the Reentry Success Act of 2021, would allow those being released from prison after July 1 of this year to be supervised their first year back in society. Inmates who receive parole with pre-release conditions would be able to meet those requirements in the community instead of having to complete them in prison. 

“Name, Image and Likeness” Legislation for College Athletes Nears Goal Line 

As part of a growing movement nationwide, legislation is moving through the legislature that would allow collegiate student-athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness. While the NCAA and a number of member schools had hoped in recent years that Congress would address the issue, thus applying a uniform standard across the country, the delay in congressional action and the widespread demand to address inequities in the NCAA funding model have led states across the country to take matters into their own hands. 

Tennessee’s bill allows student athletes to obtain an agent to aid in securing compensation for the use of their name, image or likeness, which must end when the athlete leaves the program. While many envision scenarios where high-profile athletes are compensated to appear in commercials and make public appearances, the more widespread and likely approach involves student athletes being compensated to appear on video games, jersey sales, and social media. Proponents argue that the measure is critical to ensure that Tennessee’s colleges are not placed in a competitive disadvantage in recruiting.  The University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University and the University of Memphis are all in support of the legislation. 

On the Senate side the legislation (SB1000; Kelsey, R-Germantown) has passed the Senate Education Committee and is now headed to the Senate Floor. Meanwhile, the House companion bill (HB1351; Vaughan, R-Collierville) passed in the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee with no issues this week.      

Looking Ahead 

At this point, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is the only non-finance subcommittee that remains open.  Among the full committees, House Health, House State Government, House Civil Justice, Senate Judiciary, and Senate Commerce are all on their final calendars. Absent very unusual circumstances, any legislation that is currently parked in a non-finance House subcommittee will not be moving this year, with the exception of bills that are currently in Criminal Justice.  

With the roster of closed committees increasing by the day, floor sessions are now being held three times a week to handle the bills that have made their way through the committee system.  

Please do not hesitate to contact us with questions or concerns.  Have a great weekend.