Legislative redistricting, a new school funding formula, tax cuts on tap as Tennessee lawmakers return to state Capitol

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R- Crossville, puts on a mask as he leaves the House Chamber after the first day of a special session Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The special session was called by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to pass liability reforms to protect businesses from lawsuits prompted by reopening after the coronavirus quarantine. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers return to the state Capitol this week for their 2022 session with an agenda that includes the mandatory once-a-decade task of redrawing of state legislative and congressional district lines as well as a planned push by Republican Gov. Bill Lee to overhaul the state's 30-year-old funding formula for public K-12 education.

Also on tap: criminal justice issues. That includes a "truth in sentencing" bill. And there's potential for a renewed effort to change the state's reliance on the privatized cash bail bond for people charged with crimes. Critics say it leaves any number of low-income people languishing in local jails.

As legislators arrive Tuesday, they'll find the state awash in cash.

State tax collections from July 1 through Nov. 30 are already just shy of $1.2 billion above budgeted estimates made by the State Funding Board, infamous for its low-ball estimates. The state's official spending plan is $42.6 billion for the budget that will end June 30.

"We have a huge budget surplus that we'll have to talk about," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said last week in a telephone interview.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge and a former Senate Finance Committee chairman, agreed.

"We'll be able to maybe do some capital project things with one-time money and not borrow," McNally said Sunday in a telephone interview. "And probably be able to do some grants to some of the institutions that have been impacted by COVID."

Another potential use of some of the funds: Eliminating the state's professional business tax.

Nashville divided?

One of the first orders of business for the Republican-controlled General Assembly is redistricting. That's the process during which boundary lines for all 99 state House seats, the state Senate's 33 seats and the state's nine congressional districts will be redrawn to reflect population growth and shifts.

"The first thing we're going to do, obviously, is take care of redistricting right out the gate," Sexton said. "We have a House map and are working on the congressional."

The Republican-controlled Select Committee on Redistricting last month released and approved their map which places nine Democrats in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis into five districts, forcing some Democratic incumbents to either run against one another or move.

Republican senators have yet to act on their plan, but that's expected to come as early as this week.

At the House redistricting panel's scheduled Wednesday meeting, the panel turns its sights on congressional districts where Republicans now occupy seven of the state's nine congressional seats.

Republicans would like to make that eight out of nine, although some observers warn that their path - which involves splitting Democrat-dominated Nashville so its resident fall into as many as four congressional districts - could jeopardize one or more Republican members in the next decade if the areas trend more Democratic.

"Well, everyone's entitled to their opinion, which is fine," Sexton said when asked if splitting Nashville's Davidson County could ultimately backfire over the next decade. "I think you'll probably see a congressional map that splits Davidson County that will be proposed. Whether or not it does what people say it does, only time will tell that."

Asked if the seat, now held by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, might be divvied up among multiple districts, Sexton told the Times Free Press, "Well, you never know, but it's not unprecedented in our state where those large urban areas and congressional areas have been split.

"It's not uncommon," Sexton added, "but we're going to continue to look at it and make sure that it can pass the [federal] Voting Rights Act in case there's a lawsuit on that level. And also make sure that we potentially settle the other challenges that may come. We think we can do it, and we think it will be constitutional if we go that way."

Closer to home, Hamilton County will maintain its two state Senate seats and five state House seats. The lone Democrat from the county, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem of Chattanooga, is expected to be left largely alone, although the district might undergo some changes.

State Senate District 10, held by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, could also see changes in the district which now includes part of Bradley County, according to Republicans.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, could see his district become more compact. U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Sherwood, is expected to see his district shift westward to take in more parts of Middle Tennessee.

Education funding

Lee is moving to recommend making major changes in the state's $5.6 billion funding formula for K-12 public schools.

The formula, approved by lawmakers in 1992 in response to a lawsuit filed by rural counties who complained they couldn't afford to adequately fund K-12, deploys a system-based formula that advantages poorer districts with less financial resources.

Lee, who says the formula is no longer up the task because of its systems focus, is now looking at a student-based funding strategy.

In 2019, the Republican governor successfully pushed fellow Republicans to approve a first-of-its-kind plan to create publicly-funded Education Savings Accounts to allow low-income students to use public dollars to pay for private-school tuition. But to get it through the Republican legislature, Lee had to agree to make it apply only to Nashville and Memphis schools.

The issue has been held up in state courts, with the Tennessee Supreme Court soon expected to take up the legality of restricting it only to the state's two largest counties.

Lee and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, insisted last month the funding overhaul effort is not a drive to push private school vouchers or ESAs.

"I think it's important, and I'll just say this as we're publicly here, I think it's important that we address that because this public school funding is not connected to choice issues, it's not connected to ESAs," Lee said.

Nonetheless, a number of Republicans, among them Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, are fretting about the potential.

Lee and advocates have talked a great deal about a shift so that public tax dollars are assigned at the level of the child, not the school system.

Sexton, who opposed Lee's Education Savings Account program, said the state's Achievement School District that was created before Lee's term, clearly isn't working. The program is supposed to help failing public schools.

Contrast with what is happening to public charter schools, which are privately operated and use taxpayer funds, the speaker said.

"Charter schools, whether they were in Davidson or Shelby County where the bulk of them are, the kids that are there with the right leadership and the right teachers and the right philosophy at the school, those students are thriving," Sexton said. "And they came from schools that were low performing and not very high on the list of the quality of schools. And those kids came out of those schools, went into a charter school, and those kids are very successful and they're thriving.

"So the question really then becomes, it's not a student issue - the students have the capability - how do we take that success we've seen in some of those charter schools and get that into public education. Or can you? And so I think those are questions and debates that are really worthwhile. I think there's a lot of people watching the state Supreme Court decision on the school voucher thing here in the coming weeks to see what direction that may be going, so there may be stuff surrounding that depending on what that decision."

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown, a Grundy County school teacher, and John C. Bowman, executive director and CEO of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, both told the Times Free Press last week that they don't see the governor's effort as trying to implement a school voucher program.

Criminal justice

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said he intends to press a "Truth in Sentencing" measure "focused on making sure our communities are safe.

"We have way too much violent crime in our state, we have way too many dangerous, convicted felons that are using the criminal justice system like a revolving door - just coming in and out, in and out," said Lamberth, a former assistant prosecutor, in a telephone interview last week. "And that's got to stop. So we're really going to be smart on crime and not just be tough on crime."

There's too little transparency in sentences, Lamberth said, adding "we should be able to tell victims exactly how long a criminal who has harmed them will spend behind bars."

Lamberth said there are a number of commonalities among people convicted of crimes in areas ranging from mental health, drug addiction, poverty and broken homes. He hopes to focus efforts to help inmates deal with those issues while they are incarcerated and later while they are on probation.

Another area likely to spur debate is the idea of changes to the state's existing cash-bond system with more emphasis on formalized risk-assessment.

In legislative testimony last year, a Morristown attorney who is a visiting professor at Lincoln Memorial University testified that bail in rural counties "destroys the presumption of innocence" for low-income detainees because they can't afford bail.

But the bail bond industry and some lawmakers argue that formulas developed to determine the level of risk for releasing defendants pending prosecution are less than perfect.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.