From guns on campus to whopping budget surplus, issues galore await Tennessee lawmakers

From guns on campus to whopping budget surplus, issues galore await Tennessee lawmakers

January 11th, 2016 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Mark Humphrey

Budget surplus

Legislative estimates are that Tennessee has at least a budget surplus of $750 million or more in one-time money because of previous low-ball revenue estimates made last fiscal year and this year.

› Guns

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, intends to push legislation allowing college and university professors and staff with state-issued handgun permits to go armed on campus.

› Gas tax Haslam says he’s undecided over whether to push a gas-tax increase for transportation. But Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who favors new transportation funding, has urged the governor “to lead” on the issue.

› Tennessee Board of Regents Haslam has proposed breaking up the Tennessee Board of Regents by spinning off six universities from the system.

› Other taxes Republican lawmakers expect to push to reduce or cut the state’s Hall Income Tax on interest and dividends.

› School vouchers Proponents will renew their years-long push for a program that would allow parents to use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools.

› Syrian refugees Some lawmakers want Haslam to file suit challenging the federal government over would-be resettlement of r Middle Eastern refugees in Tennessee.

› Abortion

Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, has introduced a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to first have fetus ultrasounds performed.

› Tuition equity

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, says his bill that would allow undocumented immigrant students attend public colleges paying in-state tuition could go down in the House because of GOP presidential politics and specifically Donald Trump’s stances.

› Outsourcing

Haslam is actively exploring outsourcing yet more operations and maintenance of state buildings to private vendors. While the governor insists he hasn’t made up his mind, Democrats and even some Republicans want a say on that.

NASHVILLE — A whopping state budget surplus and a potential gas-tax increase. A proposed split up of one higher education system, and guns on college campuses. Same-sex marriage and Syrian refugees.

These are just some of the issues Tennessee lawmakers could be grappling with beginning Tuesday when they return to the state Capitol for the second session of the 109th General Assembly.

Lawmakers are predicting a fairly short session, ending by early May at the latest, with many pinning hopes on an April exit. After all, this is an election year. All 99 House members and half of the 33-member Senate are up for re-election in either party primaries, the November election or both.

But for the next several months, 132 legislators will be fussing and fighting, making up and making deals as they debate hundreds of bills with an audience including Gov. Bill Haslam, hundreds of special-interest lobbyists and, sometimes, even the public looking on.

When lawmakers arrive, they'll come like surfers riding in on dollar signs, the result of a huge wave of one-time revenue. That's thanks to a unexpectedly good economy and overly pessimistic revenue projections by the State Funding Board for both the 2015 budget year that ended June 30 and the current 2016 budget year.

In the 2015 budget year, the state had $400 million in unexpected one-time revenue. And now? Just five months into the 2016 fiscal year, general fund collections in December already threaten to blow apart the Funding Board's projections for the entire fiscal year.

Officials announced last week that in December 2015 alone, the state took in $93 million more in general fund revenues than projections, propelling the total to $343 million over original estimates.

Believe it or not, all of this might make both Haslam's and state lawmakers' tasks more difficult than if there was a shortfall and the need to slash spending.

"I think there will be a lot of debate about what we do with that money," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who thinks the bonanza of new money could hit $1 billion by June 30 unless the economy falters — always a possibility.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, pegged the surplus at around $700 million. He thinks half will be recurring funds and the remaining $350 million one-time money. Some of the funds are from business franchise and excise taxes, always a volatile source of revenue.

"People think we got enough money to do everything and anything they want to do [saying] 'it's only $50 million.'" Watson lamented. "I hope we will be wise. I think we will do something with the Hall Tax (on dividend and interest income). I don't think we will eliminate it. I think we will continue to raise the exemption."

He also wants to stash more money in the state's Rainy Day reserve fund for use in hard times like the 2008 Great Recession.

McCormick agreed with trimming the Hall Tax. There are already bills to cut and even eliminate it introduced by various Republicans. Cities and counties are nervous, however, because the state splits the revenue with them.

Democrats, meanwhile, may argue as they have in the past that cutting state sales taxes, say on food, would impact millions more people than the Hall levy. And Haslam, a Republican, is opposed to further trimming the Hall.

The state's revenue surplus also creates problems for Haslam, who spent much of the summer and fall talking about the need for new transportation revenues for new roads, bridges and better maintenance.

Tennessee has an estimated $6 billion backlog of road, bridge and related infrastructure projects and, Haslam argues, needs more money to maintain and improve its highway system, considered one of the nation's best. Transportation has its own dedicated sources of revenues, taxes on each gallon of gas and diesel fuel sold.

But part of the surplus — about $280 million — is being eyed by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. They want to use the money to repay the same amount of funds taken from the transportation fund under two previous governors' administrations.

"It doesn't take us very far. It's a noble gesture, probably the right thing to do, but in terms of real long-term funding it doesn't get us where we need to be," noted Watson. He noted that the $280 million wouldn't even entirely cover all the state transportation projects approved but not funded in Hamilton County.

That said, Watson and McCormick aren't ready to vote this year for a fuel tax increase. Various lawmakers say the governor has yet to make his case adequately, although a recent Vanderbilt University poll found 54 percent of voters said they were willing to pay 8 cents per gallon more. The current gas tax is 21.4 cents per gallon.

Haslam, meanwhile, told reporters last week that he has not made up his mind about whether to run a transportation bill this year or in 2017, as a number of Republicans have urged him to do.

"Folks say we need to do a better job of explaining to citizens around the state why we need to do something different than we are now," Haslam said. "My main point to legislators has been that this is not something we can put off for five years."

But there's an expectation that if Haslam sees an opening this session, he'll push the bill.

One measure the governor is pushing is a bill breaking up the Tennessee Board of Regents, which represents six universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology.

Haslam wants to spin off the universities into their own separate orbits with their own self-governing boards with oversight by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The two-year community and technical colleges would remain under the Regents, the notion being the system could focus on the job those schools are doing to boost his Drive to 55 program.

But Haslam's goal ran into problems last week when Regents Chancellor John Morgan announced he was resigning — retiring a year earlier than expected. Morgan said in his resignation letter that Haslam's proposal was both "wrong" and "unworkable."

That has caught McCormick's attention.

"That apparently is going to be debated considerably, I think, after John Morgan's resignation," he said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.