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Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton speaks during a news conference at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Sept. 5.

NASHVILLE — Hoping to get a jump start on the legislative session that begins in January, Tennessee House Finance Committee members on Monday are kicking off their annual budget hearings.

It comes months ahead of the usual February or March schedule and before Republican Gov. Bill Lee has finalized his proposed spending plan, let alone submitted to the General Assembly for their consideration.

In what may be an unprecedented move, GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton, the chamber's new speaker, has set aside much of this week and and the start of December for members to drill down into proposals from 23 state departments as well as more than a dozen agencies and commissions whose actions, proposals and challenges have major impacts on what is currently a $38.55 billion operation.

Earlier this month, Lee held two weeks of open public hearings as he fashions his second budget. Staffers for both the House and the Senate attended, as is customary, so the lower chamber's Finance Committee members should have opportunity to dig deeper.

Sexton told reporters last week that he agreed to speeding up the House process at the request of Finance Chairwoman Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet. That makes sense, the speaker said, noting it better prepares representatives while also leading to a deeper understanding of spending issues and priorities which can be lost in the hurly-burly of a legislative session.

"The three weeks we do it during session bogs down the House," Sexton said. "Moving it to the fall is more efficient and allows us more time to look at the budget and more opportunity to fully understand it and ask questions."

Sexton said he thinks that "will help us as a body to better understand the budget and understand the details of the budget instead of doing the 50,000-foot view. We can get a little closer to ground level."

Asked whether Lee should have any concerns, Sexton said "it's the same budget hearing we would be doing in March or February. We're following his budget hearings so we're not doing it before him. So we're looking forward to the opportunity to hearing what the departments and the agencies have to say and continuing the process."

Monday's hearing leads off with Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. She'll be followed by officials from the State Board of Education, Books from Birth, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Education Lottery officials.

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

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