With organizational tasks out of the way, the General Assembly can now get to work on the issues facing Tennessee. Although state spending in a tight budget year will be the predominant driver for legislative action, other top issues on the legislative agenda in 2015 are jobs, education, public safety and legislation stemming from the ratification of the constitutional amendments passed by voters in November.
The first issue which lawmakers will tackle, however, is healthcare as Governor Bill Haslam has called a Special Session to consider his plan to expand Medicaid coverage to about 200,000 adult Tennesseans utilizing federal funds authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Article III, Section 23 of Tennessee’s Constitution gives Governor Haslam the authority to call the “extraordinary” session through a proclamation. It also states that the General Assembly “shall enter on no legislative business except that for which they were specifically called together.” The special session, which is the 58th in Tennessee history, is set to begin on February 2.
Rising healthcare costs to the state’s TennCare program combined with inflationary growth for the state’s Basic Education Program present budget challenges for Tennessee in 2015. This is compounded by sluggish revenue growth that shows the state is still recovering economically. These factors make it very difficult to find discretionary money for other needed improvements.
The State Funding Board met in December to reevaluate Tennessee’s economic condition and set a new growth rate of 2.6% to 3% upon which the 2015-16 budget year will be based. This compares to an estimated growth rate of 3.85 to 4.2% last year and equates to approximately $300 million in new revenues.
Some of the other issues on tap for this year include:
- Taxes — Even though it is a tight budget year, expect broad discussion of legislation to provide tax relief to Tennesseans, including proposals to phase out the state’s Hall Income Tax.
- Jobs — On the jobs front, legislators will continue efforts to create new and better paying jobs in Tennessee. Over the past several years, the General Assembly has made great strides in preparing students for the 21st century marketplace and in creating a business-friendly climate which draws new and better paying jobs to our state. These efforts include passage of a number of job creation initiatives such as tort reform, unemployment reform and workers’ compensation reform.
- Constitutional Amendments — Voters ratified four new amendments to Tennessee’s Constitution during the November 4 elections spurring new legislation regarding three of them for the 2015 legislative session. This includes legislation to restore commonsense protections for abortion; action calling for appellate judges to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature; and a measure giving veterans groups the authority to conduct an annual “game of chance” fundraising event for charitable purposes.
- Education – Among key K-12 education issues on tap this year is the evaluation of Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math in Tennessee. The standards, which are currently in force in 43 states, have come under fire by various groups. In October, Governor Haslam appointed advisory teams to review Tennessee’s current standards and gather input to make recommendations to two committees, which will then propose changes to the State Board of Education. In the meantime, legislation has been proposed that would give the task of recommending new standards to a new Tennessee Standards Commission. A separate bill has been filed that would end the current Common Core State Standards and calls upon the State Board of Education to adopt new “Volunteer State” standards. The General Assembly will also consider requiring high school students to pass a civics test before graduation and scholarship vouchers for low income students in the state’s worst performing schools.
- Crime / Human Trafficking — The General Assembly has made considerable progress in fighting meth, prescription drug abuse, gang violence and human trafficking over the past several years but expect legislation to protect the public to continue in 2015. This includes legislation calling for improved training for law enforcement officers and other officials who investigate or prosecute human trafficking, as well as those who provide assistance to victims of the crime. Also expect legislation to be debated to curb domestic violence.