5 things to watch for in governor's budget hearings

Today marks the beginning of the governor’s annual budget hearings, the administration’s annual dog and pony show for state agencies heads to highlight the happenings of their departments.

It’s also a time to explain what each agency would cut if forced to do so.

Over the full week, Gov. Bill Haslam will hear each department head explain agency spending plans and how they would cut 3.5 percent from their bottom lines, an exercise assigned each year by the governor’s office. However, revenues feeding the state’s $33.8 billion appear flush so far this year.

Here’s a short list of what to watch for as the budget hearings unfold this week:

  1. The Department of Corrections budget. After a wild year of headlines ranging from taxing schedules for prison guards to safety in correctional facilities, the presentation from the department’s commissioner, Derrick Schofield will be telling. The commissioner has insisted there is little to see in the department’s troubles, but whether he comes to the governor with a wish list of spending to make those problems go away -- and how it’s received by the governor -- will be worth watching.
  2. Judging the winds on education funding. With a lawsuit seeking more state money for education currently sitting in Davidson County Chancery Court, many are wondering whether and how the governor will boost funding for schools. Close to a dozen school boards across the state have either sued the state or are thinking about it to fight Haslam for more education dollars. Separately, the governor has struggled to keep his vow to increase teacher pay faster than any other state in the country. With the debut performance of first-year Commissioner Candice McQueen presenting the Department of Education’s proposed budget, the key will be whether the governor hints at what kind of moves he will make on either of these fronts.
  3. The gas tax pitch from the Department of Transportation. Commissioner John Schroer has made it no secret in recent years that he wants the state to figure out how to better fund a mound of backlogged transportation projects. After he and Haslam spent the better part of a year trying to convince legislators to take up that challenge in earnest, it will be key to see how much gas Schroer and the governor give to calling for a change in the gas tax. 
  4. How much money does Haslam have to play with? After a scare in 2014 that forced the state to renege on promises to increase pay for teachers and make budget cuts, the governor is unlikely to spend the state’s growing revenues wildly next year. But with state tax collections so far this fiscal year up $223 million more than expected -- posting the strongest first quarter growth since 2004 -- the governor will likely have more money to play with next year. Watch for what the governor says, or hints, about spending money on.
  5. The tenor of TennCare talks. Following his failed attempt to get state legislators to approve his plan to increase healthcare access to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans this year, the issue of health care is still beating. Healthcare and social services eats up about a third of the state budget each year, and although the legislature is uninterested in the governor’s so-called “Insure Tennessee” plan, the growing cost of healthcare is one the administration and legislature will have to wrap their arms around next year.
Nov 30, 2015 7:00 AM

UT study shows road funding peril

From a release:

Tennessee spends less on a per capita basis than almost any other state on its highways and roads yet enjoys roadways that are better than those in most states. But according to a new paper produced by researchers at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, roadway quality is now at risk unless new funding is found.

Fuel tax rates are among the lowest in the nation, yet Tennessee boasts a roadway network that has better pavement, better bridges and less congestion than most comparable state systems. Concerns are mounting that these benefits are at risk because of a funding outlook that continues to deteriorate.

The state's gasoline tax was last raised—from 16 to 20 cents per gallon— more than 25 years ago, in 1989.

Currently, the state's gasoline tax of 21.4 cents a gallon (which includes a special petroleum products tax) ranks 12th lowest in the U.S., and Tennessee is one of only five states that are free of highway-related debt. Gasoline and diesel tax revenues not only support state roadways but are shared with cities and counties across the state.

According to the report's authors, Congress appears to be poised to provide some near-term stability through the passage of a federal transportation bill that will provide six years of funding. Unfortunately, there are concerns over the adequacy of the proposed funding streams from the federal government that will flow to the states.

Diesel tax revenues will continue to grow in the years ahead, though growth rates will decline as heavy trucks become more fuel efficient. Heavy trucks are the major source of wear and tear on the state's roads and bridges.

The report concludes that the greatest threat to Tennessee's roadway finances is the state's low gasoline tax, which accounts for nearly 50 percent of all Tennessee highway trust fund revenues, the source of state funds for roads.

Additionally, since road funding is dependent on residents buying large amounts of gas, as the fuel efficiency of cars improves there will be even fewer dollars to fund roads. These trends will continue as the state's population grows.

The report suggests that Tennessee has a variety of options to enhance gasoline and diesel tax collections: a hypothetical five-cent increase, indexing the current gasoline tax rate to meet inflation, or a combination of an inflation-indexed rate along with a five-cent increase. The authors argue that the best path for the state to pursue to raise funds is to increase the gas tax and adjust it for inflation and improved fuel economy over time.

The authors claim that unless one of these options is implemented, Tennessee will be challenged to maintain the quality of its roadways.

To view the full report, "The Future of Roadway Funding in East Tennessee," visit https://tiny.utk.edu/roadway_funding.

Nov 25, 2015 10:07 AM

How African-American voters will hold Megan Barry accountable

Heavily African-American precincts went huge for Megan Barry in the mayoral run-off — some to the order of 90-plus percent. Now that she's in office, community leaders are holding her to account.

Nov 25, 2015 9:19 AM

Former TNGOP chief to head up Kasich's Tennessee efforts

Former state legislator and TNGOP chair Brad Martin will lead the John Kasich campaign in the Volunteer State.

Nov 25, 2015 7:15 AM

State opts not to extend JLL deal, opens contract for bid

All that hullaballoo and the state isn't extending its deal with Jones Lang LaSalle:

"Well, we've learned some things from the time when this contract was originally let," said state spokesman David Roberson. "And so I think we're better informed now than we were at that time."

The state's relationship with Jones Lang LaSalle began four years ago, when the firm wrote a study that suggested the state sell several of its buildings and instead lease office space from private landlords. Months later, the firm was given the exclusive right to represent state agencies when they negotiated with those landlords.

Critics said the arrangement smacked of backroom dealing

State officials have defended the deal, and they say Jones Lang LaSalle is free to bid on the new contract.

But it's unlikely it would become the state's sole agent. Tennessee officials are considering spreading the right to represent state government among several firms, each with expertise in a different region of the state. 

Nov 25, 2015 7:14 AM

A report from the rally for refugees

Amanda Haggard reports from the rally for refugees last night that drew a few hundred protestors. 

Nov 24, 2015 1:09 PM

Despite missing low all year, state funding board shoots low on revenue projections again

The official revenue projections for next year are lower than those presented by experts earlier this month; the state funding board is going conservative again.

Nov 24, 2015 1:01 PM

Kelsey aims to raise carjacking punishment

Sen. Brian Kelsey is taking on carjacking:

State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) said today he is introducing legislation to crack down on carjackings in Tennessee. Sen. Kelsey’s announcement comes amid a recent spate of carjackings in the Memphis area. At least six carjackings have been reported in the area in the last three weeks.

Kelsey said his bill aims to keep Tennesseans safer by ensuring that carjackers serve more time behind bars.

“Tennesseans should not have to worry about being held at gunpoint while driving in our communities,” said Sen. Kelsey. “A red light is meant to keep you safe from other drivers, not put you in danger of being carjacked,” he continued. “It is a travesty that carjackers only have to serve 30% of their sentence.”

Under current law, offenders convicted of carjacking can serve as little as 30% of their sentence before being released on parole. Sen. Kelsey’s proposal will increase the amount of time that carjackers spend in prison by adding carjacking to the list of offenses for which 85% of the sentence must be served.

According to statistics from the Tennessee Department of Corrections, the average person convicted of carjacking currently serves less than five years behind bars.

“Carjacking” is defined as the intentional or knowing taking of a motor vehicle from the possession of another by use of a deadly weapon or by force or intimidation and is a Class B Felony.

Police are still looking for suspects in five of the cases of carjacking in Memphis.

Kelsey plans to file the proposed legislation before the start of the next legislative session in January. Sen. Kelsey serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has responsibility over all such matters of criminal law.

Nov 24, 2015 8:42 AM

Governor stays gloomy about Insure TN

The governor tells the Rotary nobody should be getting their hopes up for Insure Tennessee to be making a comeback:

“Last year, when somebody said, ‘Will you bring it up next year?’ I said, 'Well, something will have to change' because it wasn’t like we just barely lost,” Haslam said Monday at a Rotary Club of Nashville luncheon. “Something will have to change in the state or on the national scene for that to happen. To be frank, I haven’t seen anything that’s (given) me that kind of encouragement.

“There’s been a statewide effort to rally the cause, but I haven’t noticed a changing public opinion and definitely haven’t seen a change in our legislature,” he added. 

Nov 24, 2015 6:28 AM

Freeman fundraiser nets Hillary half a million

Bill Freeman tells Joey Garrison the fundraiser he hosted for Hillary Clinton netted the Democratic front-runner around $500,000, far above the $200,000 they'd hope for.

Nov 24, 2015 6:22 AM