With the 2020 Tennessee General Assembly session upon us, I wanted to take the opportunity to give District 48 and others that are interested a preview of what I see coming down the legislative pike this session. Having knocked on tons of doors, talked with a multitude of constituents, received feedback on my legislative survey, and having spoken to leadership, I’ve compiled a list of several of these issues.
One of the top issues that I’ve received emails about is concern over the refugee resettlement decision by Governor Bill Lee. To refresh everyone’s memory, the General Assembly put forth a lawsuit exercising our 10th Amendment right to control not only who is relocated to our state, but how our state tax dollars are used. Unlimited and poorly screened refugee resettlement into Tennessee enriches those companies who place refugees at the expense of Tennessee taxpayers and strains community resources.
President Trump, to his credit, has worked on improving the screening of refugees and decreased the numbers from around 100,000 to 18,000. He, then, issued a Presidential Executive Order that allowed a governor’s the sole discretion to decide whether their respective states would participate in refugee resettlement. Part of that executive order, also, allowed county executives to determine if their counties would accept refugees if their governor elected to participate.
Prior to Governor Lee’s decision, I took the opportunity to speak to our House leadership and members of the Lee Administration to voice my opposition to continuing refugee resettlement in Tennessee and in particular to Rutherford County at this time. While I appreciate President Trump’s 10th Amendment approach and the need to relocate persecuted refugees, to me, a decision to continue relocating refugees into Tennessee would undermine two important constituent related issues.
First, in my opinion, it would send the wrong message by undermining the lawsuit set forth by the General Assembly. If part of our argument with the lawsuit involves unfunded mandates from the federal placement of refugees into Tennessee, then agreeing to accept more refugees sends the message that using state dollars to fund a federal program isn’t a problem for Tennessee.
Secondly, Rutherford County and Murfreesboro have just significantly raised property taxes due to unrestrained growth. Adding more individuals that absorb local resources does not benefit our taxpayers. Even though our county executive has been given the authority to refuse to accept placement of these refugees, any acceptance of refugees that absorbs state dollars, by default, takes funds from taxpayers.
There is a bill that has been filed that places restrictions on the process for counties to accept refugees. I’ve met with legal services and I’m told that the bill is likely unconstitutional. There are other pieces of legislation being explored. I’ll continue to oppose the policy for constituents and work for solutions that will work for our district.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families(TANF):
Due to the improved economy and conservative leadership, the number of Tennesseans needing TANF assistance has decreased from around 61,000 to 21,000. The federal government block grants $191 million per year to Tennessee in a reimbursement grant for TANF. That means Tennessee must spend our own funds and then get reimbursed by the feds.
Tennessee went from overspending our grant by $50-60 million per year to running a $120 million surplus. As such, Tennessee has built a $732 million dollar reserve. This information was not readily distributed to the General Assembly by DHS, but was brought to light by the Beacon Center.
Immediately upon hearing from the Beacon Center, I contacted them to begin to address the issue as I firmly believe that Tennessee was missing an opportunity to help Tennesseans move from poverty to prosperity. As I led on this issue, I was named to a bicameral working group to address the issue and subsequently I was elected chairman of that committee. We are working to determine the best way to utilize the funds in a fiscally responsible manner including opioid treatment, workforce development, and other measures.
TennCare Block Grants:
Tennessee is currently $6.8 billion dollars below our budget neutrality cap for Medicaid. And though this saves Tennessee taxpayers $2.4 billion dollars a year(fed portion is 4.4 billion), it signals a significant underpayment to hospitals and providers, especially in rural areas. In essence, what this means is that, over the past 10 years, there has been $54 billion in underpayment to hospitals and providers, particularly in rural areas and we are looking at potentially a greater than 68 billion underpayment over the next 10 years.
The block grant proposal is not a traditional block grant, but would allow for growth if the TennCare population grew. However, the waiver proposal has the potential to bring in $550 million more in federal dollars to TennCare without raising taxes on Tennesseans. While bringing in extra federal funds would be beneficial to Tennessee, I’m not completely sold on the waiver because TennCare has consistently made decisions that I believe are not beneficial to patients and I’m not convinced that TennCare would utilize the $550 million in the most productive manner. We will be awaiting the federal response.
Over the summer and fall, I go door to door talking with folks and handing out surveys. I’ll, also, mail out surveys, as well. It’s one of my ways of keeping my finger on the pulse of the district.
The survey certainly isn’t scientific, but provides me with feedback from the community and an opportunity to listen. One subset of the community that I have targeted on the issue of medical or clinical cannabis is Republican Primary voters. In a survey from a previous year, this subsection responded with a ratio of 85/15% in favor of legalizing cannabis in either a clinical or recreational manner. 15% opposed any and all cannabis legalization including research or in clinical settings.
This year’s results were more profound. A full 95% of those that responded in this group were in favor of legalizing cannabis for at least clinical or research purposes. Of that 95%, a little over 21% were for recreational uses. Only 5% were opposed to any and all uses of cannabis.
Let me repeat that. 95% of Republican Primary voters who responded to my survey were supportive of clinical uses of cannabis(research or medical uses). Again, the survey certainly isn’t scientific and there are more precise ways to measure results, but these results are pretty profound.
The Alabama commission overwhelmingly recommended that Alabama move forward with legalizing and regulating the medical use of cannabis. I’ve been working diligently to draft legislation that will move Tennessee in that same direction where research and clinical uses aren’t prohibited for Tennesseans who may see some benefit.
Criminal Justice Reform:
Whether it is from the Lee Administration or from leadership, time and time again I hear that criminal justice reform will be a top priority this session. However, nobody has been able to provide me with specifics. When discussing the issue with constituents, having safe neighborhoods and communities while ensuring that we aren’t wasting taxpayer dollars on non productive incarcerations seems to be the recurring theme. That is a lofty goal that in concept appears easier said than done. We will know more when the bill filing deadline approaches in February.
That being said, 1/2 ounce of cannabis currently carries a misdemeanor charge. 1/2 ounce of 20% THC cannabis has around 2800 mg of THC. Patients who use FDA approved, lab made THC in the form of the drugs Syndros or Marinol, may use up to 2800-3000 mg per month. We could save taxpayers over 2 million dollars by decriminalizing patients who use cannabis based treatments with less than or equal to 2800 mg of THC.
Tennessee is, once again, running a surplus of revenue and is looking at our options. A few years ago, Oklahoma cut taxes to the point where they ended up with a billion dollar deficit. Tennessee does not want to end up in that situation.
With that being said, Tennessee will be looking at doing away with the Professional Privilege Tax once and for all. It is a discriminatory and redundant tax on certain professions that already pay licensing fees to the state. In 2019, the General Assembly removed the tax for all professions except for a handful. Originally, the tax was going to be reduced from $400 to either $100 or $200 per profession. However, in a purely political move, it was determined to remove the taxes for some professions while leaving it intact for others. The General Assembly should correct this injustice this year.
Additionally, with taxpayers expressing frustration over rising property taxes promoted and passed by counties and municipalities, I expect Tennessee to be looking for solutions that will help our homeowners and taxpayers while ensuring counties and municipalities can deal with the increased burden of growth. I frequently hear elected officials and politicians proclaim their desire for “smart growth”; yet, their priorities as put forth in their budgets and tax plans do not reflect those stated goals.
The Tennessee House Republicans began 2019 working on the CARE Plan with included a series of bills and initiatives to help transform health care in Tennessee. The goals were to interject Consumerism, improve Access, focus on Rural health systems, and Empower patients in their health decisions. Several measures passed and some have been adopted on the federal level. I expect further initiatives to be introduced including expanding access for patients by reducing the burden of narrow networks promoted by insurance companies, reforming Certificate of Need laws, telemedicine, and working towards solutions for the uninsured.
In my discussions with leadership, I hear that some form of pay increase for teachers will once again be looked at in the budget. While Tennessee has taken strides in this area, often, not all of those resources budgeted for pay increases end up in the hands of teachers as LEA’s(Local Education Associations) have had flexibility in how to use those funds.
I, also, expect the Basic Education Program(BEP) formula to be revisited. The BEP formula is designed to provide LEA’s with state funding for education. In simple terms, the formula views a county as if it were one giant school, then based on the number of students, it calculates the number of required teachers and ancillary personnel needed to fund the school system. For instance, for every 100 students, the BEP formula may fund four teachers. Unfortunately, the BEP doesn’t take into account that there are a multitude of schools within each LEA and the school district may have had to hire six teachers for the 100 students. Growth counties like Rutherford County are at a disadvantage in this calculation.
Gun rights and pro-life issues will, once again, be on the agenda at the Capitol. I hear a lot of concern from constituents about Red Flag laws. While someone may put forth a Red Flag bill, I don’t expect one to move in this session.
Last year, the House passed a Heartbeat bill. It stalled in the Senate as they decided to send it to summer study. The bill has been amended and will be heard again in the Senate. Should they pass it, the House will have to confirm or send it to a conference committee.