NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers on Thursday finalized the state's $52.8 billion spending plan for the upcoming year, squeaking through $500 million in bonds to help pay for a Tennessee Titans stadium, as well as more money for education and law enforcement.
The budget now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Lee's desk, who is expected to sign off on the proposed budget even after the GOP-controlled General Assembly tweaked his original spending plan and included a contentious sentencing legislation that at times clashed with the governor's administration.
Back in January, Lee unveiled a budget measure that included pay increases for law enforcement and education workers, $750 million to change the K-12 school education funding formula, $200 million to relocate a handful of schools currently in flood plains, $150 million in grants to reduce violent crime, as well as enough money to make Juneteenth a state holiday.
Lawmakers have since stripped out the $200 million needed to relocate the flood plan-based schools and reducing the violent crime grant fund to $100 million. The effort to make Juneteenth an official state holiday also stalled, causing lawmakers to delete that budget item.
Meanwhile, the Legislature agreed to implement an $80 million sales tax holiday on groceries for all of August and spending $121 million so that Tennesseans will no longer pay the state portion of vehicle registration tags over the next year. In total, lawmakers approved approximately $300 million in tax cuts.
Yet the Republican-supermajority Legislature rebuffed several attempts from Democrats to include more funding for teacher pay, state employee salaries and an attempt to slash the governor's salary in half.
“I just want to go on the record and speak for the millions of Tennesseans and their families that we have a long way to go (with this budget), said House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a Democrat from Memphis. “I know we’ll continue to work to help our citizens.”
However, no other topic caused more consternation than whether the state should allocate $500 million in bonds to help fund a new covered Tennessee Titans stadium currently envisioned for Nashville.
“Let them use their own darn money to invest it. I don’t think they ought to be using Tennessee taxpayers and I’m not ashamed to stand up for the taxpayers of Tennessee,” yelled Republican Jerry Sexton on the House floor. He added that he didn’t want the Legislature to act like “all the woke places.”
Lawmakers had heated arguments on whether it was smart for the state to help pay for a stadium. Some Republicans lamented they did not want to support the Tennessee Titans for team support of players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest the treatment of Blacks by police.
“Now they’re coming to us and they want a bunch of money for a bunch of guys who won’t even stand up when our national anthem is being played in our stadium,” said Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who is known for singing the national anthem on the House floor during session.
Supporters countered that the stadium would be a positive investment not only for Nashville but for the entire state, arguing that it would create jobs and opportunities for the state to become a Super Bowl location.
“When you decide to do a dome type of facility, all of a sudden you go from a football dominated venue to an entertainment venue,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton. “And who it will bring in and what it will do will multiply.”
Republicans on Thursday also advanced a measure that would lengthen some criminal sentences. That measure has sparked opposition from criminal justice advocates but also from the governor's office, wary of the bill's effect on his previous reform efforts. Critics argue that inmates required to fulfill all of their sentence won't be motivated to take valuable credits offered in prison to improve. Yet it's been a key issue for the top speakers in the House and Senate.
Known as “truth in sentencing," the bill would required inmates convicted of a wide range of felonies to serve all of their sentence. Those include attempted first degree murder, vehicular homicide resulting from the driver's intoxication, carjacking and especially aggravated robbery.
Separately, 12 separate offenses would require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Those range from reckless homicide, aggravated argon, voluntary manslaughter to possessing or aggravated kidnapping.
When asked if the governor supported the proposal, supporters said Lee had found it “acceptable.” Lawmakers will know definitely over the next few days now that the bill is headed to Lee's desk.