‘Nothing is sacred’ amid state budget cuts — except maybe road projects

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State Rep. Sam Whitson

State Rep. Sam Whitson shared that, while the general assembly anticipates major budget cuts this year, state law prohibits the diversion of money from the highway fund, and any loss of revenue will not affect current road construction projects.

The state budget was the main topic of conversation during Williamson, Inc.’s monthly Policy Talks event on Friday as four Tennessee legislators joined moderator Dave Crouch to discuss the impending resumption of the legislative session in June.

The members of the general assembly said budget cuts are inevitable, and ‘nothing is sacred’ — but the state’s highway fund is one thing that likely will not be touched.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson shared that the state projects anywhere from $500 million to $1.5 billion in lost revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, and the state has asked for every department to submit a 12% budget reduction. While this will likely include cuts in economic and community development funding, and the state will likely use the $350 million it put into its “rainy day” fund to balance the budget, he expects the state’s economy to remains strong.

State Rep. Sam Whitson (R-District 65) shared that, while the revenue from taxes that flow into the highway fund is down, current roadway projects have not been significantly impacted by the current pandemic. In fact, he said, from a construction standpoint, crews are able to get more work done than ever with fewer cars on the roads.

He shared that the Mack Hatcher northwest extension project is still on track to finish late next summer, environmental studies for the widening of Columbia Pike have begun, and the I-65 and Buckner Road interchange improvement project will soon open for bid. However, though the decrease in revenue will not effect current projects, Whitson said that the Tennessee Department of Transportation may have to shuffle some projects around a bit down the road.

“(TDOT does) not anticipate, with the money that we do have in the highway fund, any real impact on our (current) construction projects,” Whitson said. “Now, let’s say, for instance, we have a $100 million project planned in a couple years that money has not been allocated to yet and that money may not be there. They may be able to take that plan, take it down the road a little bit, but do four projects for $20 million and adjust that and make up for that shortfall.”

Additionally, while money has been temporarily moved by the government from the state highway fund to balance the budget in the past, the state has since passed legislation to prohibit the diversion of money from the highway fund.

ESA program could be another ‘sacred’ budget piece

Another piece of the budget that Gov. Bill Lee has expressed intent to leave untouched is the $38 million allotted for the Education Savings Account (ESA) program, which would allow some students in Davidson and Shelby counties to use public school funding for private education.

Earlier in the month, a Nashville judge ruled that the program violated Section XI, Article 9 of the state constitution, known as “home rule,” because it applied specifically to those two counties specifically without their consent. However, Lee shared that the state will appeal the ruling.

“Anything that is going to allow children in this state to have a high-quality education is worth fighting for,” Lee said earlier this month. “We'll continue to pursue that and believe that now more than ever a high-quality education starting this next year is important for Tennessee students.”

State Rep. Glen Casada (R-District 63), though, gave an “if” that showed he is not completely certain that all the funding would evade budget cuts. He shared that the funding set aside in the budget is “backfill” for public schools to replace the tax money that students put towards private education.

“If we do cut it, it’s money that was going to schools — Nashville, Memphis — to keep them whole,” Casada said. “The program itself — it’s just allowing students to take their tax dollars and put it to work for them at their school of choice, so any cuts that come will come to the public schools in Nashville and Memphis.”

However, because of the court’s “unconstitutional” ruling, it is unclear whether students who applied for the ESA program will even be able to use their private school vouchers this year.

Legislature disagrees about length of upcoming session

The legislators also shared that the state House of Representatives and state Senate are approaching this resumed session from two different angles. Johnson shared that many in the House wish to “resume where they were” and continue passing bills, while many in the Senate hope to focus only on what is “absolutely necessary.”

“Obviously, the budget is the biggest and most important. Both House and Senate agree on that,” Johnson said, adding that the Senate plans to work on about 35 bills they have identified as critical in light of COVID-19.

He also said that the House can pass bills already passed in the Senate. However, state Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-District 61) shared that he and some of his colleagues are concerned about losing a lot of time spent on their own legislation.

“There is a fear in the House that a lot of this is all for naught and that legislation that’s very important to the people of Tennessee will not move forward,” Ogles said.

In contrast, Whitson said he sympathizes more closely with the Senate’s approach.

“I thought I had some really great bills, but looking at them, they can wait for a year until we come back,” he said.

For more information on upcoming Williamson, Inc. events, visit williamsonchamber.com.

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