Shaping the Legislative Landscape
Knox County’s state lawmakers return to Nashville this week with a passel of wish lists from the school board and County Commission.
by jesse fox mayshark • January 7, 2019
school board chair terry hill (left) speaks to an audience including City councilwoman stephanie welch, state sen. richard briggs, school board member patti bounds, state sen. becky duncan massey and state Rep. martin daniel.
It wasn’t quite a lovefest, but a breakfast meeting Friday of Knox County officials, school board members and nearly all of the county’s state legislative delegation emphasized collaboration and communication.
Representing the same constituents, with sometimes different priorities.
“We may not agree on everything,” said state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, who is head of the Knox County delegation.”But we want to work together. We’re representing you in Nashville and we want to help any way we can.”
The school board and County Commission both have some specific ways in mind, as the Legislature prepares to return to session at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 8.
Schools: Funding, Mandates, Vouchers
Top of the agenda for the Knox County school board is the perennial issue of state education funding. Chairwoman Terry Hill told the legislators assembled at the East Tennessee History Center on Friday that she appreciated the $13 million in increased money Knox County received last year under the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP).
“We still though in public education have so many needs,” Hill said.
She noted that the state has a tendency to pile on new requirements without funding to support them. Some of the new money last year is paying for state-required “Response to Intervention” training to help students with significant learning and behavioral struggles. But the BEP pays for only one RTI specialist for every 2,750 students, which in Knox County is covering 21 positions.
“We have 90 schools,” Hill said. “At the very least, a conservative implementation should have required at least one extra position per school. We have had to give our teachers and our school people more and more to try to do with less and less.”
Hill also emphasized the growing need for mental health services for students, noting that the school system has only 74 nurses “spread thin” across its schools. (And the BEP pays for just 23 of those.)
“As mandates come up, be cautious, please be wary of what that might cost us at the local level,” she asked the legislators.
On what Hill acknowledged was likely to be the most contentious educational issue of the session, she reiterated the school board’s opposition to any kind of voucher program that could redirect public funding to private schools.
“It’s just amazing to me that in public education we are having to fight the fight to try to hang on to public money, to hang on to money that is already there to educate our students,” Hill said.
Rep. Bill Dunn, who is in line to become speaker pro tempore in the new Legislature and who has been a voucher advocate in the past, replied to Hill, “I’m happy to discuss it. To me, school choice is focused more on students than the money.”
Hill said Knox County schools already offers students choices, through its magnet programs and through transfers that are available to any schools that have open slots.
(In a separate breakfast meeting on Saturday, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Massey and state Sen. Richard Briggs both expressed misgivings about vouchers that would take money from public schools.)
Commission: Fees, Growth and Insurance
County Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom presented legislators with a short list of Knox County priorities, most of them fiscal.
He emphasized Commission’s support for an effort by County Register of Deeds Nick McBride and his counterparts across the state to boost the fee that registers can keep on money they collect for the state. The fee was reduced from 5 percent to 2.4 percent in 2006 to help bolster the state’s pension system, which is now flush and no longer needs the extra money. McBride has said restoring the fee to 5 percent would bring more than $400,000 a year back to the county’s general fund.
Similarly, County Commissioner John Schoonmaker has been working with other county officials across Tennessee to push for a reduction in the fee the state charges to collect and return local sales taxes to cities and counties. Schoonmaker says that with the whole system digital and automated now, the state has no grounds to charge the 1.125 percent it currently does. He wants it reduced to 0.5 percent, which would boost local sales tax totals.
Speaking of sales taxes, Nystrom urged the legislators to make sure local governments are able to collect local sales taxes on internet commerce. A Supreme Court ruling last year paved the way for states to require online merchants to collect and remit sales taxes just like businesses with physical locations in a state. But the Legislature will have to enact a law specifying how that will be done.
The county is also asking for an increase in the insurance coverage the state requires for drivers. Commissioner Randy Smith, who in his day job works for Knox County risk management, said the current minimum level of $15,000 in coverage for property damage is too low. When county vehicles are in collisions caused by other drivers with minimum coverage, the $15,000 often doesn’t cover the actual damages to county equipment, Smith said.
On infrastructure, Nystrom highlighted four priorities for road improvements on state routes in Knox County: Northshore Drive, Tazewell Pike, Washington Pike and Pellissippi Parkway north of Interstate 40/75.
Finally, commissioners asked for state relief from the county’s Growth Policy Plan, which was created in 2001 in response to a state law. The plan designated areas for certain kinds of development and growth, and limited where a city could annex unincorporated territory. Recent changes in annexation law have overridden that part of the plan, because cities can no longer annex without approval from property owners.
But the plan’s restrictions hamper the county’s growth in other ways, commissioners say. Nystrom noted that areas in Hardin Valley designated for industrial and technology business development are actually in more demand for residential development.
Smith said the plan was supposed to be updated by the city and county every three years, and never has been. Commission is asking for a bill that would exempt Knox County from the state law that required the growth plan in the first place, allowing the county to update its planning and zoning.
Among those who will be helping the county push for its priorities is former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Johnson City legislator who retired from office last year and is now working as a lobbyist. He has been hired by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs to advocate for the county in Nashville, and he attended Friday’s meeting.
“I want to be your liaison, your voice in Nashville and help you any way I can,” Ramsey told county officials at the breakfast.
The meeting Friday, which was hosted by the Great Schools Partnership, dealt only with Knox County and school board issues. The Knoxville Chamber is also presenting legislators with its own agenda -- or several agendas, since the Chamber lobbies alongside its counterparts in the state’s other large cities and its regional partners in Blount County and Oak Ridge.
According to Amy Nolan, the Knoxville Chamber’s vice president of Public Policy, the priorities include:
- Continued support of the “Drive to 55” initiative started by Gov. Bill Haslam to increase post-secondary education attainment.
- Preserving the ability of state and local governments to use economic development incentives, including payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) and tax-increment financing (TIFs).
- Improved access to health care, including mental health services.
The City of Knoxville did not prepare a formal legislative agenda this year, but Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons said the city’s concerns remain the same as in recent years: preserving local authority (which is often threatened by pre-emptive state legislation) and protecting local revenue sources. He said the city supports the county’s efforts to protect local sales taxes.