Capitol Exodus

Senate Education Committee on March 16, 2020

Capitol Exodus

As the state Legislature barrelled toward a budget vote and recess last week, local lawmakers saw things to applaud and lament.

by jesse fox mayshark • march 23, 2020


The state senate education Committee met Monday, March 16, in a mostly empty room. (Photo by Erik Schelzig/Tennessee Journal)

Members of Knox County’s legislative delegation have varied thoughts on last week’s rapid rush to pass a budget and send the Legislature into recess as the coronavirus pandemic spread. But they use similar words to describe the experience of being there.

A stripped-down budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funds.

“It was really bizarre up there,” said state Sen. Richard Briggs, a Republican who represents most of West Knoxville and part of North Knoxville. “You’d go down to a committee meeting, and there might be one staff member there.”

“It was just weird, it was almost surreal,” said state Rep. Gloria Johnson, one of two Democrats in Knox County’s delegation.

Even Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn, the longest-serving Republican in the House, said he hadn’t seen anything like it in his 26 years in the Legislature. “Obviously it’s totally unique in that there was such a rush,” Dunn said.

Like many institutions, the Legislature adopted a series of positions on the growing threat of the novel coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes. On March 11, just 12 days ago, legislative leaders rejected an appeal from Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, to consider early adjournment out of concern about the spreading virus.

At the time, House Speaker Cameron Sexton said, “We welcome anyone who wants to visit the Cordell Hull Building, and all committee meetings and floor sessions are also livestreamed, which gives the citizens of our state another way to keep up with the daily proceedings. Any member of the General Assembly who wishes to stay home certainly can."

Two days later, the Legislature decided to close its buildings to the public, allowing in only reporters and a few others.

By last Monday, Gov. Bill Lee had agreed on a plan with Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to run a stripped-down budget through both the House and Senate as quickly as possible and then recess until June. The two chambers roared through a few days of committee meetings and floor sessions and adjourned around midnight Thursday night.

And all of this played out in largely empty buildings and meeting rooms.

“It was like being on a ghost ship,” Briggs said.

The result was a $39.8 billion budget that made several changes to Lee’s original spending plan proposed in February.

The new budget sets aside $150 million for health and safety needs specific to the coronavirus pandemic and adds another $350 million to the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” in anticipation of emergency needs. It also lowers the state’s estimated annual growth rate for the current year to 2.5 percent, down from 3.75 percent, and it reduces next year’s growth forecast to zero, from 3.1 percent.

To pay for anticipated coronavirus spending, Lee reduced several items in his proposed budget. A 4 percent raise for school teachers was cut to 2 percent, and a new $250 million fund to pay for student mental health services was cut completely. (As Chalkbeat reported, one thing not cut was $38 million to jumpstart Lee’s Education Savings Accounts school voucher program.)

Briggs and Dunn both said they thought the budget was a good response to the coronavirus impact, leaving money and flexibility for Lee to deal with difficulties still to come. “We just don’t know how things are going to evolve,” Briggs said.

Under the emergency declaration he issued on March 12, Lee will have the authority to move money around as required to respond to the crisis.

Dunn said he appreciated Lee’s leadership in getting the revised budget done even though it meant leaving hundreds of other bills suspended at various stages in the lawmaking process. Those included many bills backed by Lee’s administration.

“He led the way saying, ‘Look, I’m putting all my bills aside, let’s do what we need to do,’” Dunn said.

Johnson was less impressed with the results. She and other Democrats pushed for changes in the budget to allocate funds to help small businesses and hourly workers deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic.

“They missed a big opportunity,” she said of the legislative majority. “They added some money into some medical funds and some relief funds, and that’s great. But it’s not close to what’s going to be needed based on what we know from every place else that has dealt with this.”

The Democratic minority also pushed for a temporary expansion of Medicaid for the duration, to no effect. Tennessee remains one of 14 states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act.

Johnson said that she hopes Lee will consider using his emergency powers to temporarily expand Medicaid anyway. She said having health insurance would give people safer options for treatment than visiting crowded emergency rooms and probably lead to earlier detection of the illness.

“I have a hope he will do that,” she said of Lee. “My fear of course is it will be when too many people have already died.”