Capitol Gains: What to expect from Tennessee lawmakers in 2017

Jan 11 2017
Posted by: Staff
Capitol Gains: What to expect from Tennessee lawmakers in 2017

By: Richard Exton Jr.

With a New Year comes a new General Assembly, and following a year of chaos, Nashville is buzzing with a sense of "What comes next?" From the legalization of medical marijuana to the first in- crease in the gas tax in decades, this year’s session of the Tennessee General Assembly is sure to make some waves. Here’s what you can expect: 

High expectations for medical cannabis: Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, have teamed up to reintroduce an updated medical marijuana bill, which failed as a last minute amendment in 2016. The new bill would create a Medical Cannabis Commission and divert funds from a 5 percent sales tax on all products sold at dispensaries to half a dozen government entities – including 20 percent toward K-12 Education and the Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Although there has been resistance to marijuana bills in the past, these two GOP officials have addressed many of the concerns initial opponents raised, and groups like Safe Access Tennessee are giving conservative credibility to the issue. Conversely, the General Assembly is expected to pass a law “overriding” the marijuana decriminalization ordinance passed by Nashville and Memphis in 2016. Local leaders in Memphis stopped enforcing the decriminalization ordinance following an opinion from the Attorney General, but Metro Council members and Mayor Megan Barry’s office have consistently maintained the ordinance’s legal validity. The question is – Can bill proponents make the case to legis- lators that now is the time for cannabis in Tennessee?

Fixing corrections: Following a year of documented shortcomings by privately run prisons, the ACLU and Beacon Center working together, and national headlines on Lawrence McKinney – the Wilson County man who received just $75 to begin life anew following 31 years of wrongful imprisonment - the political environment is ripe for criminal justice reform. Forty-six percent of inmates are under age 35, and Tennessee is set to spend $962 million on the Department of Corrections this year alone. That exceeds spending on the Department of Children’s Services and the Department of Health by $208 million and $353 million respectively. Fiscal hawks on both sides of the aisle have long seen problems with the massive costs of incarcerating thousands of people (especially those on death row) and local desire for change has led to a number of vocal community forums. Daniel Horwitz, an attorney active in the issue, notes bipartisan support for reform, citing specific examples he believes will be enacted. “Expungement fees for convictions are likely to be reduced substantially," he said. "Additionally, driver's licenses may no longer be subject to suspension due to a person's inability to pay outstanding court costs – a practice that dramatically and unnecessarily drives up arrest and incarceration rates.”

Outsourcing Tennessee: In an attempt to make government more efficient, Gov. Bill Haslam has been actively pursuing the details about what privatizing large sections of state government would look like. Haslam saved money by moving maintenance positions at state buildings to third party vendors like JLL, where they supposedly run things at a lesser cost and thus save taxpayer dollars. The new plan would simply expand that to other parts of the government like parks, colleges and universities. Supporters claim taxpayer savings and little difference in employment, but opponents like Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and the Tennessee State Employees Association beg to differ. They claim lack of oversight and a lower quality of work are sure to come with privatization, noting that many of the positions to be replaced are currently filled by reliable and effective workers. 

Public money for private school: A potential pay raise for teachers statewide and the implementation of vouchers – using public money for private education – are on the agenda for 2017. Proposed “opportunity scholarships” for 5,000 students in the lowest performing schools almost passed in 2016, barely missing the needed 50 votes for passage. At approximately $7,000 per student, the cost would be enormous, and larger school districts like Memphis and Nashville have already sued the State for failing to provide adequate funds for education. However, additional support on the federal level for vouchers, and a new group of amenable House members, gives this bill an even greater chance of passing. 

Driving the gas tax: Tennessee currently faces a 10-year backlog of infrastructure projects totalling $6-10 billion and legislators are looking to do something about it. At issue in 2017 is increasing and allocating the 21.4 cents/gallon gas tax that funds most of the road projects in Tennessee – something that has not hap- pened in almost three decades. About one-third of the tax currently goes back to various cities and counties, but that sum of money is not keeping up with growing maintenance costs. Gov. Haslam has floated the idea of increasing the tax to bridge the gap, but resistance to a tax increase – especially in a budget surplus – has given some legislators pause. Furthermore, there is hesitation to allocate new monies collected towards anything other than roads. For cities like Nashville and its suburbs, simply building and maintaining roads will not solve the gridlock and ever growing commute times. Yet, rural legislators are dubious to allocate major state funds towards public transit projects in urban centers.

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