Legislators Pass State Budget, Includes UT’s Top Capital Priority

State lawmakers passed the State budget today, avoiding legislative attempts in the House to remove and/or reduce state funding for UT’s highest priority capital project, the West Tennessee 4-H Camp and Conference Center.

Rep. Tim Wirgau (R-Buchanan) introduced and then withdrew an amendment on the House floor seeking to strip state funding from the project.

Two weeks ago, UT Advocacy issued an “Advocacy Alert” on the new 4-H Center, asking advocates to urge their elected officials to support the project.  After an incredible grassroots response with over 7,300 communications to members of the General Assembly in support of the project, we are happy to report that the new 4-H Center passed with broad support.  To those advocates who took action:  We cannot thank you enough.  Your support made all the difference.

The State budget includes full funding of the State’s outcomes-based funding formula for public higher education, an increase in funding for non-formula units like the UT Institute of Agriculture, the UT Institute for Public Service and the UT Health Science Center.

The budget also includes:

  • Funding for a new science lab building at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville;
  • Capital maintenance funding for projects on all UT campuses;
  • $3 million in matching funds for the UT Pediatric Research Initiative;
  • $1 million in capital outlay to construct a new wind tunnel at the UT Space Institute;
  • $3 million in non-recurring funds to support UT-ORNL’s Advanced Manufacturing initiatives and supplement a $250 million federal grant in this area; and,
  • Authorization for a 1.5 percent merit pool salary increase for public higher education employees.

Lawmakers will return to the Hill next week to consider bills behind the budget before adjourning for the year.

Bill Exempting Higher Education Employee Performance Evaluations from the Public Record Signed Into Law By Governor

Governor Bill Haslam signed into law on Thursday a measure exempting public higher education employee performance evaluations from the public record, essentially correcting a public policy oversight in state law dealing with public employees.  Since the passage of the TEAM Act in 2012, state service employee performance evaluations have not been part of the public record.  The initial rationale of removing these evaluations from the public record centered on sound management practices:  Having performance evaluations as part of the public record simply discouraged public managers from documenting needed areas of employee improvement.  Without formal documentation of these matters, the State was left with no reliable evidence of employee performance.

Under the new law, public higher education employees will have the same confidentiality standards as state service employees, military personnel, and federal civil service employees.  The University supported the measure as it addressed an important fairness issue and helped create an improved management tool.  To be clear, this bill only addresses performance evaluations.  Employee personnel files, email and phone records, and working documents remain part of the public record.  The law is effective immediately.

Bill that Creates New In-State Tuition Qualifications Passes the Senate

The Senate on Thursday passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) that authorizes Tennessee public universities to exempt some students from paying out-of-state tuition even if they are not technically U.S. citizens. The measure passed on a 21-12 vote after successfully navigating the Senate’s Education and Finance, Ways and Means Committees. As amended by the Finance committee, the legislation states that a student may be eligible for in-state tuition if that student is “lawfully present” in the United States and either graduated from a Tennessee high school, obtained a state-approved GED or HiSET certification, or completed a Tennessee home school program.

The addition of the “lawfully present” language via amendment earned more support for the bill from both Republicans and Democrats, as opposed to the broadly written original version that would have granted the in-state benefits to students regardless of immigration status. Under the amended legislation, undocumented students that qualify for the original 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status will be eligible for in-state tuition. DACA allows a person that is otherwise undocumented to establish lawful presence if they apply through the Department of Homeland Security and meet certain age, residency, criminal background, and education requirements.

The House companion bill, sponsored in the by Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis), is currently scheduled for the House Finance Subcommittee next week. It must first pass through the House Finance, Ways and Means committee process and the House floor before it can be taken to Gov. Bill Haslam for his decision.

Governor’s Budget Amendment Released

On Tuesday, the Haslam Administration released its proposed budget amendment.  The Administration’s budget amendment provides an opportunity to alter the original budget proposal based on the State’s revenue trends.

Citing strong sales tax numbers and revenue increases from “a one-time event,” the Administration amendment increases funding for education and health and doubles the contribution to the State’s ‘Rainy Day’ fund.

The proposed budget amendment designates $29 million in recurring dollars to K-12 education, specifically to increase state funding of health insurance coverage for teachers.
“All of our additional recurring money is going to fund K-12 education in addition to the $144 million from our original budget proposal.  We are also making significant investments in higher education,” Governor Haslam stated.

There are nearly $300 million more than anticipated in non-recurring funds.  As a result, the budget amendment proposal includes a number of non-recurring investments, including $120 million to fund the state’s commitment to a new Tennessee State Museum and $36.5 million in additional funding for the ‘Rainy Day’ Fund.

For UT specifically, the budget amendment includes:

  • $4.52 million in non-recurring capital outlay, to be divided as follows:
    • $1 million in construction funding for a new wind tunnel at the UT Space Institute
    • $3.52 million for additional capital maintenance projects at UT Martin and the UT Space Institute
  • $3 million in non-recurring revenue to support UT-ORNL’s Advanced Manufacturing initiatives and supplement a $250 million federal grant in this area

These proposed additions to the FY 2015-2016 budget will be considered by the legislature in the coming weeks.

Deadline for budget amendments passes, Rumors of concern over UT’s top capital priority

Lone Oaks AerialWith 140 budget amendments proposed in the Senate and 235 proposed in the House, there appears to be no shortage of ideas on how to spend a state revenue surplus that could easily reach half a billion dollars by the end of the fiscal year.   In recent months, indicators continue to point toward positive growth of major state revenue producers.

Governor Haslam’s proposed budget amendment is expected within the next two weeks.  Advocates will recall the Governor’s original budget proposal ranked the West Tennessee 4-H Center (also known as Lone Oaks Farm) second on the Governor’s proposed capital projects list.   In recent weeks, however, we have learned that there may be some legislative resistance in supporting this project, UT’s top capital priority.

We remain confident that the 4-H proposal will be adopted by the legislature.  As the situation continues to unfold, UT will take every effort to help ensure the project’s smooth passage and broad legislative support.  Please be on the lookout for more information on how you can help soon.

The West Tennessee region has been without a 4-H center since 2009, when the previous facility was closed and sold due to budget cuts and inadequate capital maintenance over a period of many years.

The offer of Lone Oaks Farm as a proposed replacement for the West Tennessee 4-H center came forth and was recommended through an exhaustive selection process last year.  The more than $30 million dollar facility is being made available to the University for approximately $16 million.  The 1,200-acre property comes turnkey-ready—educational programs, events and activities can be offered immediately.

Lone Oaks Farm will be used to teach youth about agriculture, natural resources, and other STEM-related subjects.  It will also be used to conduct educational workshops and meetings by industry and agri-business groups, something that is needed and could help spur economic development in the western part of the state.  The Center is expected to be self-supporting through the revenue it generates and will help fulfill a key part of the University’s outreach mission.