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.

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.

UT testifies on HOPE Scholarship change for ROTC cadets; Bill passes unanimously to full committee

Wednesday, the House Education Instruction and Program Subcommittee passed a bill that could change the way HOPE scholarship hours are calculated for ROTC students in Tennessee. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), would address problems in the HOPE hours calculation that cause some STEM-major ROTC cadets to lose eligibility for the state-sponsored scholarship in their third year of study.

The issue arose in 2013 when the Army Cadet Command placed three Tennessee ROTC programs on the “cut list” because they were not recruiting enough STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors. The problem, however, could be traced in part to an issue with the state’s HOPE lottery scholarship program.

Currently, students lose HOPE eligibility after attempting 120 credit hours at a Tennessee postsecondary institution, but that causes issues for cadets enrolled in a STEM program such as engineering. Curriculum and graduation paths for students in that major are highly fixed and unchangeable. Therefore, those cadets cannot fold the hours to earn their commission through the ROTC program into their major or a minor, and some must take up to 140-150 hours to earn both their degree and commission. These students currently lose their HOPE money after 120 hours, leaving the student to make up the difference to complete their program of study.

Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) addressed the fact that ROTC cadets are often given a stipend as part of their participation in the program, but those funds are changing and not as plentiful as they once were.

Lou Hanemann, Associate Director for Higher Education Policy and Analysis, testified for the University of Tennessee, saying, “There is a stipend scholarship that is available for most ROTC students, but the reason those institutions were put on the cut list was funding concerns. The funding for those scholarships has begun to shift.”

The bill, fully supported by the University of Tennessee, would create an hours exemption for ROTC classes only.  It passed on a unanimous voice vote and will next be heard in the full House Education Instruction and Programs committee.  A companion bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville), will be heard in the Senate Education Committee.  We will post any updates on the bill’s movement as they become available.