Lawmakers returned to Nashville today to kick off the second session of the 109th General Assembly—a session that is expected to move quickly as lawmakers barrel toward election season, where all 99 House seats and half of the Senate will be determined by Tennessee voters. Early talk in the Legislative Plaza suggests the legislature could seek to adjourn in late March, one of the earliest targets in recent memory. Meeting such a target would require lawmakers to both begin—and conduct—their work quickly.
Unlike recent years, one issue that lawmakers will not face is the prospect of continued poor fiscal conditions. Hundreds of millions in surplus revenues have been collected—but plans for the excess revenue are not yet clear. Some lawmakers are calling for a significant portion to be used for transportation infrastructure, while others point to the surplus as evidence that certain taxes, such as the Hall Income Tax, should be reduced or phased out entirely. The Governor is expected to address the surplus and present a corresponding spending plan in his State of the State Address, which typically occurs in late January or early February. To view UT’s budget priorities, click here.
Higher Ed Issues to Watch
Recent months have presented a preview of some “hot-button” higher education issues facing the General Assembly. These include:
Guns and Gun Carry Legislation
A number of guns-on-campus bills are expected to be filed this year. Senate Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) has announced his intent to file a bill permitting faculty and staff to carry firearms on campus, and Representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden) has already officially filed legislation on the same topic. Higher education stakeholders have long held that policies related to gun possession on campus should reside with the institutional and system governing bodies.
The current state law regarding carrying firearms on college campuses has been in place for over 25 years and does permit certain individuals to possess firearms on campus. UT does not support legislative efforts that would further expand the presence of guns and other weapons on college campuses.
Higher Education Governance
Late in 2015, Governor Haslam announced his plan to overhaul several aspects of higher education governance through the Focusing On College and University Success (FOCUS) Act. The FOCUS Act grants greater regulatory authority to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) and provides more autonomy for the six Tennessee Board of Regents Universities by creating individual governing boards.
Under the FOCUS Act, the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) System would be reduced to only the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology and the 13 state community colleges.
Discussion on the issue could heat up as various interested parties weigh in on the proposed governance model. Just last week, TBR Chancellor John Morgan announced his early retirement as a response to concerns surrounding the plan.
According to the Administration, the FOCUS Act is not expected to impact the University of Tennessee. We will keep advocates informed of any developments.
Diversity Programs and Spending
Few issues have garnered such intense legislative scrutiny during the out-of-session months as diversity programs and associated spending at public higher education campuses across the state, particularly at UT Knoxville.
The Senate examined these issues in October through a special oversight committee, and lawmakers have been clear that they intend to study the issue further. Just this week, some members of the Knox County delegation requested the creation of a joint special committee to examine diversity efforts ongoing at the state’s public higher education institutions. In recent days, some members have been surprised to learn that these efforts include activities aimed at improving enrollment and retention of students from various socioeconomic backgrounds, first-generation college students, and students from areas with lower college attendance rates. UT welcomes this legislative oversight as an opportunity to help increase understanding about the need for diversity efforts on UT campuses.
Legislative action on this topic is anticipated but specific proposals have not yet been filed. Stay tuned for updates.
It is likely that the General Assembly will seek to weigh in on the prospect of turning over the facility maintenance contracts for state government to privately outsourced firms, an idea currently being pursued by the Haslam Administration. This issue has garnered attention among many state employees and, in particular, among higher education employees, since each of the campuses and systems currently self-manage their facilities.
….and So Many More
The issues above, coupled with perennial higher education issues like textbook costs, capital outlay funding, academic freedom, and campus safety will undoubtedly make for a full and challenging legislative session for the University of Tennessee.
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