The 2017 Legislative Session in Review

Category: State Issues

Columns at the Tennessee State Capitol.

The first session of the 110th General Assembly adjourned on May 10, 2017.  The adjournment was roughly three weeks later than initially anticipated, largely due to negotiations surrounding the Governor’s IMPROVE Act.  Overall, it was a very positive session for the University of Tennessee System.

For the second year in a row, the higher education performance-based funding formula was fully funded and UT’s top two capital priorities were funded:  the UT Martin STEM building for $58.5 million and the UT Knoxville Engineering Services Facility for $90.3 million.  UT’s maintenance needs were supported at a level of $57.7 million, and our UT Health Science Center will benefit from $2.5 million in funding to the Memphis Research Consortium for their work on adverse childhood experiences.  Also included in the budget is $6 million non-recurring funding to initiate a one-of-a-kind “Big Data” PhD program at UT Knoxville in partnership with Oak Ridge National Lab.

Several major policy advances that benefit the University of Tennessee also became law.  One of these efforts, HB538/SB723, is being hailed as the “most comprehensive” campus free speech law in the country.  Sponsored by Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) and Rep. Eddie Smith (R-Knoxville), the bill makes Tennessee the first state in the nation to recognize the importance of faculty’s academic freedom in state law.  It also provides a clearer framework for colleges and universities to facilitate a marketplace of ideas and safeguard one of our most fundamental rights—free speech.  Under the new law, public universities in Tennessee may not disinvite campus speakers invited by students or faculty or charge an additional security fee for speakers based on the anticipated content of their speech.  It prohibits free speech zones and requires public universities to regularly inform students and faculty of their speech rights.  The measure varies greatly from other legislation aimed at campus speech that made headlines earlier this year and was more punitive in nature.

The passage of this law may be one reason why members of the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee did not advance a budget amendment establishing an Office of Intellectual Diversity at UT Knoxville.  The amendment would have permanently earmarked $450,000 of existing dollars (not new funding) to such end.  Earlier in the session, this budget amendment was unanimously passed by the Senate Education Committee in response to continued concerns over the handling of diversity and inclusion issues on the Knoxville campus.

Lawmakers also delayed consideration of the Tuition Stability Act, a measure sponsored by Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville).  The Senate sponsor noted his plans to pursue the issue—perhaps in a modified form—next session.  His proposal would have mandated that tuition and all mandatory fees at public universities remain fixed at freshman-year rates for students’ first four academic years.  While the “fixed-rate” approach may seem to be appealing to parents and students, the impact on long-term affordability and quality has a number of challenges for public universities.

A number of measures seeking to expand the presence of firearms of college campuses ultimately failed to advance.  Many of these issues, however, are anticipated to resurface next year.  UT, joined by the law enforcement community and other public colleges and universities, remains opposed to efforts that expand the presence of firearms or other weapons on campus.

Unfortunately, legislation to assist ROTC students in retaining their HOPE Lottery Scholarships while they pursue their degrees was held in the House and Senate Finance Committees for consideration in 2018.  UT has actively advocated for the measure and strongly supports the intent of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville), Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), and Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge).  Across the state, the legislation would enable approximately 135 ROTC candidates to remain eligible for the HOPE award for the final two semesters of coursework necessary to satisfy their ROTC program and academic degree hours.  UT will continue to advocate for funding support to advance the bill in 2018.

We appreciate the interest, support, and hard work of all our UT Advocates this legislative session.  Without your support, we would not have enjoyed such productive outcomes.  Thank you for all that you do for the University of Tennessee System!