State leaders look to speed up budget work amid economic shock

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 14, 2020 4:05 AM CT | Published: March 14, 2020 4:05 AM CT

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

With an eye toward the coronavirus and vacating Nashville, Tennessee’s political leaders are expediting work on Gov. Bill Lee’s $40.9 billion budget proposal, which is expected to contain extra funding to deal with COVID-19 and tornadoes that struck the state recently.

Lawmakers say they will have to reshape the spending plan to contend with a changing economic landscape after the governor announced a state of emergency March 12. 

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Economic upheaval is becoming the norm after the Southeastern Conference, American Athletic Conference and the NCAA canceled their basketball tournaments, and the NBA and Major League Baseball suspended and postponed their seasons.

The National Rifle Association also announced this week it is canceling its April 16-19 conference in Nashville because of the coronavirus.

“Please know we did not reach this decision lightly. We were ultimately guided by our responsibility to help ensure the safety and well-being of our NRA members, guests and surrounding community,” the association said in a statement.

<strong>Gov. Bill Lee</strong>

Gov. Bill Lee

Lee, a Williamson County Republican, confirmed this week his Finance & Administration Department is gearing up to present its budget plan and supplemental budget to lawmakers as soon as possible in case the Legislature decides to move faster than projected. Leaders have discussed completing work before Easter, April 12.

Late Friday, the governor closed the State Capitol through March and ordered 11,000 state employees trained in alternative workplaces to stay at home. Republican legislative leaders followed suit and closed the Cordell Hull Building to visitors effective Monday, March 16, until further notice.

As part of the administration’s preparation, “We’re talking about how we should potentially set aside funding to prepare for some of the unforeseen going forward,” Lee said.

The governor’s supplemental budget could be presented on or before March 31, and lawmakers have already been holding committee meetings late into the evenings on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

<strong>Lt. Gov.</strong><br /><strong>Randy McNally</strong>

Lt. Gov.
Randy McNally

“If the governor speeds it up, I think we would respond to that in a like manner. And, certainly, by speeding it up we want to make sure we examine the budget fully,” said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican.

At least one Democratic lawmaker, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, urged House Speaker Cameron Sexton to take steps to pass a short-term budget and adjourn temporarily.

McNally and Sexton aren’t prepared to shut down work immediately but issued a statement Thursday encouraging people planning visits to the Capitol and Cordell Hull Building to postpone and reschedule. The Cordell Hull Building was busy this week, playing host to numerous advocacy groups as well as dozens of teenagers visiting while on spring break.

Sexton, a Crossville Republican, turned down Clemmons’ request and said this week his office is continuing to monitor the situation daily, working with the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor and the Department of Health.

He noted lawmakers already believe “we’re moving a pretty good pace right now.” Some subcommittees are already closing down for the year and sending bills to the House Education and Judiciary committees, which stay open the longest until most work reaches the House floor.

“And we might be able to speed it up a little bit fast than what we’re doing, within reason,” Sexton said.

But until the governor submits a supplemental budget, it is difficult for the Legislature to wrap up its work, he said.

Digging in to the numbers

McNally predicted some changes could be made in revenue projections in light of economic trouble stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.

But state Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee, said he doesn’t expect to see an adjustment in the 3.1% growth projection for the next fiscal year. Instead, money is likely to be shifted from some items to cover more pressing needs to cope with the coronavirus and the tornado that struck the state, killing 19 people in Benton, Davidson, Wilson and Putnam counties.

Republican leaders said it is likely federal or state funds could be used to set up satellite facilities where people could be tested for the COVID-19. Health officials believe federal funds, some $10 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could be used.

Watson said the Lee Administration is taking into consideration the stock market’s up-and-down activity as well as the impact of the coronavirus on Tennessee’s travel and tourism industry.

“I hope everybody appreciates, doesn’t underestimate the importance of the coronavirus and its impact on us from a health care or an economic perspective, but we are trying to thread a needle between what’s appropriate and what is a delicate situation between both health and economy,” Watson said.

Lee acknowledged COVID-19 will impact the state’s financial situation, especially travel and conferences, which are a major part of Nashville’s economy.

But he also pointed out closing school systems could affect parents and children, especially if students depend on receiving two meals a day at school.

“That’s why we’re encouraging people to think long and hard about where they should be and take this very seriously,” Lee said.

Democrats challenge plan

Legislative Democrats are urging Republican leaders to close state buildings, send home workers – with pay – and focus only on the essential work of passing a state budget.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper said Democrats are prepared to work weekends to approve a budget for fiscal 2020-21.

<strong>State Rep. </strong><br /><strong>Karen Camper</strong>

State Rep.
Karen Camper

<strong>State Rep. </strong><br /><strong>Antonio Parkinson</strong>

State Rep.
Antonio Parkinson

“Our only constitutional obligation is to pass the budget and to make sure our values are reflected in that budget as it pertains to this issue,” said Camper, a Memphis Democrat.

Camper said the state can’t afford to make any more missteps such as the decision to identify coronavirus patients only by the grand division where they live in the state. The Department of Health changed course and opted to identify people by their county but is still refusing to give patients’ age and gender. Lee later said that could change as the situation evolves.

“I believe there is a leadership vacuum as far as what the governor is doing,” Camper said.

Republicans broached the idea of helping people who get sick and have to take extended leave from work.

But state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said he has heard nothing from the Department of Human Services in making sure people have food and other items for their families.

“Everybody is responding, from the NBA to the federal government, and Tennessee is lagging behind them,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat.

Plans also need to be made for parents who have to stay home from work because daycare centers shut down or schools close, Parkinson said.

“Where are the resources that are going to be needed for those individuals who need to care for their children?” he asked.

Democrats contend some sort of paid family medical leave could be necessary to help families survive the spread of the virus from a financial standpoint.


Bill Lee Karen Camper Antonio Parkinson Cameron Sexton
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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