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Legislators prepare to close out difficult session
We are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget. We just can’t print money.”
— STATE SEN. MIKE BELL
By TIM SINIARD
The Tennessee General Assembly will resume its legislative session Monday after adjourning in March due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to ending the session, legislators were in the process of hammering out the state’s budget.
The current fiscal year ends June 30.
But when they return on Monday, instead of finalizing the budget, they will be facing budget cuts made necessary by revenue shortfalls caused by an economic downturn created by the pandemic.
State Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville), who represents the 9th Senatorial District, and state Rep. Dan Howell (R-Cleveland), who represents the 22nd Legislative District, said they expect the session to last approximately two weeks, although that's not set in stone.
Bell said the Senate will be mainly focusing on budget issues and COVID-19-related legislation.
Howell said the House will also be focusing on budget items, as well as some legislation that was left on the calendar when the General Assembly adjourned in March.
State Rep. Mark Hall (R-Cleveland), who represents the 24th Legislative District, and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), who represents the 10th Senatorial District which includes part of Bradley County, will also be heavily involved in bill discussions and committee assignments during the General Assembly's final weeks.
Normally, the General Assembly meets 90 session days over a two-year period, with legislative sessions lasting from late January to April or May each year.
But that was until the pandemic struck.
Now, they must return to address the budget, which has been taken to the mat by COVID-19's vicious left hook.
The pandemic’s effect on the state’s economy has reduced general fund revenues by some $650.9 million, while other funds that share in state tax revenues have been $42.9 million less than the estimates.
In addition, sales tax revenues were $61.2 million less than estimated for April, as well as 6.01% less than April 2019.
Cuts are now in the future.
Bell said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has ordered 12% cuts across all state departments.
“We are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget,” Bell said. “We just can’t print money,” adding that the state is most likely facing the worst economy since the Great Depression.
The emergency budget passed before lawmakers left Nashville in mid-March could have a potential $700 million shortfall, according to media reports.
Bell also said the Senate will be considering legislation that will protect businesses and healthcare providers from lawsuits related to COVID-19, if they are adhering to guidance from the state’s Economic Recovery Group.
Howell said the House will resume its session Monday, although committees have been meeting since Tuesday.
He said House members want to vote on several items that have remained on the calendar since the body adjourned, including several transportation-related bills.
Howell chairs the House's all-important Transportation Committee.
“We want to close out the calendar and send those bills to the House floor,” he said.
One focus will be re-writing legislation for the Tennessee Billboard Act, which was declared unconstitutional by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals last year.
In that First Amendment case, the court considered whether the state had erred when it ordered the removal of a sign a state resident had used to cheer on the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympic Team.
The three-judge panel ruled that, “The Billboard Act’s on-premises exception scheme is a content-based regulation of free speech.”
Howell said the House session will begin Monday at 5 p.m.
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