Members of the Tennessee General Assembly are returning to Nashville to address a slate of budget woes as state income falls below projections following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said the state needs to make up about $500 million in revenue to close out the 2020 fiscal year. Next year’s budget, passed in March, may need another $1 billion cut. 

We don’t know what lawmakers will eye to make up the revenue lost from sales tax across the state. McNally told media outlets last week that the popular back-to-school sales tax holiday could be scrapped. That three-day break on state and local sales tax costs the state about $10 million annually. 

But efforts to delay the controversial, and expensive, school voucher bill failed in a committee this week. The state budget still has $38 million budgeted for the first year of a program that would provide low-income families in Shelby and Davidson counties up to $7,300 annually to pay private-school tuition costs. 

A judge ruled the program violates the state’s “home rule” provisions. Under this provision, the General Assembly can’t pass laws that single out specific counties without those counties’ consent. 

An appellate court ruled earlier this month it would block implementation of the program pending an appeal. The state is asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to allow the program to continue this school year while appeals more forward.

A signature legislative victory for Gov. Bill Lee’s first year in office, the educational savings accounts have been controversial since the very beginning.

Former Speaker of the House Glen Casada held the vote open in the House of Representatives for more than 40 minutes after the vote tied at 49-49. Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville then changed his nay to a yea after meeting with legislators on a patio. 

At that time, the Knoxville lawmaker said he changed his vote because he was assured his district wouldn’t be affected. Though included in the bill, Knox and Hamilton counties were not part of the Senate bill and removed later. 

Other lawmakers who voted against the bill said later they had been offered “unspecified” incentives if they supported the measure.

That was in the spring of 2019. The program was to start in the 2021 school year, but the state hurried to get the infrastructure in place to start it even sooner. 

We don’t know what programs will be on the chopping block. Hard choices will have to be made to trim $1 billion from the state’s $40 billion spending plan. School systems around the state are bracing for their own revenue shortfalls and scrapping plans for raises or other programs. And the impact of federal funding through COVID-19 relief programs is still in limbo as states evaluate how U.S. Education Department guidance said the funds must be used for students in private schools, as well, regardless of student achievement or need.

In January, Lee laid out an ambitious plan for public education in this state, including raising the salaries of our teachers and providing more resources to help them help our children succeed. Much of those plans have been scrapped while the state deals with the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on our economy. It makes no sense to keep the voucher program when the state needs to save money and the constitutionality of the program remains to be determined.

So before the budget trimmers go looking for every penny they can shave from other programs, we hope they take a hard look at $38 million sitting there for a program that could very well be declared invalid under Tennessee law.

—Crossville Chronicle

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