House, Senate put $2M in $42.6B budget for super-chancery court

Inside the Tennessee Senate chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Inside the Tennessee Senate chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Despite questions about establishing a super-chancery court, the Legislature put $2.4 million to fund the new judiciary in its $42.6 billion budget for fiscal 2021-22, raising concerns about a continual slap in the face of Davidson County.

Legislation establishing the three-judge panel to hear constitutional challenges to Tennessee laws is scheduled Monday in House and Senate committees, a move to bypass Davidson County chancellors who Republicans contend are elected by the state’s most liberal voters. 

Lawmakers say the proposal remains in flux but opted to move forward with funding for the court with the 112th General Assembly likely to adjourn next week after its first session.

“It’s still a fluid situation. There are still a lot of discussions going on around that bill,” Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said Thursday after the Senate passed the budget. “I think everybody wants to get it done. It’s just, how do we get there the way it’s going to work best for the state of Tennessee?”

The Legislature is starting to feel some pushback, though, from across the state. A group of legal professionals, business owners and faith leaders headed by Chattanooga attorney Lee Davis sent Gov. Bill Lee and the Legislature a letter Thursday raising questions about the statewide chancery court plan.

The group called the proposal an “attack” on the judiciary that “threatens to undermine and politicize our court whose purpose is to focus on justice, not politics.”

“Rushing through this legislation to set up one of the nation’s first statewide trial courts will cost millions in taxpayer dollars and duplicates a process we already have,” the letter states. It adds that the bill creates a “clear conflict of interest” by enabling the governor to select judges who could be ruling on challenges of his own executive orders and the bills he signs into law. 

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville calls the creation of a new “super chancery” court a “flat out attack on the rule of law.” Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

  That is not the way law works in the United States of America or at least it's not supported to be. The fact we would spend $2 million a year to create a brand new political court to hear at most 50, 60, 70 cases is just lunacy and doesn't help a single person in Tennessee that's confronting a real problem.   – Sen. Jeff Yarbro

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said Thursday he disagreed with an effort early in the session to “impeach” Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle because of her rulings last year on absentee balloting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But we felt we did need a court that was representative of the entire state and elected by the entire state to rule on situations in which the state is the defendant,” McNally said in his weekly press conference.

McNally concurred with Bell’s assessment that the chancery court bill is “fluid” and said it could be one solution, along with several other possibilities such as another chancery court, an appeals court or a statewide appeals court.

McNally said no decision has been made whether the new chancery court would make decisions based on evidence presented at a lower court or whether it would hear evidence for the first time.

In addition to constitutional questions, the court would handle redistricting cases involving the lines for congressional and legislative districts. Bell pointed out North Carolina set up a three-panel court to hear redistricting and said this could operate similarly.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro called the chancery court legislation, including a measure to stop local governments from suing the state, a “flat-out an attack on the rule of law.”

Republican leaders were disappointed in the outcome of several cases, he said, thus the Legislature is trying to change the way court decisions are make the rules surrounding them.

“That is not the way law works in the United States of America, or at least it’s not supposed to be,” said Yarbro, a Nashville attorney. “The fact we would spend $2 million a year to create a brand new political court to hear at most 50, 60, 70 cases is just lunacy and doesn’t help a single person in Tennessee that’s confronting a real problem.”

The Senate voted 25-5 along party lines in favor of the spending plan with Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, present not voting. Only Democrats opposed the measure. 

Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bo Watson expressed disappointment that Democrats made the budget a “partisan” issue by opposing it even though it contained $5.5 million to go toward physician residencies in rural hospitals, which have been struggling to stay afloat financially. 

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he was disappointed Democrats made the budget a partisan issue by opposing it even though it includes $5.5 million for physician residencies in rural hospitals. Democrats suggested the state tap into the $900 million in available Medicaid funding it has refused to take.

Democrats said they support that measure but wanted the state to tap into some $900 million in extra Medicaid funding offered by the Biden Administration to cover hundreds of thousands of uninsured Tennesseans over the next two years.

“I think the budget reflects an investment in people,” said Watson, R-Hixson.

He pointed toward $3 million for Tennessee State University, $79 million for colleges of applied technology, $250 million to bolster the state’s employee retirement fund and $250 million to set up a mental health trust fund.

The budget adds $100 million to the rainy day fund, bringing it to $1.55 billion, provides 4% pay increases for teachers and uses $39 million to give a pay raise to workers in the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Another $100 million goes toward rural broadband, and $931 million will be used for capital maintenance and improvement projects.

It also sets up a $50 million sales tax holiday for groceries and restaurants in early August, in addition to the annual back-to-school sales tax holiday.

“Sales tax is the one place we can make sure we get money back into people’s pockets,” said House Finance, Ways and Means Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. She called the spending bill a “conservative” plan that meets the state’s requirements without borrowing money.

The House passed the proposal 76-11, with three present not voting, after Minority Leader Karen Camper complained that Democrats were left out of budget negotiations by supermajority Republicans.

With $1.9 billion set to come to state coffers from the federal government, Camper said she hopes Democrats will be heard.

All told, $8.6 billion in federal funding is to come to Tennessee, with more than $5 billion going straight to school districts and about $2 billion going to cities and counties. The budget is bolstered by $1.6 billion in excess revenue, and the Legislature set aside $238 million for the following fiscal year.

Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, pointed out Davidson County will receive about $7 per resident as part of a move capping the amount of money Metro Nashville gets while smaller rural counties such as Pickett will receive $50 per resident.

Besides Camper’s concerns, which were dismissed by Republicans, Davidson County Democrats were upset with a move that capped the amount of money Metro Nashville will receive at $5 million as part of a $100 million line item going to city and county governments.

Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, pointed out Davidson County will receive about $7 per resident while smaller, rural counties such as Pickett will receive $50 per resident.

“I’m failing to see the equity there,” Beck said. He noted Davidson County accounts for 46% of the state’s economy yet its government is netting a much smaller percentage of the state funds.

Hazlewood responded that Tennessee’s larger cities have a “direct line” to federal funding that smaller counties don’t have.

In addition, Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, raised questions about $450,000 being put into the Comptroller’s Office to create a new division to investigate misspent money at the local level. 

“I hope they’re vetting these people,” Mitchell said, adding invitations were sent out to celebrate before the Legislature even voted on the budget.