Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)
A truth-in-sentencing bill pushed by the House and Senate speakers, along with a K-12 funding plan and $500 million in state bonds for a new Titans stadium are the focal points of negotiations as the two chambers prepare to consider different $52.8 billion budget plans Thursday.
The House and Senate are expected to take up separate budget proposals and possibly approve them before adjourning and heading into a weekend of talks over the state spending plan for fiscal 2022-23.
House and Senate finance committees approved different versions of the budget Wednesday, with the House plan containing $500 million in bonds for the Titans to build a $2 billion domed facility next to Nissan Stadium on Nashville’s East Bank. The Titans are said to be coming up with $700 million, while Metro Nashville is seeking approval of a 1-cent increase in the hotel/motel tax, now at 6%, to pay any debt it incurs.
The Titans debt measure was removed from the Senate version through an amendment by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Williamson County, who is facing opposition from Gary Humble, leader of the advocacy group Tennessee Stands, in the Republican primary.
But Senate sources say it will be reinserted in a conference committee once each chamber approves a budget plan either Thursday or early next week.
After each chamber approves the budget, lawmakers will work out differences and take up other bills that require spending state funds, as well as other measures that couldn’t be handled before the budget.
Talk surfaced Thursday that lawmakers were holding up on passage of the governor’s K-12 funding proposal, dubbed the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, until he agrees to sign a truth-in-sentencing bill that would require those convicted of serious crimes such as aggravated assault and aggravated robbery to serve 100% of sentences, instead of going by a sentencing schedule that usually reduces the time to be served before convicts go to prison.
The American Conservative Union (ACU) entered the argument this week when it sent key lawmakers a letter stating its opposition to the bill and warning legislators that it would grade them on their stance, according to a Tennessee Journal report. The ACU said it could not support the measure, in part, because of the projected expense, about $40 million annually after a decade. The Department of Correction estimated the cost at $90 million to make the changes.
The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee passed an amended version of the legislation Wednesday, reducing the number of crimes that would require a full sentence without an opportunity for parole and offering an 85% range on some.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, are sponsoring the truth-in-sentencing bills, enabling the legislation to move through committees even though some lawmakers are not enamored with the measures.
McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said this week the lieutenant governor, who is also Senate speaker, considers the bill “critically important” because it protects victims and provides “true accountability for those who commit crimes.”
“Washington think tanks have the luxury of dealing with theories, abstractions and hypotheticals regarding crime and punishment. Legislators have to confront the cold, hard reality of crime in their communities and the pain and anguish it inflicts on victims,” Kleinheider said.
McNally is aware the Lee Administration is “uncomfortable” with parts of the bill and has been trying to “assuage” those concerns, he added.
Asked about the ACU’s opposition, Sexton said, “We have much respect for the American Conservative Union; obviously, we disagree with their assessment. We will continue to stand with law enforcement, judges, district attorneys and victims.”
Gov. Bill Lee, who has been quietly opposed to the truth-in-sentencing bill, noted Wednesday the K-12 funding proposal and truth-in-sentencing bill are separate matters when questioned during a press availability. The governor said he is talking to both speakers about the sentencing measure, hoping to “find a way forward. That’s the goal.”
“I think we’ll get there, but it’s unfinished at the moment, but we’re hopeful,” he said.
If that’s true, it’s a game of chicken where I’m rooting for both cars to lose.
– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, on whether a school funding billis being held hostage to a truth-in-sentencing bill
Pressed on the possibility that lawmakers could hold up his school funding bill until he supports or signs the truth-in-sentencing measure, Lee said, “I feel really positive about both the student funding piece of legislation and the ability for us to come to agreement on any sentencing legislation.”
Some lawmakers mentioned the possibility that Lee might veto the truth-in-sentencing bill, which could force them to return to Nashville for an override. But Lee pointed out the bill’s “not finalized yet” and insisted he believes “we’ll find a way forward.”
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who is carrying the K-12 funding plan in the House and is a co-sponsor on the truth-in-sentencing bill, denied Wednesday that the education bill was being slow-walked until the governor supports the sentencing legislation.
“The (K-12 funding) bill is moving rapidly through the legislative process, and I anticipate passage sometime in the next week or two,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican. “So there’s nothing holding that up. … We have neither slowed it down or sped it up.”
The legislation has seen multiple amendments, though, causing opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee has discussed the measure several times, but deferred a vote until April 26.
The House Finance, Ways and Means Committee has not considered its version of the bill yet.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro could not confirm Wednesday whether the K-12 funding plan is being held hostage to pass the truth-in-sentencing measure.
“If that’s true, it’s a game of chicken where I’m rooting for both cars to lose,” said Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.
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