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Tennessee lawmakers pass budget, recess amid virus outbreak


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Working in the close quarters health officials advised against, Tennessee lawmakers cut short their 2020 session and won't return until June 1 after passing a dramatically reduced spending plan for the upcoming year in reaction to widespread coronavirus-related disruptions.

Lawmakers had been scrambling to approve a newly designed 2020-21 fiscal year budget since the beginning of the week, maintaining that only "mission critical" proposals would be passed. 

The GOP-dominated Statehouse also faced scrutiny from open government advocates and lobbyists after closing the building to the general public. Some lawmakers sat in the gallery to keep their distance.

"I"m worried about being here and I'm worried about not being here," said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville.

The overhauled $39.8 billion spending plan approved Thursday is a far cry from what Republican Gov. Bill Lee proposed earlier this year when revenue projections were strong and confidence in the economy was high.

Gone are Lee's hefty investments in school literacy initiatives, teacher salaries and a proposed K-12 mental health trust fund. Instead, there's now a $150 million fund "to help us be responsive to health and safety issues resulting from COVID-19," as well as plan to increase the state's rainy day fund from $875 million currently to $1.45 billion by 2021.

"This budget is nowhere near what we expected; it does at least address the principal functions of government and provides for resources that the executive branch and the governor can use to deal with the most distressed areas that we have experienced in our state," said Republican Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the finance committee. "This will not solve our problems, but it's a good first step." 

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund will get an additional $30 million because of the coronavirus as well as the fatal tornadoes that ripped across the state this month. 

Teacher pay raises were cut from 4% to 2% and a $250 million mental health trust fund for K-12 students was eliminated. However, the budget still contains Lee's approximately $40 million education voucher program for Nashville and Memphis' Shelby County.

The inclusion of voucher money rather than more funding for teacher pay or the coronavirus response sparked criticism from Democrats. 

"Can we put $41 million toward buying respirators? Can we put $41 million toward beefing up our clinics? Can we take $41 million and spread it across the entire state at a collective effort to make sure we attack this coronavirus?" said Democratic Rep. Harold Love of Nashville. 

Lawmakers eased requirements for schools choosing to close amid the virus outbreak. But an attempt to tweak the state's open meeting law to allow officials to meet electronically, rather than in person, during the pandemic was spiked after the Senate and House failed to agree on a compromise.

Another measure that made it through the Statehouse would allow the use of voting "super sites" if some polling places aren't usable during emergencies, largely in response to the tornadoes.

Lawmakers also worked on measures to help boost revenue for the state, including passing a bill designed to raise money for local 911 systems that will increase the surcharge on cellphone bills. 

The bill would bump the fee from $1.16 a month to $1.50 a month starting in 2021, increasing state revenue by $12 million the first year and $25 million in the year following.

Lawmakers adjourned with the goal of returning June 1 to pick up the more contentious issues, ranging from sweeping bans on abortion to allowing most people in the state to carry a firearm in public without a background check or training, to expanding paid family leave for state workers.

Legislative leaders acknowledged that there is no guarantee that health concerns over the pandemic will have eased by June 1. 

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For people with existing health problems and older adults, it can cause more severe illness requiring hospitalization at a time when beds and supplies are scarce. 

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Tennessee had 150 confirmed cases as of Thursday, most of them in Middle Tennessee.


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