The legislative session is over. Finally.

 


BUDGET
Gov. Haslam’s $34.9 billion budget proposal was passed in mid-April by the General Assembly. This budget included the full allotment of dollars earned by higher education institutions under the outcomes based funding formula – a $50 million increase in state allocations. This amount exceeded the THEC funding request by $9 million, in effect making up some of the ground from previous Haslam budget years when the state failed to fully fund its outcomes formula. While the budget contained specific allocations for K-12 teacher and state agency employee salaries, Haslam continued the trend of splitting higher education raises from other public workers. This trend grows from years of campaigning on the part of the University of Tennessee system for “flexibility” in salary determinations.

While some campus administrators have stated that raises in the 2-3 percent range are definite, at this time it is unclear what this funding boon will mean for higher education employee salaries. We will not know the scope of 2016/2017 pay raises for all campuses until the June UT Board of Trustees and Tennessee Board of Regents quarterly meetings, respectively.


The FOCUS Act
In 2016 Governor Bill Haslam successfully passed the latest portion of his multi-year higher education reform agenda to the record books without much political turmoil. The FOCUS act, (Focus On College and University Success act) is the latest piece of education reform intended to drastically alter the existing structure of TN’s education systems by dismantling the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) as we currently know it.

The new legislation establishes individual boards to each of the four year university schools in the TBR system, while TBR retains control of all remaining community colleges and technical schools, and larger strategic visions are given over to the newly empowered Tennessee Higher Education Commission. While official statements have maintained that said restructuring is necessary to address a growing enrollment demand, an outdated educational system and grant greater individual autonomy to local universities, proportional state funding is at an historical low for higher education, hovering at barely over 10% of the state budget in stark comparison to the 18-19% traditionally guaranteed from the state up until the early 90’s. This all the while amidst an unprecedented state budget surplus in fiscal year 2016 of nearly $700 million.

While higher education restructuring may certainly be a welcome proposal, the 2010 transition to a completely outcome based formula for funding will leave many individual universities scrambling to make up the difference between declining enrollment and tuition dollars, especially in light of the Tennessee Promise act guaranteeing for many free community college tuition. State schools outside of the University of Memphis and the UT system serve as teaching institutions, often serving the most needed in Tennessee, including minorities and returning servicemen, and cannot rely on the more lucrative networks of research funding and wealthy donor bases to make ends meet, and as a result will be forced to resort to alternative methods of meeting institutional demands, from raising tuition, cutting academic programming, and reducing non-core services including privatizing many university functions.


DIVERSITY ATTACKS
One of the great dramas of the legislative session was the struggle over the fate of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) at UT, which endured national scrutiny from conservative Republicans over website posts that advocated for the use of gender-neutral pronouns on campus and for inclusive workplace holiday celebrations. While several punitive bills were drafted, the bill that sits on Governor Haslam’s desk for action is House Bill 2248, sponsored by Micah Van Huss (District 6, Jonesborough). The final version of the bill diverts the $436,722 budget for ODI to a minority engineering scholarship program, and stipulates explicitly that UT may not spend any state dollars to promote gender-neutral pronouns or Sex Week, and may not promote nor inhibit the celebration of religious holidays. The bill also stipulates that ODI will not receive any further funding in the future, and instead these dollars will be transferred to UT's general fund. As of May 10th, Governor Haslam has not yet taken action on this bill; we urge you to call his office at 615-741-2001 to urge him to veto this intrusive, unnecessary, and discriminatory legislation.


GUNS ON CAMPUS


"My intention," said Representative Andy Holt, "is to eliminate all gun-free zones, whether it's the legislature or a college campus.

As enacted, Senate Bill 2376 (primary sponsor Senator Mike Bell, District 9-Riceville) / House Bill 1736 (primary sponsor Representative Andy Holt, District 76-Dresden) permits full-time employees of state public colleges or universities with a handgun carry permit to carry a handgun on property owned, operated, or controlled by the employing college or university if certain requirements are met, effective 7/1/2016. Both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey signed it, but it was returned by Governor Haslam without his signature. It was amended* to: require that the weapon be concealed; require written notice to local law enforcement with jurisdiction; exclude some locations (stadiums, gymnasiums, disciplinary meetings, tenure meetings, or hospitals); and allow certain UT or TBR agricultural employees and household members to carry on UT- or TBR-owned properties under certain conditions and with prior approval of the Chancellor or university/college president. The legislation was also amended to place liability on the permit holder rather than the campus in the event of an accidental discharge, and prohibits them from any workers compensation benefits for injuries arising from the carrying of the handgun. Every one of the state's 29 public university and college presidents and police chiefs opposed the bill. Many Faculty Senate votes and polls showed that faculty strongly opposed the bill. The Student Government Associations of both MTSU and APSU voted to formally oppose the bill. Yet it featured 34 Republican House sponsors and two Democratic House sponsors, 7 Republican Senate sponsors, passing in the House 69-24 and in the Senate 28-5. Given the extremely broad majorities, and existing campus practices that already secure firearms for personal and hunting related activities, the most basic question for legislative intervention remains: What problem does the Tennessee General Assembly believe they are solving with this legislation?

Governor Haslam previously signed legislation that prohibits state colleges and universities from taking "adverse action" against students and employees with permits for transporting or storing a gun or ammunition in their parked vehicles on campus (SB 1991 Kelsey / HB 2131 Rogers, now Public Chapter Number 806).

Sen. Mike Bell said he expects a student-carry bill to be filed next year but that he won't sponsor it.