TCSA Capitol Update
Week of January 22 - 26, 2024
The Legislature returned to session this week after last week's weather put the entire process on pause. Many committees met this week, but for most, the calendars were still fairly sparse. There were a few bills heard in committee that would affect county government. Those are discussed below. The real focus this week was on new legislation being filed or expected to be filed. The General Assembly started the year with just under 1600 bills filed in both the House and Senate. At the time of writing this update, that number had risen to over 2200 bills in the House. There will likely be 1,000 more bills filed in each chamber between now and January 31st, when the House set its filing deadline. The Senate deadline is February 1st.
IMPORTANT UPDATE FOR COUNTY OFFICIALS:
For some time, we have heard rumblings that a major effort was underway to limit the ability of counties and cities to levy property taxes. While we do not yet know the exact form this proposal will take, we are seeing indications that this effort is well underway. New organizations have formed, are fund-raising and are hiring lobbyists to push a proposal to cap property taxes. This effort is being discussed openly at the legislature and even members who are friendly to local government are expressing their concern about how difficult it will be to vote against such a proposal in an election year. We need you all to talk now to your state representatives and senators and tell them how disastrous it would be to take away local taxing authority. Over the coming days, we will equip you with talking points and information you can share with your legislators. This will certainly be a major focus of County Government Day next month. We will need your presence in Nashville to help counter this proposal and we need you to start having conversations with your legislators now.
In other legislative news, this week the Senate State and Local Government Committee heard a bill (SB1659) was scheduled to be heard which would have raised the limit on greenbelt acreage from 1500 to 5000 acres. A fiscal analysis of the legislation estimated it would cost county governments in excess of $3 million a year. The bill was not discussed and the sponsor deferred it for two weeks.
In the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Leader Lamberth successfully presented a bill (HB1643) which would shift the cost of mental health evaluations for misdemeanants back to the state. The responsibility for funding these evaluations was pushed on counties back during the Bredesen administration. Rep. Lamberth passed the same bill in the House during the special session, but it was not heard in the Senate. The fiscal note on this bill showed it would save counties in excess of $1 million a year. The proposal now goes to the full Criminal Justice Committee next week in the House. In the Senate, Sen. Reeves has filed the companion bill.
House Finance this week heard a similar presentation to what Senate Finance heard previously about the state’s revenue situation. There was a great deal of discussion about the potential threatened litigation related to the state’s Franchise and Excise tax. House members seemed more skeptical of the issue this week than when it was first raised two weeks ago in the Senate. The changes the administration is proposing to correct the challenged tax provisions would cost the state $400 million recurring, combined with a one time payout in excess of $1 billion for back taxes already paid.
In the Cities and Counties subcommittee, Rep. Whitson presented HB 284, which makes the various bid limits found in different code provisions uniform. It sets the threshold at a maximum of $50,000 for local governments with centralized finance or a full-time purchasing agent and $25,000 for those that do not meet that requirement. Counties do not have to set their limits at this level, but they cannot exceed it. The bill passed to the full Local Government Committee.
Also in that subcommittee, Rep. Moon presented HB1647 which makes a change to the 1993 budget law. This law has only been adopted by a small number of counties. As described by the sponsor, the bill says that after the county adopts the budget, a request to amend a budget from a department or agency that has a governing board must first be approved by that governing board. The sponsor indicated that there had been circumstances where a department head or director proposed a budget amendment to the county commission without informing the governing board. He cited library boards and 911 boards of examples of the types of entities affected.
A number of other bills showed up on calendars this week because at some point last year, the sponsor rolled the bill to the first calendar of 2024. This was generally an indication the bill needed more work or lacked support in one or both chambers. Most of the bills in this category were taken off notice this week when they did come up.