By Crystal Burns
Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, a Republican from Crossville, made his first visit to the northwest Tennessee area last week, beginning his tour at Dyer Foods’ headquarters in Dyer.
Rep. Curtis Halford and Joey Hays hosted the speaker, inviting local officials to meet with Sexton.
In a casual question-and-answer session, Sexton covered potential redistricting, COVID-19, schools, law and order, and the budget.
Redistricting – Sexton said that over one-third of Tennessee counties have lost population since the last census, with northwest Tennessee seeing a decrease of about 8% to 10%. Districts located here will likely get bigger, Sexton said. State officials won’t know exact numbers until March.
COVID-19 – Sexton lauded Governor Bill Lee’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think he’s led us in a good direction,” Sexton said.
However, legislators do want to review the Executive Orders Act to possibly give more oversight to the General Assembly. Sexton said the “wrong governor” in the future could use executive orders to exert too much power.
Sexton said legislators would also look at the six counties with state health department boards, saying the boards currently have total authority, while the elected officials in those counties are in advisory roles. He wants to see elected officials make the decisions, with health boards advising.
Schools – Sexton said there are ongoing discussions about holding school districts harmless for enrollment decreases during the 2020-21 school year. The Basic Education Program (BEP) is the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools. Student enrollment is the primary driver of funds generated by BEP.
Sexton said leaders are considering using two years of a district’s enrollment to find the most accurate figure, since many Tennesseans have opted to keep their children at home or enroll them elsewhere during the pandemic. Sexton said that in kindergarten alone, the state is down 20,000 children from last year.
Sexton also said there is a lot of talk about teacher evaluations and student assessments. He does not think legislators will use those evaluations and assessments to score districts.
Law & Order Bill – Sexton touted Tennessee’s Law & Order Bill, the first of its kind in the country, which changes charges against looters, rioters, etc. from misdemeanors to felonies. He said the bill does not affect peaceful protests.
Budget – Sexton said Tennessee experienced 8%-9% growth from July 2019 to February 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic sharply cut growth across the nation, state leaders are “cautiously optimistic” that Tennessee can make up some ground as the year comes to a close, he said.
The state has $1.4 billion in its rainy day fund.
“We’re at a point where we’re very well off with how we’ve managed our budget the last 10 years,” Sexton said. “We’re better off than we’ve ever been.”