My 15th year in the legislature was my most productive yet. It shows what we can accomplish for Tennesseans with a conservative governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker of the House. We passed school choice for low-income children in Memphis and Nashville; repealed the professional privilege tax for 15 different professions; created a new charter school appeal board; allowed mobile sports betting; created a tax incentive to encourage a $1 billion investment by FedEx at the airport; encouraged our state universities to explore fairly compensating their athletes; and invested $10 million to landscape Tom Lee Park, $2.5 million to build an outdoor amphitheater at Germantown Performing Arts Center, and $6 million to renovate the University of Memphis-Lambuth campus.
13 years ago I first introduced a private school choice bill in the Tennessee legislature to help low-income children receive a quality education. In 2011 and again in 2014, it passed the Senate, but there were days when I thought I would never see it become law. Wednesday, my conference committee report passed both the House and Senate and is headed to the governor’s desk for signing. I want to thank President Trump for tweeting his encouragement to pass the bill in Tennessee and Governor Bill Lee for campaigning for school choice and having the courage to propose his bill to the legislature.
Starting in August of next year, thousands of low-income children in Memphis and Nashville will be eligible to receive a $7,300 Education Savings Account to be used for private school tuition, tutoring, technology, or transportation. They can even save the unused funds for college. They will no longer be stuck in failing schools but will have the chance they deserve for a quality education. When I was a child, I received a scholarship to attend a private school, and it had a tremendously positive impact on my life. I’m thrilled that thousands more will now receive that same opportunity.
Professional Privilege Tax Repeal
The professional privilege tax is an annual $400 tax paid by 22 different professions. The idea that earning a living is a privilege is insulting to hard-working Tennesseans. The tax is the last vestige of an income tax in Tennessee, and for years, I have been saying, “It is time for it to go.”
I’m proud to announce that my bill finally passed this year to eliminate the tax for 15 of the 22 professions. That is a $22 million tax cut for accountants, architects, athlete agents, audiologists, chiropractors, dentists, engineers, landscape architects, optometrists, pharmacists, podiatrists, psychologists, real estate brokers, speech pathologists, sports agents, and veterinarians. Let’s all work together to end the tax for the remaining 7 professions next year!
Charter school appeal board
I was honored to be asked to sponsor Governor Lee’s charter school appeal board bill in the Senate. Currently, if you want to open a charter school, you have to apply to your local school board. If the board turns you down, you can appeal to the state board of education, which has many functions and little expertise in charter schools. Under the new law, you will instead appeal to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, which will be made up of nine experts on charter schools and will study the best practices across the nation. The new board builds on the 2017 High-Quality Charter Schools Act that I sponsored for Governor Haslam and will further ensure that Tennessee has only the highest quality charter schools.
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Congressional ban on sports betting in states other than Nevada. When I tweeted to ask whether it should be allowed in Tennessee, the response was swift and overwhelmingly positive. Therefore, I voted in favor of legislation to allow sports betting on mobile apps on your phone.
Memphis has been suffering for years because of the drain on its revenue going an hour down the road to the casinos in Tunica, Mississippi. Since last fall, those casinos have been accepting bets on SEC games and other sports. Also last fall, voters in Arkansas approved changing the dog track in West Memphis to a full-blown casino. Casino gambling, including sports betting, is now taking place just a couple of miles across the river from downtown Memphis. This law will help keep that revenue in Tennessee by moving illegal overseas mobile betting to reputable operators in-state.
Compensating college athletes
The Senate overwhelmingly passed my resolution urging our public universities to work with their athletic conferences to end the NCAA ban on fairly compensating athletes. Football and basketball players bring millions of dollars to our state schools. Exploiting these athletes is a violation of both their economic liberty and civil rights. While a second string punter may do just fine with a free education and room and board for four years, a one-and-done basketball phenom is a different situation.
James Wiseman is projected to be the #1 NBA draft pick in 2020, yet the NBA and NCAA force him to risk injury and hundreds of millions of dollars to play one year of college ball. Thankfully, he chose to play next year for Coach Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers! His jersey will be sold for the next 20 years, and it is just plain wrong not to give him one dime for the sale of his name. I am pleased that my colleagues in the Senate agreed, and I look forward to working across the aisle with Rep. Antonio Parkinson to continue the conversation next year.
Memphis airport expansion
Memphis was founded 200 years ago on the bluffs of the Mississippi River as a transportation and logistics hub. For the last 45 years, the Memphis airport has grown to become the largest cargo airport in the Western Hemisphere and the 2nd largest in the world. It drives the economy of Tennessee’s largest county.
FedEx recently announced it is investing over $1 billion to renovate its hub at the airport. This will be the largest investment in state history. The investment is driven by an incentive package I negotiated with the Fiscal Review Committee of $21 million in foregone sales tax on construction products for the project. This will grow our economy for years to come.
State investments in Shelby County
This year was my first year as the senior Senator of the 5 who represent Shelby County. As such, I was appointed by the Shelby County delegation, which also includes 11 state Representatives, to request funding from Governor Lee in his budget amendment. I am proud to report that 4 of our top 5 priorities were ultimately funded in the budget, including the FedEx incentive.
Tom Lee Park is the gateway to our city and is enjoyed for its expansive views of the river by thousands of Memphians and tourists alike. Tennessee invested $10 million to landscape the park with shade trees in a way to make it both more inviting to guests and still accommodating of three stages for Memphis in May MusicFest and BarbecueFest. The budget also included $2.5 million to build an outdoor amphitheater at Germantown Performing Arts Center to reach even more children and patrons throughout the Mid-South with artistic performances from around the globe. Finally, the budget included $6 million to renovate the University of Memphis-Lambuth campus. Next year, we will work to fund a new STEM building at the Memphis campus.
The lesson for the year is that persistence pays off. I am a firm believer that the Lord puts us where He wants us for a reason. Whatever the future may bring, I am confident that He used this governor and general assembly to bring hope to thousands of low-income children in Memphis and Nashville. May their lives be changed in a positive way for them, for their children, and for all Tennesseans.