In a visit to Scott County on Thursday, State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, applauded the state’s commitments to mental health, broadband expansion and volunteer firefighters as part of the FY 2021-2022 budgeting process.
Yager, who was addressing the monthly luncheon of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce, painted a rosy picture of Tennessee’s financial situation, saying it was due to the legislature — both Democrats and Republicans — being responsible stewards of the state’s funding over the years.
“Because of that, over the last 10 years we have probably reduced taxes by $1 billion in Tennessee,” said Yager, who currently serves as the chairman of Tennessee’s Senate Republican caucus.
Despite the hefty tax decreases, Yager said the state has also made record appropriations to education the past six years, while also making appropriations to higher education. “I’m really pleased that we were able to do that without raising taxes and in fact cutting taxes.”
This year’s accomplishments included the creation of a mental health trust fund, and infusing $250 million in initial funding to that program, Yager said. The program came about after the state’s commissioner of education, Dr. Penny Schwinn, toured public schools throughout the state and gathered feedback from teachers indicating that the number one problem they deal with is mental health issues.
“We do have a mental health crisis in this nation, and it’s reflected in Tennessee,” Yager said. “We maybe don’t like to think about it, or don’t think about it, but a lot of our students in our public schools have mental health issues. You might have a mental health issue too if you lived in a home where parents spent all their time trying to do drug deals, or if you lived in a home where you don’t know if you are going to get the next meal, or if you lived in a home where one spouse is an abuser of the other.
“I’m sorry to say that happens, but we do have serious mental health issues and we’re addressing them through this fund,” Yager added.
Yager also applauded the legislature’s commitment to broadband initiatives, saying that $100 million was set aside this year to expand broadband in Tennessee. That’s up from $40 million in last year’s budget.
“We were initially going to put in $200 million, but with the covid crisis and the federal revenue that’s pouring into the state, a lot of that will go towards broadband,” Yager said. “We decided to scale this back and rely on the federal money as it comes in.”
Yager pointed out that Scott County is already a leader in broadband, thanks to Highland Telephone Cooperative.
“This is one of the few rural counties in Tennessee that can lay claim to that,” he said. “Highland has done an outstanding job in getting broadband out. Many rural counties don’t have that.”
In a lot of areas where broadband is available, Yager added, citizens cannot afford the service because of high poverty rates.
“We’re looking at that issue right now,” he said. “Broadband isn’t a luxury at all. It’s a necessity. And just as we electrified rural Tennessee back in the ‘30s, we have to do that for broadband now. We have to do that if we’re going to stay competitive as a state.”
Yager also highlighted legislation that he carried that creates a training supplement and retirement program for Tennessee’s volunteer firefighters. A few years ago, the state legislature provided a small stipend to the state’s paid firefighters, but didn’t extend it to volunteer firefighters — “frankly because of the cost,” he said.
The new legislation will provide an annual $600 payment to volunteer firefighters who complete state-mandated training.
“We require them to take training, and unless their department provides that training, they have to pay for it so this is the least we can do,” Yager said.
Yager said another aspect of the legislation creates the framework for a retirement program for volunteer firefighters. It requires buy-in from local governments, and a financial commitment from those governments, but can provide an enticement for volunteer firefighters to sign up.
“This is something that would encourage people to join and stay,” he said. “It would be an opportunity for them to earn a retirement through dedicated service as a volunteer fireman. I just think it’s a real innovative thing and I was pleased that I got to carry that bill.”
Yager said Tennessee’s inability to recruit volunteer firefighters is reaching critical status.
“We might have 30 people on the roster at one of our fire departments, and you’ll be lucky if you have six people show up,” he said. “And then if you have a fire where people get called out, you hope to have enough people there to hold the hose. It’s really getting critical.
“It’s hard to find people to volunteer,” he added. “It’s a huge commitment, but also people have so much going on in their lives now.”
The yearly supplement and the retirement program can change that, he said.
As for retirement in general, Yager also said the state’s pension program remains strong, which he said is good for retired teachers and retired state employees.
“I’m proud to tell you that we have the strongest retirement plan in the nation,” he said. Some states, he added, are only 60% funded. He used Illinois as an example.
“In that state, retirees don’t know if they’re going to get their check on time,” Yager said. “Sometimes the legislature has to go in and vote money to cover the check. We don’t do that in Tennessee. As a legislature, we make sure we cover our share to match the employees’ contribution and the local government’s contribution.”
Yager added that it might not be “the sexist topic to talk about, but we serve thousands of people in Tennessee who receive that check. I’m just glad that we’re able to do that and that we’re in good shape and people don’t have to worry about whether they’re going to get that check that they deserve.”