On Feb. 8th, Gov. Bill Lee gave his third State of the State Address, during which he highlighted a number of spending items important to members of the Tennessee Press Association and our readers.

In 2020, the General Assembly approved the largest budget in the state’s history, with an increase of $2.8 billion over the previous budget. Part of that budget includes significant funds for infrastructure and rural investment; more than a billion dollars will be directed towards infrastructure and investments in rural development:

• $200 million to local government infrastructure grants.

• $21.1 million to rural development for community asset improvements, marketing, and downtown revitalization are all targets for these funds.

• $472 million directed to new funding for business and economic development.

• $85 million for railways.

• $40 million for airports, and

• $200 million directed to one time increase in broadband deployment focusing on unserved areas through grants and tax credits.

Education is also getting a huge bump in this budget as well:

• $120 million in teacher pay raises.

• $110 million in new education spending to aid in teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic.

• $10 million to create Governor’s Investment in Vocation Education (GIVE) sites, this will be prioritized by the greatest workforce revitalization need.

• $341 million in total new funding for K-12 education.

A lot of money is going to be spent in Tennessee over the next year and that means bidding opportunities for Tennessee businesses to win those contracts.

The filing deadline for lawmakers to introduce bills was February 11. Some early analysis is worrisome because there are a couple of themes that seem to be surfacing.  One is that many of our local governing bodies are looking to find ways to make electronic meetings a norm, not just while dealing with COVID-19. 

There is one bill that has been filed, by Sen. Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro) and Rep. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), that proposes that it would increase from $10,000 or more to $25,000 or more, the amount for which a local board of education or the governing body of a public charter school must make purchases or expenditures by competitive bids. Currently any purchases or expenditures $10,000 or higher needs to have a public notice ran to inform the public of the contract and to allow local businesses to bid on those contracts.  This means that all contracts below $25,000 can be given out to businesses without any notification to the community.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of Tennessee’s economy. A $10,000 bid (not to mention potentially several $10,000 bids) can make or break a family or small business.

Tennessee is not devoid of past scandals regarding no-bid contracts being awarded to friends and families of elected politicians. Raising this to $25,000 is not going to benefit the state’s taxpayers. Period.

The increase in the threshold for public notification is an opportunity for insider deals and corruption to occur in our communities.

As recently as December of 2020, it was widely reported that Governor Bill Lee’s health care team, led by Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, steered a $26.5 million, no-bid contract to a Utah company that had zero health care experience -- after a Republican political consultant pitched a contract to the governor's office over the objections of career state employees. In the end, the state had to pay $6 million to exit the deal that should have never been entered into in the first place and that didn’t result in a single effective COVID-19 test.

Now, our legislators are asking for permission to engage in more of this stuff, which certainly will happen if the threshold for no-bid contracts is raised by 250 percent.

Our governing entities have an obligation to be transparent and to proactively let citizens know how government is spending their taxes. By allowing this bill to pass we would be allowing our elected and appointed officials to operate without public knowledge and scrutiny to evade transparency.  With more than a billion dollars that will be spent in Tennessee in 2021, every contractor, every business deserves the right to bid on these contracts.

If you’re a resident of this state, it affects you. If you own a business that gets or hopes to get a government contract, it affects you. If you work for a company or organization that will benefit from a government contract, it affects you.

This matters. Let your voice be heard by contacting your legislators and letting them know you oppose increasing the amount of no-bid contracts.

Coffee County’s state legislators include:

District 47 Representative Rush Bricken. He can be reached at rep.rush.bricken@capitol.tn.gov.

District 16 Senator Janice Bowling. She can be reached at sen.janice.bowling@capitol.tn.gov.