NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A recent bill amendment could kill a state agency that independently studies and monitors children’s issues in Tennessee. The change has raised alarms at the agency and concern on the part of at least one area lawmaker, but it appears to have the support of Gov. Bill Lee.
“I have not seen the language but am concerned from what I have heard so far from interested parties,” Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) told News Channel 11 Friday.
What was a “caption bill” with little likely impact on the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY) now includes amended language that essentially sunsets the TCCY, a policy specialist with the commission said.
Kylie Graves told News Channel 11 she and her coworkers learned of the change Monday. Before then, Graves said the bill’s language would have had little impact on the organization. The proposed changes to the bill filed by Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland) essentially delete state law that has provided for the TCCY’s existence since 1988.
Section 16 of the amendment removes T.C.A. 37-3-101, 102, 103, 104, 105 and 109. Other sections purge all mention of the agency’s name and divide several of its responsibilities between other state offices.
When the commission’s 30 employees learned of the amendment, Graves said there was no consensus on what it might mean, even as it headed to a committee two days later, on Wednesday.
“So it was a little bit of madness,” Graves said. “I believe I was notified Monday night and just the plan at that point was ‘we have to get over to the legislature and talk to them Tuesday and try and let them know this is happening.’ A lot of members, from what I understand, also found out on a similar timeline.”
That was certainly the case for Hawk, who said he learned about the proposal in a Wednesday morning call with Northeast Tennessee Chamber of Commerce representatives. He said that based on what he’s learned since, he doesn’t support dissolving the TCCY.
“It does concern me,” Hawk said. “This is a day and time when we need as many eyes looking at how our children are treated across the state of Tennessee.”
The commission is familiar with challenges to its existence, but Graves said she wasn’t aware of any previous attempts to end the program like this one. Twenty-one executive appointees already govern the commission, according to state law.
Graves said the TCCY has had clean audits from the state comptroller and expected to be reapproved for another term of years when it came up, as a number of state agencies do, for potential “sunsetting” in 2024.
“Our previous audit had zero findings,” Graves said. “So we go through that departmental sunset hearing every four years on average, but we’ve never seen legislation filed outside of that sunset process to terminate the agency.”
Graves said it was her understanding that this bill is a proposal from Governor Bill Lee rather than the original idea of Lamberth and Johnson. Lee’s press office appeared to confirm as much in a statement to News Channel 11.
“The Governor has emphasized a strong commitment to better serve Tennessee children for years, and especially over the last several months,” the statement from Lee’s office reads. “As we make significant investments to support the mission of DCS and other family-focused state agencies, we’re taking this additional step to foster collaboration and streamline government to ensure we more effectively and efficiently serve at-risk children and families.”
Hawk said he’s not sure now is the time for efficiency if that equates to less independent oversight for an area of state government that has come under intense scrutiny recently, including a scathing audit of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) earlier this year. He said similar jettisoning of legislative oversight committees previously was, in his mind, a mistake.
“I disagreed with the legislature giving up that oversight ability then, and I would like to see the General Assembly put back a joint oversight committee to oversee children’s issues across the State of Tennessee,” he said.
Speculation in multiple state capitol outlets described the action as retaliation by Gov. Lee to punish the organization that reports on the state of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS). The commission has published unflattering numbers in the past and Lee’s office did not answer News Channel 11’s questions surrounding that accusation, but Graves is reserving judgment.
“I’ve seen that speculation,” Graves said. “All I can say is that we weren’t consulted about this, and we haven’t been given a reason why. You know, we believe ourselves to be an extremely efficient, small agency. There are 30 of us, but we work across all aspects and we run things —from our perspective and from the most recent comptroller’s audit — we run things really well.”
Graves provided News Channel 11 with the copy provided to the commission. You can find it below:
According to state budget documents, the commission’s full estimated budget was roughly $6.1 million last fiscal year, but Graves said roughly $2.5 million of that was distributed in grant programs. The governor’s office recommended an additional $5.5 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year to fund new grants administered by the agency. Around $3 million of payroll costs were reported in last year’s budget.
The agency’s existence as a resource for other organizations is one of its key features, Graves said. From grant application to performance indicator tracking, she said data compiled by the commission is regularly used.
“Tracking shows that in the 21-22 fiscal year, our data center was accessed 76,000 times, which is more than 47 other states in the country,” Graves said. “So people are using this data a lot to apply for grants to make their decisions on where to move forward in their programs.”
Bill sponsors and Lee’s office said that the deconstruction of the commission wouldn’t result in a decrease in service to Tennesseans.
“To be clear, Tennessee is not cutting services and programs for children or families, but rather, integrating them into state government,” a statement from Lee said. “Meaning that current services and programs will remain intact and be relocated.”
Graves still has her concerns, however.
“Even if it maintains its reliability, there’s going to be an aspect of public trust that could potentially be lost when this data and information is coming from a non-independent state agency,” Graves said. “So even if it maintains that consistency coming from other departments, I think there will be a level of skepticism or concern from policymakers, public decision makers that would really impede the use of the data.”
Graves said nonprofit partnerships and millions in children’s program grant funding could be put in jeopardy by the move, but staff members have been encouraged by the support they’ve seen. As of Friday, the commission was collecting statements from organizations from around the state to make its case.
Hawk wasn’t willing to speculate on any potential motivations for an effort to eliminate the TCCY, but he was emphatic about his opposition to such a move.
“The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services needs oversight now more than ever,” he said.
The bill is set to appear again on March 21 and 22 in Tennessee Senate and House committees, respectively.
News Channel 11 also reached out to sponsors Johnson and Lambert but has not received a response as of Friday evening.