Tennessee voters spoke loud and clear last November when they overwhelmingly elected Republicans to represent them at every level. I’m extremely proud that Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly have delivered on the promise to uphold conservative values, increase economic opportunities, improve public safety and strengthen education.

We still have much work to do, and we will continue to work to address these priorities during this upcoming legislative session.

Our state budget is probably the most significant component of public policy our governor and General Assembly tackle each year. Unlike the federal government, Tennessee’s constitution requires us to balance our budget. The federal government’s debt has amassed to almost $30 trillion, something we should all be concerned about for future generations.

Our primary goal each year is always the same: to pass a balanced budget. From top to bottom, Tennessee’s $42.6 billion zero-debt budget is a spending plan that addresses the priorities and needs of all Tennesseans.

Mental health/criminal justice reform

This year, I would like to see more solutions and investment towards mental health and addiction recovery. Our country has the largest prison population in the world and roughly 65 percent of those incarcerated are there due to drug-related offenses and substance abuse.

Two key pieces of legislation passed this year are designed to reduce recidivism rates by being smart about crime. The Alternatives to Incarceration and Re-entry to Success Act supports the rehabilitation of non-violent and low-level offenders. Our justice system now provides alternatives to incarceration for individuals who can be safely and effectively monitored and provide additional reentry support.

I hope we will be able to create a more meaningful policy this session that will strengthen public safety and support addiction and recovery.

Education/workforce development

Ways we can improve education will continue to be at the forefront this session. An educated workforce is crucial to the prosperity of our state. We must work harder to retain and recruit great teachers.

It troubles me when I hear a teacher say they’re thinking of leaving the profession. One of the reasons often cited is student behavior. A recent survey from the Professional Educators of Tennessee showed 22% percent of educators were “unlikely” to remain in public education. Nearly 80% of those surveyed cited student discipline and behavior as “challenging” or “very challenging.”

My hope is that our Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula will be reformed this year to address the critical need for increased school counselors and nurses. I will continue to push with State Sen. Shane Reeves to increase the number of school counselors, nurses and social workers active in our schools. I’m confident both chambers and Gov. Bill Lee will address this important issue.

Redistricting

Every 10 years, the Tennessee General Assembly is required to redraw the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts to account for population changes. It probably comes as no surprise that Rutherford County is one of the faster growing areas of the state. The current proposal creates one new house seat for our county. The proposed district lines will run from La Vergne to Eagleville. Murfreesboro, Eagleville, Smyrna and La Vergne will have an additional voice in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The redistricting process ensures that seats in the legislature or congress represent a nearly equal number of people, and after significant shifts in population from rural areas of Tennessee that lost population with additional growth into the urban and suburban areas, especially Middle Tennessee.

I hope you feel as fortunate as I do to live in the Volunteer State. We are prepared and ready to face whatever tomorrow brings. I am honored to serve as your voice in Nashville. I look forward to continuing our work together, strengthening communities and increasing opportunities for the next generation.

Mike Sparks is the state representative for District 49 covering parts of Smyrna, La Vergne and North Murfreesboro. He serves on the state's Finance, Ways and Means Committee, House Education and Instruction Committee, and the House Commerce Committee. Sparks and his wife Felicia of 32 years reside in Smyrna. He can be reached at Rep.Mike.Sparks@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-6829.

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