Tennessee State Budget Primer (First Edition)

Tennessee’s Budget represents the common goals our policymakers want to achieve for our state, the public goods and services intended to help meet those goals, and detailed plans for how to finance them. The Sycamore Institute published the Tennessee State Budget Primer: A Foundation for Understanding Our State’s Public Policies in December 2016 to shed light on the dynamic processes used to create and guide Tennessee’s Budget.

The Budget Primer depicts where we are and where we have been while highlighting the often difficult trade-offs budgetary decisions require policymakers to confront. Ultimately, we hope it will support thoughtful planning and informed stakeholder engagement about the state budget and how it affects the health and well-being of Tennesseans.

We updated this post and key charts and graphics from the Budget Primer on Nov. 2, 2017 to incorporate more recent data and information.

Below, you’ll find a summary and highlights of the primer, an infographic, and links to download the full report, the Nov. 2017 update, all the charts and graphs, and an online-only glossary of terms.

Tennessee State Budget Primer - Infographic (2017)

Summary of the Tennessee State Budget Primer

Tennessee’s Budget is a financial representation of the common goals we want to achieve for our state, the public goods and services that we all need to help us meet those goals, and how we raise the money to pay for them.

The purpose of the Budget Primer is to shed light on the dynamic processes that are used to create and guide Tennessee’s Budget, to provide a picture of where we are and where we’ve been, and to illuminate the difficult trade-offs policymakers face in making budget decisions. The ultimate goal is for the state’s budget decisions to support the health and well-being of Tennesseans through thoughtful planning and informed stakeholder engagement.

Highlights of the Tennessee State Budget

Of the Governor’s $37 billion FY 2017-2018 recommended Budget, almost three-quarters (74%) is spent on health and social services and education (45% and 29%, respectively). The money to fund the Budget’s activities comes primarily from the state’s own revenues (48%) and federal funding (37%).


  • The state’s fiscal year (FY) spans July 1 to June 30.
  • The state constitution requires that the Budget be balanced (i.e. spending can’t exceed revenue collections and reserves in any given fiscal year). In order to meet this requirement, the Budget is often dynamic – changing throughout both the planning and actual spending phases as estimates of revenue collections change.
  • The starting point for the Governor’s Budget recommendation to the Legislature each year is the prior year’s recurring base budget. The Governor’s recommendation is the starting point for the Legislature’s work.
  • In order to respond to unexpected needs throughout the year, the Legislature gives the Executive Branch flexibility to manage the Budget and to spend less to keep the Budget balanced. Because of this, the “actual” numbers shown in the Budget for the prior year do not always lend themselves to direct comparisons with the other two years.


  • While the overall Budget is dominated by health and social services, only 26% of the state’s own dollars are spent on this purpose. The biggest chunk of state dollars (38%) is spent on education.
  • Federal dollars are overwhelmingly spent on health and social services (78% of all federal dollars in the state Budget).
  • Health, social services, transportation, and economic development programs and activities are predominantly funded by federal dollars, while education, law, safety, and corrections programs and activities are largely funded by the state’s own dollars.


  • The sales tax is Tennessee’s largest source of state tax dollars (54%). The state and local rate in most counties is 9.75%, while the average state and local rate is about 9.5%. This is the second highest average rate in the nation.
  • Tennessee is one of nine states with little or no individual income tax. The state’s only income tax – the Hall Income Tax, a tax on investment income – was put on a path to elimination by 2022 in the 2016 legislative session, and the state constitution bars any new state earned income taxes.
  • Although the state Budget’s reliance on federal funds is less today than it was during the most recent recession – the most severe since the Great Depression – Tennessee relies more on federal dollars than all but two states.
  • Much of the state Budget has strings attached – including programmatic and/or state matching fund requirements that come with federal dollars, earmarked purposes for many state taxes, or funding requirements that result from lawsuits against the state.

Rainy Day Savings & Surpluses

  • Tennessee could fully cover state government operations at current Budget funding levels for around 25 days solely with rainy day and TennCare reserves. This amount is less than what was on hand going into the Great Recession, and some believe another recession could be around the corner.
  • State tax collections exceeded budgeted estimates by $875 million in FY 2015-2016 and $817 million in FY 2016-2017. Because of these overcollections, the FY 2017-2018 recommended Budget partially relied on a surplus carried over from previous fiscal years — an anomaly compared with most other years.

Notable Strengths

  • Responsible Saving: Tennessee follows most best practices when it comes to saving for a rainy day – including having a defined purpose in law, setting a target balance, and having rules for replenishment.
  • Tennesseans’ Tax Load: Tennesseans enjoy a low state tax load. At about $2,300 per Tennessean, the state tax load is the 4th lowest in the country.

Potential Areas for Improvement

  • Tools for Long-Term Planning: Tennessee does not publish long-term estimates of revenue collections and potential spending needs, tools that can help states plan for the future, invest and save adequately, and identify any structural problems.
  • Sales Tax Modernization: Over the last two decades, people have changed how and on what they spend their money – shifting from physical stores to online merchants and from goods to services. Like many states, Tennessee’s sales tax hasn’t always evolved with these changes and, as a result, is expected to capture fewer and fewer purchases over the coming years.
  • Timely Funding Information: While one fiscal year ends in June and the Budget for the next year is usually passed by the Legislature in April, reliable estimates of actual expenditures and mid-year estimated Budgets for programs usually aren’t publicly available until the next January when the Governor’s recommended Budget is released.

Click below for a glossary of key budget terms and concepts used throughout the Budget Primer and notes about our methodology.