The 108th General Assembly: Winners and Losers

Taking stock at the end of the legislative session

The state General Assembly adjourned for the year after a swift 14 weeks on Capitol Hill trying to turn ideas from constituents and special interests into law. While the surviving bills are on their way to the governor’s desk, here’s a breakdown of who triumphed by them, who faltered and who fell in between.


Winners

Teachers: Lawmakers slowed down efforts from the state Department of Education in regards to how teachers are paid and how their licenses are renewed. The legislature sent Gov. Bill Haslam a bill that would sever the tie between student test growth data and an educator’s ability to renew their license, contrary to a policy pitch from DOE Commissioner Kevin Huffman. Lawmakers also passed a bill to ensure teachers’ salary schedules include pay bumps for extra post-secondary degrees like master's, specialists or doctorates.

College-bound high schoolers: Although some members had lingering concerns about the effect on four-year colleges, lawmakers approved the governor’s plan to cover two years of tuition at community college for graduating seniors. The last-dollar scholarship covers any gap left between other financial aid and the total tuition bill, but does not cover other expenses such as books.

U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants: Lawmakers also sent the governor a bill to ensure students born to people in the country illegally have access to in-state college tuition, a change immigration advocates suspect will affect very few students but will protect the state against lawsuits. However, a similar bill that would have extended the same benefit to undocumented children brought to the country as children did not make it out of either chamber.

Wine and beer lovers: Republican leadership can mark putting wine in grocery stores as a win after muscling interest groups to the negotiating table following years of stalemate. The measure, already signed by the governor, allows voters to decide in local elections whether they want wine sold in local grocery stores. Meanwhile, liquor stores will begin selling goods like corkscrews, ice and beer July 1. Before lawmakers left, they also added so-called “high gravity” beers to the mix by raising the alcohol content of brews that can be sold outside liquor stores. But don’t look to buy wine in grocery stores until 2016 and high-gravity beers there until 2017.

Future charter school applicants: After two full legislative sessions, lawmakers sent a bill to the governor allowing the state Board of Education to give a second chance for charter schools to win approval after being rejected by their local school board. The move is a direct outgrowth of the state finding its hands tied after Metro Schools’ 2012 decision to reject a charter school favored by city and state officials.

Local elected officials: Targeted in a bill that grew out of a confrontation in Williamson County, lawmakers fought hard over a whether the local government can nix school district spending on lobbyists. The bill fell apart on the House floor. After much fanfare, the House also abandoned a bill that would have stripped local governments’ authority to ban guns in local parks. While encouraged by members of the Senate, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Haslam pushed hard against this idea.

Hemp and marijuana oils: Lawmakers have agreed to make it legal for farmers to grow hemp, a plant that has an abundance of uses. Meanwhile, the legislature inched forward on the marijuana debate by allowing university hospitals to study the effects of Cannabis oils that can be given to children to treat infantile seizures. The substance lacks the psychedelic components of marijuana, but Tennessee still is far from permitting distribution of the oil.

 
Losers

Education reform groups: Those wanting to do more to change the education structure in Tennessee largely came up short this year. Many of those groups invested heavily in legislative and public outreach campaigns, but watched a handful of their proposals die. Among them was a program — favored by the governor — that would have provided private and parochial school tuition for students now attending the state’s worst-performing schools. Other failed efforts this year include allowing for-profit companies to manage charter schools’ operations; letting students from outside failing school zones enroll in the schools the state Achievement School District is turning around; and lowering the voting threshold for parents to force a school district to change management or charter out a failing school.

The governor’s influence: Lawmakers passed several bills chipping away at Haslam’s authority. One bill would reduce the number of people he can appoint to the state Textbook Commission from nine to three, and another requires the legislature’s approval if the governor decides he wants to expand the state’s Medicaid program to reap federal dollars offered to the state. Pushed by pending legislation, the administration has also agreed to inform lawmakers any time it plans to lay off more than 25 employees.

Advocates for the Amp: Fans of the embattled rapid mass transit project would have preferred for the state legislature to leave them alone this year, but the damage was not as severe as some lawmakers had threatened. In the end, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring the legislature give an up-or-down vote to future bus rapid transit projects using a dedicated lane on any state highway, whether or not state funding is involved.

Gun advocates: Although the Senate was all for allowing gun owners to carry their weapons openly without needing a permit, the bill died in committee during the last days of session. A questionable fiscal note gave the sponsor ammunition to try to leapfrog the committee and head straight to the House floor, but ultimately the measure died with lawmakers voting the proposal down on its merits.

 
Draw

Gov. Bill Haslam: Although his key priorities took a beating this year, all but one of his initiatives passed. The most damaging hit was to the new end-of-course exam the state was planning students would take in 2015. Instead, the governor gave in to critics of Common Core and was forced into accepting a one-year delay on the PARCC assessment and opening up the exam for bids. On another bill, the House doubled the governor’s preferred limits on how much allergy medicine with pseudoephedrine he wants people to be able to buy without a prescription to attack the state’s meth lab problem. House Republicans also squawked about his budget cuts but ultimately left them alone.