Legislature adjourns session with few surprises

Marked by a stop-and-go feel instead of the usual legislative gallop, the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned Wednesday having twice blocked an expansion of Medicaid, set in motion a slow death for Common Core but without having approved a school voucher plan or in-state tuition for illegal immigrant high school grads.

Here are the highlights:

Budget passes without too much of a hitch. Lawmakers may have complained about how the state was spending its money, however the General Assembly easily passed a $33.8 billion budget that includes raises for teachers and state employees, more money towards teachers’ health insurance costs, and $120 million for a new Tennessee state museum in Nashville. The budget also included raising the exemption for people who pay the Hall tax on investments and dividends.

Insure Tennessee died early, often. After a special session that euthanized the governor’s Tennessee-specific plan to drawdown of federal dollars to expand Medicaid and health care coverage to some 280,000 Tennesseans, some legislators weren’t ready to let it die. Committees in the Senate twice killed the governor’s “Insure Tennessee” plan, despite protests, song and prayer by demonstrators that strung through the legislative session. The governor says he is still committed to finding a plan, however, legislators appear no more willing to take up the issue.

School vouchers down, not out. Lawmakers and lobbyists on all sides predicted passage of a plan to offer state-funded scholarships for private school tuition to low-income students at or near the state’s lowest performing schools. But, as in years past, the bill found itself caught up in a key House committee without the support to get out. This bill already has the Senate’s blessing and is still on deck for next year’s legislative session.

Delivering on abortion restrictions. Emboldened by last year’s passage of a constitutional amendment granting lawmakers more power to regulate abortions, legislators took abortion providers and regulations to task. Lawmakers agreed a physician should read women details about the risks of abortion and require they wait 48-hours before undergoing the procedure. Legislators also voted to require abortion clinics be licensed as ambulatory surgical treatment centers, a mandate that sponsors believe will result in the closure of three or four clinics. A bill that would have required to women to see or hear details of an ultrasound before proceeding with an abortion was shelved this year with a commitment to bring the bill up again next year.

Where to carry guns anything but a walk in the park. Wanting to finish the job they started when they first OK’d guns in parks in years past, lawmakers stripped local government’s authority to ban guns in their own parks. After a series of showdowns — like over whether guns should be allowed in the Capitol Building or the legality of carrying an imitation gun like a squirt gun near a school — lawmakers agreed that guns would be allowed in all parks except those owned by school districts, and guns would be banned from the “immediate vicinity” of school sanctioned functions at other parks. The governor has expressed concern over the legislation and is receiving pressure to veto the bill.

Closing the book on the Bible debate. After long discussion on whether the Bible should be named the state book, the less enthusiastic Senate decided they wanted more time to mull the idea over. A Senate committee plans to review the idea, and the legal ramifications, first thing next year. Having passed the House, the measure needs only Senate approval to advance to the governor’s desk.

Common Core given slow death. Lawmakers came in this year wanting to deal the death blow to Common Core, but instead administered a slow drip by approving a panel of mostly legislative appointees to review recommendations for changes. Expecting approval by the governor, the new standards would be in place for the 2017 school year, which is a much longer wait time than Common Core opponents had hoped for.

In-state tuition for undocumented immigrants fails, again. Despite solid approval in the Senate, House lawmakers overestimated the appetite for allowing certain undocumented immigrant high school graduates to attend Tennessee colleges at the in-state tuition rate. Lawmakers had thought the bill would squeak by on a three-vote margin, but ultimately fell short by one vote. The measure is expected back next session and will need only House approval to pass. 

Cannabis oil an easier medicine to swallow than medical marijuana. Legislators approved a plan to allow people — largely children — with hundreds of daily intractable seizures or epilepsy to use cannabis oil to treat their condition, but didn’t give too much consideration to a Republican-backed measure to permit medical marijuana. Lawmakers have promised to study the later over the summer in hopes of inching legislators closer to passage in future legislative sessions.

Apr 23, 2015 7:00 AM

Dunn on vouchers: Votes 'just aren't there this year'

After believing this session would be the best for approving a school voucher plan, “pressure from back home” has sunk the idea of giving kids at low-performing schools scholarships to private schools.

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, withdrew his bill from consideration Tuesday in the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee, saying, the votes “just aren’t there this year.”

The move puts an end, for now, to the debate on school vouchers after several years of unsuccessful attempts by both the Haslam administration and Republican sponsors wanting programs with various degrees of reach.

Legislators on the committee told the Post how they expected to vote, many citing philosophical reasons or opposition from their home school districts against any voucher program. Other lawmakers liked the idea, but were split between allowing vouchers county-wide in areas with low performing school or limiting the program to students in the lower 10 percent of the state's schools. Others lawmakers in the House wanted to slow down the program with a six-month delay.

Advocates for the school voucher program had earlier believed they had the best chance of passing vouchers this year after turnover in the legislature reshuffled some committees. Voucher advocates also spent big ($900,000) on lawmakers legislators' political campaigns through direct contributions and independent expenditures. However, they say they underestimated how tight the vote for vouchers would be in the House Finance Subcommittee, although they believe the legislation could squeak by the full committee and make it to a full floor vote.

While the bill easily passed the Senate 23-9, Dunn said he would work on garnering support for a voucher program and try again in the 2016 session. 

Apr 21, 2015 2:56 PM

Vouchers in jeopardy once again

House Finance Subcommittee Chairman Mike Harrison said he’s not sure the long-debated school voucher bill will get out of his committee today.

The Rogersville Republican said he plans to amend the legislation, a move watering it down by allowing students at a wider swath of low-performing schools to become eligible for vouchers without opening up the program in any areas countywide.

“Unless that amendment goes on, I can’t vote for it,” Harrison told reporters Monday.

Currently, HB1049 allows students at the state’s lowest performing 5 percent of schools to use state-funded scholarships to attend private and parochial schools. Low-income students in counties with the low-performing schools could take up any unused vouchers.

With a cap of 5,000 scholarships the first year and up to 20,000 scholarships by year-four, lawmakers expect more than enough vouchers to supply to students both in and outside the low-performing schools. Currently, five counties would become home to vouchers, including Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Jackson and Shelby Counties. 

Under Harrison’s amendment, only students attending schools that fall in the bottom 10 percent statewide would be eligible for the vouchers, opening the legislation to a wider number of districts, including more rural schools, but stopping the program from spreading county-wide in any area.

“If we’re going to give (vouchers to) kids that are in schools that are failing, let’s keep it within that school zone, not open it up for the whole county,” Harrison said. 

The legislation has stalled in the legislature for years, regularly passing in the Senate but faltering in the lower chamber's committees. The future of the bill now rests with the House Finance Subcommittee, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon.

Here’s a breakdown of what members of the subcommittee had to say about vouchers, the possible amendment and the upcoming vote:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester: “Philosophically, I do not care for vouchers. In my rural school system, I believe they can be devastating. They say, right now, that the vouchers are only for this certain population. You know, when we got started with charters it was only a certain population and it grew and it grew and it grew and it grew. And I believe the same thing will happen with charters and it will eventually find its way into the rural school systems and I do not want that to happen and I will not vote for vouchers.”

Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville: "I think it undermines and demises public education, taking dollars from public schools and giving them to private schools. It’s transferring funds. It’s the same thing that happened in health care 20 years ago when the insurance companies got between patients and the doctors. In education, here you’re getting private corporations, private dollars getting in between students, parents and teachers."

Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland: “I think it gives an opportunity and a chance and a choice to parents across the state and I am in support of it.” About Harrison’s amendment, he said, “There have been questions about the slippery slope that that would cause. I think that’s to be determined. I think right now we have parents, children, who by no fault of their own are asking for a chance and I hope that this gives them that chance….I’m hoping that my brethren on the floor, and sisters, will keep the bill as it is.”

Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis: “I don’t want to talk about this. Just put me down as no comment. I don’t want to talk about it, really.”

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley: “I’m still opposed to the idea of vouchers and this whole bill, even with the Harrison amendment. For me it comes down to an issue of dollars. If we were 18th or 19th in terms of school funding, yeah,  I could see a situation where we give this a shot. But when you’re 48th, 49th in per pupil spending, you’ve got one, small pot of money and we need that for our public schools.”

Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville: “My district does not support an affirmative vote on vouchers right now.”

Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville: “I’m fine with that (original) version. I think the more opportunity we can give kids that are in failing schools the opportunity to succeed, we as public policy makers should try and do that… I do think it’s something that I think my district is supportive of. They feel like we should give students and parents a choice about where they go. If a student’s in a consistently failing school, I would have a difficult time keeping them in the existing structure they’re in. They should have another alternative.” Asked about the Harrison amendment, he said, “I would be supportive of either one if it means we can advance the bill.”

Majority Leader McCormick, R-Chattanooga: “I think it’s something that we’ve been waiting to do for a while and I always thought we should wait to do it until we implemented some of the other reforms, and I think the time has come to do it. I don’t know if the votes are there. I really don’t. I’m going to vote for them and see what happens. But it’s a very limited program, limited to I think 5 percent of the students. Asked about his earlier prediction vouchers would have an easier passage, he said, “I probably didn’t do a very good vote count in the beginning. I understand it’s a lot closer than I thought it was. I’m hopeful. I honestly have not done a vote count in the committee.” Asked about the Harrison amendment, he said, “I really don’t (have a preference.) I’ll consider any and all options, whatever we can get out of the committee with would what I’d be for.”

Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads: Unable to be reached.

Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin: “I think we have to do something. We have children stuck in the poor school districts or inner city schools. We cannot let these children go, without having any opportunities to get a good education. Asked about the Harrison amendment, he said, “I like the way the original bill is. I haven’t studied Chairman Harrison’s version of it. I don’t know if that amendment is going to be offered, but the bill the way it is right now appeals to me that we have to do something for these children.”

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville: “I’m reviewing it right now to see where it’s at, what it’s going to accomplish since we passed this Achievement School District bill” (which opens up enrollment to out-of-zone students to attend ASD schools in the midst of a turnaround). Asked about the Harrison amendment, he said, “I don’t know if it’s more palatable. I don’t want to see something opened up like they did in the state of Indiana where it started out just as a small thing and now the whole state is on vouchers, just about the whole state of Indiana (is) on this. The children that are in these paying schools need that opportunity to get a good education, but they also, you’ve got to to look at what we’ve already done and opportunities we’ve already given out there before just opening up the whole state to vouchers. More than likely, I’m probably leaning in the other direction right now based on the information that I’m getting on this… Maybe looking at it and seeing what all’s passed is available out there, that actually see where we’re at on this before we go forward. Especially the Achievement School Districts and the charter schools because that is a big opportunity to be able to get out of these schools and go to these different types of schools.”

Apr 21, 2015 7:31 AM

Pro-voucher groups dropped $260K on lawmakers in ed committee

The committee of House lawmakers poised to vote on a school voucher program today saw more than $260,000 from school voucher advocates flow into their election races last year.

Five lawmakers sitting on a newly formed education committee collectively received more than $52,000 in direct contributions and independent expenditures from two pro-voucher groups, according to a Post Politics review of state records.

But the bulk of the money, $152,000, went to keeping two people out of the legislature who would cause trouble for a voucher program. An additional $58,000 went to a favored candidate who lost by just more than 50 votes.

StudentsFirst and the Tennessee Federation for Children collectively spent approximately $894,000 in last year’s election, spreading money to lawmakers in both chambers but focusing largely in the House of Representatives where voucher proposals have tripped up in recent years.

Together, the groups spent $136,000 against incumbent Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat and teacher who pushed strongly against school vouchers during her first and only term. The two groups spent just shy of $39,000 in favor of her opponent, Eddie Smith, a Republican who went on to win the election by less than 200 votes.

Smith, an event and production manager, now sits on the Education Administration and Planning Committee that is scheduled to vote on a school voucher program today. He sits on the committee with fellow freshman Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat and teacher who outran Republican Robert Dunham by 54 votes.

That race was for an open seat vacated by Rep. Charles Curtiss, a Democrat. StudentsFirst and the federation together spent $15,745 in opposition to Dunlap in last year’s election and spent more than $58,000 in favor of Dunham.

Other contributions included $2,000 to Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville; $2,000 to Rep. Debra Moody, D-Covington; $1,000 to Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis; and $8,243 in contributions and independent expenditures to benefit Rep. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro.

Which committee the voucher bill would end up in was not predetermined, according to the House clerk's office, which spent weeks deciding which of two new education committees the voucher legislation would be assigned to.

The spending is part of an escalating investment by pro-voucher groups in Tennessee who favor school choice by way of allowing parents to send their children to private schools using taxpayer dollars allocated to public schools. The idea is controversial in Tennessee, able to gain favor in the Senate but consistently falling short in the House. Last year, the American Federation for Children spent $800,000 on television ads urging voters to sway their Republican lawmakers who are on the fence about vouchers. 

This year, lawmakers in leadership say the believe there are the votes to pass HB1049, the governor’s preferred version of a voucher bill, would allow children from low-income families that qualify for free or reduced lunch to attend participating private schools by using the state-funded scholarship. Students in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools would give first dibs, followed by low income students elsewhere in those counties. The bill is up for debate in the House Administration and Planning Committee at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Mar 24, 2015 7:00 AM

Gov undecided about a third voucher run

Kelsey: 'We need more help on lobbying'
Aug 5, 2014 2:20 PM

Education reform bills melt down, then so does their sponsor

After a House committee yanked the life out of two of Rep. John DeBerry’s education bills, he snatched up his things, quietly stormed down the hallway to his office and slammed his heavy wooden door behind him.

The bang of the door and the crash of his things hitting the ground inside the small ground-level office of the calm yet emotional Memphis Democrat rang out in the hallway.

Moments before, no one on the 12-member Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee Tuesday would give DeBerry a motion to take up his bills. Beyond the procedural lack of the motion making an up-or-down vote on his bills impossible, members failing to offer a motion on a bill is one of the chief insults a committee can bestow upon a bill or its sponsor.

DeBerry finds himself politically straddling fences in the General Assembly. Last election cycle, he was the chief beneficiary of campaign contributions from education reform advocates that tend to find more allies on the Republican side of the aisle. That, and his support for education reforms like vouchers and school choice, put his political views fundamentally at odds with the vast majority of his fellow Democrats.

The lack of a motion meant the committee killed two of his bills in the hearing Tuesday afternoon. One would have allowed the school districts charged with turning around the state’s worst schools — which largely sit in Memphis — to recruit students outside their school zones. Another would have lowered the voting threshold needed for parents to turn around management or operators of their struggling schools. Both were controversial, although less so than other education bills up for consideration this year.

Although the bills were on their way to the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he wasn’t familiar with the legislation and isn’t surprised by the decisive move in committee to kill legislation when the legislature is looking to adjourn.

“We’re at the end of session where that’s what happens,” Ramsey said. “Bottom line is this is the time of year where stuff like that happens. That’s the reason why we have two houses, that’s the reason we have separation of powers, so nobody rubber stamps what the other person does.” 

Earlier in the morning, another bill DeBerry was rooting for also died. Noting a lack of support on the full Finance Committee, Rep. Bill Dunn withdrew a bill that would have allowed the state to pay private-school tuition for students attending the state’s worst schools.

Apr 15, 2014 2:28 PM

Lack of support in House kills Haslam's vouchers bill

Explaining the votes aren’t there for a school voucher program, Rep. Bill Dunn withdrew from consideration a controversial plan to give students at failing schools taxpayer money to attend private or religious schools. 

The Haslam administration's failure for the second time in two years deals another blow to the governor, whose legislative agenda has muddled through the General Assembly all session.

“I think today the children lost and the system won,” said Dunn, a long-time advocate for school vouchers after pulling the bill from the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee Tuesday morning.

“We’re now in campaign season and we just have to recognize that. I’m not going to give up on the kids and I’m hoping that the governor won’t either and that we’ll be back next year with it,” said the Knoxville Republican.

Some in the legislature have been hungry for a school voucher program for years, leading the governor to appoint a study committee in 2012 to examine what a program could look like in Tennessee. Haslam introduced a voucher program last year then pulled it off the table after Senators toyed with expanding it.

“We knew getting opportunity scholarships passed would be an uphill battle because some legislators wanted a broader bill and some didn’t want a bill at all," said Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe. "The governor has said all along that the proposal wasn’t a silver bullet but a piece of a larger strategy to offer more options for choice to families. The governor is disappointed that a bill that made it further than any other voucher proposal has didn’t make it to the finish line.”

The administration made a priority of the voucher bill this year but fought with the House over competing amendments. The bill languished in a key finance committee for weeks while advocates struggled to drum up the necessary votes to move it to the floor. Meanwhile, the Senate approved a voucher plan 21-10.

Dunn blamed the bill’s failure on politics in his chamber.

“I think children can’t vote, but people in the system can and it comes down to politics” in the House. “I commend the Senate for putting the kids first.”

Apr 15, 2014 9:38 AM

Ramsey admits to playing politics with authorizer bill to push vouchers

It was no secret Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey held hostage House Speaker Beth Harwell’s bill to create an alternative charter school authorizer last year when the lower chamber killed his bill rejiggering judicial redistricting.

But he played politics with Harwell’s bill again this year, too, he told reporters Thursday, saying he this year delayed passage of Harwell's bill already in the Senate queue to encourage the House and the governor to keep school vouchers from falling by the wayside.

“I told Beth that this is the way things work, and that’s what happened. I hate that, but that’s just life and that’s (the) political process," Ramsey said about last session's hostage situation he carried over to this year. “I wanted to make sure we got some kind of a compromise on vouchers. I’m not sure that we’re there yet, to be perfectly honest, but it had been held up long enough, so to speak.”

Ramsey had originally said he’d take the authorizer bill up early in the session, but bottled the it up until this week even though he said vouchers may still be a few votes short to get out of a House committee. The Senate passed the charter authorizer bill 20-13 Thursday.

“I’m not sure they have the votes but I’m convinced in my mind the Speaker of the House and the governor are making legitimate effort to try to get that bill out. That’s all we need,” said Ramsey.

Mar 21, 2014 2:00 PM

House takes low-income students out of voucher bill

Expands vouchers to some rural counties
Mar 6, 2014 6:00 AM

House to mull vouchers to others after low-income kids get first dibs

Governor refuses to detail what he's willing to budge on
Feb 21, 2014 6:00 AM