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.”
Is it better to spend $120 million on one project or $1 million on 120 projects? Some variation of that question is one lawmakers will be faced with next week as they plan to approve a state spending plan for the next year.
As the legislature presses toward a mid-April adjournment, lawmakers will have to settle several budget battles first, like whether to reduce the Hall tax, give their blessing to a series of economic incentives and approving a new state museum.
“The one thing that we have a lot of is non-recurring money. What we don’t have is recurring money. We just don’t have any,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin.
Lawmakers expect to pass the state’s $33.3 billion spending plan this week with hopes to adjourn the following week. The spending plan assumes an uptick of $31.5 million in recurring funds, largely in tax revenue growth, and $318 million in one-time money from a legal settlement, according to the administration’s proposal.
The lopsided increase in one-time money to recurring funds has led the governor to propose about $245 million in additional capital projects, including spending almost half of the dollars on a new state museum next to the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville at the chagrin of at least one lawmaker.
“I want to send you home with something to think about,” Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, said on the House floor before legislators left town Thursday. “I want you to think about if $120 million for a state museum is the best use for the taxpayer of Tennessee’s money. And we’ll talk about this again next week.”
Budget gurus in both chambers say they have heard grumbling over the museum, although House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent expects the capital project to weather any challenge from lawmakers.
“I think the museum is the top priority of a number of people and I believe the museum has a very good chance of surviving,” he said. Not only does the museum attract both students in school field trips and tourists to Music City, but the current facility has “moisture problems” that jeopardize materials housed in the museum, he said.
Lawmakers will also have to decide whether to try to cut the 6 percent state Hall tax, a long-held thorn in the side of conservatives who want to reduce the tax on interest from investments and dividends. Sitting in legislative finance committees are at least two bills gradually cutting down the tax. The Hall tax is estimated to generate $270 million next fiscal year, according to the Office of Fiscal Review.
“I just don’t see (that) we’ll be doing any chipping this year. Hopefully next year is a surplus on recurring money. We’ll chip away at it then,” Casada said about the Hall tax, adding he’s open to cutting it now if someone finds a way.
Other lawmakers, like Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, say they believe the state can afford taking another step to phase the tax out, although by less than they had hoped.
“I don’t know what that magic point is, but my goal every year, especially when we have a little extra money, is to raise (the exemptions) a little bit… before we get to where we need to be,” said Ramsey.
Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers-funded advocacy group, have pushed hard for the state to do away with the tax, calling it punitive for those who save for retirement. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s March 2014 report, the tax largely affects the state’s top 5 percent of earners who collectively pay approximately $160 million into the tax each year.
Gov. Bill Haslam says he would like to phase out the tax but has repeatedly warned that the state doesn’t have a wide enough base of revenues to afford cuts should revenues unexpectedly drop.
Before approving the budget, legislators will also have to decide whether they approve of a $20 million tax break for FedEx. In a bill recently on the move, the Haslam administration is proposing the state gradually cap the company’s aviation-fuel tax liability to $10.5 million annually in four years — about a third of the taxes the company paid last year.
Lawmakers will also be poised to approve an additional $52 million in Economic Development “FastTrack” projects that lure businesses to Tennessee, $40 million for the renovation of Cordell Hull and a $30 million increase in the state’s share of teachers’ health insurance costs, among other expenses. Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee has 140 requests from lawmakers to fund special projects in their districts.
“I think it’s only fair for us to let people decide themselves what they want to vote on in the budget rather than for us to try to make comments and deter people to vote yes and no,” said Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, countering several legislative retorts on the floor about spending projects lawmakers should ponder over the weekend. “And I thank God that I have the freedom to vote like I feel like I need to vote on the budget rather than someone telling me how.”
House Republicans steamed the governor outlined his budget cuts to the media before briefing legislators sounded off in a GOP Caucus meeting Monday night, weighing their options to avoid cutting raises for state workers and teachers and raiding funds in the governor's signature community college proposal to offset higher ed cuts.
Rep. Joe Carr, of Lascassas, wondered aloud whether lawmakers can take money the governor wants to use to fund the Tennessee Promise free community college plan toward offsetting reductions in higher education. And Rep. Matthew Hill, of Jonesborough complained that promising teachers and state employees raises then not delivering will make it difficult for lawmakers with primary election challengers to vote for the budget.
"Any time you make tentative promises about pay raises and they don't come through, of course everyone's frustrated. I'm sure the governor's frustrated, too," Rep. Glen Casada, GOP Caucus Chairman later told reporters.
Finance Chairman Charles Sargent, who knew details of cuts the administration plans to unveil today, threw cold water on suggestions from the 71-member caucus' meeting to thwart the governor's community college plan. Sacrificing pay raises represents one of the largest cuts the state can use to bridge the budget gap, he said, and funding for the governor's Tennessee Promise plan can only be used in limited ways.
"We're not funding any museums this year or anything like that," said Sargent who said none of the special funding requests lawmakers have asked for will make it into the budget. Lawmakers typically build at least some local projects into the budget, like two years ago when Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey wanted to help fund the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
It's up to the legislature to decide how to spend the state's money, Casada told reporters. "I think you're going to see a lot of members looking at the budget a little bit closer, trying to come up with ways to maybe fund some of these pay raises. Because it's important to us that we give something to state employees and teachers, they are the folks that make the state run."
At least, that’s according to the judges of the annual Ag Day on the Hill milking contest between the two speakers. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey teamed up with Sen. Frank Niceley to beat out House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. John Forgety by a three-to-one margin.
This is the third year the two speakers have milked-off against each other and Ramsey’s first win against Harwell. However, Harwell’s victories may have had something to do with Chairman Charles Sargent pouring some extra milk in her bucket, sources said.
Several prominent state legislators say they want answers as to just how the Department of Revenue plans to handle the tax-collection exemption that has been proposed for two Amazon.com distribution centers in the Chattanooga area. Good luck with that.
But Roberts recently told Naifeh during the department’s budget hearing before the House Finance Committee that “we’re prohibited by law from talking about any specific taxpayer or arrangement with any specific taxpayer.”
Asked Wednesday by a reporter whether such secrecy would apply in instances where it has been offered prospectively as part of an incentive package, Roberts said it would.
“The governor-elect has already said he preferred not to cut state employees because we’re trying to keep a job work force, and we’re gonna have to look at different areas of the budget. Between TennCare and additional initiatives in education we’re gonna have to just look to see where some of this monies will come from.” Sargent says any cuts to the state budget will have to be carefully crafted. He’s not a fan of across-the-board reductions. “I don’t believe in just saying we’re gonna cut everything three percent, or four percent, or whatever the percentage is. I believe that we have to look at each department and not just do a flat cut.”
Led by Franklin Rep. Charles Sargent, the lead sponsor of a natural gas bill that the Attorney General’s office opposes, lawmakers questioned whether Cooper plans to start taking positions before the General Assembly. In today’s hearing and in a hearing earlier this week, supporters of the bill have made it known that they think the Attorney General’s lobbying against the bill is a sharp departure from the legislature’s usual relationship with the AG, which rarely has gone before asking Cooper’s office for legal opinions on bills. “I’ve been here 13 years, and I have never seen you get involved in legislation,” Sargent said. “Seems like now, is it your new position that you’re going to be lobbying up here? When did this change?” Another, speaking on behalf of Lebanon Rep. Susan Lynn, who was absent, questioned why the AG needs to pay a policy adviser to deal with the legislature. Cooper stood his ground, though.
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