House changes to voucher bill aimed at capturing rural vote

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) speaks to reporters in the House chamber in Nashville on April 17, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House leaders say amendments to Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal will bring previously wary rural lawmakers on board by directing grant money to some of their struggling schools.

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), a longtime voucher opponent, said the updates to the bill have caused him to change his position on the Education Savings Account, or ESA, measure. House leadership hopes that changes will give the bill a significant cushion of votes to get it through its final committee hurdle and on the House floor.

Senate supporters moving a vastly different version are still trying to muster the votes to get the bill out of the Finance Committee.

House passes bill to ban drivers from using handheld mobile phones

The House has narrowly approved a bill to ban Tennessee drivers from using handheld mobile phones on the road. The measure passed 53-38 on Wednesday. It takes 50 votes for bills to pass the chamber.

The bill sponsored by Rep. John Holsclaw (R- Elizabethton) and Art Swann (R-Maryville) would make Tennessee the 17th state to enact such a ban aimed at reducing distracted driving.

Violating the ban would be punishable by a $50 fine, though it could be waived on the first offense by completing a driver education course. Using a speaker phone or Bluetooth device would still be allowed under the bill.

Critics of the bill have included Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), who in a committee meeting listed several other distracting activities not specifically banned under state law, including eating, changing the radio station, arguing with a spouse, or “reaching around and smacking a young’un in the back seat.”

The companion bill is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee next week.

Reporters threatened with arrest at state Capitol

Reporters covering a protest outside Gov. Bill Lee’s office in the state Capitol on Tuesday afternoon were threatened with arrest if they didn’t leave the building.

“It is our understanding that Highway Patrol officers followed their standard protocol for when the Capitol building closes to the public,” Lee spokesman Chris Walker said in a statement to The Tennessean. “However, we do not condone threatening of arrest to reporters while they are doing their jobs in trying to cover news.”

It’s unclear when it became Safety Department protocol to remove journalists from the building at 4:30 p.m. The first floor of the Capitol houses the govenror’s office, Cabinet members, and the state’s constitutional officers (who are part of the legislative branch). The House and Senate chambers are located on the second floor, where meetings are often held late into the evening.

The protesters were demanding Lee call on state Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) to resign. Byrd is accused of sexual misconduct with teenage basketball players when he was a girls high school basketball coach in the 1980s.

Pody wants to recall ‘Heartbeat Bill’ to Senate floor

State Sen. Mark Pody wants the Senate to overrule a decision by its Judiciary Committee to send an anti-abortion bill to be studied after the session has adjourned for the year. The Lebanon Republican wants the full chamber to vote on the measure seeking to ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Pody has filed paperwork with the Senate clerk to hold a recall vote as soon as the next floor session on Wednesday. It would take 17 votes for the measure to get a floor vote as early as next week.

UPDATE: Pody didn’t make the motion during Wednesday’s floor session, but could do so at any time.

The House passed the so-called “Heartbeat Bill” earlier this session. But the Senate agreed with Tennessee Right to Life’s assessment that the measure was likely to lose in a court challenge and that a better approach would be to set a ban of most abortions in Tennessee that would “trigger” in the event the U.S. Supreme Court overturns all or part of Roe v. Wade.

A House subcommittee killed the trigger bill, while the heartbeat bill languished in the Senate. The impasse created the very real possibility that both bills might be defeated for the year. But the House reconsidered when Rep. Ron Gant (R-Rossville) last week made the motion to revive the trigger measure by pulling it directly to the full Health Committee. That recall required a majority of all eligible voting members in the committee (including the House speaker). In the case of the Health Health panel, the minimum threshold was 11 votes. The recall received 12, so it will be on this week’s calendar.

Pody’s version of the heartbeat bill was sent to summer study on a 5-3 vote, with Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) voicing strong support for the move.

Never assume? Lee loses key Chattanooga Republican on voucher bill

Legislative leaders kick off the joint convention to inaugurate Gov. Bill Lee in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. From left at podium are House Majority Leader William Lamberth, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, and House Speaker Glen Casada. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration needs six votes to get its school voucher bill out of the Senate Finance Committee. Until recently, outspoken Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) was believed to be among those expected to vote to advance the measure. Not so, reports Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“I’d carried every voucher bill for the past six years,” Gardenhire told the paper. “But this was one I could not go along with.”

(Full disclosure: The print edition of The Tennessee Journal was among those buying into the assumption that Gardenhire would be among the bill’s supporters.)

Gardenhire has long fought to make in-state tuition rates available to children brought to the country illegally. A provision of the voucher bill aimed to screen the immigration status of K-12 students is a major reason for Gardenhire’s opposition.

“As you know, I’ve been a big proponent of making sure they get an education they’re supposed to get,” said Gardenhire. “And [Lee] and I have a fundamental disagreement on that.”

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Four finalists named for UT-Knoxville chancellor

Four finalists have been named to become the next chancellor at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville. They will visit the school and participate in public forums between April 16 and April 18.

Here are the finalists and times they will be on campus:

  • Donde Plowman, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. April 16, from 2:30-3:30 p.m at the Student Union Auditorium.
  • Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University. Wednesday, April 17, from 2:30-3:30 p.m. at the Student Union Auditorium.
  • William Tate, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis. Thursday, April 18 from 9:45-10:45 a.m. at the Student Union Auditorium.
  • Bill Hardgrave, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Auburn University
    Thursday, April 18 from 3-4 p.m. in Room 101 of Strong Hall.

The forums will be live-streamed.

 

Bill to ‘trigger’ abortion ban revived in House

A bill to “trigger” a ban on abortions in Tennessee in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its Roe v. Wade decision has been revived in the House.

A subcommittee had earlier voted down the bill sponsored by Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) amid an inter-chamber squabble over which anti-abortion legislation to pursue. The House preferred a bill to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, while the Senate wanted to go with the triggering legislation supported by Tennessee Right to Life.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday advanced the triggering legislation while sending the heartbeat bill to a summer study committee. The House Health Committee on Wednesday voted to overturn the subcommittee vote on the trigger bill and pull it directly to the full committee. The motion was made by Rep. Ron Gant (R-Rossville), the assistant House majority leader.

The House committee vote was 12-4, one more than the minimum necessary to recall a bill to full committee.

‘Heartbeat bill’ sent to summer study

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), center, attends an economic development announcement in Nashville. At left is Gov. Bill Lee and on the right is House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal).

The Senate Judiciary Committee has decided to punt on a bill seeking to ban abortions in Tennessee once a fetal heartbeat is detected. The House passed the measure in a floor vote, but the Senate decided not to proceed over concerns about a successful legal challenge.

Here’s what Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) had to say after the committee action on Wednesday:

I fully support the deliberative approach the Judiciary Committee is taking on the Heartbeat Bill. As someone who believes life begins at conception, I support the bill philosophically. But constitutionally, as Tennessee Right to Life points out, the bill is flawed in its current form. Amendment One put the abortion industry on the ropes in Tennessee. We have done all we can to defund Planned Parenthood. We have put in place reasonable restrictions to help prevent abortion. Passing a constitutionally suspect bill now would give the courts an opportunity to erase the progress we have made. And a losing court fight would likely result in awarding taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood. Protection of the unborn is too important to risk taking a step backward. I appreciate the sponsor bringing this legislation. It deserves the best possible chance for success. But that chance can only be achieved by careful study.

Here’s what is in the Senate version of the voucher bill

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a Philips event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate version of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal would double the number of students who could participate in the Education Savings Account program to 30,000.

The measure scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday would also dial back the testing requirements for students going to private school.

Instead of requiring the same TCAP test for math and English (but not science or social studies) that is administered to public school students, private schools could give their students a “nationally norm-referenced test” approved by the state Education Department. Examples of those standardized tests include the ACT and PARCC. That’s a provision likely to further outrage public school teachers who have long complained about the state-specific testing regimen.

Just as in the House bill, the program would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year, followed by increments of 2,500 in the next four years. But while the lower chamber’s bill envisions limiting the pilot program at 15,000, the Senate bill would continue to allow the program to grow by 2,500 students each ensuing year until it reaches an enrollment of 30,000.

Homeschooling appears to make a comeback in the Senate bill after being excised from the House version.

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The latest crop of specialty license plates is here

Tennessee has more than 100 specialty license plates available to vehicle owners. Under a bill headed for the Senate floor, the state would get 22 more.

Here’s the list of proposed new plates advanced by the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday:

  • Antique Auto.
  • Blood Donors.
  • Fighting for At-Risk Youth.
  • Friends of Shelby Park and Bottoms.
  • Germantown Charity Horse Show.
  • Green County School System.

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