Monthly Archives: April 2019

Vouchers clears House floor, Senate committee by single vote each

It was a day for close votes for Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal. First, the measure received the bare minimum number of votes in a 6-5 decision by the Senate Finance Committee to send the bill to a full floor vote. Then, House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) had to keep the voting board open for 40 minutes in order to persuade a lone holdout — Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) — to change his vote from no to yes and get the bill the 50 votes it needed to pass.

Here’s your Senate Finance Committee vote in graphical form.

Voters to elect Green successor in state Senate

Tuesday is special election day in state Senate District 22. Voters in Montgomery, Houston, and Stewart counties will decide who will fill the last 18 months of former state Sen. Mark Green’s term in the General Assembly following the Ashland City Republican’s election to Congress.

The race pits Republican Bill Powers, a Clarksville City Councilman and manager of an auto dealership, against Democrat Juanita Charles, a real estate agent and Army veteran.

Powers, a managing partner of an auto dealership, emerged as the Republican nominee after a tough four-way primary in March. He has raised more than $102,000 from donors, loaned his campaign $120,000, and spent $195,000. Charles was unopposed for the Democratic nomination. She raised nearly $35,000 and spent $9,700 through the pre-general reporting period.

The seat switched to Republican control when Green defeated incumbent Sen. Tim Barnes by 6 percentage points in 2012. Green won re-election by 34 points in 2016.

Republicans were optimistic about their chances of flipping an open state House seat in Clarksville last year, but Democrat Jason Hodges defeated Tommy Vallejos by 8 points. Incumbent Rep. Joe Pitts had given up the seat to make a successful bid for Clarksville mayor.

Here is a breakdown of the total ballots cast through the early voting period:

Houston: 259

Montgomery: 5,032

Stewart: 423

Total: 5,714

 

Voucher bill to be dialed back to apply to just Shelby and Davidson

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

After many twists and turns, Gov. Bill Lee’s expanded school voucher bill is headed for a floor vote in the House this week. And in the Senate, the bill is being dialed back to apply only to the counties encompassing Nashville and Memphis.

The Education Saving Account proposal started out as applying to any district in which three or more schools fell in the bottom 10%. That would have meant Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, and Madison Counties. Several rural lawmakers were worried that the next listing of priority schools could plunge their home districts into the bottom 10% and thus open the floodgates of unwanted vouchers in their home areas, too.

Lee promised a “hold harmless” provision for districts where the ESA program would be made available by creating a fund outside the Basic Education Program formula to reimburse them for the state money that goes away when students leave to take ESAs. That provision was largely abandoned in the House to instead have much of that money flow toward rural districts with priority schools. The Senate appears less enamored by that approach.

The ESA’s themselves have created controversy by allowing parents to spend the $7,300 per year on educational items beyond tuition, including electronic equipment, uniforms, and college savings. Critics worry that that will open the program up to abuse.

Homeschooling was stripped out of the House bill, but remains in the Senate version. Both chambers’ bills would create call for a citizenship test despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring states to provide K-12 education to all students regardless of their immigration status.

The bill is scheduled for a House floor vote on Tuesday and for the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

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.”

Continue reading

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.