Lee: Unclear when voucher program can get off the ground following high court ruling

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is hailing the Supreme Court’s decision upholding school vouchers but says “a lot of steps” are still required before the program allowing parents in Nashville and Shelby County to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition can go live.

“Once we determine the speed with which the court will make its final decisions, then we can move forward with the particulars to make sure this works and fits, and how it is that we roll it out,” The Associated Press quoted the governor as saying on Friday.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 3-2 decision that the voucher program doesn’t violate the state constitution’s home rule protections, which prevent the General Assembly from passing bills targeted at specific counties without local buy-in. The voucher law affects school districts — which aren’t covered by the home rule provision — and not the counties that fund them, the high court ruled.

Despite the voucher program being frozen since 2019, the Lee administration has included a recurring $29 million item in the budget to cover its costs in the event legal challenges were turned back. But the money has been dedicated toward other priorities, including for the spending plan for the budget year beginning on July 1.

It remains to be seen how much appetite lawmakers have to revisit the voucher question. Of the 51 House members who voted for the final version of the bill in 2019 (just one more than the constitutional minimum), only 37 are up for re-election this fall. Here’s the list of voucher backers who will no longer be around next year:

Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah). Died of pancreatic cancer in May 2021.

Glen Casada (R-Franklin). Not running again this year. Lost bid for Williamson County clerk earlier this month.

Michael Curcio (R-Dickson). Not running again this year.

John DeBerry (D-Memphis). Lost re-election bid as an independent in 2020 after state Democrats decided he couldn’t run in their primary. Now in the Lee administration.

Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville). Didn’t run again in 2020. Now in the Lee administration.

Mark Hall (R-Cleveland). Running for state Senate this year.

Matthew Hill (R-Jonesbough). Lost Republican primary in 2020.

Timothy Hill (R-Blountville). Didn’t run again in 2020. Lost bid for Congress.

Andy Holt (R-Dresden). Didn’t run again in 2020. Now in the Lee administration.

Bill Sanderson (R-Kenton). Stepped down in August 2019.

Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station). Not running again this year.

Robin Smith (R-Hixson). Resigned in March after pleading guilty to participating in a kickback scheme.

Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg). Lost Republican primary in 2020.

Micah Van Huss (R-Gray). Lost Republican primary in 2020.

Two other representatives abstained when the vote was initially recorded, but later changed asked the clerk to have their votes changed to yes. The moves are considered a formality because they only be accepted if it doesn’t change the outcome. Neither won’t feature in the next General Assembly:

Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville). Didn’t run again in 2020.

Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin). Not running again this year.