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.”

The bill is scheduled for a vote in Senate Finance on Tuesday. Right now, there are only four solid votes in favor of the bill:  Republican Sens. Jack Johnson of Franklin John Stevens of Huntingdon, Ferrell Haile of Gallatin, and Brian Kelsey of Germantown (notwithstanding a re-election campaign declaration that he was giving up his annual voucher push because “I listen to my community”).

Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald was a Republican dissenter in the Education Committee
vote (along with Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville) when the bill cleared the Senate Education Committee.  Meanwhile, Finance Chairman Bo Watson of Chattanooga has voiced concerns about the financial implications of the ESA proposal, while the votes of GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Yager of Kingston and Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) are uncertain.

Democrats Brenda Gilmore and Jeff Yarbro (both of Nashville) are opposed.

Gardenhire said he might feel differently about the bill if it didn’t affect his home area.

“I asked the governor, I said can we exclude Hamilton County and add another county in it? And I’m not going to speak for him, but I know what his answer was,” he told the paper.

Gardenhire said he wasn’t asked for input when the bill was being drafted.

“Nobody when they were putting this plan together ever came down to Hamilton County in the district that I represent and said, ‘Todd, we’re going to make a fundamental change in education in Tennessee, and it’s going to to affect the county you represent. How do you think we ought to do it?'” he said.

“Nobody asked any of the legislators at all that I know of for any input,” Gardenhire said. “They just decided just to come up with this plan.”

Read Sher’s full report here.

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