Penny Schwinn

Ain’t Dunn yet: Recently retired lawmaker named education adviser

House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) presents school voucher legislation on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Just days after officially ending his time as a state lawmaker, former Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) has been hired as a senior adviser to state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Dunn, who was first elected to the House in 1994, was the longtime sponsor of efforts to pass school voucher legislation, which finally succeeded in 2019 only to be tied up in court over constitutional questions of having the program apply only to the state’s two largest counties without the backing of voters of local legislative bodies. The new job pays $98,000 per year.

Here’s an excerpt of what The Tennessee Journal wrote on the occasion of Dunn’s retirement announcement in September 2019:

An arborist by profession, the devout Catholic and father of five has referred to himself as a “bleeding heart conservative.” While he was unafraid to champion controversial causes and challenge Democratic leaders (on his first day in office in 1995, he was the only Republican to vote against the re-election of Rep. Jimmy Naifeh as speaker), Dunn became known for his easygoing style and sense of humor. For example, when a House subcommittee was on the verge of killing his proposal to convert pre-kindergarten to a summer program in 2006, Dunn suggested the panel instead study the idea over the summer. It didn’t work, but it got a good laugh. […]

Not all of Dunn’s efforts were futile. His multi-year effort to enact a constitutional ban on gay marriage overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the General Assembly while Democrats were in charge. The measure received more than 80% of the vote in the 2006 election. Dunn was also a major supporter of a constitutional amendment approved in 2014 to restore state lawmakers’ power to restrict access to abortions.

“You can go out dead, defeated, or on your own terms. I don’t like the first two choices, so the third one’s rather appealing.”

—Dunn to WKRN-TV about his plans to retire from the House.

The Republican takeover of the General Assembly cleared the path for several controversial measures sponsored by Dunn, including 2011 bills to do away with collective bargaining rights for teachers and dial back their tenure protections. He passed a 2012 bill to protect teachers who allow students to criticize evolution and climate change. Then-Gov. Bill Haslam let the so-called “monkey bill” become law without his signature.

Dunn supported Haslam’s Improve Act to boost road funding, which included a 6-cent gas tax hike but also featured several tax cuts in other areas. Dunn was one of two Republicans to vote against a 2016 conference committee deal to eliminate the state’s Hall income tax on stock and bond earnings by 2022 on the basis that it didn’t create a replacement tax or cut other programs. […]

Dunn flirted with a bid to succeed Casada as speaker on a platform of returning a “level of boredom” to the chamber, but ultimately bowed out of the race. In announcing his retirement plans, Dunn said he wanted to leave on a “high point” of passing the voucher bill and another law to trigger a ban on abortions in Tennessee should Roe v. Wade be overturned.