By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers edged closer Sunday to adjourning several weeks earlier than usual, but they continued to engage in end-of-session wrangling as intense as ever.
Budget disagreements between the two chambers led to the first conference committee on the spending plan since the acrimonious debate over the income tax more than a decade ago.
The Republican majorities in both the House and Senate have reached an agreement on the budget, but several contentious matters could still crop up before the 107th General Assembly concludes its business.
They include the much-debated guns-in-parking-lots bill and a measure would prevent private universities from setting guidelines for student organizations such as religious groups. Lawmakers hope to conclude the legislative session on Monday.
The House met in an unusual Sunday night floor session to take a procedural vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow veterans groups to raise money through charitable lotteries.
The measure passed the Senate earlier this year, but the House version had stalled until Friday, when it got its first of three readings. Passage was needed on both Sunday and Monday to stay on track and go before voters in 2014.
While the proposed constitutional amendment appears fairly innocuous, lawmakers have been skittish about gaming measures ever since the FBI’s “Rocky Top” investigation in the late 1980s, when investigators found bingo operators were using state charters of legitimate Tennessee charities to run gambling operations.
The probe eventually led to a prison sentence for one top Democratic lawmaker and the suicides of another state representative and the secretary of state.
The floor session lasted all of 11 minutes including a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. House Republicans planned to dine together at a Nashville restaurant afterward.
Among the remaining issues still facing lawmakers, the guns bill backed by the National Rifle Association would guarantee workers the right to store firearms in vehicles parked on company lots — regardless of their employers’ wishes.
The measure has been deemed too broad by Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, while business groups argue it would trample on their rights to control what occurs on their private property.
The House sent the measure to a study panel after the Legislature adjourned, but Democratic Rep. Eddie Bass of Prospect hasn’t ruled out an attempt to call the bill directly to a floor vote. The move would require a two-thirds majority in the 99-member chamber.
An education measure known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was posed for final action in the House, despite Haslam’s call for lawmakers to focus on other education issues.
But Republican Rep. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald told The Knoxville News Sentinel on Sunday night that he won’t seek a vote on the measure in exchange for a pledge from state education officials that they will send a letter to all state schools “telling them they cannot teach this subject in grades kindergarten through eight.”
“With that assurance and the opposition of some people who didn’t want to vote on it, I’ve decided simply not to bring it up,” said Hensley.
Another measure that has received considerable attention is a bill that would take aim at Vanderbilt University’s “all-comers” policy, which requires school groups to allow any interested students to join and run for office.
Christian student leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the policy, saying their groups should not be forced to admit members, and possibly leaders, who do not share their beliefs.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon would ban similar policies from being enacted at public colleges and universities, but fellow Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville has sought to include Vanderbilt on the basis that the school receives state funding.
“Let’s remember that college students like to put on a little chicanery there,” Dunn said on the House floor last week. “You could see where a group would get together and say, ‘Hey, let’s go join the Baptist group and then get our own leader in there, and then we’ll go ahead and say the Baptist group is now holding a Satan worship or something.
“And that may be extreme, but college students are known for doing extreme things.”
Pody put the bill on hold during last week’s debate, but the measure could re-emerge before the session ends.