By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The path may have been rocky at times for the new Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, but leaders are pleased that many of the most contentious issues have been decided as lawmakers enter the final few weeks of the session.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision last week to withdraw his limited school voucher proposal highlights the sometimes-contentious nature of his relationship with rank-and-file Republicans in the Legislature.
But the demise of the legislation staves off a last-minute showdown as lawmakers put the final touches on the state’s annual spending plan.
“The governor made it clear all along that if his original voucher bill was going to be modified in any way, he was going to pull it,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.
The governor’s proposal would have been limited to only children from the worst-performing schools. Harwell said expanding that eligibility would have faced a tough road in the lower chamber even if the Haslam hadn’t withdrawn the bill.
“It would have had a very difficult time passing — if at all,” she said.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he was in frequent communication with the governor to find a compromise on vouchers. When it didn’t come to pass, he tried to persuade colleagues on the education committee that “something is better than nothing.”
But Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, was unwilling to withdraw his proposed amendments — or even share them with the administration before introducing them. Kelsey last week rejected suggestions that he was to blame for the failure of voucher efforts and he suggested he may try to find another bill to attach his proposal to.
Ramsey said he opposes such a maneuver.
“I would discourage that highly,” he said. “This is too big of an issue to hijack a bill on the Senate floor.”
The voucher decision came on the heels of Haslam’s announcement a week earlier that he would not include an expansion of Medicaid in his budget amendment, which most likely puts that issue off until at least next year– if ever.
If Haslam’s negotiations with the federal government produce a special deal for Tennessee, he could call lawmakers back into special session. GOP leaders in the House and Senate don’t expect that to happen.
Other big-ticket items already decided for the year include the failure of an effort to allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell wine and passage of a bill to allow people with handgun carry permits to store loaded firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked.
Haslam’s proposal to tilt the state’s workers’ compensation program more in favor of employers has already passed the Senate and is expected to be approved in the House.
Both chambers are still mulling a bill seeking to cut welfare benefits for parents whose children fail to meet minimum standards at school, even though Haslam said he would likely veto the measure if it reached his desk.
Supporters say the bill would be a way to spur parents to become more involved in their children’s schooling, as it would end the reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money if they attend conferences with teachers, take parenting classes or enroll their children in tutoring programs or summer school.
Republican Rep. Barry Doss of Lawrenceburg in a committee hearing last week rejected arguments that measure would inhibit families’ ability to pay for basic items like food. He argued that the long-term effects of failing school would be a bigger price to pay than a cut in TANF benefits.
“I am more concerned about the child starving for a lifetime, than I am for a few days,” Doss said.
The measure is awaiting a Senate floor vote, while the House version has advanced to the Finance Committee.
Harwell said she shares some of Haslam’s concerns about the measure, though she said she understands some of her colleagues who believe “perhaps we’re giving government assistance and people are not living up to the responsibilities they have.”
“However, we don’t ever want to hurt a child in the process of trying to make parents more responsible,” she said.
The pace of the legislative session was a sore spot for Democrats last year. Some House Republicans have echoed those complaints this year about the pace being driven by Ramsey and the Senate.
Ramsey told reporters last week that longtime lawmakers are just unaccustomed to not leaving all the biggest bills until the last minute.
“The reason House members thought we were moving quickly, because we took up those big issues” early, Ramsey said. “We jumped in the very first day and worked all these tough issues.”
While state revenues have once again shown solid gains, the surplus hasn’t quite been big enough to draw the attention of lawmakers seeking special projects in their districts.
“Members really are conscious that they don’t want a lot of pork-barrel projects,” Harwell said. “I think they are dedicated to statewide projects and just being reasonable and financially responsible with this budget.”