House Calendar Committee Chairman Dunn: Broken promise means blocked bill

House Calendar Committee Chairman Bill Dunn blocked a House vote on legislation that could penalize women for using illegal drugs while pregnant because, he says, the sponsor broke a promise.

Dunn, R-Knoxville, told colleagues that Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, pledged she would not push for a House floor vote on her bill (HB1295) until the Senate had taken action on the companion bill. The commitment, he said, came when the bill came before the committee he chairs.

The measure has been treated as a “hot potato” in the Senate, Dunn said, and no hearing has been scheduled. Nonetheless, Weaver brought her bill to the floor for a vote on Thursday, prompting Dunn to deliver a speech and move that there be no vote and that the bill instead be “held on the desk” – basically in limbo – unless and until the Senate acts.

“We had an agreement,” Dunn said. “We all know how important it is to keep agreements.”

Weaver responded that she had told Dunn “the bill was going to move in the Senate” and it has not. Despite that, she said, the number of “babies born addicted to drugs” has been increasing in Tennessee and she felt the measure deserved a House vote, which could prompt action in the Senate.

“The Senate will not move. They (senators) said they will not move until we move,” Weaver said. “We must move on an epidemic that is hurting babies… I’ve worked with the Senate and the Senate said, ‘We want to wait and see what the House does’.”

Dunn’s motion to block a vote and have the bill “held on the desk” was approved on a 52-37 vote.

The bill says that women using illegal drugs while pregnant can be prosecuted for child abuse – but can avoid penalties by entering a drug treatment program and successfully completing it.

Weaver said current law has left prosecutors “frustrated” and the bill would mean “there will be accountability and responsibility for women who are taking cocaine and heroin while pregnant.”

After the House move on Thursday, the current Senate sponsor, Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis, put the bill on notice for a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the Legislature’s website.