Voucher prospects rising in Legislature (but not for Kelsey’s bill)?

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says there’s little doubt school voucher legislation will pass the Senate this year and other lawmakers say prospects appear improved in the House as well.

But Ramsey said the voucher bill likely to win approval will not be one sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, reports The Tennessean. Why is that?

“Ask the governor. That’s between him and Brian Kelsey,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday morning.

Kelsey recently led the successful effort to kill Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal and, as The Tennessean observes, has otherwise been a “thorn in the side” for the administration – including past failed efforts for passing a voucher bill.

In a statement, Gov. Bill Haslam spokesman Dave Smith didn’t mention any rift between Haslam and Kelsey.

“In working with advocates on the issue, we have said that we could fund legislation in a budget amendment that was in line with what we have proposed in the past. The Gardenhire-Dunn bill reflects that in its original form,” Smith said, referencing a different bill that would allow school vouchers in the state.

Through a spokeswoman, Kelsey seemed surprised that the governor would not support his voucher bill.

“I do not know why the governor would not fund his own bill from last year,” Kelsey said.

…Without mentioning specific legislation, Ramsey said Kelsey knows there are political ramifications to any decision at the statehouse.

“(Kelsey) has to see, and I know he’s seen, we’ve talked about this, that actions do have consequences,” Ramsey said.

“And I’ve talked about this: Why does he not have the voucher bill? I don’t have to tell you all why he doesn’t have that voucher bill. Actions have consequences. But it’s not my fight, that’s what I’m saying.”

The Senate Education Committee recently passed Kelsey’s voucher bill by a narrow margin. However, voucher proponents are championing a bill sponsored by state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville. The bill is very similar to Kelsey’s proposal, and Kelsey is one of several Senate co-sponsors of the bill.

School voucher advocates StudentsFirst Tennessee announced Thursday that 19 other House members signed on as co-sponsors to Dunn’s bill this week, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. The news comes after another pro-voucher group, the Tennessee Federation for Children, released a poll Wednesday that they argued shows growing support for vouchers in Tennessee.

And the Commercial Appeal reports that Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who chairs the key House committee that must approve the bill, also thinks it will pass. White also cites the Gardenhire-Dunn bill as the apparently preferred version.

“If they keep it clean, like the bill two years ago, I think it will pass. It looks like a very limited version like the governor was for. If it stays that way, I think it will pass,” White said.

..The bill would limit the total number of vouchers statewide for the 2015-16 school year to 5,000, increasing to 7,500 during the 2016-17 school year, 10,000 for 2017-18 and to 20,000 for school year 2018-19, where it would be capped pending some future legislative action.

It’s essentially the limited voucher legislation backed by Gov. Bill Haslam two years ago. The governor withdrew that bill, and the voucher effort crashed, when advocates of a broader bill that would have made the taxpayer subsidies available to more students declined to accept the governor’s compromise.