House debates denying pensions to teachers, legislators for minor sex crimes

A bill denying pension benefits to teachers convicted of misdemeanor sexual crimes has been revised on the House floor to apply to state legislators as well.

The change to the bill — SB1656 — was proposed by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and endorsed by the sponsor, Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, as a “friendly amendment.” Lamberth echoed Fitzhugh’s comments that “if we’re going to hold teachers accountable,” it is only fair that legislators face the same standard.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin, who normally rallies GOP opposition to Democrat-proposed amendments, commended the Democratic leader for his proposal, declaring Republicans “have long worked to address to sexual harassment.”

But the bipartisan show of support for the bill and the amendment was matched by a bipartisan voicing of misgivings during Thursday’s floor debate, perhaps most notably from Reps. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, and John DeBerry, D-Memphis.

“We are constantly sending messages to the people of the state of Tennessee that we are idiots,” said DeBerry, adding that “we have made the politician police pretty strong already.” The discomfort, he said, came despite a personally inclined response toward anyone sexually touching a child, a focal point of Lamberth’s debating points.

“I’d just get a 2-by-4 and whip ’em,” DeBerry said.

Lamberth replied that the message being sent was: “Do not commit sexual offenses, whether you are a legislator or a teacher.” That message should help deter such conduct, he said.

Current law denies pension benefits to those covered by the state retirement system — including teachers and legislators — if they are convicted of a felony involving their position. The bill, which has already passed the Senate 33-0, expands that to include misdemeanor sexual offenses — though another amendment adopted on the House floor excludes “public indecency” convictions, which can involve such things as urination in public view.

Typically, Lamberth said, those facing pension loss would be convicted of “misdemeanor sexual battery,” which he defined as the inappropriate touching of an “intimate part” of another person’s body. Fitzhugh said that can include “a hug made with the wrong motive.”

DeBerry and Dunn both contended that the denial of pension benefits could have an unfair adverse impact on the spouse of the person convicted of a relatively minor offense, eliminating the pension that a family relies upon for support. Enactment, Dunn said, “punishes people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.”

Dunn also noted that the law would apply only to convictions related to the teacher or legislator’s position. For teachers, he said, that would be fairly clear in speaking only to their work at schools or with students. But for legislators, Dunn said, he said, the application might be “24/7” since lawmakers are asked about legislative matters constantly by constituents — in grocery store checkout lines and the like, for example — as well as when in Nashville dealing with more official functions.

Fitzhugh told Dunn “I think you’re right” on the potential unfair impact on families of the accused, but he nonetheless believes that if legislators are applying the proposal to teachers, it should apply to legislators on the same basis. Fitzhugh said he would be willing to consider further changes to deal with that concern.

After that exchange, Lamberth put off a floor vote on the bill for a week. It will be up again Thursday.

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