Tag Archives: Bill Dunn

On playing partisan games as legislature winds down

A sequence of partisan bickering events last week led to the apparent death in the House — barring a last-minute change of heart by Republican representatives as the Legislature moves to adjourn this week — of a Senate-passed bill (SB2149) allowing indigent people convicted of driving with a suspended license to pay their court costs and fines through community service rather than cash, subject to local approval.

The bill is sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville, who has played a pivotal role in pushing Democratic amendments to various Republican-sponsored bills that reached the House floor — almost always voted down by the supermajority.

Here’s a rundown on last week’s events, which began with a noncontroversial bill (HB2009) sponsored by Rep. Shelia Butt, R-Columbia, that changes the wording of some education-related statutes:
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Constitutional amendment on education dies in Senate committee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to add an amendment to the state constitution that would give the Tennessee Legislature full discretion to determine the funding and eligibility of public schools failed on Wednesday.

The joint resolution sponsored by Sen. Delores Gresham, a Somerville Republican (SJR461), died in the Senate Education Committee.

The legislation was proposed as some Tennessee school systems are waging a court battle to secure more education funding. Hamilton County and six surrounding school systems filed a lawsuit last year saying the schools challenged the adequacy of school funding. The Shelby County Board of Education followed by filing a lawsuit saying the funding was so low that it violated a child’s right to a free and equal education.

Gresham’s resolution was amended to match a resolution filed by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, that would allow the Legislature to “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools in such manner as the General Assembly may determine.”

Dunn said the purpose of his resolution was to emphasize the role of lawmakers, and not judges, in setting education policy. He said he began thinking about proposing the amendment after finding out what “activist judges” have done around the country and then hearing about lawsuits filed in Tennessee.

“And some of these schools systems, they read the Constitution as that it’s an unelected judge who determines educational policy, and my amendment just clarifies that, no, it’s the elected representatives who do.”

A former lawmaker who represents smaller school districts said he feared the amendment would have allowed the Legislature to gut education funding.

“This constitutional amendment was intended to destroy every public school child’s constitutional right to an adequate education,” said Roy Herron, a former state senator and attorney who represents the Tennessee Small Schools for Equity. “It was intended to make whatever the Legislature does or fails to do be deemed constitutionally adequate, so school systems and school children could not challenge inadequacies in their educational system.

Note: The resolution fell one vote shy of the five needed for passage. Voting yes were Sens. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City; Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin; and Gresham. Noting no was Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville. Sens. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald; Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville; and Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, abstained. Sen. Bryan Kelsey, R-Germantown, was absent.

AG opines on changing TN constitution’s education provisions

A new legal opinion from State Attorney General Herbert Slatery says a proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution regarding public school funding will not impact the state’s equal protection provisions, notes the Times-Free Press.

The opinion was requested by Rep. Bill Dunn. The Knoxville Republican’s proposed amendment makes a change to a section requiring state lawmakers to provide for the maintenance and support of a “system of free public schools” and, he thinks, allow lawmakers to spend what they wish.

Opponents to Dunn’s proposal (HJR493) have raised objections that it could impact equal protection provisions elsewhere in the document.

Dunn has maintained the amendment would not and Slatery’s opinion supports his view.

“The proposed amendatory language does not change the meaning of the public schools clause (article XI, § 12) of the Tennessee Constitution, and would not affect the equal protection provisions of article I, § 8 or article XI, § 8, of the Tennessee Constitution, which would still limit, as they do now, the authority of the General Assembly to determine how to provide for free public education in Tennessee pursuant to the public schools clause,” the opinion says.

The state Constitution’s equal protections as well as similar ones in the U.S. Constitution provided the basis of successful school-funding lawsuits in the 1990s and early 2000s in which smaller, largely rural systems complained they were treated unfairly by the state.

Dunn introduced the proposed change after school systems in Hamilton and six nearby counties last year filed a school funding lawsuits charging the state is short-changing all districts on funding. Shelby County schools filed its own suit.

Note: The full opinion is HERE.

Dunn backs pre-kindergarten (well, sorta)

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, probably the most vocal critic of the state’s pre-kindergarten program, gave it a “second chance” by supporting extension legislation in committee, reports Chalkbeat Tennessee.

The bill (HB1485), which would help require certain “best practices” in pre-k classrooms, passed and now goes to the House Education Instruction and Programming Committee. The support of Dunn means the legislation likely has overcome its most formidable hurdle in the House.

“It tries to make the best out of a situation that I think, if you look at the Vanderbilt study, should cause a lot of concerns to people,” Dunn said before the vote.

His reluctant support reflects the key lawmaker’s acquiescence to the commitment of Gov. Bill Haslam and the State Department of Education to improving the state’s pre-K program, viewed as a significant tool in closing the achievement gap. Rather than offering a knee-jerk response to the troubling Vanderbilt study that questioned the power of pre-K, Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have taken a measured approach directed at refining the program.

…The legislation addresses some of the researchers’ takeaways, including concerns about the quality of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, an initial lack of investment in teacher development, and a transition to possibly mediocre early elementary school programs.

Specifically, the proposal also calls for developing a plan to better coordinate between pre-K classrooms and elementary schools so that elementary-grade instruction builds upon pre-K classroom experiences; engaging parents and families of students throughout the school year; and delivering relevant and meaningful professional development for teachers.

Note: This post is revised from the original version, reflecting a revision by Chalkbeat in its original report.

Vote-short voucher bill shelved in House

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A proposal to create a school voucher program stalled in the House on Thursday despite efforts to drum up support among wary rural lawmakers by limiting the areas of Tennessee where parents could receive state money to pay for private school tuition.

Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville became emotional when he announced from the well of the House chamber that his multiyear effort to offer school vouchers to parents of children in failing schools did not have enough votes to clear the GOP-controlled chamber.

The chamber did not take up a series of proposed amendments, including one that would apply the measure only to Tennessee’s four largest counties, or even to just Shelby County in the southwestern corner of the state.

Opponents argue that the $7,000 voucher per eligible child would siphon funding from cash-strapped public schools.
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Voucher bill clears House Finance, 11-10

An effort to create a school voucher program scraped through the House Finance Committee on Tuesday on a 11-10 vote after a bitter debate, reports the Times-Free Press.

It’s the furthest a voucher bill has ever gotten in the GOP-run House, although the measure has repeatedly passed the Republican-controlled Senate, including last year when Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, passed the companion bill.

The House bill now goes to the Calendar and Rules Committee, which is considered less of a lift for proponents. If it clears that panel, as many expect, the bill, which has already passed the Senate, would go to the House floor for a final vote.

And then what?

“That’s going to be a war,” predicted one Republican, noting a number of GOP lawmakers from rural and suburban areas remain uncomfortable with aspects of the legislation.

The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, acknowledged there will be a fierce and lengthy floor battle.

“Pack your lunch,” Dunn wryly observed later when asked about the “war” assessment. “Pack your supper.”

Committee members spent more than 2 1/2 hours listening to debate over the bill, as well as quarreling among themselves.

Supporters say the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act will throw poorer students at failing public schools a lifeline to a better future.

Opponents argue school voucher programs haven’t worked well in states that have adopted them. They also say vouchers offer false hope to many and, ultimately, may result in potentially crippling losses of funds for public education.

Dunn told colleagues many students “right now are on a path to failure, and these scholarships give them the opportunity for success.”

More legislative candidates running on loan money (6 with $100K or more)

New financial disclosures show at least six legislative candidates personally loaned their campaigns $100,000 or more for primary elections this year, apparently setting a new record for self-financing in races for seats that pay a basic salary of about $20,203 per year.

Five of the six won their party’s primary nominations. The exception was Matt Swallows, who loaned his Senate District 15 campaign $110,000, but lost the Republican nomination to Paul Bailey, who loaned his campaign $101,000.

The other four were seeking House seats and apparently are the first House candidates to crack the $100,000 level in self-financing in recent years. In the past, it appears only Senate candidates — with three times as many constituents as House candidates — have passed that mark.

A fifth House candidate, Jason Emert in Knoxville-based House District 13, loaned his campaign $74,100 and also made $50,209 in direct contributions to his campaign. He lost the Republican nomination to Eddie Smith, who had just $3,000 in loans.

This year’s legislative candidates meeting or exceeding the $100,000 mark in campaigns for the Aug. 4 election were:

– Richard Briggs, a Knox County commissioner and the Republican nominee in state Senate District 7, with loans totaling $132,000. Sen. Stacy Campfield, R-Knoxville, who was defeated by Briggs in the primary, had loaned his campaign $40,000.

– John Ray Clemmons, Democratic nominee in House District 56, loaned his campaign $100,000 at the outset. He defeated Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, in the primary. Odom had loaned his campaign a total of $47,398, but saved enough in his campaign account to repay the loans to himself after the primary loss.

– Martin Daniel, Republican nominee in state House District 18, took out loans totaling $157,600. Daniel defeated Rep. Steve Hall, R-Knoxville, in the primary. Hall had loaned his campaign $10,000.

– Jerry Sexton, Republican nominee in House District 35, loaned his campaign $111,652. He defeated Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Rutledge, who had no loans outstanding.
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TN school voucher bill dead for another year

Despite backing from well-financed national lobbying organizations and Gov. Bill Haslam, legislation to implement a school voucher system in Tennessee is dead for another year, the bill’s House sponsor said today.

“The system won. The children lost,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, after annnouncing in the House Finance Committee that he was abandoning efforts to win approval of the Haslam-drafted “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” (SB196).

The bill had won approval of the full Senate on a 21-10 vote last week. But Dunn said the bill lacked support to clear the key House committee and he decided not to push for time-consuming debate and a vote in the waning hours of the 2014 legislative session.

He said the quest for passage would resume next year because vouchers are “a wonderful tool for a child on a trajectory for failure” in public schools.

The bill, as amended, would have autorized state payments to private schools for up to 5,000 students in its first year of operation, expanding in stages over ensuing years to a maximum of 20,000 statewide in the fourth year. Only students in school districts having one or more “failing” schools – defined as being in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in student test scores – would have been eligible.

Only five counties in the state would have been covered under the criteria – Davidson, Hamilton, Knox , Shelby and Hardeman.

Also, applying students would have to be from low-income families and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines.
A similar proposal from the governor failed last year.

National groups such as StudentsFirst and American Federation for Children have lobbied heavily for passage of a voucher bill and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to legislative candidates. Dunn said their efforts helped because they provided research and information showing benefits of vouchers.

“But in the end, it always came down to protecting the system, the status quo,” he said.

Voucher critics in general contend it is unwise to siphon money from public school systems, already underfunded in Tennesee, to benefit private or church schools. There was also criticism that the governor’s limited proposal did not go far enough from those who felt a broader, statewide program is warranted.

From the AP:
Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe said the governor has always known that passing the legislation would be tough because “some legislators wanted a broader bill and some didn’t want a bill at all,” but he’s nonetheless disappointed the latest version had to be withdrawn.

“The governor has said all along that the proposal wasn’t a silver bullet but a piece of a larger strategy to offer more options for choice to families,” Poe said. “The governor is disappointed that a bill that made it further than any other voucher proposal has didn’t make it to the finish line.”

When asked why the proposal has had trouble, Dunn alluded to it being an election year and that lawmakers are probably being influenced by constituents — particularly in rural areas — against the legislation.

“We’re now in campaign season, and we just have to recognize that,” said the Knoxville Republican.

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.

Bill by Kelsey and Dunn would protect ‘religious freedom’ of those opposing same-sex unions

News release from Senate Republican Caucus
(NASHVILLE, TN), February 07, 2014 – The Religious Freedom Act would protect the religious freedom of individuals regarding marriage ceremonies that violate their personal religious beliefs. It does not change current law. In 2006, over 80% of Tennesseans voted to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. In October, a federal lawsuit was filed challenging that provision of the Tennessee Constitution.

“If the lawsuit were successful, this bill would put in place religious freedom exceptions that already exist in eleven other states, including New York, Vermont, and Hawaii,” explained Senator Kelsey.

The Religious Freedom Act will protect Tennesseans from being dragged into court for their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding marriage. In New Mexico, a photographer was recently sued for declining to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, even though such ceremonies were not recognized by New Mexico law at the time. This bill would protect Tennesseans from similar lawsuits and from harassment by the government.

As clarified in a proposed amendment, the revised bill would ensure that whichever side prevails on the issue of the definition of marriage, the heavy hand of government will not be brought down in retaliation against the other side’s religious freedoms. For example, a florist who opposed the Catholic Church’s stance on marriage could not be sued for refusing to provide flowers at a ceremony held in a Catholic church.

All states that have enacted same sex marriage have included a religious freedom exception. Currently, 11 other states and Washington, D.C. have expressly protected individuals from private lawsuits. The list includes: Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown. He is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Note: The bill, HB2467, is sponsored in the House by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville. The Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender people, had quick and critical commentary on its website from Executive Director Chris Sanders after quoting provisions o the bill:

Does that mean refuse medical services to an individual in a same-sex relationship? Does that mean refuse to sell food to a same-sex couple? How far are they willing to go?  We don’t know, but whatever it means, it means discrimination!