published Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Gov. Bill Haslam's school-voucher bill on hold

Bill Haslam
Bill Haslam
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam pulled the plug on his limited school-voucher proposal Wednesday as fellow Republicans on the Senate Education Committee prepared to spring their plan expand the program by amendment despite the governor's warnings.

"I have just by letter, hand-delivered to the chair, advised the committee that the bill will not advance this year," said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who was sponsoring the bill for Haslam.

But a leading voucher proponent, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, later said he intends to press forward with an expanded plan, telling reporters there are other bills available that can be used.

"We can still pass a bill without his support," Kelsey said. "It is possible."

The governor, however, may be in a good position to block any such effort in the House. Republican Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, have been less enthusiastic about going beyond what Haslam wants.

Vouchers or "opportunity scholarships" as some proponents call them let parents use taxes targeted for public school to pay tuition at private schools.

After the Senate passed a voucher plan in 2011, it went nowhere in the House. Haslam stepped in and created a task force headed by his education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, to study the issue, coming back this year with a limited plan.

The task force recommended a plan, backed by Haslam, that limited vouchers initially to 5,000 students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and attend one of the state's bottom 5 percent of schools.

Senate Republicans have their own plan which expands the number of students. It allows them to come from any school. And it nearly doubles the income provision.

Public schools and other critics say it would take badly needed money away from them and wreck public education. Proponents say it frees students and their families from schools they believe are failing them.

In other legislative action Wednesday:

• Whiskey bill -- Senators approved changes in the state's 2009 whiskey distillery law, which now put Chattanooga and Hamilton County into its provisions.

The bill, which passed 22-9, would allow distilleries in Chattanooga or other cities that have passed both liquor-by-the-drink and retail package store sales through referendums. The measure, which applies statewide, also includes counties.

A provision allows cities and counties to opt out if government leaders wish to, provided they act within 45 days of the would-be law's July 1 effective date.

The measure now goes to the House where Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, has criticized provisions. Among them is one that would allow the distilleries, which can sell their product to the public, to sell the whiskey on Sundays.

Floyd said another provision eliminates cities' ability to keep distilleries at least 1,000 feet from churches. Sponsors of the House and Senate bills said that isn't the case. They also said the bill keeps distilleries from operating at least 1,000 feet from schools.

Also on Wednesday, Angela Stinnett asked Hamilton County Commissioners to be mindful of the whiskey legislation. She expressed concerns about how close distilleries could be to churches and schools under the legislation.

Meanwhile, a group called Let Hamilton Distill that bills itself as pro-distillery, says it wants the issue settled at the ballot box, although the bill allows distilleries to open in Chattanooga without one.

The group said it commissioned a poll by InFocus Research. They said it says 81 percent of 607 residents during a two-day, automated telephone survey this week said they want the issue decided by voters.

• Welfare schools -- The House Health Committee approved a bill linking a family's welfare benefits to student performance just one day after Haslam voiced major concerns about the measure.

The Republican-led panel voted 10-8 to advance the bill, The Associated Press reported, despite reservations voiced by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga.

Republican Rep. Vance Dennis of Savannah's bill would cut monthly welfare payments if a child fails to "maintain satisfactory academic progress."

Proponents say the cuts can be avoided if parents attend conferences with teachers, take parenting classes or enroll their children in tutoring programs or summer school.

Haslam told reporters Tuesday he doesn't see a "direct connection" between grades and benefits and said he "very strongly" would consider vetoing the bill.

Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, said, "I am more concerned about the child starving for a lifetime, than I am for a few days."

Favors said parents can't always control their children's behavior or how well they do in school. Citing her own experience as a divorced parent, Favors recalled getting a call from school officials about one of her four children skipping class.

"I was dropping him off at school, and he was going out the back door," she said. "I was a nurse, and my children were in four different schools while I was nursing. I couldn't go to everything they attended."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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