published Friday, April 18th, 2014

On last day, Tennessee legislators tackle liquor tax; Hamilton, Bradley omitted because suits filed

NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers ended their annual session Thursday by passing a flurry of last-minute measures, including a bill aimed at bringing peaceful resolution to many cities' yearslong failure to share liquor taxes with local school systems.

But the liquor tax bill now headed to Gov. Bill Haslam's desk doesn't include Hamilton County and Bradley County.

That's because counties were amended out after Hamilton County Schools last Friday sued Chattanooga city government over the issue and Bradley County Schools on Monday filed suit against the city of Cleveland.

"We think it's better instead of the Legislature defining the winners and losers to let the court decide the winners and losers," said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

Other measures passed in the waning hours of the 108th General Assembly included another local bill, this one overhauling Erlanger Health System's board of trustees.

It strips Chattanooga city government of it's four seats on the public hospital's current 12-trustee panel as well as an appointment made by Hamilton County's two Chancery Court judges.

The bill boosts county appointees from four to six and increases appointments made by the county's seven-member legislative delegation to Nashville from one to four. An appointment jointly by the mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County is gone. But Erlanger's medical chief of staff will continue to serve as a trustee, leaving an 11-member board.

Lawmakers' reasoning behind the bill is that Chattanooga no longer provides any funding to Erlanger. But Mayor Andy Berke's office argues that it is in the midst of considering providing funding to Erlanger. Eliminating city representation isn't exactly conducive to that, but lawmakers say if that happens the city can get back to the table.

As lawmakers scrambled to get out of Nashville and head into campaigns, they took final action Thursday on several major bills that have proved problematic all session. Among them:

* Common Core tests: The House and Senate approved a conference committee report that delays implementation of tests associated with the curriculum for one year.

Instead of testing put together by a state consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the state will rely yet another year on its existing Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). In the meantime, the state will solicit competitive bids from testing companies on another test. Social conservatives revolted against the PARCC tests, saying they promoted liberal ideology and didn't line up with Tennessee values.

Haslam resisted, but the bill passed by fellow Republicans who dominate the General Assembly didn't go quite as far as the two-year delay originally passed by the House.

"I think the biggest thing is we didn't want to back up on the standards and what passed didn't back up on the high standards," Haslam told reporters in a post-adjournment news conference.

* Anti-meth legislation: Waiting until nearly the last minute, lawmakers approved another conference committee report restricting the amount of pseudoephedrine-based cold and flu medications that Tennesseans can buy.

Pseudophedrine, used to make illegal methamphetamine, would be limited to 5.76 grams per month, or about 48 tablets. More than that would require a doctor's prescription. The annual limit is 28.8 grams.

The bill's limits are double what Haslam proposed and senators had sided with the governor. But in the end, the first restrictions in Tennessee passed after years of efforts.

"We obviously preferred the lower limits that we had proposed," Haslam said. "We are grateful that a bill got passed, and we will put that into practice and hope that it makes a real difference."

* Electric chair: Senators took final action and sent Haslam a bill allowing the resumption of electrocution of convicted murders should lethal injection drugs be unavailable.

* Textbook Commission: Acting on yet another conference committee report to settle differences, the House and Senate approved legislation that among other things revamps appointments to the state Textbook Commission and provides greater public access to recommended school materials.

The governor currently appoints commissioners. The bill now headed to his desk divides appointments between the governor, House speaker and Senate speak with each getting three appointments.

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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