published Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Tennessee 'Don't say gay' bill delayed

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Should K-8 teachers be allowed to discuss homosexuality with students?

NASHVILLE — The so-called "Don't say gay" bill, which bans teaching about issues related to homosexuality in grades K-8, was delayed in the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

Republican proponents tweaked the measure to address concerns about student bullying as well as school counselors' efforts to provide guidance to students.

But Gov. Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican, later told reporters he continues to have concerns about the legislation, saying, "I don't think that should be a priority of the Legislature. I think there's other things we can and should be focused on right now. I've been upfront about that from the beginning."

Earlier in the day, the GOP-controlled House Education Committee got off to a late start as GOP leaders and sponsors met behind closed doors in House Speaker Beth Harwell's office to listen to concerns about the bill from Haslam's director of legislation, Leslie Hafner.

"Yes, there was someone there from the administration expressing concerns," confirmed Harwell, a Republican, "not so much necessarily about the content of the bill but rather it's been labeled a certain way in the press and how do we overcome that, I think was the concern."

The bill, now sponsored by House Education Subcommittee Chairman Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, and Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, has drawn fire for more than a year from gay activists and been lampooned on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and most recently by liberal commentator Keith Olbermann on his "Countdown" cable program.

As passed by senators last year, the bill says "any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science."

Critics say that would stop discussions of homosexuality.

Proposed changes from the bill's original sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, say local school districts should adopt policies and procedures to ensure all classroom instruction, course materials and other informational resources that address the subject of human sexuality are age-appropriate for the intended student audience."

But it mandates any material "inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate" in grades K-8.

The amendment does say local school policies shall not prohibit "any instructor from answering in good faith any question or series of questions, germane and material to the course, asked of the instructor and initiated by the student."

It also allows school counselors, nurses or other authorized employees to counsel students engaging in behavior "injurious" to the physical or mental health of other students. Similar provisions bar local systems counselors and other personnel from "appropriately responding" to a student "whose circumstances present issues involving human sexuality."

In other developments Tuesday:

Haslam defended a provision in his proposed civil service overhaul for hiring, promoting and firing state employees. The provision ends preferences in current law for military veterans.

"Remember," Haslam told reporters, "in the new system there won't be points and preferences like there was [for anyone as] in the old system. They will, obviously, be guaranteed of the right to an interview, which is really the maximum you guarantee things in the new system.

"In the old system there were certain points you got for years of experience, for veterans' services, etc.," Haslam added. "There won't be a system like that anymore."

When the bill was discussed in the House State and Local Government Committee earlier in the day, Democrats and a Republican voiced concern that it should include preferences for vets, including those who have served their country in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I think all things equal, they [vets] should have" hiring preferences, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, told administration officials.

Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, a veteran, agreed, voicing concern that a provision requiring at least one veteran be interviewed is no assurance at all.

"I'd just like to say as a veteran, I see it differently," Cobb said, later calling the lack of any preference for veterans "almost an insult. ... They should get points. They should get something of value."

The administration held off moving the bill to give lawmakers more time to digest lengthy changes on other provisions.

Haslam, meanwhile, said he is still "working through" Republican leaders' bill to cut lottery-funded college scholarships for high school graduates if they don't score at least a 21 on their ACT test and have at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

Current law says they can have one or the other. Republicans say the move is needed because lottery revenues have not kept pace and the state has been forced to dip into the lottery reserve.

"I think we're still working through just the new revenues" of the lottery, Haslam said. "I have said I don't think it's fair to keep spending down the balance and let someone 20 years from now worry about."

Critics of the move, like Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, note lottery revenues are rebounding. Asked about that, Haslam said, "I think it's fair to relook at it and see how does the math work now."

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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