published Monday, April 14th, 2014

Down to the wire: Tennessee lawmakers' schedule crammed in final days of session

The Tennessee Capitol.
The Tennessee Capitol.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Like weary boxers entering the 12th round of a hard fight, Tennessee lawmakers return today for what members hope is the final week of their annual legislative session.

They still have dozens of bills and battles to slog through to wrap up three months of work that started Jan. 14.

Still, said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, "I think we can finish up Tuesday or Wednesday."

One bit of leverage? Now that they've performed their only constitutional duty and passed the $32.4 billion 2014-2015 budget, lawmakers can adjourn anytime they can get 50 yes votes in the House and 17 in the Senate.

The threat should make lawmakers work fast, McCormick said.

Here's some of the bills they'll be focusing on and sometimes fighting over:

Common Core tests -- Gov. Bill Haslam and his education chief, Kevin Huffman, have played defense all session to keep fellow Republicans from ripping up Common Core education standards and new student tests prepared by the 17-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Many social conservatives and tea party followers detest the PARCC test and there's a good chance the House and Senate may ditch them and put testing out for bid, McCormick and other legislative leaders said last week.

"I think we'll probably send out a Request for Proposal and have some competition" on the tests, McCormick said.

Open carry -- Republican leaders wanted to avoid fights over guns this year. But Second Amendment advocates have soldiered on and last week the Senate surprised many by removing permit requirements to carry a handgun openly.

The House bill is bottled up in subcommittee but its sponsor, Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, is trying to leapfrog the committee system and bring the bill directly to the House floor. That would take a two-thirds vote by the House to suspend the rule. The GOP has 71 votes in the 99-member chamber.

However, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Sunday that Haslam's administration has moved to kill the bill through legislative maneuvering.

Every bill must go through the Fiscal Review Committee to determine whether it would require expenditure of state funds. The News Sentinel reported that the Senate bill passed last week with a fiscal note -- the second of two -- finding no significant impact.

The next day, though, Fiscal Review issued a "corrected" third note stating the bill would cost $100,000 in public money. The committee said the Department of Safety decided it would have to change handgun permit cards. Now the permits are valid for either concealed or open-carry. But under the open-carry law, the safety department said, it would want permits to state they are valid for concealed carrying.

The $100,000 cost means the bill has to pass the Senate Finance Committee, creating a delay.

The News Sentinel quoted John Harris, president of the Tennessee Firearms Association, saying the move "appears to be a scheme by the administration to falsify a fiscal note for the purpose of delaying or killing" the bill.

Guns in parks -- Senators in February easily passed a bill doing away with local governments' authority to keep handgun-carry permit holders from going armed at government-owned parks, playgrounds and ball fields.

It's been bottled up in the House Budget Subcommittee over the cost of changing signs, a provision the Senate bill did away with. It's unclear whether a move will be made this week to get the bill rolling.

School vouchers -- The Senate last week passed a slightly expanded version of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to allow parents of students at the state's lowest-performing schools to use tax dollars to send their children to private or religious schools.

The senators' version provides that if not enough students from these 83 schools, including six in Hamilton County, fill the 5,000 available slots, low-income students from better-performing schools will be eligible.

Last year, the House battled Haslam in an attempt to greatly expand the bill. If they do the same this year, the bill may fall through the cracks yet again.

Tennessee Promise -- Haslam's plan to put $300 million from state lottery reserve funds into an endowment and provide Tennessee high school graduates with two free years of community or technical college seems to be on firmer footing.

The idea is pump up the dismal percentage of workers with post-high school degrees or training, to assuage employers and companies like Volkswagen that gripe about having to advertise out of state to fill highly technical posts.

Pseudoephedrine limits -- After years of struggle in the House to impose limits on the amounts of pseudoephedrine-based cold remedies consumers can buy without a prescription, representatives passed a watered-down version of Haslam's proposal.

But senators have stuck with Haslam's tougher bill, which is intended to strike at abusers who cook pseudoephedrine into illegal methamphetamine. If senators pass the stricter approach, the bill will likely end up in a conference committee that could produce an entirely different bill. If it's much stronger, it would face rough going in the House, proponents of the House measure say.

Cannabis oil -- Medical marijuana proponents' hopes were dashed by lawmakers, but a modest proposal to allow a limited university hospital study on cannabis oil's effects on children with intractable seizures passed the Senate last week.

Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, the bill was brought after desperate parents began urging lawmakers to do something for their children.

Carter's bill is on the House floor calendar this week.

Veto override session? -- Tennessee lawmakers haven't had a veto override session since the early 2000s during the state's income tax wars. But now Haslam could face one from GOP lawmakers.

Once a bill hits the governor's desk, he has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to review it and decide whether to sign, veto or allow it to become law without his signature.

To have a veto override session, lawmakers don't adjourn; instead, they recess and come back in several weeks or a month.

But state law says legislators legally can't raise campaign cash until they adjourn for the year. Lawmakers, especially those who face primary opponents on Aug. 7, might have a tough decision to make.

McCormick said he expects any "technical correction" session, as he called it, to be around May 15.

He said he plans to discuss with Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the idea of offering up two resolutions to GOP Caucus members.

One is for a veto override session. The other is to adjourn "sine die," that is, leave for good.

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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