Session ends: Charter schools, judicial remap bills fail

Session ends: Charter schools, judicial remap bills fail

April 20th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

The Tennessee Capitol

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - The 108th General Assembly adjourned for the year on Friday with the Senate refusing to proceed with a major charter school bill after the House earlier shot down a Senate-backed judicial redistricting plan.

But as senators and representatives wrapped up their annual session at the earliest date in 23 years, they did give final approval to two Hamilton County lawmakers' proposed 13-month moratorium on municipal annexation.

"I do think we had a successful General Assembly," Republican Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, later told reporters, citing passage this week of the state's $32.7 billion budget and success earlier in the session on Gov. Bill Haslam's overhaul of workers compensation and other measures.

Haslam later told reporters a lot was accomplished this year.

"First of all, we passed a budget which I'm a little prejudiced about. It cuts taxes. It adds $100 million to the Rainy Day [reserve] fund."

The failure of a statewide charter school "authorizer" was a blow to Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, who championed the proposal. The bill created a new entity and gave it firm authority to overrule local school systems' rejection of applications for would-be operators and make the decision stick.

As amended, the bill would initially have affected the five school systems in which the bottom 5 percent of schools are located. They are Hamilton, Davidson, Knox and Hardeman counties plus Memphis city schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded, privately run schools that don't have to operate under some of the regulations that traditional public schools face.

As amended, the bill did away with the new "authorizer" and strengthened the State Board of Education's role. Also left on the table was another bill with a provision allowing for-profit companies to run the non-profit schools.

Ramsey, meanwhile, had pushed for the state's first redrawing of judicial districts in 29 years. The proposal had started with redrawing most of the state's existing 31 judicial districts. But facing stiff opposition from judges, district attorneys and public defenders, Ramsey retreated to a far most modest plan that affected a handful of districts.

Still, the House wasn't happy. Rep. Judd Matheney, R-Tullahoma, and Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kent, whose districts were among those affected, rallied a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who smacked the bill down on a 66-28 vote.

The annexation bill arose out of Hamilton County and its disputes with recent Chattanooga efforts. Sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, the bill originally would have required voters in areas cities wish to annex to first have the right to a referendum vote.

After encountering fierce opposition from cities and lawmakers who don't have similar battles, the bill was substantially revised and the referendum portion discarded.

A conference committee ironed out differences in the House and Senate bills. In the end, the bill establishes a moratorium on annexation from April 15 to May 15, 2014, during which time the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations will study annexation issues and come up with recommendations.

The moratorium would affect only annexations dealing with residential and agricultural land. Commercial, retail and industrial property are exempted, as are annexations in which owners petition to come into a city.

In an effort to soothe fears of legislative opponents that it would still harm local economic development and job creation efforts, the bill would allow cities to petition county governments to opt out. The original House bill left out 15 counties. Senators refused to go along, leaving many House members upset.

Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, wanted out.

"If it's good for Chattanooga and others to have a moratorium, good, but leave us out," he said.

Carter said nearly a dozen anti-annexation bills were introduced this year by other lawmakers.

"It is not just a Hamilton County problem," he said. "This is a problem across the state."

The conference committee report flew through the Senate on a 26-0 vote. The House approved it 58-32.

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