NASHVILLE — Tennesse lawmakers kicked into high gear on Wednesday, the final day of the two-year 110th General Assembly's first session, passing Gov. Bill Haslam's "groundbreaking" Tennessee Reconnect Act, which effectively extends free college tuition to all state citizens.
The legislation builds on Haslam's 2014 Tennessee Promise initiative, which offers lottery-funded, last-dollar scholarships to recent high school graduates and all adults who have no post-secondary degree or certificate.
"Just as we did with Tennessee Promise, we're making a clear statement to families: wherever you fall on life's path, education beyond high school is critical to the Tennessee we can be," Haslam said in a news release.
In other final action Wednesday:
- After a two-year battle, Sen. Bo Watson passed his much-amended de-annexation bill that would allow disgruntled voters in sections of cities annexed by ordinance after 1999 to secede.
Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, is expected to push the companion bill in 2018. It's a followup to Carter and Watson's successful 2015 legislation that ended Tennessee cities' ability to annex new territory by ordinance. Now, annexed areas have to agree.
As he presented the de-annexation bill on the Senate floor, a clearly miffed Watson, R-Hixson, said "this may be the most comprehensively compromised piece of legislation this body will ever consider."
Watson said he's been "amazed quite frankly" by the attacks from "various constituencies."
Latest changes to the bill include a provision that expands the referendum vote on whether a section could secede from the entire city and not just the affected area. Another provision would prevent areas located well within a city from leaving in order to prevent "donut holes."
There were already provisions that residents who do vote to leave would still be on the hook for taxes related to bond issues and improvements made during their sojourn within a municipality.
- A bill requiring disclosure of legislative travel paid for by private groups and individuals interested in public policy passed the Senate.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, brought the legislation in the wake of news accounts about persons or special interests paying for legislative trips, including one funded by millionaire anti-Islamist activist Andrew Miller that sent some lawmakers to tour European cities with large Muslim populations.
McCormick wanted the disclosure bill to apply as well to legislative umbrella groups, primarily the American Legislative Exchange Council, which provides "scholarships" to lawmakers to attend its meeting. The group brings together conservative lawmakers with businesses, and critics say ALEC has too much influence in any number of state legislatures nationwide.
But McCormick said he ultimately gave in to senators' resistance to the legislature-related organizations' inclusion, because he felt the need to get something through the General Assembly this year.
- Tennessee officials will be able to continue their court fight to compel out-of-state internet retailers and catalog companies to collect state sales taxes.
Representatives this morning voted 73-1 to give final approval to an "omnibus" bill containing various departmental rules.
Among the rules is Haslam's effort to force remote sellers with no physical presence in Tennessee to collect and remit state and local sales taxes. The tax rule, which has already been challenged in state court by trade groups for internet retailers and catalog companies, ran into trouble in the House earlier in the week.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.