Fingers pointed over loss of Gov. Bill Haslam's school voucher bill

photo Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey

NASHVILLE - Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey on Thursday blamed the failure of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's school voucher bill on a fellow GOP senator he says was "bound and determined" to expand the measure over the governor's objections.

Now, with lawmakers hoping to adjourn in about two weeks, the issue is dead, said Ramsey, R-Blountville.

"I think something's better than nothing," Ramsey said of the insistence of Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, on extending vouchers beyond what Haslam proposed. "Sometimes, the search of perfection stands in the way of good. At least we should have had good and moved forward something."

Haslam pulled his voucher proposal Wednesday with Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who carried the administration's bill, saying the governor was sticking to his limited voucher plan.

Haslam's bill would have created a limited voucher program that in its first year would allow 5,000 children from low-income families attending the state's 83 lowest-performing public schools to use tax dollars to pay private school tuition. The numbers would have increased over time.

Kelsey and fellow Republicans on the Senate Education Committee, including Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, were intent on amending it.

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Gresham earlier had released a plan that would have nearly doubled Haslam's proposed income-eligibility limits to $75,000, increased the cap and allowed students attending any public school to qualify.

Speaking to reporters later Thursday, Kelsey said, "I intentionally never released any amendments ... so we could continue to negotiate."

But he said Haslam "was very clear he did not want any negotiations" and turned down last-minute proposals by Ramsey and Gresham to "tweak" the governor's bill.

While Kelsey held out the possibility of using another bill to carry voucher proposals, both Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell effectively ruled it out.

"It's late to be doing that right now," Harwell said, noting lawmakers are hoping to get out soon and it would need to be "fully vetted."

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a freshman and Senate Education Committee member, said he supports vouchers and early on committed to support all three plans. He favored Gresham's plan.

"I'm very disappointed that all three ended up conflicting with each other in some manner. I'm extremely disappointed Sen. Gresham withdrew her [separate bill]. I wasn't going to do anything to embarrass the governor. It really put me in a hard place."

Most Democrats contend the bill would harm public schools. Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron called the failure a "huge win."

House OKs food tax cut

In other legislation action Thursday, the House unanimously approved Haslam's plan to cut the state sales tax on groceries another quarter percent, taking the levy from 5.25 percent to 5 percent.

The measure now goes to the Senate, which is expected to approve it. Haslam and lawmakers last year cut the tax from 5.5 percent to the current 5.25 percent.

Each quarter-cent reduction costs the state about $23 million in revenue. For a consumer with a $100 grocery bill, it comes to 25 cents.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or