God, sex and bathrooms on Tennessee lawmakers' minds

Bible tile
photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers hurrying to wind up their annual session have a full plate this week: God, guns, gambling, sex, school bathrooms and whether to override the governor's veto and designate the Holy Bible as the official state book.

After passing a budget last week - their only constitutionally required duty - lawmakers still have many controversial bills and resolutions to resolve. They were hoping to adjourn Tuesday but it now looks like the session will extend into Wednesday and perhaps Thursday.

Placing the Holy Bible is among those controversial bills. Senators voted this month to recognize the text for its historical and cultural significance in Tennessee. That puts the Bible alongside other state symbols such as a Tennessee-made .50-caliber sniper rifle, the square dance and the cave salamander.

But Gov. Bill Haslam said the bill "trivializes" what he believes is a "sacred text" and vetoed it. The bill also raised constitutional concerns for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

Bill sponsors Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, an ordained minister and insurance agent, and Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, a businessman and former Baptist minister, are plotting to override the veto starting Monday. All it takes is the same majority in both chambers as the initial vote to pass the bill.

Haslam said Friday he's lobbying against an override but wouldn't predict whether he'll be successful.

"I've had several members say, 'You know, I voted for it. I think if I had a chance to do it again I would vote differently,'" Haslam said but quickly added, "I certainly don't want to project how people's votes would be."

Another measure pushed by social conservatives that triggered national scrutiny and enormous criticism would require transgender students in public schools and colleges to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their sex at birth. A House amendment allows school administrators leeway to let transgender students use faculty restrooms or make other accommodation.

Proponents say it's all about protecting students' privacy and safety. The LGBT community calls it a hate bill targeting a vulnerable population subject to bullying and sometimes suicide.

Last week, 60 major corporations came out against the legislation including Cigna Health Insurance, which has a large presence in Chattanooga. A transgender physician who works for Cigna in Chattanooga came to the state Capitol to speak against the measure.

Slatery warned enactment could imperil $1 billion in federal Title IX funding for schools and colleges, while David Fowler, head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, urged lawmakers to hold firm against the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT advocacy group, and "big business bullies."

"What will this current crisis and panic bring to light in us?" Fowler said in a website posting. "Will we make a whore of our souls by swearing our allegiance to HRC, its allies, and their values of licentiousness, intolerance and tyranny? Or will we protect our children and grandchildren who attend our public educational institutions?"

The bills are scheduled for hearing by the House Finance Subcommittee and Senate Finance Committee on Monday.

Other measures up this week include:

- Stripping funds from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's Office of Diversity and Inclusion: After taking his bill off notice three weeks ago, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, last week resurrected the measure.

Republican lawmakers have been upset for years over the university's Sex Week, which proponents say promotes education and safe sex practices. They reacted angrily when the diversity office suggested the use of gender-neutral pronouns and a message urging university employees not to turn holiday parties into a "Christmas party in disguise."

Gardenhire told Senate Education Committee committee members he brought the bill back after getting emails from and speaking with several people who suggested the money be put to another use.

One such use, coming up in the Senate Finance Subcommittee this week, would provide engineering scholarships to minority students. The House companion bill would take $100,000 a year from the diversity office over the next three years to buy decals bearing the national motto "In God We Trust" for law enforcement vehicles. It also would bar UT from using state funds "to promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns, Sex Week or to promote or demote a religious holiday."

- Allowing public college faculty, staff and other full-time employees with handgun-carry permits to go armed on campus: A bill is making a late move in House committees and awaits Senate floor action. Other pending gun bills include lowering costs for a lifetime-carry permit and allowing U.S. military members under 21 to obtain permits.

- Suing the feds over refugees settlement program: The House on Monday is scheduled to take up a Senate-passed joint resolution authorizing Tennessee to join other states in suing the Obama administration over the federal refugee program. The Republican-backed measure calls on Slatery to file suit and allows lawmakers to hire a private attorney to do so if he won't.

- Amending Tennessee's Constitution to forbid a state property tax: The resolution by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, states: "The Legislature shall have no power to levy or impose a property tax as authorized by this section for state purposes on real property."

The resolution would have to be approved by both chambers this year and by a two-thirds majority in the next General Assembly to be placed on the 2018 ballot.

- Reducing the rate of the Hall income tax on stocks and bonds from 6 percent to 5 percent: The state would lose about $27.7 million a year and cities would see about a $15.1 million annual loss.

- Legalizing fantasy sports gambling: The House is scheduled to vote Monday whether to legalize and tax fantasy sports contests involving wagers. FanDuel and DraftKings have lobbied up and are heavily pushing for the bill, especially since Slatery recently called gambling in such online games illegal.

- Adding stability to insurer reimbursements: The "Health Care Provider Stability Act" Passed last week in the Senate by Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, attempts to resolve concerns by health care providers about changing insurance reimbursements.

Now, insurers must provide only 30 days' notice. Watson's bill would limit changes to once a year and require more transparency on insurers' decisions. The House-passed bill doesn't go nearly as far, allowing insurers to provide notice every 90 days.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.