Tennessee Gov. Haslam says he'll sign school bus seat belt bill if it passes General Assembly

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 11/24/16. Motorists pass a collection of teddy bears, mementos, and balloons placed at the site of a fatal school bus crash on Talley Road on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The makeshift memorial to victims of the Monday crash, which killed 6 Woodmore Elementary students and injured dozens more, has grown since the road was reopened Tuesday.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he will sign Rep. JoAnne Favors' school bus seat belt legislation should the measure pass the General Assembly.

The governor told reporters that while the main proposal to address problems - new bus safety requirements for school districts - unanimously cleared the House on Monday night, his administration is "technically deferred" on Favors' bill.

"I think there's a big discussion back and forth in the Legislature," Haslam said. "Deferred means if they pass it, we'll sign it and figure out a way to fund it. But we're not actively engaged in that one. The proposal we made was the proposal that we obviously wanted to make certain would happen."

Haslam's bill avoided the seat belt issue entirely. Instead, it raises school bus drivers' minimum age from 21 to 25 and imposes new training and reporting requirements on public and charter schools in regard to school bus transportation.

Favors' bill would require safety-restraint systems on all new public and private buses ordered or purchased beginning July 1, 2019.

Her bill cleared its third House hurdle Tuesday when it won approval on a voice vote in the House Administration and Planning Committee. It's now been sent to the Government Operations Committee.

"I'm really excited about it and I think the plethora of evidence that supports the restraint systems in school buses, I think everybody's seen that now," Favors, D-Chattanooga, said.

The Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is in the Senate Finance Committee.

The legislation put forth by both Haslam and Favors was prompted by the Nov. 21 crash of a Woodmore Elementary School bus in Brainerd that killed six students.

The bus driver, Johnthony Walker, was indicted on six counts of vehicular homicide and other charges. He was a driver for Durham School Services, which operates under a contract with the county school system. Students, parents and some educators had complained about his previous driving and treatment of children.

Among other things, Haslam's bill requires stricter guidelines on quickly handling complaints against drivers and requires contact telephone numbers be posted on the bumpers of buses.

Two previous Tennessee bills requiring mandatory school bus seat belts, introduced in the last 10 years after crashes resulting in four deaths, never passed, with costs being a major issue. A number of other states have moved to implement such requirements.

Earlier Tuesday, House Education Committee members once again debated Favors' bill, which previously passed the Transportation Subcommittee and full Transportation Committee.

"The six young people who were killed, you can't put a price on their lives," said Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, who supported the legislation. "Those 31 injured will not only be physically impacted by that disaster but emotionally. Can you imagine what it will be like for those youngsters to live the rest of their lives with that terrible tragedy?"

But Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, chairwoman of the Transportation Subcommittee, continued to raise objections similar to ones she's raised previously.

"Who's the monitor, who's the [school resource officer] to help these children out of their seat belt?" asked Weaver, who noted that while "every life is priceless," she worries about young children trapped in buses that catch fire. "I think the concern I have in my heart is the price of life."

Weaver said dozens of students trapped by seat belts in a bus that catches fire "can cost more lives" than the 10 children who died in Chattanooga and the two other Tennessee school bus crashes in recent years. And she again challenged Favors saying the bill "is based on emotion and any kind of legislation that is based on emotion is usually not good policy."

But Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, who represents a county where two children died in a bus crash several years ago, countered that his research found some 40 reported incidents of school bus fires in recent years "and not one fatality."

It's a concern, Smith acknowledged, but noted so is a bus with no seat belts that flips over.

"We're never going to find one thing that will protect every child but I believe this is a good bill and protecting our kids and giving them a fighting chance," Smith said.

After the vote, Ashley Jones, whose niece Cor'Dayja Jones died in the Brainerd crash, said she felt "so much negativity" from the measure's critics on the committee. "I don't understand. It doesn't make any sense. These babies need seat belts on school buses."

One of the issues over Favors' bill is its cost, but she amended the original bill, which required all public and private school buses have safety restraint systems by mid-2023. Instead, it now simply requires replacement buses come equipped with safety belt systems recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.

That will cost the state an estimated $2.15 million a year with that money going to local systems. Local systems statewide would see their costs increase by $12.9 million a year with an average of 600 or so buses replaced annually. Having new buses come with seat belts adds $10,000 more to the estimated $100,000 cost of a new bus, according to a legislative fiscal note.

Favors' bill still has several hurdles, with the next stop for the legislation being the Government Operations Committee. That came as a surprise to Favors, who thought the bill would go on to the Budget Subcommittee.

But Education Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, said that was the referral by the clerk's office, because the legislation would impact state rules and regulations, the purview of the Government Operations Committee.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.