Haslam suffers 2nd defeat on higher education legislation as Complete College Act fails in House

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during a news conference to unveil VW's plans to build the new five-seat Atlas in Chattanooga at the Volkswagen Conference Center on Monday, March 19, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers on Monday night dealt Gov. Bill Haslam a second parting blow as the term-limited Republican prepares to leave office next year.

The governor's proposed Complete College Act, a bill intended to give a hard nudge to scholarship students to wrap up course work and graduate in four years, failed on a 41-46 vote. It needed 50 votes to pass in the 99-member chamber.

A bipartisan coalition voted no. Among them was House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, who is running to succeed Haslam as governor.

This is the second major blow to Haslam's agenda this session. Nearly two weeks ago, the Senate Education Committee torpedoed four of his nominees to a newly fashioned University of Tennessee board of trustees.

That came after a fifth current trustee, sensing trouble, withdrew his name from consideration.

It was clear the governor's Complete College Act was in trouble last week as it came up for its first House floor debate. A number of Republican and Democratic representatives raised concerns. The bill was then delayed until Monday.

Among those who raised concerns on April 12 was Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who hit the bill again on Monday. It seeks to require students who have one or both of the state's lottery-funded scholarships - the Tennessee Hope and the Tennessee Promise scholarships - complete 30 hours of credit course work a year so they can graduate in four years.

Haslam says it's needed to push students toward graduation, which benefits them as well as his Drive to 55 program aimed at getting the state's percentage of students with some type of post-high school degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025.

But Sexton argued the bill was both unfair and impractical, citing his own personal experience as a student.

"A lot of us finished in five years," Sexton said, noting he had changed his major from health to public administration. Noting many credits couldn't be used for his new major, Sexton said, "I would have been penalized" under the governor's proposal.

It would have been better to give students notice well in advance of proposed changes, Sexton said.

Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, said the bill "penalizes the working student in my mind."

Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, sought to defend the governor's proposal, saying the bill provides sufficient safeguards with students being able to apply for "hardship" status and be spared from seeing the amounts of their scholarships slashed.

In an unusual move, the House's vote tally board was held open for some two minutes with proponents hoping to hit the magic 50 number of votes needed to pass a bill. Ten lawmakers simply voted present instead of casting a yes or no vote. Among them were two Hamilton County legislators, Reps. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge.

Had six of the abstaining members voted against the bill it would have put the tally at 50. If a majority of representatives vote against a bill, it cannot be brought back in the session. Because that didn't happen, the bill could come back provided the governor can scrounge up the votes.

Local legislators voting for the bill were Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga; Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain; and Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. Also voting aye were Reps. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown.

Among groups said to be working against the bill was The Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, which is comprised of private universities such as Vanderbilt but also a number of faith-based colleges and universities.

Haslam's Complete College Act isn't the only measure he's having trouble with in the final days of his last legislative session.

A Senate amendment dealing with physician prescribing has thrown the legislation into a tailspin. It's unclear how or if that will be resolved.

"They're in a fighting mood," one lobbyist said of tired, irritable lawmakers who've been meeting since January and are trying to finish Wednesday.

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