Tennessee Gov. Lee remains 'confident' on education savings account proposal despite concerns of Senate Republicans

Gov. Bill Lee meets with the media after speaking at a Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the EPB building downtown on Friday, March 22, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Lee says he remains "confident" that some version of his controversial "education savings account" legislation will pass the GOP-led Tennessee General Assembly despite questions, concerns and downright opposition from some members of his own party on a key Senate committee.

"I'm very encouraged with the movement of the bill in the houses and through both houses and believe and look forward to passing and signing it," Lee told reporters Monday after a bill-signing event.

The governor noted "there are a lot of changes being made as it moves through, appropriately so, and I'm excited about the opportunity for low-income kids who are zoned in particular for failing schools to have the opportunity and access to a quality education."

Lee's bill seeks to create a voucher-like program with taxpayer-funded accounts that parents of children in six school districts with at least three lower-performing schools would control and use to pay for private school tuition and associated expenses or for home schooling needs.

Over the weekend, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a longtime voucher proponent, said in a Times Free Press interview he is opposed to the bill.

That's in part because of changes Lee made to try and keep undocumented immigrant children out of the program.

Other Gardenhire concerns include the impact on Hamilton County's Partnership Network, which he, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, worked with state and local education officials to create as an alternative to a complete state takeover of the district's priority schools.

Lee's bill is scheduled to come Tuesday before the 11-member Senate Finance Committee, where at least four members of the 11-member panel, including Gardenhire and fellow Republican Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, are opposed. So are the panel's two Democrats.

Watson confirmed in an interview he has a number of questions about Lee's bill, including its financial impact.

"I think there's still a lot of moving parts right now. We're still working on some stuff, I think," he said.

Watson added: "We're still trying to make sure we understand the finances on it from the Finance Committee's perspective, trying to make sure we understand how it would be funded over time and what the impact would be."

He said that goes "particularly for me on just my Senate side and Hamilton County and what that means. But then in my Finance role in general what the impact is."

Moreover, Watson said, he believes, "there are a lot of members who are still discussing the bill to figure out whether they're comfortable with it or not."

Asked if the bill is in trouble, Watson said, "This is a big policy decision in education and I think the Senate, the Finance Committee is just doing its due diligence."

Lee proposes to spend upward of $125 million by the fifth year of the ESA program. While the program would only impact six districts based on the number of failing schools, those eligible for the program don't have to be zoned for a failing school. They can live anywhere within the district.

To get the bill through a House committee, Lee lowered his proposed cap on the number of students statewide to 15,000. But the Senate Education Committee passed a provision doubling the cap to 30,000 students.

Besides Watson, Gardenhire, Hensley, Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, a sixth Finance Committee member, Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, whose county would be impacted, confirmed Tuesday he has problems with the bill, as well.

Briggs said "there are conversations taking place" and a lot of discussion in his office about adjustments to the bill.

"I'm doing a lot of listening right now," Briggs said. But on the question of whether he is opposed to the bill, Briggs acknowledged, "I'm probably leaning that way."

If those numbers hold, Lee has a problem getting the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, acknowledged to reporters that Lee's bill is likely to be delayed in Senate Finance on Tuesday.

But he maintained that was because the panel is expected to begin looking at the Lee administration's major supplemental amendment to the governor's proposed FY 2020 budget as well as consideration of another Lee bill expanding privately operated public charter schools.

In response to a question about whether Lee actually has six votes to move the ESA bill out of the committee, Johnson said, "I think we can get to six. I think we can. And there's conversations taking place and addressing some concerns that some members have. And it's a complex proposal."

The legislation is House Bill 939/Senate Bill 795.

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