Working overtime: Hoping to wrap up annual session, Tennessee House, Senate leaders meet over weekend in effort to resolve budget differences

The Tennessee State Capitol is shown in Nashville.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers head this week into what they hope is the final stretch of their 2019 legislative session, but remaining differences over the state's proposed $38.55 billion budget and several controversial bills could still snarl efforts to wrap up business.

In effort to prevent that, or at the very least minimize any delay of the state's annual spending plan, top Republican House and Senate leaders met Sunday to outline their respective stances and sketch out possible compromises in several key areas.

"There are just a couple of items we can't get to agreement on," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said following the meeting. "Right now, we need to think more about it."

He noted both chambers have laid out their respective "markers" on the budget with the full House approving their version of the budget last week while Watson's subcommittee approved the Senate's approach.

"I think we know what's important to them. They know what's important to us," Watson added. "So we're just trying to figure out those big rocks, how can we move those big rocks around. The little things are pretty easy."

House Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said "we're getting there. It's good. There was information presented back and forth, a couple of fiscal notes we want to look at and see the impact. How we view it and how they view it and see what the net effect is."

Still, he characterized Sunday's results as "small steps."

Republican senators and representatives held their meeting in an unannounced eighth-floor conference room in the Cordell Hull State Office Building.

For decades, if not longer, there's often a traditional cat-and-mouse game played during budget crunch times: Legislators like to iron out difference in secret without much public cussing and fussing while reporters seek to inform readers or viewers about what's going on. After the press showed up Sunday, the meeting quickly came to a close.

Key budget differences right now include how much money to put into Republican House Speaker Glen Casada's effort to provide $27 million for Tennessee to participate in the federal Katie Beckett waiver program.

The House wants the state to seek a waiver of federal Medicaid rules to help out middle and upper-middle class families caring for severely medically disabled children who don't qualify for TennCare, the state's Medicaid program for the poor. A number of families face huge health care costs that have pushed some into bankruptcy and even led to divorce as desperate families seek to qualify for TennCare.

The House is banking on using part of the $44 million in anticipated revenue from sales taxes levied to online sales in the wake of last year's U.S. Supreme Court Wayfair ruling. Senators are sympathetic but have appropriated $15.6 million for a scaled down waiver, using other revenues, arguing they've long planned on using any new revenue from the online sales rulings to cut other taxes.

Senators' plan calls for cutting the state's $400 per person privilege tax on professionally licensed occupations for doctors, nurses, other healthcare professionals as well as accountants, attorneys and others.

Watson said if the House backs off its plan to provide a $4 million sales tax break to telecommunications companies' purchase of cable lines and in some other areas, they can get much closer to the House's goal. There are a number of other differences in the respective appropriations bills as well.

As legislators seek to wrap up the first session of the 111th General Assembly, final action on several controversial bills awaits them. A list includes:

* Education Savings Accounts: Both Senate and House will have to resolve what has perhaps become a much harder than anticipated effort by new Republican Gov. Bill Lee to get his school voucher-like program through the legislature.

And right now, it appears likely to end up in a conference committee.

Both the House and Senate have approved different versions of the bill, which would allow parents of up to to 15,000 students use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools or home-schooling expenses.

The Senate bill would only apply to students zoned in Davidson and Shelby counties' school districts as well as the state-run Achievement School District.

It deletes Lee's original provision which included both Hamilton and Knox counties.

But the House version leaves Hamilton County schools in the bill. Under a deal Republican House Speaker Glen Casada cut with a Knoxville GOP representative when the vote stalemated on a 40-minute tie vote, Knox was removed from the bill.

But Hamilton County remains in the House version. Both Watson and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, want Hamilton out, citing ongoing work by the State Partnership Network formed between the state and local education officials to improve the lowest-performing schools, Brainerd High School and its feeder schools.

Other differences include whether parents who home school children are in or out of the bill. Representatives' version excludes them while the Senate version does not.

The House, meanwhile, has adopted Lee's language that effectively seeks to exclude undocumented students from participating by requiring parents to submit state or federal documentations such as a birth certificate, social security number and the like.

While it placated House Republicans, the Senate ignored the constitutionally suspect provision and added a requirement that parents simply submit a pay check stub or W-2 form to demonstrate they are in Tennessee.

Gardenhire, who has long advocated for the need for undocumented children to get a good education as a means of helping them get better jobs and become less dependent on government services, said Sunday that his final support of the bill rests on Hamilton County coming out of the bill and requiring parents to submit the pay check stub or W-2 form.

Not including the provisions are "deal killers for me," Gardenhire said Sunday.

* Final action also awaits several highly controversial LGBTQ bills that includes a measure allowing private adoption agencies to exclude same-sex couples on religious grounds as well as another bill directing the Tennessee State Attorney's office to defend local school districts on their restroom policies with regard to transgender students.

Amazon, IKEA, Lyft, Hilton and a number of other businesses here in Tennessee have signed a letter opposing the measures, saying they hurt their own efforts to recruit workers and have a negative impact on the state's business climate.

* On Tuesday, the Senate is scheduled to consider a House-passed bill that legalizes online sports betting in Tennessee passed the House on Wednesday.

It creates a regulatory regimen overseen by the Tennessee Education Lottery and would allow interactive sports gambling for persons 21 and older.

* And the House this week is expected to take final action on a nationally controversial bill pushed by Tennessee Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett that that could subject some large groups involved in voter registration efforts to civil - and possibly criminal - charges as well as fines if they submit too many incomplete or incorrect registrations and pay canvassers based on how many people they register.

The bill has drawn fire from critics who charge it is a "racist" effort to suppress primarily black voters after what is said was to be the most extensive organized effort in Tennessee history during the 2018 election.

Hargett and his state election coordinator, Mark Goins, brought the bill to fellow Republicans in the legislature after what they said were massive problems in last November's election.

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