This story was updated March 20, 2018, at 11:36 p.m.
NASHVILLE — Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she's "pleased" by Gov. Bill Haslam's decision to set aside $3 million through a proposed budget amendment for a grant program encouraging schools to begin buying buses with safety restraints.
"It's an initial start," Favors said, adding she believes after the legislation passes more money could be added "in the future to accommodate more" buses.
The Chattanooga lawmaker brought the legislation in the wake of the fatal 2016 crash of a Woodmore Elementary School bus that left six children dead and some 30 other students injured, many seriously.
Haslam announced earlier Tuesday he added the $3 million in one-time money in a $74 million spending amendment to his recommended $37.5 billion state budget for fiscal year 2018-2019.
School districts could apply for matching grants for purchasing new buses that come equipped with three-point safety restraint systems for students.
"We've had a debate about school safety ever since the accident in Chattanooga," Haslam told reporters Tuesday. "We think this is a way as LEAs [local school districts] go forward purchasing new buses to help mitigate that cost."
Favors' bill would require all Tennessee school districts to begin purchasing new buses with the restraint systems, the intent being to phase-in the new buses over a period of years through attrition.
But a number of school districts, private-bus drivers and rural lawmakers have opposed the legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.
The bills have been in their respective chambers' Finance Committees since last spring.
Haslam's amendment, combined with a new legislative fiscal estimate on the bill's estimated costs, are signs changes are coming. They also may include changes to Favors' and Gardenhire's bill.
Issued just last week, the fiscal note reduces the estimated annual state expenditures from $2.15 million to $928,600 beginning in fiscal year 2020.
As a result, Haslam's $3 million would translate to three years worth of grants for the new buses.
The annual expense on districts would fall from $12.9 million to $5.5 million, according to the new fiscal note.
Favors said the bill's requirement that future purchases must be of buses that come equipped with National Transportation Safety Board-recommended restraint systems likely will be stripped from the legislation.
"No, that language is probably going away," Favors said. "We'll work on that. I'll be hopefully discussing that, presenting that in Finance Subcommittee next week."
She said some legislators appear comfortable with that "because it would provide an opportunity for counties who may not have the necessary funding to adapt to that."
Favors said she's hopeful that as a number of counties jump at the chance for state help and begin buying restraint-equipped school buses, "other counties will recognize the value of having this done to prevent loss of life and tragic injuries as occurred in the Woodmore accident.
"And," she added, "I think there will be more support for this from future Legislatures."
Among other things, analysts factored in that school systems across the state collectively purchase about 600 buses per year. There are an estimated 9,112 school buses in Tennessee, with 6,362 of them owned by districts. The remainder belong to private contractors, either individuals or companies.
With a new bus costing $100,000, analysts said that as a result of looking at new information, including a University of Alabama study, they lowered projected additional costs of having the vehicles come equipped with seat belts to $10,000.
Purchasing a used bus pre-equipped with the belt restraints costs about $59,000. But buses not originally designed with the restraint systems can't have them added, according to manufacturer safety specifications, and thus can't be safely retro-fitted.
"Therefore," analysts said, "it is assumed that such buses will not be approved by the NTSB, and will not be retro-fitted with seat belts."
The NTSB, which investigated the Hamilton County school bus crash, has yet to release its formal report and recommendations. But the agency some years back began recommending school buses come equipped with three-point, shoulder-and-lap safety restraint systems.
Earlier this month, a jury found Johnthony Walker, the driver of the school bus, guilty of of six counts of negligent homicide in the November 2016 crash. He was also found guilty of 11 counts of reckless aggravated assault, seven counts of assault and other charges.
Two dozen other students were injured.
Walker worked for the county school's private bus contractor, Illinois-based Durham School Services.
Durham School Services faces some 30 civil lawsuits filed on behalf of victims and/or families. At least five have so far been settled out of court.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.