NASHVILLE — A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a resolution to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement-related issues, which first exploded last fall amid worries over Syrian refugees and Islamist extremists.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 9-1 to "direct" Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to sue. And because Republicans acknowledge they really can't force Slatery to sue, the resolution also authorizes the General Assembly to retain its own counsel and march into federal court.
The resolution, pushed by Republican Speaker Ron Ramsey, now goes to the Senate floor, where it would have to be approved and then go to the House. It is expected to fly through the upper chamber.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who presented the measure, made no mention of Syrians or Islamists to colleagues.
Instead, he focused on "unfunded mandates" on states, as well as what he said was the Obama administration's unwillingness to provide information about what refugees are being located in Tennessee and "states' rights" under the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment.
Federal law — 8 U.S.C. § 1157(a)(1) — authorizes a president to admit any number of refugees he believes "is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest." Alabama and Texas have already filed lawsuits challenging the resettlement of refugees.
Tennessee gave up running its own refugee resettlement program years ago and it is handled by the nonprofit Catholic Charities.
Norris said Tennessee takes in more than 1,000 refugees annually and state government is having to foot portions of the costs in areas such as Medicaid.
After Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, said the measure is "not welcoming" to people who are suffering or in danger in their home countries, Norris said, "This is not intended to be mean-spirited. It's not intended to engage in fear mongering."
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive Director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, later charged that's exactly what the measure amounts to. She said senators "voted to shut the door on refugee families in an exercise of political theater and election-year politics at its worst. The Senate Finance Committee just passed the most extreme piece of anti-refugee legislation in the country that asks Tennessee taxpayers to foot the bill for frivolous litigation that won't hold up in court."
She said at the national level "anti-refugee organizations have been shopping around this very lawsuit for months and have embarrassingly found a potential partner in Tennessee."
Among those voting yes on Senate Joint Resolution 467 was Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. It has 22 sponsors.
In other action:
* House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee members approved Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to break up the Tennessee Board of Regents by spinning off the higher education system's six four-year universities into self-governing entities, while keeping two-year institutions under TBR governance.
"With that much before me there's got to be something in there that I don't like. I'm not joking," Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, said of the bill. "Why does the governor, the administration, need to make all these changes?"
Haslam has publicly said the bill is meant to allow the Board of Regents to focus on its two-year community colleges and technical schools and benefit his proposed Drive to 55 plan to raise the number of Tennesseans with some type of post-high school degree to 55 percent by 2025.
But Rep. Kevin Dunlap, D-Sparta, said not all four-year universities are eager to come out from under the TBR umbrella, with smaller schools like Tennessee Tech concerned they won't fare as well.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said an amendment now allows the universities to continue under TBR until an individual university board "feels they are ready" to be more on their own. "This would allow each board to decide. I don't think the president of each and any of these universities are in a hurry to do it."
All six universities would continue to have some oversight by the Tennessee Higher Education Association, which would receive an additional $415,000 to add three new staffers to handle the new responsibilities.
Former TBR Chancellor John Morgan recently resigned his post over the Haslam proposal, saying it would actually harm the governor's Drive to 55 proposal. Haslam disagrees.
* A controversial bill that would have required women seeking an abortion first be shown an ultrasound image of their fetus was withdrawn after anti-abortion lawmakers complained it would provide legal fodder to challenges of Tennessee's existing restrictions.
Womick withdrew the bill after nearly a half hour of discussion and concerns expressed by colleagues. Womick said he would not try to resurrect the bill this year.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.