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House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, presides over the House on the first day of the 2020 legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton delayed Tuesday a legislative panel's hearing on his bill to require Gov. Bill Lee's administration to bring no-bid contracts before a legislative watchdog panel before awarding them.

A spokesman for the Republican speaker told the Times Free Press that the bill is not dead and that Sexton is taking a "very measured approach with his legislation."

Sexton introduced HB2727 after it was discovered that Lee's education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, bypassed the state's competitive bid process and awarded a two-year, $2.53 million contract to Florida-based tech firm ClassWallet. It was an effort to jump-start the Republican governor's already controversial school voucher-like Education Savings Account program a year earlier than expected.

In doing so, Lee's administration also bypassed the General Assembly's Fiscal Review Committee, which normally reviews non-bid contracts over $250,000. In addition, Schwinn plucked money from an education department pot of money for the now-defunct Master Teacher program account to add to the $771,300 that was previously appropriated by lawmakers for the program.

Members, including House Finance Vice Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain, have said they thought the ESA program wouldn't begin until the 2021 academic year.

A defiant Lee told reporters last week that "I care more about kids in the state than I do about a process that is trying to be hampered by those who are detractors."

Sexton's bill is sponsored in the upper chamber by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a vice chairman of the Fiscal Review panel.

Both Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Republican Senate speaker, put Lee on notice last week that they expect answers to their questions about what they believe was unauthorized use of the additional funds on the no-bid contract.

Schwinn has said no other company was capable of handling the online services for the Education Savings Account program, which will award low-income families grants of $7,300 to pay for private school tuition and related education expenses.

Doug Kuffner, a spokesman for Sexton, said in response to a Times Free Press inquiry Tuesday that Sexton is not backing off.

"He is committed to working with all stakeholders in crafting legislation that addresses the issues without adopting a one-size-fits-all mentality," Kuffner said.

He added that "as we work on this legislation, we will continue to ask additional questions in order to find the right solution. We are confident in our approach to finding the right process and pathway in the near future on this issue. When we do, the bill will be back on notice."

The House bill had been set for hearing Tuesday in the House Departments & Agencies Subcommittee of the State Committee. The panel's chairman said it has been taken off notice.

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

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