NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is allowing to become law without his signature a bipartisan bill he opposed, which gives the House and Senate speakers control of two-thirds of the appointments to the State Board of Education.
Lee communications director Laine Arnold confirmed to the Times Free Press in a brief text Friday the governor intended to let the bill become law without signing it, one of three options Tennessee governors have under the state Constitution when a bill comes to their desk. The other two options are signing or vetoing it.
"Not returned so allowed to go into effect; didn't approve of the bill," Arnold's text said.
Under current law, Tennessee governors make all the appointments to the nine-member board, which is tasked with establishing rules and policies governing all aspects of public K-12 education.
The legislation, House Bill 1838, passed the House and Senate earlier this month by supermajorities.
Once a bill comes to their desk, Tennessee governors have 10 days, excluding Sundays, to decide whether to sign, veto or allow the measure to become law without a signature. Friday was the 10th legal day since House Bill 1838 reached the governor's office on March 28.
With the legislation having been approved by supermajorities in both the House and Senate, Lee is exercising the third option. Had he vetoed House Bill 1838, he faced the prospect that his fellow Republicans in the legislature might have sought to override him — and possibly succeeded.
It only takes the same number of votes to override a Tennessee governor's veto as it does to pass the bill in the first place. That's 50 votes in the 99-member House and 17 votes in the 33-member Senate. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 30-1 and the House by 70-15.
"I haven't heard the governor is going to do that [not sign], but there's really no use of him vetoing it," Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, the bill's Senate sponsor, told the Times Free Press Friday evening in a telephone interview. "We'd have to override the veto. I think [the bill] is a good idea. That's why I sponsored it."
Lee defended the current process of making appointments to the State Board of Education to reporters in February.
"The process we have is a good one — confirmation by the General Assembly of appointments to that," the Republican governor said.
The new law begins affecting new appointments beginning July 1.
The new law provides three appointments each to House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, and Lee to the nine-member board. Each member represents one of the state's nine congressional districts, as is the case today.
The Senate speaker will appoint successors to members representing the 3rd, 4th and 7th congressional districts as the members' terms expire or are otherwise vacated. The House speaker appoints successors to members representing the 2nd, 6th and 8th congressional districts.
Lee will also appoint the non-voting public high school student member. The two speakers and Lee are each required to appoint a member of the minority party. Each of the three appointing authorities is also asked to strive for at least one appointee 60 years of age or older and one who is a member of a minority race.
Efforts to reach Sexton, who voted for the bill, and McNally, who abstained, were unsuccessful Friday.
All board members serve five-year terms and can be reappointed. The legislature confirms nominees.
Many Republicans and a number of Democrats have become increasingly critical of the board, as well as the Department of Education, under Lee's commissioner, Penny Schwinn.
"I fully supported [the legislation]," Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said Friday evening. "We usually carry the burden of oversight on state education and funding. We have the ultimate say-so how the funding works ... Since we're all close to all the school districts, we ought to have a little bit more say on that school board's appointment."
The House bill was sponsored by Rep. Scott Cepicky, a conservative Republican from Culleoka who has at times been a fierce critic of Schwinn, as well as the department and the board.
In 2020, Cepicky was among House Republicans who blasted Schwinn during a House Education Committee hearing on the reopening of public schools after they were largely shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among his criticisms was a lack of communication about the department's child well-being check program. Many Republicans considered it intrusive.
"There has to be trust between you and this committee," Cepicky pointedly told Schwinn. "We have to know that, philosophically, we're on the same page. There has to be cooperation between us, you and Gov. Lee. There's a million kids who are depending on us to get this right."
Asked in February by the Times Free Press after the board appointment came through a House Education subcommittee — despite opposition from Lee administration officials who testified against it — what precipitating event prompted him to bring the bill, Cepicky said a "little bit" had to do with the textbook waiver granting process that lawmakers stripped from Schwinn last year.
"And a lot of that had to do with some steering the department did at the local level and assuming the Textbook Commission would grant approval to the Wit & Wisdom [curriculum] that the commissioner gave 33 waivers for," Cepicky said at the time.
"Wit & Wisdom" curriculum has come under criticism, with some arguing it isn't appropriate for younger students, while others allege it is teaching critical race theory, which holds that racism has been embedded in the U.S. and its institutions since the first Black people were brought here as slaves in the 1600s.
While the Tennessee Constitution makes a legislative veto relatively easy, it nonetheless remains a rarity. The last time it happened was in 2001 when a combination of Democratic and Republican lawmakers overrode Republican Gov. Don Sundquist's veto of a budget lawmakers cobbled together to avoid the governor's proposed state income tax.