NASHVILLE -- Angry Tennessee Republican lawmakers are using the might of state government to strike back at school boards in Hamilton and six other area counties for suing the state over the adequacy of the Basic Education Program funding formula.
The Senate's and, later, House Finance Committee added an amendment Wednesday night to the proposed state budget implementation bill. The amendment, which will be considered in the bill that will be heard in both chambers today, specifically bars the systems from using any state or BEP funds for attorneys' fees, court costs or other expenses associated with the litigation.
And if the school boards lose, the state's costs associated with the suit would be deducted from the state's share of the formula.
The BEP distributes the state share of funding to local school systems, and that money is used for everything from the number of teachers and rate of salaries down to chalkboards.
Last month, school boards in Hamilton, Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Grundy, Marion and Coffee counties sued Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. The suit charges the BEP formula is underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars and thus violates the Tennessee Constitution, which provides the state will offer a free system of education.
Upon learning of the amendment, Hamilton County school board member David Welch appeared surprised and had no comment. He has been one of the prime members of the local school board who's voiced concerns over what they see as the inadequacy of state school funding.
Democrats in the Republican-controlled House Finance Committee raised objections when the amendment was presented by Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, Wednesday night.
"Would that not have some sort of constitutional implications?" asked Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. "We have a right, even a school board would have a right, to a trial by jury and you're telling them they can't use funds to do that?"
Fitzhugh noted poorer counties that feel the formula unfairly cheats them may not have the funds to sue from their own resources.
Replied Sargent: "I don't know of a county in the state without a property tax." He noted the amendment is "saying no state funds. ... They [locals] have other funds in there besides state funds. They can use local funds to file a lawsuit."
Fitzhugh said, "I know you don't want your own dog to bite you, I understand that part of it. But still, it seems a little unfair if you have a just cause against the state and can't have the ability to sue them."
"I feel you do have the ability," Sargent shot back. "I don't know of any county that doesn't have a property tax" to fund the litigation.
Rep. Bo Mitchell, R-Nashville, told the panel, "I just think we're setting a bad precedent with this amendment. If someone has a just cause and we're just trying to more or less threaten the locals that you shouldn't do this, we're just being the bully on this."
But two of the General Assembly's most powerful lawmakers -- who hail from Chattanooga -- House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, say the move is perfectly justified.
"It was not my idea, although I wish it was," McCormick said in an interview prior to the Finance Committee meeting. "I'm fully in favor of it."
Schools should use their own resources, he said. Asked how schools would differentiate what money is theirs and what's the state's, McCormick said, "I'm not sure. It would be their problem to deal with.
"Maybe they can get a special appropriation from the County Commission if they're so inclined," he added. "I just think it's a good idea that the state taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay legal fees if someone is suing the state taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars."
Watson said the amendment originated with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.
"I voted for the amendment and of course I voted for the budget," Watson said. "It just says you can't use the state's money to turn around and then sue the state. Obviously the locals like in Hamilton County, the [school system] or the local government could fund it. Or it could be funded by independent sources."
He said, "I think Sen. McNally was saying the state's providing the money, you shouldn't turn around and use it to pay an attorney to sue the state."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.