Tennessee budget bill bans BEP lawsuit funds

Tennessee budget bill bans BEP lawsuit funds

April 17th, 2015 by Andy Sher in Politics State

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, speaks during the House debate over the state's spending plan at the state Capitol in Nashville on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.


NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Republican lawmakers sent a $33.8 billion annual spending plan to Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday complete with orders for school boards in Hamilton and six nearby counties: They can't use any state dollars to sue Haslam for underfunding the Basic Education Program formula for K-12 education.

Legislative Democrats protested the directive, with one House member charging Republicans were acting like a "bully."

But the lawsuit, which says Tennessee underfunds public education by more than $500 million, won't be deterred by Republicans' move, said D. Scott Bennett, the attorney for Hamilton and six other counties' school districts.

BEP funds don't pay school districts' legal fees, Bennett said.

"We're not using state funds to finance the litigation," he said.

The lawmakers' amendment also says that if the school districts lose, the state's cost from the lawsuit would be deducted from the state's share of the formula.

"At first blush, I question whether that's constitutional," Bennett said. "Since the lawsuit's already been filed, it amounts to a retroactive law, which the [state] constitution prohibits."

On the House floor Wednesday, Democrats who sought to press the issue were rebuffed by Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

He charged Democrats want courts rather than the elected General Assembly to decide how much money schools need. And, he said, Democrats want to give schools money "so they can sue the taxpayers with their own money for a massive tax increase."

"That's what this argument is about," McCormick said, and then pointedly added, "That's why there's only 26 of you [Democrats in the 99-member House]."

Democrats got much the same treatment in the Senate, where Republicans enjoy a 28-5 majority, though Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, warned that judges would take notice of such heavy-handed actions when the lawsuit gets heard.

Ultimately, the House voted 80-12 for the appropriations bill while senators later sent it to Haslam on a 32-1 vote.

House Democrats also failed to add a budget provision authorizing Haslam, a Republican, to proceed with an expansion of Medicaid that has already failed twice in Senate committees.

The budget includes $165.8 million in economic incentives for Volkswagen, which plans to produce a new line of SUVs at its Chattanooga plant, and $30 million in incentives for Nissan's Nashville-area operations.

Lawmakers wrangled over $120 million to build a new state museum in Nashville. Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, sought to strip $60 million out of the project, with $30 million to go to the state's Rainy Day emergency fund and another $30 million for road construction.

But his amendment failed.

Other budget provisions include adding $76 million to the Rainy Day fund, bringing the total to $568 million; setting aside $100 million for teacher pay and another $40 million for the BEP funding formula. Haslam last month added another $30 million to the BEP for teachers' health insurance.

The move was made after the Hamilton County suit was filed. It increases the number of months the state provides a share of money for the insurance from 10 months per year to 11.

Reporter Tim Omarzu contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.