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A wrecker removes the school bus from the scene of a fatal crash on Talley Road.
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NASHVILLE — Rep. JoAnne Favors' bill requiring seat belts on Tennessee school buses today was parked, perhaps for the year, "behind the budget" by a House panel today due to its estimated cost.

Finance Subcommittee Chairman Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, a co-sponsor of the bill brought following last year's deadly crash of a Hamilton County School bus, noted its costs would "increase expenditures pretty significantly."

Putting a bill that increases or cuts state expenditures "behind the budget" means that it's not in Gov. Bill Haslam's original budget nor in the supplemental budget amendment that the governor released Tuesday. 

That amendment included various budgetary nods Haslam made to the General Assembly's priorities in order to get his spending bill passed. The annual spending plan is expected to come through House and Finance Committees next week.

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Once that happens, the Finance Committees can revisit a bill — in this case, Favor's mandatory school bus seat belt measure — if any money is left.

During the presentation by Favors, D-Chattanooga, McCormick noted "we've got those issues [on costs] and as you know, you've been here as long as I have, how we handle this."

Favors told McCormick that she continues to work to reduce costs stated in the measure's latest fiscal analysis.

She said following the panel's action to delay it until the budget clears the committee that "I still haven't given up. I'm still feeling money will be found to fund it."

Speaking later with the Times Free Press, McCormick said the panel's action is "just not" the death knell for Favors' bill. 

"It just means it goes into the pile of bills that the Finance Committees get together and argue back and forth with the state Senate and the administration," he said.

Still, McCormick said, "it is a big fiscal note and it'll be tough to fit into the numbers we're being given now. But it's certainly not the end of the line. We still have that decision, but it's challenging because of the fiscal note that's attached."

Favors continues to work to to whittle down the fiscal note on the legislation, which would require all new school buses ordered or purchased beginning July 1, 2019, to come equipped with safety belts recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.

It currently stands at $2.15 million annually for the state and $12.9 million for public and private schools. That's down substantially from the original costs after Favors successfully challenged some of the Fiscal Review Committee analysis. 

The bill's fiscal note says requiring a new $100,000 bus to come equipped with seat belts would add $10,000 to the cost.

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Another major cost, according to the legislative analysis, is that seat belt equipped buses would reduce the number of seats in a bus by as many as 12 seats, which would require more buses.

But Favors, who has been talking with bus seat belt manufacturers, said she believes the number of lost seats — and costs — are substantially lower, as low as two seats per bus. 

As a result, she said, the bill's annual costs to the state could be as low as $936,000 and $5.61 million for local schools annually.

Meanwhile, McCormick said an amendment added by House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday did not add to the bill's costs. It says state agencies cannot promulgate rules to carry out the intent of the bill "until funding has been secure for such purposes."

Arguing that small counties like the ones he represent cannot afford the bill, Government Operations Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, put the amendment on, saying the state should bear the entire cost of the legislation.

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