House Democratic Leaders Push Energy-Efficient Schools Bill

AP

NASHVILLE (AP) - House Democratic leaders are hoping to win the support of Senate Republicans for legislation that would make Tennessee schools more energy efficient.

Democrats, who have a majority in the House, say the "Energy Efficient Schools Initiative of 2008" would create a fund using up to $200 million in lottery surplus money.

Lottery reserves are expected to be about $440 million this year.

The Democrats' proposal would fund an endowment that makes grants or low- and even no-interest loans to schools to pay for energy-saving devices such as new lighting, windows and more efficient heating and air-conditioning systems.

It's an alternative to a plan developed last year by House Republicans. That proposal calls for using $150 million to $200 million from the surplus to fund unrestricted matching construction grants for each of the state's 136 school systems.

The money would be distributed based on the number of students in each district.

No action was taken on the GOP proposal because the House and the Senate - where Republicans control key committees - bogged down over expanding college scholarship programs and how to spend the surplus.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, told reporters last week that he is willing to consider the Democrats' plan.

"I just want to stress that I want to make sure our Republican House members are involved in this because this is one of their issues last year that they felt extremely passionate about," Ramsey said.

House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, said he and Ramsey have had an "extensive conversation" about the issue.

House Education Committee Chairman Les Winningham has argued that because school construction costs are so high, the House Republican proposal would actually deplete the surplus.

The Huntsville Democrat has said spending on energy-saving equipment is more reasonable. He said that because the Energy Efficient Schools Initiative allows for low- to no-interest loans in addition to grants, the fund can to some extent become self-sustaining with school districts paying off loans from energy savings.

"It's an investment in the future. It'll help every school system," Winningham said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, has proposed putting $200 million from surpluses into an endowment and using the interest to fund expansion of needs-based scholarships for lower income Tennesseans.

He said last month he is "sympathetic" to the Democrats' plan.

"That kind of recycling of money makes much more sense than simply writing checks" as envisioned by the House GOP plan, the governor said.

Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, www.timesfreepress.com

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