Wharton, Haslam React to Referendum Delay Talk

By Bill Dries

Talk in Nashville of legislation to block a March 8 city referendum on schools consolidation drew a stern reaction Thursday from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and a cautious reaction from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

A bill by State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville to include county voters outside Memphis in the referendum and lengthen the transition process by as much as a year is due in two Senate committees next week in Nashville.

The full legislature doesn’t return to session until Feb. 7 – the end of a three-week recess following Haslam’s inauguration.

Senate speaker and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has expressed a desire to see legislation that would call off or at least delay the referendum. Ramsey expressed concern about the ability to have a transition after voters make their decision.

Early voting on the referendum begins Feb. 16.

Word of Ramsey’s comments and the possible legislative moves to follow came as Wharton, during his state of the city address in Memphis, stressed the importance of a Memphis vote now that the election date is set.

“Ultimately it should be decided by the people and absolutely nothing should get in the way of that. When the Memphis City Schools said let the people vote on it – that’s the law,” Wharton said later.

“It is not going to go down well to change the rules in midstream. That’s going to be hard to explain as to why a law that has served 94 counties well for some reason is not a good law for the 95th county. That’s going to be very difficult to explain.”

Haslam maintained his position on not getting involved in the political controversy at this point, although any legislation that clears the House and Senate would come to his desk for a signature or a veto.

“My job is to make sure that every student – and I mean every student – gets an opportunity for a great education,” he said during an afternoon of events in Memphis.

“I’ll have to see obviously,” he said when asked if he would sign a bill delaying the referendum. “My concern is that if that vote happen that it be an orderly process so we don’t lose momentum. It’s just way too early to comment on any piece of legislation. … The state’s role in this is to make certain that we don’t harm the process of education – that it’s an orderly process.”