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VOL. 127 | NO. 87 | Thursday, May 03, 2012

Lawmakers Adjourn Session Without Gun Showdown

ERIK SCHELZIG & LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – The 107th Tennessee General Assembly adjourned Tuesday without a final showdown over a contentious gun issue and the governor said he will decide in the next couple of days whether to veto a bill targeting Vanderbilt University's policies on religious student groups.

Democratic Rep. Eddie Bass of Prospect refused to say until the end whether he would try to pull the measure backed by the National Rifle Association directly to the floor.

In the waning moments of the session he took to the microphone and began making the motion, but then joked that he was reading the wrong paper. A relieved House broke into applause.

The bill seeking to overrule businesses' objections to allowing employees to store weapons in vehicles parked on company lots was opposed by Gov. Bill Haslam and the Republican speakers of the House and Senate.

Lawmakers passed a more than $31 billion spending plan that begins phasing out Tennessee's inheritance tax, eliminates the state's gift tax and makes a 0.25 percentage point reduction in the state's sales tax on groceries.

The final major piece of Haslam's remaining legislative agenda – an overhaul of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority – was sent to his desk early in the day.

"I honestly believe that the state of Tennessee will be a better state," Haslam told reporters after lawmakers adjourned Tuesday evening.

The governor was joined by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, both fellow Republicans.

Harwell lauded lawmakers for putting their differences aside and working together on key issues.

"I think you saw that the General Assembly can work well together," she said. "We bicker every now and then, but we set aside partisanship and regional differences to do the right thing for the state."

Besides the gun bill, other contentious proposals that failed this session include a measure to attract horse slaughter facilities to Tennessee and one that would have made led cutting some students' lottery scholarships in half, depending on lottery revenues.

Sen. Mike Faulk sponsored the horse slaughter legislation in the upper chamber. The Kingsport Republican is retiring, but he said earlier Tuesday that he hopes the proposal will be brought up again next year because it's an issue that needs to be addressed.

He said rural counties are paying a heavy cost for animal control efforts "because of horses just being turned loose, abandoned, that sort of thing."

"And the bottom line is, if you can't take a horse to a slaughter house, the horse has no salvage value. And that's how a slaughter house addresses the main problem," he said.

The lottery scholarship legislation looked likely pass this session after being approved in the Senate on a 20-10 vote last month. But the measure was withdrawn from consideration in the House Finance Subcommittee on Monday when the sponsor said recognized he didn't have the votes for passage.

An original proposal sought to reduce by 50 percent the award for students who do not meet both standardized testing and grade requirements.

Currently students can get a scholarship worth $4,000 for each of four years if they either earn a 3.0 grade point average in high school or score a 21 on their ACT college entrance exam.

The problem sponsors off the change ran into was trying to convince their colleagues the reduction was necessary when Tennessee lottery officials were reporting strong revenue figures that aren't expected to decrease anytime soon.

At the after-session press conference, Ramsey said lottery revenues had been declining when he appointed a panel to explore alternatives for the lottery scholarship, but then that changed.

"For some reason, unexplainable to me, last fall and into this year they have been increasing," he said.

Nevertheless, Ramsey said the lottery scholarship changes remain an option if lottery proceeds decline again.

"I think having that option on the table should that time come again will pay dividends," he said.

Haslam was asked at the press conference whether he would veto a bill seeking to rescind Vanderbilt University's "all-comers" policy, which requires student groups at the school to allow any interested students to join and run for office.

Haslam didn't say what he will do, but he did reiterate that he's not comfortable with the legislation.

"I don't agree with Vanderbilt's decision," he said. "That being said, I do have some concerns about the state telling a private institution what to do on kind of a non-constitutional issue."

If he vetoes it, it would be the first such action since he took office in 2010. Earlier this year he allowed a bill to become law without his signature. That measure would protect teachers who allow students to critique scientific theories like evolution and global warming.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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