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VOL. 129 | NO. 77 | Monday, April 21, 2014

108th General Assembly Adjourns for Year

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — State lawmakers concluded a session Thursday in which they approved measures to allow folks to buy wine in grocery stores, fight methamphetamine production and give high school graduates free tuition at community colleges.

But the 108th Tennessee General Assembly rejected a key educational proposal to create a program that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school using state funds. It also eliminated planned raises for teachers and state employees, which ended up being one of the most contentious issues toward the end of the session.

Gov. Bill Haslam had planned to give a 1 percent pay increase to state employees and 2 percent to teachers, but later said he wouldn't be able to because of poor revenue collections.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the House presented proposals to give teachers and state employees one-time bonuses and contingency pay increases, but all those amendments failed.

Haslam said during a press conference after the session that he's still committed to trying to find ways to make the pay hikes happen, particularly in the case of teachers.

"Going forward, is it a priority for me? The answer is 100 percent," he said. "People teach for reasons way beyond pay, but it's a piece of it."

Heavy criticism for reneging on the pay hikes added to a tough session for the Republican governor, who saw the second consecutive defeat of a key education initiative to create a school voucher program in Tennessee.

The school voucher legislation was withdrawn from the House Finance Committee because the lawmaker carrying the measure for the governor said there weren't enough votes.

The hang up has been mainly about how many students should be eligible for the vouchers, or so-called "opportunity scholarships."

Last year, Haslam pulled a more limited version after attempts by members of his own party and other voucher proponents to expand it.

This year, he proposed a slight expansion that the Senate approved. However, the House version was broader and opposed to by many of the House members.

The governor also received pushback on the implementation of the state's Common Core standards and their testing component, developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

The tests were scheduled to begin statewide in the school year that begins in August, but lawmakers voted to delay their implementation for a year. They originally sought to delay the tests two years and further implementation of the Common Core standards for the same amount of time. The legislation does prevent standards beyond the current new benchmarks for math and reading, meaning standards in subjects like science and social studies wouldn't be implemented.

Haslam was against any type of delay. He and other supporters of the standards say they are needed to better prepare students for the future. They're intended to provide students with the critical thinking, problem solving and writing skills needed for college and the workforce.

The governor also didn't get quite what he wanted in terms of the meth legislation, which seeks to limit the sale of cold and allergy medicines used to make illegal methamphetamine.

Haslam and the Senate had supported a version of the bill that would have set a 14.4-gram annual limit before requiring a prescription. The bill that passed will require a prescription to obtain more than 28.8 grams of pseudoephedrine per year, or about five months' worth of the maximum dosage of medicines like Sudafed that are used to cook meth in makeshift labs.

The governor did score a victory with passage of his signature proposal to create a program that would cover tuition at two-year colleges for any high school graduate.

Called "Tennessee Promise," the legislation is a cornerstone of Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign to improve the state's graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.

Other key legislation lawmakers passed includes a measure that grants authority to cities and counties that have package stores or liquor-by-the-drink sales to hold referendums on whether to allow wine sales in supermarkets. Even so, the earliest wine can be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores is the summer of 2016 — or a year later if they are near an existing liquor store.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has said lawmakers may consider moving the date up.

And the main proposal lawmakers passed — which they're constitutionally required to do each year — was the state's $32.4 billion spending plan. Even though it doesn't include pay increases for state employees and teachers, it does hold off a proposed 5 percent increase to their health insurance premiums.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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