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VOL. 132 | NO. 36 | Monday, February 20, 2017

Sexual Harassment Takes Stage in State Capitol Again

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Saying she was a victim of sexual harassment when she entered the Legislature, state Rep. Barbara Cooper is calling on tougher rules to stop inappropriate behavior toward women.

Mark Lovell

“When I first got here I was violated and disrespected by one or two of the legislators. And of course I did get an apology, but that’s all that was done. And I feel like if we have some strong measures in place, these kinds of things will not continue,” Cooper says.

The District 86 Democrat, who has been serving since the 100th General Assembly, spoke on the heels of Republican Rep. Mark Lovell’s resignation amid allegations of improper sexual contact with a woman last week.

House Speaker Beth Harwell has said the incident will not be investigated because Lovell, an Eads Republican from Shelby County, opted to leave elected office Tuesday morning. The Legislature adopted new guidelines dealing with sexual harassment in 2016 when Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin was ousted by the House of Representatives after an attorney general’s investigation found he had inappropriate conduct with 22 women in the Legislature.

One of the new requirements is for legislators to watch a 22-minute video on sexual harassment. But only about a third of House members had watched it by a Jan. 31 deadline, according to officials, and Lovell acknowledged to a Memphis reporter this week he had not seen the video.

Lovell denies the allegations of inappropriate conduct and contends he was told by House leadership to resign to avoid having the media drag him and the Republican Party through the mud. However, House Majority Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams says he told Lovell to resign only if the allegations of sexual misconduct proved to be true.

Regardless, legislative Democrats believe more should be done to stop improper treatment of women on Capitol Hill.

“We need to put a little more importance on what happens to us when we are attacked or disrespected or violated in some way as it relates to sexual harassment,” Cooper says.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, is more emphatic, calling for a criminal investigation by outside agencies.

“From some of the stories that are out there, harassment’s one thing, assault is another, and if the leadership in this building is not going to investigate appropriately – when crimes are committed in Davidson County I think the district attorney of Davidson County needs to investigate,” Mitchell says.

The Legislature needs to send a message to staff, interns and other employees, as well as people across Tennessee, that people “are safe” when they come to the Legislative Plaza and State Capitol, says Mitchell, who points out watching a 22-minute video isn’t nearly enough.

Kelsey voucher bill on hold

Brian Kelsey

State Sen. Brian Kelsey says he is taking his Shelby County pilot voucher bill off notice – at least temporarily – to work out details. It was scheduled to be considered in the House Education Committee this week.

The Germantown Republican, who has been a proponent of vouchers for several years, says he plans to revive the matter later in the legislative session.

“We will pass a voucher bill this year,” he says.

Kelsey’s legislation would affect school districts in Tennessee with 30 or more schools on the priority list for failing to meet required state standards. It calls for 5,000 scholarships to private schools be awarded to students in the school district in the first year and 20,000 in the fourth year. Shelby County is the only system statewide with that number of schools on the priority list, many of which are being operated by the state’s Achievement School District.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who opposes using public money to send students to private schools, notes recent elections, including his in 2016, were “really a mandate on vouchers.”

“There was a lot of money spent to unseat some of the legislators that were anti-voucher in this past election,” Parkinson says. “And there were resounding results in regards to those legislators that were fighting these privatization of education policies that were coming through.” 

The District 98 representative says he finds it “interesting” that Kelsey’s bill would affect Shelby County but not the Germantown schools he represents, which are in a separate school district.

“If the voucher policy or strategy is so good, and it improves student outcomes, then it doesn’t matter what public school inside of Tennessee exists, they should all want it, whether you’re in Germantown, Knox County, Hamilton County or Shelby County,” Parkinson says.

Parkinson contends vouchers would cause “negative” outcomes for school districts because they would take money away from public schools. He plans to continue fighting Kelsey’s legislation if he puts it back on notice.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, revived his statewide voucher bill for this session, a measure he supports to give students alternatives to failing schools. The Senate version of Dunn’s bill passed with ease in the previous General Assembly, but didn’t receive enough support for Dunn to bring it to a floor vote in the House.

No impact on NCAA Regional

A California ban on state-sponsored travel to Tennessee shouldn’t affect which teams could play at the University of Memphis-hosted NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship South Regional, a university official says.

The university is bringing March Madness tournament games to the FedExForum March 24 and 26, and some state legislators say the games could face fallout from California’s new law, which was passed in opposition to Tennessee’s 2016 law allowing counselors to avoid working with gay, lesbian or transgender people.

University of Memphis associate athletic director Steve Macy says California’s prohibition won’t come into effect if state schools such as UCLA receive a bid to play in Memphis, contradicting what some legislators said as they unveiled a resolution in response to the California law.

The 2015 California law bans state-funded and state-sponsored travel to states such as Tennessee with laws discriminating against the LGBT community. The state’s prohibition applies to Tennessee, Kansas, Mississippi and North Carolina.

But because travel expenses for a California team would be paid by the NCAA rather than come out of state funds, the law won’t affect teams that might come to Memphis, according to Macy.

Still, a handful of Republican legislators are sponsoring a resolution asking Gov. Bill Haslam to encourage Tennessee to stop state-sponsored travel to California.

“I really think what California has done is fired the first shot of what could be an economic civil war between the states if this bill, this law, that California’s passed became somewhat successful in modifying the behavior of another state,” says Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. “What’s next, are states gonna be passing laws banning travel, say Michigan banning travel to Tennessee because we’re not a union state but we’re a right-to-work state, or another state banning travel to another state because of educational choice issues.”

Rep. Bill Dunn, who persuaded Bell to take a more measured approach than to file a bill, says he tried to speak with the California lawmaker who sponsored the measure but couldn’t get a response. Dunn contends the California law could affect travel by government officials to national association events, in addition to economic recruiting.

Told later that University of Memphis officials don’t believe it would affect the NCAA Regional, Dunn says he believes it could affect whether the state could pay for travel by university staff such as sports information personnel.

The NCAA did not respond to questions about the California law’s impact on tournament play. Ultimately, though, some officials say the California law could affect travel to Tennessee by teams scheduled to play regular-season games.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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