VOL. 132 | NO. 94 | Thursday, May 11, 2017
House Approves Education Fund Concept, But Senate Action Put on Hold
By Sam Stockard
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh pushed his K-12 education fund to passage Tuesday, May 9, but the possibility of funding and Senate approval will have to wait until 2018.
Dubbed the “K-12 Block Grant Act,” the measure calls for setting aside $250 million in excess state revenue for interest-generating investment to provide grant money for school systems statewide. Each system could use the funds for state-approved programs such as reading coaches or dual enrollment, items not funded through Tennessee’s Basic Education Program.
“This gives an opportunity to supplement K-12,” not supplant state funding, Fitzhugh said.
The Ripley Democrat fended off suggestions he made a deal with Gov. Bill Haslam to have the House Democratic Caucus vote for the IMPROVE Act, a combination and fuel tax and fee increases and tax reductions, in return for the governor’s support of an education fund.
“If it was a deal made, it wasn’t a very good one on my part, was it?” Fitzhugh asked, pointing out the governor didn’t fund his request in the state’s budget.
State Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar, a Springfield Republican, pointed out the state is already paying for students to attend school as well as for building maintenance. But Fitzhugh noted the BEP formula is not enough for many school systems, which raise money locally to bolster education.
Even though the state is spending $10 billion of its $37 billion fiscal 2018 budget on K-12 education, it isn’t doing enough, said Fitzhugh, who is considering a gubernatorial run in 2018.
“We can always do better,” he said, adding Tennessee remains near the bottom nationally in pupil expenditures.
Opposition also came from Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster Republican, who raised questions about the Legislature’s ability to monitor such a fund, including keeping up with the amount invested and how it is used by school systems.
Fitzhugh, though, said it would operate much like Tennessee Promise, which uses interest generated by the lottery fund, as well as higher education’s chairs of excellence, which have received $184 million from an initial investment.
The Legislature would receive reports on the fund, and each system would have to apply for the grant money and receive approval from the state Department of Education.
Fitzhugh hopes to persuade the governor next year to support his request and set aside money within the rainy day fund, which will hit $800 million in the fiscal 2018 budget and more than $1 billion when the TennCare reserve is included.
“Ned McWherter had an old equation,” Fitzhugh told the House, referring to the former governor. “It said education and roads equal jobs. We did a pretty good job on the roads this time, and I think we ought to improve our ability to help education.”
The Legislature passed the combination of fuel tax and fee increases, offset by cuts in food, Hall income and franchise and excise taxes, to raise more money each year to cut into a $10.5 billion backlog in road and bridge projects.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, is waiting until next year to present the measure.
OFFICE EQUIPMENT BILL ON HOLD
Rep. Joe Towns held up on trying to pass a measure enabling legislators to buy their own office equipment once the state takes it out of circulation.
The Memphis Democrat at one point had the bill on the House consent calendar but ran into opposition Tuesday from Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who contended the public should get first dibs at the equipment before legislators are able to purchase it.
Carter called for an amendment stating once legislative office equipment is no longer used it be declared surplus and sold under state disposition rules.
“I cannot go home and face my constituents and put myself before them,” Carter said. He said a program by Dell computers could take the items and donate them.
Towns equated the amendment to supplying his own gun and bullets to “murder” himself. He pointed out the Legislature’s office equipment, once no longer used, is wiped clean of information and destroyed.
“It’s an assassination, a drive-by,” Towns said later, noting the amendment would completely change the bill.
“It’s probably the ugliest amendment I’ve seen all year. It needs a facelift,” Towns said. Shortly after that, he pulled the bill from consideration.
CIVIL RIGHTS COMMITTEE APPROVED
The House and Senate approved passage of resolutions Tuesday setting up a special joint committee to study issues relating to the investigation and prosecution of unsolved civil rights crimes and cold cases from the civil rights era.
Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, sponsored the measure. Turner hopes the committee can meet with families who lost loved ones during the civil rights era of the 1960s and still haven’t found justice, leading to creation of a task force to investigate civil rights crimes.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.