Several pieces of controversial legislation that would seriously alter the way things are done in Tennessee already have been passed or seem certain to be passed in the current session of the General Assembly, which is destined to close out sometime toward the end of this month.
Among those are bills abolishing collective bargaining for public-school teachers and creating new and more formidable barriers to their achieving tenure, bills to enlarge the number and purview of charter schools, and a measure to impose caps on medical malpractice awards.
In operatic lexicon, the fat lady hasn't sung yet, and a few other bills of reach and magnitude are undoubtedly yet to be enacted. But it should be noted that several hot-button measures whose threatened passage has agitated a good many members of the observing public are, at least for the current session, gone with the wind.
• "Don't Say Gay": Take Senate Bill 49 by state senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), for example, the notorious "Don't Say Gay" bill, which would ban not only any teaching about homosexuality but its very mention in grades K through 8 in the public schools.
While Campfield's incendiary legislation is set for the full Senate calendar on Thursday, May 5th, when it may — stress "may" — actually get heard, there would seem to be no danger of the bill's being passed in the current session.
For one thing, the legislature is about to enter its late — or budgetary — phase, and bills concerning nonessential matters tend to take a back seat during this period. For another — and this is crucial — action in both houses is required for passage, and there is no chance — none — of the "Don't Say Gay" measure being taken up by the House, much less passed.
Why? Because after its filing in the first week of February, it was quickly reassigned to the House General Education Subcommittee, where it gathered dust and never ended up on an agenda. And that subcommittee had its last meeting of the session last week.
• Voucher bill: Something similar seemingly has befallen another controversial measure — SB485, by state senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown). Called the "Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act," the bill essentially allows for the rerouting of state funds into vouchers which designated low-income students could use to defer their tuition at alternative institutions, including private religious schools.
Kelsey's bill aroused concern among opponents of dissolving the lines between public and private and between church and state. As Jerry Winters, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association (which has taken more than one drubbing in the current session) put it during discussion of the bill by the Senate Education Committee: "We can call this all kinds of fancy names. ... This is just a very blatant voucher bill. ... This is public money going to religious schools. That is a door, if you open it here today, or whenever you might open it, you will never get it closed. ... If there's not a constitutional issue here, there's not a constitutional issue anywhere."
Winters' lament did not derail the bill, which passed through the Education Committee, as it would the full Senate, on party-line votes, but this bill, too, ended up in the graveyard of the House Education Subcommittee, which not only failed to take it up but routed it for "summer study" by an ad hoc subcommittee.
• The Creationist bill: To eschew a show of suspense that would end anti-climactically, let's just acknowledge that this bill, too, HB368/SB93, by state representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) and state senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), has ended up buried in the Education Subcommittee of one chamber after its passage in another. In this case, the notorious bill, which would mandate freedom for "critical thinking" in the teaching of subjects like evolution and climate change, was passed by the House but pigeonholed in the Senate. Formally "off notice," it, too, seems dead for the year.
Stay tuned, though; like the ghost of Christmas past, these matters may yet return to rattle their chains.
And the Shelby County Commission — which, unlike the legislature, has a Democratic majority — did some chain rattling of its own Monday, at least symbolically, by voting to put itself on record against another bill which is anything but dead, HB600. That one, by state representative Glen Casada (R-Franklin), has cleared the House and is headed toward passage in the Senate. It would prohibit any local jurisdiction in Tennessee from passing its own version of an antidiscrimination ordinance.
• After a full month's worth of failed efforts to reach a settlement by attorneys in the city/county school-merger case, the issue returned this week to the courtroom of U.S. district judge Samuel Hardy Mays, the presiding judge. Mays' immediate options included taking charge of an ongoing, but so far unproductive, mediation process himself or ruling on the injunction sought by Shelby County Schools against the Shelby County Commission's now dormant plans to appoint an interim all-county school board.
Mays opted for the former course and will assume the burden, via what is now being called "judicial mediation," of trying to steer the warning parties toward agreement.
Despite the conspicuous lack of movement toward an agreement, a Shelby County legislator succeeded this month in turning back a modest amendment to Norris-Todd by claiming that an accord was at hand.
This was state senator Kelsey, who, in a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on April 20th, managed to bring about a reconsideration of Senate Bill 1594 by state senator Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis), the House version of which was HB 1807, sponsored by Representative Jeanne Richardson (D-Memphis).
The bill had only one provision, relating to the 21-member "planning commission" established by Norris-Todd:
"In implementing this subdivision (b)(2)(B), the respective appointing authorities shall aggressively seek racial, gender, and ethnic diversity on the transition planning commission by enlisting ethnic, minority, and female participation that reflects the racial, gender, and ethnic diversity of the county as a whole. No person shall be excluded from participation on the transition planning commission on grounds of race, ethnicity, color, or gender."
As state senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) prepared to call for the vote, Kelsey objected that the various sides in the case being heard by Judge Mays were "very close to a negotiated settlement" and that passage of SB 1594 "could potentially upset the negotiated settlement."
State senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Democrats' Senate leader, who was presenting the bill in the absence of Senator Marrerro (indisposed due to illness), disputed Kelsey's interpretation and said that, in any case, the bill could be re-evaluated before a vote of the full Senate and could be withheld if there were real evidence that it might impact a settlement.
That seemed to settle the issue, and both Gresham and Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) voted with Democratic members of the committee to put it over.
But an hour and a half later, Kyle, who is not a committee member, stopped back by the committee hearing room in Legislative Plaza to inquire of Senator Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) if he wanted to go to dinner. (It was 7:30 p.m.; the committee was keeping late hours in order to finish its work for the year, and the current session was the last one planned.)
Senator Gresham, who in the meantime had been involved in further conversations with Kelsey, noted Kyle's presence and announced that she intended, as a member of the prevailing side on the earlier vote, to invoke her privilege to call for a reconsideration of SB 1594.
Stunned, Kyle responded that he "wouldn't have walked in here" if he'd sensed such an effort afoot and expressed disbelief that asking that the proposed planning commission be "inclusive on race and gender" could possibly interfere with a settlement.
Senator Kelsey then responded: "I have just made a phone call, and I have spoken to one of the attorneys in this case, and I now feel even more strongly now than I had expressed earlier that, yes, this bill could potentially harm the settlement of an issue that is being mediated right now. And I am told it's very close to settlement."
To that Kyle had a retort: "Senator, your actions tonight are damaging the chances for that settlement, and you know it."
But in the resultant vote to reconsider, both Gresham and Crowe changed their votes, and, the second time around, the bill was defeated. With that episode in the Senate Education Committee last week vanished the one opportunity Memphis legislators appeared to have had in the current session to modify the Norris-Todd bill, passed by both chambers in January and signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam.