Voucher lemmings may regret betraying voters

Frank CagleFrank Talk

A bill has to get 50 votes in the state House in order to pass. When the voucher bill stalled at 49 votes, House Speaker Glen Casada refused to record the votes and spent 40 minutes trying to get someone to switch to yes. During those 40 minutes a veteran legislator told me on the phone, “Now is somebody’s chance to get a four-lane highway.”

It was “Let’s Make a Deal” for two weeks before the voucher vote as Gov. Bill Lee and Casada sought that magic number 50. The extent of Lee’s personal arm twisting and lobbying of House members was an unprecedented interference in the legislature by the executive branch. Governors have always had staff that lobby for administration bills, and the Senate and House have majority leaders who carry the administration’s bills. But Lee personally carried around a carrot and a stick and members buckled. The constitutional structure of three branches of government was ignored. It appeared that some two dozen new members were under the impression that they worked for the governor instead of the people who elected them.

If the governor has to start buying votes on his first major legislation in his first session of the legislature, one wonders what he will have to offer next year, and the next and so on.

Holding the vote open brought back memories of House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh holding the vote open trying to get enough support to pass a state income tax. Casada was quoted last week as saying he merely asked members to “do the right thing,” which, ironically, was the rallying cry of leadership trying to pass the income tax. It was not the right thing then, and it is not the right thing now.

Two House members told the Tennessean that a Casada staffer just bluntly asked them what do you want in return for a yes vote? Kudos to Reps. Bob Ramsey from Blount County and David Hawk from Greene County, who refused to play that game. That was just the only two on the record.

Knox County House members Rep. Bill Dunn, sponsor of the bill, Rep. Martin Daniel and Rep. Justin Lafferty voted yes for the bill that Knox County school officials adamantly opposed as being detrimental to their schools. Rep. Jason Zachary had a chance to kill the voucher bill outright. But after “consultation” with Casada he switched his vote to give the bill the 50 votes needed. He said he did it in return for Casada promising to take Knox County out of the bill. If the bill had failed, Knox County would have been out of it; everyone would have been out of it. What Zachary did was to provide the vote that allows creation of the Education Savings Accounts. Once the superstructure is in place, it will be much easier to start adding more counties in the future. The Republicans in the Knox delegation helped put the camel’s nose in the tent, and Lee may have seven years to get the rest of the camel inside. (State Rep. Dave Wright voted no, but after the bill passed he changed his vote to a yes.)

Given the delegation’s decision to vote with leadership instead of voting the district, one has to believe that they will all face stiff opposition come re-election time. I think that anyone who cares about education will have a hard time voting for them.

I would offer one other danger in passing this bill. The Tennessee constitution allows for two kinds of legislation: a private act, which applies to only specific counties, or an act with statewide application. The voucher bill was not a private act; it was state action. But then it was limited to two counties. Remember our painful explanation of a severability clause in a recent column? It is possible that a judge could look at the voucher bill and say you cannot apply it to just two counties. If the provision that limits the bill to Nashville and Memphis is thrown out then the rest of the bill could make every county in the state eligible for the program. You never know what a judge will do, but a judge ruled that a bill meant to allow Shelby County towns to establish school districts violated the constitution and thus the bill had to be opened up to allow any town to establish a school district. The ruling means that Farragut, for instance, can establish its own school district if it wishes. Shelby County has already announced it will be suing vouchers using this point.

What does it say about a bill that most of the legislators who voted for it were the ones exempt from the program? Zachary is being pilloried on social media (FakeJasonZacharyTN Twitter account), and at least one area House member stayed over in Nashville a couple of days after the vote, afraid to come home to the wrath of his constituents.

It will be up to a conference committee to come up with a version of the bill that will pass both houses. A conference committee proposal cannot be amended. It is a yes/no vote. There is a divide between the Senate and House versions that may be too wide to straddle. It appears that senators were reluctant to pass the bill but did not want to embarrass the governor. So they loaded it up with language unacceptable to House members. There are also rumors that some of the pork House leadership used to get yes votes on vouchers has been stripped from the budget by the Senate. Without the goodies, some legislators may not vote yes to the conference committee version.

There is one other possibility. This was supposed to be the last week of session. The House may rubber stamp the Senate version, adjourn and go home.

  • There’s a mole in the House: The Cordell Hull Building, which now houses legislative offices and committee rooms, has been abuzz with a Twitter account called [email protected] It is an anonymous insider sharing gossip about what goes on behind the scenes at the legislature. Everyone is trying to guess who it is.
  • Freewheeling: If you add up the salary of the “bike czar” at the city of Knoxville and the money spent on bike lanes, it would be cheaper to just send each biker a limo to get them where they are going. And the limo riders wouldn’t get run over in a bike lane on Chapman Highway. Or, you could just spend the money on more sidewalks.

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