Education Featured NewsTracker

Dunn: Vouchers Not Dead, Just Delayed

School-voucher legislation passed the Senate Finance Committee on a 9-2 vote Tuesday morning, but was “taken off notice” in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee later in the day.

But that shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he’s getting cold feet, the House measure’s sponsor, Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn, told TNReport.

“Don’t read anything into that,” Dunn said.

Several education committee members were absent from Legislative Plaza who want to weigh in on the issue, and Dunn said he desires that the legislation get a robust hearing and full committee vote.

Dunn said he took the bill off notice instead of “rolling it” because House rules tend to discourage simply delaying the vote on a bill multiple times if it is otherwise “on notice” for a committee hearing. Taking a measure off notice and later calling it up again translates to a smoother parliamentary maneuver, said Dunn, who also chairs the committee that schedules bills for votes on the full House floor.

Dunn said he intends to press ahead with his voucher or “opportunity scholarships” bill in the education committee next week.

The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, however, issued a press release Tuesday indicating they see the voucher bill’s “failure…to advance” as a hopeful sign that it’s floundering, or maybe even dead in the water.

Similar legislation authorizing vouchers passed the Senate last year, but failed in the House.

The legislation, HB1049/SB0999, would grant opportunity scholarships to low income students in schools districts with a school in the bottom 5 percent of statewide education institutions.

Those voting for the Senate’s measure — sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga — in the Finance Committee were Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, Mark Norris, R-Collierville, John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

Sens. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville and Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, voted the voucher bill.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

Education Featured

Feds Pitching Expanded Pre-K in TN

Arne Duncan wants more children to have access to taxpayer-financed early education programs.

During a stopover at Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center for Children on a three-state Southern swing, the U.S. secretary of education talked up pre-kindergarten as a key component of later student development. He said on the federal Department of Education blog that he was trekking through Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to get a first-hand look at government-funded early-childhood-learning programs in action, and “discuss progress, promise and results.”

As in the past, Duncan praised reforms pushed by Tennessee Gov.  Bill Haslam, who — on education at least — is among President Obama’s favorite Republican governors.

Duncan said he’d like to see Tennessee continue working to burnish its new national reputation for innovative thinking on education policy by working closely with the federal government on fresh policy initiatives — like the state did when it went all-in with the president’s Race to the Top program.

In particular, the nation’s education czar said he’s hopeful Tennessee will choose to compete for a portion of the $250 million in federal preschool-development grants the feds are holding out as an incentive to encourage states to sign more kids up for early education programs.

The application deadline is Oct. 14.

Should Tennessee submit a winning grant application, “it could mean as much as $70 million over the next four years,” said Duncan. And that could go a long way toward shortening the waiting lists kids face to get into good pre-K programs, Duncan told a town-hall-style gathering Tuesday.

“Too many children start kindergarten a year to 18 months behind,” he said.

The grants Duncan is pitching would help prepare states to participate in President Barack Obama’s proposed “Preschool for All” program, “a federal-state partnership that would promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families,” according to a U.S. Department of Education news release issued last month.

While Duncan urged those in attendance at the Chattanooga event to spread the word about the value of pre-K, he also noted that academic success for young people is never guaranteed without sustained involvement from moms and dads.

“Whether it’s early childhood centers, whether it’s elementary schools, whether it’s middle schools, whether it’s high schools, there are no successful educational schools or programs that don’t have a very serious parental engagement component,” Duncan said.

Because of the importance of parents in education, the preschool grant initiative will only invest in programs that are “very serious, very strategic, very intentional” about improving parental participation in their children’s schooling, Duncan added.

Former Democratic state senator Andy Berke, who is now mayor of Chattanooga, also spoke about the importance of starting the education process with younger children. Berke touted Chattanooga’s investment in “Baby University,” a program intended to teach new parents how to be better parents, as well as the city’s request for a “Head Start” expansion grant.

But there’s a contingent of Tennessee politicians, particularly in the Republican-dominated state General Assembly, who remain unconvinced of the merits of early education — and they can point to independent research that tends to back them them up.

“The evidence shows that pre-K does not deliver as promised, and I’d be very hesitant to take money from the federal government to start a program,” Knoxville state Rep. Bill Dunn told TNReport Wednesday.

For starters, Dunn, a member of the House Education Committee, worries that there’s never any guarantee federal dollars won’t start drying up down the road, after the state is already committed to a program and it develops constituencies that’ve come to expect its services. It’s a similar concern GOP lawmakers in Tennessee voice  with respect to Washington, D.C.’s promises that it’ll be paying most of the tab for Medicaid expansion.

But beyond that, Dunn said there are clear indications pre-K isn’t the best place for the state to be targeting taxpayer resources so as to give Tennesseans the best “return on our investment.”

The state would be much better off spending money on improving the education environment and learning opportunities for older kids, like in kindergarten and first grade, said Dunn. The results are better, and with less cost, he said.

To back his claims that pre-K is proving less than effective, Dunn points to the preliminary results released about a year ago from an ongoing, long-term Vanderbilt study on how pre-K impacts student performance in later years.

Results from the Vanderbilt study released in August 2013 showed that “achievement measures observed at the end of the pre‐k year had greatly diminished by the end of the kindergarten year and the differences between participants and nonparticipants were no longer statistically significant.” Strikingly, the report also noted “a marginally significant difference” on reading comprehension “with nonparticipants showing higher scores at the end of the kindergarten year than (pre-K) participants.”

The report also noted “a significant difference that favored the nonparticipant group” on one of the study’s measures for “combined achievement in literacy, language, and math.”

In an interview with The Tennessean last year, Mark Lipsey, director of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute, which is conducting the pre-K investigation for the U.S. Department of Education, said that while “the whole story is not told yet,” there are indications from the ongoing study involving 3,000 children that “early achievement results have diminished considerably after the pre-K year, so that there is not a significant difference really between the kids who went to pre-K and the kids who didn’t.”

A multi-year study commissioned by the Tennessee Comptroller that was concluded in 2011 examined “whether there is evidence to suggest that Pre-K participation is associated with a positive effect on student performance in Grades K-5 relative to students who did not participate in pre-K.”

According to the pre-K effectiveness report summary submitted to the state comptroller, “no overall differences were found between Pre-K and non-Pre-K students in First Grade.”

The authors of that report wrote that children “who experience economic disadvantage tend to perform better than their non-Pre-K counterparts,” but also added that “this same pattern is not consistently observed for students who do not experience economic disadvantage, and the initial advantage attenuates and is largely diminished by the Second Grade.”

“Among students who do not experience economic disadvantage, the initial advantage of Pre-K is less evident, and the models suggest that they may experience slower academic growth over time,” according to the study.

Dunn said Tennessee education policymakers need to be taking note that studies appear to indicate that by some measures prekindergarten children aren’t just breaking essentially even with the non-preschool kids, “they actually scored worse.”

Gov. Haslam has indicated that he intends to keep funding the state’s preschool program at the same levels, and will consider any possible changes after the long-term study is complete, Dave Smith, Haslam’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. Those results are expected sometime in 2015.

Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Legal Uncertainty, Political Disagreement Surrounds New Drug-Dependent Babies Law

The Tennessee House of Representatives sponsor of legislation targeting women for criminal prosecution who give birth to drug-dependent babies called the behavior of the first mother arrested under the new law “unconscionable.”

And Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, told TNReport she’s certain the bill she guided to passage three months ago includes methamphetamine among the particular drugs she wants women brought up on assault charges for using if their newborns are found to have the substance in their blood. The initial case involves a 26-year-old Monroe County woman arrested for purportedly using meth just three or four days prior to her child’s birth.

“Meth is illegal,” Weaver told TNReport this week. She claims her legislation was intended to include all “illegal drugs.”

Under the terms of the new law, if a woman is “actively enrolled in an addiction recovery program before the child is born,” and successfully completes the program, she can use that as an “affirmative defense” to fight criminal charges against her, “regardless of whether the child was born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug.”

Meth an “Opiate”?

However, it is somewhat unclear as to whether the actual wording of the new law backs up an assumption that methamphetamine is covered under the law, which was sponsored in the Senate by Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the Shelby County Legislative Delegation.

Weaver’s comments herself on the floor of the Tennessee House back in April, when the bill was debated and ultimately passed, would seem to indicate that it does not.

The legislation that the General Assembly approved stipulates that women whose babies are found to have evidence of a “narcotic drug” in their systems are subject to prosecution. The law declares that the existing definition of “narcotic drug” in state law be used as the basis for prosecution.

Tennessee state law defines “narcotic drug” as opium, opiates, coca leaves or any compound, derivative or preparation of such substances. But while “opiate” is generally defined in medical or scientific terms as relating to or resembling opium or morphine — and that would include heroin —  the definition under Tennessee’s statute also alludes to any substance “being capable of conversion into a drug having addiction-forming or addiction-sustaining liability.”

Yet on the House floor back in April, Weaver declared repeatedly that her legislation “only deals with cocaine and heroin.” She never mentioned methamphetamine or any other banned substance.

Divisions in Both Parties

The Senate passed the legislation on a vote of 25-7 with no debate on April 7. The House passed it two days later, 64-30. Among those who voted against it in the Senate, all were Republicans — notably, Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson of Hixon, Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville, Stacey Campfield of Knoxville and Jim Summerville of Dickson — both of whom are in tough GOP primary fights — and Jim Tracy, who is challenging incumbent Republican Scott DesJarlais for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the House, 19 votes were cast against the bill by Democrats and 11 by Republicans, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, Calendar and Rules Chairman Bill Dunn and Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, both of Knoxville.

The Republican speakers of both the House and the Senate, Nashville Rep. Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville, each voted in favor of the law.

Like the rest of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Thelma Harper of Nashville voted in favor of the law. And she’s being criticized for it by her primary-election opponent, former Tennessee Democratic Party communications director Brandon Puttbrese. “Nashville deserves a senator who will stand up for the women of Davidson County and who understands that jail is not a prescription for treating disease,” Puttbrese said in a press release in April urging Gov. Haslam to veto the legislation.

State Democratic Party executive director Roy Herron acknowledged back in May that addressing the problem of babies born harmed by drugs is “a terribly difficult issue.”

“There’s no question there are compelling needs to try to save children from these horrible additions, and there also doesn’t seem much question to me that there are terrible unintended consequences that possibly could happen,” Herron said.

Many Questions, More Debate Guaranteed 

During the House debate April 9, Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat, sparred with Weaver over whether the bill would require doctors to report women, and whether it could cause pregnant addicts to avoid necessary prenatal care.

Weaver argued that drug-abusing mothers aren’t worried about the health of their babies. “These ladies are not those who would consider prenatal care,” she said. “These are ladies who are strung out on heroin and cocaine, and their only next decision is how to get their next fix.”

Weaver also got pushback from fellow Republican Dunn, who said a potential consequence of the legislation might be to encourage addicted mothers to obtain abortions rather than face prosecution.

Additionally, Dunn raised concerns about added costs to law enforcement agencies to enforce the law and questioned why a criminal statute would include a “sunset provision” if there’s not some question about its soundness. Unless the Legislature decides otherwise, the law “shall cease to be effective July 1, 2016.”

“I’m not really sure what kind of Pandora’s box we’re opening up there,” Dunn said during the floor debate.

Weaver brushed off Dunn’s legal and fiscal concerns as well, saying they weren’t widely held in the state among judges and law enforcement. And the sunset provision is a proactive measure to ensure the Legislature takes the time to re-examine the law after seeing it in effect, she said.

Dunn told TNReport this week that he still has the same concerns about the law that he had when it passed. And in all likelihood, he said, it’ll be difficult or impossible for lawmakers to factually determine how many women purposely avoided doctors or aborted their pregnancies because of the law when it comes time to discuss it again as the sunset date approaches.

“The thing is, the numbers that we’re not going to be able to collect are the women who avoided health care treatment, the women who destroyed and got rid of the evidence — their baby — in order not to get prosecuted for it,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s concerns were to some degree also echoed this week by Weaver’s Democratic challenger for her House seat, Sarah Marie Smith of Carthage.

“It’s not a bill I would have voted for,” Smith told TNReport. “(Weaver) is not a physician. It’s a knee-jerk reaction kind of thing, this bill. It is not long-range and there isn’t critical thinking in it, and I don’t think she checked with the experts in the field about what this will do to a child.”

Sen. Hensley, M.D.: If Law Doesn’t Include Meth, It Ought To — And Maybe Booze & Cigarettes, Too

One lawmaker who is in support of the new law does happen to be a physician. And if anything, Hohenwald Republican Sen. Joey Hensley thinks the law ought to be expanded. Alcohol, and to a somewhat lesser degree, tobacco, are also substances the Legislature should consider prohibiting women from abusing — at least in such ways as clear harm comes to their babies because of it, said Hensley.

Hensley, who voted in favor of the Weaver-Tate law and still fully supports it, told TNReport he certainly thinks it ought to cover meth abuse by pregnant women. And he thought it did when he voted for it, he said. But he also indicated that unless the law is clear that methamphetamine or any other specific drug is unequivocally covered under the criminal statute’s wording, then it would be improper for law enforcement or other government authorities to be attempting to use it to punish women under their own broader interpretation.

He reiterated, though, that if it doesn’t cover meth now, then the law should be expanded so that it expressly does. “Certainly, using methamphetamine is just as harmful to a child as taking a narcotic, and maybe even more harmful,” Hensley said.

In related news, in East Tennessee’s federal courts a 27-year-old Dandridge woman was sentenced Tuesday to 12-and-a-half years in federal prison for making and using meth while pregnant.

Mark Engler contributed to this story.

Education Featured NewsTracker

Current Pre-K Funding Staying Where it Is, Haslam Says

Gov. Bill Haslam, Tuesday, reiterated his determination to keep funding pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee at current levels but remained mum about any future plans for expansion.

Speaking to reporters in Jackson, Haslam commented on recent preliminary results from a study by Vanderbilt University comparing the performance of students exposed to pre-k programs and those who are not. The study is ongoing, but the report released last week shows mixed results, especially relating to how long benefits of pre-k education last.

“The results they just reported were a little discouraging in terms of the amount of gain that those pre-k students held on to,” Haslam said Tuesday. “But,” he continued, “we think there are other things to measure and our commitment is to keep funding at its current level until we see another year of two of the study and then we’ll decide from there.”

As The Tennessean reports, the state currently spends about $86 million on pre-k programs, mostly for low income children, and it is eligible to add another $64 million in federal money if Haslam and the legislature agree to put up another $6.4 million in state funds, something that could be less politically viable given the recent Vanderbilt results.

Some critics of pre-k spending including Knoxville Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn have already jumped on the report in recent days. In a statement earlier this week, Dunn dismissed pre-k programs as “very expensive hype.”

For his part, Haslam brushed past any mention of possible political snags, saying Tuesday that his administration would wait at least another year for final results of the study before making any decisions about pursuing the federal expansion dollars.

Press Releases

Dunn Questions Cost-Effectiveness of Pre-K in TN

Press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus; August 5, 2013:

(NASHVILLE) — Last week, researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University released findings of their 2013 pre-kindergarten study – a research effort dedicated to detailing the effects of pre-kindergarten on the long-term academic success of Tennessee students.

The findings show that by the end of kindergarten “the differences between participants and non-participants were no longer statistically significant”, except in one case where the children who did not attend Pre-K actually outperformed those who did.

“Tennesseans were told that Pre-K would increase graduation rates and even prevent 80 murders and 6,400 aggravated assaults each year,” said State Representative Bill Dunn (R–Knoxville), citing Pre-K advocate literature. “I truly hope people will recognize this was all very expensive hype.”

According to estimates, the total cost of implementing a full-scale Pre-K program in Tennessee would exceed $460 million per year.

“If you do a cost-benefit analysis on this extremely expensive program, you will come to the conclusion that it is like paying $1,000 for a McDonald’s hamburger,” Dunn continued. “It may make an initial dent on your hunger, but it doesn’t last long and you soon realize you could have done a lot more with the money spent.”

Instead, Dunn called for shifting resources to places that have shown to have a real impact on students, like having a great teacher in front of every classroom.

“Our teachers have stepped up with the new educational reforms that have been initiated and have shown improvement on annual test scores for three years in a row. For all of this hard work, I think they should be rewarded,” concluded Dunn.

Bill Dunn serves as Chairman of the House Calendar & Rules Committee. He lives in Knoxville and represents District 16, which includes a portion of Knox County.

Featured NewsTracker

Conservative Group Backs Effort to Ban Mountaintop Mining

Legislation to protect Tennessee’s mountains has new, if somewhat unexpected, support: the Tennessee Conservative Union.

Citing the involvement of the “Red Chinese” in mountaintop removal mining, the conservative organization has launched a statewide media effort to ban the harvesting of coal by blowing the tops off Tennessee’s mountains.

“Tennessee has become the first state in our great nation to permit the Red Chinese to destroy our mountains and take our coal,” a gravelly, male voice warns in the ad released by the TCU, alluding to a Chinese company reportedly indicating an intention last year to invest in the Tennessee-based Triple H Coal Company.

According to the company’s website, Triple H is “one of the fastest growing coal mining operations in the Tennessee Coal Mining Reserve. We supply the increasing demand for clean coal energy to the U.S. domestic market as well as rapid expanding emerging markets such as China. Triple H’s Tennessee mines cover a surface area of over 30,000 mineral acres and consist of nine seams that are located throughout the Tennessee Coal Reserve.”

An email to the company asking for comment went unanswered.

The conservative Tennessee group joins environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices in pushing back against mountaintop removal.

Appalachian Voices is eager to work with “anyone who supports protecting Tennessee’s mountains,” said JW Randolph, director of the Tennessee branch of the environmental group.

“From my perspective, we don’t care if they’re from China or Chattanooga – they can be from anywhere. Blowing up mountains is a bad idea,” Randolph said. “The fact that everybody from the most liberal and progressive people in the state support protecting our mountains, and the most conservative people in our state support protecting our mountains, I think, gives me a lot of hope.”

The “Scenic Vistas Protection Act,” HB43/SB99, sponsored by Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, would seek to prevent mountaintop removal operations by prohibiting the issuance of water quality control permits for certain projects. The bill would affect projects altering ridgelines at an elevation higher than 2,000 feet above sea level.

That’s on the low end of the height range for the Great Smoky Mountains, which range from 875 feet to 6,643 feet – the elevation of Clingmans Dome.

According to the bill, previously issued permits for mountaintop removal activities could only be renewed by the original applicant. The measure doesn’t expand or change the allowed surface area of mining operations or previously allowed actions and is not otherwise against the law. The bill also does not allow permits to be transferred from one person to another.

Although both the bill’s primary sponsors are Democrats, it appears to have at least some bipartisan support. Two Republicans in the House have signed on as co-prime sponsors: Bill Dunn, of Knoxville, who has been honored as the TCU Legislator of the Year, and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Gloria JohnsonGloria Johnson

“I think that the citizens – the majority of citizens of Tennessee – are supportive of that bill and don’t want to see any more mountaintop removal,” Johnson said.

During the 2012 legislative session the bill was sent to a summer study panel, where no action was taken on it.

The bill, important because of its intent to “preserve” one of the state’s “greatest assets,” has been heard before the state Legislature in various forms over the last three years, said sponsor Sen. Lowe Finney, of Jackson.

“What you’re seeing is a lot of people realize that this is an issue that can be addressed, that should be addressed and people from all over the state are taking an interest in it,” said Finney, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Coal could be mined more responsibly, and it would benefit Tennesseans to not destroy and desecrate one of the powerful symbols of the state’s history, said Charles White, an active member of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. He added that coal can be mined in other ways that would provide more jobs and be more “environmentally” cost-effective.

“It’s high time for our elected officials to give this legislation a chance to be discussed by the full House and Senate,” White said.

The Scenic Vistas Act is scheduled to be heard in both the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources committee and the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee Wednesday.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, also have a bill (HB0875/SB1139) that aims to stem water pollution from surface mining. The bill would prohibit the issuance of permits that allow mining waste within 100 feet of any stream’s high water mark. The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Education Featured News NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Ramsey Cautious on Haslam’s Call for Pre-K Expansion Discussions

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey maintains that he still vigorously opposes taxpayer-funded early-childhood education programs beyond those already offered to “at-risk” kids.

But Ramsey indicated he may be open to getting on board with an effort to expand Pre-K so that more poor children can gain access, an idea Gov. Bill Haslam recently suggested his administration might consider if the state’s revenues continue to grow.

“I hope the governor is not leaning toward Pre-K, universal Pre-K, in the state of Tennessee, but is simply talking about expanding further than we have to make sure we are covering those at-risk kids,” the Blountville Republican told reporters in his Capitol Hill office.

With the uptick in the state’s economy,  Haslam told The Associated Press last month that he is weighing whether to expand the state’s $86 million Pre-K program, which served more than 18,000 children last year.

Pre-K will be available in every county next school year in Tennessee but is limited to at-risk students, defined as those who would qualify for free or reduced lunch.

A state-commissioned study released last year indicates the effects of Tennessee’s Pre-K program diminish by third grade. Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute is currently attempting to “study of the effectiveness” of Pre-K in Tennessee.

“I do believe that any study will show that Pre-K has some effect on at-risk students, but I will never be in favor of universal Pre-K in the state of Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “It is all about limited dollars, a finite pot of money, and how do you best use that money for the best return.”

Ramsey’s comments put him to some degree at odds with staunch opponents of the state’s Pre-K program within the Republican Party, including Sen. Mike Bell, who believes the most worthwhile debate ought to be whether the program ought to be funded at all.

House Rules Committee Chairman Bill Dunn said he believes officials should be thinking “outside the box” about how to improve and better define the goals of existing efforts.

Dunn said he’s inclined toward preferring discussions about keeping kindergartners in the classroom longer during the day, or investing in better reading programs in primary grades.

“I would hope it doesn’t become a discussion of if you’re for, or against, Pre-K,” said the Knoxville Republican. Rather he wants to see “a discussion of what we want to achieve.”

“We have limited resources, and we ought to think this through before we put more money into a system we use out of simplicity,” Dunn said.

Featured NewsTracker

False Claims About Military Service Criminalized Under Bill

A guy could soon face steep penalties for attempting to impress women in bars with bogus claims of combat heroism following the Senate’s passage Monday of a bill that criminalizes impersonating military personnel.

The measure, HB2491/SB2287, makes it a Class B misdemeanor to falsely represent yourself as a military service-member with the intent to deceive — whether or not any benefit is received. The offense would carry a fine of up to $500, as well as the possibility of six months in jail.

The bill passed the Senate easily, 33-0, and the House almost as easily on Feb. 16, 93-2, with Knoxville Republicans Rep. Bill Dunn and Sen. Becky Massey, neither of whom are veterans, sponsoring the measure.

“You know, there are people going into bars, and trying to get free drinks by passing themselves off as military people,” Dunn said. “And once again, they’re stealing something that others rightfully earned by putting their lives on the line.”

Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, one of only two that opposed the measure in the House, said that it can go both ways, and she was concerned that it might unintentionally make things more difficult for veterans.

“As a matter of fact, I had a vet come up to me right after that vote and say, ‘Thank you so much for voting no for that, because I’d hate to have to prove to everybody in the world that I was a member of the armed forces,’” Butt said. “So you can look at that both ways, and I thought that was just a slippery vote right there.”

However, individuals won’t to come to the attention of law enforcement unless they are turned in, and the burden of proof would rest on the accusers, according to Dunn.

Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, the other opposing vote, said that he thought the bill went further than necessary.

“If you lie to commit fraud and harm someone, that’s one thing,” Kernell said. “What if we had a bill that simply said it’s a misdemeanor to lie? I don’t think the courts would uphold that, so I think the bill needs to be written differently.”

Next, the bill heads to the governor’s desk for his approval.

Featured Liberty and Justice Transparency and Elections

Lawmakers Not Soon Likely to Open TBI Files

State legislators have expressed support for open Tennessee Bureau of Investigation files in theory, but seem less inclined to drum up an effort toward that end in the near future.

While investigative agencies in some other states allow such files to be opened, TBI case files are exempt from Tennessee’s Public Records Act. TNReport interviewed several lawmakers on the matter Tuesday as part of our effort to raise awareness for Sunshine Week.

The most recent source of focus on the issue is the case of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner. The fallout from revelations about the former judge’s drug and alcohol addiction, and his efforts to satisfy those vices while on the bench, led to his disbarment. One of the state’s most infamous cases – that of the rape, torture and murder of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23 – is likely to be retried. More retrials could follow.

Throughout the saga, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorial board has repeatedly called for increased transparency, including the opening of TBI files in the Baumgartner case and in general.

The Knox County Commission is considering a resolution — sponsored by its chairman, Mike Hammond — that would ask the Legislature or the governor to take steps to open TBI’s full Baumgartner investigation file to public review. On Feb. 27 Hammond postponed a vote on the resolution for 30 days to see if the judge handling the file would order it be made public.

Special Judge Jon Blackwood said last week that he had “no authority whatsoever” to release what is believed to be over 1,000 pages of the TBI’s Baumgartner case file. Blackwood did release 155 pages of the file in December, but said Friday that if the rest of the file is to be released, the “ball is in the state legislature’s court.”

But legislators aren’t particularly eager to touch the issue, either.

“The push has been there, but you have a judge that has ruled, ‘No, we’re not going to release it,’ and so far, the way our government is set up, when a judge declares something it’s a little hard to overrule that,” said Knoxville Republican Rep. Bill Dunn.

In the case of the Baumgartner file, Dunn said he does favor bringing the entire file to light, eventually.

“Sometimes you get into legal questions, which is beyond my expertise,” he said. “But as a citizen and someone who’s going to be paying all those extra taxes for what happened because of what Judge Baumgartner did, it seems it needs to be released, at least as much as can be released, and then over time we need to see 100 percent of it.”

Aside from the Christian/Newsom case, it’s unclear how many challenges and retrials will result from the legal tree poisoned by Baumgartner’s misdeeds, the News-Sentinel reported last month.

(According to prosecutors) Baumgartner presided over 54 trials during the three years a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe showed he was committing crimes related to prescription drug abuse. In that same time period, he handled thousands of pleas, sentencings and probation violation hearings.

Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he’s “absolutely” in favor of open TBI files and has indeed called for the release of one with his name on it.

Last June, the TBI launched an investigation to determine if Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their region of the state. No evidence of wrongdoing was found, and no charges were filed.

In January, Shipley told TNReport that he planned to push for a House committee to subpoena the case file. He has not followed through on that pledge.

Now, he said, his duties in the legislature come first, but at some point he will return to the issue of the file, which he said contains the identity of someone who committed a felony by filing a false report.

Of the Baumgartner case, Shipley said he favors openness as a means for holding all public officials to an equal level of accountability.

“Admittedly, I am not as familiar with [the Baumgartner case] as I am this other one. I think if the legislature asks for something, they need to be forthcoming,” he said. “We have detected missteps by the judiciary, we have detected and discovered missteps by the district attorneys and so on and so forth. And they need to be just as accountable to the people as we are.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, formerly the mayor of Knoxville before assuming Tennessee’s highest elected office, told reporters Monday that he didn’t know enough about the details of the Baumgartner case to have an “educated opinion,” and that his feelings on increased transparency with regards to TBI files are balanced by the interests of law enforcement.

“My sense is, whenever there’s information that would be helpful to the public, if there’s not a real reason not to, that should be open,” he said. “But I also realize there’s issues and times with law enforcement when there are really good reasons to keep that information until the whole legal process is worked through.”

Education Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Sex-Education Bill Held Over

The House Education Committee Tuesday delayed action on the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, calling off what has become a weekly event on Capitol Hill.

Bill sponsor Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, told TNReport he rolled the bill because of an amendment proposed by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, which rewrites the bill in an attempt to clarify its aim.

The meeting was delayed for 15 minutes as no Republican members were yet present. They were reportedly meeting in Speaker Beth Harwell’s office with a member of the Haslam administration who relayed the governor’s concerns about the bill.

Haslam told reporters last month that such legislation shouldn’t be a priority for lawmakers this session.

The amendment rewrites the bill so that it would require local school systems to adopt “policies and procedures” to ensure that any discussion of human sexuality is “age-appropriate for the intended student audience.” A subsequent section of the amendment states that instruction or materials “inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate” and prohibited before ninth grade.

Additional subsections of the proposed amendment essentially mirror arguments made last week by Dunn, when he attempted to quell what he called “hysteria” about the bill’s implications. The amendment states that the aforementioned policies and procedures shall not prohibit teachers from answering “in good faith” any relevant questions from students or keep school counselors from helping at-risk students or “appropriately responding to a student whose circumstances present issues involving human sexuality.”

In a House subcommittee meeting last week, Dunn argued that the bill – in its current form – was in line with current curriculum. He said adding the bill’s language to the code would simply slow down any future attempt by the state’s Board of Education to change the curriculum by making it so that they must come to legislators first.

Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier told TNReport Tuesday that, as currently written, “the bill is consistent with the state’s current curriculum as established by the state board of education.”