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Lawmakers wrap up eventful session
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NASHVILLE (AP) — State lawmakers concluded a session Thursday in which they approved measures to allow folks to buy wine in grocery stores, fight meth production, and give high school graduates free tuition at community colleges.
But the 108th Tennessee General Assembly rejected a key educational proposal to create a program that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school using state funds. It also eliminated planned raises for teachers and state employees, which ended up being one of the most contentious issues toward the end of the session.
Gov. Bill Haslam had planned to give a 1 percent pay increase to state employees and 2 percent to teachers, but later said he wouldn’t be able to because of poor revenue collections.
Both Democrats and Republicans in the House presented proposals to give teachers and state employees one-time bonuses and contingency pay increases, but all those amendments failed.
Haslam said during a press conference after the session that he's still committed to trying to find ways to make the pay hikes happen, particularly in the case of teachers.
“Going forward, is it a priority for me? The answer is 100 percent,” he said. “People teach for reasons way beyond pay, but it’s a piece of it.”
Heavy criticism for reneging on the pay hikes added to a tough session for the Republican governor, who saw the second consecutive defeat of a key education initiative to create a school voucher program in Tennessee.
The school voucher legislation was withdrawn from the House Finance Committee because the lawmaker carrying the measure for the governor said there weren’t enough votes.
The hang up has been mainly about how many students should be eligible for the vouchers, or so-called “opportunity scholarships.”
The governor also didn’t get quite what he wanted in terms of the meth legislation, which seeks to limit the sale of cold and allergy medicines used to make illegal meth.
The governor did score a victory with passage of his signature proposal to create a program that would cover tuition at two-year colleges for any high school graduate.
Called “Tennessee Promise,” the legislation is a cornerstone of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign to improve the state’s graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.
Other key legislation lawmakers passed includes a measure that grants authority to cities and counties that have package stores or liquor-by-the-drink sales to hold referendums on whether to allow wine sales in supermarkets. Even so, the earliest wine can be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores is the summer of 2016 — or a year later if they are near an existing liquor store.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has said lawmakers may consider moving the date up.
The main proposal lawmakers passed — which they’re constitutionally required to do each year — was the state’s $32.4 billion spending plan. Even though it doesn’t include pay increases for state employees and teachers, it does hold off a proposed 5 percent increase to their health insurance premiums.