Tennessee lawmakers make late session push on final bills

Friday, May 5, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 18

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers nearly checked off the last of their lingering legislative priorities Tuesday, as they moved to require metal detectors for gun-banning city facilities and pushed to let older adults without a college degree or certificate attend community college for free.

The House and Senate churned through dozens of bills, ranging from online sales tax to under-21 driver's licenses, pushing to finish a legislative session that began in January. Lawmakers plan to return early Wednesday to tie up loose ends.

Lawmakers finished work on the NRA-backed gun rights push that gives cities and counties a choice: buy metal detectors, hire security guards and check bags at many public buildings, parks and buses; or, let handgun permit holders carry their guns there. Gov. Bill Haslam is deferring to the will of the Legislature on it, spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals has said.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said the legislation might be so conflicting that it could award triple attorney's fees for suing a city, even if someone breaks the law by bringing a gun into the Music City Central bus station, which the school district uses to transport students on city buses. Yarbro said it's a crime to bring a gun on property being used by a board of education or school.

Sen. John Stevens, a Huntingdon Republican, contended his bill would create an exemption in that circumstance.

He said the legislation would let lawful gun owners protect themselves while riding a bus, or otherwise on local government property that doesn't use the added security. He said hanging a sign that says "no guns" doesn't protect people at transit stations, on buses or elsewhere.

Some local facilities could still ban guns without metal detectors and additional security. Those include: mental health facilities; Department of Children Services offices; libraries; schools; parks used by schools; buildings where judicial proceedings take place; buildings that hold law enforcement agencies; and Head Start facilities.

Senators had no trouble passing a bill letting older adults without a college degree or certificate attend community college for free. The legislation, which is a priority of the governor, now only needs another House vote to fix a technical glitch.

The bill comes three years after Tennessee became the first state in the nation to make community college tuition-free for new high school graduates.

Supporters hailed the measure as a way to educate and transform the state's workforce. Haslam has set a goal that 55 percent of Tennesseans have a college degree or certificate by 2025.

The legislation allows both full- and part-time students to be eligible to participate as early as 2018. The program is expected to cost the state $11 million after students apply for grants and scholarships and will be paid through lottery proceeds.

Some other bill action Tuesday included:

ONLINE SALES TAX: A proposal to require large online retailers to collect sales taxes on items bought in Tennessee was restored in the state House. But it includes a provision that bans the state from collecting the money until the issue has worked its way through the courts. Tuesday's move came a day after the chamber voted to remove the rule sought by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's administration to have retailers with sales of more than $500,000 per year remit the sales tax to state revenue collectors. Restoring the rule is designed to ensure that Tennessee would be able to maintain legal standing in court challenges.

TENNESSEE HISTORY: A bill to require a full semester of Tennessee history to be taught to public school students before high school is headed for the governor's desk. The measure named after the late state Sen. Douglas Henry passed both the House and Senate unanimously Tuesday. The bill states that "providing and promoting Tennessee history should be a core mission of our system of education." The measure would take effect for the school year beginning in 2018.

UNDERAGE LICENSES: Tennesseans under age 21 would be issued driver's licenses printed in a vertical format under a bill headed for Haslam's desk. The House voted 83-1 on Tuesday to give final approval to the bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn and Sen. Becky Massey. Both are Knoxville Republicans. Supporters say the change would help deter underage drinking. The Senate approved the bill unanimously in March.

SCHOOL GRANTS: The voted 56-30 to approve a Democratic framework for a block grant program for K-12 schools, though the measure included no funding. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said the measure is modeled after the Tennessee Promise to pay for community college tuition program and that is funded through proceeds from an endowment. The Senate version of the bill was withdrawn from consideration earlier Tuesday, meaning it likely won't come up again until next year.


Sheila Burke in Nashville contributed to this report.