Pork Or Politics? Behind The Scenes As Tennessee Voucher-Backers Lobbied House Members To Pass Bill by Joel Ebert for The Tennessean
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by BriteHeart | 4.25.19
Two Republican lawmakers who voted against Gov. Bill Lee's controversial school voucher bill said they were offered incentives to change their minds and vote in favor of the legislation.
The House in dramatic fashion on Tuesday narrowly approved the plan to create an education savings account program for Tennessee.
For 40 minutes, the vote was deadlocked at 49-49 until Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, changed his vote, clearing the way for the bill's passage 50-48.
Several House lawmakers have told the USA TODAY Network - Tennessee in recent weeks there were efforts by those in the speaker’s and governor’s office to sway them to vote yes on the bill by offering to fund projects in their districts.
Such lobbying continued Tuesday.
Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who unsuccessfully challenged Glen Casada in the race for speaker, said Wednesday he was approached by Cade Cothren, Casada’s chief of staff on the House floor.
Rep. David Hawk (Photo: Jed DeKalb)
“He came to me and said that he and the speaker needed my vote on vouchers and asked me what I wanted in return,” said Hawk, who characterized the conversation as very heated. “I told him that he and the speaker had nothing that I wanted.”
Cothren said he asked Hawk where he stood on the bill and could tell the lawmaker was upset about something.
"I followed up to see if there was a way we could overcome that," Cothren said. "He didn't seem interested at the time."
Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, said he had been approached and offered incentives before and during the voucher vote in an attempt to persuade him to flip.
“There was efforts that had repeated visits from advocates hired apparently by the administration, and lobbyists, over the last few weeks,” Ramsey said Wednesday. “I let the administration know early on that I couldn’t support the vouchers.”
Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville (Photo: Photographic Services, State of Tennessee)
Ramsey said he received no threats of funding being cut in his district in Blount County, but that he was offered unspecified incentives.
“The only insinuation was that there would be the possibility of revenue expenditures for projects in my district at some point that would be facilitated by my support of vouchers,” Ramsey said.
While the vote board was being left open Tuesday, Ramsey was among a handful of lawmakers called out to speak with Casada and Republican leadership on a balcony off the House chamber.
Again at that time, Ramsey said, members of the Republican leadership hinted that additional funding would be made available to him for district projects if he switched his vote. Ramsey said no specific dollar amount was mentioned. He still declined to change his vote.
Hawk and Ramsey voted against the bill.
Casada, R-Franklin, said he met with several members and "asked them to do the right thing" on the education bill. But the speaker denied offering anything to the members.
"If one or two (members) misunderstood what I was saying — that happens too — I was asking them to step up and be leaders and do what's good for the children of Tennessee," he said.
Meanwhile, Reps. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, and Ron Travis, R-Dayton, who voted against the bill and made their positions known early on, said they were not offered anything.
The house holds a tied vote open on the school voucher bill. Natalie Allison, USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee
Lawmakers voting for vouchers get funding requests
Meanwhile, when House lawmakers approved their version of the state’s $38.5 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year on Wednesday, it included $14 million in appropriation requests from 32 members.
A USA TODAY Network - Tennessee analysis found 24 of the 32 House lawmakers to have their appropriation requests fulfilled voted for the voucher bill.
Those who voted for the ESA bill had $7.3 million in appropriations included in the House budget.
Casada denied any correlation between House members who voted for the ESA bill and having their budget requests funded.
The funded appropriation requests come after the governor released a recently amended state budget that provided 16 community grants totaling $2.1 million to many lawmakers who ended up voting for the ESA bill.
A Lee spokeswoman said earlier this week that the selection process for the grants included input from organizations and elected officials from across the state.
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville (Photo: Jed DeKalb)
Among the funded appropriation requests in the House budget was one from Zachary for $1 million to provide grants to four accredited zoos in the state and the Tennessee Aquarium.
On Tuesday, Zachary cast the deciding vote to ensure the passage of the governor’s education savings account bill.
Zachary denied receiving anything in return for changing his vote — which initially was a no — and said he received adequate assurances that Knox County would be removed from the legislation in the coming days.
7 voting against voucher bill had funding requests approved
Of the 32 lawmakers receiving funding, the seven who voted against the voucher legislation had $7 million in appropriation amendments funded. That figure is outweighed in part due to a request from Rep. Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, to pay for a $5 million settlement for a lawsuit with Bethel University.
Halford voted against the ESA bill.
Others to vote against the education bill but have their appropriation amendments funded include Reps. Karen Camper, D-Memphis; Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar; Dale Carr, R-Sevierville; Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville; Whitson, R-Franklin; and Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain.
Hazlewood could be targeted as someone who might change her mind if the House has to take up the controversial bill again.
She had two appropriation requests, totaling $1.1 million, funded in the House budget.
The House could be forced to once again take up the bill in the coming days if the Senate does not adopt the lower chamber's version of the legislation.
The Senate version of the bill is limited to Shelby and Davidson counties. The House-approved measure included the aforementioned counties, as well as Knox and Hamilton counties, the latter of which is included in Hazlewood's district.
Although Casada said Wednesday he anticipates removing Knox County from the final version of the ESA bill, he declined to weigh in on the possibility of removing Hamilton County.
Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, who was absent for Tuesday's vote but supports ESAs, received funding for one of her appropriation requests.
Speaker rejects suggestion
The speaker rejected the notion that the appropriation amendments funded in the budget were contingent on support for ESAs.
"These are people that are in leadership roles. They're members that work hard," he said.
After the vote on the school vouchers bill, Casada told his Republican colleagues in a caucus meeting that he would back them against any potential primary challengers, no matter how they voted on the issue.
"I will spend my summer and my money helping all House incumbents get reelected," he said Wednesday.
Casada pushed back against the suggestion that he previously warned members who voted against the ESA that they would face a primary challenger.
"That was a rumor that was untrue," he said.
Natalie Allison contributed to this report.
ESA supporters and appropriation amendments
The following list includes House members who voted for the ESA bill and had their appropriation amendments funded (includes funding totals):
- House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin: $40,000
- House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, $3.5 million
- House finance committee chair Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet: $619,000
- Rep. Clark Boyd, R-Lebanon: $200,000
- Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis: $10,000
- Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville: $2,000
- Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville: $50,000
- Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dredsen: $100,000
- Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport: $467,000
- Rep. Sabi Kumar, R-Springfield: $25,000
- Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington: $30,000
- Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson: $10,000
- Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville - $10,500
- Rep. Jerome Moon, R-Maryville: $37,000
- Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge: $100,000
- Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin: $15,000
- Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro: $50,000
- Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton: $215,000
- Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta: $30,000
- Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna: $10,000
- Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg: $28,000
- Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson: $20,000
- Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis: $675,000
- Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville: $1 million
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