The governor and the second-ranked Senate Republican have agreed to give up on a push for a limited voucher program this year as a result of a faceoff between lawmakers wrestling for a more expansive program.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said he would abandon the governor’s proposal to create a limited voucher program, also known as “opportunity scholarships” to send as many as 5,000 low-income students at the state’s worst schools to private ones courtesy of taxpayers.
“We were moving in the wrong direction, rather than in the right direction,” said Norris (R-Collierville), who said the bill was getting too political as his peers continued to pepper him with “hostile” amendments to broaden the governor’s bill. “This is not meant to be a political football.”
A band of Republicans in the upper chamber have pressed for a more expansive program, namely one that made the private school scholarships available to students across the state who come from families making as much as $75,000 a year.
Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has led the charge for eight years to create a voucher program. Throughout the session, he said he would try to expand Haslam’s preferred bill despite the governor’s insistence the legislature leave his bill untouched and vote on any expanded voucher program separately. Norris refused to say whether Kelsey’s jockeying for a larger bill could be blamed for the plan’s defeat.
“If they won’t run their own bill, then they shouldn’t try to hijack the administration’s,” said Norris, who warned in March that lawmakers “who want it all very quickly should probably be careful what they ask for. They may end up with nothing. ”
Kelsey told reporters Wednesday there is “at least” one live bill he could amend to create his expanded voucher program.
“I am disappointed not to have the governor’s support right now on this particular bill this year, however, we can still pass a bill without his support,” Kelsey said.
Support for a voucher program is mixed in the legislature. The Senate is the most favorable to a voucher program after having approved legislation creating one in 2011. However, the House has less of an appetite for the idea, although generally supported the governor’s plan for a small-scale program, making it an uphill battle for Kelsey to pass any form of a voucher program.
“There is a God,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) who has fought the voucher proposal all year. “This is such a serious issue and hadn’t been thought through enough. If we can get a year, certainly cooler heads will prevail and maybe they’ll back off of this issue.”
Lawmakers expect to adjourn for the year in little more than two weeks. Norris, who carries the governor’s legislation as the Senate majority leader, said he needs to turn his attention to other legislation like the state budget.
“The clock ran out,” he said. “Time’s up.”