Questions nag Tennessee governor about the legitimacy of controversial voucher law

Tennessee House Democrats are calling for two members of Gov. Bill Lee’s cabinet to answer questions about a mysterious $4 million grant fund created at the request of the former House speaker amid contentious debate on an education voucher proposal last spring.

Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville and five other House leaders want Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe to appear Nov. 17 before the legislature’s joint Government Operations Committee, which provides oversight over governmental entities including departments.

They have questions about a pot of money tucked into the Department of Economic and Community Development’s budget. 

Stewart suggested Thursday that the $4 million could have been set aside as a “slush fund” to dole out “undefined grants” to legislative districts whose representatives were on the fence about Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account proposal. The bill narrowly passed the House and eventually was signed into law after a tumultuous legislative session.

The mystery fund, reported earlier this month by The Tennessean, is the latest concern raised about how the controversial voucher bill became law. Nashville television station WTVF reported last May that the FBI was investigating whether improper incentives were offered. Lee has said that he thought support for his proposal came about through legal advocacy, and Chalkbeat has not independently verified that an investigation is underway. 

The law also faces potential lawsuits over its constitutionality. District leaders in Memphis and Nashville and several advocacy groups are considering whether to take the state to court for singling out their school systems for the voucher program and for including language in the law that appears to try to exclude undocumented students from participating. 

In addition, the possibility of another legal challenge has been floated by House Democrats over the unusual parliamentary move used by then-House Speaker Glen Casada last April to pass the measure. The Republican speaker refused to announce a 49-49 tie on the House floor, which would have killed the bill, and instead held the vote open for 38 minutes while he convinced Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican, to flip his position in favor of the proposal.

Discovery of the special fund caught some lawmakers by surprise this fall, stoking questions about the legitimacy of the new Republican governor’s signature education plan.

“It is time we get to the bottom of what happened with this secret slush fund,” Stewart said during a press conference at the state Capitol.

Casada, who has since been ousted as speaker over a racist and sexist texting scandal initiated by his former chief of staff, contends that the allocation went through the budget process and is legitimate. 

New House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican from Crossville, initially called the lack of information about the grant fund “troubling,” but later said he believes it was established lawfully to send money back to communities and nonprofit groups. He does not support a special hearing into the matter.  

“It would be premature to hold a speculative rules hearing on a fund that was set up properly with the purpose defined in the budget when not a single rule has been proposed or a single dollar dispersed,” Sexton told Chalkbeat.

Tennessee replaces its voucher-friendly House speaker with a voucher opponent

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Lee declined to comment about the latest salvo from House Democrats who are still smarting that voucher proponents finally won a decades-long tug-of-war with a proposal championed by the popular new governor.

The education savings account program, a newer kind of voucher that is scheduled to launch next school year, would put up to $7,300 in taxpayer money into accounts for eligible families in Memphis and Nashville to spend on private or parochial schools or other private education services. The goal, said Lee, is to give parents more education choices for their children. But opponents argue that vouchers will divert money from already underfunded public schools.

Below is the letter sent by House Democratic leaders to Rep. Martin Daniel, the Knoxville Republican who chairs the joint Government Operations Committee. Daniel did not immediately respond when Chalkbeat asked about the call for a hearing.