NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee state lawmakers don’t think local schools should be able to use tax dollars to sue the state for more tax dollars.
That’s why they added an amendment to a $33.8 billion spending bill to prohibit schools from using state education funding – known as Basic Education Program funds – towards legal costs associated with such lawsuits. The change also applies to local governments, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.
The bill was presented to Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday.
“At first blush, I question whether that’s constitutional,” attorney D. Scott Bennett told the news site. Bennett represents seven school districts suing the state because they believe the BEP is “underfunded.”
“Since lawsuit’s already been filed, it amounts to a retroactive law, which the (state) constitution prohibits,” he said.
Bennett told the Times Free Press his clients don’t plan to back down because “we’re not using state funds to finance the litigation.”
Bennett currently represents Hamilton County School District and six others in lawsuits against the state alleging lawmakers are not sufficiently funding public education, and board members in several other school districts are considering similar moves, the Nashville Scene reports.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the news site taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund lawsuits that aim to extract more money from their pockets.
“All we’re doing is saying if you’re going to sue the state’s taxpayers for more money, use your own money. Don’t use the state’s taxpayers’ money to sue the state’s taxpayers for more money,” he said.
“It’s as simple as that.”
Democratic state House Minority Craig Fitzhugh thinks the provision is “unfair.”
“I know you don’t want your own dog to bite you, I understand that part of it. But still, it seems a little unfair if you have a just cause against the state and you can’t have the ability to sue them,” he said.
Amy Frogge is also miffed about the amendment.
The metro Nashville school board member is among those pushing for her district to join in with the sue-the-state crowd, though the Nashville school board voted down the idea last week.
“This amendment should not have a huge impact on us because the state pays less than a third of our operational budget,” Frogge told the Nashville Scene. “The amendment appears to be a direct reaction to recent school board discussion of long-standing inadequate school funding in Tennessee, and I hope it doesn’t deter school boards from advocating for the best interest of their students.”
Froggie’s comments seem to confirm McCormick’s assertion that local schools could still fund lawsuits against the state through other means. A Times Free Press reporter pressed McCormick on how locals could differentiate between state and local monies.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “It would be their problem to deal with.
“Maybe they could get a special appropriation from the County Commission if they’re so inclined.”