With budget shortfall, lawmakers call for Gov. Bill Lee to reallocate ESA money

Posted at 6:26 PM, May 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-08 21:19:44-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Days after a judge ruled Governor Bill Lee's controversial school voucher program unconstitutional, lawmakers said it's time to put the money elsewhere.

In a virtual meeting on Friday, members of the House Democratic Caucus urged the governor to reallocate the more than $35 million budget approved to launch the education savings account (ESA) next school year.

Nashville Chancellor Anne C. Martin ruled the program unconstitutional for violating a state constitution known as "home rule" this week because it only focused on the largest counties: Davidson and Shelby.

The state will likely need to find about a billion dollars to balance its budget next year because of COVID-19. Lawmakers said there's possibly a more than $500 million budget shortfall already in the current year. With tough choices ahead, some legislators are going straight for the ESA program.

"The funding should be redirected to look at our shortfalls. Are we going to use additional state funds to litigate a program that has not been popular with the public and legislature?" questioned Rep. Yusef Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, in the online meeting. "It doesn't make sense at this time."

"We have an opportunity to ride the ship, Governor," Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, said. "Let’s do what we need to do in order to really put Tennesseans first, all Tennesseans first."

However, the governor currently has no plans to deviate from his original goal even if the caucus said it's fiscally irresponsible to set aside money during a severe economic crisis. Instead, Lee is working closely with the Attorney General to appeal the ruling.

"We believe the investment in the education for our kids is one that is incredibly important, particularly especially in light of the challenges the kids face today not being in the classrooms," Governor Lee said in a media availability on Friday

After judge deeming it illegal, the governor seemed to encourage parents to continue to apply up until the deadline on Thursday, the day the same judge ordered the Tennessee Department of Education to stop processing applications and notify parents.

"We certainly respect the judge's decision though we disagree, but we have stopped that process and we allowed it, not the processing of those applications, but the assimilation of those applications," Lee said.

Meanwhile, in the hearing on Thursday, Martin said, "Whatever happens on appeal will happen, but the current status is the program is not going forward and parents need to be told and to have a plan B."

More: School voucher applications won't be accepted as issue heads toward appeal

The school voucher program was a landmark win for the governor which would allow families, typically with kids in low performing schools, to use public tax dollars on private school tuition. Many parents and city officials have fought against ESA’s arguing the money should be used to fund public schools instead.

There are groups pushing to keep the ESA program like Beacon Center, and the Institute of Justice who says parents need better school choices now and should be able to use the program while the case makes its way through the courts.

Lawmakers will convene again in June.