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Uncertainty Reigns as Tenn. Reform Bill Advances

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The Tennessee House last week passed its version of Gov. Ned McWherter's comprehensive school-reform plan, but major questions remained both about the fate of the bill in the Senate and about whether money could be found to pay for it.

As the week drew to a close, House members had moved on to the finance issue, which was made more difficult by the overall budget problems facing the state this year, while the Senate was confronting fiscal questions before final debate on its reform bill.

The education legislation, among the most significant reform packages being considered in any state this year, would provide for reduced class sizes in primary grades, revamped student assessments, and mandated kindergarten attendance.

Observers said last week that the atmosphere around the state Capitol was fueling uncertainty not only over the education plan's fate, but also about the state's financial footing in the new fiscal year.

"I've been here 12 years and this is probably the most confused end of a session I've seen," said Ken Renner, the Governor's press secretary.

Others said the final resolution of the reform and finance questions would be decided sometime this week, after a holiday weekend of private negotiations between legislative leaders and state officials.

"Everything is either going to go up in smoke or come out rosy," predicted Cavit Cheshier, executive secretary and chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association.

Two events last week helped generate much of the suspense over what direction the legislature will take as it tries to wrap up this year's session. They were a prolonged debate in the House over the education-reform package, and two days of meetings by members of the Senate finance committee at the Governor's Nashville residence to discuss what Mr. Renner described as the "tax plans du jour."

A Passionate Speech

House debate over the education plan turned into a marathon discussion that lasted nearly five hours as sponsors were unable to win enough votes to stop debate. Much of the opposition came from members whodemanded to know how the state would pay for the reforms.

Discussions ended abruptly, however, after Representative John T. Bragg Sr., chairman of the House finance committee, began what observers described as a passionate speech describing the cycle of frustration--from dropouts to crime--that grows from a poor education.

"You could hear a pin drop when he was speaking," Mr. Cheshier said. "It was one of the most powerful speeches I've ever heard him make."

Following Mr. Bragg's speech, the plan passed on a 68-to-30 vote.

The bill's supporters last week8said they were pleased with the substance of the package, which is also expected to pass the Senate.

Observers said the biggest difference in a House-Senate conference committee would be over the widespread practice of electing local school superintendents. The Senate bill would require that superintendents be appointed, while the House would give districts the option of retaining elections.

An even more serious obstacle, however, is the uncertainty over funding, which analysts warned could still kill the measure.

Sales, Wage Taxes Mulled

Legislative leaders, facing the need for additional cuts in spending if some tax solution is not found, have discussed options ranging from making up only part of the current shortfall to paying the first-year cost of the education-reform plan.

Lawmakers late last week discussed a "stopgap" half-cent increase in the sales tax, which would offset about $233 million of the state's projected $373-million deficit for the rest of fiscal 1991.

Other options that were expected to be considered over the holiday weekend included an "occupational-privilege tax," which would be withheld from workers' paychecks; an excise tax on self-employed individuals; additional personal-property taxes; and a flat-rate tax on individuals with annual incomes over $40,000.

Many of the options were seen as ways of avoiding the politically explosive issue of creating the state's first income tax, which the Governor had proposed as part of a tax-reform package that was tabled this spring. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991.)

Because of the scarce resources to pay for the new education programs--and as a way around a state law requiring first-year full funding for all legislation--the education plan includes a provision that would allow the state commissioner of education to decide what elements of the package are funded.

Officials have estimated that about 60 percent of the reforms could be implemented at no additional cost to the state.

Forward or Backward?

Despite the doubts, supporters of Mr. McWherter's bill expressed confidence that the education plan would pass by the end of the session, which could come late this week.

"The House has gone one way and the Senate has gone another, and there are factions in each that are going a different way than the main body," Mr. Renner said. "It's confusing more than anything else."

Education officials said some of the confusion in the capital has also manifested itself in school districts, where local administrators are at a standstill as they contemplate their budget picture 0.

"They know the choices are there, and we could take a step forward or a step backwards," said Brad Hurley, executive assistant to Commissioner of Education Charles E. Smith. "So as they go through their budget process, they don't know what kind of budget to put together."

School officials have already had to make cuts in this year's budgets due to growing revenue shortfalls.

"We are in limbo right now," said Bill Emerson, superintendent of the Crockett County schools. "It could be complete catastrophe or ecstasy, either one, depending on what they do up there."

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