NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – As members of the Tennessee House of Representatives debated final amendments for Gov. Bill Lee’s emergency budget, Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) went toe-to-toe with Democratic lawmakers seeking to redistribute funds from the state’s education savings account program for COVID-19 relief.
Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) proposed an amendment to reappropriate the $41.9 million in the state’s Education Savings Account program, commonly known as the school voucher program, to a “health care safety net, including rural health clinics.”
Love noted that the amendment wouldn’t take the ESA account out of the law.
“Can we put $41 million toward buying respirators?” he asked representatives. “Can we put $41 million toward beefing up our clinics? Can we take $41 million and spread it across the entire state at a collective effort to make sure that we attack this coronavirus?”
Hill addressed Love’s amendment, stating that it wouldn’t help Northeast Tennessee citizens as there aren’t any rural health clinics. He said citizens in his district rely on federally-qualified health care centers and nonprofit health care centers in place of the “rural health clinics” referenced in Love’s amendment.
He continued that the $41 million slated for the ESA program stood to benefit the school systems in Love’s district and make them “financially whole.”
“I think we need to be mindful of that $41 million, ladies and gentlemen, if our friends in Davidson County do not want that $41 million for their school systems, I have some amendments later for that,” Hill said.
Love countered that his amendment would benefit Northeast Tennessee because it included the types of health care centers Hill referenced in his motion to table the amendment. He asserted that he didn’t know Nashville was receiving $41 million for public education since the ESA accounts are listed under non-public education.
In a statement to News Channel 11, Hill said that the ESA program offers per-pupil funding systems would normally have for the student who uses a voucher to attend private school. He said school systems would receive about $8,000 per student that leaves the district through the voucher program.
He maintained that the program does not adversely affect public school funding.
The house voted 69-21 to table Love’s amendment to reappropriate the ESA funds.
When the time came for Hill to discuss his hinted amendment, he presented a motion that would bar any local education agency “in a county having a metropolitan form of government with a population of more than (500,000)” from receiving ESA funds.
“In the spirit of the House member from Davidson County who did not feel that we needed the $41 million to go to their school systems, I’d like move adoption of this amendment so we can take this $41 million and it gets to places that actually want it,” he said in reference to Love’s earlier amendment to re-direct ESA funds to be used for a “health-care safety net.”
Rep. Mike Steward (D-Nashville) called Hill’s proposed amendment “retaliation” against Love’s call to reappropriate the ESA funds. Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville) further questioned Hill’s motives.
“If he wants to come here and retaliate against my school system because I got the audacity to stand up and be worried about the citizens of his county in the coming days, what’s wrong with him?” Mitchell questioned. “What’s wrong with us?”
Hill insisted that the purpose of his amendment was to “set the record straight.”
“The $41 million in the budget is not about vouchers,” he said. “The $41 million that is in the budget is to keep the previous speaker’s school system financially whole.
“Why in the world you would not be for that, I do not understand.”
Hill withdrew the amendment from consideration before tossing down the mic.