Tennessee lawmakers closed out their annual legislative session Thursday, striking a deal that would let a politically appointed panel remove books from public school libraries statewide through a new veto power over local school board decisions.
The Republican-supermajority Legislature also worked out last differences on an education funding formula overhaul sought by Gov. Bill Lee and tougher campaign finance and ethics rules amid a federal investigation that has already seen one House Republican plead guilty and resign.
Those proposals and others head to the Republican governor, concluding a session in which lawmakers pushed further on conservative hot-button issues — targeting transgender athletes, imposing scrutiny over school libraries and blocking COVID-19 safety requirements.
The election-year session began in January.
Advocates of strict scrutiny of the materials in public school libraries said changes were necessary to boost transparency, their calls coming amid a national spike in book challenges and bans. School librarians in particular have become the target of scorn from Republican lawmakers in a push for more oversight of those contents provided to children — especially those touching on racism and LGBTQ issues.
The final bill would give the state’s textbook commission — all political appointees — ultimate say in an appeals process over whether a book can or can’t stay in school libraries. When someone challenges a book, the elected school board makes a ruling. Under the bill, if a parent, student or school worker doesn’t like the decision, they could appeal to the textbook commission, whose choice will apply to school libraries statewide.
Republican bill sponsor Rep. Jerry Sexton drew criticism after saying before Wednesday’s House passage that any inappropriate book should be burned. He later noted he isn’t on the textbook commission and didn’t think any book-burning was likely to occur.
Lawmakers negotiated the bill Thursday, backing off from the House’s proposed requirement that schools provide the commission a list of library materials to review for possible removals, and settling on putting the commission atop the appeals process.
Several Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the negotiated bill Thursday.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro noted that it doesn’t specify how long a removed book stays out of libraries, or becomes eligible for reinstatement.
“These are permanent bans on books,” Yarbro said. “If this had been the law when we started school libraries, our libraries would have about 150 books in them.”
Already, the governor proposed and signed legislation that requires school libraries to post their contents online and regularly review their policies to make sure the materials are “age-appropriate” and “suitable” for the children.
Librarians have countered that schools already have policies for parents and educators to review school library books. They stress the need for better resources and possibly adding a state library coordinator to promote literacy and education statewide.
Lawmakers also agreed on terms for new campaign finance and ethics requirements.
Politically active nonprofits, ranging from the National Rifle Association to Americans for Prosperity, have been monitoring the proposal closely, concerned it could require revealing their donors.
The backlash drew a response recently from Senate Speaker Randy McNally, who assured that the bill sheds light on spending without censoring free speech or requiring disclosing nonprofit donors.
The version approved Thursday says certain nonprofits must disclose spending totaling at least $5,000 within 60 days of an election on communications that contain a state candidate’s name or likeness. Exceptions exist for activities such as lobbying, or communicating with members of their organization or people who register to receive updates.
The wide-ranging bill also requires leaders of political committees to submit proof of identification; makes candidates and officeholders sign disclosures of financial interest under penalty of perjury; and increases reporting requirements in the 10 days before an election for candidates and political committee contributions and spending, due by the next business day.
The changes come after GOP Rep. Robin Smith resigned and then pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud in an alleged political consulting kickback scheme, which implicated former House Speaker Glen Casada and his former chief of staff Cade Cothren. Federal prosecutors allege that three claimed the political firm, Phoenix Solutions, was run by a certain “Matthew Phoenix,” but in reality it was Cothren under an alias.
Casada, who is not seeking reelection, and Cothren also have been subpoenaed in a state investigation into a separate shadowy political committee. Its treasurer told state regulators she is Cothren’s former girlfriend and opened the PAC at Cothren’s request, but took no additional action.
Lawmakers also finished work on a new K-12 education funding plan, which would add Tennessee to nearly 40 other states that attach a set amount of money per student.