Harris’ Shelby County Budget Likely to be Impacted by Vouchers 

On Monday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris hastily scheduled an appearance before the Shelby County Commission to present an addition to the day's agenda — his proposed budget for fiscal 2020. Harris proposes to spend $1.3 billion, including $6 million for education programs, the largest such expenditure in the county's history. Paired with matching funds from various other sources, notably state and federal, the total educational outlays will be "well over $10 million," Harris said.

Other mayoral priorities include increased attention to the mayor's criminal justice reform and re-entry programs ("helping more people with a criminal history"), more emphasis on workforce development, a crash program to produce technology start-ups, and pay raises for county employees (with the percentage of the pay raise decreasing as the pay scale rises, or, as Harris put it, simply enough, "Those who earn the least will get the largest increase.")

Harris could not have thought the commission would be ready to process his request in the course of a single evening, of course. And given that he is asking for increased expenditures in several significant areas of county government, he must have known that he had merely taken the first step in the proverbial 1,000-mile journey that will at some point culminate in a county budget for 2020.

click to enlarge Lee Harris - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Lee Harris

In the preceding administration of Mayor Mark Luttrell, negotiations between the commission and the mayor's office amounted to a war of attrition. The election of 2018 brought in a new mayor and, with eight new commissioners out of the 13, virtually a new legislative body. Moreover, relations between Harris and the commission have at no time resembled the power struggle they were in the preceding eight years.

But still, even without the carry-over experience of the returning five commissioners, this is a legislative body that is aware of its prerogatives and disinclined to roll over for any chief executive. And some of the commission's newest members are capable of taking a firm line — notably District 9 Commissioner Edmond Ford, who came over from eight contentious years on the Memphis City Council.

"I never saw a budget approval by any mayor that said, 'Approve, right now,'" said Ford at the start of the meeting. If that message needed no interpretation, it got some amplification anyhow later in the meeting when Ford, a former city schools teacher, got stern with a representative of Shelby County Schools who was there to seek approval of a redesignation of SCS spending — one that didn't call for an addition to the school budget.

"I see a lot of items on here that aren't correct," said Ford after looking over an information sheet.

Regardless of who the mayor and the commissioners are as individuals, a factor assuring that this budget will be a hard time coming is that, as Harris said frankly at the very start, property tax collections for the year were well beneath advance expectations. The battles between Luttrell and the former commission, for the most part, were about what to do with a surplus. Whatever disagreements occur between Harris and the newest commission will be over what to do with a condition of scarcity.

The commission and Harris agreed on a provisional deadline for resolution suggested by commission chair Van Turner: The commission will meet on Wednesday, June 18th, to render its judgment on the budget request. Meanwhile, there will be beaucoup study.

Adding to the uncertainty was a matter that was, at mid-week, still pending in Nashville, at a state General Assembly that was getting ready to close up shop. The one matter that remained potentially intractable was one that could have, as several commissioners noted on Monday, profound consequences for Shelby County and its budget realities, in particular.

This had to do with a potential stalemate between the assembly's two chambers, Senate and House, over the last remaining hot potato of the 2019 legislative session — school vouchers, or, as Republican Governor Bill Lee, who did a considerable amount of arm-twisting on their behalf, calls them — "educational savings accounts" — allowing significant numbers of parents to enroll their sons and daughters in private schools at taxpayer expense.

Each voucher, to a maximum of 7,500 students, will be worth $7,300, and, though Lee's original version of the bill promised to compensate any school district in kind for each student lost to a private school, debate in both chambers caused the compensation amount to be considerably lowered.

Other changes were made in the legislation, all of them prompted by a need to coax enough majority support to pass the measure. In the House, this resulted in a dramatic day of debate last week in which the GOP Speaker of the House, Glen Casada, held voting open long enough to persuade a reluctant member, Representative Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) to vote aye. Zachary's consent was reportedly bought via a promise that Knoxville schools would be kept out of the bill. A peculiar aspect of debate on Lee's voucher measure was that enthusiasm for it was inversely proportional to the likelihood that it would affect a given legislator's district.

By this week, both chambers had voted for the bill, but the Senate version and the House version were different in several key particulars, and the House on Monday, even as the Shelby County Commission was meeting 210 miles away, refused to accept the Senate version.

Pending a conference on the matter, this left the matter of passage uncertain, but, as the Shelby County commissioners noted, any version will have a serious impact on Shelby County Schools and on county government in general. Inasmuch as both Davidson County (Nashville) and Shelby County schools (and potentially only Davidson and Shelby) are affected by either version of the voucher bill, both school systems have threatened the state with a lawsuit in case of passage.

"We may need to join as well," opined Commissioner Eddie Jones on Monday. "We'll be fighting for our most precious commodity here, our children." Chairman Turner said, "We'll have to consult with County Attorney [Marlinee] Iverson and the legal department. We may need to have an attorney-client meeting next Wednesday."

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