State Rep. Bill Dunn is a key member of the House Education Committee and has generally supported Gov. Bill Haslam’s education reform measures. But he broke ranks last session by passing a bill to reel back the Common Core State Standards, which have grown increasingly unpopular among conservatives as well as teachers.
Dunn said the new law (which Haslam signed) puts Tennessee in control of its standards while requiring the state Board of Education to notify members of the House and Senate education committees and post information online before it can vote on standard changes.
The law also limits the application of the standards to language arts and math, limits the data that can be collected from students and parents, and requires Common Core-aligned tests to be bid out.
“Basically I’ve tried to make the standards process very transparent,” Dunn said.
He also has a plan to get teachers a raise but isn’t ready to say what it is.
“The governor may have a different plan, but I’ve got a backup plan to reward teachers for their hard work over the years.”
He admits his plan could be complicated by the reality of a tight budget year. “That’s going to rule a whole lot of things.”
When asked if he’ll join his conservative colleagues who want to repeal the Hall tax on investment income, he hedged his answer, pointing out that he has supported tax cuts like the small sales tax decrease on food (“People have got to eat”), but said he’s leery of cutting off vital revenue streams.
“I think we have to look at the budget long term. When you weaken yourself financially as a state, you become beholden to the federal government. Why would we weaken ourselves?
“When someone comes forward and says we need to repeal this tax, they need to show how that’s going to affect the budget. When we repealed the inheritance tax, we benefited, because it encouraged more people to stay in state. With the Hall tax, I think you start by looking at who you’re hurting. If it’s a retiree who depends on this for income, you could raise the exemption, but I think we should distinguish between an elderly couple depending on their investments and a billionaire who’s investing.
“My main point is, as long as we have the financial means, we call the shots. When we don’t, the federal government calls the shots.”
After 20 years in the House, Dunn is kind of a big deal, particularly since the Republicans ended the Democrats’ majority in 2008. Dunn became chair of the Calendar and Rules Committee, the last stop for committee-approved bills before they hit the House floor.
Traditionally, some legislation doesn’t make it, and when it doesn’t, it’s usually the decision of the chair. But Dunn says it’s not like the old days, when the Speaker of the House dictated outcomes.
“I’ve got the gavel and I’m the one who determines what the vote was, if it’s a voice vote. What I like to do is work with individuals to get the bill where it needs to be. Has the bill been properly vetted in committee? That used to come from the speaker, but I go through all the bills to make a determination whether they should be on the consent calendar, make a list and give it to the Democratic leadership.
“A couple of times I’ve used my gavel to do what needed to be done. … There was one time when nobody wanted to call for question and I just got up, grabbed my gavel and left. Everybody said, ‘What?’ But if I hadn’t, we would have spent another two hours just going on and on. I think the bill ended up failing.”