Tennessee lawmakers work toward winding down session Friday

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — State lawmakers got off to a quick start in January by dismissing a bill seeking to have Tennessee opt out of the U.S. Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling. Then things got complicated.

During the final days of this year's session, lawmakers voted to direct the state attorney general to sue the federal government over its refugee resettlement program, allow counselors to decline to provide therapy to patients based on religious and personal beliefs, allow faculty and staff to be armed on the campuses of public colleges and make the Bible the state's official book.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the Bible bill, and he is being urged to reject several other bills, too. The governor is still within his 10-day limit of making up his mind on a number of other contentious bills, meaning his decisions will likely fall after lawmakers have gone home for the year.

One measure the governor won't have to consider is a bill seeking to require transgender students to use restrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates. The debate over that bill consumed lawmakers for much of the year, but its sponsor withdrew the measure the final the final week of the session to see how legal challenges worked out in other states.

Other high-profile bills that failed this year included a perennial effort to create a limited school voucher program in Tennessee, allowing public utilities to offer broadband to customers outside their service areas and raising the minimum smoking age to 21 years old.

Among the bills approved this year were measures to make it more difficult to remove Confederate symbols and statues, nullifying a Nashville ballot measure on local hiring rules and declaring the Barret M82 sniper rifle as the official state rifle.

Lawmakers last week passed a $34.9 billion annual spending plan. Approving a balanced budget is lawmakers' chief constitutional responsibility, and usually signals the imminent end to the session.

But even with the appropriations bill in the books, lawmakers squabbled on a series of issues that led to a delay in ending the session. Sponsors thought they had struck an agreement on a 17 percent cut in the Hall tax on earnings from stocks and bonds, but a last-minute decision to require future cuts led to disagreements with the governor's office and among lawmakers in both chambers.

The House and Senate return on Friday morning to try to hammer out difference on that Hall tax and over an effort to extend property tax breaks to veterans and the elderly.

One of the last items approved by lawmakers Thursday would take about $337,000 out of the University of Tennessee' Office for Diversity and Inclusion to instead pay for minority scholarships.

The move comes after the diversity office angered some lawmakers when it recommended using gender-neutral pronouns on campus and advised against religious-themed parties and decorations. GOP lawmakers are also upset at an annual Sex Week organized by students at the state's flagship university.

"Nothing opens the closed-minds of administrators quite like the sounds of pocketbooks snapping shut," said House sponsor, Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss of Jonesborough.

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