University of Tennessee diversity funding bill allowed to become law Richard Locker, 3:46 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016 UT (Photo: J. Miles Cary / AP)

Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the bill that diverts about $445,882 from the University of Tennessee’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to minority engineering scholarships to become law without his signature, his office announced Friday.

"This bill received considerable debate and discussion during legislative session, and the final form of HB 2248 was revised so that its primary effect is to redirect administrative funding for the Office for Diversity and Inclusion for one year into scholarships for minority engineering students," Haslam said in an email statement that announced he was returning the bill to the General Assembly unsigned. "Although I do not like the precedent of redirecting funds within a higher education institution’s budget, I find the ultimate outcome of the legislation less objectionable and am therefore letting it become law without my endorsement."

House Bill 2248:
Reallocates "all funds in the budget of the office of diversity and inclusion" at UT-Knoxville for fiscal year 2016-17 into scholarships for minority students in engineering programs. That budget contained about $436,000 in the 2015-16 school year. The UT Board of Trustees has not yet approved budgets for 2016-17. Bans UT from spending state funds "to promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support Sex Week," most of which had already occurred. UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek told the campus community in an email Friday about the cut.

"It saddens me to share with you that a new state law requires us to defund the office of diversity and inclusion from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017," Cheek said. "This means no funds can go to operate the office."

Cheek said the law doesn't permit other funds to operate the office, and as a result, there will be a reorganization of various diversity efforts on the campus. "The Pride Center will remain a gathering place for students but it will no longer be staffed by university employees," he said.

The chancellor and university spokeswoman Margie Nichols said officials are still trying to determine how the other portions of the law affect the university, including next year's ex Week.

"I know there will be more questions, some of which have not been resolved," Cheek said. "This is no way diminishes our commitment to diversity and inclusion. The new law doesn't impact most of the funding for those efforts."

The bill has a dual set of roots, one growing Sex Week activities on the Knoxville campus and the other from a newsletter and a web posting by the diversity office last year.

Republican lawmakers denounced the first Sex Week in 2013, a wide-ranging set of events, programs and discussion panels — some with salacious titles — on sexuality, sexual assault prevention and sexually transmitted diseases and other topics, including sexual abstinence. The statehouse outcry prompted UT to pull any state funding from the event, which was mostly funded by student activities fees and donations.

After failing to kill Sex Week in 2014, lawmakers forced the UT Board of Trustees to let students "opt out" of having a portion of their activity fees used for student programming. More than 80 percent of students have opted in annually since they were given the option. The event continued in 2015 and this spring, funded by students and donations. Lawmakers were relatively quiet — until August.

At the start of fall semester in August, the UT Pride Center’s newsletter suggested that instructors learn students’ preferred names and pronouns in an effort to be more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. The newsletter said not everyone thinks in traditional male-female terms and may not identify with the gender listed for them on class rosters, generated by student information systems. It noted that some prefer pronouns such as xe, xym and xyr.

Conservatives went ballistic, demanded the diversity office be "defunded" and lawmakers scheduled a Nashville hearing in the fall.

As that furor was dying down, the diversity office posted on its website a "Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace" memo that suggested — but did not require — ways to make non-Christian university employees feel welcome at holiday office parties on campus. Most were no different from recommendations from UT administrators in prior years but the web post’s suggestions that office parties not be a "Christmas party in disguise" and discouraging an "emphasis on religion and or culture" and "secret Santa exchanges" first set off U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, R-Tenn., who went on TV to charge it was political correctness run amok.

Cheek and UT President Joe DiPietro ordered the posts removed and required the diversity office to get administration approval for potentially controversial web postings. But as the legislative session began in January, Republicans remained outraged and held more hearings.

When demands to "defund" diversity programs first surfaced in the fall, the discussion revolved around a much larger $19 million figure spent throughout public higher education, including such diversity efforts as scholarships and faculty recruitment. In March, the Senate Education Committee narrowed its focus and recommended taking $8 million only from UT diversity programs. On campus, students protested the actions in Nashville. And UT officials maintained their commitment to diversity efforts.

The compromise finally approved by the legislature on April 21 was much narrower, diverting money from the diversity office into scholarships for one year only and banning the use of state funds for Sex Week, which UT had already done. The House approved the final version 63-21, the Senate 27-3.

Haslam will allow Tennessee to become first to sue feds over refugee resettlement Joel Ebert, 4:27 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016

Canada and the U.S. might vet refugees similarly, but there are differences in the systems, especially in how refugees are handled after they arrive.

Despite having concerns, Gov. Bill Haslam will allow Tennessee to become the first state in the nation to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement on the grounds of the 10th Amendment.

On Friday, Haslam announced his decision to allow the measure, which directs Attorney General Herbert Slatery to sue the federal government for noncompliance of the Refugee Act of 1980, to take effect without his signature.

The federal act was designed to create a permanent procedure for the admission of refugees into the United States

Explaining his decision, Haslam noted the provisions in the bill that allow the General Assembly to hire outside counsel if Slatery refuses to pursue the case.

"I trust the Attorney General to determine whether the state has a claim in this case or in any other, and I have constitutional concerns about one branch of government telling another what to do," Haslam said.

Slatery's office has not indicated whether he would follow the legislature’s directive. A spokesman said this week that the attorney general will find the "best option to continue to protect the interests of Tennessee.”

Haslam also questioned whether it was the "proper course" for the state to attempt to dismantle the refugee act.

"Rather, I believe the best way to protect Tennesseans from terrorism is to take the steps outlined in my administration’s Public Safety Action Plan, which enhances our ability to analyze information for links to terrorist activity, creates a Cyber Security Advisory Council, restructures our office of Homeland Security, establishes school safety teams, and provides training for active shooter incidents and explosive device attacks," he concluded.

Shortly after Haslam announced his decision, a critic of the measure said it would solidify the state's reputation "as the most unwelcoming state in the country."

Refugee resettlement has become a hot-button issue throughout Tennessee and the rest of the country as the nation continues to take in people from around the world, including Syrians who have fled their country amid a bloody civil war.

Proponents of the measure have argued the lawsuit is necessary because the federal government has failed to consult with Tennessee on the continued placement of refugees.

Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, argue the resolution will negatively affect the state’s refugee community and perpetuate a culture of fear.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who was among the more outspoken advocates of the resolution, said it is necessary to initiate legal proceedings for declaratory relief given the fact that the federal government has not consulted with the state on the resettlement of refugees.

The legislation received wide support in both chambers, with as many as 23 Republicans sponsoring the measure in the Senate. The chamber approved it with a 27-5 vote in February with the House supporting it with a 69-25 vote in April.

THE TENNESSEAN Senate passes resolution to sue federal government over refugees

Sponsors of the measure have indicated the Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit public interest Michigan-based law firm, will provide free legal services to the state, if the attorney general declines to take up the matter.

Prior to Haslam announcing his decision, the ACLU and TIRRC encouraged the governor to veto the measure.

Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of TIRRC, criticized the governor's decision.

"By failing to veto this dangerous and misguided resolution the governor has helped secure Tennessee's reputation as the most unwelcoming state in the country," said Teatro, who believes any legal challenge would fail in the courts. "By allowing the resolution to proceed and not addressing its hateful underpinnings, the governor is enabling dangerous anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment to persist."

Spencer Bowers, a spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, said Haslam was caving to right-wing extremists.

Haslam was also lobbied by Norris, who started an online petition, with the headline, “Don’t let potential terrorists come to Tennessee,” which asks Tennesseans to join in the effort to ask the attorney general to act.

While some believed the legislation could not be vetoed by Haslam, the governor’s office noted that the state's constitution indicates otherwise because it is a joint resolution.

THE TENNESSEAN Haslam not ruling out possibility of other vetoes

Two other states — Texas and Alabama — have sued the federal government over refugee resettlement, but Tennessee’s lawsuit would be the first based on the 10th Amendment, which states that the federal government possesses only powers delegated to it by the U.S Constitution and that all other powers are reserved for the states.

While arguing in favor of the resolution, Norris pointed out that although the state opted out of the federal resettlement program in 2008 under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, the feds have required Tennessee to participate in the program.

Although 14 states, including Tennessee and most recently Kansas and New Jersey, have opted out of the federal program, that does not mean refugees are not sent to their states. Instead, voluntary agencies have entered into cooperative agreements with the U.S. State Department to coordinate resettlement efforts. In Tennessee, Catholic Charities handles refugee resettlement.

As the Tennessee measure made its way through the legislature, some lawmakers pointed to the March 22 terrorist attack in Brussels to further that point.

Between last October and March, only 17 of the 702 refugees, or 2 percent, who were resettled in Tennessee came from Syria, according to statics maintained by Catholic Charities. The vast majority 514 — were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Somalia and Iraq.

Overall, Tennessee was 18th in the nation in terms of the total number of refugees received during that time period, according to federal statistics.

Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator for Catholic Charities, called Haslam's decision disappointing. She said it takes from 18 to 24 months for someone to go through the screening process. She added that as of a few years ago, most refugees waited more than 10 years to be resettled.

Those defending the resettlement program have noted the financial benefit refugees provide to the state. A 2013 report presented to the Joint Government Operations Legislative Advisory Committee determined that refugees and their descendants provided $1.4 billion in revenue for Tennessee between 1990 and 2012, compared with requiring $753 million in state support.

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