Monthly Archives: November 2019

The Tennessee Journal: The perfect gift for that political junkie in your life

Looking for the perfect gift for that certain someone who just can’t get enough of the inner working Tennessee politics? Look no further than The Tennessee Journal, the weekly insiders’ newsletter on state government, politics since 1975.

For just $209 for the first year, you will receive 49 issues covering major happenings at the state Capitol and from the campaign trail. Download a sample copy here.

The upcoming year promises to be the latest chapter of upheaval in state politics. And The Tennessee Journal will be there to cover it all, including:

√ Another open U.S. Senate seat.

√ Tennessee’s presidential primary on Super Tuesday.

√ New Gov. Bill Lee ramping up for his second legislative session.

√ A new House speaker tries to bring calm to the chamber after his predecessor barely lasted half a year.

√ The state prepares to roll out a controversial school voucher program after the governor’s signature legislation passed under controversial circumstances.

√ All 99 state House seats and half of the 33 state Senate seats are up for election.

√ Freshmen members of the Tennessee congressional delegation (three in the House and one in the Senate) work to make their mark in Washington.

√  Revenue collections continue to overflow the state’s coffers, but for how long?

And, as always, The Tennessee Journal will closely monitor the progress of key bills, legislative maneuvering, and the state budget.

Subscribe here!

Happy Thanksgiving from assorted Tennessee politicos

Happy Thanksgiving from The Tennessee Journal. And, as Twitter reminds us, from an assortment of public officials and those aspiring to join their ranks:

McNally says renaming Cordell Hull Building shouldn’t be done ‘without considerable forethought and study’

Former Gov. Winfield Dunn awaits the start of the of the inauguration of Gov. Bill Lee in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) doesn’t appear quite as eager to push through a new name for the legislative office complex as some of his House counterparts. Rep. Ron Gant (R-Rossville) announced last week he plans to introduce legislation to name the building after former Gov. Winfield Dunn. The facility constructed in the 1950s is named after Cordell Hull, the country’s longest-serving Secretary of State.

“This is not something that should be done without considerable forethought and study,” McNally told The Tennessean.

McNally got his start in politics working for Dunn’s 1970 campaign for governor, calling him “a great man (and an) outstanding governor. But he also praised Hull, who was a state representative before serving in the U.S. House and Senate.

Mackler blasts GOP opponents for Blackburn tweet

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate James Mackler is criticizing his Republican opponents for being “clones” of Republican Marsha Blackburn, who was elected to the chamber last year. Mackler, a former Army helicopter pilot, took aim at comments Blackburn made about Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified in the congressional impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Blackburn has said she stands by a tweet that stated: “Vindictive Vindman in the ‘whistleblower’s’ handler.” Republican candidates Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi have defended the president and condemned the House probe.

Mackler closed his law practice after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to join the Army. He spent three years as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot for the 101st Airborne Division, which included a deployment to Iraq. He later served as a military prosecutor for the Judge Advocate General Corps.

 

Hagerty speaks out against minor league ‘hit list’

Then-U.S. Ambassador Bill Hagerty throws out the first pitch at a baseball game in Japan on June 5, 2018. (Credit: U.S. Embassy in Japan)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty is speaking out against a plan by Major League Baseball to sever 42 minor league teams’ links to parent clubs and instead make them part of a lower-tier “Dream League” made up of undrafted or released players.

Six of Tennessee’s nine minor league teams would be affected by the change, which critics fear could cause them to fold. The teams on the so-called “hit list” are the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts and Jackson Generals, and the Elizabethton Twins, Greeneville Reds, Johnson City Cardinals, and Kingsport Mets of the Rookie class Appalachian League.

Former gubernatorial candidate and interim University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd owns the Elizabethton, Greeneville, and Johnson City teams. The Double-A Tennessee Smokies of Sevierville, which Boyd acquired from Bill and Jimmy Haslam in 2013, would not be affected. Also avoiding the proposed shakeup are the state’s two Triple-A teams, the Memphis Redbirds and the Nashville Sounds.

Here’s Hagerty’s statement:

Last week, when I was in the Tri-Cities, several Tennesseans spoke with me about MLB’s plan to cut the region’s minor league baseball teams. Our teams in Chattanooga, Elizabethton, Greeneville, and Jackson are also on the chopping block. It would be devastating for our communities.

These teams bring America’s pastime to our backyards, and they are integral to the fabric of our communities. They inspire young athletes, provide family fun, support the community, and provide hundreds of good jobs. It is my hope that MLB reconsiders its plan and works with these teams to remain home in Tennessee.

New movement afoot to rename Cordell Hull Building

Gant

State Rep. Ron Gant (R-Rossville) wants to rename the General Assembly’s new office complex after former Gov. Winfield Dunn, reports WKRN-TV’s Chris Bundgaard. The building has been named after Cordell Hull, the country’s longest-serving secretary of state, since it was first constructed in the 1950s.

Dunn is a Republican, while Nobel Peace prize-winning Hull was a Democrat.

Dunn became Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 48 years when he was elected in 1970.

It’s not the first time Republicans have chafed at working in a building named after a Democrat. As the AP reported in 2017, state Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) wanted to remove the name of “that old Democrat socialist” before lawmakers moved last year. But Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) opposed the change, noting that Hull was from his district.

Hull was born in a log cabin in rural Pickett County in 1871 and served in the state House and the U.S. Senate before being named secretary of state in 1933. Poor health forced him to retire from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Cabinet in 1944.

The previous call to change the name of the Cordell Hull building didn’t gain much traction. Then-Rep. Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) wasn’t thrilled by the idea.

“He was a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives,” McCormick said. “And as long as he wasn’t a state senator, I think it’s OK to leave his name on the building.”

No word yet on whether the effort to name the legislative branch’s office complex after a former head of the executive branch will give anyone pause.

The Knoxville mayor’s election and state House races

(Credit: Don Johnson)

We were fascinated by a map detailing the sharp geographical divide in this month’s mayoral runoff in Knoxville. So much so, that we asked talented mapmaker to superimpose state House districts onto the map to see what it would tell us about potential matchups next year.

For reference, here are the incumbents:

  • District 13: Democrat Gloria Johnson, who beat Republican incumbent Republican Eddie Smith by 12 percentage points.
  • District 14: Republican Jason Zachary, who beat Democrat Justin Davis by 31 points.
  • District 15: Democrat Rick Staples, who was unopposed.
  • District 16: Republican Bill Dunn, who beat Democrat Kate Trudell by 40 points. Dunn has announced he will retire next year.
  • District 18: Republican Martin Daniel, who beat Democrat Greg Mackay by 3 points.
  • District 19: Republican Dave Wright, who beat Democrat Edward Nelson by 48 points.
  • District 89: Republican Justin Lafferty, who beat Democrat Coleen Martinez by 28 points.

So what do the results tell us? Mostly that the status quo is probably fairly relieved.

Indya Kincannon, the Democratic winner of the mayor’s race didn’t carry any GOP House districts, while Republican Eddie Mannis didn’t win in Democratic ones. Kincannon did carry precincts in Republican freshman Rep. Dave Wright’s district, but most of his terrority lies outside the city limits and he won his 2018 race by a massive 48 points.

Rep. Daniel, who suffered a close call in last year’s election, saw Mannis carry 55% of his district. But Daniel has positioned himself more to the right than Mannis, so it remains to be seen whether Democrats can mount another credible challenge.

Johnson’s 12-point win over incumbent Smith last year was an outlier after their previous two contests had been decided in tight races. But Kincannon’s 10-point margin over Mannis in the district shows Johnson’s big win probably wasn’t a fluke.

Many thanks again to Don Johnson for his fine mapmaking work!

 

 

About that whole voucher tax thing…

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters on March 19, 2019, about his proposal to introduce an education savings account program in Tennessee. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The revelation that Tennessee’s new school vouchers could well be considered taxable income by the IRS set off a furor at the statehouse among both supporters and opponents of the “education savings account” law.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s statement to the House Finance Committee appeared fairly unequivocal when asked during a Monday hearing: “My understanding is this is taxable, yes.”

Voucher supporters were quick to pounce, noting that the law includes a provision that states the more than $7,300 vouchers would not be considered income. But the caveat there is the state can only write legislation affecting Tennessee law. The IRS might have different ideas.

Schwinn told reporters she had come to that determination in consultation with state Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office. But a spokeswoman for the AG said his office would not be in a position to weigh in on federal tax matters.

Schwinn’s spokeswoman later issued a new statement seeking to clarify matters:

The Commissioner’s comments at the budget hearing today were intended to reflect the possible need for the program’s filing and issuance of federal information reporting returns rather than taxability. We are continuing to work through the details of what will be required for ESA program implementation.

So where does that leave things for parents concerned about being hit with a big tax bill if they take the vouchers? It remains unclear. And now Democratic lawmakers are (perhaps inevitably) asking for a delay in the bill’s implementation so it can all be figured out.

Lee administration records show dozens of grant ‘commitments’

Gov. Bill Lee, second from left, holds a budget hearing with the Department of Economic and Community Development on Nov. 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig/Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has sought to chalk up disagreements about a local grant fund to a “misunderstanding” among lawmakers about the application process the money would be distributed. But emails The Tennessean obtained under state open records laws the show the Lee administration had committed to 60 projects around the state before the grant application process was formally established.

Critics have derided the $4 million grant pool as a “slush fund” and raised questions about whether the money was designed to reward lawmakers who voted for Lee’s controversial school voucher bill. Not so, said Lee, but the governor nevertheless halted distribution of the money until the next budget year.

The finger-pointing spree erupted when Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), a top ally of former House Speaker Glen Casada, announced in September that a favored nonprofit in his district would be receiving an extra $75,000 grant. Nobody in the executive branch claimed to know anything about it.

But the Tennessean records request shows Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bobby Rolfe sent a July 26 email to Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter saying dozens of commitments had already been identified.

“This morning I met with our ECD Grant Team to develop a plan to administer the $4 million Rural and Community Development Grant Program that was approved by the General Assembly,” Rolfe said in the email.

“Assuming the individual grants will not be large amounts, it is quite conceivable that the total number of grants could exceed 100,” VanderMeer wrote.

Rolfe told the paper on Monday he had no knowledge of specific projects.

“We at ECD saw our role only as the grantor of the program,” he said. “Which means as this legislation was written, (the) commissioner of F&A would be making the decision and would be approving the grants, commitments, whatever you want to call them.”

“We at ECD — nobody’s ever seen a list,” he said. “We to this day don’t know that a list exists. We’ve just been told that there was a list somewhere.”

McWhorter declined to comment to the paper through a spokeswoman. But he denied having a role in devising the additional grant pool funds with state lawmakers at the end of last session.

“I’m not part of the legislative negations,” McWorter told reporters on Nov. 4. “That was their amendment, they added the money. You’ll have to ask them how it was added.

“We submitted a $3 million request as part of the admirative amendment. They added $1M additional and they unanimously approved the budget. So you’ll have to ask them how it occurred,” he said.

Lee said he hasn’t spoken to Hill about why he thought the $75,000 was funded for the project in his district. The governor said during budget hearings earlier this month that he doesn’t know why there’s so much confusion surrounding the grant program.

“You’ll have to ask those who don’t understand it and have said they don’t understand it,” Lee said. “We understood exactly what the process was. But there have been a number of lawmakers who have expressed uncertainty about how the funds would be distributed, what that process would be.

“Because of that lack of clarity and their lack of understanding about the process, we said let’s just hold up, we won’t spend it until we make sure everyone knows how it will be done,” Lee said.

Lee communications director Walker to leave adminstration

Chris Walker, the chief spokesman for Republican Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign and for his first year in office, is stepping down at the end of the year.

Walker plans to return to political consulting after he leaves the administration.

Walker joined the Lee campaign when few gave the Franklin businessman much of a chance in the GOP primary featuring the better-known U.S. Rep. Diane Black, former Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell. As Black and Boyd went negative in the race, the Lee camp maintained a positive message. Lee went on to win the nomination with 37% of the vote, compared with 24% for Boyd, 23% for Black, and 15% for Harwell. Lee went on to blow out Democrat Karl Dean in the general election.

Walker shifted over to the the state Capitol after the election, crafting Lee’s speeches and managing the new administration’s message through the new governor’s first session and in response to the scandal surrounding then-House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and close all on the controversial school voucher legislation.