House GOP leaders: ‘Trust us’ on secret budget discussions

The state Capitol was closed to visitors on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After the House Republican supermajority holed up behind closed doors for 75 minutes to discuss the massive overhaul of the state’s budget in response to the coronavirus crisis, Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) and Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) spoke to reporters about their justifications for the secret meeting.

Here’s a partial transcript of what was said:

Lamberth: We’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s a transparent process. That includes, from time to time having a caucus meeting that is a closed caucus meeting so they can merely have the information, but no decisions were made.

Q: Just to clarify, a closed caucus meeting is transparent?

Lamberth: Absolutely. It will be prepare us to be able to discuss this later. And everything that was said in that room will be said again on the record. We emphasized that to the members. No decisions were made, no votes were taken whatsoever, and none will be taken in there. What was done was to lay out a schedule for what will happen for the rest of the day, and to lay out the information they have that will be provided to anyone else who wants it.

Q: How will the public know what that schedule is?

Lamberth: What we’re asking is for you to trust us right now. We will continue to get that information out there every single day.

[….]

Q: The Senate rules dictate that when the caucus meets, because they have a majority of the chamber, they must be open. Why have you guys not followed suit, and why should the House supermajority be able to talk behind closed doors?

Faison: Obviously, we don’t follow what the Senate does. We do what we believe is right for our people and our members.

Q: And it’s right to meet behind closed doors when you have a supermajority?

Faison: If we were making a decision, or taking a vote, or whipping a vote or anything like that, I would be vehemently against closing our doors.

[…]

Q: What about the funding for the Education Savings Account law. Was that discussed?

Faison: We discussed what is currently in the budget that deals with ESAs, and the lack of it dealing with ESAs. There’s appropriation in this budget that a lot of people erroneously thought had something to do with implementing ESAs or making ESAs happen. In fact, the money that’s appropriated in this current budget is money that will go to the public schools in Nashville and Memphis.

Q: But that’s for the implementation of the ESA program.

Faison: It does not have anything to do with the implementation of the program. What it has to do with is if a student and their guardian chooses to come out of a public school, the money that follows them goes to the new school they’re going to and we have created a whole separate pot of money that holds that public school harmless. …. We’re in a place right now that we’re not going to get into the politics of what we did with the bills we passed last year.

[…]

Q:  Surely the money could be used to go toward the raises for teachers whose raises are going to be cut?

Faison: We do have a 2% raise for teachers. We’ve dialed back on a lot of stuff.

Q: Why not use the $37 million for the ESA program for teacher raises? If the program isn’t funded, it can’t go forward.

Lamberth: That is absolutely not true. And as my friend, you know that is not true. You are well aware what this money is for. Whatever talking point you got from the Democratic caucus is not accurate. This money in this budget goes to public schools. You know it and I would appreciate it you get that information out there.

Q: As a reminder, 20 Republicans voted against this legislation, so it’s not just Democrats.

Lamberth: That is a Democratic talking point, and you know it. This money goes to public schools. The ESA program can go forward without this money. It is our preference is to backfill any of that money to a public school.. That’s what this money goes to. Period.

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