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.

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