Bill Lee

Lee signs order moving disability services for young children out of Education Department

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has signed an executive order to move development services for young children with disabilities out of the state Education Department. They will now be housed within the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Here’s the release from the Lee administration:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order transferring the Tennessee Early Intervention System (TEIS) from the Tennessee Department of Education to the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to better align services for children with disabilities.

TEIS is a voluntary educational program for infants and toddlers with disabilities that supports families through child development resources. The program encourages optimal development through community and family activities.

“This program is vital to the growth and development of children with disabilities,” said Gov. Lee. “We look forward to better serving TEIS families and ensuring Tennessee is a place where people of all abilities thrive.”

Since taking office in January, this is the 10th executive order signed by Gov. Lee.

Lee signs proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee sits in a bus at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis after signing a proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee on Dec. 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee traveled to Memphis on Sunday to sign a proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee. The bill to honor Parks on the anniversary of her 1955 arrest for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., was sponsored by Sen. Raumesh Akbari and Rep. Karen Camper (both D-Memphis).

Lee called Parks “an inspiring human being, who did so much for so many, so [I’m] proud to be working with the legislature today to honor her.”

Lee got into hot water last summer over signing a proclamation honoring slave trader and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, as required by a state law dating back to 1969. Lee has said he hopes to change that law next legislative session.

Parks is a better example of historical figures the state’s should be honoring with proclamations, Lee told reporters Sunday.

“It’s important that we recognize folks who have made major contributions for civil rights in this country and to change the trajectory for civil rights,” Lee said.

“Whenever we can make proclamations about inspiring individuals who are to be celebrated — and that’s someone who is celebrated by everyone  — that’s the  kind of thing we need to be doing in this state.”

 

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:

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.

Lee announces $25M in vocational education grants

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is announcing $25 million in grants under his vocational education initiative, a major part of the Republican’s campaign platform last year

Here’s the release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced projects receiving funding through the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) program which prioritizes learning opportunities in rural counties and enhances career and technical education statewide.

“We are proud to work with the General Assembly to pass the GIVE initiative and expand career and technical education for Tennessee students,” said Lee. “These funds directly support our workforce development efforts in distressed and at-risk counties and are a key component of our strategy to prioritize rural Tennessee.”

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved $25 million in the governor’s budget to incentivize collaboration at the local level among stakeholders such as higher education institutions, K-12 and economic development partners.

The award process began in June when the Tennessee Higher Education Commission issued a competitive Request for Proposals (RFP). Each proposal was required to show local data that clearly identified both workforce needs and a sustainable plan utilizing equipment, work-based learning experiences, or recognized industry certifications to increase the state’s competitiveness and postsecondary attainment goals.

The program prioritized economically distressed and at-risk counties in the RFP process. The 28 funded projects will serve all economically distressed counties and 18 of the 24 at-risk counties.

The Appalachian Regional Commission index of economic status categorizes counties as at-risk or distressed based upon their three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rates. Distressed counties rank among the 10% most economically distressed in the nation while at-risk counties rank between the bottom 10% and 25% of the nation’s counties.

The full list of GIVE projects and recipients:

Continue reading

Lee endorses fellow ‘outsider’ Bevin in Kentucky governor’s race

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has endorsed incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin in the Kentucky governor’s race.

Lee appeared at a Bevin campaign stop at the Casey Jones Distillery in western Kentucky on Friday. The first year Tennessee governor said Bevin had encouraged him to run last year, and that he was inspired by Bevin’s “outsider” status.

“He, too, came from the business world and he understands that the status quo and establishment is not the way to move the Commonwealth of Kentucky forward,” the Hoptown Chronicle quoted Lee as saying. “The way to move forward is to break and challenge the status quo.”

Lee said despite the two states being economic competitors, it matters to Tennessee what happens in Kentucky. Following Lee’s endorsement, Bevin took the stage to address the more than 100 people who attended the campaign stop.

 

Bevin faces Democrat state Attorney General Andy Beshear in the governor’s race. The election in on Nov. 5.

Dispatches from the Senate GOP retreat: Emptying jails, appealing to millenials

Senate State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), left) and Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), attend a hearing on open records exemptions in Nashville on Jan. 30, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessean‘s Joel Ebert trekked out to Crossville to catch up with a gathering of the state Senate Republican Caucus. Members got an update from their campaign consultant, Facebook, state Attorney General Herbert Slatery, and Gov. Bill Lee.

Lee said Republicans need to change “the way we’ve been doing things forever” as it relates to criminal justice in the state. He said he was hopeful for an overhaul.

“Because of y’alls leadership, I think we’re going to get criminal justice reform,” he said, adding: “We can empty our jails in the same way that some other states have done. I know we can do that.”

Political consultant Bonnie Brezina said of the 15 GOP incumbents on the ballot, the toughest race will likely be the re-election campaign of Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville).

I think we need to spend as much as we can to make sure Dickerson stays put,” she said.

Attracting new voters is a major challenge, she said.

“Millennials these days, I mean it’s tough,” she said.  “Changing their mind is just a tough thing to do right now.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the millennial generation refers to anyone born between 1981 and 1996, or those between the ages of 23 and 38 in 2019.

Read Ebert’s full account here.

Lee names census task force

Gov. Bill Lee awaits his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has named the membership of the Tennessee Complete Count Committee, which is tasked with working along the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020.

“I am proud to appoint these leaders and appreciate their willingness to serve our state and nation in this critical undertaking,” Lee said in a release. “We look forward to working together to make sure all Tennesseans are accounted for and our state receives the necessary resources to support our growing population.”

Here’s who Lee named to the panel:

The following Tennesseans were appointed to serve on the Tennessee Complete Count Committee: 

  • Jeff Aiken, President, Tennessee Farm Bureau
  • Joseph Butler, Mayor, Carroll County
  • Karen Camper, Tennessee House Minority Leader, 87th District
  • Butch Eley, Chief Operating Officer, Governor’s Office
  • Brandon Gibson, Senior Advisor, Governor’s Office
  • Tre Hargett, Tennessee Secretary of State
  • Clifton Harris, President, Urban League of Middle Tennessee
  • Mike Harrison, Executive Director, Tennessee Association of County Mayors
  • Jack Johnson, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader, 23rd District
  • Mary Kiger, Executive Director, Tennessee Charitable Care Network
  • Mike Krause, Executive Director, Tennessee Higher Education Commission
  • Tim Kuhn, Director, Tennessee State Data Center
  • William Lamberth, Tennessee House Majority Leader, 44th District
  • David Lillard, Tennessee State Treasurer
  • Raul Lopez, Executive Director, Latinos for Tennessee
  • Sen. Becky Massey, 6th District
  • Anna McDonald, Chief of Staff, First Lady’s Office
  • Randy McNally, Lieutenant Governor, 5th District
  • Stuart McWhorter, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration
  • Margaret Mehary, Executive Director, Tennessee Municipal League
  • Tony Parker, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Correction
  • Ryan Porter, COO and General Counsel, Jackson Chamber
  • Claude Pressnell, Director, Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association
  • Emily Reynolds, Vice-Chair, Tennessee Board of Regents
  • Beverly Robertson, CEO, Greater Memphis Chamber
  • Cameron Sexton, Speaker of the House, 25th District
  • Jim Shulman, Executive Director, Tennessee Commission on Aging & Disability
  • Rep. Robin Smith, 26th District
  • Rufus Smith, Executive Chairman, Memphis Christian Pastors Network
  • Gloria Sweet-Love, President, Tennessee NAACP
  • David Tomita, Former Mayor, Johnson City
  • Flora Tydings, Chancellor, Tennessee Board of Regents
  • Carol Westlake, Executive Director, Tennessee Disability Coalition
  • Joseph Williams, Director of External Affairs, Governor’s Office
  • Marie Williams, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  • Justin Wilson, Tennessee State Comptroller
  • Dave Worland, Executive Director, Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
  • Jeff Yarbro, Tennessee Senate Minority Leader, 21st District