Bill Lee

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

Casada ‘doubles down’ on grant pool criticized as pork

Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) speaks to fellow Republicans about his bid for House speaker on Nov. 20, 2018.. He was later nominated for the position by 47 of 73 members. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Glen Casada says it is a “slap in the face” of Tennesseans to criticize a grant pool that some fellow lawmakers have called pork barrel spending.

As first reported by The Tennessean, the dispute began over a recent announcement by Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) that Isaiah 117 House, a ministry that helps foster children, would receive an extra $75,000 from the state to open another location. That came as news to other area lawmakers, who said no such money had been earmarked.

Hill said the money came out of a $4 million pool approved by lawmakers at the end of this year’s legislative session. But asked about the grants at an event in Sneedville, Gov. Bill Lee said the money won’t be spent until the next budget year.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally’s office issued a statement saying the Oak Ridge Republican opposes the use of state money for “legislative pork projects.” Sexton, a Crossville Republican who took over as speaker in August, called the lack of information about grant pool “troubling.”

Casada sent out a statement Tuesday, calling for the administration to lift the hold on the grant funding. Here’s his full statement:

Former House Speaker Glen Casada (R–Franklin) today called for the immediate release of $4 million in grant funding that was included in the 2019-2020 budget approved earlier this year by the Tennessee legislature. The funds, which were backed unanimously by both the House and Senate, were recently put on hold after questions were raised by a small number of lawmakers about how the grant dollars made their way into the budget.

However, despite these questions recently posed in the press, Casada defended the funds, noting the countless discussions between House leadership, Finance Committee members, and the entire legislative body as the budget made its way through the committee process before receiving final approval by every member of the House and Senate and being signed into law by Governor Lee.

Specifically, the grant funds approved by the legislature were documented in the budget for the sole purpose of making rural and community grants for capital projects, repairs, maintenance, and operations to local governments and non-profit public safety, library, community, and recreational service organizations.

“I am not distancing myself from this grant funding in any way,” said Casada. “I believe passionately what we did was good and will benefit countless districts across the state who have fallen behind with local repairs and upgrades over the years. The process for communities to obtain this funding is completely open and transparent and the funds are designed to enhance our local communities and to be used for the benefit of all citizens.”

Regarding claims that some legislators were unaware of these grant dollars being included in this year’s budget, Casada doubled down on his stance that this funding will help Tennesseans across the state.

“This grant fund was documented and addressed with all of the other budget items discussed this year in committees and in meetings. Leadership supported it. House and Senate members alike supported it. Implying something was done improperly in the creation of this grant fund is a direct slap in the face of the very Tennesseans who need it most and each community this funding is intended to help.”

Lee announces membership of Health Care Modernization Task Force

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 announced the membership of his Health Care Modernization Task Force. Here is who’s on it:

Co-chairs:

  • Stuart McWhorter, commissioner of the state Department of Finance and Administration.
  • Bill Carpenter, former chairman and CEO of LifePoint Health.

Task force membership:

  • James Bailey, professor and director of the Center for Health System Improvement at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
  • Mike Carrigan, chief administrator of Premier Medical Group.
  • Brian DeBusk, first vice-chairman on the board of trustees if Lincoln Memorial University.
    James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical C0llege.
  • Melanie Keller, CEO Meritan Inc.
  • Mary Kiger, executive director of TN Charitable Care Network.
  • Kathie Krause, chief nursing officer at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.
  • Shantelle Leatherwood, CEO of Christ Community Health Services.
  • Alan Levine, chairman, president, and CEO of Ballad Health.
  • Jim King, family physician.
  • Kim Parker, director of inpatient and crisis services, Pathways Behavioral Health Services.
  • Jeff Tibbals, Scott County Mayor.
  • Michael Ugwueke, president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.
  • Andrea Willis, chief medical officer, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
  • Randy Wykoff, dean and professor of the College of Public Health at  East Tennessee State University.

Lawmaker members:

  • Senate Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin.
  • Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
  • Senate Commerce Chair Paul Bailey, R-Sparta.
  • Senator Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis.
  • House Utilities Subcommittee Chair Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville.
  • House Insurance Committee Chair Robin Smith, R-Hixson.
  • House Business Subcommittee Chair Ron Travis, R-Dayton.
  • Rep. John DeBerry Jr., D-Memphis.

Media roundup of Pence visit to Nashville area

Gov. Bill Lee and former U.S. Ambassador Bill Hagerty (who also happens to be running for the U.S. Senate) met Vice President Mike Pence on the tarmac for his visit to Nashville. Pence spoke at a Tyson Foods plant in Goodlettsville, recorded an interview for former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s radio show, adn attended a fundraiser for the Trump-Pence re-election campaign.

An anticipated media gaggle — where reporters undoubtedly would have asked the vice president about the congressional impeachment probe — did not take place.

Here’s a roundup of some of the news coverage:

Amid Trump controversy, Pence demands passage of new North American trade agreement (Daily Memphian)

Considered NAFTA 2.0 by some observers, the plan purportedly would update what supporters call an outdated trade agreement with its two neighbors and expand U.S. exports. “This president, he’s impatient for it,” Pence told a crowd of mostly Republican supporters and plant employees. “The truth is we need Congress to approve the United States-Mexico-Canada (agreement), and we need them to approve it this year.”

Ahead of Trump fundraiser, Vice President Mike Pence pushes U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal (Tennessean)

The vice president made an apparent reference to past and ongoing investigations against Trump, including an impeachment inquiry led by Democrats, saying the president’s accomplishments in office had occurred despite “endless investigations trying to overturn the will of the American people.

Pence asks Tennesseans to support Mexico-Canada trade deal (AP)

“It’s time for the Democrats in Congress to set politics aside and pass the USMCA,” Pence said Monday.

He urged attendees to call U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis and tell them, “Tennessee needs the USMCA.”

Sec. of Agriculture talks to local farmers, pushes new trade deal (WTVF-TV)

Farmers had the opportunity to ask the secretary several questions. Some soybean farmers said they were weary because of the tariffs China placed on U.S. Soybeans in response to tariffs the U.S. placed on Chinese imports.

“Farmers get that – they’re honest people, they want to be treated fairly,” said Perdue. “The fact is they know China hasn’t been playing by the rules for a long time.”

Lee administration gives first look at findings from health care meetings

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

Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter has written an op-ed for The Tennessean about what he has found out during a series of closed-door meetings about the state health care in the state. Details of Gov. Bill Lee’s health care modernization task force are expected to be released later this week.

The placement of the op-ed is curious given that the paper’s own news staff was thwarted in its efforts to cover the meetings.

McWhorter said the meetings involved the heads of eight state agencies and private sector experts to “explore improving rural health, reducing chronic conditions, improving transparency and helping to foster innovation.” The discussions are apparently separate from the Medicaid block grant proposal that was panned in a series of public hearings last week.

McWhorter warned that there’s “no silver bullet,” but gave this summary of what was found:

  • First, we heard that transportation is a significant barrier to care. Lack of transportation keeps some Tennesseans from having access to a primary care physician or out-patient services. This inevitably leads to medical problems becoming unmanageable, requiring emergency transportation and services for conditions that could have been managed better.
  • Second, technology, including telehealth, is an underutilized tool in addressing access issues, especially in rural areas of our state. This technology is already having significant positive impacts for other industries. For example, telehealth has enabled schools and law enforcement to provide health care and better manage behavioral health issues which resulted in fewer school absences and reduced jail time.
  • Third, rural areas are hit harder by these issues than other parts of the state, specifically in regard to lack of providers. Tennessee, not unlike other states, continually struggles to attract providers, which can lead to hospital and physician practice closures and, subsequently, a lack of available care within reasonable proximity to Tennesseans.
  • Fourth, addressing social determinants of health could help foster healthier generations. Such efforts can aid in reducing costs, particularly for consumers during a national transition from fee-for-service to value-based care, but also for taxpayers as some costly medical services are preventable by introducing basic lifestyle changes.
  • The fifth and final theme touched on the market challenges related to medical billing. This issue is complex and includes some of the largest facets of our health care system. There is no quick solution for this issue, but it is one our state will need to have a detailed conversation about in the months and years ahead.

Lee says block grant critics are ‘misinformed’

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol on Sept. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee says the largely critical response to his Medicaid block grant proposal in public hearings around the state is coming from people who have either been misinformed or haven’t taken the time to understand the proposal, the AP’s Kimberlee Kruesi reports.

From the AP report:

“I do think that a lot of the folks who are concerned about this have been either misinformed or have not taken the time to really understand it. And there’s legitimate concern about that. We want people to understand this,” Lee, a Republican, told reporters.

The public comment period is required under federal rules for seeking Medicaid waivers. Public hearings were scheduled for Nashville, Knoxville, and Jackson this week. Lee has said he will add stops in Chattanooga and Memphis.

Lee names members of standalone charter authorizer

Republican Gov. Bill Lee has appointed the members of the new state charter school authorizer. The new standalone panel can overturn local school board votes to reject charter school applications.

The members are:

  • Tom Griscom of Hamilton County
  • David Hanson of Davidson County
  • Alan Levine of Washington County
  • Terence Patterson of Shelby County
  • Mary Pierce of Davidson County
  • Christine Richards of Shelby County
  • Derwin Sisnett of Shelby County
  • Eddie Smith of Knox County
  • Wendy Tucker of Williamson County

Griscom is a former editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Smith is a former Republican state representative from Knoxville. Pierce was known as the Nashville school board’s leading charter school advocate before announcing last year she wouldn’t run for re-election. Hanson is a board member of the Beacon Center, Teach For America Nashville, and Valor charter schools.

Under the previous law, the State Board of Education served as the charter authorizer. But it had overturned only three of 21 denials, and supporters of the change hope the new panel will be less deferential to local school boards.

Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, who opposed the bill, told rural and suburban colleagues that under the bill “everybody gets a taste of the charter medicine” that has previously been applied to to cities.

Griffey defends caucus move after wife denied judicial post

Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) attends a meeting at the legislative office building in Nashville on Dec. 20, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Bruce Griffey and his wife, Rebecca, were outraged when Republican Gov. Bill Lee selected Huntingdon attorney Jennifer King to become the chancellor for the judicial district covering Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin, and Henry counties.

Rebecca Griffey had failed to make the list of three finalists for the position in June, but her husband had been lobbying the governor to choose her anyway — even offering Harvey Durham, the father of ousted former state Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin), as having particular insight over the matter. In a letter to Lang Wiseman, the governor’s top legal adviser, Bruce Griffey said it would be a “gross miscarriage of justice” if his wife didn’t end up on the bench, according to correspondence obtained by The Tennessee Journal under public records laws.

Despite those entreaties, Lee on Sept. 4 announced he had chosen King from the list of three finalists. Two days later, Rebecca Griffey took to Facebook to express her anger.

“Today was a big slap in the face to longtime, dedicated Republicans who have devoted blood, sweat, tears and money for years to the Republican cause,” she wrote.

Wiseman took note of the Facebook post, texting a copy to Bruce Griffey on Sept. 6.

“Why are you txt me this?” Griffey responded. Then the lawmaker sent him the copy of a news story about former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile saying she had “proof” that Hillary Clinton had rigged the presidential primary in 2016.

It’s unclear why Griffey sent Wiseman the link to that story, but it was then that King alleges the Griffeys and their allies began manipulating county Republican officials and the state GOP, where Rebecca Griffey is an executive committee member, to give them greater sway over who would be the party’s nominee for the chancellorship in 2020 — in other words, not King. So just nine days after her appointment to the bench, she quit.

The Republican parties in the five counties comprising the 24th District had been given the option of whether to hold a primary election for the chancellorship, or to plot the more unusual course of holding caucuses to determine their standard bearer. When the vote was tallied, the preference among the majority was to hold a primary.

Under party rules, the counties were bound by the decision of the majority to inform their respective county election commissions that they were going to hold a primary. Three county parties did, but those in Henry and Hardin counties failed to submit the notices by the June 17 deadline. King wrote in her resignation letter that what should have happened next is that the two counties that failed to submit their filings should have been excluded from the nomination contest.

But on Sept. 6 — two days after King’s appointment and the same day Bruce Griffey sent the cryptic text message about the “rigged” Democratic primary — the state party informed the county parties that a majority had asked to reconvene to reconsider its actions. This time the vote was 8-2 to abandon the primary and instead hold a caucus. King alleged in her letter to the governor that nothing in state GOP bylaws allowed for that redo. The party says it consulted with state Division of Elections before going forward with another vote.

Bruce Griffey in a statement said the decision to hold a caucus had “nothing whatsoever to do with Ms. King being appointed by Governor Lee.” Instead, he said, the decision needed to ensure that all five counties got a chance to participate in the nomination process.

But the timing of various votes has led to widespread speculation that GOP officials in Henry and Hardin counties purposefully withheld their filings so the case could be made later that that it wouldn’t be right to exclude them from the nomination contest.

Not so, Griffey said it in his statement.

“It was a matter of fundamental fairness in allowing all 5 counties in the district to participate and was done in accordance with the TN GOP Bylaws,” he said.

IRS placed $240K lien on state Rep. Griffey’s home

The saga of freshman Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) unsuccessfully trying to pressure first-year Gov. Bill Lee into appointing his wife, Rebecca, to a vacant judgeship is the subject of this week’s Tennessee Journal. The Associated Press has done a fine job following up on the story as well.

Griffey wrote to a top Lee adviser that choosing his wife would have several potential benefits for the governor: making an “automatic ally” out of the lawmaker and taking Rebecca Griffey “out of state politics.” If she didn’t get the job, he mused, “what do Rebecca and I have to lose?”

Rebecca Griffey didn’t make the list of three finalists for the position and Lee ultimately chose Huntingdon attorney Jennifer King for the post. But she quit after just nine days on the bench under what she described as political pressure and maneuvering by the Griffeys and their allies.

Bruce Griffey alleged a political conspiracy against him and his wife by the Trial Court Vacancy Commission, with a sympathetic story in the Tennessee Star claiming the panel was made up of appointees of former Gov. Bill Haslam. It isn’t. The commission is entirely appointed by the speakers of the state House and Senate.

During interviews of the candidates for the job, members of the panel took particular issue with Rebecca Griffey’s answer to a question on her application that she had not had a tax lien or other collection procedure instituted against her over the previous five years. Members of the panel had been given a copy of IRS notices indicating Griffey and her husband had a lien placed on their home for failing to pay $240,060 in 2015 and another $23,030 in 2016.

Lee’s Medicaid block grant proposal deemed ‘illegal’ by House chairman

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol on Sept. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s application for a Medicaid block grant is drawing fire from a power chairman in the U.S. House, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.

“This is illegal and the Trump Administration does not have the authority to do this,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) wrote on Twitter.

“I wrote to [Health Secretary Alex] Azar this summer reminding him HHS does not have legal authority to implement a block grant or per capita cap on the Medicaid program,” Pallone said. “While Secretary Azar has yet to respond to me, ignoring oversight letters from Congress doesn’t change the fact that block granting Medicaid is illegal.”

The Tennessee proposal has drawn praise from Republican Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn.

The details of Lee’s block grant application were unveiled this week, launching a 30-comment period before it is submitted to the federal government. Supporters say it can be approved without congressional oversight.

“Gov. Lee has reiterated that point throughout this process and it will be up to [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] to communicate what they are willing to accept during the negotiations,” said Laine Arnold, a spokeswoman for the governor.