Bill Lee

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.

Lee’s block grant proposal: What they’re saying

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration on Tuesday unveiled its Medicaid block grant proposal, kicking off a 30-day public comment period. Here’s a sample of how Tennessee news outlets are covering the news.

Tennessean:

Currently, the federal government provides about $7.5 billion to $8 billion annually to pay for TennCare. This funding increases or decrease as the need grows or shrinks, and the money is theoretically limitless if the state continues to operate TennCare in accordance with federal guidelines.

As proposed, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration’s plan would convert that funding into a “modified block grant,” giving the state government more authority over how this money is spent. Block grants are generally finite, raising concerns this money might run out, but the governor’s proposal asks the federal government to commit to providing more money if it is needed by the state in the future.

Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Lee’s proposals have already come under fire even before he made full details public.

“I think the issue is that when they say that they’ve created all these ‘savings’ for the federal government, that includes like the 220,000 children that were cut off even though tens of thousands of them were eligible,” said Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, in an early September interview.

“Here’s the bottom line,” Johnson said. “The Trump administration has said they’re going to cut over a trillion dollars out of the [national] Medicaid program through block grants. The Lee administration says we’re going to be able to get all this money, an expansion of health care? The math doesn’t work out.”

_ The Daily Memphian:

Initially, the governor avoided answering how much the state could net through the block grant proposal. But after TennCare Director Gabe Roberts acknowledged the state’s “budget neutrality” figure is $2 billion, the governor conceded Tennessee could land $1 billion if the feds agree to the state’s entire proposal.

Lee couched that comment by noting the amount will depend on whether the feds place new service requirements on TennCare, which typically receives about $8 billion from CMS and about $4 billion from the state.

_ WPLN-FM:

Primarily, the additional money comes from a plan to split savings TennCare already generates with the federal government. Under its current waiver, Tennessee’s Medicaid program costs the federal government billions of dollars less than if it were just the open-ended federal benefit. Tennessee now wants to share those savings 50/50, which is expected to be a key sticking point in negotiations.

The block grant also envisions saving money by cutting red tape, like the periodic reapprovals of Tennessee’s waiver. Even when very few changes are made, the process takes nearly a year. Tennessee is asking for its new block grant proposal to be considered permanent.

TennCare wants to change a few rules that would ensure it’s the “payer of last resort,” particularly in cases where a patient also qualifies for Medicare.

_ The Associated Press:

The plan’s likelihood of ever being implemented, however, remains largely unknown. To date, no state has been given permission to rely solely on block grants to cover Medicaid expenses. The idea has been floated by Republicans for decades but never implemented, due to possible legal challenges and concerns that doing so would result in large spending cuts to the states’ most vulnerable populations.

Yet Lee remains hopeful, noting that support is growing under President Donald Trump’s administration and asserting that no services to the state’s indigent population will be cut. Tennessee’s GOP U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn have also expressed interest in the plan, an endorsement that some say could help push the idea further along.

The Nashville Business Journal:

The 50/50 split Lee is pitching, as well as other aspects of the proposal, are subject to changes and negotiation once Tennessee submits a formal proposal to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“We think we have crafted a waiver that is going to really mitigate the risk that Tennesseans have and actually give us an opportunity to benefit from the efficiencies and the way that we run our program,” Lee said. “That benefit will give us an opportunity to provide enhanced services to our TennCare population … and eventually, for the same money, provide additional services to more people.”

While health systems have yet to comment publicly on Lee’s plan, Republicans in Congress had pitched a similar proposal in 2017 as their effort to repeal and replace the federal Affordable Care Act. At the time, more than 20 organizations, including the American Hospital Organization and the American Medical Association, came out against the proposal, which ultimately failed.

_ The Washington Post:

Tennessee is setting up the nation’s first test case of how far the Trump administration is willing to go to allow a state the “flexibility” that has become a watchword of the administration’s health-care policies.

If TennCare, as that state calls its Medicaid program, wins federal approval for its plan, it could embolden other Republican-led states to follow suit. It also almost certainly would ignite litigation over the legality of such a profound change to the country’s largest public insurance program without approval by Congress.

The Wall Street Journal:

If block grants catch on, the Trump administration could be successful in achieving the Medicaid changes congressional Republicans were unable to in their failed 2017 repeal of the ACA, also known as Obamacare. Tennessee’s proposal released Tuesday would be submitted to the Trump administration in November following a public comment period.

Under Tennessee’s draft proposal, the state would get a lump sum based on projected Medicaid costs. The grant would be adjusted each year for inflation. The federal government would increase its funding on a per capita basis when Medicaid enrollment eclipses the number used to calculate the state’s initial grant amount.

Dunn won’t seek re-election to House in 2020

House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) presents school voucher legislation on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the longest-serving Republican in the state House, says he won’t run for re-election next year. Dunn was the lead House sponsor of this year’s controversial school voucher legislation. He had already drawn a primary opponent.

“After the 2019 session was over, and we had passed Educational Savings Accounts legislation, as well as one of the most pro-life measures in the country, House Bill 1029, I decided it was the right time to conclude my public service on a high note,” Dunn said in a statement.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) today announced he will not seek re-election to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2020.

Dunn currently serves as Speaker Pro Tempore — the second ranking member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. He recently was the acting Speaker of the House due to the resignation of the previous Speaker. Dunn was first elected to the General Assembly to represent the citizens of House District 16 in 1994, making him the longest tenured Republican House member now serving.

“After the 2019 session was over, and we had passed Educational Savings Accounts legislation, as well as one of the most pro-life measures in the country, House Bill 1029, I decided it was the right time to conclude my public service on a high note.”

Dunn said that he wanted to go ahead and make his plans known so that those interested in running for the seat could start making their own plans.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the citizens of our community for the past 26 years as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. I have reached a point in my life where it is time for me to seek new challenges. I am not sure what my future holds, but I look forward to many new and exciting adventures.”

During his tenure, Tennessee students became the fastest improving in the entire nation across math, reading and science. In 2019, Dunn championed an initiative that establishes the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program which gives students and their families the opportunity to select the school that most meets their educational needs.

Additionally, Dunn has been an unwavering and passionate voice for the Right to Life. He has fought to strengthen Tennessee’s pro-life laws in recent years and has strongly supported initiatives to protect unborn children and their mothers.  This year, the legislature passed one of the country’s strongest pro-life measures, House Bill 1029, which restores Tennessee’s pre-1973 pro-life laws when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

Dunn was tireless in pursuing road improvements in the district, and he will leave office with major improvements to Emory Road in Powell, Highway 33 in Halls, and the I-640/Broadway interchange in Fountain City.

Dunn and his Republican colleagues have also cut more than $700 million in taxes since 2011, and they have supported a business-friendly environment that has led to statewide unemployment rates remaining near historic low levels.

“I will be leaving office with our state in a stronger position than when I first came to Nashville,” said Dunn. “We have vastly improved our education system, our state is ranked number one in fiscal responsibility, and, because of the conservative leadership, we continue to attract quality jobs.  I appreciate my colleagues for their friendship and for their dedication to the citizens of Tennessee. I represent the best people in the state and thank the constituents of the 16th House District for the opportunity they have given me to serve them and the great state of Tennessee.”

Bill Dunn is Speaker Pro-Tempore for the 111th Tennessee General Assembly. Dunn is also a member of the House Calendar & Rules, Education, Government Operations, and Naming, Designating & Private Acts and Transportation Committees. He is also a member of the House Curriculum, Testing, and Innovation, and the House Infrastructure Subcommittees, as well as the Judiciary & Government Subcommittee of Joint Government Operations Committee. Dunn lives in Knoxville and represents Tennessee House District 16, which includes part of Knox County.

Voucher sponsor Bill Dunn draws GOP primary challenger

House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) presents school voucher legislation on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Bill Dunn, the lead House sponsor of this year’s school voucher bill, has drawn a primary challenge from Patti Bounds, a former teacher and Knox County school board member, Knox TN Today reports.

“I opened the bank account today,” Bounds told the publication.  “And now it feels real.”

Bounds opposes the “Education Savings Account” measure enacted at first-year Gov. Bill Lee’s behest. Dunn has been a longtime supporter voucher proposals. He has served in the General Assembly since 1994. He currently serves as speaker pro tem, the ceremonial No. 2 position in the House.

It’s on! Bounds vs. Dunn 2020

Dunn is the second incumbent to draw a primary opponent over the voucher issue. Freshman Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington), who voted for the education savings account bill, has drawn a primary challenge from Lee Mills, a former Shelby County GOP
chairman who opposes the measure..

 

Lee names EPB vice president as new Commerce and Insurance commissioner

Gov. Bill Lee has named Hodgen Mainda, a vice president of Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, as commissioner of the Department of Commerce and Insurance. He succeeds Julie Mix McPeak, a holdover from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, who left for a job in the private sector.

Here’s the release announcing Mainda’s appointment from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Hodgen Mainda will serve in his cabinet as commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance. 

“Hodgen joins my cabinet after an outstanding career as a community leader in Chattanooga,” said Lee. “He is respected for his ability to build partnerships across multiple sectors and we welcome his leadership to such a multifaceted department like Commerce & Insurance.”

Mainda currently serves as the vice president for community development at the Electric Power Board (EPB) in Chattanooga which is the first provider of Gigabit internet in the country. In his role with the EPB, Mainda built partnerships across the state and federal level and increased EPB’s role in regional economic development. 

In addition to his work with EPB, Mainda serves on several non-profit boards including the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Chattanooga Rotary Club, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor’s Roundtable and the College of Business Advisory Board. Mainda is also a member of the Leadership Tennessee Class of 2019 and a 2018 graduate of the Harvard Business School Young American Leaders Program.

A native of Nairobi, Kenya, Mainda, moved to Tennessee in 1997 to study at Middle Tennessee State University. He is a graduate of the University of Eastern Africa and currently resides in Chattanooga with his wife and two children.

Mainda will begin at the Department of Commerce & Insurance on October 1, 2019.

Pro-voucher group targets freshman Republican in online ads

A national pro-voucher group is going on the attack against at least one lawmaker who voted against Gov. Bill Lee’s signature “education savings account” legislation, the AP’s Jonathan Mattise and Kimberlee Kruesi report.

The American Federation for Children, which is once chaired by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has run online ads targeting freshman Rep. Mark Cochran (R-Englewood) as having “turned his back on President Trump” by voting against the bill.

An American Federation for Children ad targeting Rep. Mark Cochran.

Cochran was hardly alone in opposing the voucher measure. The roll call was 49-49 on the House floor in May, but then-Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) kept the voting board open for 40 minutes in an effort to get one member to flip to the ‘yes’ column.

Among the other Republican opponents of the bill: Newly-elected House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

A spokesman for the Tennessee chapter of the American Federation for Children refused to comment about the ad or whether other lawmakers might be targeted. The group spent about $6,400 in direct mailers supporting Cochran in last year’s election.

“This type of activity obviously doesn’t have an impact on me and is just part of politics,” Cochran said in a statement to the AP. “At this point, I’m looking ahead at our next session and am excited about the progress we’ll continue to make for Tennesseans.”

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, was critical of the attack ads.

“They not only attack pro-public school legislators, they’ve sent positive mail into districts of pro-voucher legislators,” said Jim Wrye, the organization’s spokesman and lobbyist. “They hide vouchers as well as they can on the mailer. Yet as any Tennessee teacher knows, when you’re afraid to explain what you’ve done, you know it’s wrong.”

Lee holds Cabinet meeting to launch distressed counties summit

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 convened his Cabinet in Perry County to kick off a summit on economically distressed counties

Here’s a release from the governor’s office :

LINDEN, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee convened his cabinet for a meeting with local officials from Tennessee’s 15 distressed counties during the Governor’s Rural Opportunity Summit in Perry County.

The meeting caps a state government-wide audit mandated under Executive Order 1 which examines how departments are serving rural areas, specifically distressed counties. Executive Order 1 also required departments to provide suggestions for improvements moving forward.

“I’ve challenged my cabinet to think critically about how we are helping our rural areas,” said Lee. “With 15 distressed counties in the bottom 10 percent of the nation in terms of poverty, average income and unemployment, we have serious work to do and I believe we are up to the challenge.”

23 state government departments submitted significant analysis that showed rural areas will benefit from the improved coordination of services and overall alignment of departments in serving rural Tennessee. Additionally, departments provided innovation recommendations for potential programs and solutions to be considered by the Lee Administration.

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Cagle: Casada downfall a reminder that lawmakers don’t work for governor

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), right, meets with colleagues on the Senate floor on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Frank Cagle, the former Knoxville News Sentinel managing editor and spokesman for Republican Van Hilleary’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign, says there’s a clear lesson for lawmakers in the implosion of Rep. Glen Casada’s speakership:

Anybody who thinks about going all-in for the governor instead of listening to the folks back home needs to remember Casada. Perhaps it’s good for Casada to hang around in the House as a walking object lesson. If you sold your soul on the voucher vote because Casada offered you incentives, where are your incentives now?

Cagle had his own run-in with the forces of Casada this year. A day after he wrote a Knox TN Today column blasting the voucher bill, his nomination to the state Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission was killed in the House. Eight weeks later, the voucher bill had been signed into law, Casada was on his way out, and Cagle was back on the textbook panel as a recess appointment by Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-
Oak Ridge).

Read Cagle’s full column here:

The Casada Lesson: You don’t work for the governor