Bill Lee

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:

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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

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.”