Cameron Sexton

War of words erupts over failure to pass bill to ban COVID-19 lawsuits

Everyone thought the deal was done. But then it wasn’t. The General Assembly adjourned in the predawn hours of Friday without passing either a bill to provide businesses immunity from most COVID-19 lawsuits or another measure to set insurance reimbursement standards for telemedicine appointments.

That’s when a war of words began to erupt between the Republican leaders of both chambers. Senate Speaker Randy McNally blamed House Majority Leader William Lamberth and House Judiciary Chairman Michael Curcio for torpedoing the lawsuit bill.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, normally a McNally ally, shot back that “finger pointing on social media … is not a productive way to arrive at an effective solution.”

Talk immediately turned to whether Gov. Bill Lee might call a special session to try to fix the damage. But first, the two chambers would have to come together on an agreement — something that has proven elusive so far.

The sticking point over the lawsuit liability has been over whether it be backdated to the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate has argued it should, while the House has pointed out that retroactive legislation is banned by the state constitution. Business interests appeared to have been willing to back off the retroactive language in the interest of getting at least something passed this session, but those discussions evaporated after the word was put out the two chambers had agreed to pass the original forms of both the liability and telemedicine bills.

It turned out rank-and-file members of the House weren’t on board with such an arrangement. The vote to adopt the Senate version including the retroactive language was 46-36. It takes 50 votes for bills to be approved in the House.

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House GOP picks an unusual bargaining chip in budget debate: Retaining the Hall income tax

Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) presides over a House floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

For years, the contest among legislative Republicans was over who could move to eliminate the state’s Hall Income Tax the quickest. Now it appears House Republicans want to hold on to the last vestige of the tax on earnings from stocks and bonds for another five years.

The Daily Memphian‘s Sam Stockard reports the House plan would keep the 1% tax on the books until 2025, pulling in about $49 million per year as the state scrambles to make up for revenues lost during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate wants to keep the levy on it’s current path toward expiration on Jan. 1.

Look no further than House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) to illustrate the political importance of doing away with the Hall tax. As Sexton told the told the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce in 2011. ”

We don’t want to be a state that penalizes people for investments or for saving … It’s also bad policy. We shouldn’t penalize people for saving for the future.

Will Sexton really want to have to explain to constituents — a large portion of whom are retirees — why his first session as House speaker included a resurrection of the hated Hall tax? Probably not. Many political observers see the Hall tax item as a bluff by the House to try to negotiate concessions out of the Senate.

The question is whether House Republicans are really just negotiating with themselves.

Lee, speakers announce plan to pass budget then recess General Assembly

The state Capitol was closed to visitors on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Per Gov. Bill Lee, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton:

Over the last week, we have remained in close contact with the state’s health leaders, and we have continued to carefully monitor the complex and aggressive COVID-19 virus in Tennessee. The latest guidance from both the CDC and Department of Health requires us to take unprecedented action. In the best interests of public health, we have jointly decided to limit all remaining legislative business to fulfilling our constitutional requirement of passing a balanced budget, and any associated actions that will ensure Tennessee can keep its doors open. This is a serious time for our state and country, and we all must make adjustments in response to this threat. Our approach will take into account the unique public health challenges this complex virus presents, as well as the economic disruption likely to occur as a result of its spread. Passing an amended budget now and recessing will allow the General Assembly to focus on an immediate plan of action, while still determining needs down the road. This pathway forward should only be reserved for extraordinary circumstances. We will continue operating out of an abundance of caution and take additional action if it becomes necessary.

Tennessee Capitol complex to close doors to public

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Capitol and legislative office complex will be off limits to the public starting on Monday amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 is an evolving situation but we urge vulnerable populations, including those over age 60 and with chronic medical conditions to limit participation in mass gatherings and to take extra precautions for personal well-being like increased hand-washing,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. “With 26 confirmed cases in our state, we have issued further guidance to help communities mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Here’s a joint statement from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally:

Governor Lee continues to take a thoughtful approach to containing the possible spread of COVID-19. We applaud his steps to better protect the public’s health. Beginning Monday, March 16, we will limit access to the Cordell Hull Building out of an abundance of caution. Access is prohibited to everyone except elected members, staff and members of the media until further notice. However, the citizens of Tennessee will still be able to access the work they have elected us to do through the livestreaming services available on our website.

We must take any and all reasonable steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is imperative the public’s health be prioritized and economic disruption minimized. We will continue to evaluate this situation, remain in contact with Governor Lee, the state’s health leaders, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to determine whether additional action is needed.

The governor’s office also gave the following guidance:

Mass Gatherings

Heading into the weekend, many Tennesseans will be making decisions regarding faith gatherings and church attendance. Congregations and groups are urged to consider alternatives to traditional services by utilizing livestreams, pre-recorded messages and other electronic means. 

While at this time, mass gatherings such as conferences or other large social events remain at the discretion of the organizer, we strongly discourage events of 250 people or more as an important step in limiting exposure to COVID-19. 

Schools

At this time, school districts have been advised to exercise discretion when canceling school for K-12 students. The state will provide further support for districts pursuing this action but urge districts to consider the prevalence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their area. In partnership with districts, students who depend on school-provided meals will still receive this support, regardless of school closure.

State Employees, Business Travel 

Effective immediately, state employees who have been trained and certified to work from home within the state’s Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS) program will work from home through March 31, 2020. Approximately 11,000 state employees are certified AWS employees and can begin work from home with no disruption to state business. 

Effective immediately, state employees have been instructed to cease all non-essential business travel through March 31, 2020. 

Tennessee State Capitol Closed to Visitors

The Tennessee State Capitol is closed to tours and visitors through March 31, 2020. Members of the media will continue to have access to the State Capitol building. 

 

Lee and Sexton talk early childhood reading

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee and House Speaker Cameron Sexton toured Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School in East Nashville last week as a plan to spend nearly $70 million on early childhood reading initiatives has received some pushback by education groups.

As reported by Chalkbeat Tennessee, concerns include that the program is being rushed out and that it would add diagnostic testing for children starting in kindergarten.

Lee and Sexton discussed the reading initiative with The Tennessee Journal following the visit to the school. Here’s what they had to say:

Government moves very slowly a lot of the time. People get to used to that, so when there’s a desire to move in an expeditious way you find pushback. But I think, by and large, people know it’s time for us to do this. — Lee.

LEE: Literacy is the most important thing we can do in education, and early literacy will reap the rewards of that for generations to come if we get it right. And if we don’t get it right in literacy, all of the rest of our investment in education will fall short. This approach is data-driven, it is modeled in large part after approaches that are working other places in the country. And it’s just an investment in preparing teachers, getting them the right information and the right equipment needed, and then focusing on those kids and the outcomes that come through literacy. So we’re excited about what’s to come there.

SEXTON: We are in total agreement with Gov. Lee in putting the focus on the literacy problem that we have in the state of Tennessee. We’ve done a great job with the GIVE Act and Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, in really helping people have the opportunity. Now we’re refocusing back on the lower grades in school, where it really does matter what happens. And so we’re very hopeful and appreciate the huge investment that he put into that. And what I will say is, it’s great to know that we have a commissioner and a governor who want to get back to the phonics and get back to the basics of things that we know that work. And we’re looking forward to really having Tennessee move in light years like we have over the years. But really, expand and really grow exponentially in our reading proficiency.

It’s great to know that we have a commissioner and a governor who want to get back to the phonics and get back to the basics of things that we know that work. — Sexton.

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Speakers seek delay of sports gambling in Tennessee amid questions about draft rules

Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton await Gov. Bill Lee’s arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Legislative leaders want the Tennessee Lottery to delay the approval of sports gambling rules. Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) wrote in a letter to Lottery Chair Susan Lanigan on Friday that some of the draft rules are outside the scope of the gaming law passed last year.

Here is the text of the letter:

Dear Ms. Lanigan,
We would respectfully request that the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation Board of Directors and the Sports Wagering Advisory Council delay voting on the rules to implement the “Tennessee Sports Gaming Act.”

There have been concerns brought to our attention that some of the rules, as drafted, may be outside the authority given to the Board or Council pursuant to the “Tennessee Sports Gaming Act.” For example, there is concern that the additional categories of licenses created within the rules aren’t within the scope or authority of the Board or Council under the “Tennessee Sports Gaming Act.” Specifically, the Sports Pool Intermediary License and the Vendor License, and associated fees, are not authorized in the Act.

Please feel free to contact our office with any questions you have regarding this letter,

Thank you for your consideration.
Sincerely,

/signed/
Lt. Governor Randy McNally, Speaker Cameron Sexton

Here’s a look at the fundraising sweepstakes among legislative incumbents

Lawmakers await the start of Gov. Bill Lee’s second State of the State address on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

New House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) was the top fundraiser among legislative incumbents in 2019 with $349,701, followed by freshman state Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Nashville), who raised $227,881.

On the other end of the spectrum is embattled Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), whose $1,500 was the least amount raised by an incumbent up for re-election in 2020. Byrd, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by former players when he was  high school basketball coach in the 1980s, appeared to be waffling on an earlier pledge not to run again, but has ultimately said he won’t seek another term.

Other House members who haven’t been very active on the fundraising front are Memphis Democrats G.A. Hardaway ($2,900), John DeBerry ($4,250), and Joe Towns ($5,750). On the Republican side, Reps. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) raised $3,250, Mike Carter of Ooltewah brought in $3,900, and Bruce Griffey of Paris landed just $8,400.

See the full list of fundraising totals after the jump.

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Sexton agenda as House speaker includes health care, sentencing, early childhood reading

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to the House Republican Caucus after winning their nomination for speaker on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

New Speaker Cameron Sexton gave a wide-ranging speech to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce last week, outlining his agenda as he takes the reins of the Tennessee House of Representatives. The Crossville Republican took aim at health insurance companies for acting like “big brother” by blocking information about taxpayer-funded services and for having “absolute control over the marketplace.” He also called for stronger truth-in-sentencing laws, better funding for early childhood reading programs, and a long-term approach to spending Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reserves.

Sexton speech was in contrast to his predecessor, Glen Casada, who often appeared more driven by political considerations than political ones. Sexton also placed several stakes in the ground that could end up being at odds with the plans of Republican Gov. Bill Lee as he heads into his second session.

Here is a transcript of Sexton’s speech:

It’s great to be here this morning and see so many familiar faces as we look forward to what next week may bring. One of the question and I usually I get all the time is ‘When do you think we’re going to get out?’ I get 50 variations of the question because I usually won’t answer it, and they say, ‘Well, you know I’m planning and trip and it’s looking like this date.’ And my question back to them is: ‘well, is it refundable?’ We make no promises, but we’re hoping to have a very good session, a very productive session, and we’re hoping to announce in the coming couple days or week some processes and changes we’re making to hopefully make it more efficient and flow a little bit better.

I’d like to start out the day by saying, isn’t Tennessee doing great? The Tennessee Vols won the Gator Bowl and the Tennessee Titans beat the Patriots. And oh yeah, we have a pretty good economy in the state of Tennessee as well. But one of the things I have learned is it doesn’t really matter what’s going on, if the Tennessee Titans and Tennessee Vols are doing well, Tennessee is happy, so everything looks pretty good in the state and as long as we keep that going, we’re going to do very good. So everything looks like it’s settling in right into place four months into my speakership. Tennessee’s happy, so I’m happy.

But it’s an honor to be here today, and I very much appreciate this opportunity to speak with you. Back in 1994 – I know some of you know this and some you may not – I worked on my first political campaign after graduating from the University of Tennessee. It was a state Senate race and I worked for a great candidate, although have we ever really met anyone who says they hadn’t worked for a candidate – everybody’s candidate is great. But I can tell you this candidate was really, really good. And if you fast forward 26 years to today, I have this opportunity to lead the House, and I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity, but I do beside that very same state Senator I worked for in 1994, Lt. Governor Randy McNally, as he is preparing to lead the Senate, and I look forward to the partnership with him as we continue to move Tennessee forward.

We have been very fortunate as a state to have had many great leaders who have laid a solid foundation for us, and each one has passed the torch to the next person and everyone has taken it and continued to move. And now it’s is in our hands and we have to fill the purpose and the destiny that they helped us get to. 

But I don’t want to just hold serve, I don’t want to take a knee, and I sure don’t want to run out the clock. I believe we are tasked to accept it and make it shine brighter for all Tennesseans. Because isn’t that what America’s greatest generation did for us many years ago when they sacrificed and made things better for us?

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Here are Sexton’s House committee assignments

Rep. Cameron Sexton presides over his first session as House speaker on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here are the committee assignments made by new House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) upon his election to lead the chamber last week. Additions are in italics (full committees only).

Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee
Chair – Halford
Vice Chair – Todd
Carter
Cepicky
Chism
Holsclaw
Holt
Hulsey
Keisling
Marsh
Moody
Shaw
Stewart

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Sexton elected speaker, Byrd ouster deferred

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) makes a motion to oust Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) for sexual misconduct during a special session in Nashville on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) was elected House Speaker on Friday and the chamber turned back Democrats’ attempts to oust Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) over sexual misconduct allegations.

Sexton was elected on a 94-0 vote, a rare moment of unity in a House rocked by the scandal-plagued speakership of Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who did not attend the special session.

Efforts to oust Byrd were sent back to the Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Cameron Sexton presides over his first session as House speaker on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)