general assembly

Lee: ‘Metrics’ will be available for lawmakers to plan budget cuts

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at an event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee says lawmakers will have the revenue data available to plan for further budget cuts when they return into session on June 1.

While the full set of tax collection information usually isn’t released until the middle of the month, the General Assembly won’t have to wait that long to make adjustments to the state’s annual spending plan, the governor told the Daily Memphian over the weekend.

“It’s a challenge to project, but there are metrics which you use to make projections,” Lee said.

The governor said several state economists are assembling data and the State Funding Board will meet again to make recommendations before the legislative session resumes.

House, Senate pass barebones budget

The state Capitol has been closed to visitors since March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have passed a barebones budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The spending plan projects no economic growth and required the deep reductions from Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s original proposal.

Democratic efforts to eliminate about $40 million to start up the governor’s school voucher program failed.

Lee was on hand to watch the the budget debate in the House and Senate.

Lawmakers contemplate 8-week break to legislative session

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A series of secret meetings were being held in the closed-door Cordell Hull Building on Monday to determine how the General Assembly should proceed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Reporters got Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston) to shed some light on what was discussed among members. Here’s a transcript of what he had to say:

Ken Yager: The urgency of the situation dictated prompt action, so we just decided to talk to a few folks.

Q: What did you tell them?

KY: I just told them that we recognize the need to comply with the CDC guidelines, which have eight weeks. We’re looking at doing that. We’re tying to stay in compliance with the CDC guidelines. It’s important for us to follow the same guidelines that we’re asking other people to do…. We’re just trying to get word out to everybody, some of the members as they’re coming in.

This week we’ll focus on mission critical bills that we need to pass. We’ll let the speakers announce the rest of that.

Q: Is it being contemplated to pass a temporary budget and then recess while awaiting developments?

KY: I’ve not heard the word temporary mentioned. I think mission critical – there’s a discussion about whether we’re going to adjourn or recess. And if you adjourn, you pass a budget. If we recess to a date certain, then we certainly have the opportunity to continue to work on the budget during that recess.

Q: Why the sudden urgency when last week everything seemed fine?

KY: This issue is an evolving issue. And I think that we’ve had a chance to look at it. I’ll speak for myself, I think I’ve had a chance to talk to my local professionals and to review these guidelines with greater scrutiny after our discussions last week. And I’ve just drawn the conclusion, as my colleagues have, that we need to stay in compliance with what the CDC is asking, and set the example.

Q: How to you decide what’s mission critical? There’s a lot of key legislation that people care very deeply about still hanging out there. Does everything go by the wayside other than the budget?

KY: Those things that are mission critical, those are the things that we’ll keep. The budget, and those things that keep the state running that we have to do.

25 killed in Middle Tennessee tornadoes, legislature resumes regular business

At least 25 people have been killed in severe weather that tore through Middle Tennessee early Tuesday, including 14 in Putnam County alone.

The start of Super Tuesday voting was delayed by an hour in Nashville after a overnight tornado touched down in the city causing widespread damage. In addition to the Putnam County fatalities, three died in Wilson County, two in Davidson County, and one in Benton County.

The storm did major damage to the Germantown neighborhood of Nashville, just north of the state Capitol complex. A power outage at the Cordell Hull Building led legislative leaders to cancel all morning committee meetings. The cancellations meant a week-long delay of Senate hearings on an effort to cut the privilege tax for brokers, doctors, and attorneys.

But a decision to resume activities at 1 p.m. meant bills could still get hearings on implementing sweeping restrictions on access to abortions in Tennessee and allowing adults to carry firearms in public without a permit. Legislation to grant 12 weeks of paid leave for state employees to care for a new child or sick family member was put off by a week.

Gov. Bill Lee ordered all non-essential state employees in Middle Tennessee to stay home.

“We have activated the State Emergency Operations Center and are engaged with emergency and local officials throughout the affected areas,” he said in a statement. “Please join Maria and me in praying for the victims, their families, and all those tragically affected by this storm.”

Secretary of State Tre Hargett ordered the polls to open an hour late in Nashville, but they are still scheduled to close at the normal time of 7 p.m. Central. Nashville voters whose polling places were damaged by the storm can vote in alternate locations outlined here.

One heavily damaged building was the Basement East, a music venue in East Nashville that had been the site of a “Berniefest” fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Staffers cleaning up after the show huddled in the basement as the storm tore off the roof and destroyed a large exterior deck, according to reports.

The Monday evening event at the Basement East, which was heavily damaged by a tornado in Nashville on March 3, 2020.

 

An Easter adjournment? McNally hopes to make it so

Legislative leaders kick off the joint convention to inaugurate Gov. Bill Lee in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. From left at podium are House Majority Leader William Lamberth, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, and then-House Speaker Glen Casada. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally tells colleagues he wants to get the legislative session wrapped up by the week of Easter, which falls on April 12 this year.

The Oak Ridge Republican acknowledged that sessions tend to last at least a week longer than targeted adjournment dates, but committees will be shutting down with an eye toward getting incumbents out on the campaign trail — and raising money (which is banned while the General Assembly is in session).

Last year’s adjournment fell on May 2, while lawmakers in 2018 got out of town on April 25.

“We set these dates and usually we get pretty close, but usually it runs over a week,” he said. “We’ll try to get all the bills on notice, the governor presents his budget on Feb. 1, and we should be ready to rock ‘n’ roll.”

A deep dive into the Rocky Top corruption scandal

The Rocky Top investigation of the 1980s revealed bingo parlor operators had taken over state charters of legitimate Tennessee charities to run illegal gambling operations. Several state officials were indicted in the probe and two committed suicide. Randy McNally, then a backbencher in the state Senate, played a key role in the investigation by wearing a wire for FBI. Today, he’s the speaker of the Senate.

The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert has taken a deep dive into the scandal — and its lessons for the current political climate — for the paper’s its Grand Divisions podcast and in a print story with lots of great archival images.

It’s a great read (or listen) for a rainy fall day in Tennessee. Check it out here.