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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.

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.”

Can Curcio counter curse of ‘last supper’ photo?

House Judiciary Chairman Michael Curcio of Dickson is a leading contender for the vacant No. 3 Republican leadership position in the chamber. But if he wins it would be against a trend of a house cleaning among erstwhile allies of former Speaker Glen Casada.

A photo of Casada’s lieutenants celebrating in a Nashville steakhouse after the Franklin Republican’s nomination as speaker last November has become a symbol of the hubris of the moment. Four of those pictured no longer hold their positions — most notably Casada himself, who became the first Tennessee House speaker in 126 years not to serve out his full term. Another, Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, came in third in the vote to succeed him (his brother and childhood friend, Reps. Timothy Hill and Micah Van Huss, are also pictured).

Former Chief of Staff Cade Cothren, whose text message exchanges with the speaker kicked the lid off the scandal that ultimately toppled Casada, is seated at the head of the table. Former aides Shawn Hatmaker (the reputed “hall monitor”) and Michael Lotfi (whose no-show job rankled members) are also pictured.

And on the bottom right sits Curcio, who supporters of Rep. Curtis Johnson’s rival bid for speaker believed was in his camp until they saw this photo after the election. Casada later named Curcio chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Curcio was a vocal supporter of the rule changes pushed through by the new speaker aimed at limiting dissent within the chamber.

Rep. Michael Curio (R-Dickson) checks his phone during a House Republican Caucus meeting in Nashville on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Curcio is a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss), Americans for Prosperity, and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington.

The other candidates for caucus chair are Reps. Jeremy Faison of Cosby,  Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain, and Jerry Sexton of Bean Station. The caucus election is scheduled for Thursday.

Report: Hill pressed ‘kill lists’ on committee chairmen

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis), right, and Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) attend an NFIB event in Nashville on Feb. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican who wants to succeed resigning Glen Casada as House speaker, pressed “kill lists” on committee chairman to try to control the flow of legislation through the chamber this year, the Daily MemphianSam Stockard reports.

Education Chairman Mark White (R-Memphis) says Hill would give him a list of bills that House leadership wanted to “survive” or “not survive” in his committee.

Hill “handed those to me, yeah. I don’t know where it came from there,” White told the publication. Hill would explain “leadership said these bills are not good for us,” he said.

“I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. I’m saying that did happen,” White said, adding that most of the instructions would be delivered during pre-meetings run by Hill and not attended by the general public.

Hill in a statement didn’t deny the existence of “kill lists.”

“The Speaker’s office would examine legislation in order to determine whether it was beneficial or harmful to Tennessee. While some of these initiatives were deemed harmful and were ultimately defeated in their respective committees, other advanced,” Hill told the Daily Memphian.

White said he declined to try to influence the votes of his colleagues.

“I left that up to each individual member, and I would judge each bill on its own merit,” he said.

Read the full report here.

 

Casada’s former right-hand man is running to succeed him

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) attends a meeting on Jan. 8, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican who served as embattled House Speaker Glen Casada’s right-hand man, says he is running to succeed him.

WJHL-TV reports Hill announced his plans at a Johnson City Chamber of Commerce meeting on Wednesday morning.

Upon his election as speaker in January, Casada named Hill his deputy speaker and chairman of the House Ethics Committee. In that role, Hill pushed through controversial changes to House rules aimed at eliminating statements and announcements by members on the floor, imposed what Hill called a “biblical standard” of two members to file ethics complaints, and drafted an advisory opinion that one member charged was aimed at trying to “rig and predetermine” a favorable outcome for Casada.

It remains to be seen how much support Hill will garner among members who just voted this week that they had lost confidence in Casada over a text message scandal and his heavy-handed leadership style.