Monthly Archives: December 2020

Savic named interim Fiscal Review director

Senators attend a hearing on Jan. 30, 2018. From left are Republican Sens. Ed Jackson of Jackson, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, and Paul Bailey of Sparta. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Bojan Savic has been named interim director of the Joint Fiscal Review Committee following Krista Lee Carsner’s departure to become director of the legislative budget office in Minnesota.

Carsner, the first woman to serve as executive director of the Fiscal Review Committee, stepped down after five years on the job. Lawmakers voted last year to give the speakers of the House and Senate the authority to name the panel’s director, rather than the lawmaker members of the committee.

Here’s the release from the speakers’ offices:

NASHVILLE — Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) today announced the appointment of Bojan Savic as Interim Executive Director of the legislature’s Joint Fiscal Review Committee. Savic replaces Krista Lee Carsner who departed to join the Minnesota State Legislature as their Budget Office Director. 

“I am ecstatic Mr. Savic has agreed to step into the role of director,” said Lt. Governor McNally. “He has many years of experience with the state and the committee. He is an excellent fit for the position. I have every confidence he will do a great job.”

“The Fiscal Review Committee is an important part of the legislative process.  It ensures we are budgeting both strategically and effectively, which protects Tennessee’s taxpayer dollars,” said Speaker Sexton. “Mr. Savic’s experience will make him successful in this interim role, and we look forward to working with him.”

A graduate of Western Kentucky University with a B.S. in Business Economics and an M.A. in Applied Economics, Savic has been with the Fiscal Review Committee for over a decade in various roles. Prior to joining the committee, Savic worked as a statistician for the United States Census Bureau. He most recently served as Assistant Director of the Fiscal Review Committee under Director Carsner. 

The Fiscal Review Committee, one of several statutory oversight committees, was created by statute in 1967 as a special continuing committee of the General Assembly.

The function of the Fiscal Review Committee is to conduct a continuing review of revenue collections, budget requests, the recommended executive budget, appropriations, work programs, allotments, reserves, impoundments, the state debt, and the condition of the various state funds.

Lee calls special session for Jan. 19

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is calling a special session the week of Jan. 19 to address a range of education issues, including a literacy proposal that has run into trouble with lawmakers in the past.

Lawmakers will be in town anyway, as they as scheduled to gavel in the 112th General Assembly on Jan. 12.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today announced a call for the Tennessee General Assembly to convene for a special legislative session on January 19, 2021 to address urgent issues facing Tennessee students and schools in the 2021-22 school year.

Preliminary data projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math. This loss only exacerbates issues that existed prior to the pandemic, where only one third of Tennessee third graders were reading on grade level.

“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense disruption for Tennessee’s students, educators, and districts, and the challenges they face must be addressed urgently,” said Gov. Lee. “Even before the virus hit, and despite years of improvement, too many of our state’s students were still unable to read on grade level. I’m calling on the legislature to join us in addressing these serious issues so we can equip our hardworking educators and districts with the resources and supports they need to set our students on the path to success.”

“As we have heard from districts since March, students need their teachers and schools like never before,” said Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “No child’s future should suffer academically because of COVID-19. Not only as commissioner, but as a mother of two school-aged children, I am grateful for the bold solutions that our governor and legislature will provide for our students and schools across the state and the department stands ready to work together to accomplish this mission-critical work.”

“In addition to presenting a public health crisis and disrupting our economy, the coronavirus also created enormous obstacles for our parents, teachers and students. Tennessee has made tremendous improvements in education over the last decade. The virus has begun to put all of that at risk,” said Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “It is of paramount importance that we take steps to reverse the learning loss that has taken place and prevent any further erosion of our progress. I appreciate Governor Lee calling this special session to draw our focus on the pressing needs of education in this state. The Senate will work with the House and the Administration to address these issues in an expeditious and efficient manner to the benefit of our students and our teachers.”

“I support Gov. Lee’s call for a special session on education,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). “The pandemic has caused considerable disruption for our students, teachers and schools.  Our goal is to make sure students are learning in the classroom, teachers have the resources they need, and our students have additional assistance in their educational journeys to improve their chances of success.”

“Over the past few years Tennessee has seen exciting growth in student achievement and we must take all necessary steps to make sure our students continue to learn through this ongoing pandemic,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin). “I salute the governor for calling us into special session to address this important problem and thank him for his continued commitment to education.”

“As a parent of two children in the public school system and a Representative of so many thousands of other families, I know it is critical for us to have the best education system in the nation,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland). “I appreciate the Governor calling us into Special Session to ensure our children and teachers have the support they need in these difficult times.”

During the special session, the legislature will be tasked to take up five key education issues: Learning Loss, Funding, Accountability, Literacy, and Teacher Pay. Details on each proposal will be released by the Department of Education in the near future, in addition to the department’s plans to implement a new literacy program, “Reading 360.” The program will leverage one-time federal relief funding to support a phonics-based approach to literacy and will ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade.

Year in Review: The most viewed TNJ blog posts of 2020

Republican Bill Hagerty speaks to a reporter before casting his early vote in Nashville on Oct. 21, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here are the Top 10 most viewed stories on the TNJ: On the Hill blog this year.

1. June 11: Sethi seeks to make political gain out of coronavirus pandemic.

2. May 11: Things get interesting in the open 1st District race.

3. Aug. 5: Hagerty does some creative accounting to obscure Romney donation.

4. March 30: Lee’s stay-at home order in detail.

5. April 20: Protest leader demands free refills.

6. April 20: The lockdown ends.

7. July 16: Hagerty launches the negative ad barrage.

8. Dec. 15: We’re No. 1.

9. Jan. 19: In like Flinn.

10. Nov. 13: Most signed, some didn’t.

Legislature, other government offices close following Nashville bombing

The damage caused to telecommunications systems following a bombing in downtown Nashville on Christmas Day has caused legislative leaders to tell staffers not to report to the Cordell Hull Building on Monday.

Other state and local government offices are also affected by outages, including:

  • Adult protective services
  • Animal Diagnostic Laboratory services at Ellington Agricultural Center
  • Telephone services for applying for certain programs for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities
  • TennCare Connect
  • Tennessee child abuse hotline (telephone lines only; web referrals remain operational)
  • Drivers’ license services

Secretary of State Tre Hargett announced his downtown offices would be closed Monday, though various divisions could be reached by email.

The state Supreme Court office building was also closed.

Lee emerges from 2nd quarantine, tours damage in Nashville

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee announced on Twitter he has tested negative for COVID-19 and completed his second quarantine after being exposed to the virus. The governor also toured damage from an explosion in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning.

Lee lauded first responders for their courage in moving people away from the RV early Friday when a recorded message warned that it contained a bomb.

“The damage is shocking and it is a miracle that no residents were killed,” Lee said in a tweet.

Lee has requested an emergency declaration from President Donald Trump.

Lee went into quarantine after his wife, Maria, tested positive for COVID-19. He previously went into isolation after being exposed to a member of his protective detail who was infected.

Andy Holt 3.0? Former lawmaker lands job in Lee administration

Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) attends a meeting at the state Captiol in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former state Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) has been named director of business development within the state Department of Agriculture.

Holt served in the House from 2010 through his retirement this November. He was mostly known for his firebrand politics until being named chairman of the powerful budget subcommittee by then-speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin).

Following Casada’s fall from power, new speaker Cameron Sexton chose a new head of the panel, returning Holt to the backbench.

Holt, a prominent supporter of Bill Lee during the 2018 governor’s race, is the latest ex-lawmaker to join the administration. The position will pay Holt $92,700 per year.

Here’s the release announcing Holt’s hire.

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. has announced the addition of Andy Holt to the Business Development Division of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA). Holt will serve as Director of Business Development in support of economic development initiatives, as well as agriculture and forestry industry expansion.

“Rural economic development and recovery from the pandemic are priorities of the Department and Governor Bill Lee,” Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. said. “TDA has been given the opportunity to lead projects focused on these priorities and the addition of Andy Holt will be a significant enhancement to our work. Andy’s personal and professional experience in farming, along with his education in agriculture and economics, will support our efforts towards recruitment, recovery, and expansion.”

Holt served in the Tennessee House of Representatives, District 76 covering Weakley County and parts of Carroll and Obion Counties from 2010 to 2020. During his tenure, Holt served on several committees and was chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. He and his wife, Ellie, own and operate Holt Family Farms, an agri-tourism and diversified livestock farming operation in Dresden. Holt is a former Financial Services Officer at Farm Credit Services and former Greenfield Fertilizer Manager at Weakley County Farmers Cooperative.

“As a first-generation farmer, I have chosen agriculture not only as my profession, but more importantly, my wife, Ellie, and I have chosen agriculture as a lifestyle for our family,” Holt said. “I appreciate and look forward to the opportunity to continue my service to the State of Tennessee in this new capacity, leveraging my relationships, knowledge, and skills to strengthen the agriculture industry and community. There are only two words on the Tennessee State Seal, and this new position will combine them both – Agriculture and Commerce. I will work to see both thrive during my service with the team at the Department of Agriculture.”

Holt’s educational background includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Economics and Business with a minor in Animal Science from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He earned his Master of Business Administration from the University of Tennessee at Martin with a focus on Economics and Finance. He will begin his new duties with TDA in January.

Year in review: Tennessee obituaries of 2020

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here are some of the notable people who passed away in 2020, as covered by The Tennessee Journal:

January

Fred P. Graham, who covered legal affairs for The New York Times, CBS News, and Court TV, died at age 88. Graham earned law degrees from Vanderbilt and Oxford in England and practiced in Nashville for three years before going to Washington in 1963 to work as chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver’s subcommittee on constitutional amendments. He made the transition to journalism in 1965, the first lawyer hired by the Times to cover the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bobby Lanier, a former top aide to three Shelby County mayors, died at age 90. Newly-elected Mayor Bill Morris in 1977 hired Lanier as his executive assistant, a position he also held for successors Jim Rout and A C Wharton. Lanier pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of using inmates to cater a fundraiser for Morris’ ill-fated gubernatorial campaign in 1993.

LaFollette businessman and auctioneer Haskel “Hack” Ayers, who served in the state House in 1960, died at age 83. Ayers was the son of a Stinking Creek moonshiner slain by state troopers, and the grandfather of Ramsey Farrar & Bates lobbyist Addison Russell.

Former state Rep. Willie “Butch” Borchert (D-Camden) died at age 82. The retired pipefitter and his wife, Christine, were the former owners of The Catfish Place restaurants in Camden and McKenzie and the Borchert Fish Market. It was that experience, he said in committee hearings, that led him to oppose a 2007 state law to ban smoking in restaurants.

February

Vanderbilt biochemist Stanley Cohen, a 1986 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, died in Nashville at age 97.

Michael Silence, a former Knoxville News Sentinel reporter and columnist, died of a heart attack at age 62. He ran the “No Silence Here” blog of new aggregation and political commentary from 2004 until he was laid off in 2011.

Attorney Charlie Warfield, the last surviving member of the commission that drafted the charter for the merged governments of Nashville and Davidson County, died at age 95.

Victor Thompson, the longtime chief sergeant-at-arms for the state House, died at age 80. Thompson had been a beloved figure at the state Capitol complex since he was first hired in 1988.

March

Attorney Jim Gilliland, a co-chair of Willie Herenton’s transition team after he won election as the first black mayor of Memphis in 1991, has died at age 86. Gilliland later worked as general counsel to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was an adviser to Al Gore for his 1988 and 2000 presidential bids. He also hired Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to his first job.

Former state Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-Morrison), the longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee and a frequent swing vote on major legislation, died at 71. When he was making an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1998, Cooper was fond of jokingly asking lobbyists: What do you call a defeated congressional candidate? Answer: Chairman.

Former federal judge Tom Wiseman, who won a three-way battle for state treasurer in 1970 against incumbent Charlie Whorley and banker Jake Butcher, died at 89.

Hershel Franks, the retired chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, died at 89. As a Hamilton County Chancery Court judge in 1976, Franks ruled that Tennessee’s ban on ministers serving the General Assembly violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The decision was overruled by the state Supreme Court, which was itself reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Continue reading

How the Tennessee delegation voted on the COVID relief package

Marsha Blackburn speaks at a business forum in Nashville on Aug. 15, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee’s congressional delegation was divided on the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that includes $600 in direct payments to most Americans.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) voted in favor, while Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) was one of just six members to vote against the measure in the upper chamber.

Among the Republicans in the House, Reps. Tim Burchett of Knoxville, Scott DesJarlais of Winchester, Mark Green of Ashland City, and John Rose of Cookeville were among the 53 no votes.

Fellow GOP Reps. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga, David Kustoff of Memphis, and Phil Roe of Johnson City voted in favor, as did Democrats Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis.

The package passed the Senate on a 92-6 vote and the House 359-53. While Tennessee holds 2% of the seats in Congress, the state’s members accounted for 8.5% of the votes against the stimulus package.

Read Gov. Lee’s address on COVID-19

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s address on COVID-19, as prepared for delivery on Sunday evening. The governor lauded local mayors for imposing mask mandates, but stopped short of issuing one for the whole state.

Good evening Tennesseans. It’s Christmas week, ordinarily a time when families across the state are gathering to celebrate. Unfortunately, these are not ordinary times. We are in a global pandemic that’s been crippling our country for months and now Tennessee is ground zero for a surge in sickness. I am speaking with you tonight because I want to be clear with where we are and what we need to do together to get through this.

We now have around 10,000 Tennesseans getting sick every day. To put that in perspective, that’s three times where we were around Halloween. Thousands of our neighbors are in the hospital tonight. More than 100 people are dying each day. We are in a war. With the arrivals of the first vaccine, we have launched an offensive that will end this war. But it is the next few weeks that is going to be the most critical for our state.

We have seen firsthand that Thanksgiving gatherings and extended time indoors have been the principal driver in spreading COVID-19 like wildfire. It only took a matter of days to see gatherings around Thanksgiving translate into a record level of sickness. Tennessee cannot sustain a similar surge after Christmas or New Year’s. Tonight, I am asking you to make some hard decisions.

I am asking you to not engage in indoor gatherings for the holidays that include anyone outside your household. Family time and celebrations are important. I understand deeply how much Tennessee families need each other. But we must do all that we can to blunt this surge and keep more Tennesseans from getting sick.

But beyond family gatherings and what I am asking you to do in your own home, we need to address public gatherings through these important weeks, as well.

I am signing an order that will limit indoor public gatherings to 10 people.

I believe high school sports are important for our kids and they should continue. In coordination with the TSSAA, we are limiting attendance at indoor sporting events.

We know that it is gatherings that have caused this surge. That is why we are making these decisions around gatherings that will help us blunt the rise in cases.

Additionally, I am asking business owners to let employees work from home for the next 30 days. If work from home is not available, masks should be worn at work. Plain and simple.

I want to talk about the importance of wearing masks around people who do not live in your home. Right now, 70% of Tennesseans are under a mask requirement. I commend the local officials who have implemented mask requirements. Because of that, 80% of Tennesseans report they wear their masks most or all of the time and I thank them for doing this. We need them to continue and the remaining 20% to wear a mask and protect their health.

Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask wearing, many think it would have the opposite effect. This has been a heavily politicized issue. Please do not get caught up in that and don’t misunderstand my belief in local government on this issue. Masks work and I want every Tennessean to wear one.

Tennesseans have two weapons that they must use in the next 30 days: only gather with your household and wear a mask.

The State of Tennessee will continue to mobilize every effective resource in this war. COVID testing is available to everyone free of charge. Vaccines are being delivered to every corner of the state. We are getting hundreds of thousands of vaccines out to our nursing home residents and health care workers so they can be vaccinated.

As our hospitals face this surge of sick Tennesseans, we have authorized the National Guard medics to work in hospitals and provide lifesaving care. We have established COVID specific nursing homes so that we protect the most vulnerable and help hospitals free up critical bedspace. We will continue to utilize every effective resource but government cannot do this alone.

We are in a cold, cruel phase of this pandemic. It will get worse before it gets better. I know you are tired. But we have got to double down. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s words during the darkest days of World War II: “It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour. It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.”

I believe in the courage of Tennesseans to face this darkest hour. I believe that victory will be ours and we have the power to determine how long this extends. If we each do our part, we will win and move to a new season of health and prosperity for our state.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to each Tennessean for their attention and care tonight. God bless the State of Tennessee.

First lady diagnosed with COVID-19, Gov. Lee to address state

Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, at his inauguration celebration in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig)

First Lady Maria Lee has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and Gov. Bill Lee is planning to give a statewide address on the worsening pandemic on Sunday.

The governor has shown no symptoms but plans to quarantine out of an abundance of caution.

Here’s a statement from Lee:

Maria began exhibiting mild symptoms of COVID-19 and it was confirmed this afternoon that she has tested positive. I am feeling well with no symptoms and have tested negative for COVID-19. Out of an abundance of caution, I will be quarantining at the Governor’s Residence and still plan to address Tennesseans about the COVID-19 surge tomorrow at 7 p.m. CDT