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Erik Schelzig

Editor, The Tennessee Journal

FBI raids state lawmakers’ homes, offices

Federal agents and legislative staffers confer outside the office of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) on Jan. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Federal agents descended on the homes and legislative offices of Republican state Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, Robin Smith of Hixson, and Todd Warner of Chapel Hill on Friday. They also executed searches at the home of former Casada chief of staff Cade Cothren and three current legislative staffers.

The FBI didn’t say what it was investigating, though speculation spread around the Cordell Hull Building that agents were looking into efforts supporting Warner defeat of Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in last year’s primary and the previous year’s push to pass a controversial school voucher bill.

Feds approve Medicaid block grant, but for how long?

Tennessee’s Medicaid block grant has been approved in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s administration. The questions will be whether the program will proceed once Democrat Joe Biden takes over on Jan. 20.

Here’s the release from Gov. Bill Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – After more than a year of discussions and negotiations with the federal government, Tennessee’s Medicaid “Block Grant” waiver amendment received approval today by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  Tennessee is the first state in the nation to be granted approval for this type of block grant arrangement, which will result in an innovative, alternative financing arrangement for its Medicaid program and provide additional flexibilities relative to its administration.

TennCare submitted Amendment 42 to CMS in November 2019 in accordance with legislation adopted by the Tennessee General Assembly during the 2019 legislative session.  The legislation directed the governor to submit the waiver for federal approval. 

The negotiated agreement includes the major components and principles outlined in TennCare’ s original proposal to CMS, building upon Tennessee’s history of effective management of its Medicaid program and providing opportunities for additional federal funding for the purpose of improving the health of TennCare members and communities throughout the state.

“Today’s agreement represents a continuation of Tennessee’s commitment to innovate, lead and improve,” said Governor Bill Lee. “We have sought to fundamentally change an outdated and ineffective Medicaid financing system that incentivizes states to spend more taxpayer dollars rather than rewarding states for value, quality and efficiency. Our approved plan will create an unprecedented opportunity for Tennessee to be rewarded for its successful administration of TennCare and further improve the health of TennCare members and Tennessee communities with that reward.”

“We approached our negotiations with CMS and the ultimate agreement with one overriding question and directive from Governor Lee – Will this plan benefit Tennessee, our TennCare program and the people we serve,” said Stephen Smith, TennCare Director. “We are convinced the answer is yes.  This gives Tennessee the real opportunity to enhance the services we provide to Tennesseans.”

Pursuant to Public Chapter 481, from 2019, implementation of the waiver agreement must be authorized by the Tennessee General Assembly. 

The approved waiver amendment is available on the Division of TennCare’s website at https://www.tn.gov/tenncare/policy-guidelines/tenncare-1115-demonstration.html

Blackburn and Hagerty issue statement on Capitol riot

Tennessee Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty have issued a joint statement on Wednesday’s riot at the U.S. Capitol:

Yesterday was a shocking day of lawlessness. We watched in horror as rioters breached the security of both Houses of Congress and inflicted significant property damage upon those historical halls.

Our Republic will rise above the chaos that ensued yesterday in the Capitol. These violent assaults on our democratic processes threaten to unwind the fabric of this country. As Americans, we must unite in our commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.

We are grateful for the heroic law enforcement officials who helped restore peace, allowing us to complete our work. Last night we reconvened with our Senate colleagues to fulfill our constitutional duty to certify the 2020 election results and prepare for a peaceful transition of power. On January 20th, we will prove to the world that America is still the shining city on the hill.

Tennessee congressional delegation recoils at Capitol incursion

U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Nashville), who called for active duty troops to be activated to quell social unrest during last year’s campaign, is denouncing the breach of the U.S. Capitol by demonstrators supporting President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his electoral loss.

“What is happening at the U.S. Capitol right now is not peaceful, this is violence,” Hagerty said in a tweet. “I condemn it in the strongest terms. We are a nation of laws and this must stop.”

Fellow Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) soon followed suit:

Other members of the Tennessee delegation have also been tweeting about the events:

Tennessee Republicans’ Club for Growth ratings fall

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

Tennessee lawmakers didn’t fare very well in the Club for Growth’s ratings for 2020. The average House GOP scores were 45% in 2020, down from 67% the previous year. The ratings for Senate Republicans decreased from 64% to 43%.

The group’s ratings docked lawmakers for supporting legislation to tighten requirements for online vendors to collect Tennessee sales taxes from those doing at least $500,000 worth of annual business in the state to $100,000. Economists have cited the new threshold as a major reason for the state’s strong sales tax revenues while shoppers avoided brick-and-mortar stores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are the ratings:

House MemberChamberParty2020LifetimeRating in chamber
LaffertyHouseR69681
HoltHouseR61712
OglesHouseR58663
DoggettHouseR56654
J. SextonHouseR56674
RuddHouseR55706
WindleHouseD54597
LundbergSenateR54641
TravisHouseR53548
Van HussHouseR53608
BowlingSenateR52602
LittletonHouseR516310
SparksHouseR496211
CrawfordHouseR496611
MoodyHouseR496911
GrillsHouseR494911
BellSenateR49643
CalfeeHouseR475015
ByrdHouseR475615
GriffeyHouseR475115
HallHouseR476015
LeatherwoodHouseR476115
M. HillHouseR466220
HowellHouseR465720
HulseyHouseR466320
CochranHouseR465220
HastonHouseR465120
WeaverHouseR465620
KeislingHouseR455326
ReedyHouseR455526
SherrellHouseR456026
CepickyHouseR456026
EldridgeHouseR455326
WatsonSenateR45564
YagerSenateR45514
GreshamSenateR45534
WhitsonHouseR444831
BaumHouseR445331
ChismHouseD443831
HurtHouseR445931
RudderHouseR445231
ToddHouseR445431
C. JohnsonHouseR445631
DanielHouseR445731
DeBerryHouseD445631
StevensSenateR44567
WhiteSenateR44567
SoutherlandSenateR44507
GardenhireSenateR44447
KelseySenateR44567
RaganHouseR435540
D. PowersHouseR436040
LamberthHouseR435540
BoydHouseR435540
C. SextonHouseR435040
RobertsSenateR435712
HensleySenateR435812
HolsclawHouseR424345
ZacharyHouseR425945
TillisHouseR425145
MoonHouseR425545
VaughanHouseR424345
GarrettHouseR425545
BrickenHouseR425045
HeltonHouseR425545
WrightHouseR425945
SmithHouseR425545
WhiteHouseR425345
FaisonHouseR425345
DunnHouseR425945
GantHouseR425045
HazlewoodHouseR425545
HalfordHouseR424845
HicksHouseR424845
T. HillHouseR426945
HawkHouseR424645
MarshHouseR425445
HaileSenateR426014
BaileySenateR424714
BriggsSenateR424414
JacksonSenateR425514
ReevesSenateR425714
RoseSenateR425414
B. PowersSenateR424714
NiceleySenateR425014
McNallySenateR425514
MasseySenateR425014
J. JohnsonSenateR425514
CurcioHouseR405465
PottsHouseD404365
CarrHouseR404765
LynnHouseR406065
CarterHouseR395569
KumarHouseR385370
FarmerHouseR385270
RamseyHouseR384370
WilliamsHouseR384770
RussellHouseR375274
CroweSenateR375325
StewartHouseD362675
LamarHouseD352976
ShawHouseD354376
MillerHouseD353776
ColeyHouseR354476
FreemanHouseD343380
PodySenateR345326
StaplesHouseD332981
HardawayHouseD333181
TownsHouseD323483
JerniganHouseD323683
MitchellHouseD313385
CasadaHouseR304786
ParkinsonHouseD303286
DickersonSenateR304127
ClemmonsHouseD292988
PowellHouseD272989
ThompsonHouseD272789
DixieHouseD262391
HodgesHouseD243292
LoveHouseD232893
Sara KyleSenateD233328
HakeemHouseD223194
BeckHouseD222294
G. JohnsonHouseD211996
YarbroSenateD203029
RobinsonSenateD182630
GilmoreSenateD152731
AkbariSenateD132532
CamperHouseDn.a.35n.a.
CooperHouseDn.a.32n.a.
TerryHouseRn.a.89n.a.
SwannSenateRn.a.57n.a.

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Lee administration details $100M literacy initiative

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is detailing its $100 million literacy initiative called Reading 360.

Here’s the release from the state Education Department:

Nashville, TN—Today, the Tennessee Department of Education released details on a new $100 million statewide initiative, “Reading 360,” to ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade.

To help support literacy development in Tennessee, the state will leverage approximately $60 million of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to immediately launch Reading 360 and invest in optional reading resources and supports at no cost to the state or districts.

Reading 360 will provide optional grants and resources to help more Tennessee students develop strong phonics-based reading skills by supporting districts, teachers, and families.

“When our students succeed our entire state prospers, and we know that reading on grade level is foundational to the success of every student, both in and out of the classroom,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. “Reading 360 will give critical supports to districts and educators so we can address this challenge urgently and put Tennessee’s students on the right track to grow and thrive.”

“In the last decade, Tennessee has done remarkable work to increase expectations for student learning and to improve outcomes for our kids. Now, we are uniquely positioned to tackle literacy with urgency and can do so from all sides,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Our state has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in literacy, and most importantly, accelerate progress for our students.”

Reading is the foundation to all learning and reading proficiently by third grade is a critical milestone for every student. Before the pandemic, only one third of third graders in Tennessee had met expectations in English Language Arts (ELA), the best standardized proxy for reading achievement. Our state has not yet comprehensively and effectively addressed this challenge, and after a year disrupted by COVID-19, school building closures and virtual learning, the stakes are higher than ever for our students.

Through optional grants to districts, students and families will have access to tutoring and online supports to help develop foundational skills in literacy. Tennessee educators will have access to free training and professional development, phonics kits and materials to use in their classrooms, and stipends for training. Districts will have access to a suite of tools and resources to support their teachers and schools in implementing strong reading instruction for all students.

Tennessee has led the nation in academic gains for students over the past decade, and most recently in the K-12 crisis response to COVID-19. Tennessee is now poised not just to protect students, teachers, and schools in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic, but to accelerate student learning further and faster than ever before.

Blackburn, Hagerty to join effort to challenge presidential election

Bill Hagerty attends the Tennessee Republican Party’s Statesmen’s Dinner in Nashville on June 15, 2019. At right is U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Both Tennessee senators are joining an effort among 11 Republicans to challenge the outcome of the presidential election. While all allegations of voter fraud have been thrown out in the courts, Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood and Sen.-elect Bill Hagerty of Nashville said in a statement they will oppose the certification of the vote on Wednesday.

“American democracy relies on the consent of the governed,” Hagerty and Blackburn said in a joint statement. “Allegations of voter fraud, irregularities and unconstitutional actions diminish public confidence in what should be a free, fair and transparent process.”

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R—Tenn.) along with Senators Ted Cruz (R—Texas), Senator Ron Johnson (R—Wis.), Senator John Kennedy (R—La.), Senator Mike Braun, (R—Ind.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Senator James Lankford (R—Okla.) and Senators-elect Bill Hagerty (R—Tenn.), Cynthia Lummis (R—Wyo.), Tommy Tuberville (R—Ala.) and Roger Marshall (R—Kan.) announced they will vote to oppose the results of the 2020 election. They are also calling for Congress to immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states.

“On behalf of Tennesseans, we are taking a united stand against the tainted electoral results from the recent Presidential election,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn and Senator-elect Bill Hagerty. “American democracy relies on the consent of the governed. Allegations of voter fraud, irregularities and unconstitutional actions diminish public confidence in what should be a free, fair and transparent process. Protecting the integrity of the electoral process is paramount to preserving trust and legitimacy in the final outcome.”

“For critical moments like these, the Constitution reserves the right to challenge the Electoral College results to members of Congress. On January 6, we will vote to oppose certification of the 2020 election results.”

Senators Marsha Blackburn (R—Tenn.), Ted Cruz (R—Texas), Senator Ron Johnson (R—Wis.), Senator John Kennedy (R—La.), Senator Mike Braun (R—Ind.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Senator James Lankford (R—Okla.) and Senators-elect Bill Hagerty (R—Tenn.), Cynthia Lummis (R—Wyo.) Tommy Tuberville (R—Ala.) and Roger Marshall (R—Kan.) released the following statement:

“America is a Republic whose leaders are chosen in democratic elections. Those elections, in turn, must comply with the Constitution and with federal and state law.

“When the voters fairly decide an election, pursuant to the rule of law, the losing candidate should acknowledge and respect the legitimacy of that election. And, if the voters choose to elect a new office-holder, our Nation should have a peaceful transfer of power.

“The election of 2020, like the election of 2016, was hard fought and, in many swing states, narrowly decided. The 2020 election, however, featured unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, violations and lax enforcement of election law, and other voting irregularities.

“Voter fraud has posed a persistent challenge in our elections, although its breadth and scope are disputed. By any measure, the allegations of fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election exceed any in our lifetimes.

“And those allegations are not believed just by one individual candidate. Instead, they are wide-spread. Reuters/Ipsos polling, tragically, shows that 39% of Americans believe ‘the election was rigged.’ That belief is held by Republicans (67%), Democrats (17%), and Independents (31%).

“Some Members of Congress disagree with that assessment, as do many members of the media.

“But, whether or not our elected officials or journalists believe it, that deep distrust of our democrat-ic processes will not magically disappear. It should concern us all. And it poses an ongoing threat to the legitimacy of any subsequent administrations.

“Ideally, the courts would have heard evidence and resolved these claims of serious election fraud. Twice, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to do so; twice, the Court declined.

“On January 6, it is incumbent on Congress to vote on whether to certify the 2020 election re-sults. That vote is the lone constitutional power remaining to consider and force resolution of the multiple allegations of serious voter fraud.

“At that quadrennial joint session, there is long precedent of Democratic Members of Congress raising objections to presidential election results, as they did in 1969, 2001, 2005, and 2017. And, in both 1969 and 2005, a Democratic Senator joined with a Democratic House Member in forcing votes in both houses on whether to accept the presidential electors being challenged.

“The most direct precedent on this question arose in 1877, following serious allegations of fraud and illegal conduct in the Hayes-Tilden presidential race. Specifically, the elections in three states—Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina—were alleged to have been conducted illegally.

“In 1877, Congress did not ignore those allegations, nor did the media simply dismiss those raising them as radicals trying to undermine democracy. Instead, Congress appointed an Electoral Commission—consisting of five Senators, five House Members, and five Supreme Court Justices—to consider and resolve the disputed returns.

“We should follow that precedent. To wit, Congress should immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the Commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed.

“Accordingly, we intend to vote on January 6 to reject the electors from disputed states as not ‘regularly given’ and ‘lawfully certified’ (the statutory requisite), unless and until that emergency 10-day audit is completed.

“We are not naïve. We fully expect most if not all Democrats, and perhaps more than a few Republicans, to vote otherwise. But support of election integrity should not be a partisan issue. A fair and credible audit—conducted expeditiously and completed well before January 20—would dramatically improve Americans’ faith in our electoral process and would significantly enhance the legitimacy of whoever becomes our next President. We owe that to the People.

“These are matters worthy of the Congress, and entrusted to us to defend. We do not take this action lightly. We are acting not to thwart the democratic process, but rather to protect it. And every one of us should act together to ensure that the election was lawfully conducted under the Constitution and to do everything we can to restore faith in our Democracy.

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.