Erik Schelzig

Editor, The Tennessee Journal

Hargett charged with DUI after Bonnaroo visit

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Secretary of State Tre Hargett has been charged with drunken driving after attending the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Coffee County.

Hargett was at the event from Friday afternoon through around 11:30 p.m. when he was stopped by Tullahoma police. He was given a blood test and charged with DUI.

“Driving Under the Influence is a serious matter, and I regret the circumstances that led to my arrest,” Hargett said in a statement. “I respect law enforcement and will trust the legal process as we move forward.”

Hargett is a former state House minority leader who was elected by a joint convention of the legislature to his first four-year term as secretary of state in 2009.

New TNJ alert: Starbuck stymied, Curcio’s transformation, and Fox’s departure

The Tennessee Supreme Court building is seen in Nashville on Dec.8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Journal is out with a new print edition after taking a break from the inferno-like temperatures of Nashville last week. Here is what’s in the latest version:

— Starbuck stymied by supremes, 5th District’s GOP field finally set.

— McWhorter comes back to succeed Economic Development chief Rolfe.

— Curcio kick-starts transformation from House chairman to lobbyist.

— Ubiquitous no more? Bill Fox hangs ’em up after 27 years as revenue and economic impact estimator.

Also: An overhaul of the Tennessee Municipal League board, Gerald McCormick’s ALS diagnosis, Franklin Haney pivots to solar, and Cooper laments curbside intoxicants in downtown Nashville.

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

As a final look back to our summer travels, here is photo of Buoy the news retriever lounging on the Atlantic coast.

Guess who’s back? Chancery court sides with Starbuck

It all fits together somehow.

A Nashville judge has ruled the Tennessee Republican Party violated the state open meetings act when it kicked Robby Starbuck off the primary ballot in the 5th Congressional District race. In declaring the removal void, Chancellor Russell Perkins ruled that Starbuck’s name should be restored.

An appeal appears all but certain. But the the clock is ticking. According to the Attorney General’s Office, the deadline to finalize ballots is June 10.

The ruling follows below:

Continue reading

New TNJ edition alert: Mugwumps, vouchers, and the death a player in the Rocky Top bingo scandal

The Tennessee Supreme Court building is seen in Nashville on Dec. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest print edition of The Tenenssee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Revenge of the mugwumps? Party purity tests dog Republicans.

— From the courts: Nashville asks Supreme Court for redo on school voucher decision, $1M price tag for robocalls in mayoral recall effort.

— Political roundup: Harwell endorsed by anti-abortion group as poll tests lines of attack.

— Obituary: Former state Sen. Jim Lewis, top bingo advocate before FBI’s Rocky Top crackdown.

Also: Tax conviction may cost Joe Armstrong his radio license, Jack Johnson is getting ready for BBQ & Beans fundraiser, the TBI is taking applications for director, and a deep dive into what languages Tennesseans command.

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

Programming note: The Tennessee Journal is on summer break next week. We will be back with a new edition on June 17.

Lee names McDonald as interim health commissioner

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020, as then-Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey looks on. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has named Morgan McDonald as the interim commissioner of the state Health Department. McDonald was previously the agency’s deputy commissioner for population health. She takes over from Lisa Piercey, who announced in April she planned to return to private practice.

Here is the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the appointment of Dr. Morgan McDonald, MD, FACP, FAAP, as interim commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), effective Friday, June 3.

“Dr. McDonald is a committed public servant, and I appreciate her continued leadership during this time of transition,” said Lee. “I am confident she will serve Tennesseans with integrity.”

McDonald is the Deputy Commissioner for Population Health at the TDH and formerly served as an Assistant Commissioner and the Deputy Medical Director for Family, Health and Wellness. McDonald earned her undergraduate and medical degrees from Vanderbilt University and completed her residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

McDonald will serve until a permanent commissioner is named.

Hemp industry backs study of plant’s applications in automotive industry

The Hemp Alliance of Tennessee and the state Department of Agriculture are partnering on a project to study using fibers derived from the plant in the automotive industry and other sectors of the economy. The research will be conducted by the University of Tennessee.

Here’s the release from the from Hemp Alliance:

NASHVILLE, TENN. – June 1, 2022 –The Hemp Alliance of Tennessee (HAT) is leading a study on the feasibility of the production of hemp fiber in the state. The organization, comprised of hemp-industry colleagues who support, educate, and collaborate for a successful industry, partnered with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) to fund the research that will be conducted by the University of Tennessee.

The study will include an assessment of the feasibility of hemp fiber production for the Tennessee automobile industry as well as an overall assessment of hemp fiber for the development of the Tennessee economy. The research will take place from now through year’s end.

“We are proud to work with the TDA and the research team at the University of Tennessee to explore the potential hemp has to benefit our state’s economy,” said Frederick Cawthon, President of HAT.

“Our organization and its members are invested in realizing the potential of this plant, and our hope is that this study will prompt significant industry investment in Tennessee hemp and its diverse applications.”

The feasibility analysis will include developing a hemp fiber crop production budget for Tennessee farmers and an analysis regarding the costs, revenue, and profits of processing hemp fiber in Tennessee including transportation and supply chain logistics. The broad outlook portion of the study will assess the likelihood for successful Tennessee-based production and processing for the various major uses of hemp fiber.

“We are an agricultural state, and we are proud to be a hemp-producing state,” Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. said. “This plant has numerous applications, and we believe fiber has potential to grow Tennessee’s industrial economy. We support this work led by the Hemp Alliance of Tennessee and look forward to reviewing the research conducted by the University of Tennessee to assess the potential scale of that growth.”

Hemp has been recognized as a valuable crop to support Tennessee’s agricultural and industrial economy. Tennessee was among the first states to create a hemp program under the 2014 Farm Bill allowing pilot programs for industrial hemp cultivation.

In 2015, the state had 49 producers licensed to grow 660 acres. In 2019, after the 2018 Farm Bill lifted the controlled substance designation of industrial hemp, the number of producers peaked at 3,957 licensed to grow 51,000 acres. As of May 2022, there are now only 1,041 producers of industrial hemp licensed to grow 5,682 acres. The shift in recent years illustrated the potential for scale and interest from the state’s farmers and cultivation experts.

“After the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, there was a gold rush of growers wanting to enter the emerging market for consumable hemp products,” said Frederick Cawthon. “Tennessee is capable of becoming a leader in this industry if we engage our innovators and the industries that can benefit from the plant – and our legislature continues to help make the right investments in the plant’s myriad applications.”

According to the USDA, the value of hemp production in the United States totaled $824 million in 2021. Industry analysts estimated the global industrial hemp market size at USD 4.13 billion in 2021 and is expect it to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.8% from 2022 to 2030.
Industrial hemp is grown for its seeds, fiber, shivs, flower, and oil. The applications for industrial hemp are varied including textiles, personal care, food and beverages, animal care, paper, automotive, construction materials, furniture, and more.

Formed in 2020, HAT aims to fortify Tennessee’s network of hemp industry players. The trade association is led by a business-minded board of directors who represent a diverse cross-section of hemp interests that operate in Tennessee and serve states across the country. The group is dedicated to increasing industry momentum and aligning industry professionals around a common understanding and guidelines for growing, processing, selling and consuming quality hemp and hemp products.

The organization prioritizes sustainable, eco-friendly agriculture and seeks collaboration regionally with the United States and Tennessee Departments of Agriculture, farmers, industry partners, elected officials, and law enforcement to continue building a safe, ethical, and long-lasting hemp economy.

Nashville to Supreme Court: You blew it on voucher ruling

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

Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s administration is asking the state Supreme Court to review its 3-2 decision upholding Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher law. The high court ruled the Education Savings Accounts didn’t violate the home rule provision in the state constitution that protects jurisdictions from being singled out without local buy-in because the law applies to school districts and not county governments. But the Cooper administration says the justices didn’t take into account that both school systems were merged into the new metropolitan government when voters approved the merger of Nashville and Davidson County in 1962.

“Because Nashville’s public schools are part of Metro, the ESA Act applies directly to Metro, and the state constitution’s Home Rule Amendment therefore also applies, even under the Court’s reasoning,” according to the Cooper administration.

It’s unclear whether the high court will entertain Nashville’s push for reconsideration. Appeals Judge Skip Frierson was sitting in on the case after the death of Justice Connie Clark and turned out to be the tiebreaker in the case.

Here’s the release from Mayor Cooper’s office:

NASHVILLE, TENN. – Today, Metro Nashville filed a petition asking the Tennessee State Supreme Court to review its recent 3-2 decision that found the state’s school voucher program, known as the Education Savings Account Act (ESA Act), to be constitutional, effectively clearing the way for it to move forward. Metro Nashville previously challenged the law’s constitutionality based on the “Home Rule Amendment,” which says that an act of the Legislature that is local in its form or effect, applicable to a county or municipality in its governmental or proprietary capacity, is void, unless approved by a two-thirds vote of the local legislative body or by local referendum.

Alongside key Nashville leaders for our public schools, Mayor John Cooper will host a press conference tomorrow to talk more about this filing and supporting Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Details are below.

“Great public schools require consistent prioritization, because our kids’ future is our most critical investment,” said Mayor John Cooper. “The state already provides Metro Nashville Public Schools far less funding per student than almost every other county in Tennessee, and now a state voucher program threatens to syphon off even more money away from improving public schools and into the hands of private schools. We hope the Court will consider MNPS’ status as the public school system for both Nashville and Davidson County, and not allow the state to direct taxpayer money away from our schools without our consent.”

The court’s majority opinion, issued on Wednesday May 18th , found that the ESA Act doesn’t violate the “Home Rule Amendment” because “the Act regulates or governs the conduct of the local education agencies and not the counties.” In other words, the court ruled that the ESA Act applies to school districts, not counties, and therefore local-government protections in our state constitution do not apply.

Metro Nashville is asking the Court to review the ruling because the reasoning provided by the majority opinion is wrong, particularly as it applies to Nashville. The newly filed petition argues that as a metropolitan government, Nashville and Davidson County included their combined school systems in the new metropolitan government when our citizens voted in 1962 to consolidate and adopt the Metro Charter.

Because Nashville’s public schools are part of Metro, the ESA Act applies directly to Metro, and the state constitution’s Home Rule Amendment therefore also applies, even under the Court’s reasoning.

“Metro Nashville, through the Metro Council or its voters, has the legal right to say whether taxpayer funds should be spent on private schools,” said Wallace Dietz, Director of Law for Metro Nashville.  “Our state constitution demands no less. We don’t believe the Court’s reasoning for allowing the state’s voucher program to proceed should apply to Nashville, since we are a metropolitan government with a combined city and county school system.”

Dietz continued: “Additionally, The Court concluded that the Home Rule Amendment does not apply to the ESA Act because the face of the Act addresses school districts only and does not impose obligations on counties. Instead, the Act triggers existing county funding obligations by forcing school districts to include students participating in the ESA program in their enrollment counts, even though the students are not attending public schools. This ruling conflicts with other Tennessee Supreme Court cases applying the Home Rule Amendment to bills that did not on their face require counties to do anything, but triggered obligations in existing law.”

Additional background: For much of Tennessee’s history, local governments were viewed simply as creatures of the Legislature, subject to its control at will. That one-sided balance of power shifted dramatically in 1953 when Tennessee held a limited Constitutional Convention that focused primarily on state encroachment on local prerogatives.  The main concern was the Legislature’s historic abuse of local legislation, the passing of laws that impacted only one or a small number of counties.  The Convention overwhelmingly approved the Home Rule Amendment to the Tennessee Constitution.  The Home Rule Amendment was approved by Tennessee voters in 1953 and has been a part of our state constitution ever since.

Harwell gets backing from anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List

House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) awaits Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address in Nashville on Jan. 29, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville has landed an endorsement from the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. Harwell is running for the Republican nomination in the 5th Congressional District.

Here’s the release from the Harwell campaign:

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, pro-life organization Susan B. Anthony’s List (SBA) announced its endorsement of Congressional District 5 candidate and former Speaker of the Tennessee House, Beth Harwell.

Hon. Marilyn Musgrave, SBA List’s vice president of government affairs, said, “Beth Harwell is a faithful champion of the unborn who proves that pro-life is truly pro-woman. Beth’s dynamic efforts as House speaker led to a pro-life constitutional amendment, strongly approved by voters, paving the way for swift enactment of life-saving laws. She did not rest, but immediately put her support behind health and safety requirements to hold the profit-driven abortion industry accountable, as well as legislation to protect women’s right to see an ultrasound and hear their baby’s heartbeat. Finally, under her leadership Tennessee successfully defunded abortion businesses of taxpayer dollars. In Congress she will stand up to pro-abortion Democrats for Tennessee’s pro-life values, and we couldn’t be prouder to support her.”  

Per SBA’s press release, “SBA List is a network of 900,000 pro-life Americans nationwide, dedicated to ending abortion by electing national leaders and advocating for laws that save lives, with a special calling to promote pro-life women leaders.”

“Thank you Susan B. Anthony’s list for putting your faith in me to stand up for the lives of unborn Americans and expectant mothers in Congress. In this day and age, we should be celebrating the arrival of a new life and uplifting pregnant women with the resources they need to make sure their child is cared for. I look forward to fighting for the right to life on the floor of the U.S. House,” said Beth Harwell.

New TNJ edition: Ethics overhaul getting Lee signature, 5th District developments, slowdown on the Drive to 55

Registry member Tom Lawless and then-Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) confer before Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The newest edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Lee signing transparency push into law despite allies’ opposition

— From the campaign trail: Starbuck files suit again, Ortagus advising Winstead, Ogles gets backing and staffing from former outfit.

— State’s college enrollment figures going in ‘wrong direction, very fast.’

— Survey says : Vandy poll gauges attitudes toward abortion, politicians, the economy.

Also: Leadership shakeup at TWRA, Jim Strickland considering third term if voters loosen limits, GOP grapples with crossover voting allegations again, and what’s in a (middle) name?

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

Putnam County commissioner arrested on child porn charges

Federal prosecutors have charged Putnam County Commissioner Jimmy Ray Neal of Baxter with possession and distribution of child pornography. Neal, who won the Republican nomination for another term earlier this month, allegedly went by the handle “Tennesseemaster” on an app used to share pictures of pre-pubescent children.

According to his Facebook page, Neal is a former Tennessee Highway Patrol lieutenant and deputy in the Putnam County Sherriff’s Department.

“My entire adult life has been in service to my Country and my State and my Community. God, Country and Family are my priorities,” Neal said in the post. “I humbly ask for your support to serve as a new and fresh approach to our complex issues involving our school age children.”

An initial court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Here’s the release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office:

NASHVILLE A Putnam County Commissioner was charged yesterday with possession, receipt, and distribution of child pornography, announced U.S. Attorney Mark H. Wildasin for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Jimmy Ray Neal, 57, of Baxter, Tennessee, was arrested at his home, after FBI and Homeland Security Investigations agents executed a search warrant.  Neal was transported to Nashville and appeared before a U.S. Magistrate Judge late yesterday. 

A criminal complaint obtained yesterday alleges that Neal was identified as an administrator of a group in the Kik app in which images of child pornography were viewed and shared with other users.  Specifically, the images depicted naked pre-pubescent females with the focus on the genital area.

This long-running investigation by the FBI began in July 2021, and after the arrest of an Oklahoma man on child pornography charges, other users in the Kik app group were identified, including “tennesseemaster,” later identified as Jimmy Ray Neal. 

A preliminary and detention hearing is set for Tuesday, May 31, 2022, at 2 p.m.

If convicted, Neal faces a mandatory minimum of five years, and up to 20 years in prison. 

This case is being investigated by the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Monica Morrison is prosecuting the case.

The charges are merely accusations.  The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.