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Erik Schelzig

Editor, The Tennessee Journal

Gardenhire says resettlement of migrant children is being ‘politicized’

Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), center, attends a hearing in Nashville on Jan. 30, 2018. At left is Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) and at right is Sen, Paul Bailey (R-Sparta). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) has written an op-ed published in newspapers around the state that criticizes fellow Republicans for “politicizing the issue of taking care of children and putting them with caring families and sponsors.”

“Shutting our doors locally will only prolong the suffering of these children and their families by keeping them apart and in detention centers along the border instead of in licensed shelters and facilities which specialize in caring for immigrant children,” Gardenhire writes.

Read the op-ed below:

I have just been appointed to a special joint committee of the Tennessee legislature by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to study the issues surrounding migrant children being brought into Tennessee.

I requested this assignment because the facility in Highland Park in question is in my district. I have known about this for several months and have spoken to Rev. Kevin Wallace about any help I can offer for the care of these children.

My hope is for us to look at — as Sgt. Joe Friday from the 1950s TV show “Dragnet” says — “Just the facts, ma’am,” and not get caught up in the politicizing the issue of taking care of children and putting them with caring families and sponsors.

Almost two years ago, I went on a mission trip with three other members of Chattanooga churches plus an interpreter to a Red Zone state, Chiapas, in southwest Mexico on the border of Guatemala. What I saw were situations that any person with common sense would want their children to leave and not come back. I have heard friends criticize the person shown on the news recently dropping her two very young children over a wall so they could be in America. I’m reminded of a Levite woman named Jochebed who did a similar thing thousands of years ago to save the life of her son so he would not be killed. Her son’s name was Moses. Was Moses’ perfect? No. Did God use him to change the world and the Israeli people? Yes.

We need to separate rhetoric from the facts. We need to separate the issue of the border fiasco and how these individuals came to our border from the by-product of the children in the custody of the U.S. government.

Forty-plus years ago, we faced the same issue with Cambodian refugees being brought to America right after the Vietnam War. There was a lot of resistance to having “those people” brought here. More than 100 were settled here in Chattanooga by area churches. They faced the same unfortunate public outcry as we see today.

But think about this: The first flight arrived in Chattanooga last month and two children were reunited with loved ones here while six others were transferred to the shelter.

The mission of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilitating the reunification process is to safely care for unaccompanied children until they are able to be placed with a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or close relative.

As part of the unification process, ORR is facilitating travel for the children in its custody to their sponsors to prevent any delays. Their parents and relatives are located across the United States, and ORR contractors use a variety of transportation modes to reunite unaccompanied children with their families. Those methods, which include air and ground transportation, take into account child safety and wellness, travel time and cost effectiveness.

Shutting our doors locally will only prolong the suffering of these children and their families by keeping them apart and in detention centers along the border instead of in licensed shelters and facilities which specialize in caring for immigrant children.

These children leave their homes and travel more than 2,500 miles for weeks and months to come to America because their home countries are dangerous, impoverished and unsafe.

My father’s ancestors came to America from Germany in the early 1700s. On my mother’s side, I’m an 8th generation born in the city of Chattanooga; her family also came from Germany. If your ancestors were immigrants, you should welcome people who want to be here.

I would ask our elected officials not to beat up on children; stay focused on the real problem (the border fiasco) and not the by-product. Tennessee is not obligated to provide any benefits to these children, but it’s the right thing to do. That will be part of the special committee’s discussion.

Democratic donor running ads hitting Hensley over prescription case involving paramour

A copy of newspaper ads Bill Freeman is running in the district of Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald)

Prominent Democratic donor Bill Freeman of Nashville is running ads in Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley’s district criticizing the Hohenwald physician over conflicting testimony about how long he was romantically involved with a second cousin to whom he had prescribed opioids.

The state Board of Medical Examiners last year placed Hensley’s license on a three-year probation. Hensley had argued in a hearing that writing prescriptions for relatives was unavoidable in a small town like Hohenwald, suggesting it would have been “discrimination” for him to refuse them treatment.

The senator later acknowledged other medical care is available, as a doctor and nurse practitioner routinely visit the town. The Tennessean reported medical board member Neal Beckford noted Columbia is only 30 miles away, meaning other medical options may be “inconvenient
but not insurmountable.”

The Tennessean recently followed up with a story about how Hensley’s involvement with his second-cousin may have lasted longer than the brief spell he testified about during the hearing.

Read the full release from Freeman below:

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Lee approves modernization of captive insurance laws

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a groundbreaking event in Nashville on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A release from the state Department of Commerce and Insurance:

NASHVILLE – Newly approved updates to Tennessee’s captive insurance statute will help fuel the Volunteer State’s growing reputation as a first-choice domicile for companies looking to establish a captive insurance company.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee recently approved the latest modernizations to Tennessee’s captive laws, including authorizing parametric insurance coverage and reducing the statutory capital needed by protected cell captive insurers to commence operations from $250,000 to $100,000, amongst other improvements.

A captive insurance company (called a “captive”) represents an option for many corporations and groups wanting to take financial control and manage their business risks by forming their own insurance company. The Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI) is responsible for properly regulating Tennessee’s captive insurance industry.

“By reducing the minimum capital and surplus needed to start protected cell captive insurance companies, Tennessee is sending a strong message that we value companies’ freedom to invest their money to obtain the highest return on investment possible rather than allocate money in excess of what is needed to support the potential risk of insurance losses in their captive,” said TDCI Captive Section Director Belinda Fortman. “By modernizing Tennessee’s captive insurance statute to reduce the minimum coverage for protected cell captive insurers as well as including parametric insurance coverage for the first time, the Volunteer State is providing strong incentives for captive owners to choose Tennessee as their captive domicile.”

2020 was another record-setting year for Tennessee’s captive insurance section as captive premium volume topped $1.6 billion and the number of active captives in Tennessee increased to 146. Today, over 750 risk-bearing entities call Tennessee home. Additionally, TDCI’s leadership has drawn international accolades as Fortman was recently named to Captive Review magazine’s “Power 50” list.

Said Fortman: “Through the first five months of 2021,Tennessee has averaged 10 new captive formations a month, which is an impressive pace that we hope to see continue. The growth of the captive insurance industry in Tennessee that we are seeing today is a byproduct of years of focused teamwork and the far-reaching vision of Tennessee’s leaders. I am thankful for the hard work and support of Governor Lee, the members of the Tennessee General Assembly and the captive insurance stakeholders who are helping make Tennessee truly the ‘Gold Standard’ of the South.”

Tennessee Captive Insurance Association (TCIA) President Kevin Doherty said: “The TCIA is grateful that the Department and the General Assembly, two of the three legs of the proverbial three-legged stool, have continued to support important updates like this to the captive law that help Tennessee remain at the forefront of our industry. Specifically, the TCIA supports the reduction in the minimum capital for protected cell captives to $100,000 and believes this will help to spur significant growth in cell captives in Tennessee. The TCIA also believes it is significant that Tennessee is leading the way now in permitting captives to offer parametric insurance that can offer innovative ways to cover large numbers of insureds in natural disasters or other similar events. As the third leg of the stool, the TCIA looks forward to continuing to work with the other two legs of this public private partnership to maintain Tennessee’s prominence as a captive insurance domicile.”

To learn more about captive insurance in Tennessee, visit captive.tn.gov or call (615) 741-3805, (855) 809-0069 (toll free) or email at captive.insurance@tn.gov.

Pro-voucher groups celebrate Supreme Court arguments

School voucher supporters are lauding Thursday’s state Supreme Court arguments over the state’s appeal of lower court rulings declaring the program violates the Tennessee Constitution’s home rule protections.

Here’s what Justin Owen, the CEO of the conservative Beacon Center think tank, had to say:

We are pleased with today’s arguments in the ESA case and are optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule that this much-needed program can move forward. The local governments of Shelby County and Metro Nashville have stalled this program for nearly two years by claiming that they will suffer financially if parents are allowed to send their children to schools that better meet their needs. Even today, their attorney claimed that these students would burden the government financially if they were given the option to use an ESA to improve their education. Yet at the same time, the local governments admitted today in court that education funding in these two school districts would remain ‘roughly the same’ even if this program takes effect.

It’s terribly disappointing that these local governments continue to outright blame families seeking a lifeline from their failure to provide a quality education to these children. We are confident the Supreme Court will do what is right and look forward to their decision.”

And here is Shaka Mitchell, the the director of the Tennessee chapter of the American Federation for Children:

“We are optimistic the Tennessee Supreme Court will reverse the decision by the lower court and allow students in Shelby and Davidson Counties to access the Education Savings Account program. Thousands of families trapped in failing or low-performing schools had already signed up to participate when the program was halted as a result of the lawsuit.

School choice programs work. They empower parents with resources to find schools that better fit their unique needs and they foster innovation. These programs make both private and public schools create new and better options for all students. At American Federation for Children, we remain focused on students, not systems, and we hope for a favorable outcome in this case.”

Lee declines to sign teacher training bill over cost dispute

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters after a bill signing ceremony in Nashville on May 24, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to sign a bill sponsored by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) allowing school districts to establish their own teacher training programs.

The governor’s objections had less to do with the bill’s substance than concerns that the fiscal note was revised from $470,000 to “not significant,” despite his administration presenting evidence to the contrary. The lack of funding for the program is “something that will need to be addressed” in the upcoming budget year, Lee wrote.

Lee has not vetoed any bill since coming into office in 2019 and he’s now only allowed three to become law without his signature. In 2019, he didn’t sign the bill creating Tennessee’s online sports gambling program. In 2020, he declined to sign a resolution ratifying the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board’s increase in the 911 surcharge from $1.16 to $1.50. The latter was also sponsored by Bowling.

Here’s a copy of the letter Lee sent to House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge):

Dear Speaker Sexton and Lieutenant Governor McNally:

I am writing to inform you that I am returning HB1534/SB653 to become law without my signature. As our state faces a teacher shortage, we support alternative pathways to teacher licensure. These efforts cut back red tape and ensure more qualified professionals can teach our students. I am not signing the bill solely because of a cost discrepancy.

Unfortunately, this legislation incurs a cost that was not accounted for by Fiscal Review during the legislative process. Fiscal Review adjusted the fiscal note downward from several hundred thousand dollars to “not significant.” At the end of the legislative session, our team provided Fiscal Review with evidence of the costs associated with implementation and asked for correction.

The requested correction was not made, and the lack of adequate funding to support this legislation is something that will need to be addressed in the budget process in the year ahead in order to ensure proper implementation.

With your continued partnership, we have once again created and enacted a balanced budget that maintains Tennessee’s position as a leader in fiscal responsibility. We must be vigilant about thoroughly accounting for costs in the fiscal review process to ensure we maintain that fiscal prudence.

Our team at the Department of Education is available to discuss the cost assumptions on this matter at your convenience. We will also communicate our concerns with the bill sponsors and relevant committee chairs.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this fiscal matter and I look forward to supporting more qualified teachers in our state.

Respectfully,

/signed/

Bill Lee

Speakers form study committee on refugee issues

House members attend a floor session in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally are assembling joint study committee on refugee issues.

“The Tennessee General Assembly filed suit against the federal government five years ago on refugee settlement,” said McNally (omitting that the lawsuit failed in federal district and appeals courts). “With this study committee, we reaffirm that there is a clear and compelling state interest in a sane immigration policy.”

“We must have transparency to address the concerns raised by both members of the General Assembly and Tennesseans,” said Sexton. “I am in agreement with Gov. Lee not to accept any unaccompanied migrant children.”

The panel is entirely Republican: Reps. Dan Howell of Cleveland, Bruce Griffey of Paris, Ryan Williams of Cookeville, Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, and Chris Todd of Jackson, along with Sens. Dawn White of Murfreesboro, Bo Watson of Hixson, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Richard Briggs of Knoxville, and Ed Jackson of Jackson.

Here’s the letter the speakers sent to House and Senate clerks:

Dear Ms. Clerk and Mr. Clerk,

As Speakers of the Senate and House of Representatives of the 112th General Assembly, we hereby create a Study Committee on Refugee Issues to evaluate the number of migrant children being permanently relocated to Tennessee by the federal government, the number of migrant children being flown into Tennessee and then relocated to other states by the federal government, how to increase transparency from the federal government regarding its relocation of unaccompanied migrant children to and through Tennessee, and the impact, financial and beyond, on Tennesseans, as it relates to the federal government’s migrant relocation program. 

House members appointed to the committee are: Representative Howell (Chair), Representative Griffey, Representative Williams, Representative Campbell, and Representative Todd.

Senate members appointed to the committee are:  Senator White (Chair), Senator Watson, Senator Gardenhire, Senator Briggs, Senator Jackson.

/Signed/

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton

Lee to memorialize three service members

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters after a bill signing ceremony in Nashville on May 24, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is scheduled to honor three service members at a Memorial Day service on Friday morning.

Here’s the release from the Department of Veterans Services:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Tennessee Department of Veterans Services Commissioner Tommy Baker and Tennessee Military Department Adjutant General, Major General Jeff Holmes will honor three service members who gave the ultimate sacrifice at the state’s annual Memorial Day service on Friday, May 28, at 10:30 a.m. CDT at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville.

United States Army Sergeant First Class Jeremy Wayne Griffin of Greenbrier was killed in action on September 16, 2019 while conducting combat operations in Wardak Province, Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. He was 41 years old. Griffin was a Special Forces communications Sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group who joined the Army in 2004. He was on his fourth combat tour after completing three other combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

United States Army Private First Class Oliver Jeffers of Huntsville was killed in action November 10, 1944 during combat in the Hürtgen Forest of Germany. Following the end of the war, officials were unable to recover or identify Jeffers’ remains, and he was declared non-recoverable in 1951. While studying unresolved American losses in the Hürtgen area, historians discovered a set of unidentified remains in the Ardennes American Cemetery that possibly belonged to Jeffers. In April 2018 his remains were disinterred and were positively identified April 23, 2020. Jeffers was laid to rest in Huntsville, TN October 7, 2020.

United States Navy Fireman Third Class Warren H. Crim of McMinnville was killed December 7, 1941 aboard the USS Oklahoma, while moored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Crim’s unidentified remains were subsequently interred in either the Halawa or Nu’uanu cemeteries in Hawaii between 1941 and 1944 and remained there until June 2015, when the Deputy Secretary of Defense directed the disinterment of unidentified remains associated with the USS Oklahoma. Crim was identified December 8, 2017 and was laid to rest in Smartt, TN October 24, 2020.

Carr campaign update: Candidate responds to HR complaints

Former Rep. Joe Carr in a lengthy Facebook post is defending himself about a series of human resources complaints filed against him when he worked in state government. Carr blames ‘liberal big government bureaucrats’ at the agency that has been run by Republican administrations since 2011.

“It’s been less than 10 hours since I announced I’m running for Rutherford Co. Mayor and already I’m getting phone calls about claims of ‘harassment’ while serving at TDEC as Assistant Commissioner,” Carr writes in the post. “Liberal big government bureaucrats just don’t sleep, do they?”

Carr denies he was pushed out of his job over the complaints.

“If anyone tries to claim that I was forced out of the administration over this, I have no problem releasing the tapes proving otherwise,” he writes. “I left on great terms, was in fact asked to stay, and told to come back anytime.”

Read the whole thing below:

He’s back! Joe Carr making another run for political office

Former state Rep. Joe Carr (R-Lascassas) announces his U.S. Senate bid in January 2013.

Former state Rep. Joe Carr (R-Lascassas) is taking another stab at running for public office. This time it’s for Rutherford County mayor, where incumbent Bill Ketron may be vulnerable after legal problems related to his former insurance business and a $135,000 civil penalty he received for numerous campaign finance violations.

Since leaving the General Assembly, Carr has unsuccessfully run for two different U.S. House seats, the U.S Senate, state Republican Party chair, and the state Senate. He was hired to work in Gov. Bill Lee’s administration after endorsing the Republican during the 2018 gubernatorial primary, but left after about a year. Carr was also a prominent backer of Manny Sethi’s U.S. Senate bid last year. The latter lost to now-Sen. Bill Hagerty of Nashville in the Republican primary.

Report: Feds asked lawmaker if he knew Casada, Cothren were owners of Phoenix Solutions

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) checks his phone as he awaits the joint convention to hear Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tells the Tennessee Lookout’s Sam Stockard federal agents asked him whether he was aware of the roles of former House Speaker Glen Casada and his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren, in a mysterious campaign vendor.

“They asked me if I knew Cade Cothren and Glen Casada were owners of Phoenix Solutions,” Calfee told the publication.

The FBI raided the homes and offices of Casada, Cothren, and Reps. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) and Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) on the eve of the legislative session in January.

Calfee said FBI agents searched the computer of his assistant, Nadine Korby, who has been placed on administrative leave along with Casada aide Carol Simpson and interim chief of staff, Holt Whitt.

Calfee, a critic of the way school voucher legislation was passed in 2019, told the Lookout he believes the FBI is conducting three investigations, but declined to give specifics.

As first reported by The Tennessee Journal, federal agents had conducted interviews throughout the legislative session of lawmakers who engaged Casada and Smith for political consulting work.

As recently as the last day of the session, state Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) told colleagues he had spoken to federal agents in his office. Zachary spent $4,408 with vendor Phoenix Solutions (though he misspelled it as “Phenoix Solutions” on his disclosures), the outfit believed to be at the center of the FBI probe.

Several colleagues have said Smith was a vocal advocate for steering more political work to Phoenix Solutions. She and Casada have both declined to say whether they have an ownership stake in the business.

“They did not tell me I couldn’t disclose the information that we discussed,” Zachary explained to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher earlier this month, adding “even with my colleagues, I’ve still tried to be very careful about disclosing what we discussed.”

“Everything centered around the investigation with my colleagues, specifically Rep. Casada, Rep. Smith… I did a survey with Glen and it went through the Phoenix Solutions,” Zachary told the paper.