House, Senate cancel floor calendars following fatal school shooting in Nashville

The Tennessee General Assembly won’t take up its calendar of bills in floor sessions Monday following a fatal shooting at a Nashville school that left three children and three adults dead.

“Out of respect for today’s events, the Senate will honor those effected and adjourn,” Senate Clerk Russell Humphrey wrote in an email to members. “No business, no presentations and no introduction of guest shall occur.

Police said the suspect was a 28-year-old woman who was killed in a standoff with law enforcement officers responding to the shooting. The woman was believed to have entered a side entrance of the private Covenant School carrying two rifles and a handgun.

New TNJ edition alert: Confidence in McNally, Kelsey’s about-face, abortion and toll lane bills

The Nashville Metro Courthouse on March 13, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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

— McNally easily wins confidence vote among Senate Republicans.

— The Kelsey chronicles: Former senator tries to pull about-face on guilty plea in federal case.

— Medical exception to abortion ban passes House, Senate OK’s toll lanes, Nashville Council can’t decide future makeup.

Also: Doug Overbey joins TEA lobbying team, a gubernatorial intervention on the “State of the Child Report,” Justin Pearson in legislative limbo, and the Stuntbaby rides again.

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

Or subscribe here.

Kansas City attorney sues over Tennessee professional privilege tax

Kansas City attorney Thomas West is suing the state in Sumner County over what he calls the “arbitrary, capricious, and wholly unreasonable” nature of Tennessee’s annual professional privilege tax. Over the years, the state has dropped the annual fee for 15 professions, but continues to charge the the $400 assessment to people working as lawyers, lobbyists, investment advisers, securities agents, and brokers.

“While the Tennessee legislature’s constitutional authority to ax privileges is virtually unlimited, it is not unbridled,” according to West’s lawsuit. Seventy percent of the revenue from the tax is generated from professionals who live out of state, which the complaint alleges is in violation of the dormant Interstate Commerce Clause.

The case was filed in Sumner County, which a 2021 law set as the venue for civil cases when the plaintiff lives outside the state. Because it is a constitutional challenge, the case will be handled by a panel of judges from each of the state’s three Grand Divisions.

Major League Baseball lobbies up in Nashville

Lobbyists Catie Lane Bailey, Annie Beckstrom, Mack Cooper, Nicole Oborne Watson, and Tony Thompson (Image credits: Tennessee Ethics Commission)

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office has signed up a team of five lobbyists at the Tennessee Capitol. They include Catie Lane Bailey, Annie Beckstrom, Mack Cooper, and Nicole Osborne Watson of Holland & Knight (the former Waller Lansden), which successfully advocated for $500 million in bonds for a new Tennessee Titans stadium in Nashville last year. Also hired last week was Tony Thompson, the son of the late actor and politician Fred Thompson (R-Lawrenceburg).

The registration forms don’t indicate what Manfred’s office wants from Nashville lawmakers, but the commissioner has publicly speculated about the Tennessee capital being in the mix for an eventual expansion team. A more mundane explanation might be pending legislation to remove a requirement for sportsbooks to use official league data under Tennessee’s sports gaming program.

Former Oakland A’s pitcher Dave Stewart has been leading an effort to bring a major league franchise to Nashville, with hopes of building a stadium near Tennessee State University. But while the group has gained celebrity backing and media attention over the last few years, it hasn’t included the sort of multi-billionaire investor that be able to cover the huge cost of landing and operating a team. The Tennessee Lookout reported in 2020 that former Gov. Bill Haslam had held serious talks with Manfred about leading a separate effort. But Haslam has since bought into the NHL’s Nashville Predators and is scheduled to become the majority owner in 2025.

In another twist, the Holland & Knight lobbying team landed another major sports client last week — the National Basketball Association.

Kelsey wants to take back guilty plea made with ‘unsure heart and confused mind’

Then-Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), right, attends a Senate Education Committee meeting in Nashville on April 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

When former state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in November, he signed a document stating: “I offer my plea of ‘GUILTY’ freely and voluntarily and of my own accord; also, my lawyers have explained to me, and I feel and believe I understand this petition.” Now, Kelsey wants out of the deal.

According to a motion filed Friday, Kelsey is seeking to withdraw his plea and wants the judge to dismiss the entire case against him for conspiring to funnel campaign money from his state account to support his failed congressional bid in 2016.

“The stress of simultaneously dealing with a terminally ill father, newborn twins, and a three-year-old daughter” caused Kelsey to have “an unsure heart and a confused mind” when he agreed to plead guilty, according to the filing.

Kelsey in a sworn declaration said he had lost his license to practice law, access to banking system, and his job. According to Kelsey, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Other than speeding tickets, I have had no experience with the criminal justice system as a defendant. As an attorney, I exclusively practiced civil law. Prior to the days leading up to the plea agreement in this case, I was unfamiliar with the federal criminal sentencing guidelines and the process of entering a plea agreement with no agreement as to what the sentence would be and without which the government would claim to seek a vastly enhanced ‘trial penalty’ for a defendant wishing to exercise his constitutional rights.

New TNJ edition alert: McNally succession moves, abortion exceptions, and the Slashville challenge

Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) presides on the Senate floor on March 13, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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

— Calling all pretenders: Succession talk fueled by McNally scandal.

— Legislative roundup: Abortion, campaign finance, and the light at the end of the (session) tunnel.

— Slashville: Nashville sues to halt legislature’s move to cut Metro Council in half.

Also: Flipping the order of Brian Kelsey’s sentencing hearing, Andy Ogles’ ongoing résumé problems, Tim Rudd’s parking garage dreams, and a flooded Capitol complex.

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

Or subscribe here.

Blue light special? Bill would allow speakers’ cars to ignore traffic rules

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

A bill to authorize the state cars transporting the governor or speakers of the state House and Senate to use emergency lights is up for final approval in the Senate on Thursday.

[UPDATE: The bill passed 27-3 and is headed to the governor’s desk.]

Under current law, the THP cars carrying Gov. Bill Lee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), and Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti across the state aren’t explicitly allowed to use blue lights.

The bill sponsored by freshman Sen. Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun) and Rep. Lowell Russell (R-Vonore) would exempt protective detail troopers from following posted parking rules. They could also pass through red lights or stop signs without coming to a halt, exceed the posted speed limit, drive against the flow of traffic, and disregard restrictions on turns.

Lawmakers are pursuing the bill despite opposition from THP leadership.

The General Assembly in 2021 approved $750,000 in new funding for the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s protective detail, which doubled the number of Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers assigned to the speakers to two each. The speakers were also assigned two vehicles, up from the previous one.

The legislative hallways are rife with stories about one speaker’s trooper being reprimanded for operating the state cars above the posted speed limit. The Safety Department won’t confirm whether any disciplinary action has been taken against members of the protective detail for their driving habits due to what a spokesman calls the “potential operational vulnerability” of identifying the troopers on the detail.

The House has already passed the measure unanimously.

Randy McNally to pause social media activity

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) presides over the chamber on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) is out with a new statement saying he’s going to halt social media activity following attention to recent posts. Here it is:

I have long been active on social media. I have made a point to engage with people not only in posts, but in comments and messages as well. My comments to Franklin McClure and others, which have recently drawn so much attention, are no different. While I see now that I should have been more careful about how my comments and activity would be perceived, my intent was always engagement and encouragement. I apologize for any embarrassment my postings have caused my family, friends and colleagues. For this reason, I will be pausing my social media activity in order to reflect and receive more guidance on the use of social media.

While I have made some mistakes in my use of social media, the characterization of me and my record as somehow “anti-gay” is inaccurate. On a personal level, nothing could be further from the truth. I believe every person has value and deserves respect regardless of their orientation. I am 79 years old, and was raised in a time when homosexuality was deeply shameful. And I absolutely still hold traditional Tennessee values dear. But I now have friends and even a relative who is gay. I have worked hard to try and understand this community better, and at the same time not compromise trying to protect children and my own values. I notably came down from the Speaker’s podium to speak against a bill that would have curtailed gay adoption. I have also supported legislation that would protect children and keep obscenity out of the public sphere. And I support traditional marriage. There is no contradiction here.

I would encourage everyone to look at my record in its totality. It is both thoroughly conservative and compassionate to others. Though I may disagree with specific policies of certain LGBTQ activists, all people are deserving of love and compassion, no matter their race, gender, or any other attribute.

Criticism of my social media activity is fair, and I have taken it to heart. All I ask is that people look at the facts and my actual record. Again, conservative and “anti-gay” are not synonymous. Not generally and certainly not for me. While I realize it may not happen immediately, I am hopeful this examination of my social media activity will conclude and we can soon all get back to ensuring Tennessee remains the best state in the union to live, work and raise a family.”

Right to Life announces support for rival update to abortion law

Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) attends a floor session on March 6, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state chapter of Right to Life is speaking out in support of an amended version of a bill by Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes (R-East Ridge) stating that treatments of ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages don’t violate the Tennessee’s sweeping abortion ban. Yager’s bill is different than the measure advanced by House Republican leaders and Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) that has been vocally opposed by the anti-abortion group.

Here’s the release from Tennessee Right to Life:

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Right to Life is in support of Senate Bill 983 sponsored by Senator Yager as amended by Amendment #005051. We have maintained throughout this session that we would work with legislators to clarify the Human Life Protection Act without weakening it, and that is what this amendment does. It would explicitly clarify that treatments of ectopic pregnancy and miscarriages are in no way considered criminal abortions under the Human Life Protection Act, and it would change the affirmative defense to an exception for those times when the mother’s life is in danger.

Furthermore, by using an objective standard, it assuages EMTALA concerns by the Attorney General while also ensuring proper care is given to both the mother and the baby.

As opposed to other bills that have been filed and/or presented this year, the clear and succinct language in this amended legislation helps doctors and patients without creating unnecessary exceptions or deleting large sections of pro-life laws in the Tennessee Code. Pro-life legislators and pro-life Tennesseans can be confident that these changes will not weaken the intent of the legislation that was passed in 2019 to protect the right to life of all unborn children in our state.

Tennessee Right to Life would like thank Governor Lee, Lieutenant Governor McNally, and Senator Yager for working with us and pro-life legislators to ensure the best possible clarifying language for the amendment to this bill. We thank them for standing with us in defense of the Human Life Protection Act and for believing, as we do, that clarification is possible without weakening the law. We are hopeful that House members will join in support of the amended version of SB983.

This amended language will protect the integrity of the Human Life Protection Act and allow Tennessee law to continue to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We encourage members of the General Assembly to support this legislation.

Cade Cothren, Steve Gill, and the Tennessee Star take aim at McNally

Indicted former House chief of staff Cade Cothren, controversial political commentator Steve Gill, and the conservative Tennessee Star website are suggesting Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) should resign over Instagram comments directed at risqué photos posted by a 20-year-old Knoxville man.

McNally was lampooned in a Saturday Night Live skit this weekend:

McNally had called on then-House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) “to resign for less,” Gill said in a Facebook post. When a commenter said McNally should resign or be removed, Gill responded: “Correct.”

Cothren, who was indicted along with Casada on public corruption charges related obscuring their control of a political vendor called Phoenix Solutions, was forced out of his legislative job in 2019 following revelations of racist and sexist texts with his boss and for boasting about using cocaine in his legislative office. Casada later lost a no-confidence vote and stepped down as speaker.

Cothren this weekend posted a copy of McNally’s tweets surrounding the 2019 scandal.

“It is painfully obvious to anyone who has watched the confused public responses of 79-year-old Tennessee Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) to the controversy surrounding his inexplicable social media postings that he has lost a step mentally,” writes the Tennessee Star’s Michael Patrick Leahy in a post calling on the speaker’s resignation.

Gill was once a political writer for the Star before stepping away from the site after spending time in jail for failure to pay child support. He has appeared on Russian state television since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

The calls for McNally to step aside are only coming from the political fringe — at least so far. It remains to be seen whether any members of the Senate Republican caucus begin to make a play to replace McNally in the Senate’s top leadership position.


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