Uncategorized

New TNJ edition alert: Lobbying spending rebounds after 2020 lockdown at state Capitol

In the absence of lobbyists banned from the state Capitol during the pandemic, lawmakers gather in the seats outside the House chamber in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In this week’s print edition of The Tennessee Journal:

— Cold, hard advocacy: Lobbying spending rebounded this session

— Cabinet changes: Wiseman’s portfolio never quite matched lofty double-barreled title.

— Political roundup: Another Democrat mulls bid for governor, state party fined $103K.

— Fraud or fair play? Updated indictment filed against state Sen. Robinson on eve of trial.

Also: Durham’s lawyer updates the status of the feds’ criminal investigation into former lawmaker, the reclassification of the snail darter ends decades of political jokes, and House Republicans to hold a fundraiser at an undisclosed location.

Access the your copy of the TNJ here or subscribe here.

A look at coverage of Lee’s wide-ranging press conference

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

Gov. Bill Lee held a wide-ranging press conference Thursday, with several observers coming away wondering what it was meant to accomplish. While the governor touched on issues ranging from workforce development to the worsening pandemic situation in the state, several observers came away from the gathering wondering what it was meant to accomplish. Here’s a look at how reporters covered the confab:

Stella Yu, The Tennessean:

On Thursday, Lee acknowledged the effectiveness of masks in schools and vaccination for children ages 12 and up.

“We believe that masks work, and that if you want to protect your kid against (COVID-19), one tool that you would have is to send your kid to school with a mask,” he said.

But he stopped short of committing to any additional measures, insisting he needs to balance school districts’ rights to make policy with parents’ right to make decisions for their children.

“What we are trying to do is provide for as much protection as possible and provide for the rights of parents to have the last say in their children’s health,” he said. “You don’t have to exclude. You don’t have to have ‘either or.’ If you really believe it, you can find a way forward.”

Marissa Sulek, WSMV-TV:

Thursday is the second day in a row that Tennessee has set a record for the highest amount of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state.

The Department of Health reports 3,500 people are now in hospitals across the state with the virus, 79 are pediatric patients. The state has now exceeded the winter peak seen in January.

On Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee and other state officials spoke for the first time about the surge in hospitalizations. Lee said he’s not going to make any changes going forward with the state’s plan to combat COVID-19.

Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said there are 7,700 new positive cases of COVID-19 a day in Tennessee with one-third of those in children.

Phil Williams, WTVF-TV:

Tennessee doctors have tried holding news conferences, signing petitions, even producing personal video pleas — to get the governor’s attention on the issue of kids and COVID.

Thursday, frustrated that they have not been heard, a group of area physicians decided to confront Gov. Bill Lee directly as he left his own news conference.

“Governor Lee, we want to get a meeting with you,” one called out as Lee continued walking through the halls of the state Capitol.

She continued, “We want to know, as a Christian man, how you feel about children getting sick and dying from COVID when this could be prevented with universal masking.”

Marta Aldrich, Chalkbeat:

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has granted eight of 14 waiver requests from Tennessee school leaders wanting to switch temporarily to remote learning under a COVID response plan that began this week.

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Education said Wednesday that Schwinn also partially granted one other application and denied two, while three more requests weren’t eligible. […]

The rollout of seven-day waivers, announced late last week, is Schwinn’s attempt to give district and school leaders some flexibility on new state rules that essentially require in-person instruction this academic year, except when individual students must temporarily isolate or quarantine due to the virus.

But Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is under increasing pressure to provide even greater flexibility for virtual learning as additional districts shut down under the strain of COVID’s highly contagious delta variant. According to data from the state health department, more than 38% of all Tennessee COVID cases reported last week were among children up to age 18.

Ian Round, The Daily Memphian:

Gov. Bill Lee and cabinet members said Thursday, Sept. 2, they’re not making any major changes in their approach to the pandemic, even though Tennessee leads the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita.

“We’re in a very difficult position in our state,” Lee said during a briefing at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Lee reiterated his stance that children should continue to learn in-person and that parents should retain the right to opt their children out of mask mandates, even though 38.5% of COVID cases are among children.

“We don’t have any plan to change that going forward,” he said. “We are working really hard to protect the lives and livelihoods of those kids.

“I still believe that a parent is the best decider of what is appropriate for their child,” he said. “No one is more qualified to make decisions about the health and wellbeing of a child than the child’s parent.”

The Associated Press:

Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday said he has no plans to introduce anti-abortion legislation similar to what Texas adopted earlier this year.

“We do not have any current plans to move forward beyond than what we’re currently awaiting which is a ruling from the court on the existing piece of legislation that we already have,” Lee told reporters.

Last year, Lee signed off on one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, but it was promptly blocked by federal court from being implemented. He has since vowed to do “whatever it takes in court” to defend the measure.

Sam Stockard commentary at The Tennessee Lookout:

Under a federal civil rights investigation, facing two lawsuits out of Shelby County over his mask opt-out order and now seeing school districts closing, Gov. Bill Lee refuses to let the buck stop with him.

“My responsibility is to work together to make the best decisions in our state that we believe will benefit Tennesseans as we navigate through what is a very difficult situation. To work with school districts, to work with parents, to work with people across the state, that’s what we’re doing,” Lee said Thursday in a press conference called apparently to calm people’s nerves but which did little to soothe anyone’s concerns about what the governor is calling a “crisis” again.

But what about districts that are closing because they can’t deal with COVID cases. Does he bear any responsibility for those, because of his policy?

“I think a pandemic has created a large number of infections across our state. A pandemic has swept through, and I think we see that in school districts, we see that in cases of pediatrics across our state. We see that in schools having to make difficult decisions about how to keep classrooms opened and closed. This pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world, and it’s doing the same thing in our state, and we’re doing everything we can to handle that,” he said.

Maybe he doesn’t think anyone is paying attention to his refusal to take the heat or to say things that have little meaning.

28,000 school-age children test positive for COVID-19 in two weeks

More than 28,000 school-age children in Tennessee have tested positive for COVID-19 over the last two weeks, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education plans to relaunch its pandemic dashboard after Labor Day.

Chalkbeat has reported the data included in the dashboard was incomplete because of limited reporting by school districts and privacy concerns. Here’s what the publication said about the portal in November:

A Chalkbeat analysis of COVID-19 data in the state’s schools dashboard shows between 880 and 3,540 student coronavirus cases weren’t included in the district level totals from Oct. 19 to Nov. 15. Similarly, at least 685 and as many as 2,740 teacher cases also were excluded on the district level.

The wide range in the number of excluded cases in districts is caused because of how Tennessee shares data when there are fewer than five cases in a school. In Chalkbeat’s analysis, the lowest case estimates (listed above) presume there is one case in a school while the highest calculations presume there are four cases in the school.

The state “suppresses,” or excludes, data when there are fewer than five cases at a school. Data is shielded in small data counts because releasing that information could inadvertently lead to students or teachers being identified.

So if a school reports two COVID cases, for example, the state’s dashboard displays it simply as less than five cases for that school, but those same cases are excluded from the district totals in the dashboard. That means your school might report fewer than five cases, but the district level numbers would show zero.

Hagerty names Telle as new chief of staff

Bill Hagerty speaks at Nashville event on Dec. 3, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Nashville) has named a new chief of staff and made some other personnel updates. Here’s the release from Hagerty’s office:

NASHVILLE, TN—United States Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) today is announcing the appointment of Adam Telle to serve as Chief of Staff for his U.S. Senate office after John Rader’s departure to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

“I am fortunate to have someone of Adam’s experience and talent on my staff, and I am confident he will continue to excel as he takes on this new role,” said Senator Hagerty. “Since I took office, Adam has been an integral part of my team as my Legislative Director and Chief Advisor. With his-almost two decades of Capitol Hill experience, including his time in the Executive Branch, Adam has put together an incredibly talented team that has helped me advance the interests of Tennesseans, hold the Biden Administration accountable, and pursue an agenda that puts the American worker first. Adam’s appointment will ensure continuity and a seamless transition as John Rader departs following his exceptional service.”

Prior to returning to Capitol Hill in January, Telle led the White House Office of Legislative Affairs’ Senate team, where he also managed all national security and appropriations matters. Previously, Telle was the chief staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee, serving under the chairmanship of U.S. Senators Thad Cochran (R-MS), Richard Shelby (R-AL), John Boozman (R-AR), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). He also spent 10 years in Cochran’s office, where he served as Deputy Chief of Staff, Legislative Director, and the top national security staffer. Telle began his Senate career in Shelby’s office. He is a native of Northport, Alabama, and holds degrees in computer science and communication from Mississippi State University. Telle spent childhood summers in Sevier County, Tennessee, where his parents were married, and Telle himself was married in Nashville on the campus of Vanderbilt University, his wife’s alma mater. His dog, “B.B.,” is from Murfreesboro.

Telle is succeeding Rader, a longtime Hagerty confidant, colleague, and friend.

“I cannot thank John Rader enough for his counsel and tireless work this year as my Chief of Staff, and for his decades of friendship. There is no one more committed to advancing conservative policies that ensure we pass on a better, stronger nation to our children and grandchildren. John and I have worked together before, and I am confident we will work together again someday. John loves Tennessee, and on behalf of the citizens of our state, I thank him for his years of government service—I am forever grateful for John’s selfless service,” Senator Hagerty concluded.

In addition to Telle’s appointment, Hagerty is also announcing the following staff appointments:

Matt Apple, of Winfield, PA, to serve as Legislative Correspondent in the Washington, D.C. office.

Kay Durham, of Nashville, TN, to serve as Assistant to the State Director in the Nashville office.

Madison Graham, of Atlanta, GA, and a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, alumnus, to serve as Staff Assistant in the Washington, D.C. office.

Nels Nordquist, of Alexandria, VA, to serve as Legislative Fellow in the Washington, D.C. office.

Amy Winstead, of Jackson, TN, to serve as caseworker in the Jackson office.

Sexton names House redistricting committee

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

Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has named the membership of the House Select Committee on Redistricting.

The panel will be led by Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville). Speaker Pro Tem Pat Marsh is the vice chair. Rep. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain) will serve as East Tennessee coordinator, while Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville) and Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville) will oversee the East and Middle grand divisions, respectively.

Four of the committee’s 16 members are Democrats.

Here’s the full release from Sexton’s office:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) today announced the first-ever bipartisan House Select Committee on Redistricting. The announcement comes after a prolonged delay by the U.S. Census Bureau in releasing state-level redistricting data.

The bipartisan committee consists of 16 House members, including four Democratic members. Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) will chair the committee, and Speaker Pro Tempore Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville) is the committee’s vice-chair.

Additional committee members include:

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain)

Rep. Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville) 

Rep. Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville)

Rep. Karen Camper (D- Memphis)

Rep. John Crawford (R-Bristol/Kingsport)

Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby)

Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Nashville)

Rep. John Holsclaw (R-Elizabethton)

Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland)

Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis)

Rep. Lowell Russell (R-Vonore)

Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin)

Rep. Ryan Williams (R- Cookeville)

Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston)

“As we continue reviewing the long-awaited statewide data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, I am excited to announce the first-ever bipartisan House Select Committee on Redistricting,” said Speaker Sexton. “The makeup of this panel is representative of the distinctive voices of Tennesseans from across all three grand divisions of our state. I appreciate both my Republican and Democratic colleagues for their work as part of this panel, which will play a critical role in a transparent, public process that will produce both fair and constitutional redistricting plans representative of all Tennesseans.”

House Ethics Counsel Doug Himes will serve as counsel for the committee. The date of the first meeting of the bipartisan House Select Committee on Redistricting has not yet been determined.

For additional information on the redistricting process in the Tennessee House of Representatives, please click here

Cameron Sexton is the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. A former Republican Caucus Chairman, Majority Whip, and House Health Committee Chairman, Sexton resides in Crossville. He is in his sixth term serving House District 25, including Cumberland, Putnam, and Van Buren Counties.

New edition alert: Events overtake special session push, redistricting committee named

Gov. Bill Lee tours flood damage in Waverly on Aug. 22, 2021. (Image credit: State of Tennessee)

In this week’s print edition of The Tennessee Journal:

— Special session talk fades as COVID-19 infections surge past 1 million.

— Sexton names redistricting committee, taps Arnold as chief of staff.

— From the campaign trail: Democrats join governor’s race, but record for second-term challenges isn’t strong.

— Legal update: Page to head Supreme Court after Bivins’ five years as chief justice, Bone firm merged.

— Obituary: Anti-income tax leader and vaccine skeptic Valentine dies of COVID-19.

Also:

Gardenhire dodges COVID-19 for eighth time, UTC administrator who fired public radio reporter resigns after harassment probe, and phishing emails from the House speaker.

Access the your copy of the TNJ here or subscribe here.

Lamberth hires California GOP aide, Farm Bureau political director as top adviser

State House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) is hiring his new chief adviser from California. Mike Zimmerman, a former aide to three Republican leaders in the Golden State’s legislature, will succeed James Dunn, who is now executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability.

Zimmerman’s most recent position has been political director for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.

Here’s the full email from Lamberth to members of the House Republican Caucus:

Dear Friends, 

I am pleased to announce Mike Zimmerman will be joining our Caucus as Chief Advisor to the Majority Leader. 

Mike is extremely well qualified with more than 20 years of legislative experience serving as Political Director, Deputy Chief of Staff and as Chief of Staff for three different Republican Leaders in the California General Assembly.  As Chief of Staff, Mike managed more than 80 employees who worked in policy, communications, and constituent services. His areas of expertise include public policy, state government, fiscal oversight, and political campaigning.  

He is leaving his current position as director of political affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento where he has served since 2018. Mike is moving to Tennessee with his wife and 8-month-old son to be closer to family in Williamson County and to raise his son in a state that shares his conservative values. His first day with us is Wednesday, Sept. 8th.

Having served in leadership support positions for the minority party in a blue state, Mike brings an invaluable and unique perspective. I am confident he will serve you well and will send his contact information once he officially begins this new role. Mike will be reaching out to every one of you to meet within the next few weeks whenever you happen to be in Nashville. Thank you again for the opportunity to serve you and thank you for all that you do every day to strengthen our great state. 

Harshbarger says she will get Trump endorsement, backing from Club for Growth

A year ago, the Club for Growth was buying copious amounts of TV advertising time to bash Diana Harshbarger, the frontrunner (and eventual winner) in a crowded Republican primary for the open 1st Congressional District seat. Fast forward to last week, and Harshbarger was boasting of gaining former President Donald Trump’s help in getting the Club for Growth to endorse her re-election bid in 2022.

Harshbarger said in a meeting with Trump last week he promised to deliver a public endorsement of her. She said he also called Club for Growth President David McIntosh to to tell him to get behind Harshbarger as well. Per Harshbargers telling at the Greene County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner on Friday, McIntosh’s response was “Yes, sir.”

Here is what Harshbarger said about her encounter with Trump, according to a recording obtained by The Tennessee Journal:

“He said, ‘I am going to call David McIntosh.’ And I said, ‘By all means do that.’ And he said, ‘David, I have Diana Harshbarger here and I heard you didn’t like her last time. I think you are going to like her this time. She has voted with me 100% of the time.’ And he said, ‘Let me get her in the room.’ And I came in the room and he put it on speakerphone and he said ‘David, here’s Diana.’ I said ‘Well hey, David’ — because he wouldn’t return my calls.

“President Trump said ‘I’m going to give her my full and complete endorsement … I want to tell you to tell her you are going to give her a full and complete endorsement.’ I said, ‘That’s awesome.’ He goes ‘Yes sir, I’ll do it.’ He said, ‘Thanks Dave.’ I said ‘Thank you, David.’

Anyway, what he said was that ‘we don’t want this lost in the fervor of all this news and everything.’ And he goes, ‘I want to make sure this goes out next week.’  And he said,  ‘I want people to know that I’ve endorsed you. I’m 128 and 2.'”

Page to take over as chief justice of Tennessee Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court has elected Roger Page as its new chief justice. He succeeds Jeff Bivins, who has presided over the court since 2016. Both justices were appointed to the state’s highest court by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

The change in leadership comes as the state prepares for judicial elections in August 2022, followed by the Supreme Court’s appointment of the state’s next attorney general. Current AG Herbert Slatery hasn’t said whether he will apply for another eight-year term.

Here’s the full release from the Adminstrative Office of the Courts:

Nashville Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Roger A. Page has been elected Chief Justice by his colleagues for a term that begins September 1, 2021. Justice Page succeeds Justice Jeff Bivins, who has served as chief justice since September 2016.

“It is an honor to serve as chief justice and a responsibility that I do not take lightly,” Justice Page said. “Our Supreme Court has over 100 years of judicial experience and is well-prepared to take on the serious and complex issues as the law continues to be amended and revised, to grow and evolve.” 

Justice Page will be sworn-in by Justice Connie Clark in a small ceremony to be held in the courtroom he presided over in the Madison County Criminal Justice Complex on September 1 at 1:30 p.m.  In order to accommodate members of the judicial family, the bar, state leaders, and policymakers, the event will be livestreamed at: https://www.youtube.com/user/TNCourts/featured.

The location and day are not without personal meaning.  Justice Page was ceremoniously sworn-in as a trial judge by federal Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, for whom he clerked after law school, in the same courtroom exactly 23 years ago to the day.

“I began my judicial career in that courtroom and served the community I grew up in as a trial judge for more than thirteen years,” he said. “It means so much to be able to step back into that courtroom to take the oath as chief justice in front of my family. They have given me unconditional support every step of the way.” 

Justice Page graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy and worked as a pharmacist in Memphis before he  earned his law degree from the University of Memphis, graduating fourth in his class.  He began his judicial career when he was elected Circuit Court Judge in 1998 for the 26th Judicial District, which includes Chester, Henderson, and Madison counties.

He was appointed to the Court of Criminal Appeals by former Governor Bill Haslam in 2011.  In 2016, Governor Haslam appointed him to the Supreme Court.  For the first time in thirty years, a rural West Tennessean will serve as chief justice.

Justice Page was raised on the family farm in Mifflin,  Chester County, Tennessee, with West Tennessee  roots going back seven generations. His mother and his aunt will join his wife, retired Chancellor Carol McCoy, and two sons and their spouses for the swearing-in ceremony. He also has three grandchildren with another one expected in January 2022. 

“The Supreme Court serves the entire State, and the judiciary significantly reflects the diverse collection of viewpoints, backgrounds, and perspectives at all levels of justice,” Justice Page said. “From big cities and urban neighborhoods to sprawling suburbs to rural farms, small river towns, and communities settled atop mountain ridges, our State encompasses all views.” 

Across the state, the court system is still responding to and recovering from the pandemic, during which jury trials were postponed. On a positive note, judges and their court staff quickly adopted new technologies to ensure courts always remained open and accessible and that cases moved forward as much as possible. New and expanding technologies, together with strategies to increase the use of senior and retired judges as well as alternative dispute resolution, have provided judges with an array of resources.

Justice Page will continue to emphasize the Supreme Court’s prized Access to Justice initiative.  It focuses on civil actions when litigants do not have the right to an attorney and  is critical to the state’s economic growth and the personal stability of its citizens.  

“Courts need to be open, fair, efficient, and accessible to everyone in our state,” Justice Page said. “We have made strides by shoring up the guardian ad litem program and creating the appellate public defender’s office, but there is more work to be done. The equitable, effective, and professional administration of justice benefits everyone from litigants to victims to defendants to taxpayers to communities. Our present opportunity to invest in efficient changes will promote a positive effect on generations to come.”

Expanding access to the courts in rural communities is an issue Justice Page will stress during his term as Chief Justice. One aspect of Access to Justice is expanding high speed internet access into all rural counties of the State.  Justice Page supports judicial efficiency and recognizes that Governor Bill Lee’s efforts in that area will allow courts to expand remote hearings and e-filing, allowing every citizen in the State to have equal access and participation in the judicial system.

“Chief Justice Bivins did a tremendous job leading the Supreme Court and the judiciary,” Justice Page said. “It was extremely challenging at times, and he rose to the occasion, providing clear direction and effective and innovative solutions. While there is uncertainty about where we are headed, I am confident we have a solid blueprint to work with going forward.”

Biden declares major disaster following Tennessee flooding

Damage from heavy flooding in seen in Waverly on Aug. 22, 2021. (Image credit: State of Tennessee)

President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster following the fatal flooding in Humphreys County over the weekend.

Here’s the release from the White House:

Yesterday, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. declared that a major disaster exists in the State of Tennessee and ordered Federal aid to supplement State and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by a severe storm and flooding on August 21, 2021.

The President’s action makes Federal funding available to affected individuals in Humphreys County.

Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.

Federal funding is also available to State and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency protective measures in Humphreys County.

Lastly, Federal funding is available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Deanne Criswell, Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Homeland Security, named Myra M. Shird as the Federal Coordinating Officer for Federal recovery operations in the affected areas.

Damage assessments are continuing in other areas, and more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after the assessments are fully completed.

Residents and business owners who sustained losses in the designated counties can begin applying for assistance tomorrow by registering online at http://www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (local time) seven days a week until further notice.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION MEDIA SHOULD CONTACT THE FEMA NEWS DESK AT (202) 646-3272 OR FEMA-NEWS-DESK@FEMA.DHS.GOV.