New TNJ edition alert: Ford incentive deal gets scant attention amid furor over COVID-19 mandates

The 6 1/2-square-mile Memphis Regional Megasite.

The new print edition of The Tenenssee Journal is out. Here’s what we covered this week:

— Ford session near, but still no official call on COVID-19 mandates.
— Robinson faces Senate removal following conviction in fraud trial (with cameos from John Ford, Tommy Burnett, and Ed Gillock).
— Cue the waterworks: State releases plan for spending federal funds on water, sewer projects.
— Obituary: Jim Coley, social studies teacher who spent 14 years as lawmaker.

Also: Mick Jagger on a pedal tavern, big school districts and teachers’ union frozen out of BEP review, Randy Boyd apologizes for Mark Pody fundraiser, and Steve Cohen makes an endorsement in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

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

Thomas named first executive director of Sports Wagering Advisory Council

Mary Beth Thomas, the general counsel in Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office, has been named executive director of the soon-to-be independent Sports Wagering Advisory Council. Under the 2019 state law legalizing sports betting in Tennessee, the panel had been placed within the Tennessee Education Lottery Corp. But under an update passed this year, the gaming council will become an independent entity in January.

The panel voted 9-0 in Thomas’ favor. The other finalists were Scott Sloan, the chief of staff and general counsel to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and Roger Guillemette, the director of sports betting and
casino compliance for the Rhode Island Lottery.

Thomas was an attorney at the Waller Lansden law firm in Nashville for seven years before being hired to her current position in 2013. The Secretary of State’s Office oversees fantasy sports and other charitable gaming in Tennessee.

Thomas’ husband, Russell, is the director of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

So who was at that Pence luncheon at the governor’s mansion?

With no press invited or informed about Gov. Bill Lee’s hosting of former Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the governor’s mansion in Nashville, we’re left to our own devices to try to figure out who attended. Helpfully, Pence posted a photo of the luncheon on Twitter.

Here’s who we think we’ve identified from the photo:

  • Gov. Bill Lee
  • First lady Maria Lee
  • Construction contractor Turney Talley
  • Finance Commissioner Butch Eley
  • Tennessee Titans President Burke Nihill
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence
  • Philanthropist Scott Niswonger
  • Nancy Dishner of the Niswonger Foundation 
  • Adam Lister of Tennesseans for Student Success
  • House Speaker Cameron Sexton
  • Developer Steve Smith
  • Political consultant Chip Saltsman
  • Advance Financial lobbyist Cullen Earnest
  • Construction contractor Steve Kirby
  • Former Gov. Bill Haslam
  • Karen Pence, wife of Mike Pence.
  • Construction contractor Cal Turner

Recognize anyone else? Drop us a line and we’ll update.

House GOP member takes aim at ‘medical Nazis’ in General Assembly

Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) attends a meeting at the legislative office building in Nashville on Dec. 20, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Bruce Griffey, who is certainly not averse to courting controversy, is at it again. This time, the Paris Republican is taking aim at what he calls “medical Nazis” in the General Assembly who support companies’ authority to require employees or customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“This is a threat by the financial elite against the poor’s ability to support their families!” Griffey writes in an email sent to all House members, nine Republican state senators, and Gov. Bill Lee.

Griffey wants lawmakers to emulate Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in barring private businesses from imposing vaccine mandates. Supporters to curbing anti-coronavirus measures are trying to gather the requisite two-thirds of signatures of House and Senate members to call themselves into a special session over the issue after the governor declined to get invovled. It remains to be seen whether Griffey’s wild talk will help or hurt that effort.

“I sincerely believe history (and Tennessee voters) will not be kind (and will have harsh ridicule) for those in favor of vaccine mandates,” Griffey writes in the email. “I am sure Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and CCP President Xi Jinping and other notable oppressors in history are smiling with glee!”

Here’s the text of the Griffey email:

In case anyone has not heard, Gov Abbott in TX has banned all vaccine mandates in Texas per his EO.  The Texas Legislature will take up the issue in a special session. 

I’m not against vaccines, especially for older Tennesseans, those at greater risks due to personal health conditions, or anyone that voluntarily wants to take the vaccine.  But, I am vehemently opposed to vaccine mandates by government, Employers or business owners in Tennessee.  I am also very frustrated that we, today, apparently have a number of “medical Nazis” in the TN House and Senate that think it’s ok for some Tennesseans, (those with financial power via their business ownership or employment of other Tennesseans), to discriminate against fellow (powerless) Tennesseans by requiring vaccines by threatening them with the loss of their job and/or ability to conduct business.  This is a threat by the financial elite against the poor‘s ability to support their families!   This is unacceptable in my opinion.  This is something I would never believe I would see in America.  

I sincerely believe history (and Tennessee voters) will not be kind (and will have harsh ridicule) for those in favor of vaccine mandates.  I can only imagine what our Founding Fathers would think of us.  At the same time, I am sure Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and CCP President Xi Jinping and other notable oppressors in history are smiling with glee!  I urge you all to Please stop and think!

Forcing vaccines via mandates has the opposite effect on free people in my assessment. We have a responsibility to protect the freedoms of Tennesseans to make their own health decisions. If we give Tennesseans a choice and educate them about the effectiveness of the vaccine to prevent severe outcomes and death for those at greatest risk, we will see better participation.  

It is undeniable that Covid typically has a survival rate of 99% and much greater for younger Tennesseans without underlying health conditions!!!! 99% PLUS!!!!   Moreover, vaccines DO NOT stop the spread of the virus!!!! Furthermore, these silly cloth masks are a joke (in my opinion) and the science does not support their use!  N95 masks work. 

Why in the world should we allow certain Tennesseans in power to discriminate against fellow powerless Tennesseans who do not share their political view?  Biden, his administration, and oppressive Liberals love this crap!  Conservatives hate it!

If you want the vax- get it!  If you don’t – don’t get it!  It should be the personal decision of every Tennessean, and the parents of Tennessee children – not the politically biased/charged TN Dept of Health seeking to circumvent the wishes of Tennessee parents via some informed minor doctrine.   There are also other therapies for treatment of the virus other than the vaccine – some more effective than others.  Corporate media intentionally fails to report on the successes other countries are seeing in their fight against COVID with the use of other therapies such as ivermectin in India and Africa.  Natural immunity is far better than the vaccine immunity.  These alternatives are being ignored.

I hope a vast majority of you will join me and others in the Special Session and show Leadership like TX Governor Greg Abbott and stand up for the freedoms of Tennesseans we swore an oath to protect.

And to those members that fraudulently and intentionally ignore the distinction between personal health choices and decisions that end the life of another human being, I will pray for you and hope that one day you will realize your grave error in judgement and promotion of the killing of innocent human beings.  May God forgive you for your ignorance.  History will not be kind to you.  Hitler didn’t fair well did he?

From: A Conservative GOP Male, 

Bruce I. Griffey, Esq.

State Representative District 75

Former Tennessee state Rep. Jim Coley dies

Former state Rep. Jim Coley’s family is informing friends and colleagues the Bartlett Republican has passed away.

Coley didn’t seek re-election last year after battling various illnesses that involved doctors bringing him back to life two times, the Daily Memphian reported in 2019. The former public school teacher was first elected to the House in 2006, where he formed strong friendships across the political spectrum.

Coley voted for a bill seeking to opt the state out of the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling and supported various pro-life bills. But he voted against Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher bill and backed a 2018 bill to legalize medical marijuana.

Here is a resolution the House passed on the occasion of Coley’s retirement:

WHEREAS, it is most appropriate that the members of this General Assembly should honor those fellow legislators who have performed their duties with the utmost integrity and whose efforts during their time in office have been dedicated to providing thoughtful and exemplary service to their districts and to this great State; and

WHEREAS, Representative Jim Coley of Bartlett is one such distinguished public servant who has served both his constituency and this legislative body with honor and ability; and

WHEREAS, during his tenure, Representative Coley has been a highly influential figure in the political, social, and civic life of Shelby County, and he has served his constituents in numerous capacities, always working diligently at his elected duties and expending the necessary effort to understand the opposing sides of complex issues; and

WHEREAS, Jim Coley has distinguished himself as a public-spirited citizen of the highest order and as an exceptional asset to the good people of the 97th House District, whom he has served as a member of the 105th, 106th, 107th, 108th, 109th, 110th , and 111th General Assemblies; and

WHEREAS, throughout his service, Jim Coley has been prominent as a dedicated and well-informed legislator who always votes his conscience; and

WHEREAS, as an active and dynamic participant in the legislative process during his time in the General Assembly, Representative Coley has rendered sterling service as chair of the House Higher Education Subcommittee, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, and the General Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and member of the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee, the House Civil Justice Committee, the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, the House Criminal Justice Committee, the House Education Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the House Ethics Committee, the House State and Local Government Committee, the House Employee Affairs Subcommittee, the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee, the House Civil Practice Subcommittee, the House State Government Subcommittee, the House Special Initiatives Subcommittee, and the Joint Fiscal Review Committee; and

WHEREAS, Representative Jim Coley has also served as a member of the Legislative Arts Caucus and the Shelby County Delegation; and

WHEREAS, no stranger to awards and accolades, Representative Coley has been a recipient of both the Lincoln Award and the Grassroots Award from the Shelby County Republican Party; a two-time Rotarian nominee for Teacher of the Year, and the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Study Abroad Grant; and

WHEREAS, Representative Coley is a family man and community leader, and he has proven that citizens can make a difference by being involved in community service and leading by example; and

WHEREAS, a retired teacher, Jim Coley obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree at Memphis State University and earned his Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Memphis; and

WHEREAS, Representative Coley is a co-founder of Friends of the Orpheum and the Bartlett/Northeast Republican Club, a sponsor of Memphis Bridges, and a member of the Shelby County Education Association and the Exchange Club; and

WHEREAS, throughout his outstanding career as a public servant, Representative Jim Coley has worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents, bringing to his office an honorable bearing and the traditional values of hard work and common sense; and

WHEREAS, his many civic and professional accomplishments aside, Jim Coley is most appreciative of the love and support he shares with his two children, Erin and Evan, and his one grandchild, Owen; and

WHEREAS, Representative Jim Coley is wholly committed to the noble precepts of public service that have earned Tennessee recognition as the Volunteer State, and he should be specially recognized for his exemplary tenure in the General Assembly; now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE ONE HUNDRED ELEVENTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE, THE SENATE CONCURRING, that we hereby honor Representative Jim Coley for his meritorious service to Tennessee as a member of the House of Representatives, commend him for his countless contributions and many good works in service of the citizens of the 97th House District, and extend to him our best wishes for much continued success and happiness.

Boyd pulls out of Pody fundraiser

Randy Boyd speaks to reporters in Nashville on July 25, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd won’t be hosting that fundraiser for firebrand state Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) after all.

The Tennessee Journal noted the odd political alliance in Friday’s print edition, leading to follow-up reporting by the Knoxville News Sentinel and Knoxville Compass. Pody was heavily involved in the “Stop the Steal” movement following last year’s presidential election and has been a main sponsor of legislation seeking to exempt the state from the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision and to allow men to block their female sexual partners’ decisions to get an abortion.

“Senator Pody has been a long-time friend,” Boyd said in statement Friday. “We do not agree on all issues. But he called and asked for my help, and I said, yes, in my role as a private citizen and not in any official capacity.”

By Saturday, Boyd was singing a different tune, the Knox News reports. In an email to faculty members, Boyd said his offer to pay for the breakfast was mistakenly interpreted as agreeing to host the event.

“I have not solicited nor did I intend to solicit any contributions for him,” Boyd wrote. “I have not made a contribution to him either personally or through a PAC. I am also not attending the event and have decided not to pay for the breakfast.”

New TNJ edition alert: Dueling special sessions

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at Ford’s announcement it will build an electric vehicle and battery plant at the Memphis Regional Megasite on Sept. 28, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The new print edition of The Tenenssee Journal is out. Here’s what we delved into this week:

— Lee basks in Ford plaudits, lawmakers focus on masks and shots.
— Sports wagering panel to pick from two local, one out-of-state candidates for executive director.
— Lee details spending plan for other half of $3.7B in federal relief funds. Could the money help Nashville and Memphis land nonstop flights to Europe?
— Obituary: Former state Sen. Carl Moore, cofounder of Bristol Motor Speedway and foe of longtime Speaker John Wilder.

Also: Kelsey allegedly still under investigation, Lee wants BEP overhaul, and Tennessee’s blue plate special.

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

Lee calls for review of much-litigated school funding formula

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is calling for a review of the state’s complicated Basic Education Program school funding formula. Complicating any attempted overhaul are the years of legal battles fought about the fairness of the current system and a zero-sum approach many lawmakers bring toward making any changes affecting districts in their home areas.

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

Nashville, TN – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn invited Tennesseans to participate in the full review of the state’s education funding formula and explore possibilities for a more student-centered approach.  

“We will pursue a rigorous review of our state’s education funding to ensure we are properly investing in students and stewarding our resources well,” said Gov. Lee. “I invite every Tennessee parent to tell us about their current experiences as well as their hopes for the education, environment and experience in our K-12 public schools.” 

The state’s current school funding framework, also known as the Basic Education Program (BEP), has not been meaningfully updated in more than 30 years. 

“Tennessee’s students are the future of our state, and we’ve got to be sure our public schools are well-equipped to prepare each and every one of them for lifelong success,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Consistent with our focus to continuously improve the academic achievement of all Tennessee students, we are excited to open public conversations and discuss an investment strategy that aligns with those goals and values.” 

District and school leaders, elected officials, families, education stakeholders and members of the public will be engaged in the coming months through committees, survey opportunities, local meetings and more. Public engagement will focus on a student investment strategy that incorporates the following: 

— Prioritizes students over systems 

— Empowers parents to engage in their child’s education 

— Incentivizes student outcomes 

— Ensures all students, regardless of location or learning needs, are served at a high-level 

— Reflects Tennesseans’ values 

— Creates flexible funding that prepare students for postsecondary success 

“How we fund education is one of the most important conversations that we can have as a state,” said House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White. “Today’s announcement and the engagement opportunities to follow will better equip leaders at all levels as we ensure that school funding works to serve all students. I am excited for the opportunity to work alongside my colleagues in the General Assembly, the administration, local officials, educators, and parents on this important topic.” 

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Lee touts economic progress in rural areas

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has made economic development in rural areas one of his top priorities. At a rural summit at Pickwick Lake on Thursday, the governor touted his achievements so far that have included the number of distressed counties dropping from 19 in 2018 to nine today.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Tennessee has reduced the state’s number of distressed counties to an all-time low as the Lee Administration focuses on targeted interventions for workforce development and infrastructure.

“Early on, we set a goal that we would have less than 10 distressed counties by 2025,” said Gov. Lee. “By focusing on workforce development and infrastructure improvements, we are down to nine counties and will continue working to get remaining counties on the path to prosperity.”

Distressed counties rank among the 10 percent most economically distressed counties in the nation according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

In the past four years, Tennessee has cut the number of distressed counties in half from 19 in 2018 to nine today. Since Gov. Lee took office, McNairy, Jackson, Fentress, Morgan, Hardeman, and Wayne counties have moved off the distressed list.

In 2019, Gov. Lee’s first Executive Order directed all state executive departments to issue a statement of rural impact and provide recommendations for better serving rural Tennessee. Key workforce and infrastructure interventions include:

• Creating the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) program and the Future Workforce Initiative to expand access to vocational and technical education.
• Investing $79 million to eliminate the 11,400 TCAT waiting list and increasing apprenticeships by more than 30 percent across the state.
• Allocating $100 million for broadband expansion in the FY21 budget which improves educational outcomes in rural communities.

These targeted strategies have resulted in Tennessee securing 132 projects in rural counties with over 23,000 new job commitments and $12.6 billion in capital investment since 2019.

Today, the Governor’s West Tennessee Rural Opportunity Summit was held in Counce, Tenn. The East Tennessee Summit will be held in November in Newport, Tenn. The Governor’s Rural Summit focuses on at-risk and distressed counties by engaging city and county mayors, education and economic leaders, and cabinet members.

Report: American Conservative Union scrutinized as part of Kelsey campaign finance probe

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), right, confers with Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) on the House floor in Nashville on April 30, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Jounral)

A federal probe into campaign finance dealings by state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) is scrutinizing the dealings of Matt Schlapp and the American Conservative Union, according to a report by The Dispatch.

The conservative news site reports federal agents have interviewed current and former ACU employees about financial matters and about what one person called their “knowledge of the events leading up to the endorsement of Brian Kelsey.”

The Tennessee Journal learned in 2019 that state lawmakers had been called in for interviews with Department of Justice investigators to discuss alleged straw donations to Kelsey’s 2016 fourth-place campaign for the Republican nomination for an open 8th Congressional District race. Candidates are prohibited from using money raised for state races in federal campaigns.

As first reported in 2017 by The Tennessean (and later augmented by a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission), Kelsey’s state committee, Red State PAC, gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to fellow state lawmakers, who then turned around and gave donations to his congressional account. The former state Senate Judiciary chairman also had more than $100,000 from his state account transferred to the Standard Club PAC, which then gave money to the American Conservative Union — both directly and through another committee run by conservative businessman Andy Miller Jr. The national group then made independent expenditures on Kelsey’s behalf. Kelsey has denied any wrongdoing.

“It is often difficult to cut through confusing campaign rhetoric to figure out which candidate is the best conservative in a race, but we think this is actually an easy call,” Schlapp said at the time. “If voters in western Tennessee are looking for a proven leader with a conservative track record, the decision is easy. Brian Kelsey is the real deal.”

The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center filed complaints against Kelsey, the ACU, and others with the the Federal Elections Commission and to the Department of Justice in 2017. Unidentified sources told The Dispatch they had been interviewed in recent months about the Kelsey endorsement.

“They asked me about Matt Schlapp and [ACU Executive Director] Dan Schneider’s involvement within the organization, how they were involved with the disbursements of money and the decision of who to financially support,” one person told the publication. “One of the questions that really stuck with me was, ‘Was Matt Schlapp in those meetings when they decided who to endorse?’ I said yes. And they said, ‘So was he directly involved with the decisions to financially support the candidates?’ I said, I don’t know. And they said, ‘But would it be weird if Matt Schlapp didn’t know?’ I said yes.”

The ACU issued a statement downplaying the probe.

“We are aware of campaign finance allegations lingering from the 2016 election cycle that were reported in multiple press outlets after a Soros-funded group complained,” spokeswoman Regina Bratton said. “We continue to believe ACU’s activities, which took place more than five years ago, were legally compliant. We have been assured that ACU is not a target of any review by the government at this time.”

The Campaign Legal Center, which was founded by Republican former FEC member Trevor Potter, has received donations from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The group has filed complaints against candidates of both parties.

A spokesman told The Tennessee Journal in late 2019 that Schlapp had neither been interviewed by federal investigators nor testified before the grand jury.

The statement’s emphasis on events having taken place more than five years ago could be an effort to point out the statute of limitations may have passed for events that took place in the summer of 2016, according to The Dispatch. But federal defense attorney Ken White told the publication that’s not necessarily the case.

“It depends really on whether they have any ongoing conduct,” White said. “For the statute of limitations, one of the many things in the feds’ bag of tricks is using ongoing conspiracies. Let’s say the ongoing conspiracy is to engage in defrauding the federal government in making false FEC filings: The statute on that conspiracy claim doesn’t begin to run until the last overt act in support of the conspiracy. So commonly, you do the FEC filings, and maybe you send someone money that’s the proceeds of the crime. Or you tell someone, ‘don’t talk to the cops’ in order to conceal the crime.”

The Campaign Legal Center’s chief of staff, former FEC lawyer Adav Noti, told The Dispatch the group had not yet received its customary notification that the complaint had been adjudicated despite the fact that it has “been pending a really long time.”

“The allegations in our complaint—they’re really quite bad,” Noti told the publicaiton. “This is not run-of-the-mill shenanigans. It’s true that $100,000 isn’t an overwhelming amount of money, but it’s not nothing for a congressional race in Tennessee, either. And the two-part scheme to route it back to the campaign — if that is indeed what happened, it’s a very serious violation. It’s not a ticky-tack or a technical issue.”

Kelsey reissued his standard statement on the investigation to The Dispatch: “I welcome any investigation because all donations were made in compliance with the law and on the advice of counsel.”