Partisan statewide chancery court idea dropped in House, replaced by new appeals court

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

A Senate proposal to create a statewide chancery court made up of three judges elected in statewide partisan elections has been dropped in the House. Instead, the lower chamber wants to create a new “court of special appeals,” made up of three new judges who would stand for yes-no retention elections.

The new panel could take up case in which the attorney general intervenes on behalf of the state, and it would be the court of original jurisdiction for any challenges of redistricting plans.

Former lawmakers or governors would not be eligible to serve on the new intermediate court of appeals. Members would be appointed by the governor, though nominees would have to be confirmed by a joint convention of the General Assembly.

Senate Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville) has been a main proponent of holding popular elections for a statewide chancery court. The conflicting versions of the court proposals could lead to the need for a conference committee to see if the two chambers can work out their differences.

Here’s the full House amendment sponsored by Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville):

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 16, is amended by adding the following as a new chapter:

16-7-101.

There is created and established an appellate court to be designated and styled the court of special appeals of Tennessee.

16-7-102.

(a) The court of special appeals is composed of three (3) judges, one (1) from each grand division of the state.

(b)

(1) Immediately preceding appointment, each Judge must be at least thirty (30) years of age, must have been a resident of the state for at least five (5) consecutive years, and must have been a resident of the grand division from which the judge is appointed for at least one (1) year. For purposes of this section, resident has the same meaning as defined in § 2-1-104. The judges must be duly licensed to practice law in this state.

(2) In order to ensure fairness, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, and to avoid political bias, a former member of the general assembly or a former governor shall not serve as a judge of the court of special appeals.

(c) The governor shall appoint three (3) persons to serve as judges of the court of special appeals and vacancies on the court of special appeals must be filled by the governor. Each judge of the court of special appeals will be elected by the qualified voters of the state in a statewide retention election conducted in accordance with title 17, chapter 4, part 1. A judge of the court of special appeals must qualify as a candidate and be elected by the qualified voters of the state.

The initial terms of the judges begin on October 1, 2021. The oath of office for each judge of the court of special appeals must be filed and entered on the minutes of the court in the grand division from which the judge resides. The oath must likewise be filed and entered on the records in the office of the secretary of state at Nashville.

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Big legislative fight remains over pharmacy benefits bill

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

As part of last week’s budget bill, House and Senate leaders set aside $3.8 million in recurring funding to pay for changes to state law regarding pharmacy benefits and pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs. But securing funding is only part of the challenge for sponsors. Now they have to get their colleagues to actually vote to pass the bill.

The Tennessee Business Roundtable is one of the interested parties hoping to persuade lawmakers not to enact the measure. Patrick Sheehy, the group’s president, in a letter urges senators to vote against the bill sponsored by Sen. Shane Reeves (R-Shelbyville) because it constitutes “unnecessary government regulations that could increase the already-rising costs of employer-provided health care plans.”

UPDATE: The House Finance Committee advanced the bill to a full floor vote after House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) attended committee meetings to speak forcefully on the bill’s behalf.

Here’s the full letter from the Tennessee Business Roundtable:

Dear Senators:

Over the last several weeks, you likely have heard and read much from pharmacy, pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) and insurer interests, and from bill sponsors, about SB1617, legislation which proposes numerous new regulations on PBMs operating in Tennessee. We write to provide a perspective from many of the Tennessee employers who play a pivotal role as the ultimate payors in our state’s health care system on this legislation, and to outline why our organization does not support this bill in its current form.

We share some of the concerns of the bill sponsors and proponents because in the American health care system, employers, directly or indirectly, pay 100% of the costs of health care — by paying for the health benefits they provide to employees, paying corporate taxes which fund government-provided care, and paying compensation to employees, who in turn use those earnings to pay part of their health care expenses, as well as taxes of their own. This matters a great deal because over 50% of Tennesseans — about 3.5 million people — receive their health coverage through employer-sponsored health benefit plans.

At the same time, the ultimate payors — employers — lack effective control over many of that system’s structures and cost drivers. As Tennessee business operators have undoubtedly told you, the costs of employer-sponsored coverage continue to rise at unmanageable and unsustainable rates, and a primary driver of these cost increases is spending on prescription drugs. Employers and their plan administrators in Tennessee continue to struggle to understand, administer, and effectively manage these unsustainable cost increases; despite these difficulties, thousands of our state’s employers continue to offer health benefits because they truly value their employees.

At its core, SB1617 is a government mandate which would impose major restrictions on the few critical tools Tennessee employers do have to manage their employer-sponsored health plan designs and costs.

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Lawmakers close to approving $3K bump in office allowance for selves, higher contribution limits

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

With just days remaining in the legislative session, state lawmakers are getting close to giving final approval to a bill providing each of them a $3,000 annual bump in their home office allowance.

The bill would also hike legislators’ per diem amounts to reflect the average cost of hotels in Nashville’s busy — and pricey — downtown business district rather than the rate allowed for federal workers ($234 per night this year).

And best of all for lawmakers, they get the money regardless of how much (or little) they actually spend on their home offices or lodging in Nashville. No need to submit receipts. And the home office allowance would be indexed to the consumer price index — the urban version, even though most lawmakers live in rural areas — meaning it will have automatic increases in the future.

House members are currently limited to mileage reimbursement for one round-trip between their home and the Capitol per week. The bill would allow them to put in for as many trips as they choose to take.

The changes are estimated to cost an additional $438,000 per year. The Senate has already approved the changes, and the House is expected to vote on whether to concur early this week.

Meanwhile, a separate bill would double the contribution limits for senate candidates who have long complained that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as those running for the House because their terms are twice as long and they represent three times as many people. Under the latest version of the bill headed for a final vote in the Senate, the House would also get a boost in the amount candidates for the lower chamber could receive from each PAC from from $8,300 to $12,700, bringing them into line with those running for Senate or governor.

New PAC takes aim at Gov. Bill Lee’s re-election bid

(Image credit: Beat Bill Lee PAC)

A new political action committee called Beat Bill Lee takes aim at the Republican’s re-election efforts. The PAC is run by Emily Cupples, the former communications director of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Lee is running for a second term next year. While limited polling has shown his popularity has slipped with Democrats, he remains popular with Republicans. No Democratic candidate has won a statewide race in Tennessee since 2006.

Here’s the release from the new PAC:

GROUP OF CONCERNED TENNESSEANS LAUNCH BEAT BILL LEE PAC
April 29th, 2021 (Tennessee) – Today, Tennesseans from across the state filed a political action committee against Governor Bill Lee’s bid for re-election in 2022. Funded by small dollar donations, the PAC will use funds raised to organize hard working families across Tennessee and America to mobilize against the power grab from Bill Lee and other fringe conservatives. This political action committee is composed of Tennesseans from all parts of the state and members include working families, single young folks, white collar professionals, politicians, and Tennesseans from all backgrounds united around the mission to beat Bill Lee in 2022. Beat Bill Lee will utilize a mixture of traditional and unconventional campaign tactics to lead a campaign against the current sitting governor.

“Since Bill Lee took office 7 rural hospitals closed, 4 during the COVID19 pandemic, unemployment reached an all time high, gun violence increased by 50%, and our student proficiency dropped. Spending $7 million taxpayer dollars on lawsuits, it’s evident Lee is serving dark interest groups and not Tennessee families. We cannot wait until 3 months out from election day, when the primary is over, to start mobilizing against Lee. We must stop Bill Lee and the dark money interest groups he represents from their continued destruction of Tennessee. The work to Beat Bill Lee begins today.” – Emily Cupples, Beat Bill Lee PAC Director.

Ogles returns to House after extended absence

Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin), second from right, attends a floor session April 26, 2021. (Image credit: Screengrab from legislative feed)

State Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin) returned to the House this week after missing several weeks with what he called an “extended battle” with COVID-19 and pneumonia.

“I am thankful for those who have called, sent texts, and helped out during my absence,” Ogles said in a message posted on his Facebook page. “I am looking forward to being back in the office, serving District 61 and finishing out this legislative session strong.”

Legislative attendance records show Ogles was excused from House floor sessions on Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, and then missed another session March 15. He was then away for every floor session between March 25 and his reappearance on Monday.

Several other lawmakers have missed time this year due to COVID-19.

Senate deals setback to effort to block local governments from suing state

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate on Monday rejected a proposal by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to ban local governments from filing lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of laws passed by the General Assembly.

Kelsey said his bill would only apply to lawsuits filed after the bill went into effect. But he cited recent legal challenges over school vouchers, voter ID, and funding for large school districts as examples of litigation he is seeking to outlaw.

Kelsey’s bill went off the rails when Republicans like Sens. Ken Yager of Kingston and Page Walley of Bolivar began questioning why local governments should be prevented from challenging the constitutionality of measures that may bring them fiscal harm.

Walley noted that when he was a state House member in the 1990s, 77 small school districts successfully sued the state for more equal education funding. Kelsey argued that instead of the lawsuit filed by the late Lewis Donelson, the small school districts should have pursued their aims by “talking to the legislature.”

Walley agreed it would have been better for the General Assembly to act on its own accord, but recalled “an intransigence” on the part of lawmakers that prevented a solution at the time.

The vote on Kelsey’s amendment failed 14-14, with three Republicans and two Democrats missing the vote. Kelsey asked to move his bill to Wednesday, at which point he is expected to introduce another amendment seeking similar restrictions.

Kelsey’s amendment failed on a 14-14 vote on April 26, 2021.

DesJarlais, Blackburn get highest TN rankings from American Conservative Union

Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn speaks at a rally in Franklin on Oct. 17, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Per a press release from the American Conservative Union:

Alexandria, VA – The American Conservative Union Foundation (ACUF), host of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), has just released the 50th Edition of its annual Ratings of Congress.  

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the scorecard, ACUF has released a comprehensive new platform to help better hold lawmakers accountable to conservative principles. The system breaks down the voting records of over 15,000 historical and active lawmakers and identifies each lawmaker’s specific policy strength and weakness. The system also provides head-to-head comparisons of elected officials through its 1.4 million vote database. Lawmaker ratings will be used to determine speaking invitations to CPAC and other ACU regional events.

In the 2020 session, four members of the Tennessee congressional delegation received awards for earning scores of 80% or higher from ACUF:

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (96%)

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (96%)

Rep. John Rose (89%

Rep. Mark Green (85%)

Tennessee’s other Republican members received the following scores: Rep. Tim Burchett (79%), Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (79%), Rep. David Kustoff (78%), Rep. Phil Roe (74%), and Fmr. Sen. Lamar Alexander (74%).

Democratic lawmakers Rep. Jim Cooper (4%) and Rep. Steve Cohen (0%) qualified for ACUF’s “Coalition of the Radical Left” for earning scores of 10% or lower.

This year CPAC and ACUF will present awards to 122 of the 535 members of Congress. The awards are used to help voters and activists identify which lawmakers are best upholding conservative principles and who to rally behind.

To produce this year’s scorecard, the ACUF’s Center for Legislative Accountability analyzed every vote taken last session and selected a wide-array of issues relating to fiscal, tax, regulatory, education, environment, Second Amendment rights, election security, life, and government integrity. All lawmakers in America at the federal and state levels are scored on a 100-point scale.

Remembering Thelma Harper

Sen. Thelma Harper, in one of her trademark hats, poses for a selfie with then-Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow lawmakers before the State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 (Photo credit: State of Tennessee)

Former state Sen. Thelma Harper, who died Thursday at age 80, was the first African-American woman to serve in the state Senate. The outspoken Nashville Democrat delivered some memorable lines over her time in politics. Here are some of Harper’s memorable quotes, culled from the archives of The Tennessee Journal:

  • “All my stuff is original.” — Harper after a flustered Sen. Raymond Finney (R-Maryville) twice addressed her as “sir” during a committee hearing in 2005.
  • “If someone wants to tell me something, let him stand up and tell me so I can punch his lights out.” — Harper, then a Nashville Metro Council member, to the Nashville Banner in 1989 about a letter she received in support of keeping a landfill in her district open.
  • “If Senator Fowler could be impregnated, he wouldn’t be trying to take these rights away.” Harper arguing against a 2004 anti-abortion resolution by Sen. David Fowler (R-Signal Mountain).
  • “I offered to sew up his pants for him. Shows you what I know. ” — Harper after she joined country singer Marty Stuart — whose trademark is jeans with tattered knees — to present a bluegrass music award at a Nashville awards show in 1995. Harper admitted she had no idea who Stuart was before the show.
  • “Sometimes men dress up to look like women. My question is, are you going to raise up and see?” — Harper speaking on 1996 bill by Sen. Jim Holcomb (R-Bluff City) that would require Tennessee not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
  • “It’s not our fault that Shelby County has so many people that don’t know how to behave.”Harper responding to a comment by Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) during a meeting of the Select Oversight Committee on Correction in 1993. Committee members were discussing empty jail cells in Davidson County.
  • “What you’re telling them is they’ve got to have a spittoon…. They shouldn’t be spitting out. I just think it’s not fair.” Harper to Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), on his 2015 bill to let college students under the drinking age but at least 18 taste beer in college brewing classes provided they don’t swallow it.
  • “I was eating before I got here — that’s obvious — and I’ll be eating after I leave.” — Harper responding to comments by Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) criticizing a bill that placed weak restrictions on lobbyists’ wining and dining of legislators.
  • “Senate Bill 3929 comes from the governor, and it does nothing to help anybody.” Harper, the sponsor of the bill, asking Senate Commerce to take the measure off notice in 2006. The legislation pertained to blasting, a topic on which she’d butted heads with Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.
  • “Now I don’t know if the sponsor realizes that slavery is dead…. We have worked as diligently as we can as a committee … but we’re not going to be whipped with straps and made to do anything.”Harper addressing the Senate in 2003 on complaints by Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) complaints that her committee has held up a lottery implementation bill.
  • “Your church people have been calling me all week. These people said they would never have voted for you.” Harper to Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) in 2006 after saying she had been “disrespected” because Jack Daniel’s had chosen Tracy, whose district included its distillery, to sponsor a bill to place a $10 million museum and store in downtown Nashville, which was in her district. The bill failed on a 4-4 committee vote, with Harper voting against.
  • “There are some men on this commission – some real Tarzans.” Harper speaking in 1995 of the predominantly female Women’s Suffrage Commission.
  • “At some point, our children are just going to realize we’re winers. We’re drunks, even at the grocery store.” Harper on a 2016 bill to allow grocery stores to allow on-premise wine consumption.
  • “What we’ve done here tonight is not going to help our students because we have decided that everybody … has to have a brain like legislators.” — Harper complaining to the Senate in 2003 that lottery scholarship standards were too high.
  • “I think what you just heard is that any kook who can get their name on the ballot and run for judge and get a majority vote — they will be deciding the issues of life.” — Harper on 2009 legislation to reestablish contested elections for the Supreme Court.
  • “Every once in a while we ought to give him what he wants. He doesn’t ask for a lot.” Harper in proposing an amendment in 2014 to give Gov. Bill Haslam more appointments to the Tennessee Textbook Commission than the three provided in a bill by Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville). The Government Operations Committee rejected her amendment.
  • “Feeding me doesn’t influence me. I was fat when I came, and if I’m still healthy I’ll be fat when I leave.”Harper on legislation dealing with lobbyist spending in 2005.
  • “I hope you have a woman on it because when I was coming up, women couldn’t talk about whiskey.” — Harper to Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) after the Senate State and Local Government Committee decided to form a study committee for a liquor bill in 2014.
  • “Hell, we didn’t have choice, not at all, and we shouldn’t have choice now. We should take care of our students in public schools.” Harper on a 2015 school voucher bill by Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga).
  • “He championed and understood that we could be fiscally responsible and still care about the welfare of others.” Harper on the death of Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) in 2017.

White House declares major disaster in TN counties affected by February storms

The White House has declared a major disaster in 13 Tennessee counties rocked by a winter storm in February.

Here’s the release:

Today, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. declared that a major disaster exists in the State of Tennessee and ordered Federal assistance to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe winter storms from February 11 to February 19, 2021.

Federal funding is available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the severe winter storms in the counties of Bedford, Cannon, Coffee, DeKalb, Fentress, Jackson, Moore, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Scott, Shelby, and Smith.

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

Robert J. Fenton, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the 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.

Additional designations may be made at a later date if requested by the state and warranted by the results of further damage assessments. 

Lee’s addition of lawmakers to stimulus group seen as effort to forestall support for special session

Gov. Bill Lee speaks in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday added two lawmakers, House Finance Chair Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain) and Senate Pro Tem Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), to his Financial Stimulus Accountability Group. The move is being perceived in some circles as an effort to let the air out of a movement to have the General Assembly come back into special session later in the year to take a direct hand in appropriating billions of dollars flowing to the state in the former of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Here is the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the addition of Senator Ferrell Haile and Representative Patsy Hazlewood to the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group (FSAG). The bipartisan group will continue its work to support Tennessee’s economy and ensure proper fiscal management of federal relief funds, meeting publicly and reporting regularly to bring transparency to the process.

“As Tennessee’s strong economic recovery continues, we must ensure federal dollars coming to our state are used wisely and effectively,” said Gov. Bill Lee. “I thank Sen. Haile, Rep. Hazlewood and all members of this group for their valuable input as we steward these resources and serve Tennesseans.”

“I appreciate the opportunity to serve on this panel which is charged with ensuring this money is used properly to best benefit our citizens,” said Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile. “We have a huge responsibility to see that these funds are managed in the most effective manner and Governor Lee is taking every step possible to ensure the most efficient use. I look forward to working with him and the other members of the group to make good decisions about how these funds are spent.”

“One of the biggest challenges facing our state currently is using federal stimulus dollars in a fiscally responsible manner to ensure all Tennessean’s benefit,” said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood. “I appreciate Governor Lee appointing me to Financial Stimulus Accountability Group, and together our work will make sure we can continue to effectively address the immediate and emerging needs of our state.”

Since its founding in April 2020, the FSAG has overseen nearly 90% of all federal dollars distributed to Tennessee through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, authorized in the CARES Act. In 2020, the group proactively invested these dollars into the state’s unemployment trust fund, which successfully protected jobs and prevented tax hikes. The FSAG also supported the allocation of over $300 million in grants to small businesses across Tennessee.

The FSAG is currently preparing for implementation of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, an additional tranche of relief authorized by Congress in March 2021.

Effective April 2021, members of the group include:
• Governor Bill Lee
• Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally
• House Speaker Cameron Sexton
• Senator Bo Watson
• Senator Raumesh Akbari
• Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile
• Representative Patsy Hazlewood
• Representative Pat Marsh
• Representative Harold Love Jr.
• Jason Mumpower, Comptroller of the Treasury
• Commissioner Butch Eley, Finance & Administration