Bill Lee

Tennessee launches $20M program for state employee buyouts

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

The state of Tennessee this week offered voluntary buyout offers to 625 employees working in 282 positions. The current budget includes $20 million for the program offering incentives for workers to give up their executive branch jobs.

The Human Resources Department says eligible positions were identified by job classification and that others may be targeted moving forward.

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration initially propped a $50 million pool to fund buyouts for state employees. Finance Commissioner Eley said the program
is roughly on par, when adjusted for inflation, with the $35 million in buyouts then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration offered to government workers during the Great Recession, which he said resulted in about $65 million in recurring savings. But the Lee program was later dialed back to $20 million.

The Tennessean reports certain departments are being targeted reductions: 74 at Environment and Conservation, 64 in Human Services, 51 in Finance and Administration, and 32 in Education.

Could a final decision on Forrest bust removal be near?

A sketch of Nathan Bedford Forrest used for a mural in the lobby of the John Sevier State Office Building in Nashville on Jan. 25,1941. (Image Credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives)

The yearslong fight over removing a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest could soon be coming to an end. The State Building Commission is scheduled to take up the matter on Thursday. If past voting patterns by the panel’s members hold, the monument could soon be headed for the Tennessee State Museum.

The Tennessee Lookout‘s Sam Stockard has taken a look at how it could play out:

The State Capitol Commission is set to request Thursday that the State Building Commission concur with its decision to relocate three busts, including one of Confederate Lt. Gen. Forrest, to the State Museum, moving them out of the State Capitol after years of upheaval.

To some degree, the decision pits Gov. Bill Lee against Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who are likely to be outnumbered if they vote against the relocation. But it also could clear up a year-old legal question on the matter. 

One State Building Commission member who hasn’t participated in the process, Comptroller Jason Mumpower, indicated he is likely to vote for relocation. Three other members of the Building Commission have voted already to move the busts as members of other commissions.

“Based on a motion authored by my predecessor, Comptroller Emeritus Justin P. Wilson, the State Capitol Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission have previously agreed that the historical significance of these busts can be better reflected through display at the State Museum,” Mumpower said in a statement.

Lee, who last year sought removal of the Forrest bust from the State Capitol, has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning, shortly before the State Building Commission is to meet. Its topic has not been revealed.

Read the rest here.

Gov. Lee responds to critics of free airfare program

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters in Gainsboro on July 8. 2021. (Image credit: State of Tennessee)

Gov. Bill Lee spoke to reporters for the first time late last week about his program to give away $250 flight vouchers to tourists who book two-night stays in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

Here is what he said:

Q: Why is this program necessary?

Lee: The tourism industry in this state is the second-largest generator of tax revenue for Tennessee. It’s an enormous industry in our state. And it’s suffered tremendously through the pandemic, arguably as much as any other industry in the state. An effective marketing campaign is the strategy there. We accomplished that. I’m committed to the tourism industry and will continue to be. That was a relatively small financial commitment, that particular campaign. But we have plans for commitment and investment in recruiting folks to Tennessee, especially to rural counties and to places that are not traditionally where they come. But need to invest in tourism. I’m glad we did it.

Q: Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has been critical, saying he thought more areas should be involved. And some people are critical over the ad. How do you respond?

Lee: Always a lot of critics. But that comes with politics. But what we’re committed on is creating opportunity and jobs in this state and a return on investment. And that was a marketing campaign that will have a great return on investment. It will help support a very important industry in this state. And it is one of a comprehensive approach we will take in tourism investment over the year.

Q: Some of the Republicans in the Senate particularly felt blindsided. Have you spoken to the Lt. Gov. or finance chairs to allay some of those concerns?

Lee: I’ve spoken to the lieutenant governor a couple times, but not on that issue. The lieutenant governor and I have a very good relationship and very strong working relationship. We don’t agree on everything, but we work together for a lot. I actually haven’t talked to him about that issue. As I said, it’s one of many investments in tourism development that we will make. It’s a return on investment.

Q: So you intend to continue with the Tennessee On Me campaign?

Lee: Yeah. It’s already rolled out. It’s out there. We’re fortunate that we had a global music guy in Brad Paisley willing to push that out through his channel. It was a message sent out to millions of people across America that Tennessee is a place to think about coming to.

Lee to visit Tennessee National Guard troops on Texas-Mexico border

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters in Memphis on Nov. 7, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is headed to Texas on Saturday to visit with Tennessee National Guard members deployed along the border with Mexico.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced he will travel to the U.S. Southern border this weekend to meet with Tennessee National Guard troops and evaluate needs in securing the border.

“The men and women of the Tennessee National Guard are playing a significant role in quelling the most severe border crisis we’ve seen in 20 years,” said Gov. Lee. “I want to personally commend the more than 300 Tennesseans who are serving our country and on the front lines of this crisis.”

Currently, there are 300 Tennessee National Guard members stationed at multiple sites throughout the border region of Texas to provide support to Customs and Border Protection. These personnel are members of three units:

— 269th Military Police Company – Routinely augments law enforcement by conducting training and providing a presence along the border 

— 913th Engineer Company – Capabilities lend to myriad road building efforts and border wall projects

— 2-151 Aviation Battalion – Provides an aerial platform to assist Customs and Border Protection with a number of their logistical and operational priorities

Gov. Lee will be accompanied by Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Adjutant General of the Tennessee National Guard. Upon their return, Gov. Lee and Holmes will provide more details about the visit

Lee announces environmental stewardship awards

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

Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers have announced the winners of the 2021 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards. See the full release below.

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) Commissioner David Salyers today announced the winners of the 2021 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards.

The winners will be formally recognized for their achievements and positive impact on the state’s natural resources and communities in an awards ceremony Oct. 4 in Franklin.

“Whether it’s a private business, a government body, or a college or university, we want to recognize those who are showing a commitment to protecting the environment in Tennessee,” Lee said. “Our honorees this year have proved worthy of such recognition.”

“We have an outstanding group of award recipients,” Salyers said. “We want these awards not only to honor the winners but to encourage others to follow their lead.”

The Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards program recognizes exceptional voluntary actions that improve or protect the environment and natural resources with projects or initiatives not required by law or regulation.

In its 35th year, the awards program covers the following categories: agriculture and forestry; building green; clean air; energy and renewable resources; environmental education and outreach; materials management; natural resource conservation; sustainable performance; and water quality conservation. TDEC did not name a winner this year in the clean air category.

The 2021 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award recipients are:

EntityCountyCategory
The City of KingsportSullivanNatural Resources
Clayton SavannahHardinMaterials Management
Coffee County Soil Conservation DistrictCoffeeAgriculture and Forestry
Cumberland River CompactDavidsonWater Quality
Nokian Tyres DaytonRheaSustainable Performance
Tennessee Tech UniversityPutnamBuilding Green
Trevecca Nazarene UniversityDavidsonEnvironmental Education and Outreach
Vanderbilt University*Bedford, Davidson, FranklinEnergy Renewable Resources
Not Awarded Clean Air

*The Vanderbilt University award is listed with three counties because the project took place in those counties.

The Knoxville Utilities Board, Metro Nashville Department of General Services, and Tennsco in Dickson are recognized with Pursuit of Excellence Awards, which recognize past award winners who continue to demonstrate a high regard for environmental stewardship.

The Robert Sparks Walker Lifetime Achievement Award will be announced at the awards ceremony.

A panel of 11 professionals representing agriculture, conservation, forestry, environment, and academic professions judged more than 75 nominations and selected this year’s award recipients based on criteria including on-the-ground environmental achievement, innovation, transferability, partnerships, and public education. Details about each award winner can be found in the accompanying attachment.

U.S. Capitol incursion, bust removal among top stories of first half of 2021

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

Here are the 10 most-viewed posts on the TNJ: On the Hill blog through the first half of 2021.

10. New PAC takes aim at Gov. Bill Lee’s re-election bid. April 29, 2021.

9. Knoxville ballpark, Tebow charity among entities getting grants in Lee budget. April 14, 2021.

8. Hagerty names Jim Henry as state director. Jan. 13, 2021.

7. Feds rescind effort to lock in Medicaid changes made by Trump administration. Feb. 23, 2021.

6. FBI visit to Tennessee Capitol sparks jitters. March 10, 2021.

Federal agents meet with legislative staffers outside the office of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

5. Here are the projected amounts headed to TN cities and counties under the COVID relief program. March 30, 2021.

4. Speaker Sexton strips Griffey of committee assignments. March 25, 2021.

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

3. GOP lawmaker levels impeachment threat over bust removal. March 15, 2021.

2. Tennessee congressional delegation recoils at Capitol incursion. Jan. 6, 2021.

1. Former commissioner reports Rep. Weaver to DC police. Jan. 14, 2021.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) attends a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In search of Phoenix Solutions

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions, a PostNet store in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Journal has ventured deep into New Mexico in search of the elusive political mail vendor believed to be at the center of a federal investigation into three sitting state lawmakers.

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions is a mailbox store in a strip mall in Santa Fe, located next to a shuttered vape shop. Other businesses in the complex include a Harbor Freight tool store, a Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurant, and a drive-thru coffee shop called Agapao. Felipe’s Tacos is located across the street. There was no sign of the vendor’s purported proprietor, Matthew Phoenix, whom nobody has been able to reach since last year.

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions, a PostNet store in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The FBI in January raided the offices of Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, Robin Smith of Hixson, and Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, along with the home of Cade Cothren, the former chief of staff to Casada when he was House speaker. Investigators have been mum about the reasons for the raid, but speculation has centered on the sudden prominence of Phoenix Solutions starting in early 2020.

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions, a PostNet store in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Holt Whitt, the interim chief of staff for Casada and current speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has obtained a letter from federal prosecutors that he is considered a witness in the case. Suspended after he was questioned in the January raids, Whitt has now been hired as Human Resources adviser in Gov. Bill Lee’s adminstration.

Is Matthew Phoenix out here somewhere? Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Poll finds GOP voters happy with GOP in Tenn.

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

A new poll finds Republican primary voters are largely pleased with GOP politicians and policies in Tennessee.

The survey was conducted by ARW Strategies, which is run by Andrew Weissert, who previously ran We Ask America, a pollster that received a B-minus rating from FiveThirtyEight.com.

Here’s the release:

Tennessee Statewide Survey of Likely Republican Primary Voters

ARW Strategies, a national polling firm, today released a statewide public opinion poll of likely Republican primary voters in Tennessee. The poll took the pulse on Republican voters’ opinions about party leaders, Governor Lee’s job performance, and recent legislation signed into law by the governor.

While the Republican Party in Tennessee remains dominated by former President Donald Trump, Republicans are also nearly as enthusiastic about their governor, Bill Lee. From his handling of the pandemic to recent legislation signed into law, Lee’s support among his base looks impenetrable heading into his re-election next year.

ARW Strategies was founded by Andrew Weissert, former Chief Pollster for We Ask America. His work has been featured and covered by national publications like The New Yorker, Forbes, Politico, The Hill, National Review, Newsweek, and numerous local news organizations. This poll was not commissioned or paid for by any candidate or committee. ARW Strategies conducted this poll from its own resources to discover the current state of opinion among GOP Primary Voters in Tennessee

Key Takeaways
Donald Trump remains the face of the Republican Party. A massive 90% of likely Republican primary voters have a favorable opinion of the former president, with nearly three-quarters (72%) having a very favorable opinion of him. Just 10% say they view Trump unfavorably. Additionally, of those surveyed, 75% consider themselves to be Trump/America First Republicans, while just a quarter consider themselves to be some other form of Republican – traditional, social conservative, Tea Party, Libertarian.

Republican voters overwhelmingly like Governor Bill Lee and approve of the job he’s doing. 85% of Republican primary voters have a favorable opinion of Lee, while 86% approve of the job he’s done as governor. Just 14% disapprove of his job performance and only 11% view him unfavorably. 88% of self-identifying Trump/America First Republicans approve of Lee’s job performance, with just 9% disapproving.

Governor Lee’s strong image and job performance can be directly traced to his record and recent legislation. Republicans are highly supportive of Governor Lee’s recent actions, with 83% approving of his handling of the pandemic. 86% are more likely to vote for his re-election for the recent transgender athlete bill he signed into law. 82% are more likely to vote for his re-election for the law he signed allowing Tennesseans to carry firearms without a permit, and 81% support his school choice scholarship program.

Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty also enjoy exceptional images with Republican voters. For Senator Blackburn, 79% of Republicans view her favorably, while 17% have an unfavorable opinion of her. 78% of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Senator Hagerty, with just 12% having an unfavorable one. Among those who call themselves Trump/America First Republicans, Senators Blackburn and Hagerty are even more popular where their images are 84% Fav/12% Unfav and 82% Fav/9% Unfav respectively.

Republicans want heavy emphasis on crime, illegal immigration and election integrity. The number one issue that Republican primary voters want the party to focus on heading into 2022, at 28%, is stopping crime and supporting law enforcement. In second, chosen by 23% of voters, is fighting illegal immigration and opposing sanctuary cities. In third, with 19%, is ensuring election integrity and preventing voter fraud.

Methodology
This poll was conducted between June 26th and 27th, 2021. In all, 600 interviews were achieved among likely 2022 Republican Primary voters in Tennessee. 324 of these responses came from cell phones. The Margin of Error for this survey is +/- 4% at a Confidence Interval of 95%.

Get your 225th Tennessee birthday posters here

Gov. Bill Lee has unveiled new posters commemorating Tenenssee’s 225 years of statehood.

They are available by request from the state at https://www.tennessee225.com/posters

See details below.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee unveiled three limited-edition posters highlighting each Tennessee grand division to celebrate 225 years of statehood. Tennesseans are invited to share an untold story and request a poster at www.Tennessee225.com.

“From the Mississippi River to the Great Smoky Mountains, our grand divisions reflect their own unique character and represent the best of Tennessee,” said Gov. Lee. “I invite Tennesseans to submit untold stories that celebrate every corner of our state as we commemorate 225 years of statehood.”

The limited-edition posters, designed by famed artist Justin Helton of Knoxville, highlight the culture and beauty of each Tennessee grand division.

Lee joins Iowa counterpart in calling for congressional hearing on unaccompanied minors

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

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is joining Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in calling on a congressional hearing on unaccompanied minors being flown to their states by the federal government.

Here’s the release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds joined with U. S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in calling for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding the crisis at the southern border and the ensuing flow of unaccompanied minors to states.

“We are writing to support your continued calls for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold an oversight hearing regarding the current border crisis,” the governors wrote in their letter to Senator Grassley. “We believe this hearing should also address the Biden Administration’s failure to provide notice and transparency in their movement of unaccompanied migrant children into states.”

Both Iowa and Tennessee have faced a series of disturbing incidents involving the transport of unaccompanied children into respective states, under the cover of darkness, with no advance notification, consent or plan from federal partners.

“These experiences sow seeds of mistrust in our communities, and work to intentionally subvert the will of the people for a secure border and a clear, lawful immigration process,” the governors wrote in their letter to Senator Grassley. “Additionally, the lack of transparency places an undue burden on our law enforcement partners to determine whether these types of flights constitute a criminal act of human trafficking or the federally-sponsored transport of vulnerable children.”

Both Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn and Senator Bill Hagerty support calls for a hearing.

“The Biden Administration is secretly transporting migrants to communities throughout the United States, including in Tennessee, without the knowledge of or permission of the communities involved,” said Senator Blackburn. “President Biden’s failed immigration policies have turned every town into a border town. The Senate Judiciary Committee should immediately hold an oversight hearing on the crisis at our southern border. I applaud Governor Lee for his efforts to protect our state and the people who are being trafficked by the Mexican cartels.”

“Tennessee and states all across the country are seeing the real, tangible results of President Biden’s total failure to solve the crisis at the border—a crisis of his own making—with the systematic resettling of migrants in our communities,” said Senator Hagerty. “Mayors, sheriffs and governors are on the front lines of combatting increased human trafficking and drug smuggling, as well as addressing strains on public resources. I applaud Governors Lee and Reynolds for continuing to draw attention to these matters, asking questions and urging Congress to perform its proper oversight function.”