Cameron Sexton

McNally, Sexton name task force to study crime, punishment

Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton await Gov. Bill Lee’s arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After a spate of high profile slayings in Memphis, Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and his House counterpart, Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), are assembling a special committee to review the adequacy of criminal sentencing in Tennessee.

Here’s the letter from the speakers to Senate Clerk Russell Humphrey and House Clerk Tammy Letzler:

Dear Ms. Clerk and Mr. Clerk:

As Speaker of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives for the 112th General Assembly, we hereby create the Joint Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Adequacy of the Supervision, Investigation, and Release of Criminal Defendants. The Committee is authorized and directed to undertake a review of all information relevant to the supervision, investigation, and release of individuals who commit crimes in this state. The Committee is directed to recommend whether there is a need for legislative action to provide additional safeguards to protect the public from those who repeatedly violate criminal laws.

The Committee may consult with the District Attorneys General Conference to ensure that any pending criminal prosecutions will not be jeopardized by any actions taken by the Committee. The Committee may also consult with groups that represent the interests of victims of crime.

To the extent that the Committee is authorized to review any records that are confidential under existing law, the Committee is directed to take appropriate action to maintain the confidentiality of such records.

The Office of Legal Services shall provide legal services to the Committee, and the Attorney General and Reporter, the Department of Correction, and the District Attorneys General Conference shall assist the Committee and the Office of Legal Services upon request.

Senate members appointed to the Committee are: Senator Ed Jackson (co-chair), Senator Richard Briggs, Senator Todd Gardenhire, Senator Bill Powers, and Senator Jeff Yarbro.

House members appointed to the Committee are: Representative Bud Hulsey (co-chair), Representative Clay Doggett, Representative Andrew Farmer, Representative William Lamberth, Representative Antonio Parkinson, and Representative Lowell Russell.

Sincerely,

/signed/

Lt. Governor Randy McNally

Speaker Cameron Sexton

Casada indictment drops on 3rd anniversary of successor Sexton’s election as House speaker

Rep. Cameron Sexton presides over his first session as House speaker on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Three years to the day that Rep. Cameron Sexton took over as speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, federal prosecutors indicted his predecessor, Glen Casada, on bribery and kickback charges.

Here’s what Sexton had to say about Tuesday’s charges against Casada and his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren:

In Tennessee, we will not tolerate public corruption, defrauding our state, or bribery at any level. I commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its hard work, diligence, and dedication that resulted in this morning’s arrests.

As I have previously stated on several occasions, shortly after becoming speaker in 2019, I began assisting the federal authorities during and throughout their investigation — including leading up to today’s indictments, and I will continue to do so if a trial is needed.

Together, our legislative body has stood strong over the past two years to take significant actions during this investigation by passing laws to strengthen campaign finance regulations and new ethics laws for elected officials and staff.

Today is a good day for Tennesseans because we did not turn a blind eye on these criminal activities.

And here is House Democratic leader Karen Camper’s reaction:

When something like this happens, it reflects poorly on the entire Legislature. We are elected to serve the public and when that trust is broken, it’s very disheartening and erodes the confidence that our constituents have in government. This does however, highlight how badly campaign finance reform continues to be needed and that bi-partisan legislation already passed needs to go much farther.

This from House Republican leader William Lamberth and House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison:

The illegal behavior outlined in today’s indictments is extremely serious, and disappointing to our entire caucus. We appreciate Speaker Sexton’s leadership on this situation, as well as the efforts of our House leadership team in bringing these crimes to light. We also stand with federal law enforcement and are grateful for their efforts to hold those responsible for these crimes accountable. Now, we can all move forward and continue focusing on meeting the needs of citizens across Tennessee.

And here is Gov. Bill Lee’s spokeswoman Casey Sellers:

We trust the legal process and continue to hold Tennessee’s public servants to high standards of accountability. The Governor commends Speaker Sexton for running the House with integrity and setting the expectation that elected leaders must serve Tennesseans in good faith.

New TNJ edition alert: The Cameron Sexton interview

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), left, and Rep. Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville) await the begin of the State of the State address on Jan 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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

— TNJ Interview: House Speaker Cameron Sexton reflects on recovering from ‘trauma’ of scandals in House, building trust with Senate, and his expectations about future relations with Gov. Bill Lee.

— No cakewalk for Joe Carr in Rutherford County?

— Federal judge shoots down Starbuck’s effort to be restored to GOP ballot in 5th District.

— AG’s office confirms 5th District ballots could be changed until next month, raising questions about why redistricting fixes couldn’t have been made in time.

Also: Speculation about attorney general successor kicks into overdrive, Brian Kelsey gets another delay for his federal campaign finance case, and Memphis’ Democratic mayor backs “truth in sentencing” law.

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

Or subscribe here.

Lee declines signature on ‘truth in sentencing’ bill

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

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to sign a “truth in sentencing” bill championed by legislative Republicans to require people convicted of violent crimes to serve all of their sentences behind bars, The Tennessee Journal has learned.

Under the final version of the bill sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), 100% of sentences would have to be served for nine categories of crimes, including murder, vehicular homicide, and carjacking. Seventeen other violent offenses — such as aggravated assault, reckless homicide, or possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony — would allow prisoners to qualify for release after serving 85% of their sentences.

“Data does not support the basic premise of the legislation,” Lee wrote to the speakers. “Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain, with no reduction in crime. Widespread evidence suggests that this policy will result in more victims, higher recidivism, increased crime, and prison overcrowding, all with an increased cost to taxpayers. For these reasons, I have chosen not to sign the bill.”

The bill passed the House on a vote of 86-9 and 20-7 in the Senate. It will become law without Lee’s signature.

Here’s a statement from Sexton in response:

You can protect criminals or you can protect victims.  I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys, and criminal judges across Tennessee. In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission published a study stating stronger sentencing has a statistically significant deterrent effect by reducing crime and lowering recidivism. That’s why Tennessee’s law enforcement community stood behind us and supported this legislation.

Sometimes we need to use common-sense approaches; more violent criminals in jail for longer periods means less crime and fewer victims. Softer sentences mean more crime and more victims.

Our job is to keep our communities safe, protect our families, and support law enforcement.  If we need to build more prisons, we can. Either we value life or we don’t; this legislation was about the most violent crimes committed in our state.  It’s hard to stand with victims and law enforcement by going easy on criminals.

McNally dials it back a bit:

Truth in Sentencing is vital legislation that not only offers justice and transparency to victims but also acts as a critical deterrent against violent offenders. The costs associated with the legislation are well worth the peace of mind offered to victims and the overall boost to public safety. While I disagree with Governor Lee’s critique of the bill, I appreciate his willingness to work with Speaker Sexton and I to get the bill in a posture to avoid a veto. I am grateful this bill is now the law of the land in Tennessee.”

CPAC organizer pans Tennessee’s ‘truth-in-sentencing’ bill

Lawmakers attend Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address in Nashville on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The American Conservative Union is speaking out against legislation pending in the Tennessee General Assembly to make people convicted of violent crimes serve 100% of their sentences without the possibility of parole. The measure has been championed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), but appears to fly in the face of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform efforts.

Lawmakers are expected to include the sentencing measure in the annual state spending plan they intend to pass later this week.

Legislative analysts have projected a $28 million annual cost increase for making the change, while the state Department of Correction puts the number at $90 million.

“It would be one thing to spend massive sums on prisons if the proposal was based on evidence that requiring criminals to serve 100% of their sentences would increase public safety,” according to the letter. “However, there is no such data.”

The ACU “strongly opposes” the bill and urges lawmakers to reject it. Voting in favor will adversely affect annual lawmaker rankings, the group said.

Here’s the letter sent to McNally and Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga):

Dear Lt. Governor McNally and Chairman Watson:

The American Conservative Union (“ACU”) is the nation’s oldest grassroots advocacy organization. Founded in 1964 by William F. Buckley, we have a 50-plus-year track record of advancing policies that reduce the size and scope of government, advance liberty, and reduce burdens on families.

Historically, Tennessee has been a beacon of conservative principles and leadership. With an overall rating of 74% all-time from our sister organization, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Tennessee stands head and shoulders above other state legislatures in its conservative voting record. But we find ourselves very concerned about a particular proposal making its way through the legislature: House Bill 2656/Senate Bill 2248.

Commonly referred to as “Truth in Sentencing,” the proposal under consideration would require individuals convicted of certain crimes to serve 100 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for release. While this sounds tough on crime and reasonable on its face, there are many factors that go into the effectiveness and long-term consequences of such policy changes. More than 90% of those in Tennessee’s prisons will pay their debts to society and return to their communities. Our goal is to have them return as better versions of themselves by completing their education, addressing addiction, and participating in mental health counseling and other proven anti-recidivism programs. Offering prisoners time off for good behavior is a key incentive that makes this possible, and in turn makes Tennessee safer.

Of course, no one is arguing that people should be given a pass for wrongdoing. Those who break the law must be held accountable for their actions. The counter is that if we fail to provide incentives, prisons will remain mere warehouses of humanity. Those returning will be no better than when they went in. And this means that Tennessee communities will forgo public safety benefits that would otherwise be available.

Adding to the concerns around the public safety impact of this bill is the tremendous uncertainty around its true fiscal impact. While the fiscal note indicates this bill will create $27.7 million in increased expenditures, TDOC data reflects costs much closer to $90 million. One report reflects that increasing aggravated burglary offenses alone to 100 percent will cost taxpayers $38.7 million per year, including $8.7 million of that absorbed locally.

As eye-opening as these numbers are (especially for a state that prides itself on fiscal conservativism), this legislation could cost taxpayers far more. According to TDOC testimony before the Senate Judiciary, cost projections around this bill do not account for the possibility that new prison facilities might be necessary to accommodate the prison population growth that would result from the passage of this bill. With Tennessee’s prisons are already operating at 92% capacity, there would become a much higher likelihood TDOC will either have to build new prisons or contract for more capacity. Either option is likely to run into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in new government spending.

It would be one thing to spend massive sums on prisons if the proposal was based on evidence that requiring criminals to serve 100% of their sentences would increase public safety. However, there is no such data. But there is analysis from the United States Sentencing Commission that indicates that early releases of drug offenders had no adverse impact on crime. In fact, there was a marginal reduction in recidivism for those who were granted early release.

Finally, we would note that eliminating time off for good behavior in the Truth in Sentencing package under consideration would endanger the safety of Tennessee’s corrections officers. Stated simply, those who have nothing to lose have no reason to follow the rules. And this has proven true in other states.

After Arizona enacted its own version of Truth In Sentencing, rules infractions in facilities increased by 50 percent, education program enrollment dropped by20 percent, and the three-year reincarceration rates rose by over 7 percentage points(a nearly 40 percent increase). Unfortunately, this trio of negative results also cost the Arizona taxpayers millions of dollars, while furthering the damage to already broken communities and families.

Accordingly, we view House Bill 2656 and Senate Bill 2248 as proposals that cost too much, do too little to make Tennessee communities safer, and endanger correctional staff along the way.

Accordingly, ACU strongly opposes this legislation and urges you to reject it. We have also recommended to our colleagues at the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Legislative Accountability (Ratings) that they rate a vote to approve HB 2656/SB2248 negatively in our 2022 ratings.

Should you have any questions regarding this matter, please feel free to contact me […].

Respectfully,

Patrick Plein

American Conservative Union

New TNJ alert: Here come the subpoenas, slammed doors, and divining rods

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

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

— It’s subpoena time in the federal probe that ensnared ex-Rep. Robin Smith. At least three lawmakers and a legislative staffer are set to appear before the grand jury next week.

— Lee’s budget amendment signals the end is near for this year’s legislative session.

— Legislative roundup: Terri Lynn Weaver slams the door after failing to get a second, Indian gaming proposal stalls, the legislature grabs the authority to name six of nine members of the state Board of Education, and it won’t get any easier for minor parties to get on the ballot.

— Andy Ogles jumps into 5th Congressional District race, but his campaign infrastructure has yet to catch up.

Also: Jason Hodges welcomes the FBI to the Capitol, indicted Sen. Brian Kelsey honored as a “public-spirited citizen of the highest order,” Tennessee could grow by 1 million residents in next 20 years, and the state GOP asks for cash for a new computer.

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

Or subscribe here.

House members subpoenaed in federal probe of shadowy vendor

Cade Cothren, speaking on phone, attends a meeting with lawmakers and fellow staffers on the balcony ouside the House chamber on April 29, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tenenssee Journal)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) is among lawmakers subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury about a shadowy campaign vendor linked to former Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

“We have been fully cooperating with the federal authorities since I became speaker in 2019,” Sexton said in a statement. “It is not unexpected that I and other members would be called to appear before a grand jury to provide factual statements as part of this ongoing investigation.”

The subpoenas, which were first reported by WTVF-TV’s Phil Williams, follow a guilty plea by former Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) earlier this month in which she admitted participating in a scheme to hide who was behind the vendor called Phoenix Solutions. The charging document makes thinly veiled references to Casada and Cothren being the other participants.

Smith has agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation as part of her plea agreement.

Lawmakers scramble to raise money before high-noon deadline

Lawmakers are scrambling to collect last-minute campaign donations as a fundraising ban looms. The blackout begins once the gavel falls on the start of the regular session at noon on Tuesday. It will last until the General Assembly adjourns for the year — or May 15 if they can’t complete their business before then.

As Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports, House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) had an event to raise money for his PAC on Monday at the Nashville City Club, while his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), held an event at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse .

Sexton spokesman Doug Kufner told the paper “the practice of hosting fundraisers on the day before the start of a legislative session is not uncommon and has occurred regularly among members of both parties in recent years.

Raising money will be all the more crucial for lawmakers facing potential primary challenges under this year’s newly drawn political maps.

Sexton to AP: The Nashville split is on

Rep. Cameron Sexton presides over his first session as House speaker on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton is confirming plans to carve up the heavily-Democratic 5th Congressional District in Nashville to give Republicans a chance to pick up an eighth of the state’s nine congressional seats.

According to Associated Press reporters Kimberlee Kruesi and Jonathan Mattise, Sexton wouldn’t say exactly how many districts would split the state’s second-largest county.

“I won’t give an exact number. but it’s either two or three,” Sexton told the AP.

“I’ve never bought into the approach that having multiple people represent a big city is bad thing,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper has held the seat since 2003.

UPDATE: Andy Sher at the Chattanooga Times Free Press spoke to Sexton about whether plowing Democrats into currently safe GOP seats could make future races competitive.

“Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, which is fine. . . . Whether or not it does what people say it does, only time will tell that,” Sexton told the paper.

“It’s not unprecedented in our state where those large urban areas and congressional areas have been split . . . . We think we can do it, and we think it will be constitutional if we go that way,” Sexton said.

Lee declines to sign nullification resolution passed during special session

A statue of President Andrew Jackson is seen in front of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to sign a resolution passed during a recent special session touting the state’s purported right to pass laws to nullify federal COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements.

The Republican governor does not appear to have transmitted a statement to lawmakers about why he is allowing the resolution to go into effect without his signature.

The Senate version passed 24-6, while the House vote was 64-17.

Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) carried the measure on behalf of House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

“The nullification theory was first broached in 1832 when Tennessee’s own Andrew Jackson was president,” Ragan said in floor comments. “The state of South Carolina began it, and President Jackson threatened to invade with federal troops to settle the issue. However, the federal government ultimately backed down.”

Ragan’s statement drew a retort from Rep. Michael Curcio (R-Dickson).

“I wanted to make sure the record was clear: the federal government didn’t back down, South Carolina quit,” said Curcio, who voted against the resolution. “But they continued in their behavior until eventually Fort Sumter was fired on, creating a tragedy for this country. I want to remind everybody that emulating such behavior is very, very serious.”

The full language of the resolution follows.

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