Randy McNally

Senate names new chairs, House juggles committees

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) presides over a floor session on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) has named Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) as chair of the Education Committee and Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) to head the State and Local Government Committee. The positions were vacated by the retirements of Dolores Gresham and electoral defeat of Steve Dickerson, respectively.

Committee assignments have yet to be made in the House, but draft rules signal a change in the overall makeup of standing committees. Speaker Cameron Sexton will once again split apart the Judiciary Committee into two standing panels: Civil Justice and Criminal Justice. He is also turning the single Education panel into separate Education Administration and Education Instruction committees. The Consumer and Human Resources Committee will be no longer.

The changes will leave the House with 14 standing committees, up from 13 last session. Sexton is also expected to significantly retool the subcommittee system.

No changes at the top for Senate GOP

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

Senate Republicans have renominated Randy McNally as speaker and re-elected Ken Yager as caucus chairman and Jack Johnson as majority leader.

Here’s a release outlining today’s action:

NASHVILLETennessee’s Senate Republican Caucus met today in Nashville where they voted unanimously to renominate Lt. Governor Randy McNally to a third term and to return Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) to their top leadership roles as Majority Leader and Republican Caucus Chairman respectively.  Others elected to caucus leadership positions include Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) as Treasurer, Senator Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro) as Secretary and Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro) as Chaplain. 

Lt. Governor McNally said, “As I reflect back on over forty years in the General Assembly, I cannot think of a more dedicated group of public servants than we have in the Senate at this moment. An effective team not only has to have the right players, but those players’ talents also need to be deployed effectively. Our Senate team is an effective team. I am humbled once again to have been chosen to help lead this great group of leaders.”

Leader Johnson said, “I am grateful for the support of this group of senators who are deeply committed to serving the people of their districts.  Tennesseans have spoken clearly that they want to continue conservative management of our state budget, and to implement policies to encourage growth, and reduce burdens on small businesses and working families.  The stability in our leadership team positions us to move seamlessly into the 2021 legislative session during these difficult times as we unite to focus on policies that will create opportunities and improve the lives of Tennesseans.”

Chairman Yager said, “I am honored and humbled to serve again as caucus chairman to such a hardworking, talented and committed group of individuals.   We have many challenging issues that await us in the 2021 legislative session. This caucus embraces challenges and will chart a bold, conservative path to support economic recovery efforts, improve education, and provide quality health care services, making Tennessee the best place in the nation to live work and raise a family.”

“Our Senate Republican majority has been placing conservative ideas into action over the past decade with great success,” McNally added.  “We reformed education, reclaimed our AAA bond rating and cut taxes while shrinking government. This past year has been a difficult one. Our majority has been tested by fire. Our state has weathered this adversity better than any other state in the union. The reason for this was preparation and leadership. I am proud of the job we have done as well as the job we will do. I am looking forward to getting to work with our outstanding membership to build upon our success.”

Caucus members also voted to nominate Senator Yager, Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), and Senator Paul Rose (R-Covington) to serve on the Joint Fiscal Review Committee.  The committee conducts a continuing review of the financial operations of state government.   The nominees will be confirmed by a resolution of the full Senate when the General Assembly convenes.   

The meeting was held as lawmakers prepare to open the first session of the 112th General Assembly on January 12.  Senate Republicans hold a 27-6 super majority, providing direct member representation to citizens in all 95 counties in Tennessee. 

GOP ad hits Trump in attack on Dickerson rival

An attack ad paid for by the political action committee of state Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) takes a swipe at an unusual target: President Donald Trump.

“Are you tired of rude politicians who don’t treat others with respect?” the narrator says to open the ad while images of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Trump flash on the screen.

The ad then moves on to a video of former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell raising her voice at someone during a Board of Commissioners meeting and threatening to have the person removed. The context of the encounter is not made clear in the ad.

Campbell is challenging state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) in next week’s election.

The ad also alleges Campbell has been arrested three times, including twice for drunken driving. The spot calls her “disrespectful, unhinged Heidi Campbell.”

Tennessee Equality Project rescinds Dickerson endorsement over Senate speaker’s ad

The Tennessee Equality Project has rescinded its endorsement of Republican state Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville over an ad being run on his behalf by the Senate Speaker Randy McNally’s political action committee.

The ad targets Dickerson’s Democratic challenger, Heidi Campbell, for saying supportive things about Gideon’s Army, which the spot describes as an extremist group calling for “revolutionary changes to our way of life.” Democrats have pushed back against the ad presenting Gideon’s Army as supporting rioting. They point to the group’s efforts to mentor young people and de-escalate violence in predominantly black North Nashville. The organization was also heavily involved in cleanup efforts after a tornado wrought heavy damage in the neighborhood in March. The Tennessee Equality Project denounced the spot as a “disgusting, racist ad.”

“Although he has an exemplary record on LGBTQ rights in the Legislature, elected officials are called to speak out against racism in politics,” TEP executive director Chris Sanders said in a blog post.

Here’s the ad:

The decision to withdraw the Dickerson endorsement means the group is now backing just one Republican candidate for the General Assembly: Knoxville businessman Eddie Mannis, who is running to succeed retiring state Rep. Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville).

Here’s how much federal relief money is flowing to Tennessee counties

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

A total of $13 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money is flowing to Tennessee, and a new interactive state website allows users to break down how much is headed specific counties.

In a meeting of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group on Monday, Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) asked whether the amounts can be broken out on a per-capita basis to ensure smaller counties weren’t getting less than the likes of Metro Nashville and Shelby County. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration didn’t have those figures at their fingertips, so the Tennessee Journal has crunched the numbers. Here are the top 10 per-capita recipients of federal aid (Anderson County, where McNally lives, comes in at No. 12):

  1. Jackson, $7,126
  2. Cheatham, $4,363
  3. Davidson, $3,931
  4. Carroll, $3,380
  5. Smith, 3,738
  6. Fayette, $3,525
  7. Cannon, $3,056
  8. Carter, $2,643
  9. Giles, $2,643
  10. Bledsoe, $2,557

The full per-capita breakdown follows:

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War of words erupts over failure to pass bill to ban COVID-19 lawsuits

Everyone thought the deal was done. But then it wasn’t. The General Assembly adjourned in the predawn hours of Friday without passing either a bill to provide businesses immunity from most COVID-19 lawsuits or another measure to set insurance reimbursement standards for telemedicine appointments.

That’s when a war of words began to erupt between the Republican leaders of both chambers. Senate Speaker Randy McNally blamed House Majority Leader William Lamberth and House Judiciary Chairman Michael Curcio for torpedoing the lawsuit bill.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, normally a McNally ally, shot back that “finger pointing on social media … is not a productive way to arrive at an effective solution.”

Talk immediately turned to whether Gov. Bill Lee might call a special session to try to fix the damage. But first, the two chambers would have to come together on an agreement — something that has proven elusive so far.

The sticking point over the lawsuit liability has been over whether it be backdated to the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate has argued it should, while the House has pointed out that retroactive legislation is banned by the state constitution. Business interests appeared to have been willing to back off the retroactive language in the interest of getting at least something passed this session, but those discussions evaporated after the word was put out the two chambers had agreed to pass the original forms of both the liability and telemedicine bills.

It turned out rank-and-file members of the House weren’t on board with such an arrangement. The vote to adopt the Senate version including the retroactive language was 46-36. It takes 50 votes for bills to be approved in the House.

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Sales tax holiday a likely victim of dire Tennessee budget picture

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) wields the gavel during a floor session to adjust the course of the legislative session in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

While state House committees go through the motions of advancing pricey legislative proposals, the Senate has been pinpointing spending items likely to to be axed amid a dire state budget outlook. Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) tells WBIR-TV that one such item may be the popular back-to-school sales tax holiday.

“Depending on what their estimates are, I’m pretty sure we’re going to face some difficult times as far as revenue,” McNally said.

This year’s sales tax holiday, which exempts clothing and school supplies costing less than $100 and computers up to $1,500, is scheduled for July 31 through Aug. 2. The state generally forgoes about $10 million in sales tax revenue during the annual event.

Lee, speakers announce plan to pass budget then recess General Assembly

The state Capitol was closed to visitors on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Per Gov. Bill Lee, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton:

Over the last week, we have remained in close contact with the state’s health leaders, and we have continued to carefully monitor the complex and aggressive COVID-19 virus in Tennessee. The latest guidance from both the CDC and Department of Health requires us to take unprecedented action. In the best interests of public health, we have jointly decided to limit all remaining legislative business to fulfilling our constitutional requirement of passing a balanced budget, and any associated actions that will ensure Tennessee can keep its doors open. This is a serious time for our state and country, and we all must make adjustments in response to this threat. Our approach will take into account the unique public health challenges this complex virus presents, as well as the economic disruption likely to occur as a result of its spread. Passing an amended budget now and recessing will allow the General Assembly to focus on an immediate plan of action, while still determining needs down the road. This pathway forward should only be reserved for extraordinary circumstances. We will continue operating out of an abundance of caution and take additional action if it becomes necessary.

A two-week adjournment plan? Lawmakers plot quick end to closed-door session

House Republican leaders are meeting Sunday to discuss their exit plan for the legislative session. The meeting follows a decision on Friday to close off access to the Capitol complex to all but members, staff, and the media.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison tells the Daily Memphian that he’s been inundated with calls from colleagues worried about the spread of the virus and whether they will get a fair hearing on their bills if the legislature adjourns earlier than planned.

Those concerns come as speculation has spread about a potential effort to pass the budget and adjourn by as early as Friday. Faison said that time table would be moving too fast.

“There are a lot of discussions going on right now and looking at it from every angle,” Faison told the Daily Memphian. “I think the most important thing we do is make sure our members are safe and the people of Tennessee are safe. So leadership is meeting tonight, and I think we’ll devise a plan moving forward.”

Senate Speaker Randy McNally said it would likely take two to three weeks to finish up business even in a hurry-up mode.

“I think the House would like to do it in two (weeks). But if we say two, it ends up being three. That’s not too far ahead of our schedule,” he said. “The main thing is getting the governor’s amendment to the appropriations bill.”

McNally said the Senate has been consulting with state Attorney General Herbert Slatery on the legality of closing public access to the General Assembly. The 2001 Mayhew v. Wilder case resulted in a state appeals court decision that said lawmakers can hold secret meetings to discuss budget plans.

 

Tennessee Capitol complex to close doors to public

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Capitol and legislative office complex will be off limits to the public starting on Monday amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 is an evolving situation but we urge vulnerable populations, including those over age 60 and with chronic medical conditions to limit participation in mass gatherings and to take extra precautions for personal well-being like increased hand-washing,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. “With 26 confirmed cases in our state, we have issued further guidance to help communities mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Here’s a joint statement from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally:

Governor Lee continues to take a thoughtful approach to containing the possible spread of COVID-19. We applaud his steps to better protect the public’s health. Beginning Monday, March 16, we will limit access to the Cordell Hull Building out of an abundance of caution. Access is prohibited to everyone except elected members, staff and members of the media until further notice. However, the citizens of Tennessee will still be able to access the work they have elected us to do through the livestreaming services available on our website.

We must take any and all reasonable steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is imperative the public’s health be prioritized and economic disruption minimized. We will continue to evaluate this situation, remain in contact with Governor Lee, the state’s health leaders, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to determine whether additional action is needed.

The governor’s office also gave the following guidance:

Mass Gatherings

Heading into the weekend, many Tennesseans will be making decisions regarding faith gatherings and church attendance. Congregations and groups are urged to consider alternatives to traditional services by utilizing livestreams, pre-recorded messages and other electronic means. 

While at this time, mass gatherings such as conferences or other large social events remain at the discretion of the organizer, we strongly discourage events of 250 people or more as an important step in limiting exposure to COVID-19. 

Schools

At this time, school districts have been advised to exercise discretion when canceling school for K-12 students. The state will provide further support for districts pursuing this action but urge districts to consider the prevalence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their area. In partnership with districts, students who depend on school-provided meals will still receive this support, regardless of school closure.

State Employees, Business Travel 

Effective immediately, state employees who have been trained and certified to work from home within the state’s Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS) program will work from home through March 31, 2020. Approximately 11,000 state employees are certified AWS employees and can begin work from home with no disruption to state business. 

Effective immediately, state employees have been instructed to cease all non-essential business travel through March 31, 2020. 

Tennessee State Capitol Closed to Visitors

The Tennessee State Capitol is closed to tours and visitors through March 31, 2020. Members of the media will continue to have access to the State Capitol building.