senate

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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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.

Permitless carry: How they voted

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

The House voted 64-29 to pass a bill eliminating training and background check requirements in order to carry a loaded handgun in public. The Senate previously approved its version on a 23-9 vote. The bill now heads for Gov. Bill Lee’s signature.

The measure is opposed by law enforcement groups, though sponsors noted they had heard from several officers and sheriff’s deputies that they supported the measure.

The House bill gained the support of 63 Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston. Twenty-four Democrats voted against the measure, plus five Republicans voted against the bill: John Gillespie of Memphis, Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain, Eddie Mannis of Knoxville, Mark White of Memphis, and Sam Whitson of Franklin. Five other GOP members were absent or abstained.

In the Senate, all six Democrats plus three Republicans voted against the bill: Sens. Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Brian Kelsey of Memphis, and Becky Massey of Knoxville.

(See the House rollcall after the jump.)

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Freshman Republican bucks leadership on permitless carry

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

State Rep. John Gillespie, a freshman Republican from Memphis, speaking out against a bill to eliminate background check and training requirements in order to carry handguns in public.

“Law enforcement opposes this bill, and I take their recommendation seriously,” Gillespie said in a release.

The bill passed the Senate on a 23-9 vote last week (opponents included three Republicans: Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Brian Kelsey of Memphis, and Becky Massey of Knoxville). The House version is up for a Finance Committee vote on Tuesday.

The measure was introduced on behalf of Gov. Bill Lee and has wide support among Republicans in both chambers. But for some gun rights groups, the bill doesn’t go far enough. The National Association for Gun Rights has publicized the phone numbers of Senate Speaker Randy
McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Senate Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville) for opposing efforts to allow people with recent drunken driving or stalking convictions to be covered by the bill.

The state issued 145,237 handgun carry permits last year, but 3,639 applications were rejected and 2,065 were suspended or revoked.

Here’s the release from Gillespie:

State Representative John Gillespie today voiced his opposition to a gun bill regarding what is commonly referred to as “open constitutional carry”. The proposed legislation would allow any Tennessean to carry a handgun openly or concealed without a permit and without any training in firearms use.

“I am a strong supporter of our Second Amendment right to possess firearms, but I reservations about this proposed law,” Gillespie stated. “I’ve spoken with numerous constituents and law enforcement professionals about this bill and have decided to vote ‘no’ for two reasons. First, law enforcement opposes this bill, and I take their recommendation seriously. Second, there is no training component to the
legislation. I support Tennessee’s concealed carry law because it requires a course in basic handgun safety. This legislation does not require training, although the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association has offered to provide the training at no charge,” remarked Gillespie.

A graduate of High Point University, Gillespie is a native Memphian. He supports the mission of a local senior living facility by serving as Grant Coordinator. Gillespie began his career in banking and finance starting as a customer service representative at a local bank before working his way up to the mortgage division at another Memphis financial institution. He is a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Representative Gillespie was elected to the District 97 seat in the House of Representatives in November. The district includes parts of Bartlett, Cordova, and East Memphis. More information about Gillespie may be found by visiting VoteJohnGillespie.com.

The doors of the Senate shall be open again

The Senate Education Committee meets on March 16, 2020, amid a ban on public attendance in the Cordell Hull Building (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate is reopening to the public after shutting down most access during the pandemic. According to a Tennessee Lobbyists Association memo, the upper chamber is dropping most of the restrictions it had imposed when COVID-19 struck last year. The House restrictions were never as wide-ranging to begin with, and most its mitigation efforts were lifted last month.

Here is the memo outlining the Senate changes:

TLA Members,

We were notified of the following changes this evening:

Due to increased vaccine availability and the overall decline in the spread of COVID -19, Lt. Governor McNally will be implementing revised building protocols beginning Monday, March 8. These protocols apply to the 7th Floor of Cordell Hull Building, Senate Hearing Room I and Senate Floor Sessions:

1. Members of the public will be admitted to the Cordell Hull Building using the main entrance on Rep. John Lewis Way and will have elevator access to the 7th Floor.

2. Until elevator programming is adjusted, General Assembly staff will assist the public with elevator access to the 7th floor. Once programming is complete, elevator access for the public will be open.

3. Members of the public are encouraged not to enter a member’s office without an appointment.

4. Senate Hearing Room I will be open to the public with limited seating. So-cial distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained and enforced.

4. The public may access the Capitol through the tunnel for Senate Floor Sessions. One elevator will be designated for members only for session.

5. The Senate Gallery is open with limited seating available for the public and reserved seating for media. Social distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained.

6. The area outside the Senate Chamber is reserved for Senate staff.

7. The 8th Floor and 7th floor Senate Conference Rooms remain closed.

8. There shall be no Days on the Hill, group meetings or tours.

9. Appropriate CDC facial coverings are required in the Senate facilities of the Cordell Hull Building and the Capitol, including the tunnel.

10. Individuals with 2021 Photo Identification Badges issued by the General Assembly may access the Cordell Hull Building through the entrance on 6th Avenue.

11. The north elevator is reserved for members and staff, no public use.

12. Committee chairs may choose in-person or remote testimony for their committee meetings.

The protocols are subject to modification at any time.

Beginning of the end? Senate sets Feb. 11 bill-filing deadline

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

The deadline to file bills in the Senate will be on Feb. 11, three days after Gov. Bill Lee delivers his third State of the State address. The House cutoff follows at close of business on Feb. 17.

While the deadline should theoretically set the parameters for the proposals lawmakers will take up this session, the proliferation of “caption bills” — legislation that opens broad sections of the code while leaving specific policy proposals to be made at a later date — means it’s never quite certain what will be debated until lawmakers adjourn for the year.

The bill filing cutoff is nevertheless a major milestone for each session, as it signals that lawmakers (who officially gaveled into the 112th General Assembly on Jan. 12) are finally preparing to go about their business.

COVID diagnosis in Senate raises concerns (UPDATED)

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

A state senator has tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the special session and other lawmakers and staffers may have been exposed, The Tennessee Journal has learned.

UPDATE: Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) has confirmed he has tested positive:

“I was informed yesterday afternoon that I have tested positive for COVID-19.  I am quarantining at home with mild symptoms,” Jackson said in a statement. “I have received excellent care and am thankful for all of our health professionals who are on the front lines in fighting this virus.”

One further senator is believed to be in quarantine, while another is remaining on duty because he already had COVID-19. The office of legislative adminstration declined to confirm or deny any infections due to privacy concerns.

The incident comes despite enhanced measures the Senate has taken to try to fight the spread of COVID-19. The upper chamber has required social distancing between members in committees and on the floor while banning the public from its meetings. But nothing prevents lawmakers from congregating in their offices, elevators, or hallways of the Capitol complex.

At least nine House members have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

New charges filed against Democratic Sen. Robinson

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

New charges have been filed against state Sen. Katrina Robinson. The Memphis Democrat was previously indicted on 48 federal fraud counts in July 2020 — 24 each of wire fraud and theft and embezzlement from the government. Robinson has denied wrongdoing.

Here’s the U.S. Justice Department release outlining the latest developments:

MEMPHIS, TN – Tennessee State Senator Katrina Robinson, 40, has been federally charged in a new case, along with two other co-defendants, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. D. Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney announced the unsealing of the new federal criminal complaint today.

According to information presented in Court, the Healthcare Institute (“THI”) is a post-secondary educational provider located in Memphis, Tennessee. It purports to provide training programs for jobs in the healthcare field, including certified nursing assistant, phlebotomist, and licensed practical nurse. It was founded in January 2015 as a Tennessee for-profit LLC, with Katrina Robinson as director. THI received more than $10,000 in federal funds each year between 2015 and 2019. During that period, Robinson is alleged to have stolen, converted, and intentionally misapplied property of THI for her own use. As a result, on July 30, 2020, she was indicted in Case No. 2:20-cr-20147-SHL, which is currently pending trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdtn/pr/federal-grand-jury-returns-indictment-charging-tennessee-state-senator-katrina-robinson

The charges in this new federal complaint arise from a completely separate fraud scheme in which Robinson, Katie Ayers, 59, and Brooke Boudreaux, 32, are alleged to have conspired to use THI to defraud victim R.S. out of $14,470.00, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349 and 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h).

As set forth in more detail in the complaint affidavit, while investigating the charges in the 2020 case, the FBI also uncovered a scheme in which the defendants convinced R.S. that Boudreaux, with whom he had an existing relationship, needed the money for tuition and expenses to attend THI. R.S. agreed and tendered $14,470.00 to THI for that purpose. In fact, the investigation revealed that Boudreaux was never a student at THI, and the conspirators split the money among themselves for their personal benefit and unjust enrichment.

If convicted, the defendants each face a possible sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison followed by three years supervised release. There is no parole in the federal system. The case will be presented to a federal grand jury at a later date to consider an indictment against the defendants.

This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The charges and allegations contained in the complaint are merely accusations of criminal conduct, not evidence. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and convicted through due process of law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris E. Cotten is prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.

Winners and losers in the General Assembly’s fundraising sweepstakes

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

The final fundraising disclosures are in before Thursday’s primary election. We’ve dug through the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance disclosures to aggregate how much each candidate for the House and Senate has raised so far through this election cycle.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) leads the way with $359,200, followed by freshman Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Nashville) with $290,700. Sen. Paul Rose (R-Covington) is next on the list with $226,500, though his numbers are a bit inflated by having stood for a special election during the cycle.

On the other end of the spectrum are incumbents who have raised the least. They are Reps. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) with $2,900, Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) with $3,900, and former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) with $6,450.

These totals are for candidates only, meaning they don’t include any of their political action committees.

A couple caveats about the way the Registry keeps these numbers: They include outside donations and direct contributions from the candidates themselves, but not loans. For example, while Rep. Rick Tillis’ challenger Todd Warner in District 92 is listed as raising $2,950, that figure doesn’t include the eye-popping $127,100 he has loaned himself. The figures also don’t include unitemized contributions, which for some candidates can be substantial.

So with all that being said, the full list follows. Challengers and candidates in open races are listed in italics.

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Coming soon to a store (or keyboard) near you: Two sales tax holidays

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As part of a late-session compromise between the House and Senate, lawmakers agreed to double to the cap on the price of clothing, computers, and back-to-school items for the annual sales tax holiday. And then they decided to hold it on consecutive weekends. Gone in the legislative deal was a House proposal to also hold a sales tax holiday for automobiles, which would have been a far pricier proposition.

Here’s a release from the state Revenue Department about the sales tax holiday weekends starting July 31 and Aug. 7:

NASHVILLE — Mark your calendars. For 2020 only, the Tennessee General Assembly has approved two sales tax holiday weekends to help Tennesseans save money and support the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first tax-free holiday weekend focuses on clothing and other back-to-school items. It begins at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, July 31, and ends Sunday, August 2, at 11:59 p.m. During this time, consumers may purchase clothing, school supplies, and computers and other qualifying electronic devices without paying sales tax. Certain price restrictions apply. For school supplies and clothing, the threshold for qualifying items is $200 or less. For computers and other electronics, the price threshold is $3,000 or less. Download our list of tax-exempt items here.

Exempt items sold online are also eligible. Consumers must purchase items for personal use, not business or trade.

The second sales tax holiday weekend focuses on restaurant sales. It begins at 12:01 a.m. on August 7 and ends Sunday, August 9, at 11:59 p.m. During this time the retail sale of food and drink by restaurants and limited service restaurants, as defined in Tenn. Code Ann.  § 57-4-102, is exempt from sales tax.        

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense economic strain on Tennessee families. These sales tax holidays will allow them to keep more of their hard-earned money and support Tennessee businesses,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. 

“We want to remind everyone about these opportunities for tax relief,” Revenue Commissioner David Gerregano said.  “It’s a good opportunity to save money during these difficult times.”

For more information about the sales tax holiday weekends, visit www.tntaxholiday.com. You can also read our frequently asked questions, as well as this important notice.

The Department of Revenue is responsible for the administration of state tax laws and motor vehicle title and registration laws, as well as the collection of taxes and fees associated with those laws. The Department collects around 87 percent of total state revenue. During the 2019 fiscal year, it collected $15.3 billion in state taxes and fees and more than $3 billion in taxes and fees for local governments. To learn more about the Department, visit www.tn.gov/revenue.