Stockard on the Stump: Schwinn-anigans abound

Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives mill about in House Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives mill about in House Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn does not disappoint when it comes to getting a tad off track, incidents increasingly becoming known as Schwinn-anigans, in the halls of power.

Not only did the General Assembly change its textbook approval process in 2020 to keep her out of the loop because of concerns about favoritism, legislators put an early childhood reading initiative on hold last year because they were afraid parts of the program were being directed at specific vendors. Apparently, they were right.

Schwinn signed an $8 million contract March 1 – albeit electronically – with New York-based TNTP Inc. to train teachers to work with kids on reading programs. And, you guessed it, her husband works for the company.

Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo: TN.gov)
Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo: TN.gov)

The commissioner filed a notice of conflict of interest with the state’s Central Procurement Office and promised to keep herself and her husband, Paul, out of the contract approval and the company’s business in Tennessee. The state’s top official overseeing contracts gave the go-ahead, based on her “mitigation” plan.

Schwinn followed state law, according to the Department of Education. Only one other vendor made a bid on the job, and TNTP had the low bid, which was vetted and approved without Schwinn looking over people’s shoulders.

Yet, the reaction from lawmakers is not exactly encouraging.

In response to the revelation, Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said, “This is a very disappointing development. While Commissioner Schwinn did apparently make some disclosures, the end result certainly appears, at the least, questionable and cause for concern.”

House Education Administration Chairman Mark White said he needed to look into the matter more closely and would talk to the commissioner to see if any conflict of interest exists. 

But, White added, “Those of us in public office always have to walk a fine line to avoid losing public trust.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally didn’t say whether they thought a conflict of interest exists, but both said the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee will be responsible for looking at the contract to make sure it withstands muster.

One thing that’s already taking a hit, though, is Schwinn’s standing. Talk in the Cordell Hull Building is that the governor would be better off cutting his losses. 

One on-looker pointed out, though, that Schwinn is playing to an audience of one: Gov. Bill Lee. And so far he’s sticking with her come hell or high water.

Keep away from the corpses

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, passed legislation this week dubbed “April’s Law” to clarify that people who have sexual contact with a corpse are committing the offense of abuse of a corpse. 

The parents of April Parham testified in committee this year that their daughter was sexually assaulted shortly after her death and that the perpetrator is still free because of a loophole in state law.

To make matters worse, April could not have her organs donated to science – as she requested – because of the abuse her body suffered.

The Parhams sent a letter urging the Legislature to pass Hardaway’s bill, saying consequences are needed the next time this horrible deed is committed.

“We feel like there should have been some jail time and he should be required to register as a sex offender. This crime is not even on his record, and it is a crime whether there is a law against it or not,” their letter states.

The Senate version of the bill is set to start moving.

Potty pontification proliferates

Rep. Tim Rudd, a Murfreesboro Republican, argued for legislation placing a sign on business restroom doors to let people who have to pee know without a shadow of a doubt that the facility could be used by men or women. Rudd contended women need to be able to protect themselves from rape in case a man is lurking.

“They at least need minimal warning so they could know what could be waiting for them at a restroom,” Rudd said.

Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Symbols aren’t always understood by adults, so the words “women” and “men” are necessary, too, Rudd said, even though some lawmakers admitted they’d walked into restrooms clearly marked for the opposite sex. Who hasn’t? Or at least what man hasn’t used a women’s unlocked restroom in dire situations when someone was monopolizing the men’s room?

Halfway through this week’s debate, several legislators in the State Government Committee admitted they didn’t understand the bill, much less which restroom they should be using. 

Nevertheless, an effort to send the bill to summer study – a sign of sure death – failed. The bill moved on as the Legislature continued its posturing on peeing and pooping.  

Democratic schism at hand?

Six House Democrats were present but not voting Monday night when the House passed the transgender athlete bill, including Minority Leader Karen Camper.

The bill, which is likely to become law, requires transgender athletes to participate in middle and high school sports based on their sex at birth. 

To say this is an oddity is putting it mildly. Most people’s first reaction would be that boys need to play with boys and girls with girls. But things aren’t always what they seem in the Legislature, and some have accused Republican sponsors of playing politics with high school athletics.

It’s also hard to say whether the Democratic Caucus has what one would call a schism, since it has 26 members. But the bill apparently put some in a tough situation.

“This was a very difficult decision. I have constituents with very strong opinions on both sides of the issue,” Camper said in a statement. “After consulting with the voters and stakeholders in my district, I discovered a very strong divide. So I ultimately decided the best course of action in this was to vote present.”

Regardless of how Camper and the other five voted, the bill was bound to pass. 

Since then, the LGBT Chamber of Commerce said two business groups have canceled Nashville conferences. And, still, we don’t have one instance of a transgender athlete trying to play ball.

Let them eat cake

The Senate Labor and Commerce Committee defeated legislation sponsored by Democratic Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis to increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour from $7.25. Kyle’s bill would have raised it gradually over the next four years. The business lobby took the win on this one.

What Rebel flags?

Republican Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver passed a resolution in a House committee this week recognizing Sept. 14 as the Star-Spangled Banner Day. Some lawmakers were miffed by her move because Weaver, of Lancaster, was among those who traveled to Washington, D.C., Jan. 6 to participate in the protest that escalated into an insurrection where people carried Confederate flags into the U.S. Capitol and went searching for former Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, purportedly to kill them. While at the event, she tweeted that the people there were “patriots.”

Weaver’s measure passed after the committee gave the go-ahead for Rep. Jerry Sexton’s resolution to make the Bible Tennessee’s official state book. 

Ooh that smell! That smell that surrounds you?

State Sen. Dawn White is taking on the worst problem in Rutherford County: the horrible odor emanating from Middle Point Landfill. Not only do neighbors in the Walter Hill community deal with this blight, it is working its way across the entire sector of northeast Rutherford County.

With her nose to the air, White, a Murfreesboro Republican, is sponsoring Senate Bill 1137 that would keep undigested or untreated sludge from coming into a county and being dumped there unless two-thirds of the county commission gives approval. Rutherford County and Murfreesboro city government have been renegotiating contracts with the landfill owner/operator.

“We’re getting emails that the smell is going way farther than what people think it should. It is going into a lot of areas of Murfreesboro it should not go in, and I agree with them. We’re trying to listen to our constituents and help them, and this bill should help,” White said shortly after passing the measure in a key committee.

The question is whether it’s too late to keep the landfill from stinking up the whole joint.

Those crazy legislators

Freshman Rep. John Gillespie didn’t fare too well under questioning from Rep. Kevin Vaughan as he tried to pass his first bill Monday night. Asked to explain the difference between 201 and 901, Gillespie, an East Memphis Republican, asked if 201 is an area code. 

Pretty much everyone knows 901 is the area code for Shelby County and Memphis. But Gillespie was clearly unaware of the address of one of Shelby’s most notorious locations.

Vaughan, a Collierville Republican, noted the freshman legislator might need to “bone up” on his Shelby County knowledge, because 201 is the address of the county jail. 

Oddly enough, Gillespie sent out a press release earlier in the day saying he would oppose the governor’s permit-less carry bill, in part because law enforcement opposes it. Maybe he should get to know law enforcement in Shelby County a little better?

Griffey breaks commandment

House Speaker Cameron Sexton banished fire-brand Rep. Bruce Griffey from his committee assignments at the end of Thursday’s session, without giving a reason.

Sexton later issued a statement saying, “There are certain expectations that must be met by members of the Tennessee House of Representatives. These include maintaining decorum and professionalism, as well as respect for others, and perhaps most importantly, respect for our long standing committee process. If any or all of these expectations become an issue, appropriate actions will be taken – including removing a member from his or her committee assignments.”

A spokesman for Sexton didn’t specify Griffey’s transgression, which could have come in almost any committee meeting Griffey attends. 

Most likely, though, the removal stemmed from a confrontation between Griffey and House parliamentarian Daniel Hicks, as well as Sexton, over the Paris Republican’s effort to bring a bill toughening the state’s e-verify law straight to the floor Monday night after it was killed in a committee. Griffey just couldn’t get it through his head that it wasn’t going to fly.

Griffey has been flirting with disaster most of the session, but this argument with Sexton and Hicks was a clear violation of the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not argue with the Speaker – or the parliamentarian. Lest thou be cast into limbo.

It doesn’t help, either, for your county Republican Party to adopt a resolution castigating the Speaker of the House of Representatives.