House Republicans could hold Ford project hostage for COVID-19 session

By: - October 5, 2021 6:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee, third from right, with Ford Motor Co. CEO, to his right, and Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe, to Ford's right, at Monday's announcement of the Ford Blue Oval Campus. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee official Facebook page)

Former Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe, second from left, with Gov. Bill Lee and representatives of Ford Motor Co. and SK Innovation. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee official Facebook page)

Tennessee House Republicans seeking a special session on COVID-19 issues could try to put the state’s $5.8 billion deal for a Ford electric truck and battery campus on ice.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton told WWTN-FM late last week some members of the House Republican Caucus would vote against funding for the Blue Oval City project at the Memphis Regional Megasite if they don’t get another session to deal with COVID-19 policy.

Sexton told the radio station the Ford-SK Innovation project would likely receive 70 votes instead of 90-plus, though only a simple majority is needed. But he raised the question whether that’s the kind of message lawmakers want to send on the biggest investment in state history, according to the Tennessee Journal.

A special session can be called by the governor or by the Legislature through a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

Not long after Gov. Bill Lee called an Oct. 18 special session to approve $500 million in incentives for the 5,800-job agreement, Sexton and McNally began working to garner legislative support for a separate session to follow immediately in which the General Assembly would take up COVID-19 legislation.

Gov. Bill Lee speaking before the Tennessee General Assembly in January. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee speaking before the Tennessee General Assembly in January. (Photo: John Partipilo)

According to the report, Sexton said, “You just have members who are like, if I’m in East Tennessee, and it’s great that we landed that in West Tennessee, but I’ve got families and parents over here who need help and we’re not doing anything to help them. And why can’t we?”

As a result, some Republican legislators could choose not to vote in favor of the project, Sexton added.

Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Maury County Republican, is one of several lawmakers bucking for a COVID-19-related special session. Cepicky said Monday he doesn’t oppose the Memphis Regional Megasite deal but wants to look at the state’s agreement, including incentives and a clawback provision, to make sure Tennessee is getting a good deal.

“When you’re giving a half a billion dollars to a company, and you’re building a new TCAT center and infrastructure, A, you better make sure you’ve got all that lined up and, B, you better make sure you have clawbacks,” Cepicky said.

Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Gov. Lee has said the state will build a college of applied technology to provide job training for Ford-SK Innovation workers.

Asked if he would vote against the agreement with Ford and SK Innovation if a COVID-19 session isn’t guaranteed, Cepicky said, “I don’t know if you have to vote against it. … If a member wants to, they can just refer it back to subcommittee and hold it in subcommittee until the other session convenes.”

It is unclear whether the governor would allow such a move to play out, since he and the Department of Economic and Community Development negotiated the deal with Ford over many months.

Gov. Lee issued the call for a special session with a narrow focus only on Ford matters dealing with the Blue Oval City campus. He pointed out the agreement is “so significant” the state couldn’t afford to get caught up in COVID-19 questions when approving economic development incentives.

Ford and SK Innovation are likely to receive a tax break for every employee, in addition to other perks, but so far the Department of Economic and Community Development has not released details. Nor has it responded to open records requests showing the types of incentives Ford and SK would receive.

Cepicky predicted the Legislature would take up several issues in a COVID-related session, one of which would codify the governor’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school district mask mandates. The governor is set to extend his executive order for another 30 days after Tuesday and wants to continue fighting federal court rulings that undid his order in Knox, Williamson and Shelby counties.

Another piece of legislation would end contact tracing for COVID-19 patients, he said, and a third could shift independent health departments in the state’s urban counties to the authority of the Tennessee Department of Health.

In addition, Cepicky said another bill could lift liability coverage for companies that mandate COVID-19 vaccines as states prepare for President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates on companies with more than 100 workers. 

Businesses would be able to mandate vaccines, but they would be liable in case employees suffer adverse reactions from taking the shots.

Lawmakers also could take a look at the governor’s authority during a state of emergency to determine how long it should take before the Legislature steps in to approve those decisions, according to Cepicky.

Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

While some Republicans are hoping to wrangle a  separate special session, Republican Rep. Sam Whitson of Franklin is looking to help rural West Tennessee experience some of the same type of growth Middle Tennessee is seeing.

“They are hurting down there in West Tennessee. We’ve got it really good here in Williamson and Maury counties,” Whitson said.

Franklin is the home of Nissan’s American corporate headquarters, and Maury County has a General Motors plant.

West Tennessee, in contrast, is losing population, including Haywood County where the megasite is located. In fact, nearly every county west of the Tennessee River is losing people, and residents will lose representation in the Legislature as a result of redistricting.

Rep. Vincent Dixie questioned the potential for Republican efforts to hold out on the Ford deal.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, chair of the Democratic House Caucus. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, chair of the Democratic House Caucus. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“It amazes me that they’re willing to hijack something that’s really going to bolster the economy, not only in West Tennessee but in Tennessee,” said Dixie, a Nashville Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.

He noted top legislators are jeopardizing a project that will help minorities change their “station in life.” 

“They’re using this to put a stronghold on the governor” but at the expense of Tennessee residents, Dixie said.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.