Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: ‘Send lawyers, guns and money dad, get me out of this’

November 5, 2021 5:01 am
Gov. Bill Lee with Republican legislative leadership after a recent press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee with Republican legislative leadership after a recent press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)

And I’m hiding in Honduras, I’m a desperate man, Send lawyers, guns and money, The sh-- has hit the fan.

– Warren Zevon

Caught between a Ford truck and a Russian spy disguised as a waitress, when did Tennessee’s Republican leaders realize they needed dad to “get me out of this”?

Truth be told, they probably had more than one awakening during last week’s “not so special” session.

A hint came when the Tennessee Business Roundtable sent out a missive — albeit belated — letting lawmakers know they opposed legislation that could put companies in a lurch between the state and federal governments, which are diametrically opposed on COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Tennessee Business Roundtable logo

The first real wakeup call, though, came when a Senate committee killed a piece of legislation that would have allowed public officials to be punished for not enforcing a law. It wasn’t supposed to work that way, but a group of Republican and Democratic senators combined to reject it.

Presumably, the bill would have allowed the state to hammer any public leader with a $10,000 fine for declining to enforce rules against mask mandates or vaccine requirements.

Immediately after the vote, a break in the action came—at least to the public eye—when senators left the meeting room. They were promptly taken to the woodshed one at a time by Senate leadership and told they had to pass these bills because they were endangering the whole game plan for the House and Senate.

That bill never was revived. But the message was clear: We’re going to make this happen come hell or high water.

The real eye opener took place shortly thereafter when a Ford Motor Co. official sent a text to a senator letting him know they appreciated the $900 million incentive package for their planned electric truck and battery plant in West Tennessee, but we don’t like your mask legislation. Ford probably wasn’t enthused about the anti-vaccine part of the bill either.

Thus, key lawmakers—who’d been getting grief from the far right fringes and threatened with primary opponents —went soul-searching for a way to salvage their session, the one Gov. Bill Lee refused to call. After all, he got what he wanted: a $5.8 billion investment from Ford.

You’d think that would be enough to make anyone happy. But in the words of ESPN prognosticator Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”

When Republican legislators named Comptroller Jason Mumpower “COVID czar” last week, they created more government instead of less, which is supposedly against the Republican creed. And they managed to drive a wedge between themselves and business groups.

Armed with enough signatures to call the Legislature back to town, some of which were written reluctantly, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton forged ahead and did what some good Republicans consider the unthinkable—they broke with the business community.

In a closed-door meeting held some time late last Friday night before a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate COVID-19 bills, negotiators decided to allow companies to require masks— at Ford’s behest—and they created a “COVID czar” in Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who will have the authority to decide which entities receiving federal grants and contracts can require vaccines.

In short, they created a bigger government, which is supposedly against the Republican creed.

They also drove a wedge between themselves and business groups who urged them not to get involved. Businesses are accustomed to dealing with the federal government. But when the state puts them in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation with vaccines, as the Tennessee Business Roundtable said, it causes an unwinnable situation for the state’s employers, many of which want their employees to get vaccinated without putting them in danger of lawsuits or paying for unemployment.

But in this “great Southern state,” as the amendment to the COVID-19 legislation read, the anti-vaccine and anti-mask people of Tennessee cast more votes than any stinking business. The result: Republicans favored their hell-raising constituents rather than the business world. We shall see whether the usual benefactors keep writing re-election checks.

I went home with the waitress, the way I always do How was I to know, she was with the Russians too?” “I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk Send lawyers, guns and money, dad, get me out of this, ha.

– Warren Zevon

What money?

Incidentally, the governor’s budget people are still waiting for the “fiscal note” from the state’s Fiscal Review experts, who make an estimate on the financial impact to the state government of each piece of legislation.

Typically, this is done before the Legislature votes on bills so it can make an educated decision. But this time it was different.

NFIB opposes mandates

“Small business owners continue to face numerous challenges to operate, stay open, and pay their employees, and today’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Emergency Temporary Standard makes that even more difficult and troublesome,” said Karen Harned, Executive Director of NFIB’s Small Business Legal Center. “We will closely review this new standard and its rapid deadlines, but NFIB remains opposed to this rule that restricts the freedom of small business owners to decide how best to operate their own businesses and imposes unwarranted burdens on small businesses that further threaten the small business recovery.”

The federation’s statement came Thursday in response to the rule forcing businesses with 100 or more employees to require COVID-19 vaccines or testing. The feds contend they have the say over COVID-19 protocol, not states.

That means NFIB doesn’t like the federal rules or the state legislation that could lead to lawsuits against companies that require vaccines. Some lawmakers say they should have stood up sooner. That’s a bit of a copout, because people have known for months that companies such as Tyson Foods don’t want the state telling them they can’t require vaccines.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery at the 100th anniversary of the Tennessee Farm Bureau in Jan. 2021. (Photo: Tennessee Attorney General's office)
Attorney General Herbert Slatery at the 100th anniversary of the Tennessee Farm Bureau in Jan. 2021. (Photo: Tennessee Attorney General’s office)

As Gov. Lee predicted Thursday, Attorney General Herbert Slatery filed suit Thursday, challenging the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal contractors. Slatery joined AGs from Ohio and Kentucky in filing the lawsuit in Eastern Kentucky federal court.

“Unless we intervene, federal contractors in Tennessee will be forced to make sense of the mandate’s many inconsistencies that require their entire workforce be vaccinated or face potential blacklisting and loss of future federal contracts,” Slatery said. “That is simply unworkable and this lawsuit seeks to stop it.”

They’ll also have to weigh the state versus the federal rules.

Golf dream derailed

When the Legislature passed a bill this year banning transgender students from playing sports with the opposite sex, lawmakers talked about boys trying to play girls’ sports.

They were afraid a boy who identifies as a girl would dominate a softball field.

Little did they know—or maybe they did—that they’d be stopping a transgender student from playidng on a boys’ golf team. But that appears to be the case with 14-year-old Luc Esquivel, a freshman at Farragut High in Knoxville, who was hoping to try out with the guys. Luc and Luc’s parents are both upset, bothered enough to seek help from Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Tennessee, which filed a lawsuit this week challenging the new state law that excludes transgender youths from playing school sports.

“I just want to play, like any other kid,” Luc said in a release. 

Luc’s mother, Shelley Esquivel, is disgusted, saying, “It’s heartbreaking to see him miss out on this high school experience, and it is painful for a parent to see their child subject to discrimination because of who they are. I’m proud Luc is taking this step, and his father and I are with him all the way.”

Tennessee’s law bans participation by transgender boys and girls from playing on sports teams other than their sex at birth. Similar laws in Idaho and West Virginia have been blocked in federal courts, according to the ACLU, so they have a fighting chance.

It’s great to see Luc’s mother and father are giving such strong support. (I just hope Luc can keep it in the fairway more than I do.)

As Gov. Lee has said repeatedly, parents are the best decision makers when it comes to the health and well being of their children.

Queried about the lawsuit this week, Lee said he couldn’t comment on pending legislation. He did say, however, his signing of the bill shows where he stands. Sorry, Luc, he doesn’t believe you should play.

Federal relief for the disabled

State officials have been pooh-poohing federal funds, but they’re not turning the money back over to President Biden.

TennCare and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities said this week they’ll put $400 million in COVID-19 relief funds toward supporting thousands of disabled people, enabling them to live as independently as possible and at home where family can care for them.

Good news: Tennessee is taking advantage of billions of dollars of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan. Bad news: The state continues to reject $1.7 billion annually by refusing to expand Medicaid

“Serving more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to reach their employment, community engagement and independence goals has been a top priority for both DIDD and TennCare since day one,” DIDD Commissioner Brad Turner said. “This is an investment that will change lives, provide relief to family caregivers and direct support staff, and further our vision of supporting people to live the lives they envision for themselves.”

TennCare Director Stephen Smith said it was made possible by the TennCare III demonstration, which was approved at the last second of the President Trump Administration. Biden’s people are looking into whether the state’s modified block grant program, the first in the nation, will stand.

Considering this will help thousands of people, we won’t get into too many political aspects. Suffice it to say, the state is taking advantage of billions in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan but still rejecting $1.7 billion annually by refusing to expand Medicaid as the Biden Administration is requesting.

Fast-tracking the megasite authority

Gov. Lee spent the week holding budget hearings with every department, providing enthralling viewing for Tennessee residents who want a peek at the inner workings of government.

Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman. (Photo: tiptoncounty.com)
Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman. (Photo: tiptoncounty.com)

He did take a moment, though, to appoint Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman and First Horizon Bank executive Charlie Tuggle to the Megasite Authority of West Tennessee.

Those moves came on the heels of naming Clay Bright, Department of Transportation commissioner, as chief executive officer of the much-maligned authority.

Their task will be to make the Ford project run as quietly as an electric vehicle called — what about Lightning? Has anyone chosen that name — ensuring no pollutants come from the factory when it opens in 2025.

The question is whether the heartburn caused by the wide-ranging power of the authority came from the cornbread inhaled by some lawmakers or the consumption of large pieces of carrot cake with or without almonds or walnuts in the icing.

(For the uninitiated, please refer Stockard on the Stump from two weeks ago to figure out what this means.)

No appointments have come yet from the House speaker, lieutenant governor or Legislature. Busy scrambling.

Where was the governor?

Gov. Lee probably wasn’t exactly cooling his heels during last week’s twisting, turning day on Capitol Hill, but he told Ford officials to call legislators when the company started questioning the bill that would put the state government smack dab in the midst of every business in Tennessee.

In other words, this ain’t my problem. 

When Ford Motor Co. officials called Gov. Bill Lee about COVID legislation during last week’s special session, Lee advised them to talk directly to legislators.

But governor, considering yeoman work you and Commissioner BobRolfe put in pulling off the Ford project, was there any concern last Friday that the Legislature might blow the Ford deal?

“I think that Tennesseans should weigh in anytime, individuals, business owners, people who are involved in companies, certainly should weigh in and that’s how that process works. So I welcome input from folks.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” sang Iggy Pop.

 

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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.

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