Stockard on the Stump: Secretary of State backs future election audits

November 19, 2021 5:00 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Secretary of State Tre Hargett confirmed this week he is supporting a move to audit Tennessee’s elections, but maybe not for the 2020 count, which has been much-maligned by Republicans nationally.

In an abbreviated interview Wednesday with the Tennessee Lookout, Hargett said an audit bill will be forthcoming in the 2022 legislative session.

Hargett referred to comments made by State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins at an October meeting when a Williamson County group clashed with the State Election Commission over the need for a forensic audit to stop voter fraud in Tennessee.

“There’s going to be legislation next time regarding post-election audits,” Hargett said as he left a meeting of the State Funding Board at the Cordell Hull Building.

Hargett didn’t provide many details, such as potential cost. He isn’t so sure, either, about legislation by Sen. Janice Bowling, which would require a forensic audit of the 2020 election.

State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, speaks at Thursday's anti-vaccine protest outside the Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)
State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, speaking at an anti-vaccine protest outside the Capitol, wants legislation to require election audits. But will it match up with what Secretary of State Tre Hargett wants? (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Hargett said he would have to read the legislation and noted if the Legislature tells his office to conduct one, or the governor signs it into law, then he would “do what we need to do.”

Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican who leads the Legislature’s informal anti-vax committee, filed the legislation recently to force a forensic audit of the 2020 election. She made the move even though Republican leaders have said Tennessee’s election process is the soundest in the nation. Maybe she’s being pulled by groups such as Voters for Election Integrity, whose members still believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

Trump carried Tennessee with ease and Republicans lost only one state Senate seat in what would be considered a status quo election with this becoming a red state over the last 15 years. 

But while Hargett is willing to support an audit for future elections, he isn’t backing Bowling’s bill.

Asked if he thinks it is necessary to audit the 2020 election, Hargett gave me “that” look and declined to respond.

Nevertheless, Goins acknowledges one more layer of protection will give voters confidence in Tennessee’s election.

During a lengthy back-and-forth with Voters for Election Integrity last month, Goins acknowledged that even though “risk-level” audits were conducted in Georgia and Arizona last year upholding victories by President Joe Biden, people still think Trump won those states.

Whether an audit of the entire election will pass the Legislature remains to be seen. Such a move could prove costly to the state and county election commissions, and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers say it’s not necessary.

The Williamson County group couldn’t prove any incidents of voter fraud took place. But what the heck, Tennessee has plenty of money in the bank.

Who knew?

Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley reported October revenues of $1.4 billion, $238.9 million more than in 2020 and $256 million more than estimated, a growth rate of 20.52%.

Sales tax collections, corporate tax receipts and realty recordation taxes drove the increase, according to Eley.

Just three months into fiscal 2022, Tennessee’s revenue is $902.3 million more than budgeters estimated.

Butch Eley, Commissioner, Tennessee Finance and Administration (Official photo)
Butch Eley, Commissioner, Tennessee Finance and Administration (Official photo)

When I was a kid, that meant Santa would leave lots of apples, oranges and Doritos and maybe new bicycles—which happened twice—and a new basketball — which was delivered nearly every year. Obviously, a ball is a lot cheaper than a bike.

Go figure

In spite of massive surpluses as people emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t look for the State Funding Board to set a budget growth rate that will allow for many new bicycles in fiscal 2023, which starts next July.

During testimony this week before the board, University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox predicted general fund revenue would grow by 2.2% in fiscal 2023 following a 9% jump this year. East Tennessee State University economists foresaw a 5.49% revenue increase next year while the Department of Revenue estimated a 3.1% increase in general fund revenue in fiscal 2023 after a 7.5% jump this year and the Fiscal Review Committee predicted a 4.85% increase in revenue, down from an 8.8% increase this year.

Despite the economic shutdown, consumers spent plenty of money the last two years, mainly using federal stimulus money to buy houses and cars and remodel kitchens, economists told the State Funding Board.

Now that the federal money has dried up, they have to get back to reality, which likely means less spending in fiscal 2023, even though the job market is strong but with inflation, up 6.2% this year, worrying the hell out of folks.

Experts bemoaned a sluggish supply chain caused by demand during the pandemic and a weak workforce coming, in part, from a new outlook as some couples decide they can get by with only one parent working.

Many people blame a worker shortage on the combination of state and federal unemployment payments during the pandemic. But that doesn’t hold up anymore because the federal jobless checks are gone and state unemployment only lasts a few months.

One comforting point is that our economists know about as much about the economy as I do?

Check this statement from Fox: “Nothing about the pandemic has played out the way we thought it would. Everything has been different.”

Consequently, his advice is to be conservative.

They don’t call economics “the dismal science” for nothing. University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox told the State Funding Board this week: “Nothing about the pandemic has played out the way we thought it would. Everything has been different.”

Just as homeowners can renovate their kitchen only one time, Fox noted, “There are only so many drinks I can buy and take home,” in reference to increases in liquor tax revenue. Count me in on that one.

And this from one of the ETSU economists, whose job is to provide facts and policy advice: “Our attorney general needs to continue fighting this (vaccine) mandate. We’re endangering thousands of Tennessee workers across the state being pushed into unemployment in January. The mandate will also prevent firms with close to 100 employees from growing 2022 to avoid taking on the additional administrative costs of becoming medical record keepers for their employees.”

Thank you for that non-political report.

Regardless of the econo-babble, expect the State Funding Board to make another extremely conservative recommendation later this month. 

Based on the comments by Eley, who is prone to play it very safe, look for a revenue growth projection of 2.5% to 3.5%. Thus, our $1.5 billion rainy day fund will grow some more next year.

With that in mind, look for a ball in the stocking, except for Ford Motor, which is getting an electric bike and a GI Joe with Kung Fu grip.

But enough of this number crunching. 

Kelsey dumps attorney

Sen. Brian Kelsey (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: John Partipilo)

Indicted state Sen. Brian Kelsey, facing five federal counts for allegedly funneling tens of thousands of dollars from his state account to his failed 2016 congressional campaign, recently fired his attorney and hired a new one.

Out is Nashville attorney Ty Howard, a former assistant U.S. attorney who handles high-profile defense cases, and in is Murfreesboro attorney Paul Bruno, according to federal court documents. Bruno has handled everything from death penalty cases to bank robbery, RICO violations and money laundering charges. 

Judge Waverly Crenshaw set a Jan. 18 trial for Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who blamed President Biden for his plight and said he will prove his innocence. In doing so, he outed former friend and legislator Jeremy Durham for flipping. The only problem is Durham wasn’t subpoenaed until March 2021, five years after the feds started investigating Kelsey.

Kelsey’s indictment claims he conspired to move “soft money” to his federal campaign from a state account, in addition to making and accepting contributions that exceed federal campaign laws.

Granted, going to trial by Jan. 18 would give Kelsey one of the speediest trials in recent memory. But it does offer reporters hope for an opportunity to get out of covering yammering legislators for a few days. 

On the recruiting trail

Gov. Bill Lee started recruiting police officers nationwide to Tennessee this week, targeting those who don’t want to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The state will even pay for their relocation expenses.

Oddly enough, Lee has encouraged people to get the vaccine, saying it is the best way to end the pandemic. Yet he is begging for officers who refuse to be vaccinated to come work for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

“I’ve got a message today for cops in New York all the way to sheriff deputies out in Los Angeles: We want you to join the Tennessee Highway Patrol.”

First, does he really want officers from those liberal bastions to wear THP colors? Well, LA officers did beat the crap out of Rodney King … . (No offense intended to my many trooper friends.)

But while the governor, commissioner of health and federal Centers for Disease Control are telling people the best way to emerge unscathed from the COVID-19 pandemic is to get vaccinated, does the state really need officers who interact with the public daily to be unvaccinated?

No wonder so many people are refusing to get the shots.

Biden mandate on hold

The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted a motion recently to hold up OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccination and testing emergency rules. Thus OSHA suspended activities related to the temporary order.

Republican lawmakers cheered the court decision. Attorney General Herbert Slatery previously joined two other states in fighting the mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccines or weekly tests.

The legal fight, however, is far from over.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 Czar Jason Mumpower has approved 12 of 30 applications from universities and other entities that receive federal funds or contracts to be exempt from the state’s new law prohibiting vaccine mandates. Look for many more to follow.

A pre-Christmas tale

In advance of the most wonderful time of the year, which was not always so wonderful: Let me tell you a story. 

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I wanted the All-American football uniform, complete with shoulder pads and helmet, at the Ben Franklin dime store. I’d stand there and stare at it, imagine wearing it and scoring touchdowns that would be replayed on Saturday’s NFL Films with John Facenda intoning, “And Stockard roars with the ball across frozen tundra.” (Although Facenda never really used that term.)

That Christmas, we went to my uncle’s house in Alabama and there under the tree was a present for me, in a box the same size and weight as the football uniform. It sounded and felt the same as the box at the store when I shook it. But when I opened it, inside was a bedspread. Apparently, Uncle Tom got a good deal on bed clothing that year.

We regret to inform you this is not, in fact, a photo of the youthful Sam Stockard. (Photo: Getty Images)
We regret to inform you this is not, in fact, a photo of the youthful Sam Stockard. (Photo: Getty Images)

Shattered, I limped along for another year, still going to Ben Franklin dime store almost weekly to look at that coveted football uniform. 

Christmas finally came and under the tree, for me, was another box, the same size as the one with the All-American uniform. I would pick it up and shake it, knowing, without a doubt, inside it held the jersey with stars and stripes on the shoulders. 

Come Christmas morning, I ripped into the package, tore off the paper, opened the box and pulled out: another bedspread, this one gold. The first one was black.

Crushed, I ran to my room, wailing. (This is a true story). How could they be so cruel? My sister, Carrie, tried to console me. But to no avail. I was absolutely devastated.

I can’t remember much that happened after that. The trauma was too much to handle. But what it came down to was that Mama and Daddy — both teachers — just couldn’t afford to buy that football uniform. And, truth be told, Mama really didn’t want me playing football.

Instead of that store-bought uniform, Daddy finagled a helmet from the high school locker room and Mama sewed some pads into a pair of blue jeans, Sears Toughskins with the double knee, of course. 

Somehow, I survived. And, you know what, every Christmas after that, a new basketball was fine with me. Those round balls wound up putting me through college where I learned how to string a few words together and found my loving wife.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody! The Stump will not be carved next week, in favor of a bird.

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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.